The modern academic narrative says that the South’s purpose in secession and war was to “preserve and extend slavery.” Any other purpose is labeled a post-war “Lost Cause Myth.” In a speech on the floor of the Senate, February 13, 1850, Senator Jefferson Davis argued against Sen. Henry Clay’s call for banning slavery in the territories. The speech is a polemic against the reason the North seeks a ban, and it clearly reveals that the South was not wanting to “extend slavery” to preserve the institution. Davis argues the legal right to take slaves into the territories – a right resulting from the constitutional mandate regarding the equality of the States, and a right as constitutionally protected property. It is a principled argument for the North to abide by the compact they had ratified. But most telling, and in contrast to the popular narrative, he makes a practical moral argument for taking slaves into the territories as a means of enabling emancipation! Obviously, his argument is NOT extension to propagate slavery! What follows are summary comments on just a few of the significant quotes from Davis’ 1850 speech.
Davis’ most fundamental legal argument, a theme throughout the speech, is the constitutional right of the States to equal access and enjoyment of the territories: “The greater part of the Senator’s (Henry Clay) argument has been directed against the right of the Southern States to that equality of enjoyment in the Territories to which they assert they are entitled.” To this he adds slavery as a Constitutional property right: “As a property recognized by the Constitution, and held in a portion of the States, the Federal Government is bound to admit it into all the Territories, and to give it such protection as other private property receives.”
To the arguments for equal State access and property rights (rights that will be confirmed seven years later in the SCOTUS’ Dred Scott decision), Davis will add a practical natural right: “No, sir, we have not sought to rest our rights upon the expression of Congressional opinion, but upon the principles of the Constitution and the laws of nature… We have a right to claim that our territory shall increase with our population… and it is but just, and fair, and honest that it should be accorded to us without any restriction or reservation…”
In addition to Davis’ Constitutional arguments, the ability to maintain political balance in the Senate is something that makes equal access to the territories vitally important. Davis sees through the moralizing facade regarding a ban on slavery in the territories, to the real motivating agenda of the North. It is not a humanitarian concern for the slaves, but rather, “the cold, calculating purpose of those who seek for sectional dominion, I see nothing short of conquest on the one side, or submission on the other…fanaticism and ignorance, political rivalry, sectional hate, strife, for sectional dominion, have accumulated into a mighty flood, and pour their turgid waters through the broken Constitution…” The true Northern motive for banning slavery in the territories is purely political. Davis argues that slavery’s diffusion lessens the evil of slavery (just as Thomas Jefferson had claimed years before). Therefore the attempt to limit diffusion by banning slavery in the territories shows no concern for the slave, but rather a lust for political power: “Why is this resolution to obstruct the extension of slavery into the Territories introduced? It must be for the purpose of political power; it can have no other rational object. Every one must understand that, whatever be the evil of slavery, it is not increased by its diffusion…”
Davis knows that by keeping slaves out of the territories, the North keeps out Southern voters who might eventually settle and form Southern allied States opposed to Northern economic policies. He emphasizes the importance of balance in the central government to preventing sectional dominance. Political balance is the reason the South wants equal access to the territories for all its voting citizens, including slave owners. No desire to propagate slavery is ever mentioned: “… without a balance of power such as will enable every interest to protect itself, without such checks and such restraints as can never exist where any one section is paramount to all others… the great purpose of this Union could never be preserved… it is essential that neither section should have such power in Congress as would render them able to trample upon the rights of the other section of this Union.” He points out the correlation between the South claiming a constitutional protection for slavery in the territories, and its fear of being relegated to an inferior status in the Union. Here we see clearly that the South’s position is not a desire to expand slavery for slavery’s sake, but rather a practical and principled fight Southern people must make, “unless they are willing to become an inferior class, a degraded caste in the Union.”
Davis argues for the constitutional right of the slaveholder to sojourn into any U.S. territory, and that only States have the right to ban slavery, and NOT territorial governments or the central government. This anticipates the later 1860 debate regarding who has the right to exercise what Stephen Douglas would promote as “popular sovereignty;” the very debate that divided Northern Douglas Democrats from Southern Breckenridge Democrats:
“I claim, sir, that slavery being property in the United States, and so recognized by the Constitution, a slaveholder has the right to go with that property into any part of the United States where some sovereign power has not forbidden it. I deny, sir, that this Government has the sovereign power to prohibit it from the Territories. I deny that any territorial community, being a dependence of the United States, has that power, or can prohibit it, and therefore my claim presented is this, that the slaveholder has a right to go with his slave into any portion of these United States, except in a State where the fundamental law has forbidden it… The sovereignty rests in the States, and there is no power, save that of the States, which can exclude any property, or can determine what is property, in the territories so held by the States in common. That power the States have not delegated; it can be exercised rightfully only by compact or agreement of the States.
Davis opposes the North’s claim that, “in the case of California we are bound to accept such terms as the inhabitants of the territory possessing it under such circumstances, shall think fit to dictate to us. That the will of the conglomerated mass of gold-hunters, foreign and native, is to be taken as the decree of nature, and to be held authoritative for the exclusion of citizens of the United States from equal privileges which the Constitution declares, and was established to secure…”
Davis’ argument eventually turns into a “righteous cause myth” buster! Instead of advocating for the extension of slavery to propagate the institution, as the popular myth proclaims, Davis argues that government prohibition of slavery in the territories stifles the progress of emancipation! He explains how diffusion of slavery over sparser regions reduces the number of slaves to a manageable level so that emancipation can take place without inconvenience, danger, or serious loss:
“All property is best managed where Governments least interfere, and the practice of our Government has been generally founded on that principle. What has been the progress of emancipation throughout the whole history of our country? It has been the pressure of free labor upon the less profitable slave labor, until the slaves were transferred to sparser regions, and their number, by such transfer, was reduced to a limit at which, without inconvenience or danger, or serious loss, emancipation of the few who remained might occur.” (Emphasis mine)
As was the case with both Calhoun and Stephens in earlier days, Davis expresses why the South defends slavery, not in the abstract, but as it exists in its current situation; a situation created by the North in its attempt to keep all blacks on an ipso facto reservation in the South. And he once again champions slavery in the territories as a means of enabling emancipation; denouncing the North’s hypocritical opposition to slavery there as having the opposite effect:
“…it is odious among us now, as it was with our ancestors. We only defend the domestic institution of slavery, as it exists in the United States; the extension of which into any new territory will not increase the number of the slaves by one single person, but which it is very probable may, in many instances, produce emancipation… It is not, then, for the purpose of emancipation or for the benefit of the slaves that it is sought to restrict it; no sir, quite otherwise” (Emphasis mine)
Davis again emphasizes he is not discussing slavery in the abstract. (Most all Southerners and Northerners considered slavery in the abstract a violation of natural law). The issue was how to deal with it as a reality; a reality that the North sought to keep confined within the South, while ignoring its shared responsibility for it. This made emancipation all but impossible and therefore slavery an “evil for which there is no cure,” and necessarily tolerated as a lesser evil:
“I do not propose to discuss the justice or injustice of slavery as an abstract proposition… But I ask of those who entertain opinions opposite to mine, is it well to denounce an evil for which there is no cure…? There are many evils in the condition of man which we would be glad to remedy; but, not being able, we permit them to exist, as less than those which would follow an interference with them…”
Davis delves into the history of slavery in the US to point out the hypocrisy of the North in promoting and prolonging the slave trade, then vilifying the resulting institution in the South:
“…after this Union was formed, those States which now insist upon restricting slavery, now most vociferous for abolition, were the same that extended the period to which slaves were introduced into the United States…This property, after it had ceased to be connected with the slave trade, and no longer served to employ shipping and gratify the avarice of those who had sustained the policy of that trade, became the subject of popular declamation; and those who grew rich in the traffic have been ever since making public demonstration of their horror of the crime… But, whatever be the curse or the blessings of the African slave trade, it is a thing which was never introduced or engaged in by the South, and one for which Southern men never were, and their descendants are not responsible…”
Poignantly, Davis explains how the South has benefited the North, even enduring high prices induced by tariffs, and yet the North, being responsible for slavery, now hypocritically attacks the South because of it, attempting to erect a “sanitary cordon:”
“…the reflective reader will ask, whence proceeded this hostility of the North against the South?… He will find that the South, afar off, unseen and unheard, toiling in the pursuits of agriculture, had filled the shipping, supplied the staple for manufactures, which enriched the North. He will find that she was the great consumer of Northern fabrics that she not only paid for these their fair value in the markets of the world, but that she also paid their increased value, derived from the imposition of revenue duties. And if, still further, he seeks for the cause of this hostility, it at last is to be found in the fact that the South held the African race in bondage, being the descendants of those who were mainly purchased from the people of the North. And this was the great cause, for this the North claimed that the South should be restricted from future growth. That around her should be drawn, as it were, a sanitary cordon to prevent the extension of a moral leprosy; and if for that it shall be written the South resisted, it would be but in keeping with every page she has added to the history of our country….”
Davis points out to the North its great disadvantage if it pursues a course that will lead to disunion; something the South, in sentiment, does not desire, but for which it would be far better off. Little did Davis know the reprehensible extremes to which a Lincoln led North would go for cupidity in 1861:
“I feel that it requires no prophetic eye to see that the portion of the country which is now scattering the seeds of disunion to which I have referred, will be, that which will suffer most. Grass will grow on the pavements now worn by the constant tread of the human throng which waits on commerce, and the shipping will abandon your ports for those which now furnish the staples of trade. And we who produce the great staple upon which your commerce and manufactures rests, we will produce those staples still; shipping will fill our harbors; and why may we not found the tyre of modern commerce within our own limits? Why may we not bring the manufacturers to the side of agriculture, and commerce, too, the ready servant of both?…understand that it is mainly a feeling of attachment to the Union which has long bound, and now binds the South. But, Mr. President, I ask Senators to consider how long affection can be proof against such trial, and injury, and provocation as the South is continually receiving…”
It was these very same consequences to disunion that Lincoln had in mind when he proclaimed the euphemism of “preserving the union” as his excuse for avoiding such an economic disaster for the North. He wasn’t really concerned about “Union.” A Northern Union could have continued without the South, but not without the South’s economic wealth! Lincoln’s war was all about maintaining that flow of Southern wealth to the North, as his first inaugural makes clear.
In summary, Davis makes clear the South never sought to expand the domain of slavery for the purpose of propagating the institution. Instead, he argues for carrying slaves into the territories as a legal right, a principled right, and a practical moral right to promote emancipation! He defends the South from a section of the country willing to ignore the Constitution in order to gain political advantage, and relegate the South to a lesser status within the Union. The claim that the South sought to “preserve and extend slavery, to take it all over the country” was a fabricated political strategy of Northern politicians to play on Northern racist fears; and is now being used by purveyors of the “righteous cause myth” to vilify the South. Davis’ 1850 speech makes clear the desire to expand and therefore propagate the institution of slavery was and is mere myth.
This is an extremely honest and well-reasoned essay. Thank you Rev. O’Narr for its writing and the Abbeville Institute for publishing it.
Joseph E. Winston
Excellent essay. It shows the true position that the South had slavery but was not a focal point in that preserving the institution for Southern States.