Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Party Politics and the Debate over the Tennessee Free Negro Bill, 1859-1860

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Party Politics and the Debate over the Tennessee Free Negro Bill, 1859-1860

Article excerpt

IN EARLY 1860 THE TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY ENGAGED IN A heated debate over a proposal to expel free blacks from the state. Tennessee was not the only slave state to consider this option. The Arkansas legislature had passed an expulsion bill in February 1859. After the Arkansas bill became law, the Florida and Missouri legislatures passed expulsion bills, and legislators in nine other states seriously considered similar proposals. Despite this legislative activity, the expulsion movement eventually failed. In Tennessee the House and Senate passed conflicting versions of what was referred to as the "Free Negro Bill," but the issue died when the two chambers were unable to agree on a compromise. Both Florida's and Missouri's governors vetoed the bills passed by their states' legislatures, and no other state legislature approved an expulsion bill. The Arkansas legislature suspended its expulsion act in 1860, even though by that time most free blacks had already left. (1)

The standard account of the late antebellum drive for expulsion can be found in Ira Berlin's classic Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. Berlin argued that the movement developed during the 1850s out of the contradictions that arose between the economic advancement of free blacks and the growing acceptance of the "positive-good" defense of slavery. The expansion of wage-earning opportunities and the resulting increase in property ownership by free blacks belied the positive-good argument that blacks could thrive only in slavery. Furthermore, economic progress by free blacks eroded their sufferance of racial oppression, and their impatience with traditional racial etiquette reinforced southern whites' belief that the presence of free blacks inspired rebellion among slaves. John C. Rutherfoord first proposed expulsion in the Virginia legislature in 1853, but the Old Dominion's House of Delegates rejected Rutherfoord's bill. The United States Supreme Court's 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford deprived free blacks of any claim to citizenship, and then "Southern ideologues" began to demand the removal of free blacks. Arkansas's decision to pass its expulsion law "shot through the South and sparked still another wave of assaults on the freemen's liberty," and "[t]he supercharged atmosphere created by John Brown's raid" in October 1859 "pushed the free Negro question to the fore." The idea of expulsion, however, "offended the sense of right of many Southerners." More importantly, free blacks' "entrenched position" in southern society and in the region's economy discouraged whites from carrying proslavery thought to its logical conclusion. They hesitated to expel free blacks even though this reluctance revealed "the weakness of positive-good ideology, which depicted slavery as the only appropriate condition for blacks," and undermined "the whole logic of secession." (2)

Since the publication of Slaves Without Masters thirty years ago, few have tested Berlin's initial conclusions or explored further the significance of the calls for expulsion. The book provides the best account of the antebellum southern free black experience, but Berlin's examination of expulsion is a relatively brief regional overview that relies primarily on evidence from states with large numbers of free blacks, where the "problem" appeared most pressing. New examinations of the movement, particularly in states with fewer free blacks, offer an opportunity to reconsider what the effort to expel free blacks reveals about white racial attitudes in the late-antebellum South. Such studies might also demonstrate how concerns over the presence of free blacks functioned as a political issue, a point of view that few previous studies have explored. Since the 1970s many scholars have demonstrated the importance of two-party competition in the antebellum South. Within each state, the national debate over the future of slavery was a central issue that either contributed to the destruction of the two-party system or was contained by party competition. …

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