Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic

By Matthew Mason | Go to book overview

Introduction

ON 11 JANUARY 1820, as a debate raged in Congress and throughout the nation over whether to restrict slavery in the prospective state of Missouri, a massive fire broke out in Savannah, Georgia. So many people suffered and lost homes in this conflagration that donors throughout the country contributed almost $100,000 to their relief.1 Many observers welcomed this outpouring of benevolence, especially from the North, as a sign of goodwill in a time of sectional controversy. A member of Pennsylvania's senate urged his colleagues to embrace this “opportunity to cultivate the feelings of friendship and of mutual good will, between the inhabitants of different states,” for this “was one of the surest and most effectual modes to perpetuate the existence of the union.” Such a course was especially pressing given that the Missouri debates “had occasioned some warmth and temper between the citizens of the slaveholding, and non-slaveholding states.” As Pennsylvanians had led the way in fighting against slavery's extension to Missouri, so they should now be foremost in extending a helping hand to the South. This would prove that “charity and benevolence are the principles which actuate the policy of our state.” The legislature unanimously passed a bill providing $10,000 worth of relief.2 Georgians gladly accepted such charity and agreed that “it links closer and closer the chain of Union.”3

But the Savannah fire incident, far from the hoped-for balm for the Union's wounds, became yet another sectional irritant. For other Northerners were not prepared to set aside their antagonism toward the South. A private committee gathering funds in Philadelphia encountered a group of donors who gave money “for the use exclusively of persons in Savannah not Slave-holders.” This restriction faded from public view when the committee returned these donors' funds.4 The mayor and general relief committee of New York City caused a

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