restricted access 1. The Language of Terrifying Prophecy: Disunion Debates in the Early Republic

From: Disunion!

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31 1 The Language of Terrifying Prophecy DISUNION DEBATES IN THE EARLY REPUBLIC The era of constitution making bequeathed to the young nation not only a legacy of compromise and indecision on slavery, but also the beginnings of a discourse in which politicians summoned images of disunion to advance their own regional and partisan agendas. The early years of the republic witnessed periodic appeals to disunion; slavery was often, but not always, the principal source of contention. In 1790 Southern and Northern representatives in Congress clashed over the twin issues of where to locate the capital and whether Congress should assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states. Assumption was a key piece of the fiscal agenda of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whose reputation for brilliance was matched by his reputation for arrogance. In Hamilton’s view, the United States should aspire to be a manufacturing and commercial superpower, in the model of Great Britain; ‘‘Britain’s funded debt’’ had fueled the ‘‘extraordinary growth of the British economy.’’ Southerners in states, such as Virginia, that had already paid down their Revolutionary War debts saw Hamilton’s plan as biased toward the North. Because Hamilton’s assumption scheme would make the states ‘‘beholden to the federal government,’’ and would create a large national debt that would need to be paid down by new federal taxes, it raised the specter of ‘‘consolidation’’: of aggrandizing the central government at the 32 Δ 1789–1836 expense of local interests. The heavily indebted New England states, by contrast, eager for federal relief, viewed assumption as a ‘‘sine qua non of a continuance of the Union,’’ according to Je√erson’s memorandum on the controversy. With disunion threats on the lips of prominent Northerners and Southerners, Je√erson, Madison, and Hamilton reached a compromise whereby, in exchange for the passage of an assumption plan, Southerners won the promise that the national capital, after a temporary stint in Philadelphia , would be moved to a location on the Potomac, safely within slave country. The first of the ‘‘great compromises’’ between North and South, the measure did little to close the widening rift between Hamilton and the Virginians . Indeed, Je√erson later disowned the compromise, asserting that it ‘‘was unjust, in itself oppressive to the states, and was acquiesced in merely for a fear of disunion.’’∞ In the midst of the assumption and residency controversy, the First Congress became embroiled in a bitter debate over slavery and the slave trade, sparked by an abolition petition presented to the lawmakers by the pioneering Quaker antislavery organization, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (pas). The petition, under the name of pas president Benjamin Franklin, contended not only that slavery and the slave trade were incompatible with the new nation’s charter, but also that Congress had the power and the obligation to terminate the slave trade prior to the end of the twenty-year waiting period stipulated in the Constitution. In response, irate representatives from the Deep South, led by William Loughton Smith of South Carolina (a proadministration Federalist) and James Jackson of Georgia (a vocal critic of the Federalist administration), threatened disunion, reminding their Northern counterparts that they would never have agreed to enter the Union unless their property in slaves was guaranteed, and that the Southern states would never submit to an abolition scheme without civil war. Matthew Mason notes that these men and other such defenders of slavery in the early national era were not yet willing to assert, unequivocally, the morality of slavery. Their arguments on behalf of the institution were instead ‘‘experimental and directed mainly at fellow Southerners.’’ The same might be said of their threats—their intimations of disunion, like their justifications of slavery, served to deny the immorality of slaveholding and to disparage slavery’s opponents. At this moment in 1790, the experiment achieved the desired result: Madison intervened, in the spirit of compromise and indecision, to Disunion Debates in the Early Republic Δ 33 shepherd through a debate-ending resolution that denied Congress the authority to initiate gradual emancipation in the Southern states. But the strident tone of these early debates was nonetheless ominous—congressmen spoke a ‘‘language of honor’’ in which threats and accusations were wielded to make and break personal reputations, and to defend and promote regional interests. Certain Southern lawmakers were already cultivating a reputation for belligerence—capitalizing on the perception that ‘‘hot blooded’’ Southerners were more willing to resort to violence than their ‘‘cold blooded,’’ cautious, puritanical Northern counterparts.≤ As...


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865 -- Sources.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- Sources.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Causes.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
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