Matthew Mason: Movement within Bounds on the Antislavery Political Spectrum: The Case of Edward Everett
We welcome a guest post today by Matthew Mason, author of Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett. Known today as “the other speaker at Gettysburg,” Edward Everett had a distinguished and illustrative career at every level of American politics from the 1820s through the Civil War. In this new biography, Matthew Mason argues that Everett’s extraordinarily well-documented career reveals a complex man whose shifting political opinions, especially on the topic of slavery, illuminate the nuances of Northern Unionism.
In today’s post, Mason discusses how creditable claims to oppose slavery prior to the civil war actually were. This article was originally published on The Republic Blog at shear.org.
Several years ago I was at work on what I thought would be a group biography of the doughfaces, Northern politicians favorable to compromise with the South over slavery. I was prompted in large part by Leonard Richards’ book illustrating how instrumental doughfaces were in enabling Southern domination of the federal government. But as I contemplated their significance beyond that point, an insight from David Potter (brought to my attention by a conference panel commentary from Michael Morrison) proved provocative. Historians’ recognition that “slavery, in one aspect or another, pervaded all of the aspects of sectionalism,” Potter noted, has left them content to ask “a simple question: Did the people of the North really oppose slavery? rather than a complex one: What was the rank of antislavery in the hierarchy of northern values?” The complex version should help us perceive how the antislavery sentiment of the vast majority of Northerners conflicted with their love of a Union and Constitution that manifestly protected slavery. Thus the question became for them “not a choice of alternatives—antislavery or proslavery—but a ranking of values. . . . The difference between ‘antislavery men’ and ‘conciliationists’ in the North was not a question of what they thought about slavery alone, but of how they ranked these priorities.” I found this conceptual framework a real leap forward in my thinking, and started applying it profitably to understanding doughfaces of various stripes.
Pursuing Potter’s formulation via the genre of biography helps us understand antebellum Northern politicians who at first glance seem wildly inconsistent on the issue of slavery. If we can bring ourselves to take seriously their protestations both of love for the Union and distaste for slavery, we should not be surprised to see them move along a spectrum of antislavery belief and action. While that peregrination rarely proceeded in one direction or predictable ways, it did transpire within limits for every antebellum Northern politician. The relative strength of their antislavery principles dictated that there were bounds beyond which their conservatism could not go, but their nationalism and respect for law and order also set boundaries beyond which their antislavery could not go.
But a big part of why I jettisoned the group biography for a political biography of Edward Everett was that his career added a third axis beyond that of Union and antislavery. For Everett was a National Republican and then a Whig, and his accompanying dedication to the ethic of reform and improvement usually but not always amplified the antislavery priority in his thinking and actions. His devotion to Whiggish reform certainly meant he would evince less bitterness towards abolitionists and antislavery politicians than did doughfaced Democrats. All anti-abolitionists decried zealotry, but most Democratic doughfaces feared and loathed everyone who injected moral questions into the political arena. Everett recoiled from fanaticism, but could better understand the antislavery reform impulse.
Everett’s resultant torturous meanderings on the slavery issue were too multiple to sketch fully here, but some highlights might be illustrative. As a member of Congress representing a district in Massachusetts in the 1820s and 1830s, he largely stood as a Whig nationalist, pertinaciously opposed to Indian Removal and nullification while advocating internal improvements. But Representative Everett traveled as far as he ever would down the proslavery side of the spectrum in two notorious speeches meant to defend the John Quincy Adams administration’s conservative credentials against Southern charges that the Adamsites represented a radical threat to slavery. As governor of Massachusetts and U.S. minister to Britain from the late 1830s through the mid-1840s, Everett found his reform commitments and immediate political context pushing him far enough in the antislavery direction to sound alarm bells among proslavery Southerners. As a private citizen and then a U.S. Senator, he found his attempts to stake out a stable conservative antislavery position frustrated by the debates leading up to the Compromise of 1850 and ultimately shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But he ultimately rallied and creatively pursued potential solutions to the growing sectional crisis, including mobilizing masses of Unionists to help purchase Mount Vernon as a shrine for Union as well as running as the Constitutional Union Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1860. Not until deep into the Civil War, however, was Everett able finally to achieve a full synthesis of his Unionist, antislavery, and reform commitments.
In a recent book review, Andrew Shankman argued perceptively that “we need to ask how meaningful most claims to oppose slavery were prior to the Civil War.” I submit that it is not especially helpful for us, as too many historians working in this area are wont to do, to simply dismiss the claims of almost everyone to the right of William Lloyd Garrison. My biographical exploration of this question as applied to Everett is thus my beginning of an answer to Shankman’s challenge.
Matthew Mason is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. His book Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett is now available.
Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
________. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Mason, Matthew. “The Maine and Missouri Crisis: Competing Priorities and Northern Slavery Politics in the Early Republic.” Journal of the Early Republic 33 (Winter 2013): 675-700.
Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
Richards, Leonard L. The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Shankman, Andrew. Review of Beverly C. Tomek, Colonization and its Discontents. Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (Dec. 2012): 602-05.
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