Tuesday, September 4, 2007

As strange as it may seem to us today, opposition to slavery in antebellum America was based largely on racism.

Most of those marching in the anti-slavery crusade wanted that institution kept out of the western territories for the simple reason they wanted no blacks living there. Rhode Island senator James Burrill asked rhetorically if the West should be settled by “free white men,” or “by slaves, and blackened with their continually increasing progeny?” David Wilmot, congressman from Pennsylvania famous for his proviso banning slavery from territory acquired in the Mexican War, expressed the same view. “The negro race,” complained the abolitionist, “already occupy enough of this fair continent.” “All the unoccupied territory,” said Republican Horace Greeley, “shall be preserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race—a thing which cannot be except by the exclusion of slavery.” Abraham Lincoln shared that widespread prejudice. “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories,” he said in 1854, speaking of America’s western lands. “We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted with them.”

Years earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville encountered this attitude during his travels in America. “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists,” the Frenchman wrote, “and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.”

True to his observation, the Illinois Constitution of 1848 required that laws be enacted to “prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state.” “When we say that all men are created equal,” proclaimed Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, “we do not mean that every man in organized society has the same rights. We don’t tolerate that in Illinois.”

The final solution to the nation’s race problem, according to Lincoln? The peaceful deportation of every black from American soil, a dream he said would be “a glorious consummation.”

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