- The Slaves’ ElectionFrémont, Freedom, and the Slave Conspiracies of 1856
Fall 1856 found Americans captivated by campaign speeches, partisan pamphleteering, and every manner of presidential politics. The aged James Buchanan of Pennsylvania stood for the Democracy, the last bisectional political party remaining, while the dashing and well-connected “Pathfinder,” adventurer John C. Frémont represented the upstart Republicans in their first national contest. Remnants of the collapsed Whig Party, especially in the border states, rechristened themselves the American Party and rallied behind former president Millard Fillmore, an accidental and failed leader who was destined to run third that November.1
Republicans never expected to draw many votes in the southern states, [End Page 35] in part because the new party had few functionaries brave enough to hand out voting tickets—the precursor of modern ballots—on Election Day. Even so, rallies of a sort took place in the South. Fifteen years later, former slave William Webb remembered that bondmen “understood the name of Fremont meant freedom to them.” Slaves “held great meetings, and had speeches among themselves, in secret.” Webb had recently been sold down the Mississippi River from western Kentucky, and so he was called on “to get up and make a speech.” Webb had already decided to run away back to Kentucky and his family, and he promised the crowd that he would attempt to “establish headquarters there so as to get news from there [back] to Mississippi.” Some young men then spoke about “rebelling and killing,” while older, more cautious bondmen counseled that if Frémont lost, they should instead “wait for the next four years.” One felt sure that the “next President would set the colored people free.” The meeting finally broke up with no firm decisions made. Yet, many agreed with the speaker who hoped Republicans would take steps “for our freedom,” even as he urged his audience not to wait for northern whites to act. If “all had the same mind as he had,” he insisted, “all the land would be slain in less time than a week.”2
Before the year was out, slave conspiracies, or white paranoia, or both, shook the southern states. From east Texas and Arkansas in the West to Charles County, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, in the East, vigilantes arrested, beat, and sometimes executed bondmen for allegedly believing “Col. Fremont was at the head of a large army, and was only waiting for them” to rise in rebellion so that he might “rush to their support and set the whole slave population free.”3 Terrified whites called out patrols and arrested slaves in Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Given the prevalence of vigilante violence and the frequent absence of extant county court records, precise numbers are hard to verify. However, it is certain that Arkansas mobs hanged two slaves, shot one white man, and lynched another. Texans executed or whipped to death five more, and along the Tennessee and Kentucky border [End Page 36] the death toll was higher still. Masters in Perry, Tennessee, may have murdered as many as fifteen slaves, while authorities in Dover, Tennessee, hanged somewhere between three and nineteen slaves and whipped a white man to death. If the newspaper estimates were correct, as many as thirty-three bondmen swung from gallows and tree branches, a greater number than those who died in Virginia in 1800 for conspiring with Gabriel or even those who were executed in 1831 for their complicity with Nat Turner.4
Despite this, the 1856 hangings have attracted very little attention from modern scholars. No modern biographer of any of the three candidates even mentions the unrest in passing, perhaps because political scholars who chronicle national affairs often fail to perceive the impact of those who could not vote, just as social historians who craft their narratives from below too often fail to recognize the effect high politics had on those they write about.5 Although the scant evidence will probably never resolve this question with certainty—and what little documentation does exist, apart from Webb’s postwar memoir, all but silences black voices—skilled bondmen in several adjacent Tennessee and Kentucky counties most...