Friday, February 06, 2009

"The same interest still desires its further extension"

When we last visited with Senator Preston King, he was mid-way through his January 5, 1847 speech providing “a personal explanation” of his bill that in effect re-introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which had died in the Senate at the end of the previous term of Congress in August 1846. Let us now pick up where we left off.

The “brave and patriotic generation who achieved our independence and established the republic,” King maintained, “did not hesitate” to pass “the ordinance of July, 1787, by which slavery . . . was forever prohibited” in the old Northwest Territory. And it was that one Act that had allowed “young men with their axes” to create “powerful Commonwealths” there “within the memory of a single generation, free, populous and flourishing.” Would Americans abandon this heritage and this lesson, and allow free territory to be converted into lands dominated by combinations of wealthy slaveholders and degraded by slave labor?
Shall we hesitate to do the same thing for territory where slavery does not now exist? I trust not. The man who has wealth or credit, to purchase a plantation, and becomes the owner of slaves, may settle and reside without social degradation in a country where slavery exists. Not so with the laboring white man. He cannot go without social degradation, and he therefore will not go. He is excluded quite as effectually as he could be by law. The mere presence of slavery, wherever it exists, degrades the condition, the respectability, the character of labor. A false and mischievous public opinion regarding the condition and respectability of labor is produced by its presence; and false and recreant to his race and to his constituency would be any Representative of free white labor upon a condition of social equality with the labor of the black slave; equally false would he be who, upon any pretence, should, by inaction and evasion of the question, produce the same degrading result.

For the most part, despite his withering attack on the institution of slavery, King restrained himself from directly attacking southerner legislators. This, however, did slip out (emphasis added):
This principle [in the proposed bill] excludes slavery from any territory which may hereafter be added to this country. This principle I deem to be of vital importance, and should be very much gratified if it could receive the unanimous assent and approbation of Congress. This, however, I do not expect. The same interest which pertinaciously insisted upon extending slavery over Texas, still desires, I apprehend, its further extension.

King then addressed the contention that “the people themselves” should decide whether to permit slavery – in effect, the Popular Sovereignty doctrine later developed by Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas. King branded the idea as “unsound and false.” Unless forbidden by statute, slavery would inevitably spread:
If left alone, slaves more or less will be carried to the new territory, and if the country while it remains a territory should be settled by a population holding slaves, the new, and additional question of abolition is presented, and in order to get a free State slavery must first be abolished. This embarrassment in a new community, without means to indemnify its owners, would be an obstacle almost insurmountable, and the new State would be very far from being free to choose between becoming a free State or a slave State.

King briefly and unconvincingly tried to argue that the converse was not true: establishment of territory as free did not of exclude the possibility that a slave state might result; it simply permitted the people of the territory to make the decision “unembarrassed by any pecuniary interests or questions of vested right.” However, he soon dropped this evasion, maintaining that it “must be obvious to all” “that the character of the population in the Territory will determine the character of the State, when that Territory shall be erected into a State.”
If the Territory has a slave population of one one-fourth or one-fifth of the whole number, it will be a slave State. If a free population while a Territory, it will be a free State. Exclude slavery from all territory not within the limits of a State, and I am willing the Territory shall determine for itself, when it becomes a State, what shall be its character.

King concluded by urging Congress “to make this free principle a law” to avoid planting slavery upon free territory:
I desire the adoption of the free principle, because I believe it to be just to the free States, just to the white men who fight our battles, and who constitute the strength of the country in peace or war; because I believe it to be consistent with the principles of our Government, and because I believe it will tend to improve the condition and character of labor in the whole country. And who will deny that, in a republic, it should be one of the chief objects of Government to elevate and dignify the condition and character of labor?

About the illustration:
A mock triumphal procession ridiculing "Loco Foco" or radical Democratic support of candidates James K. Polk and George M. Dallas. The Loco Focos are portrayed as ragged Irishmen, carrying the two candidates on a rail. Polk, holding tight to the rail, remarks, "It appears to me, friend Dallas that there is a wonderful democratic simplicity in the honors which are paid us!" Dallas, holding tight to Polk, replies, "It is true, friend Polk, that, on this occasion we shall find no difficulty in bearing our blushing honors meekly." One of the rail bearers exclaims, "Glory to those whom the people delight to honor!!!" The procession is led by a man in knee-breeches holding a weathervane with a tiny figure of incumbent President John Tyler on its tip. The man complains, "Bedad, I can't carry you [i.e., Tyler] if you turn with every flaw of wind." Two blacks, playing fife and drums, bring up the rear.

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