I want to introduce you to a peculiar man in a peculiar city. The night was May 21st , 1827. And if his home had not been so close to the year-old Athenum on the southwest corner of St. Paul and Lexington streets in downtown Baltimore, I doubt if State Senator Roger Brook Tawny (above) would have attended the meeting. It was not the dark streets that discouraged Tawney. What unnerved him was the prospect of facing the 17 men due to arrive in carriages and on foot, 6 from the city and 12 from every county in Maryland. You see, Roger Tawney suffered from Prosopagnosia, the inability to recognizing human faces, “...unless I had seen it frequently, or there was something striking about it.” As he later admitted, “I felt awkward entering a room, for consciousness of this defect” And yet most of the prominent Marylanders were coming to this particular meeting , in large part because of him.
They called themselves “The Central Committee” - this was their first meeting - and Tawney was quickly elected their Chairman. He was “a tall square shouldered man, flat chested...with a stoop that made his shoulders seem more prominent, a face without one good feature, a mouth unusually large, in which were discolored and irregular teeth.” He “dressed always in black, his clothes sitting ill upon him...in a word a gaunt, ungainly man.” And when he spoke, his faint voice “was hollow, as the voice of one who is consumptive.” His hands remained at his sides or in his pockets. He used no alliteration, and approached a monotone. But when men heard what he said, they believed him, “so clear, so simple, so admirably arraigned were his low voiced words.”
Within four months Roger Tawny would be chosen Attorney-General of Maryland by universal acclimation. He would later write, presaging the Tea Party reactionaries by 150 years, that the Constitution “...must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption.” And this man who freed those slaves he had inherited from his father, providing pensions for those too old to work, would also write “We must look at the institution of slavery as publicists, and not as casuists. It is a question of law, and not a case of conscience.” This was the best legal defense for slavery one of the best legal minds in America could conceive, in effect saying, slavery was just because it was judged just by our fathers. And illuminated by the flicker of whale oil lamps, these 18 Marylanders, lead by Roger Tawney, met this night to begin working to elect Andrew Jackson, slaveholder, as the next President of the United States.
Maryland was the most northern slave state, and its capital of Baltimore in 1827 was a very peculiar place. This industrial harbor of 80,000 was known as the 'city of transients', where free labor, white and black, mixing with black slave labor, produced a hybrid - “Term Slavery”. Baltimore streets were teaming with so many free blacks, escape was easy for the black industrial slave. It was here that Fredrick Douglas stole himself from his master. For the white and black free workers it was harder, much harder.
Slaves were 20% cheaper than freemen, and suppressed their wages. Thus, less than 30% of the residents were paid enough to even pay taxes themselves. It was a capitalist's dream market, where workers were easily replaced and controlled. Except , where the line between slave and free worker was so blurred, the slaves could not be whipped to build clipper ships on the Fells Point ways, or blow glass in the Maryland Chemical Works, established in 1825. Here the slave had to be negotiated with, even given guaranteeing manumission after a number of years of labor. But here, also, seamstress invented the phrase “living wage” to describe their desperate need for a subsistence income - 15% of the cities' households in 1827 were headed by women. And they did not get it the increase they begged for.
On February 2, 1827, two dozen capitalist royalty, met to incorporate the nation's first commercial railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio. The city was 100 miles further west than any other East Coast port, and thus might compete with New York's Erie Canal. Maryland quickly approved their $5 million capitalization, and just a year later, at about 11 on the morning on July 4, 1828, the first stone was ceremonially laid by 90 year old Charles Carrollton, the last surviving signer of Jefferson's Deceleration of Independence. Within two more years the mighty Tom Thumb would be puffing up the first 13 miles of track to Elliot's Mills, Maryland. A second revolution was remaking America.
As first glance Tawny and his slave owner allies seemed in a prime position to profit from this revolution. While the election of 1824 saw Maryland's votes almost evenly split, with about 14,000 votes for both Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, the electoral college results were more comforting, as it apportioned Jackson 7 votes to Adams 3. (Crawford got 1 elector and Henry Clay received none.) And while those vote totals were a mere fraction of Maryland’s 1,600,000 population, the plantation owners could still rely on the state's over 107,000 slaves. Their voices were silent, but each slave, under the U.S. Constitution, counted as 3/5ths of every white male vote. This seemed to guarantee the tobacco plantation aristocracies' electoral clout.
However Tawny saw ominous clouds gathering. With growing pressure for universal white male suffrage, and with a growing wave of immigration – largely Irish at this point – and higher wages drawing the vast majority of those immigrants north to the free states, slaves states like Maryland seemed destined to fall behind in the electoral college. In fact,. Maryland would lose one electoral vote in the upcoming 1830 census. Tawny, and the other members of the tobacco aristocracy, were beginning to realize the box their peculiar institution had put them in.
In 1821, an impetuous United States Naval Lieutenant named Robert F. Stockton (above) marched into the jungle of the Alligator coast of Africa, pursuing a reluctant chief he knew as King Peter. Stockton finally fell upon the native retreat, and tried to restart negotiations to buy a strip of coastline. King Peter had been willing to sell the land, until he learned Stockton wanted it as home for freed American slaves. Most coastal tribes profited from the slave trade, and touching the “peculiar institution” was no more welcome in Africa than it was in Maryland. King Peter now hotly ordered Stockton and his small expedition to leave at once. Whereupon Stockton pulled a pair of pistols and, Ala “The Godfather”, made King Peter an offer he couldn't refuse. With a cocked gun to his head, King Peter agreed to sign the deal, and thus the nation of Liberia was born.
Indirectly Liberia was the dream of Henry Clay, of Kentucky. In 1816 the Speaker of the House - who in 1824 would negotiate the “corrupt bargain” to make Adams President and himself Secretary-of-State and next presumptive President - had helped to form The Colonization Society, whose goal was to recruit free African-Americans to return to Africa, thus removing freed slaves from cities like Baltimore. Lt. Stockton's mission was the implementation of Clay's dream. It had the political and financial support of Christian societies, north and south, such as the Quakers, and northern abolitionists And it would fail.
By 1830 there were about 2 million black humans held in slavery in America. No African tribes were willing to accept such a flood of humanity, and the United States saw no way to finance a black homeland. And more importantly, the freed slaves did not want to go. After even several generations in humiliating bondage in America, they no longer thought of themselves as Africans, anymore than second generation Irish-Americans thought of themselves as Irish. Having inhaled the air of America since birth, they were Americans. They would fight for the nation they claimed, even as those who kept them in slavery grew more uncomfortable in their presence. There was something about the idea Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, had put on paper that got into people’s DNA, even a slave's DNA, and ennobled them in ways that horrified Tawny and even Jefferson. The black slave in America - even more importantly the freed black slave, was a reality everyone would have to deal with, one way or the other.
Roger Tawny's way of dealing with it, was to deny and resist. This man who was originally a Federalist like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, as a young lawyer had eloquently defended a local minister, arrested for preaching abolition from the pulpit. But Tawny had now grown so frightened by the prospect of cultural change, he had come to insist slaves were not really humans. Later in his life he would write, “It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed...when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted...They... (were) regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Those were the words of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Tawny, in the 1857 Dredd Scott v John Sandford decision. It was this decision, which the Albany New York Evening Journal observed, “...converted the Supreme Court...into a propagandist of human Slavery”, just as Tawny had insisted they must become 30 years before. The newspaper warned, “The Legislation of the Republic is in the hands of...Slaveholders...The body which gives the supreme law of the land, has just acceded to their demands.” But the Albany Evening Journal then went on to issue a call to action. “All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!” Using the law to defend an extreme position, Roger Tawny wold give his opponents no choice but to become extremists as well.
And the next step in that march, begun this night in 1827 with what would become the oldest state Democratic Party organization in America, which was determined to see Andrew Jackson, slave owner, elected President in 1828