Before Lincoln, Slavery Helped *Expand* the Power of the Federal Government



David F. Ericson is Term Associate Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University and the author of "The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America" and "The Shaping of American Liberalism: The Debates over Ratification, Nullification, and Slavery."

In 1861, Southern slaveholders fulfilled president-elect Abraham Lincoln’s “house divided” prophecy.  The story of how slaveholders attempted to emasculate the powers of the federal government in the seven decades prior to 1861 is well-known.  Less well-known is the story of how they attempted to bolster the powers of the federal government and helped build the very house they divided.  This process was, of course, literally true in the case of the District of Columbia, which was largely built with slave labor.  It was also true in terms of the development of the capacities, authority, legitimacy, and institutional autonomy of the federal government. 

This contravenes conventional wisdom.  The oft-repeated argument is that slavery depressed the development of the federal government because a dominant coalition of Southern slaveholders and Northern “doughfaces” depressed state development for fear that a strong federal government would use its powers to abolish the institution.

Conventional wisdom has stayed conventional wisdom because there’s a lot of truth behind it.  Virginia Congressman John Randolph, who coined the term “doughfaces,” remains one of its star witnesses.  Randolph opposed the General Survey Act of 1824, which the National Republicans contemplated as the initial step to building a national system of roads and canals, and warned his colleagues that, “if Congress possesses the power do what is proposed by this bill . . . they may emancipate every slave in the United States—and with stronger color of reason than they can exercise the power now contended for.”  Notwithstanding the strong opposition of Randolph and the other “Old Republicans,” the act passed, but their slavery-fearful strict constructionism continued to resonate in the halls of Congress and various executive offices during the succeeding decades.  Any national transportation system would await the twentieth century.

The notion that slavery depressed the development of the federal government is, however, far from the whole truth.  There were many instances where Southern slaveholders desired a powerful federal government to protect their prized institution.  In thinking about controversies over federal powers during this period, as during other periods of American history (including our own) the central issue is who benefits?

Case in point:  Who gained from a federal government that is powerful enough to enforce its own fugitive-slave laws?  In January 1850, Virginia Senator John Mason introduced a bill to empower the federal government to recover and return fugitive slaves on the calculus that “it is putting too grievous a burden upon the people of the slaveholding States to require them to submit to the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly, because the general government either will not or dare not carry into effect the provisions of the Constitution.”  Mason’s bill became the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  During the next decade, United States attorneys, marshals, commissioners, justices, and soldiers were then all deployed to enforce the new law.  Who lost?  Clearly, African Americans, who were or were alleged to be fugitive slaves.  Who resisted?  Again, African Americans, sometimes with their lives.  But also abolitionists, who, in a move dripping with historical irony, became the champions of states’ rights in attempting to block the federal enforcement efforts.

Another case in point:  Who gained from a federal government that was powerful enough to remove the five “civilized nations”—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—across the Mississippi River?  Clearly, many Southern whites, slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike.  But the removals especially benefited slaveholders, who could now not only expand to vacated Native American lands but also could be less anxious about their slaves escaping to those lands.  Who lost?  Clearly, Native Americans, but also African American fugitive slaves who had fled to Native American lands.  Who resisted?  In some cases, both Native Americans and African Americans.  During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), Seminoles of Native American and African American descent fiercely resisted the army’s efforts to remove them from Florida.  In fact, General Thomas S. Jesup believed that the “Black Seminoles” formed the backbone of the Seminole resistance to removal since they had much more to lose than land and livestock.  Jesup even wrote his superiors at the Department of War in December 1836 that the Second Seminole War was a “negro war,” not an “Indian war.”  He also cautioned them that if the Seminole “insurgency” was “not speedily put down, the South will feel the effect of it on their slave population before the end of the next season.”  At seven years, the Second Seminole War was the nation’s longest war of the nineteenth century.  It cost the federal government approximately $30 million and the lives of more than 1,500 soldiers to remove the Seminoles from Florida.

There are scores of other cases where the federal government deployed its capacities, authority, legitimacy, and institutional autonomy to protect the interests of Southern slaveholders.  Based on the documentary evidence, it seems indisputable that slavery both retarded and accelerated the development of the federal government, and probably more of the latter than the former.  As we debate the proper role of the federal government today, it is important to be clear about what role it played in the past and why it played the role it did.   Otherwise, we risk imposing a false past on current political controversies.

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