After South Carolina extremists retreated from nullification and dared not try secession, they retained only one weapon. They could only bludgeon moderates with argumentative words. No wonder, then, that a Gag Rule Controversy about nothing but “mere” words was a revealing signpost on the road to disunion.


The Reorganization of Southern Politics

In the early 1830s, Carolina radicals’ warnings of a South in danger seemed destined to be ignored, unless some northern menace to slavery surfaced. Immediately after nullification, little about the North seemed menacing. The only root-and-branch abolitionist newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, possessed scant subscribers. The only dangerous Yankee assault had taken a narrowly political form. During the Missouri Controversy, Rufus King and James Tallmadge had denounced the Slavepower sheerly for its undemocratic impact on whites. Even that denunciation had swiftly dissipated.

Then, a couple of years after nullification, emerging Yankee abolitionists made southern extremists more compelling. Calhoun’s so-called delusion, the reorganization of political organizations, rapidly materialized. But southern reorganization deviated disastrously from Calhoun’s blueprint. The abstractionist and his followers, having been more right than ever about the North, were more isolated than ever from the South—and more dangerously frustrated to be so ignored after being so prescient.


In the mid-1830s, the key new Yankee zealot was a tepid extremist on slavery. Charles Grandison Finney, northern evangelical revivalist extraordinaire, demanded a religious conversion with a political potential more radical than the preacher necessarily intended. Finney’s was the gospel that disinterested benevolence should declare holy war on interested selfishness.

Disinterested benevolence. That concept fired Finney’s preaching and his reform empire. The revivalist armed with those “mere” words was no wild-eyed screamer. He was a cool ex-lawyer, who presented hell’s horror with deathly quiet. He would stand still under the tent, before multitudes from the prairies. He would quietly portray a selfish people defying their selfless Lord. Come to Christ, Finney would almost whisper, and rise up from personal selfishness. Here a slowly rising finger would break the spellbinder’s motionlessness. Ascend to the anxious seat, demanded Finney. Then crusade benevolently for a disinterested world.1

Cleansed converts streaming from Finney’s tents generally matched the revivalist’s unprovoking manner. For every Finneyite who demanded antislavery, thousands worked for less unsettling causes—for starting Sunday schools or for spreading Bibles, for curbing drunkards or for colonizing free blacks, for eating graham crackers or for establishing manual labor schools.2 Finney himself wished converts who marched against slavery would trod more softly.

But Finney could not control his zealots. Among millions who would cleanse Christ’s democracy, a few souls attacked the most apparent sin against republicanism. The leading Finneyite assaulter was Theodore Dwight Weld, who in the mid-1830s briefly vied with William Lloyd Garrison for the title of Mr. Abolitionist.3

Garrison’s agitations were rooted in old New England in general and Boston in particular. Theodore Dwight Weld, though son of a New England preacher, pushed the movement where Finney was most effective, across mid-western prairies where Yankees were migrating. Weld followed the typical Finneyite migration. After conversion under the master, he joined Finney’s so-called Holy Band, worked the western New York frontier’s so-called Burned Over District, fought for manual labor schools, and sometimes raised his sweet voice for nothing more controversial than mnemonics (memory improvement).

In 1833, Weld departed from holy conservatism. The new abolitionist’s wild hair, sprouting in every direction as if the mane of a porcupine, epitomized the unruly West. Weld consolidated his reputation as wild man by marrying the abolitionizing feminist, South Carolina’s Angelina Grimké.

Weld condemned America as democracy’s laggart. England, in 1833, had abolished slavery in the British West Indies. Could America do less? Charles Stuart, Weld’s friend in the Holy Band and an English reformer come to unreformed prairies, asked the question especially effectively.4Weld’s answer, his midwestern antislavery lectures, spread antislavery past London, past Boston, towards becoming even more of a trans-Atlantic crusade.

Spiritual conquests need materialistic ammunition. Weld and Garrison, like Kentucky’s James Birney, drew on the Tappan fortune. Benjamin and Louis Tappan’s previous philanthropies had fostered little more radical than searching streets for prostitutes to reform. Under Weld’s influence, the brothers used part of their dry-goods fortune to help form and finance the American Antislavery Society in 1833. By 1835, the swiftly growing society possessed hundreds of local branches and tens of thousands of followers. The question was now, very suddenly, whether a fringe American antislavery movement could convert the American mainstream, North and, yes, South too.5


Conversionists aimed first at the South. The newest Finneyite plea took the form not of quiet lawyer touring unsettled provinces. Rather, silent mailings descended on slaveowners. On July 29, 1835, when Charleston Postmaster Alfred Huger opened mail sacks, he uncovered antislavery appeals addressed to South Carolina citizens.

Abolitionists’ notion of converting slaveholders was hardly zany in the context of the early 1830s. No intransigent slaveholding class, determined to keep slavery forever, had developed beyond South Carolina. Instead, Maryland and Virginia legislative debates had revealed slaveholders wistfully hopeful about diffusing blacks away. Perhaps peaceable persuasion might fortify the tremulous.

Fearing that result and more, many South Carolinians demanded repression of persuasive, alias incendiary, pamphlets. Postmaster Alfred Huger termed abolitionists’ appeal to white consciences a call for black revolution. Delivering such mail, Huger noted, would strew antislavery around Charleston’s houses, where blacks could see it. The postmaster locked up the insurrectionary sheets until President Jackson could send instructions.6

Charlestonians would not wait. Within 24 hours, “respectable” slaveholders led a mob into the post office. The gang confiscated the letters, then used the mail to fuel a public bonfire. This time, Southerners copied South Carolina. During the long hot summer of 1835, several mobs cleansed post offices.7

As for the slaveholding President responsible for delivery of mails, his instructions to Postmaster General Amos Kendall revealed the despot struggling with democracy. Andrew Jackson neither demanded that ideas circulate nor insisted on censorship. The President instead told the Postmaster General to lock up suspicious-looking letters, unless and until recipients demanded delivery. Before dispatching mail, the local postmaster should take demanders’ “names down, and have them exposed thru the Publick journals as subscribers to this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” All “moral and good” Southerners would ostracize the fiends. Few who had asked for their mail would be “so hardened in villainry as to withstand the frowns of all good men.”8

Jackson here expressed a classic southern mixture of consent and coercion. Just as slaveholders called coercive slavery legitimate in part because Cuffee allegedly consented to be controlled, so Jackson would coercively censor only until some citizen dissented. Then, just as southern communal pressure and community vigilance, not state repression, customarily controlled dissenting citizens and overly harsh slaveholders, so neighbors’ ostracism would deter those wishing incendiary mail. Jackson would thus edge public democracy towards coercion while still struggling to retain consent. It was all an unforgettable lesson on how this precariously poised world ideally remained in balance.

Postmaster General Amos Kendall, practical Kentuckian, knew that Southerners were not on ideal behavior. Vicious mobs were the alternative to government censorship. Jackson’s instructions to Kendall thus were changed in Kendall’s instructions to Huger to read that “circumstances of the case justified detention of the papers.” In other words, Huger could censor without Jackson’s machinery for ending censorship. Armed with Kendall’s instructions, Huger and other southern postmasters cleansed the mail in the fall of 1835, unless mobs seized the task.9

Southerners hoped to spread censorship beyond the South. Meetings in southern communities and resolutions in southern legislatures urged Northerners to sanitize the North. Southerners called on northern states to outlaw anti-slavery appeals and to extradite fanatics to the South for trial.10

Slaveholders deployed their usual excuse for such repression. Liberty to speak does not include license to cry fire in crowded theatres. Antislavery agitators would doubly set the social order afire. Slaves would rise in revolt. Slaveholders would erupt from the Union.

Abolitionists answered by denying intention or power to incite slaves. They sent letters to whites, not blacks. They sadly knew black noncitizens could not read. Slaveowners could keep alleged incendiary material away from slaves. Who was master down there?

Slaveowners answered that they meant to master a Domestic Institution. Some slaves were literate. Illiterate blacks could see provoking woodcut illustrations enclosed in supposedly peaceful propaganda. Such provocations undermined domesticity and delayed reform. Slavery could be paternalistic only if slaveholders could control servants without frightful repression. Reformers could ease blacks out only if outside agitators ceased frightening southern communities.

Abolitionists here became scapegoats for every southern trouble. Southern apologists moved against slavery too slowly? That was Yankee fanatics’ fault. Domestic patriarchs whipped too often? Outsider meddlers were responsible. The upshot of this argument was that Southerners could never end a moral miasma unless Northerners stopped consolidating slavery’s most immoral tendencies.

If all that sounded like hypocrisy, the self-serving cant demonstrated something more important: souls needing soothing. The southern response to unconditional abolitionism had the same aspirin-like potentialities as the Conditional Termination argument. To the old notion that a sin could be morally abolished only tomorrow was added the new notion that outside meddlers only further delayed insiders’ actions.

A less convoluted defensive postulate would have declared the institution holy and forever to be perpetuated. South Carolinians proclaimed for holy perpetuation in the 1830s and before. That was not the customary southern proclamation elsewhere until the 1850s. Southerners who would exploit slaves while yearning to diffuse them away could only deploy an awkward defensiveness. The awkwardness indicated that more than fear of slave insurrection impelled demands that antislavery attack cease.

Slaveholders admitted they feared white no less than black dissent. The “great and terrible danger” of insurrection, South Carolina’s Arthur P. Hayne explained to Andrew Jackson, has little to do with white life and death, much to do with white morale and commitment. Southern whites outnumbered blacks two to one. Life was more in danger on New York and Philadelphia streets. But “a restless feeling” pervaded “the South, and not without just cause, in relation to the Question of Property at the South, and unless this feeling be put at rest, who would desire to live in such a community?”

Southerners would desert a slaveholder community, continued Hayne, because black insurrection would remind white democrats that republican consent was the holy conception of the century. The idea of abstract liberty, once agitated in the North and mailed to the South, would turn some slaves’ heads, trouble some slaveholders’ consciences, inspire liberty-loving nonslaveholders North and South to turn against liberty’s curse. Only “if the Non-Slave-holding States … will come forward patriotically, generously, and fairly and unite with the South to prevent Insurrection and to organize a moral power in favour of the South—then and only then will the South be safe.”11

In early 1836, Professor Henry Nott of Thomas Cooper’s South Carolina College explained why northern moral power might overwhelm southern moral power. “Europe is against us, & the North is against us,” Nott wrote privately to his representative in Congress, James Hammond. “How do we stand at home? Every town & village is full of northern people, many of whom are feebly with us & many in secret decidedly against us.” In “many” of the rural districts too, “the great body of the poor people … would on the ground of republicanism as well as religion either be inefficient friends or decided opponents.”

“Incendiary publication,” continued Henry Nott, would escalate anxiety by encouraging slaves “to escape” and slaveholders to fear “open rebellion and secret poison.” In this atomosphere, any slave revolt would be the beginning of the end. “Remember the serious discussions in the Virginia Legislature after the petty affair of Northampton,” concluded Professor Nott, and “think what would have been the effect had there been a revolution more extensive, well concerted & bloody at its outset.”12

Important molders of southern opinion publicly echoed Professor Nott’s private opinion that free and open debate would contaminate whites’ viewpoints. Duff Green’s United States Telegraph, published in Washington, D.C., was dedicated to John C. Calhoun’s interests. Duff Green’s messages in the fall of 1835 reiterated conceptions Calhoun and other Carolinians had advanced since nullification times. The unsteady Upper South, ran the main theme, wished and believed that blacks would someday diffuse elsewhere. Those who speculated about moving blacks out would not stand firm for keeping slaves forever.

Duff Green scoffed at the notion “that the South sleeps on a volcano—that we are afraid to go to bed at night.” Green instead feared “the gradual operation of public opinion among ourselves.” “Insidious and dangerous invaders” come “in the guise of friendship,” seeking “to persuade us that slavery is a sin, a curse, an evil.” Green’s “greatest cause of apprehension” was that the “morbid sensitivity of our own people” will “make them the voluntary instrument of their own ruin.” Green wished to outlaw all talk, North and South, proclaiming slavery an evil.13

Northerners, although too democratic to outlaw talk, reassured Southerners that debate could lead nowhere. In the summer of 1835, public meetings in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and several smaller cities condemned so-called fanatics as “nigger-lovers” and worse. Freedom for “inferior” blacks, so most Northerners conceived, was not worth a smashed white republic or a deranged national economy.

These sentiments ushered in three decades of northern anti-abolitionism. Northern membership in antislavery societies peaked at around 200,000 in 1840, a figure swollen with females who could not vote, in a year when almost nine times that many Yankee males voted in the presidential election. Abolitionists agitating in the North often received a nonlynching version of a southern reception—rotten tomatoes aimed at the face, red pepper thrust under the nose, violent epithets drowning out the fanatic’s voice. Once, in the notorious case of Elijah P. Lovejoy’s murder in Illinois in 1837, these distractions escalated into a southern-style lynching.

Precisely this widespread northern opposition to antislavery, deeply rooted in Yankee anxiety about blacks, Union, and commerce, makes explaining the road to disunion difficult.14 If the North was never committed to abolitionism, why should the South have felt compelled to secede? Troubled by that question, an important group of historians, the so-called Revisionists of the 1930s, revised away slavery as a cause of Civil War. These scholars urged that irresponsible agitators must have used delusive propaganda to whip up a needless combat.15

Those 1835 northern meetings, like Yankees’ assault on the Slavepower’s three-fifths extra power in Missouri Controversy times, supply a better explanation of Northerners’ anti-southernism. While most Yankees were not fanatical about liberty for blacks, they demanded egalitarian republicanism for whites. According to prevailing opinions “on the subject of liberty and freedom,” explained a Bostonian, and “according to the letter of the Constitution, the States cannot prevent by legislation the printing and distribution of pamphlets.” Southerners must consider it “enough that the great body of the people in this quarter” condemn “any interference with the internal policy of the slave-holding states.” Southerners must not “require of us a course of conduct which would strike at the root of everything we have been taught to consider sacred.”16

Sacred. That word lay behind Charles Grandison Finney’s preaching and Theodore Dwight Weld’s crusade. But few Yankees thought blacks’ right to liberty so sacred as to chase a holy war with righteous Southerners. Whites’ democratic rights, on the other hand, were as precious as the sacrament. The three-fifths clause already provoked northern egalitarian republicans. If Southerners now piled on insistence that Northerners jail dissenters, abolitionists might become more popular.

Fortunately for the Union, South Carolina extremists alone insisted that the North become a closed society. The northern majority, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina wrote the editor of the New York Evening Star on August 19, 1835, must not allow abolitionists “an asylum from which to hurl their murderous missiles.” Fanatics “can be silenced in but one way—Terrordeath.” Northern states “must pass laws,” dispatching incendiaries “on demand to those whose laws and whose rights they have violated.” Unless Northerners extradited incendiaries down South for trial, “we shall dissolve the Union, and seek by war the redress denied us.”17

There echoed Carolina’s advanced consciousness. There screeched a zealot out of touch with the southern mainstream. Few Southerners demanded abolitionists’ scalps or else. The southern mainstream plea for repressive northern action came down to a request. The irritated northern mainstream was at liberty to reject southern calls to turn the North into a Slavepower jail.


With northern extremists free to agitate, the southern mainstream had to learn to live with a permanent antislavery crusade. The learning was distressing and never complete. Southern edginess about new Yankee extremists swiftly altered the region’s political discourse, particularly in Middle and Deep Souths.

The omnipresent new southern issue in 1835 was northern antislavery agitation. The new tone of stridency, omnipresent only in South Carolina previously, yielded periodically ugly debates over which southern politician was most “soft on slavery” and secretly anxious to collaborate with antislavery Northerners. One valued new talent was skill at pinning the label “disloyalty” most firmly on the opponent.

These contests over loyalty became instantly lethal because a critical reorganization of southern politics simultaneously occurred. During the very period when an abolitionist onslaught emerged in the North, a region-wide, highly competitive two-party system appeared in the South. Newly positioned Southern politicians were on the hunt for the tiny margins of victory which assaulting an opponent’s loyalty could abundantly provide.

While Andrew Jackson was running for President, southern politics were highly competitive only in Henry Clay’s relatively slaveless, highly nationalistic Border South. In 1828, John Quincy Adams secured a respectable 45% of popular votes and 29% of electoral votes in Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. In 1832, Henry Clay won 68% of these Border South states’ popular vote and 77% of their electoral votes.

Deeper in the South, except in Louisiana with its fairly vigorous nationalistic party, Jackson and states’ rights were almost unopposed. Politicians love to oppose. Deep and Middle South politicians forfeited by default both chances for appointed patronage from an anti-Jackson presidential administration and chances for elected office should Jacksonian initiatives turn sour.

Southern opportunities widened as Jackson’s presidency waned. Old Hickory was the Southwest’s man, the perfection of the region’s mentality and persona. Southwesterners were stuck instead in 1835–6 behind Martin Van Buren. Jackson told his supporters that the Little Magician was the best successor; and if Old Hickory said so, it must be true. But few slaveholding outdoorsmen would have selected a pudgy, pasty Yankee politician as hero apparent, if their idol had not.

Only intimates found Martin Van Buren heroic. This professional politician possessed great skills at positioning himself on issues, planning campaigns, sensing moods, exploiting advantages. These were insiders’ talents, pros’ virtuosities, and professionals who worked closely with the so-called Little Magician relished the sly operator. They also believed that Van Buren concocted sleights of hand not just to win the game but also to create a patriotic amalgam of New Yorkers and Virginians, plain republicans north and prestigious planters south, dedicated to saving the Union and spreading white men’s egalitarianism. Southern professional politicians who knew Van Buren well and trusted him totally included the Blairs of Maryland and Missouri, who edited the ultra-prestigious and longtime pro-Van Buren Washington Globe, and Thomas Ritchie, head of the so-called Richmond Junto of Virginia Democrats and editor of the equally pro-Van Buren Richmond Enquirer.

Despite their editorial skills, the Blairs and Ritchies could never sell their image of Van Buren to the southern masses. Southerners who saw the New Yorker only from afar usually visualized a self-serving manipulator. Van Buren’s concessions to the South seemed begrudging. His vaunted magic seemed contrived to sink deeper ruts in the middle of the Yankee road. With the trade of an apparent Yankee wirepuller for the Southwest’s hero, Jacksonianism lost much of its southern magic before the Little Magician could finesse an issue.

Van Buren’s further misfortune was that Jackson’s unbeatable southwestern issue was lost. Jackson had accomplished too well what Southwesterners had most elected him to achieve. The old Indian slayer had moved reds out of white frontiersmen’s way. Indians, having marched their Trail of Tears to trans-Mississippi reservations, had become the first American Invisible Men. No magic of Van Buren’s could make the best initial southwestern reason for Jacksonianism visible again.

With neither Jackson’s charisma nor his most charismatic issue capable of being inherited, politicians throughout the South hustled to build an anti-Van Buren party in time for the 1836 presidential election. As is so often true of partisans of the ideologically impure American party, these party builders, seeking different programs, mounted different assaults on the enemy party. Southern anti-Van Buren states’ righters called the Yankee too soft on states’ rights for slavery’s safety. Meanwhile, southern anti-Van Buren nationalists called the New Yorker too committed to states’ rights for the South’s prosperity.

Anti-Van Buren states’ righters had lately seceded from the Democratic Party. Their switch had its origins in the Nullification Controversy. Jackson’s choice of the moderate states’ righter Van Buren over the extremist Calhoun, the President’s relative uninterest in tariff reform, Jackson’s anti-secessionist threats in his Nullification Proclamation—all these relatively nationalistic positions made states’ righters besides Calhoun wonder whether Jacksonianism was states’ rights enough.

The worry increased in 1833–4 when Jackson seized federal monies from the national bank and deposited the lucre in his pet local banks. This transfer of millions, assuredly not enumerated as a presidential power in the Constitution, also arguably defied national law. This latest aggressive national presidential action looked to those states’ righters who had half-deserted Jackson over the Nullification Controversy as cause to desert ship entirely.

Deserters usually went straight over to the anti-Jacksonian coalition. That opposing institution would be called the Whig Party by the late 1830s, in honor of its campaign against that alleged monarchical threat to American chaste republicanism, King Andrew. For a short time in the mid-1830s, the party opposing Jackson was instead known as the Opposition Party. Oppositionists who had departed the Jackson coalition resolved to turn Oppositionism into a truer states’ rights crusade than Jackson’s allegedly phony version.

The more purist of these turncoats hoped that once they demanded states’ rights candidates and policies as a condition for their support, nationalistic Oppositionists would surrender. “Our fate is in our own hands,” trumpeted Duff Green, Calhoun’s favorite editor, to Beverley Tucker, a founder of the Virginia Opposition Party. “We can make the next President, and what is more important, we can make him a thorough-going states’ rights republican.”18

That strategy faced forbidding obstacles, as the more politic party-switchers, such as North Carolina’s United States Senator Willie Mangum, well knew. In the North and Border South too, Oppositionists had long been high nationalists. Would the traditional party majority surrender to an upstart states’ rights fraction? Worse, states’ righters did not always control the new southernmost wing of the Opposition Party. In the blackest black belts, Oppositionists often withered the post-Jackson Southern Democratic Party with nationalistic rather than states’ rights attacks.

Nationalists in the Deep and Middle Souths reasoned that the John Adams-Henry Clay American System should attract commercial planters and commercial townsmen. The nationalistic program sought national roads and national banks for those who sold in a national commercial network. Slaveholders selling staples needed sound banks and good transportation, as did townsmen who marketed planters’ produce. Southern commercial types, agrarian and urban, arguably hurt themselves when voting against national aids to commerce.

Both the South’s States’ Rights and Nationalist Oppositionists benefited from the simultaneous emergence of abolitionism, Van Buren’s presidential campaign, and outcries about southern disloyalty. States’ Rights Oppositionists’ problem was that the Jacksonian states’ rights coalition might seem more states’ rights and thus safer for slavery. These Oppositionists answered that Van Buren, Yankee compromiser, would not be reliable when slavery was on the line. Meanwhile, the South’s more nationalistic Oppositionists had to combat southern fears that a nationalistic state used to further the economy could also be used to emancipate slaves. These Oppositionists answered that the phony Van Buren was the real national menace to slavery. Poor Van Buren, already in enough southern trouble because Jackson was such a bear to follow, faced charges that he was disloyal to slavery from every southern direction.


Southern rhetoric about disloyalty was periodically important in struggles between Oppositionists/Whigs and Democrats, from the inception of a true two-party system in 1835 to the system’s collapse in the early 1850s. Stridency about disloyalty was especially pivotal in 1835–6, whea Oppositionists exploited uneasiness about Van Buren’s Yankeeness to help create the first presidential-election-year, two-party system in Middle and Deep Souths. But this style of campaigning was for almost two decades more a periodic distraction than the constant essence of political strife between Southern Democrats and Oppositionists/Whigs.19 Because antebellum Americans profoundly cared about many things beside slavery, sectional warriors were destined to have an extremely difficult time breaking down either party, as John C. Calhoun would discover time after unhappy time.

Proslavery agitators’ greatest problem was that most southern politics were local politics. National presidential campaigns, when slavery issues were most obtrusive and oratory about loyalty most shrill, occurred only every four years. Local elections transpired far more often. Then, local issues were usually exclusively at stake. Oppositionists/Whigs favored using not only national but also state and town governments to boost and to regulate individual entrepreneurial endeavor. Whiggish efforts for government-supported community had a moral as well as an economic purpose. Just as governments on every level must sustain roads and railroads, banks and bounties, so Christian community required state regulation of drinking and fornication, the sabbath and the schools.20

Whigs’ opponents in the Democratic Party, locally only a little less than nationally, tended to be against government intervention in citizens’ moral or economic lives. Democrats championed the untrammeled individual, source they said of the swiftest economic progress and the soundest morality. These party differences led to endless localistic skirmishes over state promotion of market enterprise and of moral behavior, concerns productive of huge voter turnouts in nonpresidential years, matters having nothing to do with slavery or loyalty or anything national at all.

Andrew Jackson became a larger-than-life public figure partly because he personified this main business of the Second American Party System. To Democrats, Jackson was the glorious creature unshackled, the loner against the world, the individual who made history happen. To Whigs, Andrew Jackson, arch-individualist, was the anti-communitarian, the untrammeled egotist, the cowboy contemptuous of rules on the range. Democrats, loving Jackson, championed the individual power of the presidency. Whigs, hating King Andrew, exalted the cooperative judgment of cabinet and Congress. To be a Whig or a Democrat was to believe or disbelieve that the man apart should or must not be corralled, that the cooperative community must or must not boost/control human endeavors—and that Andrew Jackson must—or must never—become the epitome of Romantic America.

These issues were consuming, especially vivid because Jackson dramaticized them, particularly riveting because critical to each individual’s conception of himself and his relationship to his neighborhood. That is why exclusive focus on outbursts over loyalty to slavery distorts southern day-to-day political life most of the time. Still, loyalty outbursts were periodically important, in part because they eventually became more destructively constant, in part because they were most vital during presidential campaigns, that supreme moment of American political drama.

Each southern party entered presidential contests with slightly under half of the local electorate. The final boost over the top required last-minute conversions or decisions to go to the polls. The politics of slavery and loyalty, irrelevant to southern two-party struggle most of the time, could determine who won the swing fraction in the most famous southern showdowns.

Thus in national presidential years, Oppositionists/Whigs and Democrats did brawl and brawl about who was true-blue to slavery. Zest for these wars was most rampant among Southern Democrats, whose party passed all the national proslavery laws,21 and among the more states’ rights anti-Jacksonians, who needed to prove that the Democracy’s triumphs were compromised states’ rights victories. The more nationalistic anti-Jacksonians, particularly in the Border South, tended to cringe at such mudslinging.

Still, these nationalists sometimes found their uses for the rhetorical ugliness. By joining their states’ rights wing in damning Democrats as soft on slavery, the South’s more nationalistic anti-Jacksonians could decontaminate nationalism, dissociate themselves from northern nationalists’ anti-Slavepower taint, make state-promoted enterprise as lily-white as egalitarian democracy, and present to commercial planters a program for commercial progress with every boomerang against slavery removed. Protection for slavery, the essence of political activity for the relatively few southern Oppositionist/Whig states’ rights purists, was for the relatively larger number of southern Oppositionist/Whig nationalists a periodic precondition for emphasizing truer essences.

Emphasizing those true-blue essences, the old Henry Clay-John Quincy Adams exaltation of nation, commerce, and communal morality, put anti-Jacksonian nationalists in the center of national politicians’ Union-saving effort to make everything except slavery the business of national politics. But here as everywhere, slavery made the Southerner an American with a difference. Just as the lyncher was an offstride egalitarian and the patriarch was an offbeat American husband, so the nationalistic Oppositionist who periodically helped strain the Union by emphasizing Democrats’ alleged sellout of section was not precisely your normal nationalist. By being somewhat of an abnormality, these nationalists most resistant to shrill loyalty politics especially well revealed that slavery issues could corrode politicians’ plans as early as 1835—including schemes of the New Yorker dreaming futilely of becoming the South’s new hero.


Martin Van Buren, for all his vulnerabilities as a Yankee seeking the Democratic Party’s southern power base, at least presided over a consolidated national party. In 1835–6, Oppositionists were too disunited to call a national convention.22 Nationalists northward such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster shared little except opposition to Van Buren with States’ Rights Oppositionists southward. Leaders were not even in enough contact to plot a nation-wide presidential strategy by mail. Rather, each section’s politicians informally nominated a regional presidential candidate. Massachusetts opponents of Van Buren nominated their favorite son, the ultra-nationalistic Daniel Webster. Other northern and Border South Oppositionists rallied to a quasinationalist, William Henry Harrison of Indiana. Oppositionists in Middle and Lower Souths massed behind that venerable states’ righter, Senator Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee.

White, a Tennessee planter and longtime crony of Jackson, had broken with Old Hickory over what he considered Jackson’s anti-egalitarian inflation of presidential power. White now urged that Old Hickory, by seeking to dictate Van Buren’s succession, was still less a white man’s egalitarian. King Andrew was a Caesar who menaced states’ rights and egalitarianism both.

Van Buren’s black-belt foes furthermore called Hugh White, native-born Southerner, the best protection against abolitionists’ agitation and Van Buren’s “unsafe” opposition to it. Hugh White’s proponents put the final touch on their true-blue southern ticket by nominating for Vice President a tardy but true recent states’ rights come-outer from the Democracy, Senator John Tyler of Virginia.

This Opposition Party tactic instantly captured Southern Van Burenites’ attention. Anti-Jacksonians had lately swept up governorships in Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as the Tennessee and North Carolina state legislatures. The image of two Southerners from the manor born running against an impure compromiser from abolitionist territory could push the South’s ominous new anti-Jackson tide ahead. The notion that only an Opposition administration would uncompromisingly protect slavery had to be disproven, and in a hurry. Southern Democrats thus wrote urgent letters to New York in the fall of 1835, warning Van Buren that the South was slipping away. Van Buren answered with a public letter, condemning abolitionists and insisting that no slaveholder would more resolutely reject fanaticism.23

Van Buren’s letter sounded defensive. The better defense was an offense. Southern Van Burenites went straight after their southern opponents’ Achilles’ heel. Southern Oppositionists alleged that Southern Democrats who supported Van Buren, northern trimmer, sold out on states’ rights. Well, Southern Oppositionists fought side by side with Northern Oppositionists, those most notorious enemies of states’ rights. If Hugh Lawson White stopped Van Buren in the Electoral College, Southern Democrats warned, the House of Representatives would have to decide between Opposition candidates. The huge majority of nationalistic-leaning Oppositionists, so Democrats argued, would never bow to the comparative handful of Hugh Lawson White supporters, unless White surrendered states’ rights. Whether White sold out or Webster or Harrison prevailed, the Opposition administration would be outrageously more nationalistic than the Little Magician’s. A Southerner must be unsafe on slavery to help further that scenario!

Democrats were traitors to slavery because they supported a New York non-slaveholder over a Tennessee slaveholder! Oppositionists were traitors to slavery because they shared a party with uncompromising Yankee nationalists! Unsound! Untrue! Soft on slavery! These terrible accents dominated political discourse in the lower two-thirds of the South in the season after abolitionists appeared. Only in Henry Clay’s Border South were the politics of loyalty usually shunned. Deeper in Dixie, debates about who was loyal would continue to be omnipresent on occasion, especially in presidential election campaigns, for the next quarter-century.24


How to explain this strident antebellum rhetoric? The easy way is to dismiss all that inflammatory talk as “mere” words, “mere” politics. Such “meres” will come especially easily to those so-called Revisionist historians who have long thought that “irresponsible agitators” used “mere demogoguery” to cause a “needless” Civil War.

That old explanation contains vital truth. Ambitious political candidates especially exploited fears about disloyalty, for exciting the multitude was the path toward electoral victory. Sometimes no rhetoric worked so well as indicting one’s opponent as soft on slaves.

But the “demagoguery” label, while accounting for some demagogues, cannot explain why demagoguery worked. “Demagoguery” reveals nothing about why Southerners eagerly listened to supposedly cynical agitators. Nor does “demagoguery” explain why so-called demagogues often honestly believed in their “propaganda.” Any democratic election invites the ambitious to thunder about disloyalty, assuming the label of “traitor” can be made to adhere. No democratic community lacks aspirants who will wax terrible about traitors, assuming enough listeners believe.

Usually, too few voters believe. Charges of “soft on communism” or whatever usually produce an eventual backlash against demagogues. For all the terrible impact of the Republicans’ Joe McCarthy on American life in the 1950s, for example, accusations that Democrats were traitors rang true only briefly. That Republican red-baiter, Richard Nixon, shrewdly sizing up the public, shifted from red-baiting to approaching Red China as soon as public sentiment shifted.25

Antebellum Deep and Middle Souths never shifted in presidential election campaigns after 1835, when loyalty mudslinging began to be employed. Dispassionate Southerners, particularly in the neutralist Border South, kept calling cries of disloyalty unfair, unreliable, untrue. But charges of treachery rang on and on. Granted, the ambitious exploited southern apprehension. Granted, the exploiting magnified the southern public’s inclination to believe that disloyalty abounded. But why the disposition to listen to this “mere” talk?

The talk itself provides clues. Charges of disloyalty customarily revolved around a standard text. The largest theme was usually that southern politicians unreliably counted on northern politicians. That charge struck home because in the provincial and insular southern world, all outsiders were suspect. Southerners universally accepted only one slavery proposition. Southerners must decide the institution’s fate.

Instead, southern statesmen in national parties relied on Yankee allies to help decide slavery questions. For a northern President to propose right slavery legislation or for northern congressmen to rally behind properly southern law, Yankees full of talk about friendship to the South must prove as friendly as claimed. The situation invited each party’s southern insiders to damn the other party’s Yankee outsiders as suspect.

Insiders who trusted suspect outsiders, continued southern loyalty tirades, must themselves be disloyal. That accusation fed on southern disagreement about what loyalty to slavery entailed. Southerners split on what a southern statesman should think and do about the institution, never more so than when loyalty politics began in 1835. Internal southern debate on diffusing slavery away had lately been consuming, especially in Virginia and Maryland. The discussion would never cease. When Southerners sought to define why a man or a principle was traitorously anti-southern, the debate over the identity of a South descended toward the gutter.

As is always true when a democratic culture becomes obsessed with loyalty, debate did not just aim at defining the patriotic. The politics of loyalty were also a form of social control, the strongest form of democratic social control short of undemocratic violence. Democrats at moments of crisis tend to escalate charges of disloyalty, seeking to maximize inclinations in the charily disloyal to remain silent. When faced with neighbors’ withering hostility, those tempted to dissent often instead demonstrate their soundness. As many American dissenters have unhappily learned, a public opinion armed with “mere” words exerts enormous conformist force.

The southern democratic system, because half-despotic, could deploy more terrible sanctions than verbal violence. Mobs who turned mails into bonfires were a reminder that lynching sometimes deterred dissenters. But in a world semi-democratic and wholly localistic, republican discourse at its most violent, which meant the lethal language of loyalty, was the most terrorizing considered routinely legitimate.

Verbal coercivenesss usually sufficed. Not the state’s punishment but the neighborhood’s condemnation usually countered tyrants’ abuse of slaves. Loyalty politics, like Jackson’s hope that neighbors would frown down those demanding censored mail, transformed this cultural power into political power. Apologetic softhearts, when facing disloyalty charges, thought twice about advocating antislavery. So too, border neutrals, when facing accusations of traitor, took care about befriending suspect northern politicians.

Politicians were the most suspect of friends. Americans living through the first age of mass parties initiated a permanently schizophrenic attitude towards politicians. On the one hand, politicians were thought to be heroically presiding over the greatest popular drama. On the other hand, pols were thought to be contemptibly hiding behind self-serving masks.

While sometimes scorning their own politicians for wearing masks, Southerners most feared Yankee disguises. Yanks, according to the stock southern image, were ingratiating materialists. Grasping Northerners and ambitious spoilsmen added up to phony politicians, putting on any face for a vote. Such thinking led to that disastrous southern image of Martin Van Buren and those disconcerting attacks on Southerners who championed the New Yorker.

Suspicions of political pretenders also fed on suspicions of domestic pretenders. The image of slaves as deceitful scamps and politicians as delusive schemers fit each other as the hand fit the glove. Cuffee, Professor of Pretense, gave Southerners daily instruction in sham. The slave as teacher molded his pupil towards seeing politics, like all of human life, as one great big suspicious act.

The southern politics of loyalty, then, was not “mere” propaganda, if successful propaganda can ever be “mere.” Rather, key cultural anxieties were involved. Those southern charges of sham, disloyalty, unsoundness, played on Southerners’ uneasiness about Cuffees, on their suspicions of politicians and Yankees, on their distrust of outsiders and uncertainty about insiders, on the only democratic means of social control available to dictators enmeshed in a republic. Like all successful political tactics, contests over loyalty occurred because the scenario gripped actors and audience alike—and drew forth sounds of amen, amen.


In late 1835, with a two-party battle over loyalty the southern establishment’s response to abolitionism, the Deep South’s most unpopular actors were more than ever odd men out. Since nullification days, Carolinians had predicted that antislavery was coming. Other Southerners had scoffed. The movement had arrived.

Since 1831, John C. Calhoun had called the Jackson Party insufficient on states’ rights. A political reorganization would come, he had foreseen, and states’ rights Southerners would start it. Politicians in the two major parties had scoffed. Reorganization had arrived.

But states’ rights leaders who had belatedly followed Calhoun out of the Democratic Party had sped right by the South’s most famed warrior, into the Opposition Party. These politicians, so Calhoun fumed, had blundered into another compromising situation. An uncompromising states’ rights organization required yet another reorganization.

Calhoun here clung to that American will-o’-the-wisp, the ideologically pure party. This genius of a theorist had no use for the practical genius of the American political party: its capacity to mute controversy, effect conciliation, find the middle of the road. Loyalty politics between Southern Democrats and Oppositionists featured a debate about who compromised least with northern allies. Calhoun called any compromising disastrous. Federal compromisers, he charged, deliberately dulled southern apprehensions. National spoilsmen desired a southern region asleep to slavery’s dangers and an aristocratic culture infatuated with an egalitarianism mentality. Once demagogic wielders of the new mobocratic politics had dazed the elitists and dazzled the egalitarians, how many days could anti-egalitarian slavery have left?

Calhoun’s distrust of mobocratic parties led to his opposition to proposed democratizations of South Carolina. If his state allowed the people to elect the governor and the governor to appoint executive officials, Calhoun declared in the typical Carolina vein, “two violent parties would spring up.” No party would dare resist swollen federal power, for the other would stand “ready to become the Union Party” and receive “federal aid and patronage.” From being the one state sustaining patriarchal republicanism, South Carolina would sink into the egalitarian muck. From being the only state with a “beautiful and well adjusted” aristocratic order, we would become “a wild, factious, and despotick democracy.” All that because the people elected the governor!26

Well, King Numbers elected too many in the Union, worried Calhoun. Too many party politicians anesthetized too many gullible commoners and unwary squires. Now, with antislavery growing and northern penal laws not passed, how were southern spoilsmen counterattacking? Teaching Southerners to insist that Northerners gag abolitionists? No way! Rather, distracting Southerners with arguments about whether Van Buren, the phony, or Harrison, the nationalizer, would be most untrue to the South!

States Rights’ Oppositionists wished South Carolina’s most famous states’ righter would join them in making the Opposition Party uncompromisingly southern. Calhoun toyed with the idea. For all his anti-party rhetoric, he knew the value of capturing a party. For all his distrust of Clay and Webster, he knew he shared much with them. Calhoun and Clay had together passed the Compromise Tariff of 1833, together fought against King Andrews’s swelling of presidential power, together winced at the Little Magician’s ascension.

An alliance with Clay and Webster, thought Calhoun, did make some philosophic sense. “The wealthy and talented of the North,” wrote Calhoun, “have more to fear from their own people” than slaveholders did from slaves. “Needy and corrupt” plebeians, after listening to egalitarian arguments against slavery, might rise up against their own unequal situation. Only an upper class united against all egalitarianisms would save itself North and South. Since the northern upper class predominantly supported the Opposition Party, maybe the southern upper class should join a potential instrument of a-sectional ruling-class salvation.27

Calhoun here drove a conservative postulate usually present in the proslavery argument to such a class-obsessed extreme as to seem to deserve the title, the “Marx of the Master Class.”28 But the deeper truth was that Calhoun, like all class-ridden southern thinkers, was too inconsistent to deserve such titles. The South Carolinian wandered between thinking that northern and southern upper classes were the same—and utterly different. Calhoun usually stood aloof from his friends’ strategy for capturing the Opposition Party because he believed the northern upper class would always favor national banks, and worse, protective tariffs, and, worse still, African colonization. More friends of states’ rights and foes of colonization, Calhoun believed, were in the Democratic Party, including northern laborers battling against northern employers. Despite his abstract wish for a national upper class to keep laborers black and white ground down, this practical ruler more often sought an alliance of lowly northern wage slaves and lordly southern chattel slaveholders.29

But if Calhoun sometimes embraced a return to a Jacksonian Party streamlined into a purely states’ rights vehicle, he usually urged states’ righters to come out of both national parties. The come-outers should unite in a southern convention. The convention should issue ultimatums to the North. Defections to the ideologically pure party would result. Yankees committed to states’ rights, and/or northern politicians anxious for patronage from the nation’s budding majority party, and/or capitalists anxious to remain in the same Union with southern customers, would ally with the South. National parties would be redrawn the right way, with the South at the head of a states’ rights party and John C. Calhoun at the head of the South. Union would be saved, slavery perpetuated, and (this Calhoun did not add), John C. Calhoun, American outsider, would be elected President from within the establishment.30

Calhoun’s new panacea, an ultimatum-issuing southern convention, resembled his old panacea, an ultimatum-issuing nullification convention. He remained convinced that great interests ruled politics, unless demagogical spoilsmen or religious fanatics clouded class consciousness. He remained persuaded that Yankee capitalists most wished to remain in the same country with southern slaveholders. His southern convention would so raise southern upper-class consciousness as to force truer northern upper-class consciousness. If he was wrong that the Yankee upper crust would cease and desist, a convention of aroused Southerners was just the vehicle to promote secession.

The few non-reluctant revolutionaries in South Carolina, with Professor Thomas Cooper front and center, loathed Calhoun’s non-secessionist scenarios. Cooper mightily distrusted Calhoun. The Disunionist especially scorned Calhoun’s tendency to consider rejoining the Democratic Party and running for President. Cooper opposed all parties, all Presidents, all Union-saving. The professor saw no hope Yankees would yield to any disunion threat, whether the ultimatum came from a nullifying state or a southern convention. He thought that once free of vulgar mass parties, patriarchs should move straight to revolution. Cooper’s insistence on instant secession put Calhoun once again somewhere between Southerners more extreme in South Carolina and Southerners less extreme in the two-party establishment.


By late 1835, the new structure of southern politics was in place. Almost all southern politicians stood behind one of four contestants: Democrats, Oppositionists, Calhounites, Cooperites. Jackson’s party remained the favorite to win Deep and Middle South elections, except in South Carolina. But Old Hickory’s heir apparent, the Yankee Van Buren, was far more vulnerable in Jackson’s area than the Old Hero had ever been. Signs of that vulnerability abounded: in escalating loyalty politics, in some former States’ Rights Democrats’ desertion to the Opposition, in the willingness of many Southerners who had voted for Jackson to consider state-promoted commerce and morality, so long as antislavery implications had been sanitized out. Oppositionists had already won two Middle South legislatures. They had always won more Border South elections than they lost. A two-party system had assuredly arrived in the South.

The two groups outside this reorganized two-party system, Calhounites and Cooperites, were slim in numbers. Few outside South Carolina stood with John C. Calhoun for a southern convention. Only a couple of Virginians stood with Thomas Cooper for southern disunion.

But the relatively few Calhounites and fewer Cooperites retained ominous leverage. The new southern establishment system had lately revolved around loyalty politics. Extremists could force that political combat to revolve around their disruptive issues. To wrench southern and thereby American two-party politics out of shape, Carolinians on the fringes had to introduce slavery-related demands which no loyal Southerner could ignore. Calhoun, for example, had to respond if Cooperites took a legitimate southern stand, lest Carolinians consider Mr. Nullifier, as in 1831, soft on the necessary extremism. Southern Democrats had to respond to Calhoun’s response to Disunionists, lest the Jackson Party be considered, as after Jackson’s Nullification Proclamation, soft on states’ rights. Southern Oppositionists had to respond to the Democrats’ response to Calhoun, lest the Opposition Party be called as dubious friends of slavery as were New England Oppositionists.

Southern national politicians, when competing to be hardest on slavery-related issues, could force northern allies to grant concessions, lest their party lose southern constituents. A Yankee pushed too hard, however, could bridle, lest he lose northern constituents. Either way, party and nation would be under strain. The reorganized southern political system could become a fulcrum, shoving the new abolitionist onslaught onto the establishment’s national agenda in divisive ways.

The potential remained hidden in late 1835, when Southerners were journeying to the first congressional session following the antislavery mailings. Carolina extremists despaired of wrenching southern and thus national politics out of the (so they thought) disastrous two-party mold. Without confrontation politics, they could only revolutionize the establishment with the right divisive issue—the most shattering “mere” words.

Shattering words were elusive. No issue could be too extreme, lest moderates feel capable of ignoring it. Demands that the North imprison fanatics, for example, had not and could not inflame the establishment, for most moderates in both sections considered the idea too immoderate. Nor could a slavery issue be too innocuous, lest the mainstream incorporate it without strain. Cleansing southern post offices of incendiary mail, for example, the expected slavery controversy in the Congress of 1835–6, was too nonprovocative to promise national uproar. Mainstream Southerners could censor without Yankee outrage, so long as censorship occurred only in the South.

Nor could extremists’ perfect issue be a proposition dividing the South. The most persistent national slavery issue between 1825 and 1835, federally financed colonization, was Carolinians’ idea of the monster. In the aftermath of nullification, Calhoun feared colonizers would soon recommence “the work of immediate emancipation,” unless “the entire slaveholding states” promptly resisted “at any hazard.” But how would all Southerners threaten civil war over colonization, when most Southerners wistfully dreamed of diffusing away blacks?31

“I cannot say I have quite given up,” South Carolina freshman Congressman James Hammond answered in November 1835, but “I am so much overwhelmed by difficulties surrounding the South that I hate to dwell upon the subject, and never do unless forced to it.”32 There spoke the dominator reduced to changing or destroying a republic only with some still-invisible wisp of a democratic issue. There despaired the extremist imprisoned outside the two-party system, unless a provocative matter could be dreamed up. There fumed a lethal danger to the establishment, if the frustrated bully suddenly found an issue capable of throwing the reorganized southern political structure into a fresh round of loyalty politics.

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