What do you understand by the term ‘the slave power conspiracy’ why was it so effective a slogan in the northern states in the 1850’s?
The internal political, social and economic processes which led to the American Civil War have invariably been subject to concerted and determined historical assessment. The process which ultimately led to the outbreak of war between the North and South of the United States is wide-ranging and varied. However, it is possible to argue that the issue of slavery in varying degrees of measure directly served to propel the animosity felt between completing political forces in the North and South. It is essential to point out that this dialectic opposition did not centre heavily on slavery as being an immoral and barbaric act, but rather on the wider connotations engendered as a consequence of slavery, in particular the political power relations between of North and South.
Above all, the central issue with regards to slavery was the degree to which slave owners in the Southern American states sought to project and propel their traditional power base. This suggested projection is characterised by the term ‘slave power’. Thus, in general terms, ‘the slave power conspiracy’ denotes a willingness on the part of political elements within the Southern slave owning states to enhance both their political and economic preponderance over that of the North. On the basis of this conspiracy, there was a widely held belief in the North during the 1850s that the expansion of the slave industry in areas beyond the traditional Southern states constituted a direct an unequivocal attempt to redraw the constitutional boundaries of the United States itself.
Given the above, the purpose of this work is twofold. Firstly, this work will outline in detail the basic thesis of the slave power conspiracy. Secondly, the work will seek to explain the reasons which account for why the slogan ‘slave power conspiracy’ was so effective in the Northern states of the United States during the 1850s. Indeed, there is no doubt that this slogan was most effective in this area of the United States prior to the onset of the Civil War, however, the reasons which account for this effectiveness are fairly varied and diverse. As such, the slave power conspiracy received a considerable degree concurrence in the Northern states as a result of the long-standing and innate fear of Southern slave expansion and the reassessment of political power which would result as a consequence. However, the slave power thesis also tapped into wider sentiments which viewed the slave trade as immoral. Thus, although the development political movements like the Free Soil Party invariably came about as a consequence of purely political issues, the outlook adopted did often assume theoretical and moral concurrence with the abolitionist movement.
Nonetheless, this work is formed on the primary thesis that the slave power conspiracy received such widespread acceptance in the North because of the validity of thesis itself. As such, it can be effectively argued that leading elements in the Southern slave owning states overtly attempted to expand the slave industry, particularly in the West. Such expansion was undertaken on the assumption that the Southern states were politically and economically preponderant and more important than their counterparts in the North. Thus, although some later suggestions on the extent of this power projection are wholly unsupportable and invalidated, it is nonetheless the case that the effectiveness of the slogan ‘slave power conspiracy’ can be directly attributed to the validity of the thesis on which the slogan was based.
As suggested, the idea of a ‘slave power conspiracy’ rested ultimately on the interaction of political power between the Northern and Southern states of the United States. Largely as a result of geographical necessity, throughout the later 17th and 18th centuries the Southern states of America became the primary areas where the slave trade underwent rapid and dramatic expansion. As such, by the early 19th century the economic effectiveness of the Southern states rested heavily on the foundations of slavery. In addition, it is essential to point out that the expansion of slavery throughout much of the South resulted in considerable economic benefits for the regions in question. Therefore, not only was slavery central to much of the economic activity in the South, it also provided Southern slave owners with considerable wealth which in turn was translated into political and social authority at the Southern regional level.
As suggested above, although the ‘slave power conspiracy’ did strike accord with the wider abolitionist movement, the primary theoretical assumptions on which the conspiracy rested bore little resemblance with the abolitionist message. In particular, Richards suggests that the leading proponents of the conspiracy thesis often harboured contradictory sentiments in relation to the moral argument against slavery. Above all, the primary political organisation which sought to propel the conspiracy thesis in the North was the Free Soil Party. Numerous dialect oppositions existed in the theoretical outlook of the Free Soil Party which ranged from an overt attack on the immorality of slavery in the South, whilst simultaneously suggesting the North had no right interfering in the economic processes of the South.
Following the 1852 Presidential election, the Free Soil Party gradually disbanded, with its membership forming part of the new Republican Party. Although theoretical divergences may have existed between the two parties, key areas in the slave conspiracy thesis provided them with a firm foundation of unity. In particular, the central assumption proffered with regards to Southern slave owners was that they overtly aimed to extend and expand the slave industry far beyond its traditional confines in the Southern states. It was suggested that this expansion was aimed at a number of areas. Firstly, Morrison suggests that proponents of the slave power conspiracy thesis pointed to the expansion of slavery in the western American regions as a clear personification of how the Southern slavery oligarchs hoped to dramatically extend the number of slave states. Secondly, Republicans in the North consistently argued that the annexation of Texas in 1845 had been undertaken purely for the purposes of expanding slavery. Similar arguments were proffered in relation to the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Finally, Potter suggests that there was also a widespread belief in the North that Southern slave owning elements sought to aggressively acquire the island Cuba as a central expansionary aim and thus a staging post on which to base the expansion of slavery throughout the Southern and Western parts of the Americas.
As such, the above discussions highlight the extent to which the expansion of slavery served as a central theoretical foundation for the slave power conspiracy thesis. However, in addition to the expansionary tendencies suggested above, proponents of the slave power conspiracy thesis contended that slave oligarchs in the Southern states hoped to expand slavery into the free states of the North. Thus, it was argued that expansionary ambitions on the part of Southern slave owners constituted a direct threat to the republican foundations of the North.
Therefore, the suggestion that Southern slave owners hoped to expand the slave industry far beyond the South acted as the central foundation on which the slave power conspiracy thesis rested. However as suggested above this theoretical foundation largely centred on the suggestion that in propagating their aims, Southern slave owners were directly attacking the republican foundations of the United States. In particular, Cairnes suggests that the slave power conspiracy thesis argued that political elements within the South had for decades successfully attempted to control the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the Union. Thus, the argument proffered was that in attempting to develop the geographical reach of the slave trade, political authorities emanating from the South hoped to achieve lasting political preponderance over their Northern counterparts and thus direct and control the political destiny of the United States as a whole. This preponderance was suggested to have taken place through a number of varied processes. However, perhaps the most famous expression of this sentiment was offered by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, who asserted that there existed a covert yet systematic attempt nationalise the slave industry. Lincoln argued that the incumbent President James Buchanan, along with his predecessor President Pierce were implicit actors in this effort. In addition, Lincoln also argued that the Supreme Court had also been implicit in the attempt to nationalise slavery, primarily in the form of Chief Justice Roger Taney. Thus, it is possible to see how slave power conspiracy rested on the idea that political elements aimed to gain overall political control of the United States and in doing so develop and expand the slave industry as far as possible.
Given the above, Cairnes suggests that the expansion of slavery represented an overt attack on the sanctity of the United States itself and the national constitution. The wish to expand and nationalise the slave industry could therefore be construed as an attempt to centralise the political processes of the United States, a process which would inevitably work in direct contradiction to the federal system of government that had been established in 1789. Thus, it is certainly possible to see how the slave power conspiracy thesis ultimately rested on the political posturing between the North and the South.
As suggested earlier, it is also essential to highlight other components of the slave power conspiracy thesis which tend toward severe exaggeration. In particular, during the 1860s, John Smith Dye published a series of historical accounts which suggested political elements in the South had been responsible for the attempted assignation of President Andrew Jackson in 1835, in addition to successfully poisoning Presidents Henry Harrison and Zachery Taylor in 1841 and 1851 respectively. However, no effective historical support has ever been provided to Dye’s assertions and they are now generally disregarded in the historiography of the period.
Therefore, the various discussions and examinations undertaken above have clearly highlighted the prevailing assumptions and conclusions which served as the foundation of the slave power conspiracy thesis. Above all, although divergence is clearly at work in this thesis, it is nonetheless possible to see general trends within it. In particular, the suggestion of the overt expansion of slavery and Southern dominance over the political processes of the Union invariably act as the central pivots of the thesis. Moreover, although some outlandish assertions such as that later proffered by John Smith Dye were present in the North during the 1850s, there was nonetheless a widespread acceptance of the slave power conspiracy. Indeed, this acceptance transcended general Northern society, in addition to the leading political elements in the North. Thus, what reasons can be utilised as a means of explaining the effectiveness of the slave power slogan in the Northern United States in the 1850s?
In line with the thesis outlined above, one key reason which can be used to explain the effectiveness of the slave conspiracy thesis lies in the fact that the central arguments suggested previously have strong validity. Indeed, Cairnes suggests that beyond the rather fantastical suggestions of men like Dye, much of the slave power thesis was accurate in terms of explaining the actions and motivations of Southern slave owners. Cairnes points out that many slave owners in the South made little attempt to hide the fact that they overtly hoped to expand the existing slave states westward. Moreover, suggestions by Southern political actors like Senator and former Vice-President John Calhoun regularly asserted the plethora of economic benefits which derived from the slave industry and how such benefits would aid economic development in the North. Furthermore, in terms of attempting to exert political control over the overall Union, a plethora of historical evidence can be utilised to support the suggestion that slave oligarchs from the Southern states engaged in both covert and overt attempts to gain control over national political processes.
Nonetheless, in assessing the validity of the slave power conspiracy thesis it is essential to emphasise the role played by leading individuals within the Free Soil Party and later the Republican Party. Indeed, in terms of general impact, Richards suggests that the overt actions of the Free Soil Party did much to propel the widespread acceptance of the slave power conspiracy thesis. However, as suggested, at a more fundamental level prominent political actors from the North played a pivotal role in ensuring that the slave power conspiracy thesis achieved widespread acceptance and support. Foremost among these was William Henry Seward and Abraham Lincoln. Both these men assumed prominent positions within the Republican Party throughout the 1850s and in many respects account for the public concurrence offered the slave power thesis in the Northern states. It is important to point out that these two prominent figures approached the issue from fairly different standpoints. Nonetheless, regardless of this divergence and the political competition which existed between the two men, they were nonetheless determined in the assumptions they proposed. Furthermore, the attractiveness and validity of these assumptions goes a long way to explaining why the slave power conspiracy thesis became such as an effective slogan in the Northern states during the 1850s.
The central feature of the divergence suggested above between Seward and Lincoln essential rested on the distinction between power and conspiracy. For Seward, the primary issue in relation to the Southern slave oligarchs rested on their projection of power at the federal level. In supporting the assumption that Southern slave owning elements exerted vast levels of directional control over political processes at the federal level, Seward proffered a number of assertions which had direct validity. In particular, Seward proposed that Southern slave owners were able to act in a manner similar to an aristocracy, particularly within the Southern states. Through the projection of this aristocratic power, the Southern slave oligarchs were able to exert political influence far beyond their central power regions in the South. Moreover, in furthering his assumptions in relation to power, Seward outlined in detail the practical methods by which the Southern slave owning community had become political preponderant at the federal level. In particular, in speech delivered in the Northern city of Detroit, Seward pointed to the fact that in the Senate, House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, Southern slave owners held prominent positions including speaker and chief justice.
It is possible validate Seward’s assumptions through reference to historical evidence. For example, Potter suggests that from the 1830s up until the mid 1850s, the major confrontations at the federal legislative level had invariably resulted in victory for the Southern point of view, the most notable example being the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Furthermore, Richards points out that the only Presidents to be successfully re-elected – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Jackson “were all slave holders”. Thus, the suggestion that Southern slave owners exerted overarching control over the political processes of the federal state “was a powerful argument”.
In addition, moving to the assumptions of Abraham Lincoln, the suggestion that Southern slave oligarchs engaged in conspiracy against the constitution and federal state also has validity and thus explains the widespread acceptance of such assumptions in the Northern states. Lincoln acted as the main proponent of the suggestion that a conspiracy in the South hoped to nationalise the slave industry. In this famous ‘House Divided’ speech of 1858, Lincoln set about systematically attacking his electoral opponent senator Stephen A. Douglas and forged an effective link between the actions of Douglas and the wider suspected conspiracy involving President’s Buchannan and Pierce outlined previously. Davis suggests that there is plethora of evidence to suggest that some form of nationalisation engender was being undertaken by these men, thus it is once again possible to account for the effectiveness of the slave power slogan through reference to the individuals who proposed it, and the validity of the assumptions they proffered.
Finally, in further explaining the widespread acceptance of the slave power conspiracy thesis, it is essential to note that political movements like the Free Soil Party struck accord with the wider abolitionist movement. It is of course essential to remember that divergence in arguments and outlook did personify much of the anti-Southern sentient in the North. Nonetheless, the suggestion that Southern elements were seeking to control and direct the political destiny of the Union itself did serve to propel the sentiments of the anti-slavery movement in general. Thus, Jordon suggests that any move to attack the Southern slave owners would inevitably receive the support of a strong minded minority of abolitionists in the North.
Therefore, the various discussions and assessments undertaken above have highlighted the reasons why the slave power conspiracy thesis received such widespread support in the Northern states during the 1850s. Above all, a combination of coherent political organisation, charismatic political leadership from notable individuals, along with the validity of the thesis itself ultimately explains the effectiveness of the slave power slogan. Indeed, the rather fantastical assertions of men such as John Smith Dye do little to alter the validity of the central thesis proposed. Indeed, the eventual decent into Civil War does much to propel the suggestion that the slave power conspiracy was very potent reality in the United States prior to 1860s.
In conclusion, this work has aimed to outline the primary tenets of the slave power conspiracy thesis. Moreover, on this basis of this outline, a number of reasons have been suggested for why the thesis achieved such notable and widespread concurrence in the Northern states during the 1850s. Above all, the thesis of this work remains determined that the effectiveness of the slave power slogan can be directly attributed the validity of the thesis on which it was based. When this validity was combined with effective political leadership from men like Seward and Lincoln, the slogans effectiveness was significantly propelled. Ultimately, the argument that elements in the slave owning Southern states aimed to propel their powerbase in a manner personified by expansion and political domination at the federal level is both valid and supportable.
Ashworth, John. ‘Free Labor, Wage Labor and Slave Power: Republicanism and the Republican Party in the 1850s’, in, Stokes and Conway, The Market Revolution in America: social, political and religious expressions. New York: UPV Press, 1996.
Cairnes, John. The Slave Power. New York: Applewood Books, 2008.
Davis, David Brion. The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style. Louisiana: LUS Press, 1982.
Dye, John Smith. History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in America (1866). New York: Kessinger, 2010.
Epperson, James F. Causes of the Civil War. New York: OTTN Press, 2005.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Gara, Larry. ‘Slavery and the Slave Power: a crucial distinction’, Civil War History, 15, 1 (1969), pp. 5-18.
Jordon, Winthrop D. Slavery and the American South. Mississippi: UMP, 2008.
Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West: the eclipse of manifest destiny and the coming of the Civil War. New York: Westview, 1999.
Potter, David Morris. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Richards, Leonard L. The Slave Power: the free north and southern domination, 1780-1860. Louisiana: LSU Press, 2002.
Rodriguez, Junius P. ‘Slave Country: American expansion and the origins of the Deep South’, The Journal of American History 92, 4 (2006), pp. 1425-1428.
 James F. Epperson. Causes of the Civil War (New York: OTTN Press, 2005), p. 10.
 Ibid, 13-14.
 David Broin Davis. The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (Louisiana: LUS Press, 1982), p. 6.
 Ibid, 8.
 John Cairnes. The Slave Power (New York: Applewood Books, 2008), p. 19.
 John Ashworth. ‘Free Labor, Wage Labor and Slave Power: Republicanism and the Republican Party in the 1850s’, in, Stokes and Conway, The Market Revolution in America: social, political and religious expressions (New York: UPV Press, 1996), p. 131.
 Larry Gara. ‘Slavery and the Slave Power: a crucial distinction’, Civil War History, 15, 1 (1969), p. 10.
 Leonard L. Richards. The Slave Power: the free north and southern domination, 1780-1860 (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2002), p. 2-3.
 Ibid, 3.
 Michael A. Morrison. Slavery and the American West: the eclipse of manifest destiny and the coming of the Civil War (New York: Westview, 1999), p. 43.
 Ibid, 46.
 David Morris Potter. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 94.
 Junius P. Rodriguez. ‘Slave Country: American expansion and the origins of the Deep South’, The Journal of American History 92, 4 (2006), p. 1426.
 John Cairnes. The Slave Power (New York: Applewood Books, 2008), p. 29.
 David Broin Davis. The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (Louisiana: LUS Press, 1982), p. 76.
 Ibid, 78.
 John Cairnes. The Slave Power (New York: Applewood Books, 2008), p. 88.
 John Smith Dye. History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in America (1866) (New York: Kessinger, 2010), p. 4-9.
 Leonard L. Richards. The Slave Power: the free north and southern domination, 1780-1860 (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2002), p. 2.
 John Cairnes. The Slave Power (New York: Applewood Books, 2008), p. 67.
 Ibid, 69.
 Ibid, 70.
 Leonard L. Richards. The Slave Power: the free north and southern domination, 1780-1860 (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2002), p. 4.
 Eric Foner. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 105.
 Leonard L. Richards. The Slave Power: the free north and southern domination, 1780-1860 (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2002), p. 7-10.
 David Morris Potter. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 115.
 Leonard L. Richards. The Slave Power: the free north and southern domination, 1780-1860 (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2002), p. 9.
 Ibid, 9.
 David Morris Potter. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 99.
 David Broin Davis. The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (Louisiana: LUS Press, 1982), p. 74.
 Winthrop D. Jordon. Slavery and the American South (Mississippi: UMP, 2008), p. 121.