Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Slaveholders' Union by George William Van Cleve

“Generally, informed contemporaries understood that within the tradition of English thought stemming from the convulsions of the Civil War and Restoration, it was possible to take more than one view of the origin and character of natural rights. Natural rights could be seen as unalterable ‘natural’  or divine restraints on the sovereignty of any government, as in John Locke’s thought, or as rights existing in a state of nature that could be limited by legitimate governments exercising their sovereignty through positive law, as in the work of writers such as Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes.”

 Through-out most of the pre-revolutionary period, during the Revolution when the Articles of Confederations held sway, during and after the debates on the Constitution right up until the battles of the Civil War were officially joined and forever thereafter Americans held and continue to hold different views on this question. Sometimes an individual could hold either view over time  or both  simultaneously  depending on the particular interests – economic or political- he or she wanted to uphold. Constitutionally, the question and conflict between these two basic views has never been resolved. The idea that Africans  held in bondage had a ‘natural right’  to be either free or to possess civil rights on an equal footing with white men was only held by scant minorities  such as the members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and even they were willing to sacrifice this principle on the alters of economic interest and the ‘sacred’ Union.

Through-out the early period in the late 18th and early 19th century the debate surrounding the above conflicting views on what  natural rights were and what role they should play in the institutional structures of the Republic( as they particularly pertained to slavery, the slave trade, fugitive slave laws, abolition, the conditions of free blacks, and the proportional representation of  ‘free’ and slave States in Congress) were mostly carried on in hushed tones out of public view. Any attempt to fully embody one view to the exclusion of the other in Legislation, executive action or judicial ruling were quickly though not always effectively repressed.

“At the time the Constitution was adopted, a majority of Americans had apparently accepted Madison’s argument in Federalist 10 that by pitting interests groups against one another they could create a stable balance between liberty and power. Madison argued that that balance would be stable because the federal government could not be “captured” permanently by any durable faction. When the sectional dispute over Missouri slavery broke out, however, the unstable foundations of the Constitution’s balance between liberty and power were exposed. The Constitution provided no means of controlling the reemergence of sectionalism (Slave vs Free), which had persisted but had been concealed by the rapid and massive westward expansion of the preceding decades. Missouri leaders on both sides rejected Madison’s view that their freedom would be protected by the continuing competition of ‘large republic” interest-group politics.

 [ For example, a comity  had previously been developed on at least formal bans on the importation of slaves because it appeared to be a measure supporting the extinction of slavery for Northern Abolitionists at the same time, from the Southern point of view,  it kept slave prices high in internal slave markets was a good example of Madison’s principle in action.]

“In the contest over the admission of Missouri  leaders began to believe that under the Constitution long-term capture of the federal government by one section or another was entirely possible, and that no reciprocity in governing would then be required, so that the losing side would always be exploited by the victors in a zero-sum game.”

As Senator Rufus King (N.Y.) recounted his own speech during the debate in Congress

I referred the decision of the Restriction on Missouri to the broad principles of the Law of Nature, a law established by the creator . . everywhere, and at all times binding on mankind . . . the foundation of all constitutional, conventional and civil laws, none of which are valid if contrary to the Law of Nature - that according to this law all men are born free, and justly entitled to the possession of Life & Liberty, and to the free pursuit of happiness – hence that man could not enslave man; and that States could not make men Slaves . . . that no such act of the State.  .  . if contrary to natural law could be valid. That political Reason against the extension of Slavery were enough to restrain Congress from consenting to it – but were not this the case, the Law of Nature imposes this Restraint, and as slavery may be prohibited by Congress, they are bound to prohibit this.

Lest the reader be overly impressed with this grand-eloquent statement, Rufus was referring to the life and liberty of white men; specifically, their right to settle in the  State of Missouri  without having to deal with the competition and high land prices occasioned by the presence of slave labor.  And New York had just abolished voting rights for free blacks who numbered @30,000 at the time. Nor did King’s higher law position have any warrant either in the Constitutional Convention debates or in the agreements over slavery in which he had previously participated.

“Senator William Pickney of Maryland (for example) responded to King’s speech at length, describing King’s positions based on ‘deadly speculations’ about the ‘infinite perfectibility of man and his institutions’ that are ‘identical’ with, the worst visions of the political philosophy of France.’ He reviewed the Roman and English legal precedents on which King had relied for his position that “man cannot enslave his fellow man,” and argued (with considerable justification) that none of them supported King’s position that slavery was barred by the law of nature or nations even where sovereign permitted it.

I will omit the details of the ‘persuasive’ and  majoritarian view in both the North and South  by which the Missouri Compromise was effected and  allowed to enter the Union as a slave state, to wit: Africans were a degenerate, irredeemable race whose condition in slavery was advantageous compared to the regions of the planet from which they had sprung and that if freed they would not only become charges on the public purse but represent a criminal and anarchic element in American society to such an extent that race war would the inevitable consequence. Besides, the acceptance of Maine as a free state at the same time was deemed sufficient to postpone a reckoning on this issue.

The author concludes his book ( and this brief and incomplete summary does it but little  justice) thus:

“ The temporizing agreements reached in the Missouri controversy’s maelstrom ratified the long-term existence of slavery, making the slaveholders’ union permanent until it was destroyed in the earthquake of civil war. The success of the Founding generation and its descendants in seeking to defer the sectional problem of slavery for four generations may seem to some to be a credit to the Founders’ wisdom and foresight. But to others their approach to government will suggest the terrible costs that were involuntarily imposed on posterity by such inter-generational transfer of profoundly vexing problems, even by a republic committed to human freedom.”


  1. This is a difficult and controversial hypothesis but the author resources the findings of many different historians,more extensively than is possible to reproduce within the limited aims of my blog. The main thing he does is look at the results of various debates and actions and see what the results were. The different parties managed to contrived to create and maintain a slaveholders' union. No union capable of assuming national debts or enforcing expansion of the American Empire westward would have been possible without slavery,and that was their principle aim.

  2. Seems like all the principal parties acted in a duplicitous manner- decrying the evil of slavery (except in a few instances), not many convinced that in the long run that it was desirable or possible to maintain it but repeatedly upholding,strengthening and expanding it at every turn of the screw.

    I would say that this pattern of behavior- the American Polity- has been prolonged through force of habit and tradition to the present day but the author does not go into that.