This Day (Silver-Tongued Devil Edition)

Published:January 29, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1849, the normally close-mouthed R. L. T. Beale of Westmoreland County made an impassioned speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in defense of proslavery members and their attempts to find common ground on the issue. You might recall Daniel Bryan from the other day, and his own impassioned speech in the Senate of Virginia deploring slavery and the Missouri Compromise in 1820. Well, the Missouri Compromise was still on the mind twenty-nine years later, with Beale recalling those days when white Southern men like himself feared the “dark and damning fanaticism” of the North and sought some kind of compromise “in the vain hope that the power of the giant might be stayed.”

(Background: Southern slaveholders sought to spread slavery into the territories in part because new slave states, such as Missouri, meant more representation for their interests in Congress. Antislavery politicians in the North sought to check that power by balancing Missouri with the admission of Maine, a free state, and then drawing a line, above which would always be free. Or, in the words of Mr. Beale: “36° 30′ was tendered as a compromise, in whose rich soil of peace the olive of reunion might flourish in lasting beauty.”)

Except that this great compromise that antislavery men like Senator Bryan had found so deplorable was now, in 1849, no better in the eyes of Mr. Beale and his confederates.

Click on the pages below to read for yourself this portion of Mr. Beale’s speech.

“Satisfied?” the Virginian asked his fellow House members, referring to the Missouri Compromise—and looking at his portrait above, I imagine those eyes of his bulging a bit as his rhetoric really starts to escalate.

No; far from it. The spirit of fanaticism just felt its power; the concession became only a stepping-stone from which it leaped onward in its career with a velocity unequaled before. Again the tocsin sounded. The warrior clans again assembled. Like the Vandal chief, this spirit of aggression pointing with the one hand to the sterile province conquered on the steppes of the Alps, with the other pointed her followers to the rich Italian plains—the scene of future victories. [Mr. Beale’s words can’t help but invoke images like this one. –Ed.] Then commenced the flood-tide of petitions, not from isolated individuals, but from organized societies. The mails were sought to be made the medium for transmission of incendiary publications. The public mind was excited by constant discussions. The household altar of the Virginia master was stained by the blood of his children. The South, stung to madness by these incessant attacks, but clinging even in the retchings of her despair to the plighted faith of her contract, asked in mercy from the Government some protection from these insidious assaults.

To our collective literary detriment, one does not witness words like this on the House floor too often anymore. But what on earth was Mr. Beale talking about? As far as I can tell, the Vandals here represent those terrible abolitionists who, having managed to “conquer” (others might say “free”) those states north of the Missouri Compromise line, have now set their sights on the rich Italian plains Washington, D.C., that final territory in which the United States government still holds full sway. Why not try to abolish slavery there? So “organized societies” of abolitionists began mailing “incendiary publications” to Congress—i.e., petitions asking for their question to be heard. Well, “these incessant attacks” just had to stop! I mean, who had ever heard of citizens petitioning their own government like that?

So, Mr. Beale, how did the government protect itself from such “insidious assaults”?

The celebrated 21st rule was adopted, and from that period a new ally was folded to the bosom of political abolitionism.

We could go on with this forever, but the 21st rule was (just barely) passed by the House in January 1840 and actually banned the reception of any petitions calling for the abolition of slavery. In retrospect, we can thank the only former president to serve in Congress, John Quincy Adams, for his dogged opposition to said rule, some of which can be witnessed here. The 21st rule was overturned four years later, but as Mr. Beale pointed out, not before the opponents of slavery had rallied ’round their flag, so to speak.

No larger point here, just a reminder of how hopelessly tangled up in slavery the politics of the day were.

PS: Then he started into dealing with slaves / And something inside of him died / She had to sell everything she owned / And froze up inside

IMAGE: Hon. Richard Lee T. Beale, Rep of VA Gen in C.S.A. (Library of Congress)