Digital History

The Impending Crisis

The Slave Power Conspiracy Next
Digital History ID 3272



In 1864, a writer named John Smith Dye charged that for over 30 years, the South's largest slaveowners and their political allies had engaged in a ruthless conspiracy to expand slavery.

In a book entitled The Adder's Den or Secrets of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in America, he described a deliberate, systematic plan to expand slavery into the western territories and expand the South's slave empire. An arrogant and aggressive "Slave Power" had:

Most important of all, he insisted, the Southern slaveocracy had secretly assassinated two presidents by poison and unsuccessfully attempted to murder three others.

In support of this conspiracy, Dye made the following sensational charges:

In fact, no credible evidence supports any of John Smith Dye's sensational allegations. Historians have uncovered no connection between John C. Calhoun and the assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson. Nor have researchers found any proof that Harrison's and Taylor's deaths resulted from poison. A 1991 postmortem examination of Taylor's remains found no evidence of arsenic.

There is no evidence that Southern agents derailed Pierce's train; nor is there any evidence that 60 Northerners were poisoned at the dinner for President-elect Buchanan.

Yet even if his charges were baseless, Dye was not alone in interpreting events in conspiratorial terms. His book was only one of the most extreme examples of conspiratorial charges that had been made by abolitionists since the late 1830s.

By the 1850s, a growing number of Northerners had come to believe that an aggressive Southern slave power had seized control of the federal government and threatened to subvert republican ideals of liberty, equality, and self-rule. At the same time, an increasing number of Southerners had begun to believe that antislavery radicals dominated Northern politics and would "rejoice" in the ultimate consequences of abolition-race war.

During the 1850s, the American political system became incapable of containing the sectional disputes between the North and South that had smoldered for more than half a century. One major political party--the Whigs--collapsed. Another--the Democrats--split into Northern and Southern factions. With the breakdown of the party system, the issues raised by slavery exploded. The bonds that had bound the country for more than seven decades began to unravel.

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