From the beginning of national politics, the more northern South’s political leaders sporadically, tentatively considered terminating slavery. The tentativeness enabled slaveholding zealots to shout down softhearts. But hardhearts did have to shout. Those who believed in slavery also had to wonder if those who preferred the institution’s termination would crusade uncompromisingly for its perpetuation. These problems began with Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, persisted in and beyond the Missouri Controversy, and came to an early climax with indecisive debates about slavery’s future throughout the Chesapeake Bay in the late 1820s and early 1830s.


Conditional Termination in the Early Republic

The most dominating Southerner as late as 1860 was not Jefferson Davis or William L. Yancey or any other Founding Father of the southern nation. The most critical slaveholder to Southrons who marched off to Civil War was not John C. Calhoun or Andrew Jackson or any other statesman who had ruled one generation before. The master who mattered most had been buried at Monticello a third of a century before slaveholders rose in rebellion.

In death even more than in life, Thomas Jefferson dominated because of the persistent “antislavery”(?) tradition he epitomized. To mid-nineteenth-century Southerners who unhappily apologized for the system, Jefferson’s conditional strategy for terminating slavery remained the best hope that the institution would slowly fade. To latter-day reactionaries, the Virginian’s tentative program remained the best reason to worry about apologists. The history of southern extremism from Jefferson’s day to Jefferson Davis’s could be summed up as one long, losing campaign to extinguish Monticello’s master’s vision in more northern sections of the South.

Recent historical wisdom makes these fire-eaters’ concern unfathomable. Jefferson’s way of awakening to the problem of slavery is currently seen as hypocrisy personified: much talk, little sacrifice of his own property, less done to sabotage his class, something perhaps done to sire his slaves, and, at the end of his life, supposedly a whining plea for a South forged to John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina specifications.1 Against this latter-day standard of realism, the Calhouns who stewed about the Jeffersons become unrealistic abstractionists.

Latter-day commentators who dismiss the Jeffersons’ indecisive yearnings are not so realistic themselves. Attempts at cautious reform will indeed not advance very far, if reactionaries resolutely deter reformers. But that “if is critical—and the necessity for vigilance has highly realistic effects. Worse, reactionary consolidation cannot proceed very far either, if apologists remain numerous and unconvinced.

Those lessons were everywhere learned during the American republic’s first age of slavery politics. Those who would perpetuate slavery early discovered that as long as they threatened creditably, the South’s tremulous Jeffersons would fall silent. But perpetualists also early discovered that apologists could neither be forced into consolidations of the institution nor forced away from increasing its vulnerabilities. The result was early loss of proslavery opportunities and early emergence of a crimped and contained Slavepower.

The second and third generation of slaveholding perpetualists drew the proper conclusion. If the South was ever to be a South, actively warring against antislavery, Jeffersonians’ passive failure to man the barricades had to be contested as aggressively as apologists’ tame attempts to chip away at the institution. Thomas Jefferson epitomized why fire-eaters had to rally the irresolute. Such necessity profoundly shaped southern extremist politics.


Faulty analysis and faulty semantics both have contributed to the late twentieth century’s dismissal of Jeffersonian “antislavery.” Linguistic and analytical problems are related. Changing words will not rescue meanings. But fresh linguistic symbols may jar sensibilities towards subtler understandings.2

The word “antislavery” has accordingly been barred from this analysis of southern uneasiness with slavery. That linguistic symbol, because connoting both an attitude and an action, has fallen victim to latter-day tendencies to conflate different characteristics. Once upon a time, analysts knew that not every sincere attitude led immediately to action. Back then, a Jefferson who obviously harbored “antislavery” beliefs and equally obviously was chary of “antislavery” action could be called some species of “antislavery.”

Not now. Up-to-speed cynics, most cynical about political rhetoric, deploy an all-or-nothing test of politicians’ language. Politicos who believe supposedly act to implement their beliefs. Those cautious about acting cannot sincerely believe. Against that conception of belief and action, Jefferson the “antislavery” man becomes the great American hypocrite.

Understanding slavery politics requires a more subtle conception of colliding attitudes. People have many wishes, some more dear, some less, each capable of yielding action if some more cherished desire does not bar the way. Thomas Jefferson, true to the species, was a bundle of relative priorities. He wished to end slavery. He wished other things more. He sought to ease bondage away whenever he thought higher priorities might permit. He shied from a lower priority when conditions seemed to him to threaten greater goals.

New words are needed to describe the apologist who desired to terminate slavery, but only when conditions were favorable. Jefferson was a prime example of that Upper South tradition hereby dubbed Conditional Termination. He would terminate nothing—would be only privately and impotently “antislavery”—if conditions seemed to him wrong. But this ruler would nudge his class towards termination, assuming conditions seemed safe. Unless Unconditional Perpetualists denied the Conditional Terminator his conditions, this reformer could—did—cautiously start something capable of growing out of hand. That Jefferson—that often subterranean but never absent wish that blacks and slaves might, under the right conditions, diffuse away—helped provoke southern extremists over many decades into secession and civil war.


Scoffers might more readily reconsider the beginning of this process if the word “Jefferson” no less than the word “antislavery” could be erased from “Jeffersonian antislavery.” Thomas Jefferson’s attitudes and actions towards blacks are so repugnant these days that connecting this Southerner with Conditional Termination almost cements the notion that “Jefferson antislavery” never could and never did threaten anything. Furthermore, by putting Jefferson front and center, an analyst risks conflating a man who wavered with a national generation which acted most unwaveringly in northern areas where his irresolution was least present.3

These difficulties cannot be short-circuited by abolishing Jefferson, for to his generation and the next, he remained centrally connected to the hope of finding conditions under which slavery might fade away. To obliterate this persistent symbol of an attitude is to erase a historical fact. But the relationship between man and movement was one of symbol, not cause.

Thomas Jefferson’s role in southern thought about slavery resembled his role as an American Revolutionary. Jefferson was not an epic figure in 1776 because he made the revolution happen. Events would have occurred the same way had he never lived. Nor did Jefferson, as author of the Declaration of Independence, create a new intellectual design. Instead, he luminously expressed pre-existing American beliefs.

Jefferson made equally little happen about bondage during the first generation of slavery politics. Nothing done or left undone would have transpired any differently had he never lived. Nor did Jefferson formulate the Upper South’s world view. In tortured writings on slavery, he only applied an elegant veneer to an ugly indecision that was already the essence of the Upper South mentality.

Thomas Jefferson was an elaborator. He had an extraordinary gift of lending grace to conventionalities. The conventionalities are the point. Jefferson was not creator of Conditional Termination but the symbol of the conventionality and the most notorious man who acted out the creed—which meant most often that he shuddered to act.

Jefferson emerged from his, to us, unbearably slow actions to appear, to us, as hatefully nonheroic and nonprogressive. But he did emerge, with the tradition he epitomized intact, to inspire others to move towards termination of bondage, should slaveholding perpetualists be so stupid as to allow subsequent procrastinators the requisite conditions.


While the slaveholding democrat’s predicament intensified as nineteenth-century egalitarian republicanism took hold, the South’s discomfort with slavery began 50 years earlier, in an era of elitist republicanism—and for good elitist reasons. As the historian David Brion Davis has superbly taught us, for over two thousand years mainstream thinkers had called bondage as natural as breathing.4 Then in the mid-eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, sensibility shifted. Southern “enlightened” slaveholders were among the first Americans to see forced labor as a problem and to thrust the issue into politics.

The American Revolution, by focusing American Enlightenment thought on the problem of tyranny and liberty, raised to higher consciousness the new awareness of slavery as an evil. Thus in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson accused King George of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people,” carried by an “execrable commerce” into that “assemblage of horrors,” “slavery in another Hemisphere.”5

The enlightened planter who called his own labor system an assemblage of horrors was especially addicted to one enlightened virtue: balance. How Jefferson adored the concept. With that love affair, he epitomized his era. For a passing instant as the eighteenth century eased into the nineteenth and Americans increasingly recognized slavery as an unbalanced institution, enlightened gentlemen believed that rationality would balance irrationality, the head balance the heart, serenity balance chaos. The best men could bring the world to equilibrium. The balanced mind could everywhere keep the scales from tipping.

Jefferson, as he poised himself to be seen in Monticello’s drawing room, personified that conception. His flowing red hair, which another man would have made a symbol of eccentric genius, he stylized into structured order. He was never seen in public without his rebellious locks combed into control—unless he covered the chaos with a gentleman’s immaculate wig. Disbalancing bulges rarely disfigured his figure. His silks appeared never to show discoloring smudges. His house was swept clean of dust, dirt, disarray. His furniture was arranged in balanced pairs. His favorite posture, seated at his leisure, balanced deftly on a hip, the public face rarely wrenched by hilarious laughter or by ferocious frown, invited a conversation as symmetrical as the setting.

Such a man’s creations were variations on a theme. What was the blueprint for enlightened republics? The free exercise of rationality everywhere protected—with every power harmoniously balanced by some other. What was the blueprint for enlightened buildings? A variation on the rationality of the Greeks—with every window, wing, wainscotting harmoniously balanced by another. What was the blueprint for an enlightened declaration to mankind? A catalogue of universal rational laws—with every proclamation, paragraph, phrase harmoniously balanced. What was the blueprint for telling an enlightened lady of one’s lusts? A poetic dialogue between cool mind and convulsed heart—with rational intelligence balancing rapacious passions.

Still, beneath Jefferson’s fastidious equilibriums lay unbalanced emotions he was loath to reveal. When he lost his beloved poise, as in his diatribes against “demonic” Federalist opponents, he sounded like some raving Andrew Jackson. He then appeared to revel not in tempered rationality but in temper tantrums.

What threatened Jefferson’s temper most was not Federalism abroad but foundations at home. Thomas Jefferson knew that his leisure to balance on his hip, calming the universe with balanced statemanship, balanced buildings, balanced sentences stemmed from a relationship unbalanced and unbalanceable. As much as this very large slaveholder loathed what slavery did to the slave—and Jefferson oft expressed his hatred—he even more despised what despotism did to rulers. Slavery unbalanced the slaveholding elite, thus unbalanced the aristocratic republic, and thus unbalanced the future of the white race. To this adorer of symmetry, slavery threatened to make unsymmetrical the best rulers of the best hope of mankind.

Slavery, Jefferson cursed in his most famous and heartfelt diatribe, taught white children “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions.” Master “storms,” his offspring “looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath,” and proceeds to loosen “the worst of passions.” Slavery taught young white aristocrats to be sexually licentious, to be irresponsibly lazy, to be odiously tyrannical. The gentleman “must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”6

Gentlemen’s unnatural attempt to preserve an unbalanced class foundation would lead to lower-class revolt. Upper-class whites had to choose, so Jefferson believed, between giving blacks freedom or suffering black insurrection. “If something is not done, and soon done,” he wrote, “we shall be the murderers of our own children.” The world was moving too surely towards progress. Nature’s God was too surely just. Slaves deprived of nature’s rights would too surely seize arms after their own Declaration of Independence. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate,” he declared, “than that these people are to be free.”7

A balanced achievement of freedom would remove freedmen from the South. “It is still in our power,” wrote Jefferson, to effect “emancipation and deportation peaceably,” so “that the evil will wear off insensibly.”8 Africans coming to Virginia tipped the balance scale in the wrong direction. The balance had to be slowly tipped right. After Virginia barred the inflow of new Africans, the state should slowly send blacks away, perhaps to Africa, more likely to the Caribbean. Then white laborers would slowly migrate to Virginia. This reversed population flow would yield triple salvation. Despotic whites would no longer degrade blacks. Degraded slaves would no longer despoil aristocrats. Degenerate despotism would no longer deter white migrants.

But freeing slaves without removing blacks was unthinkable. Jefferson suspected (though he thought himself broadminded to invite black intellectuals to change his mind) that blacks were mentally inferior. He never invited anyone to change his opinions that blacks were naturally uglier; that natural secretions gave them “a very strong and disagreeable odour”; that black males were naturally “more ardent after their female”; that their natural lusts were “more an eager desire than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation”; that their griefs were “transient,” both “less felt and sooner forgotten.”9

His own prejudices helped convince Jefferson that prejudiced whites would never accept blacks as equals. Freed blacks could not be retained in America because “deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites” and “ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained” would “divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.”10

Hasty emancipation would as surely produce “convulsions” and “exterminations.” Premature agitation would unbalance blacks and whites alike, leading to slave insurrections and white intransigence. Slaves, ever angry because deprived of natural rights, would rise up. Aristocrats, ever fearful of slave revolts, would violently counterattack. The white government, its balance ever precarious because of unnatural black enslavement, would be torn apart by angry recriminations and awful reprisals.

The balanced way required not blustery belligerence in legislative halls but calm conversation in drawing rooms. When gentlemen came together, soothed by dining and comforted by madeira, they could exchange opinions about what must be done. When the natural aristocrat was privately converted, it would be time—it would be safe—to go public.

Private manumission could set the tone of public emancipation. Enlightened aristocrats might free slaves in last wills and testaments, after educating blacks for freedom. Alternatively, sensible manumission might proceed one uplifted family at a time, with transportation to a land where former dependents would be fully free. If some cynic saw such plans as hypocrisy, crassly enjoying a rich slaveholder’s lifestyle while cunningly posing as some distant liberator, Jefferson would have hotly denied the charge. It was rather, he would have insisted, a question of enlightened trusteeship, of remaining responsible for the irresponsible until children were educated to be adults.

Jefferson’s plan of public emancipation, modeled after his blueprint for private trusteeship, involved manumission only of those born hereafter and only after they were 21, with colonization required after the new generation was educated. This so-called post-natiprinciple was fundamental. Unless emancipation was restricted to those born hereafter, natural rights philosophy could bankrupt natural rights governments. Natural rights to property mandated state compensation for property seized, even if the property was an unnatural slave.

Post-nati freeing of future children, as opposed to immediate freeing of present adults, made expenses natural. At worst, the state would have to offer compensation only for less expensive offspring, not for more expensive field hands and breeding “wenches.” At best, the state might not have to compensate, since masters’ property rights, it could be argued, extended only to slaves heretofore purchased, not to slaves hereafter born. Alternatively, slave children could work for master long enough to pay for their value, upbringing, and deportation. In any event, payments for manumission and deportation would be stretched over many decades, balancing whites’ budgets and their apprehensions. No black would be freed for 21 years. No white would be deprived of a slave now on earth. No state would be freed of slavery for several generations.

Jefferson’s ideal was a nationally financed scheme of reversed black population flow. During the pre-Revolutionary era, he scored the English for permitting Africans to be dispatched to America. During the post-Revolutionary period, he urged Congress to stop fresh Africans from flowing to America and to prevent slaves from streaming into unenslaved new American areas. The population flow, once stopped, should be reversed. The nation should find the best overseas colony for freedmen and finance post-nati deportation.

Nationally as locally, public opinion must be slowly prepared. When proposals provoked a sizable segment of the population to unbalanced defensiveness, the time was not right. Proposals offered in a holier-than-thou spirit were always wrong. But if Northerners approached Southerners in the right spirit at the right time, a national coalition could turn black population flow around.11 Some glorious distant day, all blacks would reside outside a lily-white and altogether free America.

Jefferson’s emphasis on averting public clamor, on agitation dropped if anger ensued, on emancipation scuttled if deportation was impossible, on balanced opinions and balanced tempers and balanced budgets and balanced migrations—all these shrinkings from unbalanced consequences indicate a reformer trembling at reforms. The fastidious Mr. Jefferson would touch the Domestic Institution only when the issue was domesticated. But the procrastinator trembled also that the institution was not domesticated. White republicanism would be unsafe until the slavery issue was removed. Future generations would be endangered if slaves were left to free themselves. Everywhere, Jefferson worried, the evil might yield bloodshed, whether men sought to make slavery unnaturally permanent, or sought to terminate it unnaturally soon, or sought to do too much or too little of anything at all.

In one unforgettable sentence, this leader of a class expressed the quiver his version of ruling-class ideology inspired. “We have the wolf by the ears,” Jefferson wrote, “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”12 Anyone who realizes the terror in that summary of a world view is prepared to understand Jefferson’s hemming and hawing about surrendering whites’ hold on blacks. But this enlightened gentleman, who saw his very existence in terms of clinging to the slippery ears of a runaway beast, also needed to pretend, not least to himself, that life was as smooth, as serene, as symmetrical as a canter through rolling hills.


No wonder that posterity scorns this procrastinator. By making expulsion of Afro-Americans a prerequisite for ending American slavery, Jefferson loaded “antislavery” with a condition considered crushing at the time and outrageous now. By calling slaveholders’ right to property as natural as slaves’ right to freedom, Monticello’s master slowed termination of bondage to a crawl. By urging that apologists shush if proslavery warriors roared, Jefferson invited his whisper to be drowned out. All those conditions saddled the most difficult social revolution this nation has ever attempted with the most superb excuses for delay. At best, Jefferson’s conditions could only lead to tortuous progress. At worst—and Conditional Termination sometimes operated this horridly—the attitude was an excuse for relishing the fruits of slavery, while taking self-serving pride in not acting too soon. And yet Jefferson really did think if action came too late, his children and his children’s children would drown in the bloodbath.

Such conflicted priorities invite a classic psychological pattern. One seeks to avoid the unavoidable, to repress the irrepressible, to reconcile the unreconcilable by willing it out of mind. Thomas Jefferson mastered dissimulation. He developed fantastic powers of avoidance, of not letting the public see, of not letting himself see, how distressed he was by slavery. His distress nevertheless remained acute enough to yield a little action. Both the small amount done and the huge amount avoided were as obvious at Monticello as in the White House.

Jefferson’s world view demanded two activities while directing Monticello. First, this owner of over a hundred slaves charged himself with being an enlightened trustee, correcting present contaminations and preparing future freedmen. Second, he obligated himself to free those properly prepared. Jefferson, true to his character, usually managed to avoid thinking about these mandates. Equally characteristically, he managed to live up to his world view occasionally—disastrously seldom from one perspective, dangerously often from another.

One episode at Monticello illustrates the master’s genius at evasion. Sally Hemings, Monticello’s most celebrated slave, put Jefferson to the test as few trustees have been tested.13 No trustee more successfully evaded his examination. Most historians, emulating Jefferson’s contemporaries, have narrowed the Sally Hemings issue to one question: Did Jefferson sire her five mulatto children?

The circumstantial evidence does not serve Jefferson well. Hemings, whitish daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, was long a household servant within the Big House. Jefferson was always in residence nine months before she gave birth. Jefferson manumitted some of her children and freed no black without a Hemings connection.

This evidence, to some, will always convict Jefferson. Others will urge that these circumstances could point towards other member(s) of Jefferson’s white family as sire(s). Furthermore, the fact (at last a fact!) that Jefferson’s father-in-law sired Sally Hemings perhaps explains why only Hemingses were manumitted.

This futile debate over circumstances obscures the undebatable point about dissimulation. Jefferson never faced or resolved the moral mess in his mansion, whether he and/or other white relative(s) joined Sally Hemings in multiplying the morass. And morass miscegenation was, as Jefferson defined morass, the most “unnatural” morass infecting the “natural aristocracy.”

As Jefferson knew, miscegenation, however common in the Old South, was not commonly that luxuriant in southern Big Houses. Multiplying mulattoes were also uncommonly “obscene” in so uncommon a mansion as Monticello. This was supposedly the utopian Big House, the model on the mountain for an adoring South to emulate. A morally enlightened trustee would have had to act, however unpleasant the action.

Jefferson preferred to avoid the unpleasant. He probably could not bear the emotional cost of confrontation, the unbalancing and horrid scenes which would have punctured the gorgeous symmetry at Monticello. The exquisitely balanced owner would have had to confront and cast away a slave he likely saw as lustily unbalanced. He would also have had to confront and correct his own “unbalanced” lusts, if he had indeed been once or many times the father. Alternatively, he would have had to face and castigate the nephew and/or other white relative(s) who had so “unnaturally polluted” the plantation. Finally, he would have had to embarrass himself before the man who took Sally Hemings off his hands, for he could not morally separate those whitened children with the tell-tale faces from their mother. Such nasty confrontations would have broadcast that Monticello had become a miasma.

Jefferson chose to do nothing. Or more accurately, he probably never allowed himself to think about the choices. Decades passed. Mulattoes multiplied. This procrastinator continued to allow the world—perchance himself—to believe Monticello’s balanced surface was reality.

Jefferson’s love of balanced surfaces and inclinations to forget unbalanced foundations explain why he failed almost as much as manumitter as he failed as Sally Hemings’s trustee. That “almost” is crucial. Jefferson freed some 10% of his over 100 slaves. Ten percent per generation could water down slavery. So too, Jefferson’s voluntary surrender of 10% of his property shows some commitment. Latter-day intellectuals who can see only commitment to slavery might ask themselves how often they have sacrificed 10% for their ideas.

Yet 90% still enslaved left the master class its power and prerequisites. Jefferson sustained his brilliant life-style by selling some 50 bondsmen. His executors, forced to sell more of his slaves to pay his debts, had few bondsmen left to free, whatever the last will and testament said.

To free expensive slaves more extensively, Jefferson would have had to repudiate his expensive dream of making Monticello the most elegant American mansion. Jefferson probably never gave the option a thought. Retrenchment never had a chance not so much because Jefferson preferred his artistry to his morality as because he had a constitutional inability to confront those hard choices his ideology demanded. The man who probably managed to overlook Sally Hemings probably also managed not to notice that the newest sublime decoration at Monticello was condemning another soul to another year of slavery.

Given the hard and disagreeable path American abolitionists faced, could a man so adept at avoiding hard and disagreeable thoughts ever have damaged his class’s position? One answer is that Jefferson faced the disagreeable often enough to free 10%, and 10% was a beginning. An uncertain master class, proslavery zeaolots feared, might swell that beginning. Those in revolt against Jefferson also noticed that in minor terminations, as in massive dissimulations, life at Monticello was a model for what Jefferson accomplished—and evaded—during the first era of slavery politics.


Abroad as at home, Jefferson was timid about confronting slavery’s problems, eager to maintain surface balances and to avoid unbalancing thoughts, determined to abort unbalancing reform. Yet abroad as at home, this adorer of symmetry helped knock slavery slightly off stride. He succeeded in working beneath the surface on proposals he prayed—others feared—would yield his master plan for ending slavery: turn the black population flow away from America.

He did work beneath the surface. Jefferson blasted bondage only in private correspondence and in his published Notes on Virginia—published anonymously, characteristically, “lest it produce an irritation.” When Jefferson the President was asked to endorse an antislavery poem publicly, he refused lest he lose his influence. “I have most carefully avoided every public act and manifestation on that subject,” he had earned the right to brag. He promised to “interpose with decisive effect” whenever emancipation became practical. Until then, going public would merely “lessen my powers of doing … good in the other great relations to which I stand to the public.”14

The formula might seem to require the ex-President to go public on emancipation after he retired from public life and had no “other great relations … to the public” left to lose. So thought Edward Coles, a Virginian of a younger generation. Coles was soon to earn the right to press older statesmen to go public on antislavery. Frustrated in efforts to free slaves in Virginia, he would migrate to Illinois. There he would sacrifice his inheritance by manumitting his bondsmen and use his influence as governor to keep his state free soil. In 1814, Coles wrote Jefferson, begging the legendary old man to crusade for abolition.15

Jefferson begged off. “This enterprise is for the young,” lectured the elder. As for young Coles, Jefferson instructed, he should keep slaves enslaved in Virginia. Otherwise, poorly prepared serviles might not have enough to eat. Coles should also remain publicly silent on abolition. The best way was to “insinuate and inculcate it softly” and privately, until a “phalanx is formed.” Cole’s reply was painfully apt: “Doctor Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of slavery, was as actively and usefully employed … after he had past your age.”16

Jefferson never forgot his youthful effort to suggest abolition to the Virginia legislature. In 1784, when working on a new state constitution, Jefferson penned a draft amendment, declaring the post-nati principle that those born after 1800 would be someday freed. He then, characteristically, put someone else up to proposing the amendment in public. A quarter-century later, Jefferson was still shuddering that his front man “was denounced as an enemy of his country and treated with the grossest indecorum.” Jefferson, having decorously seconded the motion, was “more spared in the debate.” He ever after privately whispered that it was “not yet time” if slaveholders denounced agitators as traitors.17

For the rest of his life, Jefferson never thought the time had arrived. With legislative talk delayed and legislative action stalled, Jefferson’s Virginia emancipated only in silent last wills and testaments. The process state-wide freed slaves slower than Monticello’s creeping pace. In 1806, Virginia legislators further thwarted the process by restricting manumissions. Jefferson, characteristically, never denounced the restrictions.

In national as in state politics, Jefferson cautiously sought to diffuse away slavery. But his tentative gestures occurred usually in private and never at the expense of unbalancing his higher priorities: controlling blacks, sustaining the white republic, and furthering his republican career. Not that Jefferson had to suffer the unpleasant opinion that he was sacrificing priorities. He believed that if he evaded decision, the necessity for choice would evaporate. Once national public opinion on emancipation became as balanced as Jefferson congratulated himself on being, the national government would ease bondage—and blacks—outside the white man’s republic.


Two of the three centers of public opinion on slavery in Jefferson’s era made his hope of balanced termination by redirected population flow somewhat feasible. The first slightly hopeful area, Jefferson’s own Upper South, Chesapeake Bay, tobacco-growing region usually shared Jefferson’s world view. Virginians, Marylanders, and Delawarians usually favored stopping the flow of Africans to America. Many Chesapeake Bay masters would also have favored a suitably slow and ultra-cautious way to experiment with sending post-nati slaves to Africa or Latin America.

On the practical question of when and how reform could begin, Jefferson was somewhere in the middle of Chesapeake Bay disagreement. In the demographically blacker Lower Chesapeake state of Virginia, masters were manumitting a tad slower than Jefferson’s pace, while echoing his insistence on removal. By 1820, Virginians had freed only 8% of their 462,042 slaves. In the demographically whiter Upper Chesapeake states of Delaware and Maryland, masters were manumitting three times faster than did Jefferson, while implicitly wondering whether removal was necessary. By 1820, 43% of these two states’ 164,594 blacks were freed.

While the Upper South moved towards ending its admitted evil somewhere between slowly and more slowly still, the second great center of public opinion, the North, moved a little faster, but with some Jefferson-like conditions. Northern insistence on proper circumstances before ending slavery is integral to the southern story, for the “North” was then the hinterland of the slavocracy. By “North,” posterity usually means the states possessing no slaves by 1860. But what became the most southern North of 1860 was the most northern South in 1776, if “southern” means possession of significant numbers of slaves.18 In New York, the percentage of inhabitants enslaved in the mid-eighteenth century hovered around 14%, a figure slightly above the Border South’s percentage in 1860. Colonial New Jersey’s slave percentage was only a little lower, Pennsylvania’s only a little lower still.

In terms of absolute number of slaves, the someday-to-be-northern Mid-Atlantic region was surprisingly southern at the time slavery was first considered an American problem. In 1790, the state of New York possessed the sixth largest number of slaves, ahead of Kentucky; New Jersey was eighth, ahead of Delaware; Pennsylvania was tenth, ahead of Tennessee. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, taken together, contained one and a half times more slaves than did Georgia.

Still, this then-most-northern South already possessed in 1776 the key condition for southern Conditional Termination: a low and declining percentage of blacks.19 Mid-Atlantic white population grew much faster than the region’s black inhabitants. New York was 14% black in 1756, 12% in 1771, 6% in 1790. This eighteenth-century process in Mid-Atlantic states was a rehearsal for slower nineteenth-century drifts of the Border South towards black percentages under 10%, that magic plateau which in both centuries established the first condition for seriously considering abolition.

One condition still delayed emancipation in the then-most-northern South. In a nation equating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with life, liberty, and the protection of property, liberty for slaves required payoff to property owners. The problem made post-nati emancipation particularly attractive. If only slaves not yet born were freed, perhaps no payoff would be necessary.

Mid-Atlantic slaveholders begged to differ. They had paid for the perpetual labor of slaves unborn in the high purchase price of slave “wenches.” State seizure of the afterborn might also be an entering wedge. Reformers might move on to freeing those born before the arbitrary date.

Such intransigent defense of slave investment might sound too southern to be northern. Northerners supposedly only emancipated because slavery did not pay in colder climes. But Mid-Atlantic states are in the same climatic zone as the Border South, and some northern slaveholders fought for their investment for as many decades as did William Lowndes Yancey. Planters in eastern New Jersey and along New York’s Hudson River, where slaves in some spots comprised as much as 30% of the population, were tolerably pleased with their profits and intolerably outraged that slaves could be seized when each was still worth several hundred dollars. Our strongest opponents, a New York proponent of black freedom later remembered, “were chiefly Dutch. They raved and swore by dunder and blixen that we were robbing them of their property.”20

New York and New Jersey slaveholders who raved and swore still differed significantly from 1861 secessionists. While all these reactionaries wished to protect a valuable investment, New York and New Jersey slaveholders considered property in labor neither economically indispensable nor racially necessary. Believing a few blacks easy to control, they primarily wished to be paid to be virtuous. Their tactics were not to stand and deliver on some Civil War battlefield but to stall for more years of profits, then to raise the ante for giving up the profitable. The great Yankee battle was not so much over whether the post-nati would be freed but when, at age 21 or 28? Seven years of delay made some difference to capitalists—and enormous difference to bondsmen.

Emancipation after the American Revolution occurred without slaveholder-enforced delays only in the almost-slaveless, northernmost New England states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. In more southerly Rhode Island, where 6% of the population was enslaved in 1776, post-nati emancipation was delayed until 1784. Freedom for those born earlier was never passed; 108 slaves remained in Rhode Island in 1810. In Connecticut, where 5% of the population was enslaved in 1790, post-nati emancipation was put off until 1794 and freedom for other slaves not decreed until 1848.21

In Pennsylvania, where over 10,000 blacks resided, a powerful Quaker antislavery faction secured the first American post-nati law in 1780. The vote was close, 34–23. The law delayed freedom for the afterborn until age 28, a concession to slaveholders who had called the initial bill, freeing females at 18 and males at 21, a violation of property holders’ liberty. The Pennsylvania legislature never decreed liberation for blacks born before 1780. Over 400 blacks remained enslaved in the Quaker State in 1830.22

New Jersey’s slaves, 11,423 in 1790, had to wait longer for legislative relief. In 1804, the legislature freed those born thereafter, males at age 25, females at 21. At slaveholders’ insistence, legislators allowed masters to “abandon” afterborn black children, then be paid by the state to raise (and work) those “abandoned.” These payments comprised over a third of the state’s nonpenal and nonmilitary budget.

New Jersey repealed the budget-busting abandonment policy in 1811. Slaveholders then could re-enslave those “abandoned,” as if not a cent had been paid. Over 7500 slaves remained in New Jersey in 1820, over 2200 in 1830. Eighteen lifelong black apprentices remained in 1860 to cheer the election of the Great Emancipator, whose war against the Slavepower finally ended slavery in the North.23

In New York, slaveholders stalled off post-nati emancipation until 1799. They then secured the right to keep the afterborn until ages 28 (males) and 25 (females). Slaveholders also enjoyed more liberal “abandonment” bounties than New Jersey would later provide. Twenty thousand New York blacks remained enslaved in 1800, 15,000 in 1810, 10,000 in 1820. The institution was not wiped out of the Empire State until 1827.24

Thousands of New York and New Jersey post-nati slaves, although supposed to be freed on designated birthdays, remained perpetually enslaved. Post-nati emancipation laws almost invited masters to sell afterborn slave children south, before the emancipating birthday. Both New York and New Jersey early forbade this cynical practice. But both states initially provided too mild penalties to stop the travesty. Both waived penalties if slaves “consented” to transfers. Both allowed state officials to save prison expenses by selling convicted slave “criminals” to Dixie. One historian estimates that twice as many New York slaves were ultimately sold down south as were freed.25

These evasions yielded notorious stories and a public outcry. Both states closed post-nati loopholes within two decades of emancipation. Antebellum New Jersey, however, never ceased cashing in black “criminals” at New Orleans slave auctions. And immediately before New Jersey’s crackdown on selling post-nati slave children down south, a Dutchman named Nicholas Van Wickle received permission to cash in his 60 slaves in Louisiana, based on their “consent” to forgo freedom.26

Van Wickle’s grotesque culmination serves as climactic symbol of delays and evasions in what became the most southern layer of free states. An end to Yankee slavery at last came, not because slaveholders were going broke but because the huge nonslaveholding majority finally acted to eliminate the institution. The somewhat encouraging lesson of the sadly slow reform was clear. Assuming that low free black concentrations and modest compensations to slaveholders could be achieved, Conditional Terminators could eventually meet other conditions.

The now-most-northern South learned a less savory lesson. To reduce costs of emancipation, southern legislatures could decree post-nati abolition, then allow slaveholders to sell post-nati blacks into permanent Deep South thralldom before the liberating birthday. Still, despite slaveholder stalling and slaves enslaved elsewhere, a tier of somewhat enslaved states had been liberated at the slavocracy’s northern extremity. Whites in tropical black belts were well aware that their next layer of northern protection, the Border South, possessed not-so-high concentrations of slaves, had few qualms about blacks being sold southward, and indeed might be prepared to dump blacks more swiftly southward, so that termination could proceed in another South-become-North.


In the first era of slavery politics, while what was becoming the North was ending slavery without trauma, its posture towards what was becoming a peculiar South remained nonprovoking. New England Puritans, for reasons New England historians have yet to clarify, were strangely quiet on slavery while thundering about other national sins in the early nineteenth century. Only John Woolman’s northern voice echoed in the South. Woolman, Pennsylvania leader of the Middle Atlantic’s Quaker abolitionist movement, never flaunted his virtue. He softly knocked on slaveholders’ doors and humbly slipped into their parlors to discourse between thee and thou on the inner spirit abolitionist and slaveholder shared with slaves. Woolman’s successor, Benjamin Lundy, often balanced non-holier-than-thou Quaker attitudes with African colonization remedies in his The Genius of Universal Emancipation, the most important North American antislavery newspaper of the 1820s.27

Unfortunately for Woolman and Lundy, the third important center of American public opinion on slavery, South Carolina, differed with the procrastinating Upper South and the gradually emancipating North. South Carolina leaders never much doubted that the institution, whether good or evil, was permanently necessary. For four years in the early nineteenth century, they reopened the flow of Africans to America.

The difference between South Carolina and the Chesapeake had deep roots in geography and in the colonial past. The Old Dominion, settled early in the seventeenth century by Englishmen with no experience as slaveholders, had originally imported blacks as short-term indentured servants. South Carolina, settled late in the same century in part by experienced West Indian slaveholders, had opted for permanent bondage from the beginning. In the early eighteenth century, the deadly Carolina rice swamps, compared with the healthy Virginia tobacco-producing Tidewater, needed far higher percentages of blacks.

Then late in the eighteenth century, while Virginia’s declining tobacco profits coincided with rising Enlightenment antislavery, South Carolina’s slave economy dramatically took off. Virginia’s planters survived by growing less tobacco to market abroad, raising more grains to trade locally, and selling slaves to finance this smaller but safer mixed economy. Such economic shrinkage encouraged thought about black population shrinkage.

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s expansion inspired thoughts of burgeoning black population. In the Age of Enlightenment antislavery, Carolina rice fields, in contrast to Virginia tobacco acres, were as productive as ever. Rice, unlike tobacco, also sold at as high a price as ever. On top of this lowcountry economic base in rice, the Carolina upcountry became, at the turn of the nineteenth century, America’s first cotton kingdom, and the Carolina sea islands off the coast became a center of luxury cotton production. South Carolina, for a passing moment, needed more slaves, not less. Carolinians had long since decided that malarial swamps would be unworkable without permanent slaves.28

South Carolina aside, the North and Upper South, taken together, represented a huge majority abstractly hoping that their complicity in bondage might fade. But Carolina’s intransigent fragment had leverage, for Americans wished a Union of all fragments. Allowing any colony to become its own nation raised the specter of a New World as balkanized as the Old World, of tyrannical Europe gutting republican America by playing off new nations against each other. Almost all the Founding Fathers believed that nothing done about slavery should jeopardize Union. Here was another condition blocking an end to slavery, a massive condition so long as southern hardhearts remembered to shout down softhearts.

South Carolinians first shouted down a whispering Virginian before the American Revolution began. When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, it will be remembered, denounced the king for permitting the evil to spread to America. South Carolinians, characteristically, bridled. Jefferson, characteristically, deleted the draft paragraph.29

Jefferson was in Europe and thus not present to cave in when South Carolina threatened not to join the Union if the Constitutional Convention of 1787 empowered Congress to end the African slave trade immediately.30 Jefferson, characteristically, never publicly denounced the eventual compromise, which bribed South Carolina to participate in Union by barring congressional prohibition of the African slave trade until 1807. Nor did Jefferson, characteristically, publicly lambast the cost. Between 1803 and 1807, South Carolina reopened the overseas trade and enslaved some 40,000 more Africans. Shades of Nicholas Van Wickle consigning soon-to-be freed New Jerseyites to Louisiana slave auctions right up to the deadline.

Only a fraction of wealthy Carolinians relished those 40,000 more Africans. Rice planters, Carolina’s most powerful slaveholding group, thought their black concentrations already nervously high. Most of them voted against reopening the slave trade. Reopening passed the Carolina legislature in 1803 because the new Carolina Cotton Kingdom supported it. Cotton planters on the coast and in the upcountry wanted more blacks to raise more cotton.31

Cotton producers who would fortify slavery with more slaves could win one state legislative vote. Still, the ancient rice gentry was too powerful in the Carolina congressional delegation for nouveau adventurers to produce the usual Carolina kicking and screaming against national prohibition of the trade. In 1807, the first year Congress could end importations from Africa, aggressive southern imperialists were too few and too cornered to stymie those who would reverse black population flow.

America’s most famous procrastinator was delighted with the occasion. In his Annual Message of December 1806, President Jefferson asked Congress to abolish the noxious commerce at the first possible constitutional moment. With South Carolina for once willing to allow something about slavery to be ended, Congress sped the bill abolishing the African slave trade to the White House. By applying his presidential signature, Jefferson brought to completion his own proposed first step towards turning the flow of black population around.

The law comes across in textbooks as a non-event. Southerners who fought to reopen the African slave trade in the 1850s knew better. The closure of the African slave trade was probably the most important slavery legislation Congress ever passed and among the most important American laws on any subject. The importance to Africans who would otherwise have become enslaved Afro-Americans needs no discussion. Only a little less obvious is the law’s importance to Afro-Americans and their masters. The Man and and his bondsmen would have together developed a far less Peculiar Institution if a million or so “raw Africans” had been present to encourage despots’ reliance on coercive violence, to discourage their thoughts that Cuffees familiarly consented, and to preclude their conception that only decent medicine, shelter, and food could increase the size of their labor force. This one law by itself justifies a critical assumption behind this volume: that the “new” social history must not be divorced from the “new” political history, for politicians’ headline events shape, and are shaped by, the very ground rules of day-to-day social life, among the lordly and the lowly alike.

African slave trade closure also established critical ground rules for the imminent North American sectional controversy. After the North American prohibition, Cuban and Brazilian regimes together imported over a million and a half Africans, largely to stock sugar and coffee plantations. The North American Lower South could have productively paid the then prevailing price for at least that many imports, to stock new southwestern sugar and cotton plantations. Instead, the Lower South purchased fewer blacks at higher prices from the Upper South.32 One critical result: the relatively blacker and more committed to slavery Lower South black belts became, the relatively whiter and less committed such areas as Delaware and Maryland became. The southern regime, considered as a whole, not only became politically weaker in one area when stronger in another but also was deprived of the added political representation in the national House of Representatives which a million or so more blacks would have brought.

The slave trade closure’s short-run impact was the same as its long-run ramifications. In Jefferson’s day as in Jackson’s as in Lincoln’s, the slavery issue in American politics characteristically focused on whether the system could survive at the slavocracy’s edges. In Jefferson’s era as later, slavery was usually weakest because most sparse at its northernmost extensions. But even in New Jersey, the system still retained enough staying power to make its death struggle long and arduous. An inpouring of Africans might have bolstered slaveholders ready and willing to save themselves.

That historical fantasy, of course, is unthinkable. The unthinkability is the point. The end of the African slave trade institutionalized the thought, southern and northern, that slavery should be conditionally terminated, not perpetually consolidated. African slave trade closure, more than any other action on that thought, diluted slavery where the system was thin, limited expansion where the institution was thick, and invited a North swollen by millions of immigrants from Europe to grow much faster than a South denied a legal soul from Africa. No other early action so shaped the later slavery controversy, which is one reason why in the 1850s southern extremists attempted to repeal the critical initial termination.

Cynics have argued that Jefferson’s generation’s crass materialism and racism, not their republican distaste for tyranny, led to this step forward. Most slaveholders, so cynics insist, wanted to maintain slave prices. Reopening the African slave trade would drive slave values downward. So too, racist Americans hardly wanted more “niggers” around.

This realism usefully emphasizes that the Founding Fathers were no purists, obsessed with “antislavery” exaltations. Their best-of-American belief that slavery polluted republics came heavily freighted with worst-of-American conceptions that white republics should be rid of blacks and that riddance must not strain Union or pocketbooks. Still, ending the flow of Africans towards “the land of liberty” had its obvious ideological appeal. These Founding Fathers were proud of leading the world towards human freedom and uneasy that their utopian blueprint contained so despotic an institution. Closure of the African slave trade illustrated the moment tremulous visionaries could be invincible: the moment when racial, political, and economic practicalities furthered rather than blocked their lesser but cherished vision of undercutting their most antirepublican institution.


While prohibiting African importations always seemed the vital first step towards emancipation, slavery apologists at first embraced but would soon renounce an apparent corollary: that stopping the institution’s spread onto uninfected American turf would also further abolition. In 1784, Jefferson himself struck uncharacteristically boldly against the expansion of slavery into new territories. He joined several others in proposing to the Continental Congress that all new American territory, North and South, be closed to slavery after 1800. This proposed Ordinance of 1784 would have barred bondage from Alabama and Mississippi no less than from Illinois and Indiana 16 years hence.

Free soilers failed to secure the edict largely because only one other southern delegate stood behind Jefferson. Nonextension would still have won a congressional majority if one New Jersey delegate had not been ill in his dwelling. “The fate of millions unborn,” Jefferson later wrote, was “hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment.”33

The Ordinance of 1784 would not necessarily have been that awful for slaveholding perpetualists. Because of Jefferson’s characteristic caution about premature reform, his law would have delayed emancipation in the territories for 16 years. In the interim, planters, cotton, and slaves would likely have invaded Alabama and Mississippi. In 1800, an established regime would have likely resisted congressional attempts to implement the 1784 Ordinance. South Carolina would have likely backed resisting slaveholders. The Jeffersons, as usual, would have likely caved in before Carolina.34 Still, in his Ordinance of 1784, Jefferson demonstrated the history he would have preferred to make, if Unconditional Perpetualists had allowed Conditional Terminators to pass and enforce a reforming script.

Reformers’ next favorite script was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Article VI of this famous Ordinance barred slavery from a huge midwestern area, comprising the future states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Article VI, like closure of the African slave trade, passed Congress because economic and racial conditions helped republican distaste for bondage to flourish. Southerners already possessed huge empty spaces to their west, in Kentucky, south of the Ohio River. A northern nonslaveholder migration to empty spaces north of the river might actually serve southern slaveholders’ pecuniary interests. Yankees without slaves would not grow southern staples and thereby flood slaveholders’ market. The midwestern-slavery-barring Article VI “was agreed to by the southern members,” conceded William Grayson of Virginia, temporary presiding officer of the Continental Congress, partially to prevent “tobacco and indigo from being made on the NW side of the Ohio.”35

But in the Northwest Territories after 1787, as in many northern states for the next half-century, some slaveholders, convinced that bondage could be profitable, still sought to save the institution. French Canadian planters had entered the Midwest before Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance. Could the Ordinance after the fact seize these long-time settlers’ few slaves? Only if Congress passed bureaucratic mechanisms for seizing property. Congress, led at a crucial moment by Jefferson’s favorite politician, James Madison, refrained from doing anything so in violation of property rights. The Midwest was left with the fact of a few old slaves, the few new words declaring antislavery, and no decisive congressional action to arbitrate between words and facts.

Into this vacuum where Jeffersonian procrastinators feared to tread stepped the most powerful economic interest in any new American territory: land speculators. These entrepreneurs bought unsettled land for pennies. They would make millions if settlers came. In 1787, land speculators, like congressmen, expected Yankees massively to migrate to the Midwest.

Instead, Northerners at first dribbled into northwestern territories. Meanwhile, Virginia slaveholders exploded into Kentucky, and Carolina slaveholders drove into Alabama and Mississippi. For a passing moment, slavery seemed a more expansive institution than free labor. The Illinois territory, located at its southernmost extreme in the same latitude as Richmond, Virginia, and bordering on the slavery-enticing Mississippi River, seemed as capable of exporting cash crops as was the Hudson River slaveholding area. Midwestern land speculators in the first decade of the nineteenth century, seeking to deflect the southern population surge their way, petitioned Congress again and again to repeal Article VI and thus encourage slaveholders to settle in Illinois and Indiana.36

Land speculators’ petitions, like New York and New Jersey’s slaveholders’ resistances, demonstrate that northern slavery hardly died because capitalists believed climate barred the institution. Rather, slavery was crippled because a law banned what entrepreneurs believed climate encouraged. Especially in southern Illinois’s Mississippi Valley, slavery would have been even more enticing if another law, barring fresh African imports, had not lowered the potential number of slaves available.

Missouri’s early history reinforced land speculators’ judgment that only law stopped slavery from entering midwestern latitudes. The same climate prevailed in those two Mississippi River neighbors, Illinois and Missouri. Both territories contained capitalists using slaves and eager for more. The difference was that Illinois came under the Northwest Ordinance, theoretically barring slavery, while Missourians, because in the Louisiana Purchase Territory, were free to import slaves. So midwestern settlers who wished to use slaves usually went to Missouri rather than to Illinois. Only your infernal edict, Illinois land speculators cursed to Congress in the early nineteenth century, restrains slaveholding settlers from stopping here rather than there and making us rich.

Congress refused Illinoians’ petitions to repeal the Northwest Ordinance, just as congressmen had refused to pass legislation to seize the territory’s preexisting slaves. The latest non-action threw both sides of southern apologists’ inhibitions in the path of slaveholding expansionists. Having tremulously passed a bar to slavery, apologists now passively refused to shore up a vulnerable institution.

In this case, doing nothing was doing something. Congressional non-action left slavery’s fate up to Illinois settlers to decide. Slaveholders were reluctant to gamble expensive slave property in defiance of the Northwest Ordinance, especially when slavery in neighboring Missouri required no defiance at all. Advantage thus passed to nonslaveholders.

Barely. Illinois slaveholders brave enough to try the system despite the Northwest Ordinance secured “apprentice” laws in the territorial legislature, allowing slavery in everything but name. Under these laws, black apprentices alias slaves grew from 168 in 1810 to approximately 900 in 1818, the year Illinois became a state and thus escaped the Northwest Ordinance’s territorial prohibitions. In 1824, slaveholders staged a critical battle to make Illinois an uncamouflaged slaveholding state.

Nonslaveholders rallied behind the Illinois governor, who was none other than Edward Coles, the young Virginian who had a few years earlier urged the aging Jefferson to fight publicly against slavery. Jefferson had answered that Coles should remain a slaveholder in Virginia and refrain from anything louder than quiet and private antislavery discussions. Coles had instead transported his black Virginians to the Illinois prairie, freed them immediately, and given each black family a 160-acre farm on Mississippi River bottom land.37 The governor now saw the fight to oust slavery from Illinois as his climactic struggle to be truer than Jefferson to “the principles which gave birth to the American Revolution.”38

In this bitter and historic 18-month-long showdown over slavery’s fate in Illinois, republican distaste for slavery was often emphasized, as was whites’ distate for blacks. Argument especially raged over rival solutions to frontier population shortage. Who would supply most laborers to work the empty Illinois prairies, Southerners or Northerners? Proponents of slavery urged that the Northwest Ordinance’s ban on slavery had directly caused Illinois’s “torpid” growth. Slaveholders, if now legally invited to come, would especially be attracted to the state’s lush Mississippi River shores. Coles’s supporters answered that northern free laborers would come faster, unless repelled by the “idleness, vanity, luxury” of that aristocrat “of the worst species,” the southern slaveholder.

Fortunately for Coles, late population surges gave new credibility to the old notion that Yankee nonslaveholders would people Illinois more swiftly than southern slaveholders. After the War of 1812, southern migratory patterns pointed southwest, towards the Cotton Kingdom. Meanwhile, the great northern push westward, which authors of the Northwest Ordinance had been expecting in 1787, at last developed—and with a vengeance.

The new population trends emphasized that apologetic slaveholders had tossed away what no chancy venture can afford to lose: a passing opportunity. Earlier in the century, land speculators, disappointed with the lack of northern settlers and impressed with southern population movements, had done their best to remove the Northwest Ordinance’s leaky ban on slavery. Repeal of Article VI two decades before 1824 might have left the institution in Illinois, as in contiguous Missouri, if not massively omnipresent, at least present enough to withstand the Edward Coleses.

But now Conditional Termination’s moment had arrived, as it had with the closure of the African slave trade. When creditable racial and economic arguments augmented democrats’ distaste for tyranny, and when no South Carolina disunionist ultimatum made reformers pause, the reforming mentality was hard to beat. Coles and antislavery won the election of 1824 by a vote of 6,822 to 4,950. The margin, while clear-cut, also showed that softhearts’ procrastinations had allowed the thought of slavery in Illinois to become all-too-widely thinkable.

History here repeated itself. Just as the decision to close the African slave trade at last occurred 30 years after Jefferson deleted the matter from the Declaration, so Illinoians finally secured a free soil future 40 years after Jefferson lost the Ordinance of 1784. Just as South Carolina cotton planters used the delay to import 40,000 more Africans, so Illinois slaveholders used the procrastination to apprentice a thousand blacks and to come within 8% of winning a referendum on bondage. Even after the 1824 referendum, a few black apprentices would serve Illinois masters for two decades. The same pattern of long delay, more black suffering, and ultimate containment occurred in New York and New Jersey. The pattern was clear. Not-very-aggressive reformers could end slavery where black population ratios were low, the economy right, and disunion no possibility. But the condition that property rights must be honored still made the cornering of slavery a delayed and close call—and the call became closer when perpetualists aggressively sought to spread slavery.


Less-than-aggressive termination of bondage in whitened areas further north helps explain why slaveholding apologists avoided action in blacker areas further south. President Jefferson purchased the vast Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803. His good friend President James Monroe of Virginia later purchased the vast Deep South territory of Florida from the Spanish. Both Virginians managed to forget about barring slavery in these new Deep South territories, in part because Deep South states might disrupt any such attempts. Shades of slaveholding apologists managing to forget about South Carolina’s 40,000 new Africans. Shades of Thomas Jefferson managing to forget about Sally Hemings.

These tendencies to forget directed the surge of black population towards American areas least likely to reverse the flow. Apologists tremulously helped bar the spread of slavery into the Northwest Territories, where nontropical climate made the institution relatively harder to consolidate, and boldly secured Louisiana and Florida, where tropical habitats made bondage relatively more profitable. Furthermore, inclinations not to dare a controversy over slavery in the Louisiana Purchase Territory permitted the institution inside one area where termination was feasible. The future state of Missouri no less than the future state of Louisiana was in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. By saying nothing about slavery in the Louisiana Purchase Territory after banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, Congress invited slaveholders to flow into the midwestern area of Missouri rather than into the neighboring area of Illinois. The result by 1820: Missouri’s 10,222 slaves constituted 15.8% of its population, while Illinois’s 917 apprentices alias slaves constituted 1.7% of its population.

In both Missouri and Illinois, apologists’ tendency not to confront slavery made problems worse. Early failure to oust the few dozen slaveholders residing in the Northwest Territories ultimately led to a bitter and rather close local confrontation over enslaving the free state of Illinois. So too, President Jefferson’s early failure to bar potential slavery in Missouri Territory would soon lead to a national crisis over freeing the enslaved state of Missouri. We will watch Thomas Jefferson unhappily foresee that the Missouri Controversy was the first signpost on the road to disunion. But this apologizing procrastinator would typically fail to see that his tendency to shield his eyes had helped create a crisis of prophetic proportions.


This appropriate climax to the first famous Conditional Terminator’s wavering approach epitomized the first generation of slavery politics. The lesson of Thomas Jefferson’s not-so-bold sideswipes against slavery was curiously similar to the lesson of Denmark Vesey’s very bold confrontationism. Camouflaged Jeffersons, like disguised slave rebels, could attack if the establishment went to sleep. Perpetualists who had the sense to guard their rifles, however, could keep dissemblers from massively assaulting.

Still, bullets and bullying could not prevent stealthful resistance. Just as Cuffees could slip a little poison into water wells, so slaveholding apologists’ passive unwillingness to fight for more slave territories and more Africans had undercut sectional consolidation. If Latin American-like lust for millions of more Africans plus midwestern land speculators’ greed for a rapacious slaveholder frontier had overcome republican distaste for tyranny, North American slavery might have emerged from the first generation of slavery politics as a booming national institution with an imperialistic slaveholding class. Instead, slaveholder republicans’ wary acquiescence in containment helped transform the Slavepower, in one generation, into the national republic’s most apologetic and cornered power structure.

The trapped Slavepower remained powerful, however, not least because past retreats at the fringes generated greater intransigence inside the southern center. A national institution had been contained in a peculiar section. But whites trapped with blacks were more susceptible to racial anxiety and thus more opposed to a still narrower containment. Again, a sectional institution had been barred from receiving overseas recruits. But rulers of an institution deemed too poisonous to grow could become more aggressively defensive when challenged by a rapidly growing North.

Could reformers so tentative in a period of little outside attack confront external assault without becoming rabidly defensive? Could a reform mentality that operated so tremulously in the somewhat whiter Mid-Atlantic and Midwest dare to attack the somewhat blacker Border South? Could reformers who had barely nudged slavery in the Middle and Lower Souths ever force blacks out of America’s blackest domains? Apologists had had difficulty scoring relatively easy early victories over slavery. Harder tests of the soft mentality lay just ahead.

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