Slave Power: A Nation by Any Means

“On all matters affecting slaves, concessions to the South was the price to be paid if there was to be any union at all.” Negro President by Gary Wills, Houghton Mifflin Company (2003)

The power of slavery shaped how this nation operated from its inception. Founding fathers of the United States of America by negotiating a compromise in the Constitutional Convention that each slave would count as 3/5 of a person (the federal ratio) in establishing the representation of a state in the House of Representatives and consequently the Electoral College, insured and eventually expanded the influence of a Southern, primarily agrarian elite.

All branches of the US government for almost 100 years would be controlled and affected by the slave power of the South. According to historian Gary Wills:

” …but the power of the South was not measured solely in terms of an overall   majority. On crucial matters, when several factions were contending, the federal ratio, gave the South a voting majority. Without the federal ratio as the deciding factor in House votes, slavery would have been excluded from Missouri, Jackson’s Indian removal policy would have failed, the 1840 gag rule would not have been imposed, the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill would have failed… Elections to key congressional posts were affected continually by the federal ratio, with the result that southerners held the Speaker’s office for 79 percent of the time [before 1824], Ways and Means for 92 percent.”

Historian Richard Brown writes, “From the inauguration of Washington until the Civil War, the South was in the saddle of national politics. This is the central fact in American political history to 1860.”

When the Articles of Confederation were written and later at the Constitutional Convention Southern delegates refused to ratify any proposals until slavery was protected.

“In the sixty-two years between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means [the most important committee] for forty-two years. The only men to be reelected president – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson – were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker’s chair the longest – Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Bacon – were slave holders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were slaveholders.”

                                                                                                                               Leonard Richards

The government disproportionately was managed and controlled by the South. Although the North had twice the free population, until the Civil War southerners held half of the highest federal offices and high civil service posts in government. These positions were granted primarily through patronage to proponents of slavery while keeping even the mildest critics of Southern privilege away from confirmation or appointment.

In 1843, Adams told the House of Representatives:

“Your country is no longer a democracy, it is not even a republic – it is a government of two or three thousand holders of slaves, to the utter exclusion of the remaining part.”

Slave holder predominance in national history determined several issues and policies:

    • Incorporation of a fugitive slave law in the original US Constitution
    • Selection of Thomas Jefferson as 3rd president of the nation
    • Expansion of slavery into new territories
    • Westward territorial expansion of which the first five states to join the Union were slave states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana)
    • Aggressive policies toward Haiti and other nations in the Western Hemisphere
    • The Louisiana Purchase
    • Marginalization of abolitionists, and description of them as extremists
    • The Monroe Doctrine
    • The extension of the African slave trade into the US until 1809 – a twenty year grace period after ratification of the Constitution
    • The 1840 gag rule on slavery imposed on Congress
    • Founding of the University of Virginia to keep young men away from the “corruption” of Harvard and Yale, preparing them for leadership in westward expansion and a commitment to slave interests
    • Missouri Compromise

In clear hindsight, many now realize the great price paid in compromising political ideals in order to “get the American show on the road and keep it going.” This defines a slippery slope, a national pattern of contradictions between what is said and what is done. The emphasis and protection of property rather than human rights became paramount within the legal system until 1865. Going forward, we should learn the cost of compromising freedom, equality, liberty, and justice. No matter how any short term gain is rationalized, the ultimate cost eventually becomes too high.

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