was the perceived political power in the U.S. federal government held by slave owners during the 1840s and 1850s, prior to theCivil War. Antislavery campaigners during this period bitterly complained about what they saw as disproportionate and corrupt influence wielded by wealthy Southerners. The argument was that this small group of rich slave owners had seized political control of their own states and were trying to take over the federal government in an illegitimate fashion in order to expand and protect slavery. The argument was widely used by theRepublican Partythat formed in 185455 to oppose the expansion of slavery.

The main issue expressed by the termslave powerwas distrust of the political power of the slave-owning class. Such distrust was shared by many who were notabolitionists; those who were motivated more by a possible threat to the political balance or the impossibility of competing with unwaged slave labor, than by concern over the treatment of slaves. Those who differed on many other issues (such as hating blacks or liking them, denouncing slavery as a sin or promising to guarantee its protection in the Deep South) could unite to attack theslaveocracy.1TheFree Soilelement emphasized that rich slave owners would move into new territory, use their cash to buy up all the good lands, then use their slaves to work the lands, leaving little opportunity room for free farmers. By 1854 theFree Soil Partyhad largely merged into the newRepublican Party.2

The term was popularized by antislavery writers such asJohn Gorham PalfreyJosiah Quincy IIIHorace BushnellJames Shepherd Pike, andHorace Greeley. Politicians who emphasized the theme includedJohn Quincy AdamsHenry WilsonandWilliam Pitt FessendenAbraham Lincolnused the concept after 1854 but not the term. They showed, through a combination of emotive argument and hard statistical data, that the South had long held a disproportionate level of power in the United States. HistorianAllan Nevinscontends that nearly all groups … steadily substituted emotion for reason. … Fear fed hatred, and hatred fed fear.3

The existence of aSlave Powerwas dismissed by Southerners at the time, and rejected as false by many historians of the 1920s and 1930s, who stressed the internal divisions in the South before 1850.4The idea that the Slave Power existed has partly come back at the hands ofneoabolitionisthistorians since 1970, and there is no doubt that it was a powerful factor in the Northern anti-slavery belief system. It was standard rhetoric for all factions of the Republican Party.5

The problem posed byslavery, according to many Northern politicians, was not so much the mistreatment of slaves (a theme that abolitionists emphasized), but rather the political threat to Americanrepublicanism, especially as embraced in Northernfree states. TheFree Soil Partyfirst raised this warning in 1848, arguing that the annexation ofTexasas aslave statewas a terrible mistake. The Free Soilers rhetoric was taken up by theRepublican partyas it emerged in 1854.

The Republicans also argued that slavery was economically inefficient, compared to free labor, and was a deterrent to the long-term modernization of America. Worse, said the Republicans, the Slave Power, deeply entrenched in the South, was systematically seizing control of theWhite House, theCongress, and theSupreme Court. Senator and governorSalmon P. ChaseofOhiowas an articulate enemy of the Slave Power, as was SenatorCharles SumnerofMassachusetts.

Southern power derived from a combination of factors. Thethree-fifths clause(counting 100 slaves as 60 people for seats in the House and thus for electoral votes) gave the South additional representation at the national level.6Parity in the Senate was critical, whereby a new slave state was admitted in tandem with a new free state. Regional unity across party lines was essential on key votes. In the Democratic party, a presidential candidate had to carry the national convention by a two-thirds vote to get nominated. It was also essential for some NorthernersDoughfaces7to collaborate with the South, as in the debates surrounding the three-fifths clause itself in 1787, theMissouri Compromiseof 1820, thegag rulein the House (18361844), and the wider subject of theWilmot Provisoand slavery expansion in the Southwest after the Mexican war of 18461848.8However, the North was adding populationand House seatsmuch faster than the South, so the handwriting was on the wall. With the implacable Republicans gaining every year, the secession option became more and more attractive to the South. Secession was suicidal, as some leaders realized, and asJohn Quincy Adamshad long prophesied. Secession, arguedJames Henry Hammondof South Carolina, reminded him of the Japanese whowhen insulted rip open their own bowels. And yet when secession came in 1860 Hammond followed. Historian Leonard Richards concludes, It was men like Hammond who finally destroyed the Slave Power. Thanks to their leading the South out of the Union, seventy-two years of slaveholder domination came to an end.9

From the point of view of many Northerners, the supposedly definitiveCompromise of 1850was followed by a series of maneuvers (such as theKansasNebraska Act, theDred Scottdecision, etc.) in which the North gave up previously-agreed gains without receiving anything in return, accompanied by ever-escalating and more extreme Southern demands. Many northerners who had no particular concern for blacks concluded that slavery was not worth preserving if its protection required destroying or seriously compromising democracy among whites. Such perceptions led to theAnti-Nebraska movementof 18541855, followed by the organizedRepublican Party.

Historian Frederick J. Blue (2006) explores the motives and actions of those who played supportive but not central roles in antislavery politicsthose who undertook the humdrum work of organizing local parties, holding conventions, editing newspapers, and generally animating and agitating the discussion of issues related to slavery. They were a small but critical number of voices who, beginning in the late 1830s, battled the institution of slavery through political activism. In the face of great odds and powerful opposition, activists insisted that emancipation and racial equality could only be achieved through the political process. Representative activists include:Alvan Stewart, aLiberty partyorganizer from New York;John Greenleaf Whittier, a Massachusetts poet, journalist, and Liberty activist;Charles Henry Langston, an Ohio African-American educator;Owen Lovejoy, a congressman from Illinois, whose brother was killed by a pro-slavery mob; Sherman Booth, a journalist and Liberty organizer in Wisconsin;Jane Grey Swisshelm, a journalist in Pennsylvania and Minnesota;George W. Julian, a congressman from Indiana;David Wilmot, a congressman from Pennsylvania, whoseWilmot provisotried to stop the expansion of slavery in the Southwest;Benjamin Wadeand Edward Wade, a senator and a congressman, respectively, from Ohio; and Jessie Benton Frmont of Missouri and California, wife of the Republican 1856 presidential nomineeJohn C. Frmont.10

The Democrats who rallied toMartin Van BurenFree Soil Partyin 1848 have been studied by Earle (2003). Their views on race occupied a wide spectrum, but they were able to fashion new and vital arguments against slavery and its expansion based on theJacksonian Democracys long-standing commitment to egalitarianism and hostility to centralized power. Linking their antislavery stance to a land-reform agenda that pressed for free land for poor settlersrealized by the Homestead Law of 1862in addition to land free of slavery, Free Soil Democrats forced major political realignments in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Democratic politicians such as Wilmot, Marcus Morton, John Parker Hale, and even former president Van Buren were transformed into antislavery leaders. Many entered the new Republican party after 1854, bringing along Jacksonian ideas about property and political equality, helping transform antislavery from a struggling crusade into a mass political movement that came to power in 1860.11

In his celebratedHouse Dividedspeech of June 1858,Abraham Lincolncharged that SenatorStephen A. Douglas, PresidentJames Buchanan, his predecessor,Franklin Pierce, andwere all part of a plot to nationalize slavery, as allegedly proven by theSupreme CourtsDred Scottdecision of 1857.12

Other Republicans pointed to theviolence in Kansas, the brutalassault on Senator Sumner, attacks upon the abolitionist press, and efforts to take overCubaOstend Manifesto) as evidence that the Slave Power was violent, aggressive, and expansive.

The only solution, Republicans insisted, was a new commitment to free labor, and a deliberate effort to stop any more territorial expansion of slavery. Northern Democrats answered that it was all an exaggeration and that the Republicans were paranoid. Their Southern colleagues spoke ofsecession, arguing that theJohn Brown raid of 1859proved that the Republicans were ready to attack their region and destroy their way of life.

In congratulating President-elect Lincoln in 1860, Salmon P. Chase exclaimed, The object of my wishes and labors for nineteen years is accomplished in the overthrow of the Slave Power, adding that the way was now clear for the establishment of the policy of Freedomsomething that would come only after four destructive years ofCivil War.13

Jessie Fremont, the wife of the first Republican presidential candidate, wrote campaign poetry for the 1856 election. Grant says her poems bind the periodscult of domesticityto the new partys emerging ideology. Her poems suggested that Northerners who conciliated the Slave Power were spreading their own sterility, while virile men voting Republican were reproducing, through their own redemption, a future free West. The code of domesticity, according to Grant, thus helped these poems to define collective political action as building upon the strengths of free labor.14

HistorianHenry Brooks Adams(grandson of Slave-Power theoristJohn Quincy Adams) explained that the Slave Power was a force for centralization:15

Between the slave power and states rights there was no necessary connection. The slave power, when in control, was a centralizing influence, and all the most considerable encroachments on states rights were its acts. Theacquisition and admission of Louisiana; theEmbargo; theWar of 1812; theannexation of Texasby joint resolution [rather than treaty]; thewar with Mexico, declared by the mere announcement of PresidentPolk; theFugitive Slave Law; theDred Scott decisionall triumphs of the slave powerdid far more than either tariffs or internal improvements, which in their origin were also Southern measures, to destroy the very memory ofstates rightsas they existed in 1789. Whenever a question arose of extending or protecting slavery, the slaveholders became friends of centralized power, and used that dangerous weapon with a kind of frenzy. Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself, but it required to control the centralized machine; it needed despotic principles of government, but it needed them exclusively for its own use. Thus, in truth, states rights were the protection of the free states, and as a matter of fact, during the domination of the slave power, Massachusetts appealed to this protecting principle as often and almost as loudly asSouth Carolina.

Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 17801860

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 18471852

See Chauncey S. Boucher, In Re That Aggressive Slavocracy,

Vol. 8, No. 1/2 (Jun., 1921), pp. 1379; Craven (1936)

Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power

Most Doughfaces wereJacksonian DemocratslikeFranklin PierceandJames Buchanan; few were Whigs.

Lincolns Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict

Abraham Lincoln, President-elect: The Four Critical Months from Election to Inauguration

David Grant, Our Nations Hope Is She: The Cult of Jessie Fremont in the Republican Campaign Poetry of 1856,

Ashworth, John. Free Labor, Wage Labor, and Slave Power: Republicanism and the Republican Party in the 1850s, in

The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political and Religious Expressions, 18001880

, edited by S. M. Stokes and S. Conway (1996), 12846.

No Taint Of Compromise: Crusaders in Antislavery Politics

Boucher, Chauncey S. In Re That Aggressive Slavocracy,

, 81 (JuneSeptember, 1921), pp.1379in JSTOR; says slave owners were not united

Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics

Craven, Avery. Coming of the War Between the States: An Interpretation,

, Vol. 2, No. 3 (1936), pp.30322; pro-South; rejects notion of Slave Powerin JSTOR

The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style

Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 18241854

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

Gara, Larry. Slavery and the Slave Power: A Crucial Distinction

Gerteis, Louis S. The Slave Power and its Enemies,

Gienapp, William E. The Republican Party and the Slave Power, in Robert H. Abzug and Stephen E. Maizlish, eds.,

New Perspectives on Race and Slavery in America

Landis, Michael Todd. A Champion Had Come: William Pitt Fessenden and the Republican Party, 185460,

McInerney, Daniel J. A State of Commerce: Market Power and Slave Power in Abolitionist Political Economy,

Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 17801860

A Self-Evident Lie: Southern Slavery and the Threat to American Freedom

(Kent State University Press; 2012) 160 pages

The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs

(1862; reprinted 2003)online text of the second edition

House Divided: The Antebellum Slavery Debates in America, 17761865

Anti-Slavery Political Writings, 18331860: A Reader

The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America

History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America

, June 1985, Vol. 31 Issue 2, pp.14462

List of Union Civil War monuments and memorials

List of memorials to the Grand Army of the Republic

Removal of Confederate monuments and memorials

Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the U.S.

Confederate States Presidential Election of 1861

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