UNITED STATES HISTORY THROUGH FILM

Amistad


*Slavery had existed in the English colonies that became the United States since 1619, and became important after Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia and the colonisation of Carolina by Caribbean planters in the late 1600s. 

 

*In different regions, slaves worked in different ways.  Most were employed in agriculture, whether growing food on the estates of the patroons of New York, tobacco in the Chesapeake, or rice in the Deep South.  Others, however, were craftsmen or house servants.

 

*In any case, by the time the Constitution was written, slavery seemed to be in decline.  Ideological opposition to it existed in all thirteen states that had declared their belief that all men are created equal, and a number of Northern states had already begun schemes of gradual emancipation, while slavery had been excluded from any new states created from the Northwest Territory.  The importation of slaves to the United States was outlawed in 1808.  The British Royal Navy also tried to stop the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the British Empire had declared illegal in 1807.

 

*Economically, slavery seemed less important, too, particularly in tobacco-growing areas, where the tobacco was exhausting the land and tobacco planters were looking for new crops to grow--George Washington and a few other Virginia planters began to switch to growing wheat, or at least to consider doing so (later, the McCormick Reaper would be invented in Virginia, even if the McCormick company soon relocated to Chicago.  As wheat production was less labour-intensive that tobacco cultivation, Virginia even considered abolishing slavery in the late 18th Century.

 

*Slavery was also a potential threat to American virtue.  Owning slaves was not just bad for slaves, but also for their owners, at least according to some writers.  Thomas Jefferson said that because slavery required slave-owners to exercise brutality over their slaves, it tended to make them brutal.  The former slave Frederick Douglass later described how he was bought by a man whose wife had never owned a slave, and who treated him very kindly at first, until the inherent tyranny of slavery transformed her into a harsh mistress.  Booker T. Washington, a former slave, later said that Whites could not hold Blacks in a ditch without getting down there with them.

 

-Show Crash Course episode 13.

 

*Slavery was even a threat to security, as the danger of a slave uprising was always in the back of the minds of slave owners (especially after the Haitian Revolution).

 

*Although actual slave revolts were very rare in America, a few did take place. 

 

*A large slave uprising in New York in 1712 was put down harshly, with its captured leaders punished severely (20 executed by burning and one broken on the wheel), and laws against slaves and even free blacks were made harsher. 

 

*In 1739, a rebellion broke out in South Carolina near the Stono River just outside Charles Town.  During the Stone Rebellion, twenty-one whites were killed along with forty-four slaves (along with others who were later executed or sold to plantations in the Caribbean). 

 

*In 1800 Denmark Vesey bought his freedom with $600 he won in a lottery.  He became a preacher, and told slaves to resist their masters, as slavery was against the Bible and the Declaration of Independence.  In 1822 he allegedly planned a revolt meant to seize Charleston, capture the local arsenal, kill all the whites in town, free all the slaves, and burn the city down.  One of his co-conspirators warned local whites, however, and Vesey and 34 other blacks were hanged.

 

*Worst of all was Nat Turner.  In August, 1831, he led Turner’s Rebellion.  70 slaves attacked white families and killed over 50 white men, women, and children in Southeastern Virginia.  Eventually the local militia captured and hanged Turner and about 20 of his followers.  Other angry whites rioted, and killed about an hundred more blacks, none of whom had (probably) had anything to do with the rebellion.

 

*As a result of these rebellions, Southerners grew increasingly afraid of their own slaves.  Although Virginia again briefly considered ending slavery, she decided not to, and all Southern states made laws about slaves much tougher.  It became much harder to free a slave so there would not be so many free blacks to serve as a dangerous example to slaves.  It became illegal to send anti-slavery literature through the mail in much of the South and it became illegal to teach slaves to read in some states.  Tennessee wrote a new constitution in 1835 that, among other things, took the right to vote away from even free Blacks.  Slave codes became stricter in general, as the movements of slaves were restricted further, to make it harder for them to meet together. 

 

*Thomas Jefferson compared the having a large population of slaves to holding a wolf by the ears:  you don't like it, but you don't dare let it go.

 

*However, questions of morality or even security were swept aside by economics.  In 1793, the invention of the cotton gin changed everything for slavery.  With the processing of cotton now possible on a large scale, thousands of acres of land were devoted to growing cotton, an unpleasant and labour-intensive practise that was best suited for slaves (at least in the minds of free men)—indeed, work on a big cotton plantation was considered to be the worst type of work a slave could do.  However, it was so profitable that cotton was called White Gold by some Southerners, while others believed its gave the South so much economic power over the North and even over Britain (both of which bought a lot of Southern cotton) that they claimed the Cotton is King.

 

*Slaves sometimes tried to escape, although the penalties for doing so could be harsh.  There were professional slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and their bloodhounds might maul them when they caught them, or they might be badly injured or even killed in being retaken.  Even escaping across state lines was no guarantee of safety, as the Constitution included requirements that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters (although many Northern states did not always enforce these rules).  Recaptured runaways might be chained up for a long period once back home, or made to work in heavy chains, or might have a collar with bells or even a cage with bells or spikes put over their heads.

 

*Some slaves, former slaves (often escaped slaves), and anti-slavery whites did help runaways to escape.  Eventually this become somewhat formalised as the 'Underground Railroad' with guides known as 'conductors' and safe places to hide known as 'stations.'  One of the most famous conductors was the escaped slave Harriet Tubman, known as the Black Moses, who helped lead escaped slaves out of eastern Maryland to freedom in Pennsylvania.

 

*Another escaped slave who gained national fame was Henry Brown who mailed himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in a crate in 1849, earning the nickname Henry 'Box' Brown.

 

*Many slaves found comfort in religion, as the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s had affected Black Southerners as well as Whites. 

 

*African-American religion tended to focus on the aspects of the Bible that spoke of liberation, particularly the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom and out of slavery in Egypt.  Of course, this made many slave-owners suspicious of Black religious leaders, and sometimes they tried to prevent African-Americans from preaching, preferring white ministers to remind slaves of the passages in the Bible that tell slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5 for example).  They also worried that black preachers might lead slave revolts—Nat Turner had been a preacher, and Denmark Vesey had supposedly organised his revolt through his church.

 

*For many White Americans as well, the Second Great Awakening increased their opposition to slavery, as they considered that all men and women are brothers and sisters in Christ, and wondered how they could enslave their brothers and sisters.

 

*In 1819, a Quaker in Jonesborough, Elihu Embree, began publishing the nation’s first anti-slavery newspaper, the Manumission Intelligencer, which he later renamed the Emancipator.  Another Quaker, Benjamin Lundy, began publishing the Genius of Universal Emancipation in Greeneville in 1822.

 

*The early anti-slavery Tennesseans such as Embry, Lundy, and their friends, were fairly moderate.  In the end, none of these activists accomplished much in the way of legal or social change in Tennessee, although East Tennessee did have many supporters of the Underground Railroad.

 

*Furthermore, after Turner's rebellion, anti-slavery movements in the South were weakened by the growing fear of slave rebellions and by increasing resentment of Northern opposition to slavery which was seen as intrusive and likely to incite further rebellions.

 

*On New Year's Day, 1831, a few months before Turner's Rebellion, William Lloyd Garrison of Boston published the first issue of The Liberator, an uncompromising anti-slavery newspaper.  When Turner's Rebellion broke out later that year, some Southerners blamed Garrison for provoking it, and the state of Georgia offered a $5,000 reward for his arrest and conviction for inciting murder.  He was attacked many times over the course of his career, sometimes barely escaping with his life.

 

*Over the coming decades he would print some of the most stunning attacks on slavery, as well as some of the most controversial, going so far as to call the U.S. Constitution itself a 'covenant with death and an agreement with hell' because it protected slavery.  He would later suggest that the North secede from the South to create a virtuous nation free from the bonds of slavery.

 

*In 1833, Garrison helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society along with Wendell Phillips of Boston, a man known as 'abolition's golden trumpet' who was so adamant in his opposition to slavery that he refused to eat cane sugar or wear cotton cloth because both were the products of slave labour.

 

* Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah Grimké were South Carolina Quakers (who eventually moved North) who became prominent members of the anti-slavery moment (and of the early women's movement), writing articles and giving speeches across the North. 

 

*Former slaves were among the most powerful spokesmen (and spokeswomen) for the anti-slavery cause, because their eloquence at the lectern and in print demonstrated that Black people could be the intellectual equals of Whites, despite what many people contended at the time.

 

*One of these former slaves was Sojourner Truth, was a slave in New York two years before that state's gradual emancipation began.  She escaped from slavery in 1826 along with her infant daughter, and later sued to free her son, the first time a Black woman successfully sued a White man in America.  She had a powerful voice and a powerful argument against slavery, in part from a woman's point of view, pointing out that half of all slaves were women, many of whom did hard physical work and many of whom suffered degradation of many types in a society that claimed to protect women in their separate sphere.  Where was the gallantry that so many honourable American men claimed to have when slave women were mistreated and forced to labour as hard as any man?  Her most famous speech was known as 'Ain't I a Woman?' although the poor grammar and Southern dialect used in the most famous printed versions of the speech were inaccurate--her English was good, despite Dutch being her first language, and she certainly did not have a Southern accent.

 

*The most famous former slave of all was Frederick Douglass. He had escaped from Maryland in 1838 and began a public speaking career in 1841 that expanded into a writing career with several books to his name, starting with A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845.  He eventually bought his freedom and that of his family with the proceeds from his writing.  This career was built on a life-long love of learning, as he had been taught to read some by a former owner and had even traded food to White children if they would teach him to read (in contravention of the law).  Such a devotion of education and his eloquent speaking and writing was further proof that a Black man could be the equal--at least--of a White man.

 

*This growing anti-slavery movement was repeatedly thwarted by an increasingly active pro-slavery movement in the South, where John C. Calhoun, and later other Southerners, began to argue that slavery was not just a necessary evil but actually a positive good for both slaves and slave-owners.  Calhoun said 'Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.' 

 

*Furthermore, slavery was sanctioned in the Bible through many passages describing slaves obeying their masters and through the so-called 'curse of Ham' placed by Noah on the descendants of his grandson Canaan who were condemned to be servants of Noah's other sons.

 

*In fact, the debate over slavery began to split many churches, as many Northerners had come to feel during the Second Great Awakening that slavery was a moral sin, while many Southerners used the Bible to justify slavery.  The Methodists (whose founder had been anti-slavery from the start), Baptists, and Presbyterians all split over the issue of slavery (and sometimes other debates, too).

 

*The most outspoken supporters of slavery came to be known as fire-eaters, and they described slavery as the South's 'peculiar institution,' unique to their region and culture, something that was necessary and for the best.

 

*In 1836, Southerners in the House of Representatives managed to pass the Gag Resolution, banning discussion of any anti-slavery topics until Representative John Quincy Adams managed to have it repealed in 1844.  John C. Calhoun attempted to create a similar rule in the Senate, but without success.

 

*In the midst of this growing controversy, a court case took place that drew attention to the cruelty of the slave trade, even if it did not ultimately challenge the peculiar institution itself.

 

--Introduce Amistad

 

     -Amistad was released in 1997 and was inspired by the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy published in 1987 by Howard Jones and by the historical novel Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad, published in 1953 by William Owens. 

 

     -It tells the story of a group of slaves who rebelled against their captors in 1839, seized the slave ship on which they were being transported, but then were intercepted by the U.S. Navy and accused of murdering some of the Spanish sailors holding them in captivity.  Between 1839 and 1841 a series of trials attempted to determine the actual status of those slaves, most importantly whether they had been born as slaves or if they had been captured in Africa for sale in the New World, which was considered illegal by most countries, including the United States.

 

     -Many of the Black actors in the film were coached in the Mende language spoken in Sierra Leone, West Africa.  Furthermore, in consideration of how sensitive a subject slavery is, whenever the costume department had to put chains on the actors portraying slaves, the chains were always put on by African-Americans, not by white crew members.

 

     -Most of the film is set in New Haven, Connecticut, and most of those scenes were filmed in historic buildings in Newport, Rhode Island and other parts of Rhode Island.  The US Capitol building is depicted in the background in a couple of scenes, but what is actually shown is the Rhode Island statehouse, which has a dome similar to the modern US Capitol dome, but modern Capitol dome was actually completed in 1863 and the dome looked quite different in 1839.  Other parts of the film are set aboard ships on the Atlantic Ocean and in Africa, but most of those scenes were filmed on soundstages, and the outdoor scenes set in Africa were actually filmed in Puerto Rico. 

 

-For the most part, the costumes and props are fairly accurate, although there are several discrepancies.  A British Navy captain is shown wearing a uniform that mixes parts of different uniforms, all of them from ranks a different from his own.  Also, people at a formal dinner are shown wearing white gloves, but gloves were removed before dining.  At one point an illustrated Bible is shown, but the particular version depicted was not actually printed until 1866, approximately 26 years after the moment depicted in the film.  There is also a scene when actors portraying Portuguese sailors are actually speaking Spanish and a scene in which President Martin van Buren is shown being photographed in 1839, but in fact he was never photographed while president, as photography was both new and rare at that point (although he was photographed in 1845, as were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, so that only our first five presidents were never photographed).  They do show van Buren putting his head in a brace for the photograph, and that was done for early photographs to keep the subject’s head still.

 

-Joseph Cinque, also known as Sengbe Pieh, and referred to only as Cinque in the movie was the leader of the slave revolt on the ship La Amistad and the unofficial leader of the slaves once they were imprisoned in the United States, which is true to history. 

 

-Lewis Tappan was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and a very active member of the anti-slavery movement.  He played one of the leading roles in trying to win freedom for the Amistad slaves, to an even greater degree than shown in the movie, and with greater personal sympathy for them as individuals than the movie suggests, which hints that he saw them mainly as a symbol to be used in the larger struggle for abolitionism.  In 1846, Tappan helped found the American Missionary Association, in which both White and Black ministers and their supporters established churches among many races around the world, including in West Africa.  He also supported interracial marriage, thinking that the best way to end racism would be to stop having separate races--he hoped that one day all of America would be 'copper-coloured.'

 

-Theodore Joadson is a fictional character, a former slave who gained his freedom and became a successful businessman and abolitionist.  In the movie he plays a large role in trying to win freedom for the Amistad slaves.  Some historians are unhappy with his inclusion in the movie because there were actual African-American abolitionists involved in the Amistad case who could have appeared in the film, so that inventing one was not necessary, and seems unfair to real individuals who worked against slavery.

 

-Roger Sherman Baldwin was the main lawyer representing the Amistad slaves in court.  In the movie he is portrayed as a young and perhaps even slightly desperate lawyer.  In fact, he was quite a bit older and more experienced than suggested by the movie who worked almost for free due to his own opposition to slavery.  At the time the movie was set he was also a representative in the Connecticut General Assembly, and just a few years later he would be elected Governor of Connecticut and then a Senator from that state.  As his name suggests, he was also the grandson of Roger Sherman, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Framer of the Constitution.

 

-John Quincy Adams was the son of President John Adams and was himself the sixth president of the United States, who only served one term before being defeated for re-election by Andrew Jackson.  He was then elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, where he opposed slavery for the rest of his life (almost literally--he died two days after collapsing during a debate in Congress in 1848).

 

-Martin van Buren was the eighth president of the United States, and was up for re-election in 1840.  He supported the claims of Spain in the Amistad case to maintain good international relations and to keep from angering the South, where some people would have been unhappy with a court decision sympathetic towards a slave revolt, although that aspect of the case is somewhat exaggerated in the movie.  It is true that the debate over slavery was growing and was increasing tensions between North and South, most people did not see a serious threat of Civil War at the time the movie is set--it is taking attitudes from the late 1840s and especially the 1850s and setting them in 1839-1841.  In some ways the movie is unfair to van Buren, as he was a far more clever politician than it suggests:  although it is true that he was not a particularly successful president, that was largely due to economic problems partly created by his predecessor and largely outside his control, and it also came after a very long political career in which he essentially created the Democratic Party behind the scenes--he may not have been a great leader, but he was such a devious backroom dealer that he was nicknamed 'The Little Magician,' but one would not guess that from his portrayal in Amistad.

 

-Show Amistad

 

     -#1 is a little more dramatic than the reality.  Cinque did not pull a nail out of the wood of the ship, but either he or a woman found a file and hid it until he was able to use that to pick the lock on his chains and get free.

 

     -#5 does depict a type of bicycle that was moderately popular at the time, although bicycles became much more popular when pedals were added to them in 1863.

 

     -#17 mentions the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, and it is partly accurate.  The Englishman James Smithson did leave a large amount of money (over $11,700,000 in 21st Century value) to the United States ‘for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.’  After many years of debate about how to do this, it was decided to create an institution for scientific research.  John Quincy Adams played a very important role in this process, although not, in fact, until 1846, a few years later than what is shown in the movie.

 

     -#21, and various scenes showing Martin van Buren campaigning for re-election are totally inaccurate.  Presidential candidates did not campaign for themselves in this way at this time.  It was viewed as undignified for someone at that level to go around begging for votes.  At most a presidential candidate would give speeches in his home town.  No major candidate for the presidency would actively campaign in this way until William Jennings Bryan did it in 1896—and he lost.  1912 would be the first election in which all the major candidates actively campaigned.

 

     -#25 is not really accurate.  Baldwin did accept a token fee for his services, but he was not in it for the money, but out of his own believe in the anti-slavery cause.  Also, while many people were angry about the Amistad case, it did not destroy his business, as many people supported the slaves’ case, too, especially in New England (although it is true that slavery was still technically legal in Connecticut, which is why the slaves were imprisoned there despite being caught off the coast of New York—New York completely banned slavery at this point).

 

     -#27 presents Professor Josiah Gibbs as pretty silly (although he does get more respect in #37).  Furthermore, it was actually Gibbs who wandered the docks in New Haven and New York, counting from one to ten out loud in Mende to try to find a Mende speaker as shown in #38 and James Covey really was the name of one of two Mende-speaking sailors that he found, and Covey’s story is pretty much as stated in the movie.  Gibbs also helped teach English to the Mende, and helped recruit a number of Yale divinity students to teach the Mende both English and Christianity, and many accepted both.  Later, Gibbs helped write a dictionary of Mende and other West African languages.

 

     -#34 introduces Judge Coglin, and he is actually a fictional character.  Judge Andrew Judson actually presided over the entire case at the District Court level, and actually surprised people by ruling in favour of the slaves shown in #49, as he was not personally opposed to slavery or supportive of racial equality.  Van Buren then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court as shown in #53, which upheld Judson’s decision to free the slaves, but overturned his ruling that they be transported back to Africa at the government’s expense.  Instead, private charities, largely organized by Lewis Tappan, paid for all those who wanted to go back to Africa to do so (along with a number of American missionaries) in 1842.  However, while Coglin was fictional, the prejudice against Catholics that he worried about was real—many Protestant Americans worried that Catholics were not really even Christian, and many worried that they could not be loyal citizens of a democracy, because they first loyalty would be to the Pope, and he would influence their votes.  Despite that, by the time of this case, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court himself was a Catholic, Roger B. Taney, appointed in 1836 by Andrew Jackson—but prominent Catholics were still rare in politics outside of Maryland.

 

     -#39 and the suggestion that the Africans be allowed to bury their dead according to their own customs is unlikely.  A strong effort was made to convert the Africans to Christianity from the start, and it was pretty successful—they praised Jesus when they were finally declared to be free by the Supreme Court.  Certainly there was no interest in preserving any non-Christian religious beliefs they Africans may have held.

 

     -#42 is not only true, but Cinque himself was actually captured and enslaved by other Africans some time before being re-sold to the white slave-traders.

 

     -#45 is true—slave ships did sometimes dump their slaves overboard to try to hide what they had been doing.  They would also dump sick slaves overboard so they did not infect the other slaves.  On the other hand, #46 is not true—there is no evidence that the Teçora dumped any slaves overboard on this trip, and certainly not due to running low on food.  The Teçora was a purpose-built slave ship and its crew were professionals.  They would not have sailed from Africa so low on supplies that they had to dump half their slaves overboard.

 

     -#52 is not realistic.  Tappan would not have wanted the slaves to die to prove a point:  he even rejected a suggestion that the court case be dragged on longer because he did not want to see the Africans in jail any longer than they had to be—it had already be 18 months, after all.

 

     -#54 is not true.  Only 5 of the Supreme Court justices were Southerners, and only 4 of them were slave-owners.  On the other hand, it is true that the Supreme Court was usually not sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement at this time.

 

     -#56 is a beautiful scene, but was not actually possible.  African violets were not imported to the United States until the late 1800s, and they came from East Africa, so even if Adams could have owned one, Cinque would not have recognized it.

 

     -#58-62 are partly based on Adams’s closing speech to the Supreme Court, but many parts are invented, too.  His entire speech ran over eight hours (and Baldwin spoke for four hours the previous day).  A Supreme Court justice noted that Adams’s speech was notable for its bitter sarcasm, much of it directed towards van Buren, who he described as acting like a servant of the Spanish government and of the South. 

 

     -#63-just as several parts of Adams’s speech are invented, the opinion read by the Supreme Court justice is mostly fictional, but the main point, upholding the lower court rulings that they Africans had been illegally captured and thus could not be held as slaves, is correct.  The speaker is identified in the captions as the Chief Justice, but was actually Associate Justice Joseph Story, who was actually played by retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackmun.

 

     -#65 is mostly true.  The Lomboko slave fortress did exist, although it was not as impressive as shown in the movie—it was mostly a mansion and outbuildings for its owner and several barracks to hold slaves awaiting sale.  The British did eventually locate and destroy it, although not until 1849, several years after they are shown doing so in the movie.

 

     -#66 is true, although van Buren would later seek the presidency again, trying unsuccessfully to get the Democratic nomination in 1844 and then running as a third party candidate in 1848 with the Free Soil Party, because by that point he had come to publicly oppose the expansion of slavery into new Western territories.

 

*The expansion of slavery would become one of the most contentious issues in American politics in the 1840s and 1850s. 

 

*Early in American history, there had been some agreement.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had declared that any state created out of the Northwest Territory would ban slavery, and that did not have much trouble passing through Congress.  Likewise, there were no major objections when states in the South allowed slavery, at least until 1820.

 

*When Missouri wanted to join the Union as a slave state in 1820, some opponents of slavery in Congress tried to ban slavery there in the future--any slaves already in Missouri would remain slaves, but their children would be born free, and no more slaves could be brought into Missouri.  Southerners were furious, and suddenly both Northerners and Southerners began to worry about their relative power in Congress, where the more populous North had more members of the House of Representatives, but where there were an equal number of Senators from free and slave states.

 

*In the end, Henry Clay was able to negotiate the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, but brought Maine (previously part of Maine) into the Union as a free state, keeping the Senate balanced.  Furthermore, in the future, any new state south of Missouri’s southern border would automatically allow slavery while any new state north of that line would not.  This would allow the United States to avoid ever discussing the issue again.  Over the next thirty years, whenever new states entered the Union, they would enter in pairs—one free state and one slave state together.

 

*However, after Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and wanted to join the United States, its admission was blocked for nine years, because people worried that the admission of such a large territory where slavery was already legal would re-open the issue, and many politicians throughout the 1830s and early 1840s tried to avoid discussing it.

 

*However, at the 1840s progressed, and increasing number of Americans felt the United States had a Manifest Destiny to expand into the West, and in 1844, James K. Polk won the presidency by promising to annex the Republic of Texas (which had been independent since 1836, but was still technically claimed by Mexico), annex California and New Mexico (then claimed by Mexico), and annex Oregon, which the United States shared with Britain.

 

*Polk accomplished all of this, even though it provoked a war with Mexico in 1846-1848, which they United States won.  This brought the United States’ borders almost to where they are today.  However, it re-opened the question of where slavery would be permitted in the West.

 

*In 1850, California, which was rapidly growing in population thanks to the Gold Rush, wanted to become a state, and one without slavery, despite the fact that half the state would lie south of the Missouri Compromise line and despite the fact that this would unbalance the senate.

 

*Debates raged in Congress, with one pre-slavery Senator from Mississippi threatening to shoot a Senator from Missouri, who despite being a slave-owner himself believed that slavery should not expand any further.  All the great Congressional leaders of the day took part in these debates, which seemed like they might split the country.

 

*One more time, Henry Clay attempted to compromise, and the Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, but required that Northern states comply with a stricter Fugitive Slave Law, required all Northern government officials help return runaway slaves to the South.  Over the next decade, though, many Northerners would refuse to follow this law, leading to increasing resentment in the South which resented both the economic loss and the insult to Southern pride that came from the law being deliberately ignored, and Southern Fire-Eaters became increasingly defensive of their peculiar institution during the 1850s.

 

*The presidents of the 1850s did nothing to improve things, either.  Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchannan were all ‘doughfaces,’ Northerners who tried to keep the South happy by supporting their demands, but who in the end they kept no-one happy.

 

*Furthermore, while the Compromise of 1850 was supposed to settle the issue of western expansion, when some leaders tried to organize a territorial government for Kansas and Nebraska to make it easier to build a Transcontinental Railroad across the Great Plains, Southerners again complained about more free governments being created.

 

*In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow the people in Kansas and Nebraska to have Popular Sovereignty—to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery in their state constitutions.

 

*The law passed, but it also failed.  Almost immediately, pro- and anti-slavery activists rushed to Kansas where they fought each other over what kind of constitution to write, and many people were killed in what came to be called Bleeding Kansas.

 

*Violence even spread to Congress, where anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made a speech in 1856 in which he insulted the South in general, South Carolina in particular, and especially South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, who was not there to defend himself.  In response to this insult to his home state and to his uncle, Butler’s nephew Preston Brooks, who was a Representative from South Carolina, went into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner nearly to death with his cane.  He stopped when he broke his cane, but Southerners just mailed him more canes.

 

*Both sides grew even angrier after a slave, Dred Scott, who had lived for many years in free states, sued for his freedom.  The Dred Scott case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, where the Court decided he had to remain a slave.  Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that because Scott was private property, it would be unconstitutional for his owner to lose ownership of him simply because he crossed state lines—it would violate the long-standing right that a person could not lose his property without a fair trial.  Therefore, no state law could automatically free a slave.

 

*This effectively destroyed the Missouri Compromise and all the other compromises of the past 70 years, by allowing the ownership of slaves in any state—a state might ban the sale of slaves, but could not keep a slave-owners from bringing slaves he already owned into an otherwise free state.  This infuriated Northerners, who condemned the Supreme Court, the President, and the Cabinet of being controlled by a Southern conspiracy—the Slave Power.

 

*Southerners, on the other hand, were angry that the Fugitive Slave Law as being ignored, and that many Northerners supported the anti-slavery forces in Kansas.  Then Southerners were attacked again, this time literally.

 

*In October 1859 John Brown, appeared in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with twenty-one other men including three of his many sons (he had twenty children of his own, as well as an adopted Black child). Sixteen of his followers were White and five were Black.  His plan was to seize the Federal arsenal in the town, and take the weapons to create an army of freed Blacks.  Initially they would form a nation in the mountains of Western Virginia from which they would raid the enslaved areas around them, freeing slaves and attracting runaways as they did so.  Eventually this would develop into a full-scale slave insurrection in the South, ending the peculiar institution forever.

 

*Brown and his men quickly seized the arsenal and took control of the town, killing seven civilians in the process, including one free Black, and injuring ten more innocent bystanders.  Despite Brown’s hopes, Southern Blacks did not rise to support him, largely because most did not know about it, although doubtless they remembered other attempts to start servile insurrections, and the failure of those revolts.

 

*A company of local militia tried to take the arsenal, and killed or mortally wounded eight of Brown’s followers, separated five more from the main group, and caused two more to give up and flee.  Brown, however, although he still had the power to escape, chose to remain.

 

*The next day, a detachment of US Marines arrived under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who happened to be at his home near Washington on leave from his post as commandant of West Point.  They surrounded the arsenal and offered Brown the chance to surrender.  He refused and the Marines stormed the building.  One tried to stab Brown with his bayonet, but hit him in the belt buckle, which deflected the blade.  Brown was beaten unconscious and arrested.

 

*Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia for trying to lead a revolution within the borders of the state.  Some of Brown’s friends tried to have him declared insane (and at least thirteen of his close relatives, including his mother, were known to be insane), but Brown would have none of that, and the governor of Virginia was not sympathetic.  The trial was legal, but very fast, and Brown was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He was hanged on 2 December, 1859. 

 

*Some opponents of slavery, notably Harriet Tubman, considered him a hero for what he had done.  Others, such as Frederick Douglas (who knew of Brown’s plan before he tried it and advised him against it) considered Brown’s motives and dedication admirable, but his actions unwise and illegal.

 

*A large number of Americans agreed with his execution—whatever his ends, leading a rebellion and provoking the South were not admirable methods for achieving them.

 

*Nonetheless, many in the North saw his execution as barely better than murder.  To them, John Brown became a martyr, and in the coming years his soul would go marching on.




This page last updated 15 February, 2019.
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