Arkansas, like the entire Upper South, was torn on the issue of secession during Spring 1861. The state’s secession convention assembled on March 4, 1861, to consider the state’s future vis-à-vis the Union. It is clear that conditional unionists in Arkansas quickly took control of the gathering, as on March 20 rather than seceding, the convention issued a series of resolutions expressing its grievances and making constitutional demands to satisfy them. The March 2o resolution demonstrates that in Arkansas, like other southern states, the crisis that would shortly lead to the outbreak of the Civil War, centered on slavery.
Section 1 of the resolution statements criticized the Republican Party that the convention believed was an enemy of slavery.
“1. The people of the northern States have organized a political party, purely sectional in its character; the central and controlling idea of which is hostility to the institution of African slavery, as it exists in the southern States, and that party has elected a President and Vice President of the United States, pledged to administer the government upon principles inconsistent with the rights, and subversive of the interests of the people of the southern States.”
Section 2 expressed a number of grievances common to the southern states related to slavery, including the Republican Party’s intention of closing the territories to slavery and the refusal of northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
“They have denied to the people of the southern States the right to an equal participation in the benefits of the common territories of the Union by refusing them the same protection to their slave property therein that is afforded to other property, and by declaring that no more slave states shall be admitted into the Union. They have by their prominent men and leaders, declared the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict, or the assertion of the principle that the institution of slavery is incompatible with freedom, and that both cannot exist at once, that this continent must be wholly free or wholly slave. They have, in one or more instances, refused to surrender negro thieves to the constitutional demand of the constituted authority of a sovereign State.”
Section 3 exhibited the Arkansas convention’s fear the Lincoln administration would seek to end slavery in areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction.
“They have declared that Congress possesses, under the constitution, and ought to exercise, the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in the forts, arsenals and dock-yards of the United States, within the limits of the slaveholding States.”
Section 4 berated northern state legislatures for passing personal liberty laws to obstruct the Fugitive Slave Act.
“They have, in disregard of their constitutional obligations, obstructed the faithful execution of the fugitive slave laws by enactments of their State legislatures.”
Section 5 complained the northern states would not allow slaveholders temporarily to bring their slaves securely into free territory.
“They have denied the citizens of southern States the right of transit through non-slaveholding States with their slaves, and the right to hold them while temporarily sojourning therein.”
Section 6 manifested the contempt of white Southerners for those northern states that had given African Americans suffrage, clearing articulating a racialized view of citizenship.
“They have degraded American citizens by placing them upon an equality with negroes at the ballot box.”
The proposed changes to the U.S. Constitution of the Arkansas convention also demonstrated slavery’s centrality to their March 20 resolution. The first proposed amendment stated:
“The President and Vice President of the United States shall each be chosen alternately from a slaveholding and non-slaveholding state–but, in no case, shall both be chosen from slaveholding or non-slaveholding states.”
The second proposed amendment, like the Crittenden Compromise, sought to apply the old Missouri Compromise line to the territories, allowing slavery below the line and prohibiting slavery above it.
“In all the territory of the United States how [sic] held, or which may hereafter be acquired, situate north latitide 36 deg. 30 min., slavery, or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is prohibited while such territory shall remain under territorial government. In all the territory now held, or which may hereafter be acquired, south of said line of latitude, slavery of the African race is hereby recognized as existing, and shall not be interfered with by Congress, but shall be protected as property by all the departments of the territorial government during its continuance. And when any territory, north or south of said line, within such boundaries as Congress may prescribe, shall contain the population requisite for a member of Congress, according to the then federal ratio of representation of the people of the United States, it shall, if its form of government be republican, be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, with or without slavery, as the constitution of such new State may provide.”
The third proposed amendment essentially would have tied the hands of Congress in regard to slavery, except to defend it.
“Congress shall have no power to legislate upon the subject of slavery, except to protect the citizen in his right of property in slaves.”
The fourth proposed amendment provided for compensation by the federal government for slaveholders unable to recover fugitive slave(s) in the free states when the owner was prevented by violence from doing so. It also tried to hold slave rescuers responsible for financial losses of slaveholders on such occasions. (This amendment was similar to Section 7 of the proposed constitutional amendments of the Washington Convention of February 1861.)
“That in addition to the provisions of the third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article of the constitution of the United States, Congress shall have the power to provide by law, and it shall be its duty so to provide, that the United States shall pay the owner who shall apply for it, the full value of his fugitive slave in all cases when the marshal or other officer whose duty it was to arrest said fugitive was prevented from doing so by violence; or when, after the arrest, said fugitive was rescued by force, and the owner thereby prevented and obstructed in the pursuit of his remedy for the recovery of his fugitive slave under the said clause of the constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof. And in all such cases, when the United States shall pay such fugitive, they shall have the right, in their own name, to sue the county in which said violence, intimidation, or rescue was committed, and to recover from it, with interest and damages, the amount paid by them for said fugitive slave. And the said county, after it has paid said amount to the United States, may for its indemnity, sue and recover from the wrong doers or rescuers, by whom the owner was prevented from the recovery of his fugitive slave, in like manner as the owner himself might have sued and recovered.”
The fifth proposed amendment intended to prevent states from passing personal liberty laws to obstruct the recovery of fugitive slaves.
“The third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article of the constitution, shall not be construed to prevent any of the States from having concurrent jurisdiction with the United States, by appropriate legislation, and through the action of their judicial and ministerial officers, from enforcing the delivery of fugitives from labor to the person to whom such service or labor is due.”
The sixth proposed amendment would guarantee slaveholders the right to bring securely their slaves temporarily or in transit through the free states.
“Citizens of slaveholding States when traveling through, or temporrially [sic] sojourning with their slaves in non-slaveholding States, shall be protected in their right of property in such slaves.”
The seventh proposed amendment would have prohibited African Americans from voting in any state, even in the North.
“The elective franchise and the right to hold office, whether federal, State, territorial or municipal, shall not be exercised by persons of the African race, in whole or part.”
The eighth and final proposed amendment would have prohibited changes to Arkansas’ proposed amendments and to the existing sections of the U.S. Constitution dealing with the three-fifths clause and the extradition of fugitive slaves, without the consent of all the states.
So it can be fairly said that slavery was integral to the grievances and remedies in Arkansas’ resolution of March 20, 1861. Obviously, conditional unionism in Arkansas would not be satisfied except by enshrining major protections for slavery into the U.S. Constitution. But the strength of unionism was such in Arkansas in March 1861 that the state refused to secede without giving the northern states a chance to meet its demands.
I find it ironic that these alleged defenders of states’ rights were so intent on controlling how free states conducted their internal affairs, especially the right of suffrage which was totally a matter of state law until the passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution.