The northern Democrats' dilemma over slavery

From Making an Antislavery Nation: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Battle over Freedom.  Copyright 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.  Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.


On April 21, 1838 in Washington, D.C., Adam Snyder took a moment from his day to scribble some observations about slavery.  The Democratic congressman from Illinois had never opposed slavery.  Born impoverished in Pennsylvania, he had migrated to Illinois in 1817 and had risen rapidly due to talent, industry, and ambition--and the patronage of Illinois's prominent proslavery politician, Jesse B. Thomas.  Thomas deeply influenced Snyder's views of slavery.  Snyder supported Illinois's proslavery movement, purchased four slaves, and abhorred abolitionism.  Such a background makes his letter from Washington, D.C., in 1838 all the more fascinating.  He noted that "a poor man came the other day to get some information from me in regard to the country," doing so "with his hat off stooping and cringeing into my room, more humble than one of my negroes comes before me, it is so with all of them."  By contrast, every white Illinoisian "however poor he may be is proudly independent," wrote Snyder, "the equal of the richest and the highest," but in slave country the poor "are a different race," miserable "amongst the proud slave holders."  Certain that poor whites would be respected if they were "in the far west the owners of their own homes," he thought that "they ought to go to Illinois" even if "they took it on foot and lived all the way on parched corn."  Snyder did not criticize every aspect of slavery, or slavery everywhere, but he levied a damning indictment nonetheless.[1]

          Snyder's appraisal contrasts sharply with South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun's defense of slavery on the floor of Congress in 1837 and 1838.  Calhoun claimed that slavery was a "positive good" and deserved to be protected at all hazards against northern antislavery sentiment.  Slavery had "inseparably united" blacks and whites, he argued, securing "the peace and happiness of both."  Blacks had benefited especially, rising from a "low, degraded, and savage condition" to a relatively "civilized condition" under slaveholders' "fostering care."  This portrayal apparently did not persuade Snyder, who observed in his letter that "many of these Maryland & Virginia people" survive only due to "the Shad & Herring fisheries," and cannot adequately "feed their negroes," who consequently are "red headed and husky red skins," not "black & glossy."  The gulf between Calhoun's public declaration and Snyder's private views encapsulate the northern Democrats' dilemma over slavery.  Although northern Democrats prized the Union, Southerners prized both slavery and the Union, typically in that order.  Consequently, just as Calhoun's positive good defense of slavery became southern orthodoxy over the next two decades, so too did his declaration that his "first duty" was to the "slaveholding States" rather than to the Union, and his insistence that the Constitution protected slavery in the nation's territories.  Northern Democrats like Snyder could not easily swallow these doctrines.  Protecting slavery against abolitionism was one thing; promoting its expansion and perpetuity in concert with Southerners at the expense of northern whites was altogether another.  In this sense, Snyder's criticism of slavery was a harbinger of a very serious crisis in the Democratic Party.[2]


[1]John Francis Snyder, Adam W. Snyder and His Period in Illinois History, 1817-1842 (Virginia:  E. Needham, 1906; reprint, Ann Arbor:  University Microfilms, 1968), 1-63; Adam Snyder to Jesse B. Thomas, 23 Dec 1837, Box 29, Folder 4; Snyder to Hiram Snyder, 21 April 1838, Box 29, Folder 5, John F. Snyder Papers, ALPLM.

[2]Clyde N. Wilson, ed., The Papers of John C. Calhoun, vol. 13 (Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1980), 395 ("positive good" and civilization quotes); Wilson, ed., The Papers of John C. Calhoun, vol. 14 (Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1981), 31-32, 82-84 ("first duty" and race relations quotes); Adam Snyder to Hiram Snyder, 21 April 1838, Box 29, Folder 5, John F. Snyder Papers, ALPLM.