During the antebellum period, northerners opposed to slavery feared that a small group of southern slave-holders was conspiring to gain control of the federal government and use it to further southern slave-holding interests. These northerners argued that the conspiracy sought to expand the South’s political power at the expense of northern whites’ liberties.
The Republican Party, which developed during the tense sectional politics of the 1850s, made the fullest use of this argument. Its leading figures, such as Charles Sumner, William Seward, and Joshua Giddings, were among the most active proponents of the theory that a “Slave Power Conspiracy” existed in the South.
Their arguments asserted that this conspiracy was committed to the defense of slavery and was an aristocratic relic in democratic America, one that failed to respect such basic rights as freedom of speech, assembly, the press, and conscience.
From 1845 to 1860, the number of northerners who came to believe in the existence of the conspiracy increased considerably. Though there was no cabal of slaveholders who actually tried to assume control of the federal government, the words and actions of the men of the slaveholding southern states led many northerners to fear that such a conspiracy existed.
Fear of conspiracies had a historical precedent in the United States, and was one of the reasons why northerners gave credence to the Slave Power Conspiracy. They could refer to a number of conspiracy theories believed to have threatened republican liberties in America.
During the colonial era, England had sought to deprive American colonists of their liberties. After the Revolution, there were charges that the Bavarian Illuminati sought to subvert the American Republic.
Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans traded allegations that the other party sought to sell out the new nation to either Great Britain or France. Burr’s conspiracy of 1804, fear of Masonic subterfuge in the 1820s and 1830s, and the suspected designs of the Catholic Church were three more examples of alleged conspiracies in the midst of republican America.
Antislavery northerners could not agree upon the number of southern members of the conspiracy. William Seward believed there were 350,000 southerners involved, but Gamaliel Bailey included all family members of slaveholders and thus came up with the figure of 2 million.
Other proponents of the “Slave Power” theory included in the count northerners who had business relationships or political sympathies with the slaveholding South. Despite these varying estimates, all agreed that the political power of this conspiracy was considerable as it drew upon the wealthiest, most politically influential segment of southern society (Gienapp).
Members of the “Slave Power” shared a belief in several principles. First, they accepted the premise of the “positive good” argument about slavery, believing that slavery lifted the African out of savagery and heathenism and turned him into a Christian servant, cheerfully laboring for a kindly master who then cared for the slave in his declining years.
Second, these slaveholders believed that they had a right to own the labor, as well as the bodies, of their slaves. Third, the slaveholders argued that slavery was legal and constitutional.
They believed that nothing in the Constitution precluded the ownership of slaves; in fact, they asserted that the Constitution protected their ownership of slaves through the protection of private property afforded by the Fifth Amendment, which protects life, liberty, and property from state seizure without due process. They asserted that slavery was largely a state matter, regulated by individual states, which supported the institution through the creation of elaborate slave codes.
Origins of the Conspiracy
Abolitionists were the first group to make the charge that a “Slave Power” existed. Their postal campaign of 1835, which sent abolitionist literature to southern slaveholders, and petition drives, which inundated Congress with abolitionist petitions, drew the immediate ire of southern whites. President Andrew Jackson instructed southern postmasters not to deliver this literature.
In 1836, the House of Representatives, under pressure from southerners, adopted the “gag rule,” which tabled without discussion all abolitionist petitions sent to that body. Protection of slavery superseded protection of First Amendment rights for northerners. Abolitionists began to publicize these attacks on the liberties of northern whites, and this proved to be an effective strategy that would pay dividends in later decades.
Though abolitionists began to use the concept of the “Slave Power” around 1835, some abolitionists and northern politicians went back to the beginning of the federal government to seek the origins of the “Slave Power.” They discovered the roots of the problem in some of the compromises made at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
These compromises included the three-fifths clause, which gave the South additional political power; a provision for a fugitive slave law, later passed in 1793, which obligated northern states to return runaway slaves to their original states; and the twenty-year extension of the international slave trade until 1808.
The Missouri Crisis of 1819–1821 reawakened fears of the expansion of slavery among many northerners. Missouri was part of the Louisiana Purchase and lay on the west bank of the Mississippi River, where it served as the gateway to the western territories.
Northern concerns included the damaging effect of slavery on the free labor economy of the western territories, the preservation of western lands for white non-slaveholding men, the failure of the United States to live up to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the growth of southern political power, and the growing opposition to the institution of slavery. The Tallmadge Amendment, proposed by James Tallmadge, sought to ban the further importation of slaves into Missouri and to begin the process of gradual emancipation in that state.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820, however, permitted Missouri to form a state government without regard to slavery, but it also created a geographic line at 36°30' north latitude (the southern boundary of Missouri) above which slavery could not expand into the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. It also admitted Maine into the union, thus preserving the sectional balance between free and slave states.
The next major event that contributed to the fear of a “Slave Power Conspiracy” was the Texas annexation issue of 1845. Texas had gained its independence from Mexico in 1836, but U.S. presidents had rebuffed Texans’ requests for annexation. Fear of war with Mexico and sectional discord at home over the slavery issue were the deciding factors in those decisions.
There was an equal number of free and slave states in the Union, and Texas, which would be a slave state, threatened to disrupt this balance of power. John Tyler, hoping to win reelection in 1844, used the issue of Texas annexation as a political tool.
His reelection bid failed, but Texas entered the Union as a slave state in 1845. Some extreme northerners, such as John Smith Dye, charged that John C. Calhoun led the plot to annex Texas, and when President William Henry Harrison refused to assent to the plan, the president died of an illness that resembled arsenic poisoning.
Calhoun claimed Tyler, the recently inaugurated vice-president, was fully in agreement with Calhoun’s plan, pointing to the fact that Tyler appointed Calhoun secretary of state and several years later, Texas was a slave state.
However, this interpretation left out two key points: first, the United States had long sought Texas, and second, the United States feared that Great Britain might form an alliance with Texas, a diplomatic move that would have derailed the expansionist goals of Manifest Destiny.
The annexation of Texas helped pave the way for a war with Mexico, a war that antislavery northerners believed to be motivated by southern slaveholders bent on the acquisition of more territory for slavery south of 36°30'.
During this war, David Wilmot, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, proposed an amendment to a spending bill that demanded that slavery not be permitted to spread into any territories that the United States might acquire from Mexico. The amendment, known as the Wilmot Proviso, attracted great support among northern Democrats and Whigs, and passed in the House of Representatives, thanks to a northern majority in that chamber.
The amendment died in the Senate, where the two sections enjoyed parity. The Wilmot Proviso thus went the way of the Tallmadge Amendment, supported in the House but rejected in the Senate. Antislavery northerners chalked up this defeat to southern political power aided by its northern allies.
The Growing Threat of “Slave Power”
Out of the Mexican War came the Mexican Cession, which gave the United States a massive addition of land in the southwest and along the Pacific coast. When the territory of California asked to be admitted into the Union as a free state in 1850, southerners feared the loss not only of valuable territory but also of political power.
California’s entry into the Union would tilt the balance of power in the Senate in the North’s favor and fierce debates erupted in Congress. Out of the sectional bitterness emerged the Compromise of 1850, which allowed California to become a free state and also resulted in a new Fugitive Slave Law. This law concerned many northerners because it placed the national government in the position of aiding the recapture of fugitive slaves.
Federal marshals could require any northerner to aid in a search for runaway slaves, without regard to northern citizens’ feelings about slavery. The law also stripped the accused fugitive of the rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and testifying on his or her own behalf.
Abolitionists used these features of the law to argue their case to good effect, warning that what happened to the accused fugitive slaves could happen to free white men. They also warned that slaveholders wished to spread slavery throughout the nation and the Americas.
In the 1850s, many antislavery northerners grew concerned about growing ties between southern expansionists and the national government and the possible addition of new slave states to the union. One such example of these close ties was the Ostend Manifesto (1854).
Three U.S. ministers met in Ostend, Belgium, and issued this manifesto, which declared that Spanish claims to Cuba were unnatural and that Spain ought to sell the island to the United States. The manifesto asserted that the United States should seize Cuba if it failed in its efforts to purchase it from Spain.
At this time there were also several efforts led by southern filibusters to establish U.S. control over Cuba and Nicaragua. Fears of presidential support for these ventures were greatly exaggerated, as the actions taken by the administrations of Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan to disavow them or to halt filibustering expeditions attested (May).
Northern fears of southern expansionism were not limited to overseas activities. There was even greater concern that slavery would spread to the western territories. When Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1853, which would create territories through which a transcontinental railroad would be constructed, he needed southern support in order to win its passage.
Douglas seized upon the idea of popular sovereignty, which allowed the residents of a territory to determine if it would be slave or free. Since the territories in question lay north of the Missouri Compromise line, Douglas’s proposal meant the repeal of the 1820 line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress in 1854, but led to increased fear of the existence of the “Slave Power Conspiracy.”
Both North and South sent settlers to Kansas, the territory most likely to become a slave state, to determine the territory’s free or slave status. After a fraudulent ballot, in which Missouri “border ruffians” illegally cast ballots, a proslavery government began in Lecompton.
Under the proslavery constitution, men who espoused antislavery opinions lost their right to vote, while supporters of slavery from outside the territory could vote, as long as they swore to support the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act and paid a dollar on election day.
Newspapers that opposed slavery committed a felony and their editors faced imprisonment, while the death penalty awaited those who helped slaves escape. Free-state Kansans established a rival government in Topeka and during the ensuing impasse, Kansas descended into a civil war.
Proslavery forces “sacked” the free-state town of Lawrence in May 1856, an action widely reported in northern newspapers sympathetic to the new Republican Party, whose stated goal was to halt the western expansion of slavery in the territories. These accounts strengthened the conviction that the Slave Power was at work, attempting to spread slavery into Kansas by any means possible.
Additional evidence of the willingness of the “Slave Power” to use violence to defend slavery occurred that same week in Washington when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner had spoken against the outrages in Kansas, slavery, and the defenders of slavery, including Senator Andrew Butler, Brooks’s uncle.
Brooks hit Sumner on the head with a cane several times and inflicted serious injuries that kept Sumner from his Senate duties for two and a half years. Southern newspapers and popular opinion defended this attack. These defenses prompted renewed fears in the North that the civil liberties and physical safety of slavery’s opponents were in grave peril.
From the Dred Scott Case to Secession
In 1857, the Supreme Court decided the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. The court decided that Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, could not sue because he was not a citizen, and that blacks could never be citizens, that slaves were constitutionally protected property, and therefore that Congress could not regulate or restrict slavery in the territories.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and popular sovereignty were declared unconstitutional and thus the case opened the way for the expansion of slavery throughout the territories. Many Republicans accused President James Buchanan, who had discussed the case with several justices before his inauguration, and the Supreme Court of conspiring with the Slave Power to bring about this outcome.
This conclusion was untrue as the Supreme Court was bitterly divided over the case and Buchanan’s remarks about the impending decision were typed before he spoke with the justices at his inauguration. Notwithstanding, many northerners now feared that the next step of the Supreme Court would be to strike down northern state laws that forbade slavery’s existence, thus nationalizing slavery.
Buchanan became the focus of another struggle involving the “Slave Power” in 1858 when he presented the Lecompton Constitution to Congress and defended it as the will of the people of Kansas. Voters in Kansas had overwhelmingly rejected the proposed constitution, but Buchanan asserted that Kansas was a slave state and that free-state forces were disloyal. To deny Kansas admission to the union as a slave state, he asserted, would anger the South.
Republicans denounced Buchanan as a willing tool of the “Slave Power,” and charged that southerners sought a slave state to counterbalance California and restore a sectional balance of power. In the end, with the aid of Stephen Douglas, Congress rejected the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas would eventually join the Union as a free state during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
In the late 1850s, strong sentiment for reopening the African slave trade emerged in the cotton-producing states of the Deep South. Supporters of this movement claimed that the 1808 prohibition was unconstitutional and a response to northern antislavery fanaticism.
Defenders of this policy argued that additional slaves would give the South greater political power in the House of Representatives, where the three-fifths clause held sway, and restore a sectional balance of power.
The last great act of the “Slave Power” was secession from the Union, beginning with South Carolina on 20 December 1860. Slaveholders feared that the new Republican administration of President Lincoln, elected in 1860, would embrace an abolitionist policy toward slavery in the South.
What began as an effort to protect slavery from government interference ended in failure as the Confederacy lost the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment put an end to slavery and fears of a “Slave Power.”