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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:

  • entrenched slavery in the Constitution;
  • caused financial panics to sabotage the Northern economy;
  • dispossessed Indians from their native lands; and
  • fomented revolution in Texas and war with Mexico in order to expand the South's slave empire.

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:

  • He alleged that in 1835, former Vice President John C. Calhoun, outraged by Andrew Jackson's opposition to states' rights and nullification, encouraged a deranged man to kill the president. The plot failed when the man's pistols misfired.
  • He maintained that in 1841 agents of the Slave Power poisoned President William Henry Harrison with arsenic just 30 days after he took office, because he refused to cooperate with a southern scheme to annex Texas. This left John Tyler, a defender of slavery as a positive good, in the White House.
  • In 1850, President Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana slaveowner who had commanded American troops in the Mexican war, alienated the Slave Power by opposing the extension of slavery into California. Just 16 months after taking office, according to Dye, the Slave Power used arsenic to murder the president. He was succeeded by Vice President Millard Fillmore, who was more sympathetic to the Southern cause.
  • In 1853, Dye claimed, agents of the Slave Power derailed Franklin Pierce's railroad car while the president-elect was on the way to the presidential inauguration. The New Hampshire Democrat and his wife escaped injury, but their 12-year-old son was killed. In the future, Pierce toed the Southern line.
  • On February 23, 1857, President-elect James Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and leading politicians dined at Washington's National Hotel. Dye charged that southern agents sprinkled arsenic on the lump sugar used by Northerners to sweeten their tea. Because Southerners drank coffee and used granulated sugar, no Southerners were injured. But, according to Dye, 60 Northerners were poisoned, including the president, and 38 died.

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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