Why were these fine, moral pioneers so keen on slavery?What was going on in their heads--if anything?
I lived on the frontier, the Platte Purchase in Missouri, right among the people who contributed in men and money to the invasion of Kansas a few years afterwards, and I must say that I never lived in a more hospitable and law-abiding community. The forceful faculties were more prominent than in New England, but for personal honor, honesty and brotherly feeling it would compare favorably with any portion of the United States. I had left that country when the Kansas troubles began, and was somewhat puzzled to reconcile the doings of the Border Ruffians with the character of the people as I knew them, but when I considered that a large majority of them were from the South, and, being born to the institution of slavery, were inheritors of all that such a state of society implies, I ceased to wonder.
Notwithstanding the great advance in biological science, the human being is very much of an enigma, and, however well disposed he may be from natural endowment, we cannot guess what he may do until his previous environment has been examined. Suppose John Brown had been born and raised in the South, and had read his Bible through Southern spectacles, and had heard the Word expounded by devout defenders of the patriarchal institution, would he not have been found praying and fighting with Stonewall Jackson when the time came for war?
A large proportion of the pioneers were from Missouri, and at the time of the adoption of our [Oregon state] constitution, which submitted the question of slavery to a popular vote, much solicitude was felt by anti-slavery men as to the result. Argument and inquiry were on the wing, and there was eminent opportunity, not only to learn the opinions and wishes of men. but how those opinions and wishes came to be formed. Some of the ablest and best advocates of a free state were from the South, and some of those who voted to fasten the relic of barbarism upon this free soil were from the North. One solid, earnest, but uneducated free state man, born and raised in Kentucky, and a resident of Missouri for several years just before coming to the Oregon Territory, was asked as to the evolution of his opinion and answered "that when living in his native state, a doubt as to the rightfulness of slavery had never crossed his mind; that he regarded abolitionists the same as horse thieves and would have meted out to them the same punishment; that when he got to northern Missouri, where there were but few slaves, he was struck with the difference he felt and saw as respects social conditions; people were more on an equality; that conservative deference paid to slaveholders was conspicuous by its absence, and when he got to Oregon, the spirit of abolitionism was in the air." He thought that if the good people of Kentucky could experience what he had they would clear slavery from that state in a year. I was intimately acquainted with that man for thirty years, and I am confident that I never saw one more honest and truthful, or one more ready to assist in reforms or more willing to be informed. Ignorance was his sin, as it was of the majority of those subject to the malign influence of slavery, and yet in his native state he was a possible border ruffian. What an honest, earnest man believes to be right he will defend, and for his convictions there is always a higher law to which he will appeal, notwithstanding the limitations of statutes and constitutions.
Though a Webster might lose himself in adoration of the Federal Union and an Everett offer up his mother a living sacrifice to preserve it, it is to the credit of human nature that human rights, human interests, human convictions and affections stand nearer and dearer to the people than any mere machinery of human government. The abolitionists believed the Constitution of the United States was a covenant with Death and a league with Hell, and they protested with all their soul and strength; to those Southerners reared to believe in the divinity of slavery, the Constitution was a worthless rag, for it did not protect them in their supposed rights. To the men of earnest convictions on both sides we owe our present disenthrallment.
T. W. Davenport, "An Object Lesson in Paternalism," Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1903, pages 41-44
Last revised September 28, 2015