1860, May 9: The Constitutional Union Party held its convention in Baltimore, and wound up nominating John Bell of Tennessee, and as his running mate former Harvard President Edward Everett. Their weak slogan: “The union as it is, and the constitution as it is.”
The party was entirely against disunion, and its principles should have guided it to oppose slavery’s most rabid proponents. Yet at some point during the campaign, Bell and his advisors felt the need to tilt toward a stronger pro-slavery position, in order to blunt Douglas’s support I suppose.
At the Library of Virginia’s sesquicentennial exhibit of the Civil War’s beginning, I spent a bit of time reading a broadside headlined “John Bell on Slavery.” By rights there should be a bold exclamation mark at the end of that headline, for the piece is dramatically over the top. It rings very true as a political campaign piece, and I can easily put myself in the head of the campaign-team strategists as they put the piece together:
“John Bell’s Record on Slavery: Since John Bell was nominated for the Presidency in May, 1860, great efforts have been made by his enemies to persuade the Southern people that he is unsound on the Slavery question. To show how groundless are all such charges, we present a record of his most material votes on that subject in the Senate of the United States.”
There follows a long, depressingly long list of examples of just how anti-anti-slavery Senator Bell was, in his public words and senatorial deeds. The effort is quite nakedly to underline that “A truer friend to the South has never been offered as a candidate to the American people.”
“June 26th, 1848 – On Mr. Hale’s motion to instruct the Committee on the District of Columbia, to bring in a bill to abolish slavery there, Mr. Bell voted No.”
“Jan. 16th, 1850 – Mr. Seward presented a petition for the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia. Mr. Berrien moved to lay on the table the question of reception – in other words, to refuse to entertain the petition. On Mr. Berrien’s motion, Mr. Bell voted YEA.”
“September 10th, 1850 – The Bill to abolish the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia was before the Senate. The penalty for violating the law was the emancipation of the slave. This penalty was disliked by Southern men who were unwilling that slaves should be manumitted by authority of Congress for any purpose. Mr. Pearce moved to change the penalty to a fine of $500. On this motion, Bell voted YEA.”
“September 28, 1850 – An amendment was moved to the Bill prohibiting the Slave Trade in the District, giving power to the Corporations of Washington and Georgetown to prevent free negroes from settling there. Mr. Bell voted for the amendment.”
… and so on.
To let the message sink in for those hardcore slave owners and slavery defenders, Bell’s flacks then included a speech from the Senate floor in which Bell had defended the cruel practice against the “denunciations” that “the civilized world is arrayed against slavery.” His defense is quite effective, if you’re a racist.
“Some century and a half ago, or a little more, a few thousand natives of Africa, in form and mind stamped only with the coarsest rudiments of the Caucasian race; scarcely bearing an impress of the human face divine; savage in their habits, both of war and peace; ferocious as the wild beasts of their own native haunts, were caught up, transported to these shores, reduced to a state of bondage, and they and their descendants held in slavery until this day. But what do we behold now? These few thousand savages have become a great people – numbering three millions of souls; civilized; Christianized; each new generation developing some improved features, mental and physical, and indicating some further approximation to the race of their masters. Search the annals of all history, and where do you find a fact so striking and wonderful?… Has humanity cause to drop a tear over the record of this great fact? Has Africa any cause to mourn? … I doubt whether the power and resources of this country would have attained more than half their present extraordinary proportions, but for this so much reviled institution of slavery.”