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We’ve Been Here Before – 1850s Edition

November 29, 2016

With Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead having blown past 2 million—and more ballots yet to count—it’s increasingly clear that the anti-democratic structures (most notably the electoral college) in the US political system have delivered us a government in which the minority party (in this case, the Republicans) has near total control of the levers of power.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened*. We’ve already talked about the 1920s. Now let’s look at the 1850s.

Abolitionists and their free soil allies called it the “Slave Power”. What they meant was the disproportionate political power wielded by Southern slaveowners in their own states, and (especially) in the federal government.

A great wave of immigrants, primarily from Ireland and Germany,  was reshaping the demographic makeup of the United States as an ever-increasing majority of free citizens took root in the Northern states where slavery had virtually been eliminated.  (Not quite though: New Jersey, for example, had resident slaves who were only freed by passage of the 13th amendment in 1865.)

That popular majority did not find expression in the federal government, largely because of the 3/5 Clause and its related effects (including the Electoral College).  As a result, even when Northerners opposed to the spread of slavery negotiated compromises with Southerners in Congress (as with the Compromise of 1850), subsequent actions by the “Slave Power” (e.g., the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the 1857 Dred Scott decision) undid major portions of those deals.

The irresistible force of the Slave Power eventually crashed against the immovable object of the abolitionist movement and their allies.  Throughout the 1830s, 40s and 50s, abolitionists and free soilers organized, agitated, wrote, protested, honed their arguments, and steadily built their political power within their own cities, towns and states.

On the evidence of words expended in South Carolina’s “Declaration Of The Immediate Causes Which Induce & Justify The Secession Of South Carolina From The Federal Union“, nothing upset the “slaveocracy” more than organized Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:

But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.  

The Fugitive Slave Act eliminated the right to a trial for suspected escaped slaves, and imposed heavy fines on local officials who refused to cooperate. Nonetheless, in response to the broad-based, organized opposition to the law:

  • Wisconsin’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional (and a mob of 5,000 rescued escaped slave Joshua Green from the Milwaukee jail where he was being held by federal marshals);
  • Vermont passed a “Habeas Corpus” law requiring local law-enforcement and judicial officials to assist captured fugitive slaves, effectively nullifying the federal law within its borders;
  • Several states passed “personal liberty” laws guaranteeing the right to a jury trial and forbidding state officials from recognizing claims to fugitives; the Massachusetts lawvacated the office of any state official who authorized the rendition of a fugitive, barred any such person from holding state office, and disbarred attorneys who represented slaveholders“.

The 1854 arrest and rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston back to his Virginia owner proved so costly (in men, money, and in shifting public opinion) for the federal government that it basically gave up attempting to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in Massachusetts.

Actions like these by Northern legislatures, governors, and courts rested on a broad foundation of organized opposition (mostly, though not exclusively nonviolent) to the expanded use of federal power to infringe upon the civil rights of escaped slaves, free Negroes wrongly accused of being escaped slaves, and their allies.

By organizing, abolitionists and their allies increasingly forced their fellow citizens to choose a side: for or against slavery.  As the wealthy industrialist Amos Adams Lawrence said at the time, “We went to bed one night old fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs & waked up stark mad Abolitionists”.

*Note: For purposes of this discussion we’re setting aside cases of massive, categorical disenfranchisement of entire populations—e.g., women prior to 1920, slaves (and freedmen and women) before 1870, African-Americans across the South for the three generations between the end of Reconstruction and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

That’s despite the fact that there’s also much to learn from the political, social and economic organizing tactics and strategies successfully used by those non-voters to have powerful impacts upon the political system…including tactics and strategies that led to the destruction of those exclusionary regimes.


From → History, Politics

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