Column: The Worst Day in Our History Was the Day Jefferson Lost the Slavery Debate

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.)

The recent display of Osama bin Laden's cheer and joy is reminiscence of Adolph Hitler's little dance of happiness when he heard of his armies successes in France. It probably solidifies in many minds the notion that September 11 was the worse day in American History, and that Bin Laden is historically the arch enemy number one. I dissent partially--regarding the first point.

One of our prominent state governors of the modern era gave a press conference one day after it had been publicly revealed that his son had been arrested for theft. A crying Lester Maddox proclaimed that the worst thing in life is to confront the fact that your child has done wrong. It is tragic to lose battles, it is tragic to see American lives lost in battle, it is tragic to lose lives when our country is attacked by enemies. But perhaps the worse days of our history are the days when Americans have done wrong, or Americans have caused innocents to lose their lives. We should not have to reflect on Oklahoma City, Sand Creek or Wounded Knee or Nagasaki in moments as today for we must have a resolve that we can secure a safe world in an honorable way albeit a way that must involve violence, a justified use of violence. We shouldn't have to rank order absurdities of the human condition either, yet we are asked to at times.

Hence I will discuss my candidate for the worse day in American History, and I will discuss a culprit that was well meaning, passive, a victim of circumstances, but nonetheless a culprit. My day of infamy is April 19, 1784. My American culprit of all time was Congressman John Beatty.

In 1784 the Articles of Confederation Congress met in Annapolis. Delegates to Congress were selected by the 13 states. Each state could send from two to seven delegates, and the delegates would collectively cast the state's single vote on each issue. The Articles required that two delegates be present from a state for the state to participate in any vote. Seven affirmative votes were necessary for a measure to pass.

With all of his other foibles, Congressman Thomas Jefferson recognized that the institution of slavery was a curse in our nation. Slavery was antithetical to the words he carved in stone in our Declaration of Independence. It was contrary to the essence of our American Dream. It was instead a nightmare that made any"dream" but an illusion.

Jefferson hesitated to hit slavery head on, but he truly wished that slavery would not spread across our soil. In early 1784 he proposed legislation that outlined a pattern for development of unsettled western lands. The pattern included a framework for new governments and also a bill of rights that included a measure to prohibit slavery. All the western lands, then collectively controlled by the national government, would be free lands. The lands that in the near future would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin (and part of Minnesota), as well as Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and parts of Louisiana and Georgia would forever be free lands.

Had the proposal only passed slavery would have been confined to the south Atlantic states. With that containment, an abolition movement could have proceeded with a growing national consensus, and could been accomplished without the bitter taste of violence that remains on our collective national psyche--not soon enough by any means, but sooner than the Missouri Compromise,"Bleeding Kansas," Harper's Ferry, and the Civil War.

The story of April 19, 1784. The debate led to a separate vote on the question of abolishing and prohibiting slavery in all the western lands. The votes were tallied: New Hampshire, two in favor. Massachusetts, two in favor. Rhode Island, two in favor. Pennsylvania, three in favor. Connecticut, two in favor. New York, two in favor. Six state votes in favor.

South Carolina, two votes against. Maryland, two votes against. Virginia, Mr. Jefferson votes in favor, his two fellow delegates vote against. Three states vote against.

North Carolina votes one in favor, one against, therefore no state vote recorded. Delaware is absent. Georgia is absent. New Jersey delegate Samuel Dick votes in favor; the state's second delegate is absent. The votes of these states do not count.

The tally: 16 delegates vote in favor, seven vote against. Six votes cast by states are in favor. Three votes cast by states are against. The measure fails.

The measure fails quite simply because New Jersey's second delegate is absent. His name was John Beatty.

John Beatty was born in 1749 in Neshaminy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He was the son of the Reverend Charles Beatty, an early trustee of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where John Beatty graduated in 1769. John was a patriot being commissioned in 1776 in the Pennsylvania Battalion. On November 16, 1776, while fighting with Washington's main force in New York, Beatty and 2,817 other patriot men in arms were captured by the British. He was exchanged for British prisoners and given freedom in May 1778. He knew the horrors of captivity. It was a brutal experience as he was often beaten by his British captors.

Beatty was then given the rank of colonel and appointed commissary-general of all war prisoners. He resigned from the Army in 1780 amidst charges that he had violated rules by trading with the enemy.

He returned to Trenton, New Jersey, where he became engaged in professional and business life, and where he entered politics. He oversaw the building of the first bridge over the Delaware River, and he organized the first bank in Trenton. He was very involved in church work serving as a trustee of the Trenton Presbyterian Church. He was appointed to a term in Congress from 1783 to 1785. Afterwards he was a delegate to the New Jersey convention that ratified the Constitution, and he served in the New Jersey Assembly for several terms, one as speaker, and in 1793 he returned to the national Congress. Beatty died in 1826 and his remains are in the cemetery beside the Presbyterian Church on the Trenton Mall.

A leading life as a local notable, but in national terms a rather ordinary political life, except for the events of the spring of 1784. His letters in the Library of Congress include one addressed to Governor Livingstone urging that New Jersey send a second delegate to Annapolis quickly, as he was" clearly of the opinion" that his fellow members were ignoring his arguments as they could not be backed by a vote. When Samuel Dick arrived in Annapolis, Beatty wrote that they got along well and agreed in all matters of"politicks and religion."

Beatty was not a violent monster. In a reverse of Woody Allen's observation that 80% of life is"showing up," for Beatty 100% of his crime was simply not showing up. He was in Annapolis, but where? He was at his rooming house. He was sick in bed. While he was involved in many business ventures, John Beatty's primary profession was medicine. The physician was sick in bed, the physician could not heal himself, and the physician could not render one vote that could have helped healed our nation of its most mortal wound, the wound that keeps bleeding, slavery.

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More Comments:

Silvano Wueschner - 12/26/2001

I appreciate your reply. To my thinking the crime that was committed was in 1787 when the Madison vision of a federal union free of slavery foundered on the rocks of compromise. It was evident from the arguments in that hallowed hall in Philadelphia that southern states would cling tneaciously to their manorial vision. Indeed it was a sad day the shot was fired at Fort Sumter.

Howard Mirkin - 12/19/2001

You might have made the point better by showing that the U.S. Civil war ended up with about 620,000 American casualties, while WWII resulted in about 300,000 casualties. However, it is sheer surmisal to think that the south would have not tried to leave the Union. You are basing your argument on an assumption that can never be proven, and I am basingf my assessment of your article on what did happen, as well as what probably would have happened anyway, which it did.
I think I would have argued that the worst day was the day that the Civil War started. And that of course is only from an American perspective, because otherwise one would have to discount the 57 million who doed in WWII.
Howard Mirkin
LCDR USN (ret)

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