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CHAPTER 23: THE ANTI-CONVENTIONIST CAMPAIGN

No other state or nation, ancient or modern, that had no slaves, deliberately, by an express vote of the people, agreed to obtain them. Governments have done the like--individuals have done the like--but no free state, by a vote of the people, has done the like. ("Martus" in the Republican Advocate, June 12, 1823)

By 1824 two other Northwest Ordinance stateshad already decided against introducing slavery. In 1819 Ohio had defeated a move to revise its constitution by a five-to-one margin, and in 1823, in the middle of the Illinois campaign, Indiana rejected a similar move 11,991 to 2,601. In Ohio it is questionable whether slavery actually was the motive for constitutional revision, and in Indiana the revision campaign was so negligible that it was hardly mentioned in the local press.

Illinois was slavery's best chance for democratic expansion. Its population was Southern, it had separated from Indiana specifically over the issue of slavery, it permitted the descendents of French settlers to own slaves outright and others to trade in "indentured servants." If slavery could not win in Illinois, it probably could not win in any free state or territory.

The anti-conventionists were well aware of just how pivotal the Illinois campaign was. To them the question was precisely whether free men who were well informed would vote for slavery. They had faith that the people of any state would reject slavery once they were presented with arguments on both sides. They believed in the decency and common sense of the majority.

I trust [that] the good sense and virtue of the citizens of Illinois will never sanction a measure so well calculated to disturb the harmony of the Union and so injurious to its own prosperity and happiness, Coles had written to Biddle in a letter quoted earlier, as well as so directly opposite to the progress of those enlightened and liberal principles which do honor to this age. But to insure this it is necessary that the public mind should be enlightened on the moral and political effects of slavery.

"Enlightened" is the key word here. The assumption of men such as Coles and Birkbeck was that evil and error sprung from ignorance. Men acted from passion or from narrow self-interest only because they could not see how seriously they were hurting themselves. If they could be shown their true, or "enlightened" self-interest, the majority of them would follow it.

Enlightened self-interest derives from common rather individual good. It may, for example, be in a childless person's narrow self-interest to lower school taxes, since he personally does not derive immediate benefit from an improved school system. If, on the other hand, he lives in a society of poorly-educated people, he will suffer along with everyone else. Thus it is in his enlightened self-interest to pay what is necessary for a good education for his neighbors' children.

The object, then, of most of the anti-conventionist literature was the enlightened self-interest of the voters of Illinois. And the highest level of their argument was an attempt to prove that slavery undermined democracy and thus endangered the freedom of all.

We are a society of free men , Birkbeck writes. Our fundamental laws know no such being as a slave. In this state every inhabitant is free by right, derived from a power paramount to all majorities. Freedom is the basis of our social compact; a majority can regulate the institutions founded on this basis, but the basis itself is impregnable. Necessity, "the tyrant's plea," in those states where slavery is established, supports the distinction between freeman and slave, a distinction abhorrent to reason, to religion, and to nature! Here we have no such plea, and our constitution admits no such distinction. If a majority have the power of affixing the brand of slavery on one portion of the community, where is the limit of this power? What portion is safe? What security remains for you or for me, if we chance to be in the minority?

What security indeed? Birkbeck's argument remains as relevant today as it was in 1823. The issues have changed, but the principle remains the same: the denial of rights to even one citizen endangers the rights of all.

In any democracy there must be a principle greater than that of majority rule, since the majority may at any time rule to destroy democracy, either for themselves or for a minority of the population. Slavery in the United States is the best illustration of this principle. Can majority rule justify slavery? Or genocide? And if not, why not? What is the basis for deciding when the rule of the majority is undemocratic? What principle supersedes that of majority rule?

Birkbeck finds that principle in the eighteenth-century notion of a "social compact." Freedom is the basis of our social compact, he says, meaning that all of us agree to obey the laws of society--in a democracy, majority rule--only providing certain agreements are kept. And the first such agreement is that all citizens of the state equally share the same political rights, regardless of what any majority at any given time may rule. This agreement protects us all equally, since while my majority cannot strip you of your rights, your majority cannot strip me of mine. Our individual interest may at times be thwarted by this prohibition, but our common, enlightened self-interest is served by it.

In the United States the agreements that form the basis of our social compact are embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and their guarantor in our system of separation of powers is the Supreme Court. The majority cannot rule what the Bill of Rights forbids. Thus a ruling by the Supreme Court is superior to the combined powers of Congress and the President.

The anti-conventionists were accused by their opponents of being opposed to the principle of majority rule. This accusation was untrue. The forthrightness of the anti-conventionists' argument showed that they had more confidence in the good sense of the voters than did their opposition. But the accusation was true in the sense that the anti-conventionists did not believe that majority rule was the most sacred tenet of democratic faith. Other considerations were superior: the rights of each citizen, the conscience of the individual legislator, principles of equality and justice. There were certain things that the majority could never rightly rule.

All the power of the community , Birkbeck writes, directed to this single point, could not extend the right of slavery beyond the individual who has forfeited his freedom by crime. With the condition of those societies where slavery has taken root we have no concern. It has no legal existence here. A set of men called legislators, in this state or any other, have no power to give one man a title to the liberty of another, any more than to his life; or to doom infants to servitude, whatever may have been the crimes or complexion of their parents, any more than they have the power to order them to be strangled at their birth; which, in fact, would be of the two, the least criminal proceeding.

At the highest level of their argument, the anti-conventionists met their greatest challenge head-on. Slavery was wrong no matter what the majority ruled. It was immoral for a legislator to vote for slavery no matter what his constituents wanted. It was immoral for a man to own slaves no matter what the law said. If the conventionists called the anti-conventionists anti-majority, so be it. They relied on the good sense of the voters to see which side was more devoted to democratic principles.

In one particular, however, the anti-conventionists for a time preferred to duck the issue. What if the majority ruled that Illinois should be a slave state? Would the anti-conventionists acquiesce in that decision, or would they attempt to bring in the Federal government to thwart the popular will? The Northwest Ordinance and the original constitution under which Illinois was admitted to the Union prohibited slavery. On the other hand, now that Illinois was a sovereign state it had in theory as much right as any other state to decide whether it should be slave or free. On which side of this question did the anti-conventionists stand?

Inwardly, of course, Coles stood on the side of Federal intervention. But he was aware that this position put him on the wrong side of many of his neighbors, and for a while he was anxious that the issue not be raised. When a number of eastern newspapers took it upon themselves to inform Illinois that it had no right to establish slavery, Coles wrote to Biddle asking that he use his influence to prevail on the newspaper writers to let this question alone for the present. If they are sincere in their opposition to the further extension of Slavery, they will not prematurely urge it, when they are assured that by doing so they can do no good, but much harm.

Since the anti-conventionists believed in a principle beyond majority rule, they were not about to let majority rule establish slavery in Illinois. But it was more politic to cross one bridge at a time: first, the struggle in the legislature; then the referendum campaign; then, if necessary, a fight to elect anti-slavery delegates to a convention; then a fight within the convention to prevent the legalization of slavery; and finally, if all else failed, an appeal to Congress and the Supreme Court. The possible consequences of such a confrontation between Illinois and the Federal government were appalling, including civil war then and there. But that bridge lay far off. There was no reason at this point to let the argument over majority rule lead in that direction.

Yet in the end Coles faced even that issue squarely. In the tenth and last essay signed "One of Many," published in the Intelligencer only days before the vote, he warns that the introduction of slavery into Illinois could lead to civil strife. The Friends of Freedom , he says, will ask the Federal government to rule on the legality of slavery in Illinois. To raise this issue was daring; whether it hurt or helped the anti-conventionist cause cannot be known. But it cannot be said that the anti-conventionists misled voters or refused to say publicly just where they stood. In the end they pursued their line of reasoning on the question of majority rule directly to its risky conclusion.

Since the target of the anti-conventionists was the voters' self-interest and not their passion, there is little in their literature about the sufferings of blacks in bondage. Sufferings are of course mentioned, but are not calculated to draw tears. In painting the evils of slavery, the anti-conventionists are far more interested in the sufferings of whites than of blacks.

As yet the power and the show of fighting has been all on one side , Birkbeck writes, and so seems to be the suffering. The white man holds the rifle and brandishes the cow-skin, while the wretched victim, like the souls under the altar, are crying, "How long, oh, Lord, holy and true, doest thou not judge and avenge our blood?" But is the suffering all on one side? How fares it with the trembling females when their husbands and fathers are out on this hateful and necessary duty? Do you think they sleep, and if they do what are their dreams? When they have gathered up every tool which might be converted into a weapon of destruction, and barricaded their houses, and laid themselves in their beds with their little ones around them. How fare they? The midnight torch and the club, the spirit of vengeance are abroad and awake, and do you think they repose in tranquility?

Think, think, think! the anti-conventionists urge. Do you really want to live in a state, half of the population of which is black slaves? And the emphasis was as often on the "black" as on the "slaves."

Shall we, Coles asks , the pioneers in these beautiful and fertile prairies, provide for the population of them with our kindred descendents of Europe, who like ourselves are free and enlightened, or shall we people them in part with the descendents of Africa, who are not only unlike us in person, but are to be a degraded race of slaves. In the language of Mr. Clay, "degraded and debased, aliens to the society of which they are members, and cut off from all its higher blessings." In a word whether we and our posterity after us are to be a happy community of Brothers, living in peace and harmony, doing as we wish to be done by, or of a motley and heterogeneous mass, composed of masters and slaves, in a state of open opposition and injustice, and of secret war and vengeance.

And what would be the end of that secret war? It requires not the spirit of prophesy to foretell that you or your posterity will reap the bitter fruits of your oppression! "Martus" warns. In spite of all your efforts to keep your slaves in ignorance, some master-genius will arise among them, some Toussaint, with the cunning and talents of a Hannibal, and rouse his countrymen to assert their rights!

Think! Think! The white man, even the white woman (odious to contemplate) must be ready to apply the lash, Birkbeck writes, and there would be an incessant war of plunder, in which the whites would have to act on the defensive. Everything that can be secured must be under lock. Your clothing and provisions and choice food and poultry; you might watch them, but it would be in vain. One thief in a neighborhood is a sufficient nuisance, but then there would be a hundred. If mischief to your property by theft would be increased a hundredfold, so would danger by fire; not through negligence only, but through design . . . Then, too, would arise an overwhelming flood of gross immorality, carrying all decency before it.

Leave it to the preachers, though, to be most explicit about immorality: The dwellings of slaves are generally places of prostitution, the Christian Conference on the Wabash warns, where the wretched inhabitants, deprived of education and denied the rites of marriage, commonly live in continual lewdness; and what is still worse, the oppressors and the oppressed frequently unite in crime, by which a hateful amalgamation is produced, and then to crown all, these unfortunate mulattoes are, for no crime, doomed to perpetual slavery by their own parents.

One wonders how many votes the prospect of uniting in crime might have lured to the conventionist side! Still, the message of the anti-conventionists was clear: A dreadful inheritance is slavery--even for those who inflict it!

But even in the short run, the anti-conventionists argued, slavery has little to offer. Consider which states are wealthier, they urged: New York or Virginia? Ohio or Kentucky? Clearly population and wealth grow faster in the free states , industry develops more quickly, land prices are higher.

And consider the price of labor. Slaves must be bought; immigrants come free. Where should the capital of Illinois be invested--in industrial development or in slaves? To purchase slaves it will take either money, stock, or produce, "Martus" points out, and I think many a one would have to make a slave out of himself a while, before he would be able to purchase a slave to serve him. And after they were obtained, I suspect many purchasers would rue the bargain--and wish their property again in money or stock, instead of human flesh and bones.

As for the price of land , remember that while the establishment of slavery may attract some immigrants from slave states, it will shut off a much larger immigration from the free states and from Europe. Further, the establishment of slavery will force all those who are opposed to slavery to leave the state, throwing their property on the markets and driving prices down.

In regard to emigration, Birkbeck summarizes the argument, we should probably exclude ten by slavery for one that it would bring in. If we wish to sell land the difference is still in favor of a free emigration. The slave owner will purchase [large tracts of land] from Congress; eastern or European emigrants are more likely to buy improvements. Produce will be lowered in price by the introduction of slavery, because slaveholders with their negroes are all producers. Other emigrants will be partly consumers who by introducing manufactures and dollars to be expended in labour will create a home market for produce and increase the price.

So that in every view in which we can place it, Birkbeck concludes, independent of moral considerations, slavery would be against our interest. But if all the arguments of a temporary and inferior interest were as much on the side of slavery as they are opposed to it, what are they in comparison to the miseries and abominations which are its inseparable companions?

The union of narrow and enlightened self-interest, of profit and conscience, of practical benefit and moral principle--this is what the anti-conventionists hammered home. Unlike the arguments of their opponents, their argument did not change significantly from its opening statement in the "Appeal" issued at the close of the legislative session to its last expression in the articles by "One of Many" in the closing weeks of the campaign.

This consistency is not surprising given that most of the extended argument on the anti-conventionist side was written by two men--Birkbeck and Coles. With two such able idealists doing the bulk of the writing, it is no wonder that the argument they put together was so effective. On only one major point did they hedge and shift--a point that reveals a great deal about their purposes and the nature of the campaign they ran.

The weak point in their argument arose from a compromise they made with principle--not only in the campaign but in their lives. The compromise was to accept Southern slavery, and to fight only against its extension into Illinois. Coles lived with this compromise continuously. It dictated his removal to Illinois, his defeatism about affecting Virginian attitudes towards slavery, his cooperation with his brother Isaac in checking on Isaac's slave plantation in Missouri, the ease with which he slipped back and forth between the worlds of slavery and freedom. ( In January 1824 , the middle of the campaign, Coles found time to visit Isaac's slave plantation in Missouri, El Prado, and to send Isaac a long account of how poorly his property was being managed.)

Birkbeck, too, compromised on the same issue. The English at Albion and Wanborough were willing to risk their lives to rescue some free black men who had been kidnapped into slavery, but an escaped slave, Birkbeck insisted in the local paper , would be returned to his owner. And even John Peck , the Baptist minister, while strongly against slavery in Illinois, later supported the Fugitive Slave Law and condemned the underground railroad, which he saw as an interference in the right of other states to define "property" as they chose.

It was of course true that the fate of slavery in the South was not at issue in the Illinois campaign. The question was not whether the South should free its slaves, but whether slavery should be extended to Illinois. Tactically, then, it made sense to skirt the issue of Southern slavery, which is what Coles and Birkbeck attempted to do.

But tactical sense is sometimes philosophical nonsense, as the anti-conventionist argument illustrates. More important, compromise is often more deeply motivated than may at first appear. What masquerades as shrewd tactics may actually be a lack of nerve or energy or conviction. The proof is always in the sequel, when the need for compromise has passed and the compromisers are put to the test. Will the compromisers once again put on their armor to fight for principle, or, their immediate objective attained, will they abandon the field, gratefully freed by compromise from further obligation?

Because Coles and Birkbeck deliberately avoided facing the issue of ending slavery in the South, they were forced to face the issue of whether the extension of slavery into Illinois would make life better or worse for blacks already enslaved. They accepted the premise that it would be impractical at the moment simply to free slaves. Therefore the question of how to ameliorate the slaves' condition became relevant to the campaign. Coles and Birkbeck found themselves stuck with the absurdity of defending the status quo in the South against whatever changes the extension of slavery might bring.

Persons who do not defend the principle of slavery have stated in defence of its extension into new countries that diffusion of the black population is mitigation of the evil , Birkbeck writes. But where slaves are more numerous, I believe they are also at the highest price, and are not, therefore, likely to be transferred to a country where they are of less value.

This is obvious nonsense, as a man of Birkbeck's intelligence would have seen had he not been so intent on getting out of a tight corner. The law of supply and demand makes it unlikely that the price of slaves would go up where they are numerous and down where they are scarce, especially given the increased demand for labor on the frontier. In any case, in the next sentence Birkbeck jettisons that absurd argument to make way for another: that the new states to the south, with the addition of Missouri, besides immense tracts of uncultivated lands in Georgia, Kentucky, etc., afford ample scope for the diffusion of slavery, without breaking faith with the United States and the friends of freedom in Illinois by admitting it here.

So diffusion is now possible, even desirable, as Birkbeck goes on to suggest, and the territory of Illinois is not needed since there is ample room in the slave states to spread slavery there. But if spreading slavery across the Southwest is possible and desirable, wouldn't spreading it even more thinly across Illinois be even more desirable? Not so, declares Birkbeck , shifting position violently once again. For while diffusion may temporarily improve the condition of slaves, their new prosperity will induce them to multiply more rapidly, until their increased numbers create the same overpopulation that had previously existed in a smaller area.

Thus in one paragraph Birkbeck finds himself in three contradictory positions. He says that slaves won't be diffused into new territory because prices are lower where they are scarce. Then he says that they will be diffused and that there is ample room in the slave states for their diffusion. Finally, he says that even with the addition of Illinois there is not enough room for their diffusion and within a short time they will be as concentrated a population as before.

That Birkbeck's argument is as racist as it is confused can be seen by applying the same logic to whites. Why, after all, encourage whites to "diffuse" since within a few generations the overpopulation of Europe will be duplicated in all areas of the United States? But Malthusian logic is not meant to be applied to whites. Growth in white population is a sign of prosperity. Birkbeck trots out charts of population growth to show with enthusiasm how much more rapidly free states are populated than slave states. For whites there is plenty of room, while blacks within a short time will overpopulate millions of acres of wilderness.

Coles, too, finds himself in a racist bind . He argues that the extension of slavery into Illinois will increase the number of slaves--and therefore the number of human beings consigned to misery. But since he doesn't advocate freeing a single slave, he finds himself stuck with the implication that the more desirable alternative is to keep slaves starving and miserable so that they won't multiply as fast.

Coles' problem was that he never accepted the only alternative that was viable and just--freedom and full equality for blacks. He had always believed that emancipation of the slaves of Virginia should be linked to expatriation to Africa. It was his despair of convincing the masters of Virginia to contemplate such a scheme that sent him somewhat inconsistently to Illinois. For surely if the answer to the race question in the United States was the expatriation of former slaves, he should have settled his people in Africa, not in Illinois. Which is, as we shall see, the conclusion to which he himself eventually came.

In furnishing a country for the Negroes far removed from all future collision with us , Coles says during the campaign in praise of the work of the American Colonization Society, and congenial in climate with their constitutions, the great barrier on our part to their emancipation is removed, and the obligation to restore them their inherent and inalienable rights becomes the stronger on us, from the circumstance of their being able to enjoy them in peace and happiness without endangering ours.

In an attempt to scare voters away from contemplating life with blacks in their midst, Birkbeck paints a grotesque picture of slaves: Human forms stripped of all that is estimable in human character: or, if aught remains of the nobility of man, it is that incurable hatred, that obstinacy not to be conquered by torture, and that thirst of vengeance, which assume the place of virtue in the bosom of a slave and convert him into a demon. Female slaves, sunk below the restraints of moral decorum . . . become a nursery of vice in every family, and a general dissoluteness of morals is the consequence.

Coles is less vociferous than Birkbeck but arrives eventually in the same place. He takes great pains to explain that when he talks about the ill effects of introducing slaves into Illinois, he is referring to blacks as slaves and not as people. Were blacks not slaves, they would not be degraded and anti-social. If we do not discover talents in them, "Martus" writes, it is because we see them only to a disadvantage. But go to Haiti and you will see them free; and you will see that they possess some talents. The Egyptians, the first inventors of many of the arts and discoveries of the sciences, were Africans--the Carthegenians, who contended with Rome herself for universal empire, and Hannibal, their first great general, were Africans. Say not, then, that Africans were only made for slaves.

In answer to the conventionist scheme of making Illinois an emancipation and emigration to Africa center, Coles cries out, Would that it were so! Yet how could those who call free blacks pests, who restrict their emigration into the state, and who pass laws restricting their freedom be the ones to set up emancipation schemes? The conventionists are the racists; the anti-conventionists are the ones who, during the legislative session, urged that bills be passed to free the blacks enslaved or virtually enslaved in Illinois and to give all blacks the rights of citizens.

Still, in their desire to paint the darkest possible picture of slavery, the anti-conventionists distorted black life, turning black women into prostitutes and black men into vengeful demons. They were not interested in understanding slavery but in preventing its spread. Evidence that black dignity survived slavery, that black family life persisted, that marriage, sexual fidelity, parental responsibility, honesty, virtue, decency, all retained their powers more or less, depending on local and individual circumstances--evidence, in short, that blacks were still human, threatened the myth that the anti-conventionists needed for their cause, which was that slavery was a nightmare that destroyed the humanity of both master and slave.

But that myth gave Southern masters precisely the excuse they needed for not freeing their slaves. Do you see what beasts we have created? the masters could--and did--cry. (Recall Jefferson's letter to Coles.) What blacks would be like free, we cannot say, but we know that as slaves they are a degraded, violent, lazy, and dangerous race. We can't just free them. So until a solution comes along, we'll just have to keep them enslaved, for their own good and for ours.

The compromise that Coles and his friends made with Southern slavery was inseparable from their racism. The one flowed from the other. They accepted Southern slavery because they accepted the notion that blacks were unfit for white society. Unfit in Virginia and unfit in Illinois. No matter that slavery had made them unfit. They were unfit, and no sane white man would want too many of them around.

That this line of argument was successful in the campaign against the extension of slavery into Illinois can be seen in the result. That it was sincere can be seen in the lives and work of its proponents. That it was racist and provided an excuse for continued slavery is also clear.

The anti-conventionist movement in Illinois was led by men who believed that they were anti-slavery but who were not really so. They were only half anti-slavery, enough to be opposed to the institution but not enough to face what real abolition meant, which was treating blacks as fully equal human beings. It meant seeing them as they actually were, respecting them for what they were, accepting them as they were, giving up the myth of white superiority, admitting that they were owed a great deal in return for the wealth they had created, making economic and social sacrifices far, far beyond the loss of capital that emancipation entailed and the token cost of a 160 acres of useless wilderness.

The anti-conventionists were not ready for such drastic changes in their lives. Nor were they ready to fight the good fight even though it seemed almost impossible to win. It was enough for them to have prevented slavery's extension into Illinois. That was a winnable fight in which victory would cost them little. Once it was over, it was over completely. They could go on enjoying their private lives, the wealth of their farms, the security of the unchallenged supremacy of their race. There was, after all, nothing they could do about the complex problem of Southern slavery.

Which was why the abolition movement in Illinois collapsed after August 1824. The political figures brought to prominence by the movement, including Coles, returned to obscurity. The agitation over Southern slavery, growing in other states, went into a decade of hibernation in Illinois. Once the vote was taken, the great debate over slavery, which had gripped the minds and passions of the people of Illinois for a year and a half, suddenly vanished without a trace.

Edward Coles

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