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Encyclopedia > Slave power

The Slave Power was the term used in the Northern United States in the period 1840-1865 to describe the political power of the slaveholding class in the South. The problem, it was claimed, was not so much the mistreatment of slaves (a theme the abolitionists stressed), but the political threat to American republicanism. The Free Soil party first raised the warning in 1848, claiming the annexation of Texas as a slave state was a terrible mistake. The rhetoric carried strong negative connotations, and was the subject of repeated attack by the Republican party, as soon as it emerged in 1854. The Republican argument was that the Slave Power was economically inefficient (compared to free labor), and a deterrent to the long-term modernization of America. Worse, said the Republicans, the Solid South was systematically seizing control of the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Salmon P. Chase was an especially articulate enemy of the Slave Power, as was Charles Sumner. In his celebrated "House Divided" speech of June 1858, Lincoln charged that Senator Douglas, President Pierce, Chief Justice Taney, and President-elect Buchanan were all part of a Slave Power plot to nationalize slavery, as proven by the Dred Scott decision. Other Republicans pointed to violence in Kansas, the attack on Senator Charles Sumner, and efforts to take over Cuba as evidence the Slave Power was violent, aggressive, and expansive. The only solution, Republicans insisted, was a new commitment to free labor and a deliberate effort to stop any more territorial expansion of slavery. Northern Democrats said it was all an exaggeration--that the Republicans were paranoid. The Southerners talked of secession, arguing that the John Brown raid of 1859 proved the Republicans were ready to attack their region and destroy their way of life. This article is about the abolition of slavery. ... In the United States, Free Soil was a position taken by northern citizens and politicians in the 19th century advocating that all new U.S. territory be closed to slavery. ... This article is about the modern United States Republican Party. ... Salmon Portland Chase (January 13, 1808 – May 7, 1873) was an American politician and jurist in the Civil War era who served as Senator from Ohio, Governor of Ohio, as U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln, and Chief Justice of the United States. ... Charles Sumner Charles Sumner (January 6, 1811–March 11, 1874) was an American politician and statesman from the U.S. state of Massachusetts. ... Dred Scott Dred Scott (ca. ... Charles Sumner Charles Sumner (January 6, 1811–March 11, 1874) was an American politician and statesman from the U.S. state of Massachusetts. ... John Browns Oath Engraving from daguerreotype by Augustus Washington, ca. ...

Historian Henry Adams explained that the Slave Power was a force for centralization: Henry Adams, John Randolph (1882) pp 178-79] Henry Adams Henry Brooks Adams (February 16, 1838 – March 27, 1918) was an American historian, journalist and novelist. ...

Between the slave power and states' rights there was no necessary connection. The slave power, when in control, was a centralizing influence, and all the most considerable encroachments on states' rights were its acts. The acquisition and admission of Louisiana; the Embargo; the War of 1812; the annexation of Texas "by joint resolution" [rather than treaty]; the war with Mexico, declared by the mere announcement of President Polk; the Fugitive Slave Law; the Dred Scott decision — all triumphs of the slave power — did far more than either tariffs or internal improvements, which in their origin were also southern measures, to destroy the very memory of states' rights as they existed in 1789. Whenever a question arose of extending or protecting slavery, the slaveholders became friends of centralized power, and used that dangerous weapon with a kind of frenzy. Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself, but it required to control the centralized machine; it needed despotic principles of government, but it needed them exclusively for its own use. Thus, in truth, states' rights were the protection of the free states, and as a matter of fact, during the domination of the slave power, Massachusetts appealed to this protecting principle as often and almost as loudly as South Carolina.

In congratulating the president-elect in 1860, Salmon Chase exclaimed, "The object of my wishes and labors for nineteen years is accomplished in the overthrow of the Slave Power." The way was now clear "for the establishment of the policy of Freedom."


  • John Ashworth , "Free Labor, Wage Labor, and Slave Power: Republicanism and the Republican Party in the 1850s," in The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880, edited by S. M. Stokes and S. Conway (1996), 128-46.
  • Frederick J. Blue, No Taint Of Compromise: Crusaders in Antislavery Politics (2004)
  • Davis, David Brion. Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1986)
  • Jonathan Earle, Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 (2004)
  • Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Zany of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970), esp pp. 73-102
  • Larry Gara,. "Slavery and the Slave Power: A Crucial Distinction" Civil War History v15 (1969), pp 5-18
  • Leonard L. Richards, Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (2000) Hi Everybody

Primary sources

  • John Elliott Cairnes, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs (1862; reprinted 2003)
  • Mason I. Lowance Jr., ed. House Divided: The Antebellum Slavery Debates in America, 1776-1865 (2003)
  • C. Bradley Thompson, ed. Anti-Slavery Political Writings, 1833-1860: A Reader (2003)
  • Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power * [(1874) Wilson was elected Vice President in 1868.
  • Theodore Parker, The Slave Power abolitionist speeches, 1841-52



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