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127 4 The Idea Will Become Familiar DISUNION IN THE ERA OF MASS PARTY POLITICS In 1837 a new litmus test for loyalty to slavery emerged as the issue of Texas annexation became a centerpiece of the antislavery petition campaign. The Republic of Texas had declared independence from Mexico in 1836; Texans overwhelmingly favored annexation to the United States. Abolitionists vehemently opposed the addition of Texas to the roster of states, and for good reason—the Lone Star Republic was a bastion of slavery. Texans had won their independence from Mexico with the help of militia companies raised in New Orleans, Mobile, Natchez, and other Southern locales. Newspapers such as the New Orleans Picayune had fostered sympathy for independence and spurred recruitment by casting Texans as ‘‘embattled, expatriated ’’ Americans. Most important, Texans had earned the reputation as defenders of slavery—they had vehemently protested e√orts by successive Mexican administrations to restrict and gradually dismantle the institution, winning concessions such as an 1828 decree that allowed Texans to register their slaves, in name only, as ‘‘indentured servants.’’ Independence brought with it a swift a≈rmation of slavery. Texas’s constitution established the legality of hereditary slavery, and its law code featured such measures as a statute that subjected both slaves and free blacks to whipping ‘‘not exceeding one hundred’’ lashes nor ‘‘less than twenty-five’’ for using abusive language 128 Δ 1837–1850 toward whites. Massive Southern immigration to Texas after independence exponentially increased the slave population there from 5,000 in 1836 to 38,753 in 1840.∞ Inspired by the impassioned treatise The War in Texas, written by antislavery editor and mentor to Garrison, Benjamin Lundy, abolitionists in 1837 flooded Congress with petitions, signed by more than two hundred thousand memorialists, against inviting Texas into the Union. Although hardly an abolitionist, the redoubtable congressman John Quincy Adams vocally supported the right of these petitioners to be heard. The House of Representatives responded by passing a new, more stringent gag rule (alluded to above) that prohibited discussing slavery in the territories. Immediatists had been ambivalent about invoking disunion as a process of sectional alienation— their rhetoric of Northern complicity and complacency emphasized the cultural a≈nities rather than antipathies of whites in the North and South. But the advent of the annexation issue pushed abolitionists to develop their own emerging interpretation of disunion as a process—one in which a ‘‘Slave Power Conspiracy’’ prosecuted a plan to consolidate its hold over the national government and spread the cotton kingdom. Lundy argued that the Southern bid to annex Texas was part of a ‘‘long premeditated crusade’’ to extend slavery, and that the crusade put North and South on a collision course. James Birney asserted in 1837 that Northerners could not accept annexation unless they were willing to ‘‘consent to become one great slaveholding nation.’’ So Northerners should resist, even at the risk of alienating the South. He continued: ‘‘Annexation ought to persuade us to look forward to the dissolution of the Union as an event which will in all probability take place, and for which we ought to prepare.’’ More than any one, John Quincy Adams led the charge in connecting the suppression of petitions to the bid for Texas—again and again he argued in Congress that both were part of a nefarious design. John C. Calhoun and James Henry Hammond had exaggerated the influence of abolitionists in order to close the Southern ranks; now Adams and his allies compiled evidence of slaveholder aggression and dominance to galvanize the North.≤ To rebut such claims about the Slave Power Conspiracy, South Carolina’s William Preston argued on the Senate floor that anti-annexation petitioners were ‘‘hostile to the institutions of the South, and purpose their destruction.’’ He defended annexation as a simple bid on the part of the slave states to Disunion in the Era of Mass Party Politics Δ 129 achieve parity with the North and maintain, as he pretentiously expressed it, an ‘‘equipoise’’ in the Senate chamber. For Preston, the Texas revolution was another chapter in the Missouri Compromise controversy. It was clear to him and other supporters of annexation that the ‘‘distribution of the Louisiana Purchase according to the Missouri Compromise had o√ered the free states greater opportunity for growth’’ than the slave states. Ironically, Preston presented bundles of petitions to the Senate, from climes as distant as Louisiana and Pennsylvania, to persuade his colleagues that ‘‘all parts of this Union’’ supported annexation.≥ Unfortunately for Preston, many Southern...


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