‘SLAVES ARE WELL OFF’
The first Congressman spoke for slavery. His patrician features strained in passion. His voice broke.
“The Fugitive Slave Law must stand without changes. Only that will settle the difficulty.”
That law guaranteed that runaway slaves, wherever they ran, must be returned to their owner. Hardly before he had regained his seat, still mopping his brow in the unaccustomed warmth of the afternoon, a second slaveholder and a fellow Congressman, stood to speak.
The Chairman acknowledged his wish to address his fellows with a nod and a word. Jefferson Davis, hero of the Mexican-American War and future President of the Confederacy, began his affirmation for the existing law without change.
“Gentlemen, I remind you all of a fact that may not be denied. Slave property is the only private property specifically recognized in the Constitution. It is protected by the Constitution. The New Fugitive Slave Law, if it is passed, will be unconstitutional. If you would settle this matter, then declare that slaves are property. Like all property, the owners have the right to be protected against loss of their property. Furthermore, in the spirit of justice and right, missing property should be returned to their rightful owners.”
A third southern sympathizer rose to add his objections to passage of the law. The Georgia speaker began in a conciliatory way. He spoke as if his logic was irrefutable.
“In the South, the slaves are at peace. They live lives of comparative comfort and happiness. Slaves are not driven to crime by hunger or want as the poor white man in the north is forced to do. In the north, hunger drives thousands of men and women daily into the abyss of crime.”
He warmed to his task. With a flash of fire in his eye, his voice rose to enforce his certainty.
“Look you to the poor Irish and the immigrants from the old world. See the results of their misery and squalor. I say to you, gentlemen, fewer children are born out of wedlock among slaves than in the capitols of any Northern American City like New York or Philadelphia.”
In his seat, near the back of the hall, the new representative from Illinois listened intently. To anyone watching the tall rawboned young Congressman it would have been clear that he followed every word closely. When a strong point was made he would run his callused hand through his shock of coarse black hair. At times, he would sit up abruptly at a score. Several times he uttered a short laugh and a grunt of disbelief at something said.
The Georgia man’s words at one point in his speech caused Lincoln to make so loud an outburst of disagreement the men closest to him looked away from the speaker to see who had made the interruption. Lincoln’s sarcastic laugh was loud enough to cause the speaker to look around to seek out the man who was voicing his disdain so loudly. The young politician from Illinois knew from personal knowledge that millions of mulattos in the South were the result of rape and abuse by their slave masters.
The Georgia man was an expert duelist. He was a man to be feared. He had also heard Lincoln’s blatant challenge. Pausing for the briefest of moments in his speech, he swallowed his anger and finished his say, striving to keep the debate on a civilized and reasonable level. Turning to include the representatives in the rear of the gallery, his next words were uttered with a barely disguised sneer.
“If northern common laborers who work at the barely subsistence wages were sent to the south to work, we would not need slaves.”
To enforce his statement and emphasize the difficult lot of the slave owner, he added, “The slave owner spends all his money to support his slaves.”
Instead of the hums and nods of support he expected, there was in its place, a ripple of laughter. Even the men who were slave owners, and believed in the need for slavery, found his words ludicrous.
Next Episode:The Slave Uprisings
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