‘A Doubtful Freedom’

A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, circa 1862; a painting by Eastman Johnson
Brooklyn Museum
Eastman Johnson: A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, circa 1862

That the United States has been a “nation” since its founding—struggling through slavery, civil conflict, labor strife, economic depressions, and deep ethnic and racial divisions but still surviving as a single polity and people—has long been an article of faith in triumphal versions of our history. “We the People” have often needed a sense of our long continuity if we wished to hold ourselves together. A story, true and false, imagined or otherwise, with remembrance and a good deal of forgetting is perhaps the only thing that can unify a nation. Before he became president, Barack Obama inspired many of us with his clarion call in 2004 that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” In these recent polarized years we’ve seen bitter refutations of this premise, even as its noble impulse survives. Just now the idea of the American nation needs serious attention from historians.

In 1830 the Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster famously pronounced his dedication to “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” under the tremendous pressure of sectional division between North and South over tariffs, states’ rights, and slavery. In the midst of the 1832 nullification crisis, a confrontation over South Carolina’s resistance to federal tariffs and fear of how they would affect cotton prices, Webster warned that disunion would mean “states dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched…in fraternal blood.”1 Twenty years later, he stood in the Senate to support the Fugitive Slave Act—a law, widely loathed in his state, requiring that all citizens and officials of free states cooperate in returning escaped slaves to their masters through special new magistrates—while trying to save the Union in the Compromise of 1850.

The Compromise grew out of westward expansion following the Mexican War in the late 1840s, which raised the question of whether slavery would exist in California or any new state formed in the vast southwest territories gained from Mexico. In close sectionalized rather than partisan votes, Congress admitted California as a free state, set new borders for Texas, and opened up the entire southwest to the possible expansion of slavery, while ending slave-trading in the District of Columbia. Congress also passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed Southerners to think that they had secured a federal legal system by which to retrieve their runaway “property.” The Compromise, however, was a weak and untenable settlement of the slavery question, and it backfired by stimulating a more militant antislavery movement. This time, the patriotic urge for union ultimately failed, and a decade later the nation collapsed and descended into civil war.

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