We come now to the startling episode that best connects both ends of the road to disunion. In both Thomas Jefferson’s era and William L. Yancey’s, the African slave trade issue achieved illuminating (and neglected) importance. The Founding Fathers’ closure of the overseas trade represented precisely the damaging step toward emancipation that the Founders supposedly never took.1
By seeking to repair the damage, late antebellum proslavery ultras highlighted their view of an imperiled culture. Their extremist movement to reopen the African slave trade defied mainstream moderation. The ultras still brought off a meteoric rise and near triumph in three states. But the reopeners’ ultimate frustration matched Kansas and Caribbean disappointments—and fueled the desperation that must underlie a revolution.
– 1 –
Southerners’ mid-nineteenth-century campaign to reopen the African slave trade began in—where else—South Carolina. Back at the beginning of the century, only South Carolina had reopened the trade. After the state’s 1803–7 importation of approximately 40,000 Africans, the federal government had barred the trade. For almost a half century, few Southerners decried or defied this ban. According to the slaveholders’ conventional wisdom, the overseas slave trade had been wrong even though slavery became right.
No important southern figure questioned that position until 1853. Then Leonidas W. Spratt, editor of the Charleston Standard, initiated the reopening craze. No South Carolinian better epitomized, in personality, ideology, and accomplishment, why the state’s leaders sought to prod less reactionary, more prosperous squires elsewhere out of the Union. Preston Brooks, with his gutta cane, wielded a more savage weapon. James Hammond, with his mudsill terminology, devised a more disruptive phrase. James Henley Thornwell, with his shudder at slaveholder obligations unmet, formulated a more subtle psychology. But Leonidas Spratt exuded South Carolina’s high-toned—some would say precious—reactionary desperation.2
Spratt, although a native of the South Carolina upcountry, came naturally by his conviction that lowcountry gentlemen supplied the last, best bulwark against American mobocracy. By 1818, when Leonidas was born, the coastal aristocrats’ antique mentality had spread to the uplands, where Spratt’s wealthy father resided. The uplander gave his youngest son the best training for South Carolina refinement, including a South Carolina College education. But père Spratt’s holdings descended to his oldest son. Young Leonidas possessed an aristocrat’s mentality but a plebeian’s purse.
Like many of South Carolina’s penniless rich boys, Spratt sadly deserted his contracting state in order to seek expansive opportunity on unseemly frontiers. Most such exiles ventured to the roaring Southwest. The bookish Spratt preferred the tamer Southeast. Quincy, Florida, became this aspiring lawyer’s booming arena to win the dollars to match his cultivation.
Potential Quincy clients, however, resented a snobby lawyer who considered his surroundings beneath his talent. Too refined to ascend where the grubby were the comers, Spratt retreated to the oasis where the cultivated were the heroes. By moving backward to Charleston, Spratt joined the city’s impoverished sophisticates, each genteelly competing for a spoonful of the city’s declining resources.
Shortly after coming home to mecca, Spratt hit a scarce South Carolina jackpot. By deploying a rich man’s manners, he won a rich heiress’s heart. The groom secured less funds than James Hammond, another upcountryman who captured his fortune in a Charleston drawing room. Then again, Spratt needed less cash to soar. Hammond, a butcher’s boy, married an Irish liquor magnate’s daughter and longed to lord it over disdaining squires. Spratt, a squire’s offspring, married into a cultivated family and sought to join the admiring Charleston intelligentsia. After he wed Carolina Cooper in 1851, Spratt managed her small town house, her ten slaves, and enough of her cash to buy the floundering Charleston Standard in 1853.
The purchase represented a riskier gamble than Spratt’s retreat to Charleston. Antebellum American newspapers characteristically served national political parties. The editor broadcast propaganda for the politicians, and the politicians supplied printing contracts for the journalists. But genteel Charleston, with its disdain for partisan electioneering and national parties, scorned crass politicos and demagogic journalists. Instead, Spratt had to formulate ideas that would sell newspapers to worried aristocrats, in a city saturated with unionist ideas in the Courier and secessionist ideas in the Mercury.
By personality no less than by financial interest, Spratt inclined toward betting on his ideas. Only thirty-five years old when he bought the Standard, the editor meant to become the intellectual leader of South Carolina’s climactic generation of hotspurs. To transcend their fathers’ abortive charges and dispirited retreats, Spratt thought the young turks needed a clearer blueprint of their culture’s essence.
Spratt looked like an abstractionist who drew up abstruse blueprints. He was pale, sickly, retiring, with a black beard straggling from a weak chin and black eyes nervously darting under a furrowed brow. Like John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s previous favorite abstractionist, the worrier turned conversations into soliloquies. But where Calhoun had delivered clipped certitudes in compact sentences, Spratt’s phrases stretched out and out and out, so that some called L. W. Spratt not Leonidas William Spratt but Long Winded Spratt.3 Others, complaining that he thought as hard as spare Cassius, wished that the journalist would pause from long-winded repetitions at least long enough to chew a bit of supper.
Spratt’s windy editorials offered up a seductive remedy for slipping glory. Spratt considered Charleston wonderfully a nonfrontier. In its drawing rooms, gentlemen met over brandy to deplore American hustle. Where New Orleans, to its ofttimes disapproving visitors, was all about consuming raw entertainment, Charleston, to its proud gentry, was all about producing refined criticism (or, as some would have it, generating effete condemnations of any American who did not live on the Ashley or the Cooper River).
Charleston squires deplored American demagogues as well as the American rabble. They considered an aristocratic republic the best of all governments, cultivated gentlemen the best of all rulers, and the mob’s flatterers the worst of all saboteurs. Reactionaries cheered that nineteenth-century South Carolina offered few opportunities for unprincipled demagogues to provoke unpropertied voters. A South-leading 49 percent of South Carolina voters owned at least one slave, compared to the Lower South average of 37 percent. No South Carolina county possessed under 20 percent slaves. No other state could remotely match that universal penetration of slaves. The slaveless toiler in a white belt area, that Southerner most likely to listen to an antislavery demagogue, remained scarce in crusty South Carolina.
South Carolina propertyless whites furthermore lacked other southern citizens’ eligibility for the people’s offices. In South Carolina, voters elected only legislators, who had to meet property qualifications and selected all other officials, who in turn had to meet higher property qualifications. Moreover, unwritten custom dictated that South Carolina legislative candidates seldom discussed policy with lesser folk and that South Carolina politicians shunned national political parties and demagogic national campaigns. The superior race should elect superior planters to forge superior legislation. Then slavery would remain the cornerstone of aristocratic republicanism.
The North, Spratt exclaimed, lacking the cornerstone, demonstrated that a “pure democracy” sped past “agrarianism to anarchy.” Because Yankees possessed no black nonvoting slaves, white voters became the afflicted lower class. Because no customs or constitutional provisions barred demagogues from rousing white mudsills, “the heels rather than the heads of society” would someday dispossess the propertied. “When France shall reel again into the delirium of liberty,” shuddered Spratt, and when in the North and in England “all that is low and vile shall have mounted to the surface, … when the sexes shall consort without the restraints of marriage and when youths and maidens, drunk at noon day and half naked, shall reel about the market places—the South will stand, secure and erect,” for slavery will restrain the mudsills, black nonvoters all.4
Yet even in Charleston, gloomed Spratt, modernity eroded the cornerstone. In the 1850s, South Carolina lost slaves faster than any other state. The lowcountry’s departure rate exceeded the upcountry’s. Charleston’s departures exceeded the rural coastal parishes’. Poor white immigrants arrived as ominously as slaves departed. From 1850 to 1860, the city’s slave workingmen declined 46 percent, while its foreign-born white workmen increased 25 percent. Irishmen comprised over half the immigrants. Over half the Irishmen competed with blacks for grunt work. These unskilled whites petitioned the legislature, demanding that black slaves be barred from urban menial labor. Before long, Spratt warned, resentful mudsill voters, roused by unscrupulous demagogues, would have at the slaveholders. Thus a class with “no direct and legitimate connections with slavery” might determine “the fortunes of our institution.”5
Spratt’s colleague at the highest level of Charleston drawing room cultivation, William Henry Trescot, also exclaimed that U.S. slavery “has its inexorable requirements.” Black slavery’s “very first requirement” demands that “the white race must preserve its superiority.” We “cannot with justice or safety allow the white man to come into competition with the black simply as a laborer.” We must establish “an impassable gulf between the lowest and humblest form of white labor and the highest development of black.”6
Trescot would create his impassable gulf by educating all whites to pursue mental, not menial, labor. In contrast, Spratt would eliminate white menials by importing 10,000 Africans for city labor. With sufficient black proletarians in Charleston, white proletarians would depart. With all mudsills black, enslaved, and disenfranchised, Charlestonian voters, nonmudsills all, would save aristocratic republicanism from a mudsill mobocracy.
An expanded reopening of the African slave trade would save more of South Carolina than Charleston. As Spratt traversed the lowcountry rural parishes, “ruined mansions” met his “every step.” These “moldering ruins,” formerly the seat of prosperity, refinement, and the arts, had once commanded plantations that brought fifty dollars an acre. Now, bankrupt owners could scarcely receive five dollars an acre.7
Some of our fraying gentlemen, lamented Spratt, conclude that a slave labor society can never match free labor Boston, whether in generating material progress or cultural flowering. Nonsense! We must be “done with the admission, among Southern men, of inferiority to the North.” We must realize that a slave labor system best sustains aristocratic superiority. We must remember that no labor system flourishes without new laborers. Massachusetts imports endless European immigrants. We cannot import one African. Massachusetts newcomers fell trees, plough prairies, grade railroad tracks, build canals, erect factories, launch ships. Boston’s prosperous intelligentsia thus have “leisure and repose,” spawning “cultivation and refinement.”8
The South Carolina lowcountry needs equally cheap immigrant labor—10,000 more workers to level forests, another 10,000 to reclaim plantations, 20,000 more to build roads. But more lower-class white workers would poison the racial slave system, and the federal government bars more lower-class blacks from coming. The result: Slave prices spiral, only southwestern frontiersmen can afford them, and South Carolina’s men of refinement must send their blacks—and themselves—to Mammon. The solution: Import 100,000 Africans into South Carolina, use the black imports to remake the economy, send the cursed Irishmen back to Boston, and watch Charlestonians build America’s intellectual metropolis.9
Spratt scorned other solutions. Kansas? The South lacked the excess slaves to populate the plains without depopulating South Carolina. Adopt Jefferson Buford’s scheme for dispatching southern white paupers to capture Kansas? The mudsills would undermine slavery in Kansas as surely as Irish proletarians would undermine slavery in Charleston. Annex Cuba? That hardly “very prodigious blessing” would cause even more South Carolina slaves “to be transported to a more profitable laboring field.”10
The South most needed, Spratt insisted again and again, not expansion of new territories but consolidation of old establishments. Let us see what “slavery can do when its efforts are directed to higher objects than merely extending a frontier.” Then southwestern profits would no longer destroy “the integrity of slave society in the center of our strongest state.”11
There echoed the South Carolina haughtiness that incensed southwestern frontiersmen. If Spratt had pled only to save the elderly South from hemorrhaging to the youthful South, Southwesterners would have ridiculed his reopening essays. But this South Carolina provincial urged that the whole South suffered from predicaments similar to Charleston’s. Just as European newcomers pushed Boston ahead of Charleston, so immigration from overseas boosted the North ahead of the South. In 1808, when Congress shuttered the African slave trade, free labor and slave labor states had contained almost the same numbers of peoples. Since then, Spratt pointed out, the North had received over five million more immigrants than the South. The immigrants gave Yankees their huge margin in the House of Representatives, their enormous advantage in populating Kansas, and their colossal lead in industrial development.
Spratt affirmed that slaves could man factories. Crude industrial labor required only repetition of tasks, and “the negro, in his common absence of reflection, is, perhaps, the greatest manipulist in the world.” Give the South millions of Africans. Then see who develops the greater industrial colossus, who populates more territories, and who elects more congressmen.12
The crippling black exodus from South Carolina, Spratt continued, paralleled the debilitating slave drain from the Border South now and from the Border North earlier. The Border North states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, together with New York, had been bulwarks of the colonial slavocracy. But since a constricting African slave trade could not provide enough laborers for the more southern North, Europeans filled the vacuum. Northern slaveholders then sold bondsmen to more prosperous planters farther south. The Border South followed that Border North road from slavery. If “interests” dictated that the northern South’s masters still “hold their slaves,” they would “do so.” But when southwestern capitalists paid extravagant prices for blacks, Border South entrepreneurs had “no motive to retain them.”
Leonidas Spratt did not consider Upper South nonslaveholders actively antislavery. But they would prefer that blacks be sold away, they “have no interest in the institution,” and “they look with complacency on any effort to break it down.”13 Spratt feared that some slaveholders also lacked sufficient commitment. Too many patriarchs still thought that the institution had originated in a sinful trade and remained an evil, however necessary. Such compromised sentiments would inadequately fuel a crusade to save a Christian blessing. But let slaveholders realize that the African slave trade providentially placed savages under Christian paternalists’ direction. Then patriarchs would fight for their expanded holy mission.14
Spratt saw scant slaveholders with “armor on and braced for battle.” Even more than economic strength, political power, and intellectual development, the South needed “the moral strength of an aggressive attitude.” The issue must no longer be whether a contracting slavocracy could apologize for a constricted institution. We must no longer watch “men diffident of” slavery’s “endurance move away from it” or “its pious people…instructed to deplore it.” When we become proud of black slavery as the salvation of white aristocratic republicanism, proud of our forebearers for originating a saving flow of Africans, proud of our intention of adding millions more blacks to America’s saving institution, we will strike down the African slave trade ban that has broken our power and savaged our spirit.15
Charleston’s tired gentlemen may have relished Spratt’s style even more than his solutions. In this most revolutionary yet most reactionary of cities, in this area eager for a rebellion yet quailing at its own precipitousness, a hero scornful of delay at last demanded action. Spratt was wonderfully unlike previous disunionists, with their blazing starts and embarrassed halts, blissfully unlike Preston Brooks, with his passion to maul Charles Sumner and his tremble to begin the mugging.
The editor was moreover a Charleston-style unconditional charger. Spratt was a retiring bookworm who scorned frontiersmen’s bustle. He was a rarified scholar who put his bride’s small purse to big work for the intelligentsia. He was a brilliant analyst who cut past politician’s superficialities to the core of Charleston’s, and the South’s, predicament.
A century and a half later, Charleston’s admiration still seems well placed. In Spratt’s understanding of immigration as Yankees’ source of power, he exuded more insight than Southern Know-Nothings, who would take away newcomers’ vote but leave foreigners’ economic impact untouched. In his understanding of how the 1808 law against the African slave trade had destroyed the equality of North and South, he outshone latter-day historians who think the Founding Fathers did nothing to cripple slavery. In his thesis that the lack of sufficient workers made slavery an untested source of economic development, he rivaled theorists who blamed slavery per se for every aspect of southern backwardness. In his perception that territorial expansion demanded an accompanying population expansion, he cut past politicians who thought expansion of acres would alone save the slavocracy. In his conviction that black proletarians could not govern themselves and that a white proletariat could not govern a republic, he put together the clearest and cleanest plea for an aristocratic slavocracy, with different degrees of direction from above for different degrees of disability below. No wonder that Charlestonians lined up to buy the Standard—and shook their fists at the rest of the South, for ignoring South Carolina’s latest genius.
– 2 –
For three years, the ingenious editor remained obscure beyond Charleston. Spratt’s first, 1853–54 call to arms secured little notice amidst the South’s flush of enthusiasm over Kansas-Nebraska. His appeals continued largely unheeded during James Buchanan’s early presidential forays. But as Kansas soured, filibusterers failed, and Buchanan’s victories looked ever more empty, Southerners sought a way past futility. Then Spratt became, in Lower South circles beyond Charleston, the prophet of the fastest-growing movement in mid-’50s American politics, including the booming Northern Know-Nothing movement.
In its latter day, Lower Southwide form, the reopening argument played down Spratt’s South Carolina emphases. Muted were anxieties about South Carolina’s depopulation, Charleston’s white proletariat, and the city’s failure to match Boston’s cultural creations. Expanded were apprehensions about nonslaveholder restiveness, slaveholder passiveness, the slave drain from the Border South, and the South’s paucity of slaves for expanding acres or industries. Reopening, went the Southwide argument, could alone secure the blacks to make every nonslaveholder a slaveholder, to allow the South to cultivate new areas without depopulating old ones, and to fortify the slaveholders to match the Yankees stride for stride in Congress, in factories, and in the expanding countryside.
Still, reopeners had to transcend the worldwide judgment that whatever U.S. slavery’s latter-day blessings, the institution had originated in an horrendous overseas trade. Slave trade advocates regretted that Southerners had ever accepted that condemnation. When Christian slaveholders instead of coarse Yankees scrupulously conducted the traffic, the trade would feature fair transactions in Africa, healthy conditions on ships, and Christian salvation in America. Then it could no longer be even arguably sinful, exclaimed South Carolina’s Edward Bryan, “to transfer the African savage from his heathen home, and place him in a sphere of usefulness in a Christian land.”16
How providential, continued the New Orleans Delta, that this “startling charity to hordes of sable savages” also would yield the “only practical measure” for “a balance of power within the Union” and within the South. With a bondsman costing $2000, “only the wealthy class can buy.” A tenfold increase of slaves, however, would decrease the price to $200. Then yeomen could become slaveholders. Thus “African Labor Immigration is a movement by the poor people of the South, for the benefit of the poor people of the South, … to keep their wives from the washtub, their daughters from the frying pan and scrubbing brush, and their sons from the hoe, curry-comb and muck-rake.”17
Like Spratt and all the other reopeners, Edward Bryan granted that nonslaveholders would today rally for slaveholders’ property. Yet slavery’s protection might require monumental future sacrifices. Allow a “slave aristocracy in the very heart of the South” and poor men might someday “recoil from the struggle.”18
The Border South already recoiled. “Where material interests cease,” warned the New Orleans Delta, ideological alliances fade. Without “any real pecuniary gain from slavery,” Americans are “very apt to become sentimental and free soil.” Since no foreign slaves could now be imported and since our “sugar and cotton regions” demand more bondsmen, a “demoralizing drain” of slaves ushered the institution out of our outposts. Now abolitionism “has crossed our border and is squatting in all its hideousness at our hearths.” The fanatics show their teeth in Virginia and howl in Missouri. The drainage of slaves will “end in the loss” of these states and North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware too, unless a reopened African slave trade relieves “the South’s undeniable deficiency of slave labor.”19
The South’s new terrain, lamented the reopeners, has worsened our predicament. “The leaders of the free soil movement no doubt smiled in secret to think that in order to overspread Texas, New Mexico, and Kansas, we are preparing to make them a present of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and to illustrate our generosity, to throw Kansas into the bargain.” Anyone who watches the “self-elimination of slavery going on in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri” knows that “without vigorous measures for the restoration of Slavery to a healthy status, a terrible doom lies before the South.”20
– 3 –
The most vigorous advocates for reopening the slave trade tended to be disunionists. Secessionists hoped the issue would at very least divide the National Democratic Party, the first step toward severing the Union. To split the last national party, secessionists needed an abstraction that would goad Southern Democrats toward an extremism that Northern Democrats found insufferable.
The reopening issue at first seemed calculated to lure southern moderates toward extremism. Wipe out the apology that the system originated in wrong. Then the folk would be more righteous defenders. Persuade citizens that more African savages would benefit from more Christian paternalism. Then voters would wish party compromisers off the holy road. Goad southern voters toward demanding more Africans. Then northern politicians would not abide such compatriots.
The disunionists’ problem remained that actually reopening the trade and inundating the South with supposed savages might make this radicalism too bitter for moderates to swallow. By reformulating the issue, Alabama’s cunning William L. Yancey sweetened the cure. This strategist said little about whether the South should decide to reopen. He instead stressed that the decision, like every verdict about slavery’s morality, must be the South’s alone to make. He despised holier-than-thou Yankees who told Southerners that slavery had originated in piracy. He deplored the federal government’s ban on the origins of the South’s supposed crime. Let the federal government remove the officious condemnation. Then the South could decide whether bringing savages to Christendom was satanic.
Yancey here played his trump card. An extremist could unite the divided South by damming Yankee critics. Then a disunionist could divide the united National Democratic Party by insisting on southern morality. Let the South “simply” insist that the Democracy “wipe out from our statute books the mark of Cain which has been placed upon our institutions.” Then our supposed northern friends will be revealed as our enemies, scorning “defense of our rights.”21
Yet not every reopener shared Yancey’s disunionist prayer. Some unionists hailed reopening as the alternative to secession. E. W. Fuller, a Louisiana state legislator, illustrated the type. “I regard the institution of slavery,” said Fuller, “as absolutely necessary to Louisiana, and I regard the preservation of the Union and our Constitution as absolutely indispensable for the preservation of slavery” and the importation of African slaves as “absolutely necessary…for the preservation of slavery where it now exists.” We cannot attain “equality in the Union without new slave states.” But we cannot enslave “new territories without abandoning the more northern slave states to the Abolitionists, unless we can procure a supply of slaves from some other source.” With the price of slaves soaring, “the dollar is an almighty Abolitionist.” In “three fourths of our states,” overly expensive slaves means overly unprofitable slave labor.22
Fuller’s plea answered every question left over from the frustrating Buchanan years. The newer South’s economic boom increased slavery’s vulnerability in the older South? Then expansive cotton and sugar magnates should drain bondsmen from Africa rather than from Missouri (or from South Carolina!). The South lacked the slaves to consolidate slavery in Kansas or in Missouri or in William Walker’s Nicaragua, no matter the local police protections? Then bring in Africans to populate a protected empire. Because of high slave prices, nonslaveholders could not share the slaveholding dream? Then increase the supply and drive down the price. Northern immigrants dangerously augmented Yankees’ territories, factories, and congressmen? Then let the South enjoy an equal number of immigrants. Too many Southerners apologized for slavery and allowed compromised national party politicians to govern? Then teach the folk to glory in the uncompromising African slave trade and watch them oust the compromisers.
The reopeners showed again how profoundly the South had changed since the 1840s. Then amidst an economic depression, Southerners had sought Texas annexation as a safety value for excess blacks. Now amidst an economic bonanza, the slavocracy needed more blacks to work its excess of lands, to seize yet more lands, and to keep slaves from draining downward in the South. By championing an initially seductive solution to a growing southern consensus about exasperating problems, southern extremists had found the issue that could take off like the economic boom itself.
– 4 –
Yet if this panacea seemed to solve every southern problem, opponents quickly found the perfect response: The solution would actually worsen the problems. Where reopeners affirmed that more barbarians should be brought under patriarchal Christians, naysayers answered that barbarians would compel patriarchs toward anti-Christian savagery. “Providence” has guided paternalists to “great improvement,” urged South Carolina’s J. J. Pettigrew in a particularly brilliant elaboration of the position, because imports from African have been suppressed. But “reopen this floodgate of impurity, and all that we have accomplished in half a century would be lost.”
After raw Africans have spent “several generations in a Christian land,” explained Pettigrew, “continual terror” becomes “no longer necessary.” The Americanized black obeys not because of fear but because of education. But if we belatedly introduce “one hundred thousand idle, slovenly, insubordinate barbarians among our educated, civilized negroes,” “brute force” will again become necessary. What did the savage “know of duty? What did he care for a moral rebuke? He must see his blood flow.” There is, in short, a “vast difference between a system of civilized and a system of barbarian slavery.”23
Arguments such as Pettigrew’s helped inspire a culture-wide shudder at importing millions of supposed barbarians. For reopening to occur, winced ex-senator Walker Brooke of Mississippi, “every semblance of humanity would have to be blotted out from the statute-books, and the slaveholder would become—instead of the patriarchal friend and master of his slave—a bloody, brutal, and trembling tyrant.” South Carolina’s Alfred Huger declared that “I would rather see Every Slave that I own emancipated tomorrow” than resurrect “scenes of horror witnessed in my childhood and indispensably connected with the African trade!! Assure yourself that the punishments inflicted on those savages and cannibals to reduce them to subordination would make abolitionists on both sides of the Potomac and that speedily.”24
The barbarous reopening policy, opponents continued, would turn the slaveless into abolitionists, not the nonslaveholders into slaveholders. What nonsense that slicing the price of slaves would transform poor men into masters. Cheaper slave labor would instead slice white men’s wages, transform them into poorer men, put even cheaper slaves even more out of reach, and soon enough make them into enemies of rich men.
What nonsense, furthermore, that reopening the African trade would consolidate the slave-selling northern South’s interest in slavery! The slavebreeding Upper South thrived on high slave prices. Borderites would sell slaves before the African surplus arrived or give up an unprofitable investment. Some borderites, added the Baltimore Courier, wanted “the whole African race now in the United States returned to Africa.” They would shun the “horrible barbarity” of “additional importations.” No Upper South slave seller, screamed almost all Virginians, wanted lower prices for slaves. David Campbell of Tennessee warned that “utter loathing of the proposition” would drive the Upper South into a third confederacy, if disunion came.25
But while opponents of reopening urged that the supposedly unifying panacea would fracture the South more than ever, they usually conceded that troubling divisions existed. “We all know,” wrote South Carolina’s Robert Goodloe Harper, “that slavery is gradually concentrating in the cotton country. It is receding from Delaware and Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.” Harper, whose antireopening pamphlet rivaled Johnson Pettigrew’s as the supreme statement of the position, sadly concluded that “we cannot stay those results; but let us, at least, not precipitate them.”26
So too, Mississippi’s U.S. Senator Henry S. Foote, the leading opponent of reopening in the 1859 Southern Commercial Convention, conceded that in twenty-five years “we shall have, by natural increase, between nine and ten millions” of blacks. “By the expected emancipation of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, those slaves will be pent up within ten or eleven extreme Southern States.” Would we then want “thousands, and perhaps millions, of Africans to add to our cares?”27
In addition to conceding that the Border South was incrementally slipping away, those against reopening often concurred that only new slaves could enable the South to populate new territories. Alexander Stephens so adamantly declared that the limited numbers of slaves made territorial expansion impossible that for months Southerners falsely thought that he advocated reopening. Jefferson Davis so confidently declared that the South’s lack of slaves doomed New Mexico Territory to be free soil that he seemed to be urging, again falsely, that the territory import Africans.28
As this partial acceptance of the reopeners’ logic showed, the Spratts had found the right issue to illuminate the South’s angst but the wrong remedy to relieve it. How could reopening boost nonslaveholders’ commitment to slavery, asked Mississippi’s U.S. Senator Albert Gallatin Brown, when rednecks would not tolerate “an influx of untold millions of wild Africans?”29 How could boatloads of Africans keep the Upper South loyal, when this slaveselling region loved soaring slave prices? And how could the theoretical glory of bringing cannibals to civilization rout moderate politicians, when voters thought a vomit of blacks would drown the South in savagery? As the reopening issue shot up in the southern political skies, William L. Yancey’s gambit seemed to shatter the South, not the National Democracy.
– 5 –
Still, reopeners stuck to their desperate cause in three Lower South legislatures. There, they almost scored incredible victories. As always, South Carolinians first sought precipitous victories—and first retreated from precipitousness. In November 1856, Governor James H. Adams, an upcountry owner of almost 200 slaves, told the legislature that the South needed more slaves to meet the world’s demand for more cotton, to match the North’s bludgeoning immigrant population, to rescue Southerners’ “self-respect” from outsiders’ “brand” against slavery, and above all else to preserve the racial “integrity of slave society.” Since the South desperately needed more laborers, warned Adams, “we must expect” a white immigrant proletariat to come. That “species of labor,” however, “does not suit our latitudes.” Fresh Africans better suit our predicament. Leonidas Spratt, delighted to have the governor sound like a Charleston Standard editorial, hailed the message as “the most important” American “document … since the Revolution.”30
The legislature delayed decision on the revolutionary document. Under South Carolina’s unique aristocratic republicanism, cultivated gentlemen felt compelled to take the time to write state papers, defending enlightened opinions. When the opinions appeared during the next, 1857 session of the legislature, they read like a first-class debate between Supreme Court judges. Edward Bryan’s brief, written for the majority of the joint legislative committee that considered Adams’s message, superbly explained why reopening would rescue paternalistic mission. J. J. Pettigrew, writing for the minority, skillfully responded that fresh African cannibals would steal the paternalism from paternalistic slavery.31
While the legislative joint committee sided with Bryan, the 1857 legislature overturned the verdict. Upcountry supporters of Congressman James L. Orr, seeking to nudge South Carolina into the American mainstream, called reopening the extremists’ worst lunacy yet. Robert Barnwell Rhett, who usually considered Orr the worst enemy, this time considered Spratt more dangerous. Reopening, once intriguing to Rhett’s Mercury, now seemed calculated to isolate South Carolina disunionists from 90 percent of the South. “To agitate” reopening and thus “divide the South… is sheer madness. It is worse. It is directly cooperating with the abolitionists in the submission and subjugation of the South.”32
Even though Orr and Rhett called Spratt a madman from the two extremes of South Carolina’s political spectrum, reopening secured powerful support in the 1857 legislature. But the South Carolina Senate indefinitely postponed Spratt’s brainchild, 22–14.33 The panacea now had a legislative future only in Spratt’s despised area, the frontier Southwest.
Georgia, more of a New South state than South Carolina, came closer to legislative action for reopening. In November 1858, State Senator Alexander Atkinson moved to repeal Georgia’s 1797 law, closing the trade. United States law, Atkinson pointed out, would still bar the trade. No reason, then, for Georgia laws to declare the origins of our positive good an “evil.” Georgians who called importing Africans into America a travesty, charged Atchison, traitorously resembled Black Republicans, who called allowing slaves to enter American territories a crime.
Atkinson’s opponents resented his “uncharitable and unkind” charge. They saw nothing “Black Republican” about keeping an “immense horde of barbarians” outside Georgia. Still, Atkinson struck home with his insistence that Georgia’s laws must not gratuitously contain a “sour reflection upon … slavery.” Given our “sensitiveness upon the subject,” reported a legislative observer, “men are afraid of having it said they are opposed to slavery.” This clash, pitting fear of unsoundness on slavery against fear of unsound barbarians, created almost a dead heat on Atkinson’s proposal. The Georgia Senate voted 47–46 to table Atchison’s proposal.34
While the Georgia Senate came within one vote of repealing its law against reopening, the Louisiana legislature came closer to reopening the importation. As with filibustering passions, Louisianans espoused reopening passions with expansionist zests that contracting South Carolinians could not match. In the 1850s, Louisiana’s sugar lands offered the South’s lushest profits amidst the section’s most top-heavy establishment. Slaves grew so expensive in Louisiana that the percentage of white families owning slaves plummeted from 48 percent in 1850 to 32 percent in 1860. During the decade, the number of Louisianans owning five or less slaves dropped 15 percent, while the number owning over twenty slaves increased 29 percent and the number owning over fifty slaves shot up 50 percent. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s value per farm, price per acre, and acres per farm all almost doubled. This southwestern wonderland was becoming forbidding for poor yeomen yet sublime for rich planters, especially if booming capitalists could find cheaper slaves to work expensive terrain.
James Bingham, a prominent Louisiana entrepreneur, emphasized the state’s uneven economic opportunities when he petitioned the legislature in early 1858. Bingham begged authorization for his Feliciana Company to import blacks. Like Spratt, Bingham affirmed nonslaveholders’ present loyalty. Yet since “the enormous prices” of slaves “debarred … most of them” from “hope of ever becoming slaveholders,” we cannot reasonably expect that “deep … willingness to make sacrifices in defense of the institution that may be demanded of its defenders.”
Nor can we expect proslavery sacrifices from border Southerners, continued Bingham, if we bleed them of slaves. If “the cotton-growing States … continue” to drain our “more northern slave states,” we will aid “our enemies, in …abolitionizing the South.” But we can stay “the dreaded tide of abolitionism” by importing “fresh laborers from Africa.” We can also “bring into cultivation the millions of acres of rich southern soil, now laying waste.”35
Yet how could the state authorize Bingham to import fresh Africans, after the U.S. government had barred the importation? In his cunning answer, Bingham improved on a Mississippi proposal of Henry Hughes, that proslavery writer of “warrantee” notoriety. With his usual linguistic obscuration, Hughes had proposed that his state import not slaves, not free blacks, but “apprentices,” with the provision that once their twenty-nine-year apprenticeship ended, the “apprentices” should become “warranties.” Bingham erased Hughes’s “warrantee” lingo, sliced the apprenticeship term to fifteen years, required Africans to sign supposedly voluntary agreements to become temporary apprentices, and implied that after their service, apprentices might return to their homeland. Here was a clever (perchance too clever) detour around the U.S. prohibition of importing involuntary, perpetual slaves.36
On March 3, 1858, fifty-one years to the day after Thomas Jefferson signed the U.S. act closing the African slave trade, the Feliciana Company’s proposal entered the Louisiana legislature’s proceedings. Two days later, the House, by a whopping 46–21 margin, authorized James Bingham and his associates to import 2500 apprentices per year, each with a fifteen-year labor contract, “voluntarily” signed.37 Within the week, a unanimous Senate committee, chaired by Edward Delony, cleared the House bill for Senate passage.
We need more laborers, Delony urged, to acquire and populate Cuba, Mexico, and Central America. In addition, because we lack “an adequate supply of suitable labor, millions of acres of the richest soil on which the sun shine lies untouched” in Louisiana. Moreover, with “the price of negroes” booming, “in a few years the purchase of a valuable slave will be unattainable except by the wealthy.” This bias against the lower and middle classes collided “with the genius of Republican institutions.”
The apprentice idea, Delony continued, would spread American genius to Africa. African barbarians, now living under “the absolute and brutal sway of their chiefs,” suffered the most “extreme degradation.” The victims’ voyage to America would be like “passing out of night into day.” Their “temporary apprenticeship on American soil” would train them “to return to their native” continent, prepared to spread “appreciation and enjoyment” of “republican and Christian” virtues.38
Throughout the Louisiana bayous, cheers erupted at the revelation that the state House had passed, and a Senate committee had approved, the panacea for a depraved Africa and a shackled South. This most expansive of southern areas had felt in a straitjacket, as filibusterer after filibusterer sailed for glory and returned in irons or as a corpse. Now, with the culture’s handcuffs apparently about to be unlocked, exhilarated Louisianans reacted a little like Preston Brooks, when he finally dared swing freely at Charles Sumner (and a lot like Leonidas Spratt’s early Charleston readers, when their newest star intellectual seemed to have the remedy for their insufferable paralysis).
Slavery “is daily rising from its ancient and petrified fixedness,” breathed the Houma Ceres, “to feel the power of illimitable expansion.” The glorious proposal, exalted the New Orleans Courier, “will double the products of the agricultural districts and thus mightily increase the commerce, prosperity, and wealth of New Orleans.” It will be like “the opening of the gold mines of California,” soared the Bastrop Advocate. “We must have” more territory, concluded the Point Coupee Echo, and to get that, “we must have” more laborers. Once we “have both the land and the negroes, let Abolitionism, with its Southern echoes, howl as it may.”39
Yet despite joyful howls as the state Senate approached a final decision on the Bingham bill, statesmen had to weigh the value of their state’s other expansive weapon. This world, unlike South Carolina’s, retained hope for the Union, votes for the National Democratic Party, and expectations that its favorite U.S. senator, John Slidell, would yet push his favorite Yankee, James Buchanan, into a crusade for Cuba. To go for reopening the slave trade was to embarrass Slidell, to wreck the alliance with Northern Democrats, and to go it alone in the Caribbean, in the futile style of isolated South Carolina.
So Louisianans paused and thought, and paused and thought. Then on March 11, 1858, after the state Senate deadlocked 12–12 on the House apprentice bill, the presiding officer, Lieutenant Governor Charles H. Mouton, voted aye. Applause erupted from spectators. The Louisiana legislature had approved reopening.40
But only for four days. On March 15, one senator who had voted for reopening, B. B. Simms, changed his mind. Simms declared that he only wished to pause, to consult his constituents.41 His egalitarian republican logic, requiring that a representative consult the represented, contrasted with the reasons why the South Carolina joint legislative committee tabled reopening for a year. J. J. Pettigrew and Edward Bryan conceived, in the style of aristocratic republicanism, that the best men must write elaborate state papers, before deciding for the plebeians. But in both of these very different states, legislative reopening had become the bombshell that shockingly exploded—and then could not sustain the blaze. After Simms quit the reopening column, Bingham’s apprentice idea fizzled and expired.
– 6 –
After the Louisiana fireworks, all was anticlimactic on the reopening front. But two dying embers made the anticlimax interesting. First of all, reopening came up for its only Southwide consideration in the 1855–59 Southern Commercial Conventions. These annual voluntary assemblages of entrepreneurs, aimed at modernizing the South’s economy, demonstrated how badly the South split on slave-trade reopening, whether as an economic or as any other kind of panacea.
The angriest convention divisions severed the Upper South from the Lower South. The ugliest linguistic brawl came in 1858, when Alabama’s William L. Yancey verbally mugged Virginia’s Roger Pryor. Even though Pryor, editor of the Richmond Whig, was one of the fieriest Virginians and Yancey was not the fieriest reopener (he only wanted federal insulting hands off the issue), the two went after each other as if Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lloyd Garrison were warring to the death. Pryor declared that to rest the rights of the South upon the “proposition to kidnap cannibals from Africa” was to “throw the gauntlet in the face of the Christian world.” Yancey shot back that Virginia’s supposedly Christian opinions were “semi-abolition in tendency.”42
A year later, the Southern Commercial Convention voted 44–19 against Pryor. The almost two-to-one majority declared that “all laws, State and Federal, prohibiting the African slave trade, ought to be repealed.” But the whole South had hardly so resolved. Not a single Border South man was present. The few Middle South representatives voted nay, 12–4. Reopening won because the reopening issue had emptied the Commercial Conventions of the moderate Upper South, leaving Lower South extremists, a minority in even the Cotton South, free to have their way. Yet the Lower South landslide in this unrepresentative convention raised new questions about whether South Carolina, always the first state to scream for action, would ever act rather than talk. South Carolinians split four to four on the decisive vote. The rest of the Lower South delegates voted 36–3 to get on with reopening the trade.43
In the second anticlimactic episode, South Carolina again wobbled. To defy the U.S. government on the African slave trade, an extremist could import a shipload of Africans. Then a southern jury might refuse to convict the importer. After that judicial nullification of federal law, more intransigents might import more Africans.
That reopening gambit started auspiciously. On August 21, 1858, the USS Dolphin captured the slaver Echo off Cuba and brought 314 Africans to the Charleston federal jail, with U.S. Marshal D. H. Hamilton in charge. Three months later, Georgia’s young hotspur, Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar, landed some 170 Africans at Jekyll Island from his ship, the Wanderer, and sold them to Savannah River masters. The federal government attempted to bring crew members of both ships to justice in Charleston and Savannah. Southern juries and/or judges then refused to indict and/or convict anyone.44
This nationally notorious judicial nullification amounted to a spit in the wind, unless the Echo/Wanderer cases inspired an epidemic of lawbreaking importations. But no other case developed, not least because reopeners lost their taste for the adventure. United States Marshal D. H. Hamilton, for example, possessed the pedigree to lead South Carolina. His father, Little Jimmy Hamilton, had been governor of the state and Nullifiers’ canniest politician when the state took on Andrew Jackson in 1832–33. D. H. Hamilton had newly come to agree with “intelligent and humane persons,” he wrote in 1856, that allowing the North, but not the South, to receive millions of new laborers was “a monstrous inequality and injustice.”45
Two years later, U.S. Marshal Hamilton’s conceptions of the monstrous changed. The jailer’s “care of so many unfortunates” from the Echo left him “cured … forever” of tolerating “the amount of misery and suffering entailed upon those poor creatures by the African slave trade. … No one who has witnessed,” as “I have been compelled” to observe, “practical, fair evidences of its effects … could for one moment advocate a traffic which insures such inhumanity to any family of the human race.”46
South Carolina’s ex-governor James Adams found another reason to recant. This titan who had begged his legislature to reopen the trade now stood appalled at a scene that the Wanderer had provoked. A proceeding “among the Baptists of Edgefield,” he wrote, indicated that upcountry nonslaveholders, outraged at the Wanderer importation, might assault slavery itself. Such a “disastrous and fatal … quarrel among ourselves must be the beginning of the end.”47
Adams’s sentiments ended any hope that Charles Lamar, the Wanderer, the Echo, and jury nullification had begun a widespread overseas trade. South Carolinians such as Hamilton and Adams had lately cheered Long Winded Spratt’s dream about how the South could break out of prison. When confronted not with dreams but with the thing itself, however, South Carolina gentlemen reaccepted imprisonment. Spratt had rightly called southern geographic and class bonds potentially fragile. Yet the importation of supposed savages now seemed the best way to snap rather than fortify the social bonds. With that conclusion widespread, Spratt’s wild detour around the frustration of the Buchanan years had yielded still more frustration. To add to South Carolina’s anxiety, happenings in Charleston and in the Border South reconfirmed Spratt’s initial diagnosis. A new uproar over free blacks showed that the cornerstone distinction between black menials and white nonmudsills had been compromised.