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Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 7-29

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"The Deadly Influence of Negro Capitalists":
Southern Yeomen and Resistance to the Expansion of Slavery in Illinois

Suzanne Cooper Guasco

On a cold blustery evening in late February 1823, Justice Joseph Phillips, Senator Theophilus W. Smith, and Rev. William Kinney, followed by the majority of the legislature and the "hangers-on and rabble about the seat of government," assembled along the steps of the statehouse in Vandalia, Illinois, to celebrate their glorious victory. The day before, two-thirds of the House of Representatives successfully passed a resolution calling for a convention to revise the state's constitution, the first step in a scheme to legalize slavery in Illinois. Armed with torches to light their way, the crowd of convention supporters formed "a noisy, disorderly, and tumultuous procession" and marched through Vandalia's muddy streets "blowing . . . tin horns and . . . beating drums and tin pans," reportedly shouting "Slavery or death" as they went. They paused twice, once in front of the governor's residence and then again at the door of a local boarding house that lodged some of the state's assembly members. On each occasion they demonstrated their "contempt and displeasure" toward their antislavery opponents by coupling their musical discharge with "a confused medley of groans, wailings, and lamentations." Drunk with the arrogance of triumph and undoubtedly a healthy dose of whiskey, the crowd sought to "intimidate and crush all opposition" to a constitutional convention. Despite this show of bravado, the contest had really only just begun. 1 [End Page 7]

Within weeks of the riotous parade in Vandalia, residents began to crowd the state's newspapers with lengthy articles against the convention. One of the contest's earliest editorialists, who identified himself as "Aristides" and typified the position of most anti-conventionists, immediately sought to convince his readers to vote against the convention by declaring that "the labor of the free man is always more productive than the labor of the slave" because "the white laborer has an interest in his toil and in his reward." Free labor, he continued, promoted "active industry" and accelerated the circulation of money within the community, while simultaneously inspiring "the mass of society . . . to energy, enterprize, and improvement." In a free state, he argued, "lands are parcelled out in small quantities, and cultivated by industrious farmers" whose products supplied "the wants of its inhabitants" as well as added to the state's "stock of strength and wealth." Conversely, the labor of a slaveholder's "miserable horde of blacks does not contribute to the improvement or wealth of the country" because slaves only produced what the slaveholder "deems necessary, . . . and he cares for no more." Additionally, in a slave state "the wealthy monopolize large tracts" of the best land and "only cultivate so much as will pamper their pride, luxury, and vice." The rest of his acreage, the writer assured his audience, remained unused and wasted. Aristides also noted that "a sweeping majority of us are poor" farmers who could barely afford to pay for a quarter section of land, much less purchase slaves. If most Southern-born farmers migrated to Illinois to settle in a region where "our energies are not crampted [sic] by the deadly influence of negro capitalists," he asked, then why invite as our neighbor the "wealthy nabob, who would sink us to a level with his blacks?" 2

Aristides' distinct comparison of free and slave societies immediately brings to mind the expressions of Republican ideas about free labor that cluttered national newspapers during the last two decades of the Antebellum period. On the eve of the Civil War, Republicans routinely disparaged slavery and the South by asserting that the institution had caused the South to be "the very poorest, meanest, least productive, and most miserable part of creation." Horace Greeley championed free labor by declaring that enslaving a man destroyed "his ambition, his enterprise," because a slave, who produced only for his master, possessed no interest in his own work. Such observations...


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