Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Voter

One of the great things about our form of government is that it allows us to speak our minds and print our thoughts. Fortunately, many of those opinions have survived in letters, journals, diaries, and newspapers. The February 5, 1848 edition of The Illinois Gazette printed a letter to the editor that expressed "a voter's" thoughts on African Americans. It is these expressed ideas that give us insight into the nineteenth century world. They are the evidence of how people believed society should be. People's beliefs in the past may shock or surprise us today, but it is important to know and understand them still.

After opening with his favorable opinions on the new Illinois state constitution, the writer quickly switched to a discussion on  African Americans and how they related to the new document.

"There are two separate clauses upon which a vote is to be taken, and two, by the by, which I consider most wholesome in the whole constitution: one in regard to the two mill tax, which every honest man will surely go for, who wishes to see the State be made free from the onerous debt we are laboring under; the other is in relation to the admission of Negroes into the State. Upon this I am aware that a difference of opinion exists, and I am extremely sorry for it. A very large portion of the State is separated from slaveholding States only by a river. Now, sir, if we allow free negroes to come amongst us, we shall be overrun by a population the most abominable. Are not the abolitionists continually distracting themselves and the whole country in mad fanaticism and rage for negroes? Yes, sir, allow free negroes to make a part of our population and we are cursed at once with a black and miserable set. Our state lies too contiguous to vast bodies of negroes not to be overrun by them. And you are aware that jealousy already exists between the people of Missouri and Kentucky, with us of Illinois, on the subject of their slaves. Let us engraft in our constitution this clause forbidding negroes from coming into our good State, and our sister States will see that we do not encourage the abominable practice of interfering with their slaves. I trust that no honest and true republican will be found voting a free negro curse upon us.

Now, as to the abstract subject of slavery, we have nothing to do with it, and I consider it a great blessing that the good commonwealth of Illinois is free from so bitter a curse as it is. The election is near at hand, and I think the people would do well to consider and come up to the polls and give our new constitution a large vote, and see if it does not prove wholesome and good.

A Voter."

Too often people only see the "black and white" (no pun intended) of mid-nineteenth century America. They assume that all Southerners were racist and for slavery, while all Northerners were abolitionists that desired an egalitarian society. The reality of it though - as this primary source shows - is that there was lots of "gray." Most Northerners did not want slavery in their society, but they certainly did not want African Americans living among them either. Racism was rampant all across nineteenth century America, and although it justified slavery in the minds of some, it also justified social exclusion in the minds of others.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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