John Daniel Davidson’s recent essay in The Federalist defending writer Shelby Foote while offering an explanation about Civil War causation is unfortunate on several accounts. The essay contains excessive hagiography towards Foote’s career and buys into a popular but false belief about U.S. slavery: the idea that slavery in America was on its way out by 1860 and that the Civil War could have been avoided if not for the radical abolitionists of the north, whose continual agitation on the slavery question hampered further compromise efforts and drove the country to Civil War.
Davidson points out that “compromising on slavery had been part of how America stayed together,” which all historians would agree with. But he errs in asserting that these compromises were leading the country towards the end of slavery in the United States:
The entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly . . . such compromises limited slavery’s spread and put it on the path to extinction.
This argument is simply untrue.
When the Missouri Compromise was passed, many proslavery southerners were delighted with the act because it meant that the federal government acknowledged slavery’s legitimacy and allowed its western expansion into some parts of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase south of the 36-30 parallel. Anti-slavery northern politicians like James Talmage who hoped to ban slavery in Missouri and the entire Louisiana territory failed in their efforts to stop slavery’s westward expansion outright.
When the U.S. conquered a huge swath of western territory in present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and elsewhere through the Mexican-American War in 1848, the Compromise of 1850 ensured that slavery would potentially spread into even more western territories acquired in that war. It also allowed for a new, harsher Fugitive Slave Law that required northerners to help in the capture of runways slaves and guaranteed federal protection of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. Equally important, the Compromise of 1850 explicitly repudiated the failed Wilmot Proviso, an alternative proposal that would have banned slavery in all territories acquired in the Mexican-American war. As historian Michael Landis argues, the Compromise of 1850 was so blatantly pro-southern that he suggests calling it the “Appeasement of 1850” since it “more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement.”
Finally, when some proslavery southerners argued that they should have the right to bring their slave property to Kansas territory–land where slavery was outlawed through the Missouri Compromise–they worked with northern Democrats to overturn the Missouri Compromise through the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act essentially took the slavery question out of Congress’s hands and allowed the settlers of Kansas to determine through their elected leaders whether or not they wanted slavery, thus leaving open the possibility of slavery expanding to new areas where at one time it was banned by federal law. Chief Justice Roger Taney further excoriated the Missouri Compromise by declaring it unconstitutional in 1857 through the Dred Scott case. Taney’s argument also made any further compromise on slavery all the more difficult since in his opinion Congress could not ban it in any new western territory.
Davidson also leaves out part of the story by omitting any discussion of failed efforts to compromise on slavery in 1860. Although he argues that a successful compromise at that time would have “put [slavery] on the path to extinction,” the two most popular compromise proposals would have actually allowed for slavery to exist in perpetuity. The “first” proposed 13th Amendment of 1860-1861, which I wrote about here, would have protected slavery in perpetuity in the states where it already existed. It failed to gain enough support in the requisite number of states because proslavery secessionists demanded increased federal protection for slavery’s expansion into the western territories, which President-elect Lincoln and most Republicans opposed. And among the six proposed amendments and four Congressional resolutions of the failed Crittenden Compromise included the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean–thus guaranteeing slavery’s protection in the west–and the banning of any future amendment that would interfere with slavery in any slave state in the country.
None of these compromises–both successful and failed–indicate that slavery was on its way out by 1860.
Historian and economist Roger L. Ransom’s scholarship on the economic aspects of slavery is also useful for this discussion. According to Ransom, by 1860 “the $3 billion that [white] Southerners invested in slaves accounted for somewhere between 12% and 15% of all real wealth in the entire United States . . . Far from dying out, slavery was expanding at an increasing rate right up to the eve of the Civil War.” He attributes this growth to the development of the cotton gin, the emergence of the cotton textile industry in Great Britain (creating a new, expansive market for cotton grown by enslaved labor), and Congress’s efforts to allow slavery’s expansion in the south through the aforementioned compromise measures, which provided stability to the value of enslaved labor. As can be seen in the below chart, the value of the south’s enslaved property was about seven times higher in 1860 than in 1805.
Regarding Shelby Foote, I direct readers to Bill Black’s essay at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History about Foote’s scholarship and unfortunate racism. Foote was an endearing character on Ken Burns’s famous documentary of the Civil War twenty-five years ago, but his presence on the documentary was oversized to the point that some would argue that it was a detriment to the series. Although Davidson finds this sort of critique shocking, historians have taken a critical view of Foote’s work for a while now. In fact, there was an entire book dedicated to historians “responding” to the documentary and offering pointed critiques of it that was published in 1996. Conversely, Davidson’s potshots towards writer Ta-Nehisi Coates are devoid of substance and not really worth engaging here.
Were decades of compromise over slavery before the Civil War worth the effort to preserve the Union? For Davidson, the answer is an undeniable ‘yes.’ That the nation’s deadliest conflict came anyway, despite these compromise efforts, is a more complex problem that he fails to address. In the end, Davidson’s screed is really about denigrating Coates and his followers rather than trying to understand his perspective on the Civil War, which is much closer to what Civil War historians now believe than Davidson’s idealistic perspective of an innocent nation moving in a natural progression towards emancipation, liberty, and freedom for all by 1860.
The essence of all politics is the art of compromise. The success or failure of a nation-state’s policy goals lies in the ability of its political actors–some of which may have vastly different interests–to negotiate and sometimes compromise on preferred ideals in the interest of crafting intelligent policy that promotes the greater good. Compromise, of course, doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit beautifully argues in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises:
We very rarely attain what is first on our list of priorities, either as individuals or as collectives. We are forced by circumstances to settle for much less than what we aspire to. We compromise. We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are. (5)
Superficially, it sounds silly to ask whether compromises are good or bad, much like asking whether bacteria are good or bad: we cannot live without bacteria, though sometimes we die because of bacteria. Yet that asymmetry makes the question about the goodness and the badness of bacteria, as well as those of compromise, worth asking. We have ten times as many bacteria in our bodies as we have cells, and many of those are vital for our existence. A small number of bacteria are pathologic and cause disease, and and with the proper treatment, we may get rid of them. Similarly, compromises are vital for social life, even though some compromises are pathogenic. We need antibiotics to resist pathogenic bacteria, and we need to actively resist rotten compromises that are lethal for the moral life of a body politic. (7)
This description captures one of the most fundamental quandaries of human existence: when should individuals and groups make compromises on ideals to accomplish an objective, and when is refusing to compromise the better option of the two? Studying history is a worthwhile endeavor for considering the ramifications of political compromise on the health of a nation-state and its people.
It was with this conception of compromise on my mind when I read historian Carole Emberton’s fine essay in the Washington Post and Caleb McDaniel’s in The Atlantic today on the breakdown of compromise efforts leading up to the Civil War. White northerners and southerners forged successful compromise efforts (at least in the minds of those seeking political union between the sections) on the issue of slavery from the beginning of the nation’s founding. As the country acquired new western territory through conquest and purchase in the years before the Civil War, debates continually sprang up about whether the institution of slavery would accompany the white American settlers moving westward. In hindsight, various compromise efforts like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and others were really measures to appease the proslavery south, but they nonetheless allowed the Union to be maintained for nearly eighty years after its founding.
It’s worth asking students of the Civil War to consider how compromise over slavery was possible in 1850 but not in 1860. My answer would be that the Republican Party’s successful entrance into electoral politics changed the game. The Republicans explicitly organized as a party in 1854 on the principle that slavery should be banned in the western territories and left open for free labor (for some Republicans, this meant only free white labor). Although Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Constitutionally speaking slavery could not be touched where it already existed in the south, his personal hatred of slavery was well-know and feared by proslavery fire-eaters who saw his election as a step towards federal governance dominated by northern anti-slavery convictions. In other words, an administration that was hostile to the south’s economic, political, and social interest in keeping African Americans enslaved.
President-elect Lincoln was willing to compromise to the extent that he offered support to the first proposed 13th Amendment guaranteeing the federal government’s protection of slavery in the states where it already existed, but he refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s westward expansion, drawing a line in the sand and arguing that he had been elected on the belief that the west should be for free labor. Compromising on this question would sacrifice the Republican Party’s core principle of existence. Likewise, many white Southern Democrats argued that talk of disunion could be mollified if the federal government passed legislation guaranteeing the right to bring their slave property west with them. They refused, however, to make any further compromises short of these new guarantees from the federal government. As Emberton argues, “it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War.”
I am currently doing research for a journal article on Missouri politics before the Civil War (more info on that is forthcoming) and came across this remarkable Letter to the Editor in the Daily Missouri Republican, which was actually the most popular Democratic newspaper in St. Louis. It would be really useful as a primary source in a classroom setting. The letter, written by “Slaveholder” and published on August 4, 1860, is a remarkable document for three different reasons:
- It demonstrates that the leading issue on the minds of Missourians leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War was the status of slavery, particularly its westward expansion into new federal territories. Just about every day in the newspapers slavery was the main topic of concern in the 1850s and early 1860s.
- It captures the concerns of proslavery border state residents who feared the election of Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge as much as Republican Abraham Lincoln.
- In many respects it correctly predicts the consequences of the Civil War for Missouri. The state would experience the third most number of battles during the war (behind Virginia and Tennessee) and slavery would be abolished by the state legislature in January 1865, less than five years after this letter was written.
Here is an excerpt of the letter:
The recent and ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri, since the August death of Michael Brown have sparked a national (and international) interest in learning more about political, social, cultural, and economic conditions in Missouri. Countless articles, features, and op-eds in publications like the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, and Vox have literally created a new writing genre best described as “Ferguson studies.” And, unsurprisingly, many of these writers have turned to Missouri’s history for context. One article within this growing canon, written by journalist Ryan Schuessler and recently published by AlJazzera America, argues that the roots of Missourians’ polarizing responses to Ferguson can be traced back to their contrasting interpretations and memories of the American Civil War.
Schuessler’s article–which is part Civil War history and part memory analysis–suggests that Missouri has long suffered from an identity crisis marked by two distinct “heritage groups” within the state. One is led by people who say “Missour-uh”: they consider themselves and their state as distinctly southern, are sympathetic to the Confederacy, and are working for the legal right to have the Confederate battle flag flown at various Civil War historic sites throughout the state. We also learn about the residents of Rosebud, Missouri, who greeted a group of NAACP demonstrators from Ferguson in December by raising the Confederate flag and leaving fried chicken, watermelon, and beer for them. While a Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) leader makes sure to distance himself from the Rosebud residents in the article, one notes the tension between the SCV’s stated desire to wave the flag as a way to honor the service of their Confederate ancestors and the Rosebud group’s waving of the flag to “greet” African American demonstrators making their way through the state.
The other heritage group, we are told, is led by people who say “Missour-ee” and consider themselves and their state to be of “Northern persuasion.” Within this group Schuessler highlights the efforts of several African American residents to commemorate the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, the first United States Colored Troops unit to fight in the Civil War and largely composed of African American soldiers from Missouri.
Schuessler concludes that the “Missour-uh” and “Missour-ee” groups have fundamentally different perspectives about the Show-Me state and its history, and as a native Missourian I can attest that we’ve never arrived at a clear consensus about our identity, much less a correct pronunciation of the state’s name. But further reading and contemplation about these arguments lead me to conclude that the “Missour-uh-Missour-ee” divide is a flawed dichotomy that doesn’t do much to help us understand Missouri’s identity in historical context or within the myriad responses to Ferguson from residents today.
While it’s true that some Missourians during the nineteenth century identified themselves as having “southern” or “northern” persuasions, a number of Missourians considered themselves outside this paradigm. For example,Julia Dent Grant, wife of General and President Ulysses S. Grant, recalled in her Personal Memoirs an incident during the Civil War in which she explained her identity as a westerner to a group of Southern women in Holly Springs, Mississippi, while visiting her husband:
We were soon chatting pleasantly, when one said: “You are Southern, are you not?” “No,” I replied, “I am from the West. Missouri is my native state.” “Yes, we know, but Missouri is a Southern state. Surely, you are Southern in feelings and principle.” “No, indeed,” I declared. “I am the most loyal of the loyal.” (106)
What did it mean to identify oneself as a westerner in Missouri during the nineteenth century? An entire book could be written on the topic, but we can get a rough idea by looking at the example of Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s most famous antebellum politician whose likeness adorns National Statuary Hall at Capitol Hill today.
Born in North Carolina and serving as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, Benton settled in Missouri after the war and helped usher the passage of the 1820 Missouri Compromise that established Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and prohibited slavery in all Louisiana Purchase territory north of the 36 30′ parallel (Missouri’s southern border). Although Benton and General Jackson’s relationship cooled during and after the War of 1812, Benton shared Jackson’s disdain of banks and paper currency, arguing that the Bank of the United States made “the rich richer and the poor poorer.” He became known for his efforts to cancel the Bank’s charter and was a leading Jacksonian Democrat in Congress throughout the 1830s and early 1840s. He was also a slaveholder who defended the right to own slaves in states where it was already legal.
Following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the acquisition of a large amount of Western territory that formerly composed almost half of Mexico’s land, however, Benton found himself increasingly at odds with his fellow Democrats, both north and south. In 1847 Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot, in the hopes of making the west an area exclusively for white settlement, proposed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist” in any territory acquired from Mexico. South Carolina Democrat and Senator John Calhoun created a “Southern Rights” doctrine in response to the Wilmot proviso, arguing that slave property couldn’t be distinguished from any other property protected under the fifth amendment and that any effort to ban slavery in these new territories threatened the “self-preservation” of Southern society. Benton opposed the further extension of slavery, but he took issue with both sides, dismissing the Wilmot proviso as unnecessarily divisive within the Democratic party while criticizing Calhoun’s hardline stance on slavery. When Calhoun called out Benton for not standing in solidarity with other Senators from slave states, Benton responded by saying that he was “in the right place . . . on the side of my country and the Union.”
For the remainder of the 1840s and into the 1850s Benton called for federal funding to establish a national road built with both macadamized roads and iron railways (through St. Louis, course) to connect new western territories with the rest of the country. He sought moderation and compromise on the slavery question, which he considered a distraction from his national road agenda:
We read in Holy Writ, that a certain people were cursed by a plague of frogs, and that the plague was everywhere. You could not sit down at the banquet table but there were frogs, you could not go to the bridal couch and lift the sheets but there were frogs! We can see nothing, touch nothing, have no measures proposed, without having this pestilence thrust before us. Here it is, this black question, forever on the table, on the nuptial couch, everywhere!
Fellow Missouri Democrats who supported Calhoun’s “Southern Rights” doctrine criticized Benton’s advocacy of political moderation on slavery and infrastructure improvements through federal funding. After future Missouri governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and his allies issued the “Jackson Resolutions” in opposition to Benton’s policies, Benton accused Southern Democrats of encouraging disunion. Benton was later denied a sixth term in office following the 1850 elections, and after successfully running for the House of Representatives in 1852, lost again in 1854 after opposing Congress’s effort to repeal the Missouri Compromise.
Benton’s legacy as a Missouri politician and his identification with westward expansion defy the “Missour-uh-Missour-ee” split, as do the many Missouri “Benton Democrats” who embraced his beliefs in the antebellum years. Those beliefs included the defense of slavery at home but opposition to its westward expansion in new territories, federal funding for national infrastructure projects, a belief in Missouri as a western state linking the rest of the country together, and a strong loyalty to the Union combined with staunch opposition to secession. The fact that Missouri’s identity as a western state has been lost today tells us much about the ways Missourians have chosen to remember their role in the Civil War.
With regards to the “Missour-uh-Missour-ee” split today, it should be easy to see the shortcomings of thinking that the responses to Ferguson can be neatly broken down into two camps composed of Confederate and Union heritage groups. Is there a connection between the memory of the Civil War and Ferguson today? I’m sure there is. Raising a Confederate flag in front of a group of African American demonstrators would be pointless otherwise. But focusing on the actions of a small minority of Confederate apologists in Rosebud or elsewhere still blinds us to the pervasive racism we see all throughout Missouri from all sorts of people. Here in the St. Charles/St. Louis area the large number of white people who support putting up a #PantsUPdontLOOT billboard in Florissant and who drive trucks with signs like “Mike Brown was a thug” (which is code for another term) do so while pronouncing the Show-Me state as “Missour-ee” and waving U.S. flags on their front porches. Indeed, for all of the talk about Missouri’s ongoing identity crisis, its collective inability to deal with a troubling legacy of racism in government policy and social practice remains.