The Republican Rhetoric of a Frontier Controversy: Newspapers in the Illinois Slavery Debate, 1823-1824
Abstract

This essay uses the printed debate over legalizing slavery in Illinois to examine local leaders' rhetorical and ideological approach to bondage in the early 1820s. Though the controversy over slavery was more heated in Illinois than almost anywhere else, the printed debate reveals a remarkable degree of consensus in the way leaders on both sides approached the issue. Those favoring slavery believed it would hasten the state's development, a motive that became both widespread and pressing in the wake of a severe economic depression. But they were categorically unwilling to argue that bondage would serve Illinois's long-term social or political interests. This reluctance became glaring as the debate entered the press, where proslavery writers attempted to clothe the powerful economic motives for introducing bondage in high minded, republican terms. Though Americans in this era read their newspapers in the same grog-soaked taverns that hosted local political disputes, they expected arguments in the press to appeal to republican principles rather than material interests. Certainly, the two could be combined; antislavery writers proved adept at doing just that. But proslavery writers were considerably less successful. As leaders on both sides of the Illinois slavery contest turned to the newspapers to persuade the electorate, they inevitably brought the debate into this high-minded framework, encouraging those who had demanded slavery as hard-pressed residents on the frontier to consider it as disinterested citizens of a republic. Although history provides many examples of proslavery writers defending slavery in these terms, they were unwilling to do so in Illinois.


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