Our era eschews compromise–it seems almost a dirty word to some. We prefer purity. Of course, neither compromise or purity describes a something morally good or bad. Too much purity and you have the desert. Life cannot exist without proper mixing. But . . . too much improper mixing and coherence breaks down and chaos follows soon after. Life cannot exist amidst the flood.
Purity seems simpler than compromise, but purity too has its twists and turns. With COVID, for example, you have the ‘anti-vax’ group, who refuse to ‘contaminate’ themselves (either medically, religiously, or politically) by taking the vaccine. This seems the very definition of purity. But then, this group mixes with much greater ease with the general population. Then you have the incongruous practice of requiring the “purity” of having the vaccine/boosters to “mix” (or compromise, in a sense) with others. Usually, purity involves the absence of something rather than the addition of something. But, this same group shows much more hesitancy actually mixing with others. So, which group should have the higher rank on the purity scale?
The ascendancy of purity signals that for reasons good or otherwise, for many mixing even of a moderate kind (socially, politically, etc.) means “the flood.” We can take the recent Supreme Court abortion decision as an example. In the Clinton era, “safe, legal, and rare,” were the watchwords. But as opposition to Roe v. Wade continued, the position hardened. Now, many encourage pro-choice proponents to Shout Your Abortion. They require affirmation–tolerance will not suffice any longer. Purity (which again, may be good or bad, depending) requires absolutes. The recent decision overturning Roe did not ban abortion, but rather, put the question to the states, requiring pro-choice and pro-life states to mix with each other, which many on the pro-choice side lament.
Something similar happened with the slavery issue in America. I realize the two issues have differences, but their trajectory in American political life looks quite alike up to a point. With the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the country had a chance to deal with the slavery issue with one blow. We failed, partly for good reasons, such as the need for unity, and partly for bad ones, such as the usual human problems of power, greed, and fear. But part of this failure lay in the near universal consensus that
- Slavery was foisted on us by the British, and with them gone, slavery would fade away.
- Slavery was an evil, though for a time a necessary evil. Straight out emancipation immediately could be dangerous.
- Slavery would certainly fade away within a generation or so–no need to stir up a dying hornet’s nest.
When slavery in fact started to grow rather than fade, slave states changed their tune. Slavery grew from a necessary evil, to an entrenched political right inherent in our system, and finally to a positive blessing for one in all. Robert Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath picks up the national dialogue at the “entrenched political right” stage. Forbes sees 1820 as the year that the nation shifted the dialogue on slavery, where the fragile unspoken consensus which allowed for political cooperation between slave and free states started eroding. The new narrative that emerged would put the country on a potential collision course.
Forbes has a a difficult task. Writing about the political machinations surrounding slavery requires a degree of detachment, which can come across as cold. Secondly, slavery is one of the few moral questions where we have more clarity now than in the past, and this brings a temptation of judging people in the past only according to their vices and not their virtues. Despite the fact that Forbes writes nearly entirely about the politicians and not the actual slaves, he steadfastly avoids the first pitfall. The second task is harder, and he mostly succeeds there as well.
Before diving in, a few preliminaries . . .
Many who claimed anti-slavery beliefs compromised with others to keep slavery around. Some pro-slavery advocates talked of the issue more in terms of state’s rights vis a vis federal power, and not in terms of race, humans as property, and so forth. What should an historian make of this?
The first question involves sources–do we believe what people say? Barring something unusual, an historian has to trust what people say, and avoid playing armchair psychologist to those who lived 100 or 1000 years ago. This might change when confronted with a difference in personal v. public actions, or a comparison of public and private statements. In other words, we should need solid evidence not to take what people say at face value. Possibly, this means that when people say that they are against slavery in principle, but believe that we have to tolerate it for a time, that we in turn believe them.
The second relates to the first–should we have an optimistic outlook on our country’s history and give it the benefit of the doubt? Evidence exists for both the narrative that a) slavery was essentially an aberration on the American project, and b) that, while slavery may not have been the raison d’ etre of America (a la 1619 Project, a framework which I believe has no real support in evidence), nevertheless, it was inextricably woven into the American fabric and our concept of liberty from the start.
Starting by thinking of a country involves too much abstraction. We can start instead with a family. I think it important, for example, for parents to give their kids the benefit of the doubt with their actions and choices (kids should do the same for parents–a novel concept!). It should take a lot for you to have the a priori assumption that your child is lying and up to no good–though possibly you need to get there.
The state is not your family, but . . . it bears some resemblance. We owe the state less than we owe our family (or friends), perhaps much less, but we do owe it something. Do we owe it the benefit of the doubt? I will put my cards out there and say, “Very slightly,” and this colors my interpretation of the events as follows. Though certainly, this tenuous “benefit of the doubt” for American history should get strongly challenged by the persistence of slavery.
Forbes begins sketching national attitudes towards slavery at the turn of the 19th century. In the late 18th century, America had two chances to decisively deal with slavery, first with the Declaration, then with the Constitution. In both cases, one could argue that the need for unity trumped the consequence of the “United States” never coming into existence. Politically, this unity was made possible in large measure because of an alliance between slave states and some northern farmers, many of them in Pennsylvania. This may surprise us, for PA had a high concentration of Quakers, who had strong anti-slavery sentiments. Quakers, and others, however, made the following calculation:
- Slavery (as everyone agreed at the time) will disappear within a generation. So, while it is odious, it is not a threat to Republican liberty
- Northeastern merchants back the expansion of Federal power, through the ‘Federalist’ party. As everyone knows, power, once granted, only tends to grow. In other words, slavery will go away, but checking federal power requires constant vigilance.
Federalists strongly opposed America’s war with England in 1812. Had the war ended differently, their political fortunes might have waxed, but Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after the war was technically over) gave the Americans a sense of overall triumph. This finished the Federalists, which in turn, ended the alliance between northern farmers and southern states. Suddenly, the growth of federal power seemed much less of a threat, and, oh by the way, slavery seemed not to be going away any time soon. Now without direct political allies, and the slavery issue under more exposure, southern states banded together. Now too, cross-sectional political alliances dissipated, opening the door for more direct north-south tension.
Much of the north already distrusted the south. The north saw no possibility of pleasing them. Seven of the first eight presidents came from the south, yet they remained cantankerous and loved to play the victim. For their part, much of the south had for some time distrusted the north. Most every great political thinker associated liberty with agriculture and warned of the dangers of excess commerce. The north’s love of trade would inevitably bring in a greater Federal presence. Manufacturing interests would demand tariffs and other protections for their goods, and this meant a growth of national power.
Many supporters of the south today claim that support for slavery involved not supporting slavery as such, but a certain idea of freedom and belief in limited government that inevitably had consequences others might not like. Still, one must safeguard this freedom. So, we can draw a comparison between, say, the presence of pornography and the presence of slavery. No one should question the evils of pornography and its negative effects on women and men both. But, we might tolerate that evil to get the greater good of government not deciding what “speech” to restrict . . . or so the argument goes. I think this argument might have merit for a period of time. It reminds me of a professor of mine in college who told all of us pro-life advocates that
- She and many others like had no love for abortion as such, but
- We needed to appreciate the attendant opportunities that came for women in the aftermath of Roe, a point hard to deny historically.*
- In her mind and those of others, then, abortion served as a kind of symbolic stand-in for something much larger, i.e., equality and the rights of women.
Again, however, the abortion dialogue, like the slavery issue, morphed into abortion for its own sake. And now with the internet, pornography can have a ubiquitous presence in people’s lives.
President James Monroe took office amidst the collapsing consensus around slavery and its future, but had the “good feelings” of the aftermath of the war of 1812. Churchill famously commented of Monroe that, “He was a humble man, with much to be humble about,” but Forbes sees Monroe as a man of clear vision, even if attaining it involved a difficult tightrope walk. Monroe came from the Virginia school of thought, which stressed limited government. But Forbes sees him leaning anti-slavery in ways that blended with a soft nationalism. Monroe saw slavery as a divisive factional wedge that would split the country. Connecting states through commerce, he believed, would help smooth the rough edges and induce dependency and cooperation. He shied away from tackling the slave issue directly as this would inflame sectional tensions. One problem with this . . . does increased trade in one’s property mean increased trade in slaves? Monroe hoped not, but the logic of slavery eventually worked against him. Slavery proved something of black hole for our politics.
Many southerners stood against even Monroe’s plans, foreseeing that an expanding national economy meant expanding federal power. And if federal power expanded, the government could claim the right to eliminate slavery all together. If Monroe sought to thread the needle, many pro-slavery advocates sought to go through its eye. They wanted to expand commerce in slaves, but have no attendant increase of federal power. They wanted to block construction of the Erie Canal on the one handand allow more freedom of movement in the slave trade.
Around this time we see the first serious growth of the movement to send slaves back to Africa–the colonization movement. However distasteful such an idea seems to us, and however distasteful it became in later decades, Forbes shows great fairness to the idea’s early advocates, a mark of a good historian. He points out that the movement initially came from those most anti-slavery, those who made real sacrifices to try and aid the cause of slaves.
To understand this, we need familiarity with classical political theory on democracies, which ran thusly:
- Democracies need to be small in size to allow for everyone to know each other. With our size, we had already blown this criteria.
- One reason for the small size was the need for trust, and shared religious and cultural heritage.
- In other words, since democracies are built on the premise of disagreement and conflict, they need a firm, wide base of agreement to make sure our disagreements center on the color of paint on the walls, and not on ultimate questions.
Colonization advocates saw such great cultural differences between Africans and Europeans that they surmised that neither group could exercise self-government amongst the other. Returning slaves to Africa allowed them as well as us to pursue our own political destinies.**
All of this brings us to 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. Forbes gives us a high volume of precise detail about the how the deal went down. To get a compromise, one must brand the outliers on both sides as extremists. From our vantage point, we can easily do this to the ‘anti-restrictionists,’ who wanted to take the twisted logic of slavery to its conclusion, i.e., the national government has no power to restrict slavery anywhere.^
Looking back, we can see the Missouri Compromise as fatally flawed, not only because of the evil of slavery itself, but also because it opened to the door to the expansion of slavery. At the time, however, many of those against slavery felt content. A look at the map showed a legislative future that looked to bend in the right direction.
My reason for slight optimism regarding our history referenced above . . . even with 9/10 of future territory destined to exclude slavery, many Americans (as opposed to the politicians) hated that the compromise meant any expansion for slavery at all. Many politicians in free states that voted for the compromise saw their political careers finished.
And yet, we know that slavery continued, and in fact grew over the next few decades. One could argue that this is what you deserve if you compromise with slavery. One could also reasonably assume that the slavery question would have peacefully resolved itself if it had not been for the Mexican-American war, which opened up vast swaths of land eligible for slavery under the 1820 agreement.
I have great sympathy for those that voted for the compromise. As an overall optimist for America, I can see myself believing that north and south could eventually get along, because eventually what kept us apart would no longer be around. But had I lived long enough after, that vote would have haunted me.
Thomas Jefferson lived to see the Compromise vote. He saw abolitionists, and even strong restrictionists, (those that wanted to restrict slavery to where it currently existed and have it go no further) on the wrong side. In a letter to a friend he wrote that
The Missouri controversy, is a question of having just enough of the semblance of morality to throw dust into the eyes of people, and to fanaticize them; while with the knowing ones it is simply a question of power. . .. Real morality is on the [anti-restrictionist] side. The spreading of slaves over a larger surface adds to their happiness and renders their future emancipation more practicable.
Jefferson had a brilliant and incisive mind, but here he is not just dead wrong morally, but his great learning has made him insane. To honestly think that spreading slavery further throughout the country would more speedily bring emancipation boggles my mind. It would, however, make it harder for slaves to revolt.
Perhaps Jefferson’s quote illumines the tragedy of slavery. His belief here seems genuine to me. The only conclusion to draw is that his sins regarding slavery, and the sins of the nation, have warped his sense of reality. When that happens, we cannot expect to have the wisdom to seek the right kind of compromises.
*The question then might be–was this worth the cost?
**I have very limited knowledge, but I think it fair to say that later advocates of colonization likely based their reasons more on the “inferiority” of blacks, and not merely their cultural differences, though some early advocates no doubt shared this conviction.
^Such a demand comes across as morally repugnant, of course. Forbes shows, however, that this claim also made hash of the Constitution and of our history. We established the Northwest Territories explicitly as free states at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. To deny the government this power was tantamount to denying almost any power to government.