Such incendiary literature

Speaking of Andrew Jackson and slavery and the Civil War…here’s some background.

Jackson’s presidency coincided with the formation of state and national antislavery societies, the publication of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator , and the expansion of abolitionist efforts to awaken the nation’s conscience. Although abolitionists focused primarily on nonpolitical tactics, their activities inevitably intruded into politics. During the last two years of the Jackson administration, therefore, the slavery issue was reintroduced to American politics for the first time since the fiery Missouri debates of 1819–1821.

In the summer of 1835, shortly after the Democratic convention adjourned, antislavery forces organized a campaign to distribute propaganda tracts through the mails to the South. The southern response was predictable. Southern state legislatures passed laws to keep out such “incendiary literature,” and many southern postmasters refused to deliver abolitionist mail. At Charleston, South Carolina, on 29 July, a mob of some three hundred incensed citizens stormed the post office to seize abolitionist material. Although persuaded to disperse, a few Carolinians returned that night and took possession of the literature, which they burned the following evening on the Charleston parade grounds.

The Jackson administration’s handling of this controversy has generally been interpreted as evidence of its southern orientation. According to one account, the Democratic party’s pro-South and pro-slavery bias was the “darker side to Jacksonian Democracy.” The Jackson administration certainly was hostile to abolitionism and any efforts to disturb the South’s “peculiar institution.” It showed a continuing solicitude for southern opinion and interests, and it embraced the racial tenets of “herrenvolk democracy,” which affirmed the equality of whites and their superiority over non-whites. Jackson himself was a substantial planter, owning many slaves, and while he insisted that they be treated “humanely,” he showed no disposition to disturb the legal and constitutional arrangements that maintained the slave system. Yet Jackson’s position on the slavery issue was more complex than this.

The Democratic party was a national organization, and northern attitudes about slavery and civil liberties had to be given weight. Moreover, Jackson’s denunciation of abolitionism did not signify that he considered slavery a positive or permanent good. Rather, he thought that by maintaining sectional calm, Providence would, in time, somehow eradicate the evil.

Maybe that’s what Trump is trying to think of when he says Jackson was “angry” about all this pre-Civil War controversy: he wanted everybody to stop fighting over it and just kick back and relax, because Providence would end slavery in its own good time.

Easy for him, of course, since he wasn’t a slave and wasn’t in any danger of becoming a slave. It may be that the issue was more urgent for people who were slaves.

Upon learning of the situation in Charleston, Jackson angrily denounced the abolitionists as “monsters” and suggested that those who subscribed to the papers have their names recorded by the postmaster and exposed in the public newspapers. Yet Jackson did not justify mob action or the complete interdiction of abolitionist mailings. He denounced the “spirit of mob-law” as evidenced in Charleston and thought that the instigators should be “checked and punished.” Reminding Kendall that federal officials had “no power to prohibit anything from being transported in the mails that is authorized by the law,” he suggested that the papers be delivered only to those who were “really subscribers.”

The mails controversy became a leading question when Congress convened in December 1835. In his annual message, Jackson noted the “painful excitement” caused by the abolitionist tracts and recommended that Congress prohibit their circulation in the South.

If the abolitionists had just shut up, there never would have been a Civil War. There might still be slavery, but there wouldn’t have been a civil war.

Jackson deplored the increased sectional bitterness that marked national politics during his presidency. He urged Americans to remember that the foundations of the Constitution and the Union were laid in the “affections of the people” and in their “fraternal attachment” as members of one political family. His sentiments were heartfelt, but time would demonstrate that his appeals for moderation, for unionism, and for patience in awaiting Providence’s will were ineffectual nostrums for the great moral and legal issues posed by slavery.

The increased sectional bitterness was over the issue of slavery. The South was not about to end slavery, gradually or otherwise. A happy-clappy solution wasn’t available.

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