A Bostonian on the Causes of the War, Part II

By May 6, 2014June 22nd, 2021Review Posts

George Lunt

Part II from a section of Dr. Scott Trask’s work in progress, Copperheads and Conservatives. Part I.

Historical Survey

Lunt believed that the celebrated Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi, had been a mistake. It was not because he believed slavery could have been profitably introduced there. On the contrary, he believed it unnecessary to prohibit what climate and free state emigration would have barred anyway. But he believed the prohibition, needless as it was, set a pernicious precedent and was pregnant with “future evils” for the country. “It was the first actual sectional measure which obtained legislative sanction in the country.” “It was an imputation, having its moral and political bearings, against a domestic institution, in which the admitted rights and the sentiments and feelings of a large proportion of the people were involved.” “It was, in a word, the foundation of a sort of moral barrier between the North and the South, upon which it was easy to build some substantial and offensive work.” If slavery were simply a “State institutiton, absolutely within the power of each State to regulate and control, to preserve or to abrogate as it saw fit, then to exercise national legislation upon it, in respect to the territory ceded by Virginia, out of which future States were avowedly to be formed, was an indirect attack upon the institution in States were it already existed by law.” Far better to have left “the question to be determined by the inhabitants of the territory, guided by the light of reason and nature, whenever they should come to form their several State constitutions. The same end would then have been attained, without danger of future disagreement” whenever new territories were added the union. Congressional prohibition once exercised, could be exercised again.

But there was another precedent established by the ordinance of 1787, and this was not unfair to the slave states. It was a de facto partition of territory in accordance with climate and likely settlement patterns. If slavery was prohibited north of the Ohio, it was permitted south of it. This arrangement was repeated thirty three years later when Congress partitioned the Louisiana territory, along a line of latitude instead of a river, but not before the north attempted to prohibit it throughout the entire territory, including Missouri, where it already existed, and whose inhabitants were then petitioning for statehood. In January 1819, Representative John W. Taylor of New York moved a proviso forbidding the further importation of slaves into the Arkansas territory. In February, his New York colleague, James Tallmadge, proposed an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill prohibiting the importation of slaves into Missouri and freeing all slaves when they reached the age of 25. The amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate, where Rufus King, also of New York, championed slavery exclusion, arguing that Congress had the authority to make it a prerequisite for admission to the union. There followed a deadlock, the Senate voting for Missouri’s admission, but the House (where the north had a majority) voting against it.

Lunt considered this effort the first breach of sectional peace and the first instance of sectional “aggression,” and he pointed out that a majority of northern representatives voted against the compromise that eventually resolved the crisis. It was the work of Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois, who proposed an amendment admitting Missouri with slavery but prohibiting it in the remainder of Louisiana north of the line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude. His amendment passed the House by the narrow margin of 90 to 87. Only 14 northern representatives voted for it, while 87 voted against it. Thus did the north, which later flipped out over the repeal of the Missouri compromise, vote against the original, an example of hypocrisy not lost on Lunt and other northern conservatives friendly to the claims of the south. In fact, Lunt observed that of the four great sectional compromises “since the Revolutionary war”—those of 1787, 1820, 1833, and 1850—“each has been kept by the South and violated by the North.”

Lunt attributed the vote on Missouri to political calculation and sectional jealousy. “It was,” he believed, “a struggle on the part of the North to impose restrictions upon that enlargement of political power, which, it feared, the South might gain by increasing the number of States allied to it in interest and sympathy. The fact of its own superiority in strength was disregarded [it had a majority in the House, despite the three-fifths rule], and the certainty that this advantage would improve with time, was unforeseen. It was the earliest open demonstration of organized jealousy to this end, which was manifested in the National Legislature.” Thomas Jefferson, whose letters on the subject Lunt knew and quoted from, called it “a mere party trick. The leaders of Federalism, defeated in their schemes of obtaining power by rallying partisans to the principle of monarchism [by which he meant a strong central government] are taking advantage of the virtuous feeling of the people to effect a division of parties by a geographical line; they expect that this will insure them on local principles the majority they could never obtain on principles of Federalism.” He feared that drawing such an invidious line could lead to the break-up of the union. “The coincidence of a marked principle, moral and political, with a geographical line once conceived, I feared would never more be obliterated from the mind; that it would be recurring on every occasion, and renewing irritations, until it would kindle such mutual and mortal hatred as to render separation preferable to eternal discord.” Separation, not war.

Lunt does not point out the important implication found in this letter: that Jefferson considered secession to be a constitutional and peaceful remedy for internal dissension within the union, and not just over slavery. Both as president, and as a retired statesman and adviser to his successor, Jefferson considered the prospect and consequences of the New England states seceding from the confederacy, but not the means of forcibly preventing it. Years later, he publicly advocated secession as a remedy for serious and sustained constitutional infractions by the federal government.

There is plenty of evidence of northeastern resentment of Virginian rule. The Republican party was strong in the middle Atlantic states (New York and Pennsylvania), but its leadership was Virginian and it was perceived in New England as a southern party whose policies were sectional. As a result, from the election of Jefferson through the War of 1812, secessionist sentiment and plotting was rife in New England, and in part of New York, among embittered and frustrated Federalists. “The various public measures leading eventually to the War of 1812 with Great Britain were extremely distasteful to the Federal party, and particularly to its members in New England.” Lunt is referring to the policy of commercial retaliation against British depredations upon American commerce, such as the Jefferson’s embargo and Madison’s non-intercourse acts. “Those measures had been adopted by the Democratic administrations of Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison, both of them Virginians; were supported by the leading statesmen of the South, and inflamed the prejudices of the North against that section. The great party which had acted a predominant part in laying the foundation of the Government, and had controlled it during the administrations of its first and its second President, had now been deprived of this authority for a period of twenty years. It would be not unlikely, therefore, to seize upon any plausible pretext for the recovery of its power.” Lunt concedes that “opposition to the Missouri Compromise was [not] confined to the Federal party, yet that party was chiefly responsible for it.” But the dispute “assumed a sectional, instead of a party aspect.”

That was by design. Lunt does not quote Jefferson’s December 26, 1820, letter to Albert Gallatin, but I shall quote from it anyway as it supports his argument. “The Federalists completely put down, and despairing of ever rising again under the old division of whig and tory, devised a new one, of slave-holding, and non-slave-holding states, which, while it had a semblance of being Moral, was at the same time Geographical, and calculated to give them ascendancy by debauching their old opponents [northern republicans] to a coalition with them. Moral the question certainly is not, because the removal of slaves from one state to another, no more than their removal from one country to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it.”

We are accustomed to having the Missouri debate described as the first act in a national morality tale ending happily with the emancipation proclamation and the glorious victory of freedom in the civil war. Yet we must ask ourselves whether Jefferson and Lunt understood the motives behind this early free-soil movement better than our teachers. Lunt believed that “the history of mankind instructs us that moral considerations are by no means the leading motives in the construction of the devices of statesmanship.” There is no way to test that proposition except by taking up the detailed study of political history, although an intimate knowledge of current events may provide additional corroboration. Is it a coincidence that the most influential current exponents of the myth of American exceptionalism—the neoconservatives—continue to insist that American foreign policy is guided primarily by altruism (the promotion of democracy and human rights rather than the augmentation of power and profit)?

Rufus King (1755-1827) was one of Massachusetts’ four delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1787. Two years later, he was chosen by the New York legislature to represent them in the federal Senate. There he supported Hamilton’s financial program and Jay’s treaty with England. After helping to secure the latter’s ratification, he was named minister to Great Britian by President Washington, in late 1795. After returning home in 1804, he was nominated for vice president by the Federalists, and along with the presidential nominee (Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina) was crushed at the polls by the Republicans, who won 162 votes out of 176 in the electoral college. The Federalists then lost the next three presidential elections (1808, 1812, 1816), each time against a Virginian, and the last time with King himself at the head of the ticket. According to his biographer Robert Ernst, King came to believe that the only hope for a Federalist resurgence was through a “new sectional alignment of parties.” According to Ernst, while King was opposed to slavery on moral grounds, he “was primarily and most deeply aroused over the political balance of power” within the union. “His interest in slavery was primarily political.” Indeed, he later admitted to his son that the slavery question for him was always “a question of political power between Northern and Southern interests.”

The Missouri debate “was a question of policy and of law, not of morals.” And once again, Lunt believed the legislators erred in drawing any line at all. Since nature and climate forbade its introduction into the cold and semi-arid regions of the Missouri River valley, why go to the trouble of prohibiting it by congressional statute? But if a line had to be drawn to resolve the political dispute, why was it drawn along the southern border of Missouri? Slavery already existed and had proven economically viable north of that line, not only in Missouri, but in Kentucky and Virginia as well. It would have been better to have drawn the line slightly to the north across central Missouri and what would become Kansas. The latitude would have corresponded with the northern boundary of Kentucky and Virginia. Instead, Missouri, bordered by Illinois to the east, was left jutting nearly three hundred miles north into free territory, and from east to west there was “no continuous direct boundary between Slave States and Free States, but a line of zig-zag, without reference to natural laws.” “It is obvious that the possible future of the country neither was, nor, perhaps, could have been taken into very definite consideration; in fact, that nothing was seriously regarded except the determination of a vexatious problem, at the time.” It would have been far better if Congress had done nothing at all.

The British Example

Lunt believed it was no coincidence that American abolitionism became a force at the same time the British were abolishing slavery in their West Indian colonies. In the Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844 (1957), Gilbert Barnes argues that there were two forces behind the emergence of the American antislavery movement: the religious revival of the 1820s and 1830s and “the British example.” A young William Lloyd Garrison read the British Parliamentary debates while working on Benjamin Lundy’s Baltimore-based Genius of Universal Emancipation. He was inspired to push for immediate emancipation, and he learned the effectiveness of using harsh invective.

British cultural prestige and influence were enormous in the States, and have remained so. Americans read British fiction (Dickens, Scott), British economists (Smith, Ricardo), British political philosophers (Mill), British journals, and were very sensitive to British criticism of their manners, institutions, and ways of life. Lunt bitterly complained about a too great reliance upon British models and ideas, a susceptibility to British opinion, and even a submissiveness under the lash of British scolding.

We have listened to the alien emissaries of foreign combinations against our peace, declaiming to us from the forums and the pulpits on our own soil; and we have seated the native-born agents of the same unfriendly influence in our own high places of political power. We have even sought instructions for the conduct of our republican institutions from the traditional toryism of Oxford. It is as if Cromwell had taken counsel of those halls, which were the hope and the refuge of the tyrant Charles, when almost all things else had abandoned him to his fate. We have disdained the precepts of that long line of illustrious citizens, who, from the days of Washington to our own, have been the supporters of the Constitution, which is but another name for the champions of public and private liberty. … Instead of Marshall and Clay and Webster and Crittenden, and the host of men of bright and noble names, the living and the dead, who in or out of the lien of political life have illustrated our annals by the defence of our institutions—in the very midst of a convulsion, shaking the Republic to its centre—George Thompson and Goldwin Smith, and John Bright and Stuart Mill have been our accepted instructors.

Emerson provides some inadvertent corroboration in his famous address on “The American Scholar,” which he delivered at Harvard in August of 1837. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame.” Lunt quotes the father of the republic, whose farewell address warned his countrymen to beware “the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” “one of the most baneful foes of a republican government.”

The British had long viewed American slavery as a vulnerable point, the Achilles heel of an impudent and self-righteous republic. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to slaves who deserted their masters and fought for the Crown. He quickly raised a regiment, but his force was decisively defeated by Virginian and North Carolinian militia less than a month later. The British soon decided it was not the best way of winning American hearts and minds. But after the Americans won their independence, there was no longer a downside to antagonizing the Americans. On the contrary, it promised great rewards, and a measure of vengeance. After 1800, and the coming to power of the pro-French Republican party of Thomas Jefferson, British criticism (from travellers, parliamentarians, and journalists) of American slavery was relentless. Americans responded.

It is significant that slavery’s most ardent and eloquent defenders at this time were not southerners but northerners. Charles Jared Ingersoll of Philadelphia, a son of a framer of the Constitution (Jared Ingersoll), made a name for himself with the publication in 1810 of Inchiquin, the Jesuit’s Letters, [Written] During a Late Residence in the United States of America, which used a literary pose to defend “the manners, literature, and state of society, of the United States,” and refute “many of the aspersions cast upon this country, by former residents and tourists.” Ingersoll’s Irish “Jesuit” argued that slavery and republicanism had historically coexisted as with the “ancient commonwealths” of Greece and Rome, renowed for their republicanism, their laws, and their freedom.

In 1814, in the midst of the British-American war, a writer in the London Quarterly Review ridiculed Ingersoll’s Irish-Catholic poseur and refuted his proslavery arguments. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, rushed to Ingersoll’s defense with his Remarks on the Review of Inchiquin’s Letters (1815) in which he argued that the “Southern Planter, who receives slaves from his parent by inheritance, certainly deserves no censure for holding them.” If he treats his slaves “with humanity and faithfully endeavours to Christianize them, he fulfills his duty,” and he believed most did. By contrast, the British were tolerating slavery in the West Indies “in forms, and degrees, incomparably more horrid, than in the Southern American States.” Thus did he turn the charge of hypocrisy back upon the chargers. Who are you to criticize us? Dwight was followed by James Kirke Paulding’s The United States and England: Being a Reply to the Criticism on Inchiquin’s Letters (1815). Paulding, a New York writer of Dutch ancestry, followed up with an description of his own travels and experiences in the southern states, called Letters from the South, By a Northern Man (1817). Robert Walsh, a Maryland Federalist, produced a more ambitious work of defense two years later, An Appeal from the Judgments of Great Britain Respecting the United States of America (1819). Walsh’s book was read and praised by three ex-presidents, and, according to Larry Tise, the author of the definitive work on northern apologists for slavery, remained the standard one volume history of the United States for decades. John Adams described it as “the most able, the most faithful, and the most ample apology for the United States,” “worthy to be translated into the Modern Languages and dispersed in all the Courts and Nations of Europe, at our National Expense.” Thomas Jefferson wrote Walsh that “Your volume will furnish the first volume of every future American history.” James Madison called the book “a triumphant vindication of our Country against the libels which have been lavished upon it.” Walsh admitted that since slavery was “the side on which we appear most vulnerable, and against which the reviewers have directed their fiercest attacks,” he had devoted much space to its defense. Tise called it “the most formidable defense of slavery prior to the rise of abolition.” Among Walsh’s arguments: slaves could not be safely freed unless they were deported due to their racial incompatibility with whites; slavery had existed in the ancient republics without detriment to their achievements or glory; and American slaves were not materially deprived but were well-off by the standards of the British and European working classes.

Lunt believed that an unavowed but powerful motive behind Britain’s decision to abolish slavery in their Caribbean colonies was to isolate the United States and free themselves of having to repel the charge of hypocrisy. According to Lunt, the British aristocracy deeply resented losing their American possessions, and feared the influence of America’s republican example. In 1835, Parliament emancipated the West Indian slaves, but compensated their owners 20 million pounds. No longer could Americans respond to British criticism of their southern institution by pointing to British colonial slavery, and no longer could southerners argue for the impracticality of immediate emancipation without hearing how the British had done it. In 1836, the American Anti-Slavery Society dispatched two emissaries to the West Indies to investigate the aftermath of emancipation. They reported that it was a complete success, without any of the anarchic or bloody consequences predicted by conservative critics. Theodore Weld rewrote their report and published it as Emancipation in the West Indies (1838). For those Americans who took seriously the national panegyric about their country being the most progressive and enlightened on the globe, the survival and spread of chattel slavery was an increasingly embarrassing contradiction, and a deserved reproach.

The Opening Salvo: the Petition Campaign

Americans today should understand that much of what they are taught at school or the university about the American past is little more than party propaganda from that past, simply rebooted with new software. Despite what they say, historians tend to take sides in past political conflicts, and almost always with the side that wins, or even if it loses, eventually prevails. The petition campaign of the mid and late 1830s is a perfect illustration of this. Historians present the controversy as an example of how southern slavery threatened northern liberties, in this case the constitutional right of petition and free speech. The lesson is false. The right of petition was never in danger, nor was that ever the real issue at stake. For Lunt, the issue was whether the constitutional compact of 1787 would be honored both in letter and spirit by the northern states, or whether abolitionism would grow strong enough to rend the union and help ignite a civil war.

Lunt viewed the national petition campaign as the first instance of organized “northern aggression” (his phrase) against southern rights and interests. “The lamentable spirit of sectionalism, leading, finally to such disastrous consequences, at first distinctly revealed itself in the presentation of successive petititons to Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. These memorials continued to pour into both Houses from the North, session after session, for a series of years,” culminating “in a scene of unparalleled excitement in the year 1837.” In the early 1830s, abolitionists saw the District of Columbia as slavery’s vulnerable point (because it was under congressional, and hence national, jurisdiction), and they determined to strike it there. “Precluded by absolute constitutional limitation, which were supported by the general sense and sentiment of the people, from attacking slavery in the States, the uneasy spirits who assumed to be legislators for the nation, at home, devoted themselves assiduously to the manufacture of petitions, in reference to the internal policy of the seat of government.”

Lunt did not deny that “the power existed to abolish slavery within the District,” but he did question whether Congress had the “right to do so, whether legal or equitable.” Lunt believed that congressional prohibition would violate an implicit compact. The federal capital stood on land ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia, in both of which slavery remained legal. Those states would never have made that cession if they believed that it could be made into a free territory before they had abolished slavery in their own states first. The dangers a free District would pose to the security of slavery in Virginia and Maryland were obvious. Abolitionists would flock there, set up antislavery presses, create a haven for runaways, and continue their agitation, but this time out of the nation’s capital. The symbolism involved was scarcely less important, and was understood by all. That slavery existed in the District implied national sanction for the institution; its removal would imply the opposite. It would mean one thing for Congress to act in conjunction with the two states bordering the district; it would mean another if it acted against them. The determination of this and related questions would help define the meaning and practice of republican self-government in America. Could bare majorities rule, or was a national consensus required?

According to Gilbert Barnes, the author of the Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844, the idea for an organized national petition campaign came from the New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier in 1833. The idea won favor among the New York abolitionists (Arthur and Lewis Tappan and Theodore Weld), and in December 1834, the American Antislavery Society sent out a printed form petition to its auxiliary societies in the north with instructions to circulate it, gain signatures, and mail it to sympathetic or receptive congressmen. It took some time for the petition campaign to gather force and momentum. In the meantime, the abolitionists fired what Lunt called “anti-slavery missiles” into the south. These were mass mailings of antislavery pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, addressed to prominent clergymen, planters, and sometimes just to post offices. They even smuggled some of this material, including pictorial representations of the worst features of slavery, into shipments of goods headed south. One can imagine how a planter might react to finding antislavery tracts or pictures hidden in a box of shoes intended for his slaves. The inevitable explosion occured in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 1835, when a mob seized and burned a bundle of abolitionist mailings impounded by the postmaster. The Jackson administration was sympathetic to southern complaints. The postmaster general, Amos Kendall, unofficially authorized southern postmasters to intercept and destroy such material, and the president, in his annual message to Congress in December 1835, denounced the mailings and even recommended a law prohibiting “under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mail, of incendiary publications, intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.” Thus were the abolitionists stymied by a combination of local and federal action. As a result, beginning in 1836, they devoted all their energies to the petition campaign. Lunt called both efforts evidence of “an active and alarming system of aggression against the South.”

During the Congressional session of 1835-36, hundreds of petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia bearing the names of 34,000 citizens poured into Washington. Congress responded by enacting the now infamous “gag rule.” On May 25, 1836, a committee consisting of an equal number of northerners and southerners, reported three resolutions, all of which were passed by the House, and which reveal that there existed a broad national consensus against abolitionism at this time. The first resolved that “Congress possesses no constitutional authority to interfere in any way with the institution of slavery in any of the States of this Confederacy” (adopted 182 to 9). The second that “Congress ought not to interfere in any way with slavery in the District of Columbia” (adopted 132 to 45). The third that “all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers relating in any way, or to any extent whatever, to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon” (adopted 117 to 68). It was this resolution which was charged with having violated the constitutional right of petition and thus “gagged” free discusssion within the House. But did it?

Barnes, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, defended the constitutionality of the tabling resolution and even argued for its necessity. He points out that article one, section five of the Constitution vests the House and Senate with the exclusive right “to determine the rules of its proceedings.” By 1836, the massive volume of antislavery petitions was obstructing the regular business of the House, which was legislation. The petitions were triggering long and contentious debates, and to consider each petitition individually would have required not days but weeks and months to get through; and for what purpose? The petitions were identical in content, and usually in wording. Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania asked his colleagues if after they had received, considered, and rejected a petition calling for, say, the abolition of slavery in the nation’s capital, were they required to go through the same procedure for each subsequent petition (hundreds in number) bearing on the same subject?

The so-called gag rule simply provided that once the House had considered and rejected a specific petition that all subsequent petitions on the same subject would be tabled without debate (they decided it would be inexpedient to refuse their reception altogether). Barnes quotes Congressman Atherton, the author of the first gag, explaining that antislavery petitions would be “presented like any other petitions,” and if “from the statement of their contents it is seen that they relate to subjects which have been fully considered by the House, and on which a majority of the House have definitely formed an opinion,” they shall be “laid upon the table … from which they can be lifted at the pleasure of the House.”
The abolitionists responded by diversifying the subjects of their petitions. During the 1836-37 campaign, they petitioned for the abolition of the interstate slave trade and the prohibition of slavery in the territories, but against the annexation of slave-holding Texas and the admission of Florida. By a vote of 122 to 74, the House passed a new resolution covering the new ground: “all petitions, memorials, and papers, touching the abolition of slavery, or the buying, selling, or transferring of slaves, in any State, District, or Territory of the United States, [will] be laid on the table, without being debated, printed, read, or referred, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.”

Barnes believes that the Whigs, who were in the minority throughout the 1830s, played partisan politics with the petitions, hoping to embarrass the Democratic majority and obstruct the passage of legislation they opposed. “The mere mass of the Whigs’ petitions (the number presented by Democratic members was negligible) was enough to clog the wheels of legislation. The discussions of slavery ‘sprung’ by petitions were even more time-consuming, and the debate for the right of petition was interminable. Except for the panic session of 1837 [called to deal with the financial crisis], when petitions were withheld by common consent, the controversy hampered every session of Congress from the beginning of the struggle to the end of the decade.”

When the Whigs won control of Congress in 1840, they performed an abrupt volte-face. In one of their first acts, they voted to deny even the reception of antislavery petitions. They had other more important business now: a higher tariff, a national bank, rescuing the states from their profligacy. They passed the “twenty-first rule” (by a vote of 114 to 108) declaring that “No petition, memorial, resolution, or other paper, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or any State or Territory, or the slave trade between the States and the Territories of the United States in which it now exists shall be received by this House, or entertained in any way whatever.” The next year, they made it the standing rule of the House, meaning that it would remain in force until explicitly repealed. The Democrats finally repealed it in December 1844.

The abolitionists conceived the petition campaign as a means to a larger and greater end. Even if their petitions were repeatedly rebuffed, they succeeded in stirring things up, generating publicity for the cause, and forcing Congress to debate the issue. Barnes calls them “instruments of agitation.” The gag resolutions, adopted as a defensive measure, were a bonus, for they presented abolitionists with the opportunity of casting slavery as a threat to northern liberties. This was their propaganda victory.

In Lunt’s view, the abolitionists were using a constitutional means to effect an unconstitutional end. In doing so, they were also disturbing the peace of the union, driving a wedge between the two great sections of the country, and risking an eventual war. He considered their campaign to be one of duplicity, hostility, and aggression. But were they not battling selflessly and heroically for the rights of humanity? Certainly the abolitionists saw themselves that way, as do their contemporary cheerleaders. Lunt saw them as impudent busy bodies. “Whether evil or good in itself considered, it was, nevertheless, an institution of the country, under the guarantees of its Constitution, but localized in a separate section of the country; and it was one for which, as it existed, they had no legal or moral responsibility.” For those who found it politically advantageous to take up the cause, “the welfare of the negro” was about as important as “that of the Comanches.” “Politicians, who had never been thought the subjects of tenderer sensibilities, or the interpreters of a more scrupulous conscience than their neighbors, found it convenient to bring into the arena of party struggles a topic affording such ample opportunity for vague declamation, and which was the easiest of all to dilate upon by those who had little else to say. Indeed, in this respect, a round gift at scolding was all that was necessary.” Are we not afflicted with the same kind of politicians? Do they not thunder against various national sins—abortion, pornography, homosexuality, promiscuity—about which they can do little or nothing?

H. A. Scott Trask

H.A. Scott Trask holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina and is an independent historian.

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