Sam Schulman in the WS offers a provocative essay on, really, the enemies of free speech. What caught my eye was the inclusion of the pro-slave South in the essay. It demands a lengthy snip:
The American experience was rather more complicated. Antislavery sentiment had been widespread in the South as well as the North as recently as the 1820s, when the South still had hundreds of antislavery committees. Southern authorities cracked down and eliminated these associations, and in 1835 began a concerted campaign on the Northern great and good. The campaign on the part of what abolitionists later called “the Slave Power” exerted “coercive pressure on freedom of expression in spite of the enshrinement, in the Constitution’s First Amendment, of a foundational right to speak.” It “used legislation and bullying to stifle agitation against the South’s labor regime, portraying debate on the subject as a threat to the Union’s survival. An ideological cordon sanitaire was erected along the Mason-Dixon line, but the campaign did not relent at the region’s borders; it extended throughout the country. . . . Although the assault on free speech specifically targeted abolitionist protest, it was meant to have a chilling effect on all discourse,” including “literary and speculative discourse”—and, according to Michael T. Gilmore, author of The War on Words: Slavery, Race and Free Speech in American Literature, from which these passages are drawn, it did.
Gilmore’s astonishing book is not history but lit crit, and finds a strong current of self-censorship running through the literature of the 19th century. He argues that the North’s appeasement of the Slave Power up to the eve of the Civil War, and of White Supremacy after Reconstruction, deformed even the greatest writers of the century, from Emerson and Hawthorne to Twain and -Howells. (Gilmore’s “Slave Power” theory has been argued by a line of historians which includes Russel B. Nye, Leonard L. Richards, David Grimsted, and Michael Kent Curtis—and disputed by a formidable antagonist, David Brion Davis.)
The campaign against freedom of speech by Northern antislavery activists began in 1835 with lawfare, violence, and what today would be called BDS: boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Responding to Southern pressure, Northern leaders held anti-abolitionist meetings in major cities from Portland, Maine, to Philadelphia; landlords who rented space to abolitionist meetings were boycotted. Pro-slavery mobs supported the lawfare campaign with threats and attacks, culminating in the mob murder of an Illinois editor. Arguably, the first victims of lynchings were not black slaves and freemen but white abolitionists. As a Richmond newspaper observed with contemptuous accuracy in 1836: “Depend upon it—the Northern people will never sacrifice their present lucrative trade with the South, so long as the hanging of a few thousands will prevent it.”
The North bowed to economic pressure and the threat of violence from the South. Without actually legislating against the First Amendment (as many Southern states had done), authorities and civic leaders in the North made speaking out against slavery practically impossible. In 1836, the upstate New York abolitionist Alvan Stewart wrote that an abolitionist is perfectly free to denounce slavery “in the silent chambers of his own heart, but must not discuss it in public, as it may then provoke a syllogism of feathers, or a deduction of tar.”
Southern states were ingenious wagers of lawfare, inventing many devices still used today against freedom of speech in Europe and Canada and advocated by improvers of freedom of speech elsewhere. It was Senator Calhoun, not an anti-imperialist student leader or a Church of England bishop, who argued that speech that hurt feelings should be banned. Anyone who criticized slavery “libeled the South and inflicted emotional injury” and made “reflections injurious to the feelings of himself, and those with whom he was connected” in “highly reprehensible” language. Speaking in favor of the infamous gag rule passed by the House in 1836, which would gut the constitutional right to petition the government if slavery was the subject of the petition, Calhoun (who wanted the same rule in the Senate) denounced hate speech with a passion that any NGO spokesperson might envy. Brandishing a petition that called slaveholders pirates dealing in human flesh, Calhoun denounced its blatant Carolinaphobia: “Strange language! Piracy and butchery? We must not permit those we represent to be thus insulted.”
The war against free speech ebbed and flowed with other issues: the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But the high water mark came with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. -Harper’s Ferry inspired the Democrats to invent a strategy I wrongly thought Dick Morris had devised in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing: blame Republicans for the violent act of a madman with whom they had nothing to do. Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas put it with a bluntness which anticipates a Paul Krugman column: “The Harpers Ferry crime was the natural, logical, inevitable result of the doctrines and the teachings of the Republican Party, as explained and enforced in their platform, their partisan presses, their pamphlets and books, and especially in the speeches of their leaders in and out of Congress.”
John Brown was arrested, interrogated, tried, and executed (in a very efficient six weeks). But this did not satisfy the anti-hate speech crowd. Douglas insisted that those who thought slavery was wrong—and thus had created the atmosphere of violence that stimulated and disturbed Brown’s mind—must “repudiate and denounce the doctrines and teachings which produced the act.” Three months after Harper’s Ferry, Douglas proposed a new Sedition Law that would not merely ban slaveholder-phobic speech, but criminalize antislavery sentiment.
Douglas’s outrageous Sedition Law proposals provoked Lincoln’s great Cooper Union speech (a speech so grand that Garry Wills thinks it comparable to candidate Obama’s famous Philadelphia speech about race and Reverend Jeremiah Wright). Lincoln described how prudent restraint of speech easily leads to criminalization of thought. What did Douglas want, Lincoln asked? Opponents of slavery must
cease to call slavery wrong, and join [the Southern people] in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly, done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated; we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our free-state constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us. . . . They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.
The lesson is that when ideas are truly in conflict, the effort to soften the stark disputes by preventing antagonists even from describing their ideas with candor and honesty is hopeless—and makes things worse. The effort to make Northern speech conform to Southern feelings did not succeed—it merely provoked the South and its supporters to raise their standard for civil speech, until speech and the ideas behind it had to conform exactly with their own belief in slavery. Controlling speech did not control the conflict, as the proponents of hate speech believed it would, any more than the Weimar Republic’s constraints on the expression of anti-Semitism prevented the triumph of an anti-Semitic party in Germany—nor, as I argued in these pages recently, has banning Holocaust denial in Europe eradicated Holocaust denial or promoted philo-Semitism.