The Slave Power

The Slave Power

The Slave Power (sometimes referred to as the "Slaveocracy") was a term used in the Northern United States (primarily in the period 1840-1875) to characterize the political power of the slaveholding class in the South.


The problem posed by slavery, according to many Northern politicians, was not so much the mistreatment of slaves (a theme that abolitionists emphasized), but rather the political threat to American republicanism, especially as embraced in Northern free states. The Free Soil Party first raised this warning in 1848, arguing that the annexation of Texas as a slave state was a terrible mistake. The Free Soilers rhetoric was taken up by the Republican party as it emerged in 1854.

The Republicans also argued that slavery was economically inefficient, compared to free labor, and was a deterrent to the long-term modernization of America. Worse, said the Republicans, the Slave Power, deeply entrenched in the "Solid South", was systematically seizing control of the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. Senator and governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio was an articulate enemy of the Slave Power, as was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.

House divided

In his celebrated "House Divided" speech of June 1858, Abraham Lincoln charged that Senator Stephen A. Douglas, President James Buchanan, his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, and Chief Justice Roger Taney were all part of a plot to nationalize slavery, as proven by the Supreme Court's "Dred Scott" decision of 1857.

Other Republicans pointed to the violence in Kansas, the brutal assault on Senator Sumner, attacks upon the abolitionist press, and efforts to take over Cuba (Ostend Manifesto) as evidence that the Slave Power was violent, aggressive, and expansive.

The only solution, Republicans insisted, was a new commitment to free labor, and a deliberate effort to stop any more territorial expansion of slavery. Northern Democrats answered that it was all an exaggeration and that the Republicans were paranoid. Their Southern colleagues spoke of secession, arguing that the John Brown raid of 1859 proved that the Republicans were ready to attack their region and destroy their way of life.

In congratulating President-elect Lincoln in 1860, Salmon P. Chase exclaimed, "The object of my wishes and labors for nineteen years is accomplished in the overthrow of the Slave Power", adding that the way was now clear "for the establishment of the policy of Freedom" — something that would come only after four destructive years of Civil War.

Henry Adams' views

Historian Henry Brooks Adams explained that the Slave Power was a force for centralization: [Henry Adams, "John Randolph" (1882) pp 178-79] cquote
Between the slave power and states' rights there was no necessary connection. The slave power, when in control, was a centralizing influence, and all the most considerable encroachments on states' rights were its acts. The acquisition and admission of Louisiana; the Embargo; the War of 1812; the annexation of Texas "by joint resolution" [rather than treaty] ; the war with Mexico, declared by the mere announcement of President Polk; the Fugitive Slave Law; the Dred Scott decision — all triumphs of the slave power — did far more than either tariffs or internal improvements, which in their origin were also southern measures, to destroy the very memory of states' rights as they existed in 1789. Whenever a question arose of extending or protecting slavery, the slaveholders became friends of centralized power, and used that dangerous weapon with a kind of frenzy. Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself, but it required to control the centralized machine; it needed despotic principles of government, but it needed them exclusively for its own use. Thus, in truth, states' rights were the protection of the free states, and as a matter of fact, during the domination of the slave power, Massachusetts appealed to this protecting principle as often and almost as loudly as South Carolina.


* John Ashworth , "Free Labor, Wage Labor, and Slave Power: Republicanism and the Republican Party in the 1850s," in "The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880", edited by S. M. Stokes and S. Conway (1996), 128-46.
* Frederick J. Blue, "No Taint Of Compromise: Crusaders in Antislavery Politics" (2004)
* David Brion Davis. "Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style" (1986)
* Jonathan Earle, "Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854" (2004)
* [ Eric Foner, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War" (1970)] , esp pp. 73-102
* Larry Gara,. "Slavery and the Slave Power: A Crucial Distinction" "Civil War History" v15 (1969), pp 5-18
* Leonard L. Richards, "Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860" (2000)

Primary sources

* John Elliott Cairnes, "The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs" (1862; reprinted 2003) [;idno=AFN8980 online text of the second edition]
* Mason I. Lowance Jr., ed. "House Divided: The Antebellum Slavery Debates in America, 1776-1865" (2003)
* C. Bradley Thompson, ed. "Anti-Slavery Political Writings, 1833-1860: A Reader" (2003)
* Henry Wilson, "The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America" (in 3 volumes, 1872 & 1877)
* [ "The Slave Power"] speeches of abolitionist Theodore Parker, 1841-52

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