Presenters at Saturday’s Symposium at the Clark County Heritage Center discussed slavery, the Electoral College, ‘Bloody Kansas’ and the Underground Railroad

By Tom Stafford, Staff Writer, Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun

Political distortion.

Americans know slavery distorted the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal.”

But Fergus Bordewich argues the issue distorted “the entire American political system” until abolition.

The author, whose shorter pieces have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Smithsonian magazine, said the distortions began with the Constitutional compromise that allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a voter for congressional representation.

The measure ensured “slave states would have one-third more seats in Congress than their (voting) populations warranted,” he said, power used to protect slavery.

With a parallel representational scheme, he said, the Electoral College bolstered that advantage.

Thomas Jefferson and other Southerners favored a strong central government as an alternative to a scheme in which individual states would be dominated by European powers. But “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, articulated Southerners’ other fear: that a “fixed, insolent Northern majority,” due to the north’s greater population, could do the same.

That led to the famous or infamous compromise.

Bordewich said that slavery also distorted the nation’s western expansion.

Most Northern whites weren’t so concerned for the rights of slaves, Bordewich said, but feared slavery’s spread would “soon drive out white labor” and restrict their opportunities in the new country.

In his final political act, the Great Compromiser Henry Clay saved the union with a deal that admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine a free state.

But by 1850, a new generation of Southern leaders with a clearer sense of entitlement over slavery were ready for secession.

The break was temporarily stopped by the fugitive slave law, which threatened to punish Northerners who refused to help return slaves and immediately radicalized Northern whites.

Its politics distorted by slavery, the nation soon experienced the ultimate political distortion: war.

Civil War in Kansas

As chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Territories in 1854, Illinois’ Stephen A. Douglas wanted to get on with organizing the territories, Nicole Etcheson explained, but faced a solid Southern block that had “no interest in organizing territories … that are going to become free states.”

Douglas’ solution was to undo an agreement that had held since 1820 and have the issue of slavery in Kansas, the next logical state to be added, decided by a vote of the people, so-called popular sovereignty.

“To get this territory,” Etcheson said, “Douglas has to make the deal.”

The Ball State University professor and author of “Bleeding Kansas” discussed it Saturday.

In a conflict that Etcheson said illustrates Americans’ different ideas about liberty, “Douglas would say this is liberty — the right of the settlers to choose.” However, she said, “the processes of liberty aren’t always as straightforward as we’d like to think.”

A fraudulent election and its result soon were challenged by an extra-legal government of slavery opponents that grew stronger as more settlers moved in.

And just as the slavery debate turned violent when Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner after Sumner’s “long, nasty speech” against slavery and its supporters on the Senate floor, unknown John Brown came to Kansas and hacked pro-slavery people to death.

To Brown, a once-peaceful abolitionist grown tired of losing, “liberty means human freedom for everyone,” Etcheson said. His view is “you don’t have freedom if people vote for slavery.”

Into this mix, she said, came the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision embracing “the Southern definition of liberty: protection of their Constitutional right to own slaves in the territories.”

If all this weren’t enough for everyone to be unhappy, Brown headed back east and took over the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., with the intention of inciting a slave revolt.

Hated in the South with the intensity of Osama bin Laden, he was a kind of martyr for slavery in the North.

The day he was executed “church bells toll all through the north,” Etcheson said.

Finally unable to give on their definitions of liberty, Americans prepared to give one another death.

A college failure?

Unlike the 1802, 1876 and 2000 presidential elections, “the outcome of the 1860 election never was in dispute,” said Ohio State University military historian Mark Grimsley.

“Yet it was this election, not the others, that triggered the Civil War.”

The problem in 1860, he said, was not that anyone questioned the election’s results. “The problem was that so few Americans agreed to abide the result.”

Chosen by his party because front-runner William Seward had too many enemies, Abraham Lincoln won the electoral vote handily, despite receiving less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Stephen Douglas finished second with 29.5 percent as the Southern Democrats refused to acknowledge. John Breckenridge got 18.1 percent of the vote, mostly from the disaffected Southern Democrats. John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party received 12.6 percent.

That Lincoln was elected without a single vote in 10 Southern states not only stands as an interesting fact, Grimsley said, but perhaps as an indictment of the Electoral College.

Created in a time when literacy was low, communications difficult, and by founders who thought the college correct for what William Tecumseh Sherman later called “an excess of democracy,” it was “seen as less risky” than direct elections, Grimsley said.

But the winner-take-all format for state electoral votes and the use of states as its building blocks, “created the possibility of sectionally based political parties,” Grimsley said.

In that context, he said it’s worth noting that the combined votes of the Democratic candidates of 1860 election amount to 10 percent more than Lincoln received. If united, or under a different system, “the Democrats would have won in 1860, and the sectional crisis, and the secession crisis and, therefore the Civil War” might have been averted, he said.

His point: The very Electoral College created to bring stability, “nearly destroyed the republic it was intended to save.”

Lost in myth

Few, if any, tunnels or hiding places were built.

Stories about bloodhounds hunting escaped slaves along its routes are dramatic, but were rare.

In some place its activities were so above-ground they were reported in the press.

But if the history of the Underground Railroad is “encrusted with mythology,” said Fergus Bordewich, it still deserves the accolades it has received in the fight against slavery.

“The Underground Railroad is about a lot more than … hiding places,” said the author of “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the Battle for the Soul of America.”

Bordewich said the Underground Railroad stands out as the nation’s first inter-racial movement; one that “changed relations between the races” in radical ways and led to the first acts of “mass civil disobedience” since the American Revolution; and provided the “seed bed” for American feminism.

As important, he said, it led those inspired by religious faith to take “personal, active responsibility for other people’s rights.”

Bordewich that by using safe-houses, disguises, and a system of moving people along its routes quickly, the Underground Railroad may have freed up to 100,000 slaves. Said to be traveling “the Canada Road,” most settled in sympathetic communities in Northern Ohio and New York or a variety of black communities across the North.

Harriett Tubman is perhaps its best known figure, but Isaiah Hopper is considered a founder, and wealthy Gerrod Smith (whom Bordewich described as a George Soros of his time) was a staunch supporter.

Perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 “activists” were part of the system and thus knowingly participated in plans to break the law.

At such points as Ripley, Ohio, where escaped slaves would arrive across the Ohio River, the system was “as secret as people could keep it,” Bordewich said. “Farther north, that Underground Railroad was amazingly open.”

The Ohio River Valley and Southern Pennsylvania were the most common crossing points, he said, and the system extended only perhaps 100 miles south of there. The Deep South was too far away.

Bordewich described this part of Ohio as “a hotbed” of Underground Railroad” activity and described this as “the golden age” for its rediscovery.

He said those interested should visit Rankin House in Ripley or the Levi Coffin homestead in Fountain City, Ind., just north of Richmond.

They’re no longer hard to find.

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0368.