September 18, 1850
It is a warm morning in Charleston, South Carolina and the bustle of people through the city streets is excited with the anticipation of long-awaited news. I sit on a decorative wrought-iron bench on the sidewalk outside the Charleston Morning Post’s office. It is not yet even six o’clock in the morning and a crowd is slowly forming outside the newspaper’s office, waiting for the first copies of the morning news to be printed and sold on the stands outside. Mothers with children in hand, well-dressed plantation men having travelled in from the surrounding countryside, and paperboys all wait eagerly with the buzz of the morning’s rumor on their lips and a shiny coin or two in their palms. The rumor of the day is that the Fugitive Slave Act, the final bill of Mr. Henry Clay’s Compromise, passed in Senate yesterday afternoon.
As all of you well know, the turmoil and unrest in our country has been growing over the past few years and recently it has reached such an intensity as to threaten the well-being and safety of the entire nation (2). Most notably, we, the great people of the South, have found ourselves in direct disagreement with many of the Northern states that have openly and mercilessly attacked Southern culture and principles (4). This disagreement has manifested itself around important issues such as the United States’ acquisition of new territories – California, New Mexico, and Deseret – and the valued Southern institution of slavery (4). As the disagreements have continued to make the divide between the North and the South more and more apparent, it became evident that if the great country of the United States of America is to be preserved in all its glory, action must be taken (6). Many months ago, Mr. Henry Clay set out to take this action and he proposed the well-known Compromise that settled many of the issues that were then in dispute. Mr. Henry Clay proposed this Compromise back in January and the Compromise was greatly debated, and eventually rejected, by the Senate.
It wasn’t until Stephen A. Douglas proposed the resolutions as five separate bills in July that the Senate agreed on the need for a compromise and the fairness of Clay’s Compromise (4). Over the past few months, we have seen the first four of these bills passed in Senate and have had mixed feelings about the resolutions of some of the issues but relief about the act of resolution in general (6). Although they are very well-known, I will list the four bills passed so far to provide some context for the final bill currently on all of our minds. The first four parts of the Clay’s Compromise have stipulated that
- California has been granted statehood – although we were refused our desire to have a segment of California as a slave-holding, Southern state.
- Texas has no claim on the New Mexico territory.
- New Mexico and Deseret have not been granted statehood – they are simply territories of the United States.
- Slavery in the New Mexico territory and the Utah territory will be left up to popular sovereignty. (4)
The Fugitive Slave Act, the fifth and final bill of the Compromise, is simple. It states that any runaway slaves must be returned to their owners. This means that it is a crime for federal officials not to take action against slaves who run away to the North and promptly return them to where they belong. (2) The Fugitive Slave Act is a very basic and pressing need in the South to protect our treasured institution of Slavery and ensure the security of our slaves.
* * *
As the morning sun begins to intensify and the crowd outside the Newspaper Office has grown to a large mass of people, salesmen begin to run out of the Office with stacks of the freshly-printed paper and the answer to all of our questions in their hands. The crowd erupts in excitement and impatience as people flock to the salesmen, shoving coins at them and ripping the papers from their hands. Suddenly cheers and hollers are raised and people turn to embrace one another enthusiastically, pumping their fists and throwing newspapers up in the air in celebration. The bill passed! Good people of the South, the Fugitive Slave Act passed! Finally we have been granted what we all know we deserve!
As the excitement slowly simmers down, I meander my way through the crowd of happy faces, questioning people as they walk by me and trying to get a feel for what the passing of this Act means for the people of the South. As I call out to a well-groomed plantation man with a balding white head and a rosy complexion, my attention is momentarily stolen by a couple of dark faces in the crowd, fleeing the celebration in bitter sadness and desperate fear. But I quickly banish the image from my mind and turn back to the man in front of me to introduce myself,
“Excuse me, Sir. My name is Miss Bradshaw and I am a journalist documenting this wonderful day. Could I possibly ask you a few questions?”
“Of course,” he responds politely. “I’m Mr. Banks.”
“Thank you. What does the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act mean to you?”
“Oh boy,” Mr. Banks begins. “It is really huge. It is really quite huge.” As Mr. Banks speaks, his blue eyes light up and a smile breaks across his aging face, “We’ve been waiting for this for a darn long time. And with all of the compromises being made, all of the sacrifices we are having to make for the good of our nation, I am relieved that we have been granted this one consolation. The Fugitive Slave Act will reinforce the respectability of Slavery in the eyes of the rest of the nation.” (3)
“How do you respond to the endless criticism by the North of slavery and how it is immoral and less profitable and productive than free labor?” I ask (1).
“That is easy.” Mr. Banks says. “That slavery is somehow less ethical than free labor is absurd. I am a man of God myself, I ought to know what is ethical and what isn’t. Slavery is a mutually beneficial institution, that is, benefitting both the masters and the slaves. It is a fundamental part of our Southern Culture and the rest of the country has no right to take it away from us. As for productivity and profitability, I consider myself a man of rank and class and I am able to support my family comfortably. And all thanks to my slaves!”
Mr. Banks’ words echo the opinions of most Southerners today. The passing of the Fugitive Slave Act is a victory for the South as it restores to us something that is rightfully ours. As we look into the future, it is clouded with uncertainty. I do not believe the conflict between the North and the South is over. Some disagreements are simply too fundamental to settle. But no matter what will pass, it is important that all Southerners remain true to our culture and beliefs even in the daunting face of oppression. I will conclude in the words of Mr. Banks: Slavery is a fundamental aspect of Southern Culture and nobody has the right to take it away from us!
– Miss Hattie Bradshaw
- George, Bourne. “George Bourne, 1780-1845. A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument; By a Citizen of Virginia..”Documenting the American South. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/bourne/bourne.html>
- Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: a Concise History of the American People. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013. Print
- Clay, Henry. “‘On the Compromise of 1850’ Speech.” University of Kentucky. Mary I. King Library. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp? ItemID=WE52&iPin=E06400&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 21, 2013)
- “Compromise of 1850.” American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp? ItemID=WE52&iPin=E11410&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 21, 2013)
- Helper, Rowan H. . “Hinton Rowan Helper, 1829-1909. The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It..” Documenting the American South. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/helper/helper.html>
- Mendoza, Alexander. “Causes of the Civil War.” In Tucker, Spencer C., gen. ed.Encyclopedia of American Military History. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2003.American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp? ItemID=WE52&iPin=EMHI0195&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 21, 2013).