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The 'Lords of the Loom' Try to Hold the Union Together

The 'Lords of the Loom' Try to Hold the Union Together
AI visualization of a textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1860.

In December 1860, panic began to ensue in industrial Massachusetts as trade between the North and the South ground to a halt and factories and mills began closing. Many took their frustrations out on abolitionists, whose uncompromising stance on slavery they blamed for bringing the Union to the point of dissolution.

Thomas J. O'Connor's 1968 book Lords of the Loom: The Cotton Whigs and the Coming of the Civil War gives a fascinating account of relations between the cotton textile manufacters of Massachusetts, Southerners, and Northern abolitionists zigged and zagged throughout the antebellum period. In addition to the well-known divisions between Northern and Southern Whigs, O'Connor shows that William Lloyd Garrison's 1831 launch of The Liberator newspaper, which more or less coincided with the explosive Nat Turner revolt that we discussed in this post, ushered in a rift between "Cotton Whigs," who generally disapproved of slavery but respected the Constitution and had no desire to interfere with Southern prerogatives, and "Conscience Whigs," who more often took Garrison's view that "the Constitution was wrong, and must either be changed--or abandoned." (The Conscience Whigs defected to the short-lived Free Soil party and later to the Republican party.)

[By the mid-1830s] Boston businessmen in general, and the cotton manufacturers in particular, were outraged by what they considered an irrelevant issue, dragged in by the heels, that might very well upset the peace and prosperity of the Commonwealth. Already there were ominous rumblings from outraged planters in the South who threatened serious economic reprisals unless Northerners put an end to Abolitionist agitation. "The people of the North must go to hanging these fanatical wretches if they would not lose the benefits of Southern trade," threatened the Richmond Whig, while the prominent Southern economist and editor James D. B. De Bow began to conjure up the awful picture of grass growing in the streets of Northern cities. When it was learned that there had been an outburst of pro-Abolitionist sentiment among the workers in the Lowell mills, the Southern press flew into a rage. Lamenting the fact that such ideas had been allowed to gain headway among the working classes, Southerners threatened to impose a boycott that would force the textile city of Lowell to "wither or be forced to expel the Abolitionists." Colonel William Sparks, a prominent Louisiana planter, hastened to warn his friend, Amos Lawrence, of the latest sentiments below the Mason-Dixon line: "There is much excitement in the whole South upon the subject of Abolition," he wrote in obvious agitation, "and I fear the late Lowell affair will cause some resolutions which will be acted on, aimed at her manufactures." Then, as if to add to the urgency of his appeal, the planter closed with a thinly veiled warning: "There will be strong meaures taken in this state during the winter, some which I can not now mention but which will be alarming to the people of the North."
Boston manufacturing in alliance with the shipping interests sought some way out of this frightening situation. The businessmen of Massachusetts were now bound to the fortunes of the Cotton Kingdom--and the South knew it. The manufacturing, the financing, and the transportation of cotton had become so important in the industrial and financial life of the whole New England area that it was considered nothing short of economic suicide to tamper with the mutually advantageous arrangement.

The cotton manufacturers made a point of culitvating personal relationships with Southern planters and merchants.

Southern planters vacationed at Boston hotels as they might at summer resorts, and they were frequently and warmly received into the best private homes in the city. Wealthy Southerners also sought out cool places in the North where they could retreat from the oppressive heat of the plantation country, their favorite resorts being at Newport, Rhode Island, and Saratoga, New York, where they mixed with Northern manufacturers and commercial men under the most friendly circumstances. Here, as one English traveler observed, the "reciprocities of civilities" and a "better acquaintence with each other" gradually led to the loss of "their sectional and colonial prejudices."
The sons of Southern planters attended school at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. With dashing manners and generous allowances they courted the ladies of New England, attended dinners and parties in Beacon Street homes, and reported regularly to such gentlemen as Amos Lawrence and Josiah Quincy on their marks and deportment--which would be promptly reported to their fathers in the South. ...
A complementary economic system between the North and the South, a tolerant regard for the rights and the privileges of the other, and a warm social relationship which augmented the close economic ties--these were the valuable contributions to national unity and harmony that conservative Bostonians felt were now being jeopardized by what they considered the immoderate demands and dangerous threats of the Abolitionists.

This stance more or less continued into the early 1850s as Cotton Whigs welcomed the Compromise of 1850 and even tolerated its Fugitive Slave Law "in order to placate the South and preserve the peace," O'Connor writes. "They expected that the South, in return, had guaranteed that the territories would remain free." They got a rude awakening from that dream with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  "Convinced that the Compromise of 1850 had unequivocally decided the future of the West and had ended the matter once and for all, Boston merchants and businessmen now felt cheated and ridiculed by what they considered to be the machinations of a cheap demagogue," O'Connor writes. Lawrence's son Amos A. Lawrence, who had only a few years earlier volunteered his services to the U.S. Marshal to assist in the return of a fugitive, in 1854 "angrily told the Mayor of Boston that he would rather see the courthouse burned to the ground than have [Anthony] Burns returned to slavery; and when he was finally forced to witness the victim's tragic march to the dock, he told his brother that only the unusual military safeguards that day 'prevented the total destruction of the U.S. Marshal and his hired associates.'"

With the collapse of the Whig party, the old Cotton Whigs found themselves politically homeless, unwilling to align either with the Democrats, who they blamed for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or the emerging Republican party, which they saw as purely sectional. They briefly aligned with the short-lived Know-Nothings, whom they hoped would be easily manipulated and controlled, and then launched the Constitutional Union party, which of course also went nowhere. And as Southern states began seceding, they kept trying to find an off-ramp to the crisis. On December 29, 1860, Amos A. Lawrence wrote his friend Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, who was busy trying a last-ditch effort at compromise in Congress:

Here, and through the whole North and West, nobody has thought of war or of arms, not a musket or pistol has been bought or sold for any civil strife. Nine out of ten of our people would laugh if told that blood must be shed. This condition of peace, which is conducive to calm reasoning and to reaction, may, and I fear will, be changed suddenly. The first blow struck, by any State or local authority, at the United States government will arouse and unite the whole Northern people.

The following February, Lawrence and Edward Everett traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Crittenden Compromise and their own peace petitions. But as O'Connor writes, "Their mission a failure, Everett and Lawrence were forced to make their way back to Boston in the face of laughter and ridicule."

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