William Henry Harrison's political opponents during the 1836 and 1840 Presidential campaigns accused him of supporting debt bondage, or "white slavery," laws while serving as Governor of Indiana (1807) and in the Ohio State Senate (1820). Herein are a leaflet which promotes this claim, and a letter written by Harrison refuting it.
The laws in question legalized forced labor as a means for criminals to work off fines they could not otherwise afford to pay. The leaflet argues that the forced labor is not levied as a consequence of their crime, but as a consequence of the criminal's poverty. In this way, the law effectively permits debt bondage. And it makes this argument in an entertainingly over-the-top way:
"Did our fathers of the Revolution fight for MONEY? On the contrary, did they not pour out their money and their blood also like water for LIBERTY? Liberty was the watchword and Liberty the prize of a bloody and protracted civil war. Liberty was achieved and behold a second generation has not passed away, before some of the children of Revolutionary Fathers place this blood bought prize on a level with MONEY!"
According to Harrison, the reasoning behind the law(s) were as follows:
...the proposed amendment of the law presupposed that the delinquent was in confinement for the non-payment of a fine and costs of prosecution (the payment of which was part of the sentence): it seemed, therefore, humane, in respect to the offender, to relieve him from confinement which deprived him from the means of discharging the penalty, and to place him in a situation in which he might work out his deliverance, even at a loss, for a time, of his personal liberty.
Full transcripts of both documents follow after the jump. The leaflet dates from the 1840 campaign, while the letter from Harrison was written in 1836. The leaflet is from the LoC Printed Ephemera collection, while the letter can be found on google books, published in pro-Harrison campaign literature from 1840 which claims to compare the views of Harrison and Van Buren (the Presidential candidates in 1840).
From the Globe.
WHITE MEN FOR DEBT!
---June 27, 1840.We have received from Indianapolis a certified copy, under the 'broad seal' of the State of Indiana, of the 11th, 30th, and 31st sections of the act of 1807, approved by General Harrison, providing for the sale of white men and women in certain cases; and also the third section of an act regulating elections, approved in like manner, requiring a property qualification in voters for Representatives, &c. The copy is in the following words, viz:
AN ACT RESPECTING CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS.
Sec. 11. If any person shall unlawfully assault or threaten another in any menacing manner, or shall strike or wound another, he shall, upon conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding one hundred dollars; and the court before whom such conviction shall be had, may, in their discretion, cause the offender to enter into recognizance with surety for the peace and good behaviour, for a term not exceeding one year.
Sec. 30. When any person or persons shall, on conviction of any crime or breach of any penal law, be sentenced to pay a fine or fines, with or without the costs of prosecution, it shall an may be lawful for the court, before whom such conviction shall be had, to order the sheriff to sell or hire the person or persons so convicted, to service, to any person or persons who will pay the said fine and costs for such term of time as the said court shall judge reasonable; and if such person or persons so sentenced and hired, or sold, shall abscond from the service of his or her master or mistress before the term of such servitude shall be expired, he or she so absconding shall, on conviction before a justice of the peace, be whipped with thirty-nine stripes, and shall, moreover, serve two days for every one so lost.
Sec. 31. The judges of the several courts of record in this Territory, shall give this act in charge to the grand jury at each and every court in which a grand jury shall be sworn.JESSE B. THOMAS.Speaker of the House of Representatives.B. CHAMBERS,President of the Senate.Approved, 17th Sept. 1807.
Wm. HENRY HARRISON.----A LAW TO REGULATE ELECTIONS.Sec. 3. last clause, (the first clause is concerning the oath of Judges of elections.)
It is therefore enacted, that every free male inhabitant of the age of twenty-one years, resident in the Territory, and who has been a citizen of any State in the Union, or who hath been two years resident in the Territory, and holds a freehold in fifty acres of land within any county of the same, or any less quantity in the county in which he shall reside, which, with the improvements made thereon, shall be of the value of one hundred dollars, or who has paid for, and in virtue of a deed of covenant for further assurances from a person vested with the fee, is in actual possession of fifty acres of land, subject to taxation in the county in which he shall be resident, shall be an are hereby, declared to be duly qualified electors of Representatives for the counties in which they are respectfully resident.
JESSE B. THOMAS.Speaker of the House of Representatives.B. CHAMBERS,President of the Senate.Approved, 17th Sept. 1807.
Wm. HENRY HARRISON.
Indiana. to wit;
I, William J. Brown, Secretary of State, for the State aforesaid, do hereby certify that the foregoing are true copies of the 11th, 30th, and 31st sections of "An act respecting crimes an punishments," and of the last clause of the third section of "A law to regulate elections," both of which are now on file in manuscript form, in my office.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and have affixed the seal of said State at Indianapolis, this 5th day of June A.D. 1840.
WILLIAM J. BROWN.Secretary of State.
The whole principle of slavery is involved in the first of these acts, which was approved by General Harrison. It provided that persons (men and women) under circumstances, shall be sold; it uses, in relation to purchases, the terms master and mistress; and it provides that for running away, these new made slaves shall be whipped with thirty nine stripes.
Under Harrison's law, men and women were to be sold for their poverty. The sale was not to be in consequence of committing the crime, but in consequence of not being able to pay the fine and costs!! It was no part of the penalty for theft, assault and battery, or other offences against the penal laws: it constituted no part of the sentence in such cases. The sentence was to pay a certain amount as fine and the costs of prosecution. The man who had property paid his money and was free; he who had not, must be sold, not for the crime, but for the poverty which deprived him of the means of payment.
In approving that act, Gen. Harrison showed that he considered liberty and property equal in consideration. The rich man's money, and the poor man's liberty, were balanced against each other. The rich man might pay the penalty with his money and go free; but the poor man's liberty must be taken to pay it. Gen. Harrison's act considers money and liberty of the same value!
Is this a principle which freemen ought to recognize by placing its advocate at the head of the Republic? Did our fathers of the Revolution fight for MONEY? On the contrary did they not pour out their money and their blood also like water for LIBERTY? Liberty was the watchword and Liberty the prize of a bloody and protracted civil war. Liberty was achieved and behold a second generation has not passed away, before some of the children of Revolutionary Fathers place this blood bought prize on a level with MONEY! They would SELL even the sons of the Revolution and WHIP them THIRTY-NINE LASHES for running away from their MASTERS!!!!!
The second measure approved by Gen. Harrison is in keeping with the first. Poor men, who were fit to be sold as slaves, General Harrison naturally thought were not fit to enjoy the right of suffrage. The LIBERTY which was worthy only to be placed on a level with money in the penal code of the country, was not though worthy of a voice in the government. Here property is placed ABOVE LIBERTY. Being a FREE-MAN, did not in General Harrison's estimation, give a man a right to vote. His liberty was considered as entitled to no protection, while to property was assigned all the powers of government. Property had all the representation, LIBERTY none.
What could be expected as the result of such a creed, but that liberty should be sold! Without the means of self protection, what was to be expected, but that it should be put up to the highest bidder, whenever mammon should command it?
This creed is far, very far, behind the age in which we live; yet is any thing better to be expected from the Federal party, who so daringly attempted to put down the freedom of elections in Pennsylvania by the sword! Who, at the present session of Congress, have attempted to make up a majority of the House of Representatives by forcing in usurpers! Who, in their hard cider, log cabin, and bear baiting mode of electioneering, treat the people as if they thought them fit only to be BOUGHT and SOLD! Let us take care how we put power into the hands of men of such principles. It is easy to preserve our liberty by vigilance; but if the powers and the arms of Government were placed in the hands of the hard cider gatherings, which, in tens of thousands are drummed together at the command of their leaders, who would answer for the security of freedom or life?
AGAIN, LOOK AT HIS VOTE IN 1820.
In 1820, when General Harrison was a member of the Ohio Senate, a motion was introduced in relation to the law of debtor and creditor, which is taken from the journal as follows:
"Mr. Fithian moved to strike out the 19th section of said bill as follows.
OHIO, to wit:Sec. 19. That when any person shall be imprisoned either upon execution or otherwise, for the non-payment of a fine, or costs, it shall be lawful for the Sheriff of the county to sell out such person as a servant to any person within this State, who will pay the amount due for the shortest period of service, of which sale public notice shall be given of at least ten days, and upon such sale being effected, the Sheriff shall give to the purchaser a certificate thereof, and deliver over the prisoner to him; from which time the relation between such purchaser and prisoner, shall be that of master and servant until the term of service expires, and for injuries done by either, remedy shall be had in the same manner as is or may be provided by law in the case of masters and apprentices. But nothing herein contained shall be construed to prevent persons from being discharged from imprisonment, according to the provisions of the thirty seventh section of the act to which this is supplementary, if it shall be considered expedient to grant such discharge, provided that the court, in pronouncing sentence upon any person or persons convicted under this act, or the act to which this is supplementary, may direct such person or persons to be detained in prison until the fine be paid, or the person or persons otherwise disposed of agreeably to the provisions of this act.The motion to strike out was decided in the affirmative--yeas 20, nays 12.Yeas.--Beasly, Brown, Fithian, Gass, Heaton, Jenning, Lucas, Matthews, McLaughlin, McMillan, Newcom, Robb, Russel, Scofield, Shelby, Spencer, Stone, Thompson, and Womendorf--20.Nays.--Baldwin, Cole Eoos, Foster, Wm. H. HARRISON, McClean, Ozwall, Pollock, Ruggles, Roberts, Wheeler, and Trimball, (Speaker,)--12.
ALLAN TRIMBALL, Speaker.
HEAR VETERAN DEMOCRATS!!!!
We publish below, letters from H. Daniel and John Fowler, showing that William Henry Harrison, in the days of old John Adams, was a black cockade Federalist! Both Mr. Daniel and Mr. Fowler, are ex-members of Congress, and side with the Republican Party. Thus we see, day by day, the whole Republican Party, uniting in the present contest against a President for life, a Senate for life, according to the Federal principles of Hamilton, and the men of his days.
LEXINGTON June 27, 1840.SIR:--The position you took in Congress, on the side of the Democratic party in the years 1799 and 1800, and the severe struggle which ensued between that party an the Federalists, is an even which I have no doubt is fresh in your memory. The contest now going on for the Presidency is one of the same character, and partakes of all its malignity and denunciation. The Democratic party, then, as now, was abused and slandered by a moneyed aristocracy, which was insidiously rushing to change this Government, in its infancy to a monarchy.
The spirit of the Revolution rose and the Federal party was crushed by the election of Mr. Jefferson. It is believed, as you were a member of Congress at that period, with Gen. Wm. H. Harrison, now a candidate for the Presidency, you know on which side of the question he took his stand--was he a Federalist, and did he hoist the black cockade, and did he in a speech which he made in Congress, oppose the reduction of Adam's standing army? Your response to this letter will undeceive thousands of your fellow-citizens, who are groping their way in darkness.
I am with respect, &c.H. DANIEL.To Capt. John Fowler, Lexington, Ky.
Lexington, June 27, 1840.DEAR SIR:--In answer to your letter of this date, I will say, that I was in Congress, as a member, during the great struggle between Jefferson and Adams and know the fact that William Henry Harrison, then a delegate from, the Northwestern Territory, was upon the side of Mr. Adams. He was a Federalist, and wore the black cockade. I do not recollect his speech upon the reduction of the United States Army, though I have a file of the Aurora, in which his speech appears against reducing the Army. My health will not enable me to answer more fully with regard to the exciting scenes of that memorable period of our history.
Respectfully, your humble servant,JOHN FOWLER.Capt, Henry Daniel.
RICHMOND, September 15, 1836.Dear Sir: Your political opponents in the State of Maryland have for some time been actively urging against you a new charge--that of selling white men--which probably had no inconsiderable effect in the recent elections in that State, and whic is evidently much relied upon to influence the approaching elections throughout the United States. I enclose you a paper (the Baltimore Republican) containing the charge in full; and I beg of you, as an act of justice to yourself and your friends, to enable me to refute a charge against the uniform tenor of your life, which, I am well aware, has been replete with instances of distinguished private liberality and public sacrifice.
With the highest respect, I have the honor to be your fellow citizen,JOHN H. PLEASANTS.Gen. William. H. Harrison.
RICHMOND, September 15, 1836.
DEAR SIR: I acknowledge the receipt of your favor of this date. I have before heard of the accusation to which it refers. On my way hither, I met yesterday with a young gentleman of Maryland, who informed me that a vote of mine in the Senate of Ohio had been published, in favor of a law to sell persons imprisoned under a judgement for debt, for a term of years, if unable otherwise to discharge the execution. I did not for a moment hesitate to declare that I had never given any such vote; and that, if a vote of that description had been published and ascribed to me, it was an infamous forgery. Such an act would have been repugnant to my feelings, and in direct conflict with my opinions, public and private, through the whole course of my life. No such proposition was ever submitted to the Legislature of Ohio; none such would, for a moment, have been entertained, nor would any son of hers have dared to propose it.
So far from being willing to sell men for debts which they are unwilling to discharge, I am, and ever have been, opposed to all imprisonment for debt. Fortunately, I have it in my power to show that such has been my established position, and that, in a public capacity, I avowed and acted upon it. Will those who have preferred the unfounded and malicious accusation refer to the journals of the Senate of the United States, 2d session, 19th Congress, page 325? It will be seen that I was one of the Committee which reported a bill to abolish imprisonment for debt. When the bill was before the Senate, I advocated its adoption, and, on its passage, voted in its favor. [See Senate Journal, 1st session, 20th Congress, pages 101 and 102.]
It is not a little remarkable, that if the effort I am accused of having made to subject men to sale for the non-payment of their debts, had been successful, I might, from the state of my pecuniary circumstances at the time, have been the first victim. I repeat, the charge is a vile calumny. At no period of my life would I have consented to subject the poor and unfortunate to such a degradation; nor have I omitted to exert myself, in their behalf against such an attempt to oppose them.
It is sought to support the charge by means of garbled extracts from the journals of the Senate of Ohio. The section of the bill which is employed for that purpose had no manner of reference to the relation of creditor and debtor, and could not by possibility subject the debtor to the control of his creditor. None know better than the authors of the calumny that the alleged section is utterly at variance with the charge which it is attempted to found on it; an that, so far from a proposition to invest a creditor with power over the liberty of his debtor, it had respect only to the mode of disposing of public offenders, who had been found guilty, by a jury of their fellow citizens, of some crime against the laws of their State. That was exclusively the import and design of the section of the bill, upon the motion to strike out which, I voted in the negative. So you perceive, that in place of voting to enlarge the power of creditors, the vote which I gave concerned alone the treatment of malefactors of crimes against the public.
It would extend this letter to an inconvenient length to go fully into the reasons which led me at the time to an opinion in favor of the proposed treatment of that class of offenders who would have fallen within its operations, nor is such an expose called for. The measure was by no means of novelty in other parts of the country. In the State of Delaware, there is an act now in force with similar words with the section of the bill before the Ohio Senate, which has been made of late the pretext of such insidious invective. Laws with somewhat similar provisions may probably be found in many other of the States. In practice, the measure would have ameliorated the condition of those who were under condemnation. As the law stood, they were liable under the sentence, to confinement in the common jail, where offenders of various degrees of profligacy--of different ages, sex, and color, were crowded together. Under such circumstances, it is obvious that the bad must become worse, whilst reformation could hardly be expected in respect to any. The youthful offender, it might be hoped, would be reclaimed under the operation of the proposed system, but there was great reason to fear his still greater corruption amid the contagion of a common receptacle of vice. Besides, the proposed amendment of the law presupposed that the delinquent was in confinement for the non-payment of a fine and costs of prosecution (the payment of which was part of the sentence): it seemed, therefore, humane, in respect to the offender, to relieve him from confinement which deprived him from the means of discharging the penalty, and to place him in a situation in which he might work out his deliverance, even at a loss, for a time, of his personal liberty.
But I forbear to go further into the reasons which led me, sixteen years ago, as a member of the Ohio Senate, to entertain a favorable opinion of an alteration which was proposed in the criminal police of the State. It is certain that neither in respect to myself, or those who concurred with me, was the opinion at the time considered as the result of unfriendly bias towards the poor or unfortunate. Nay, the last objection which I could have anticipated, even from the eager and reckless desire to assail me, was a charge of unfriendliness to the humble and poor of the community.
I am, my dear Sir, with great respect, your humble servant,
WM. H. HARRISON.J. H. Pleasants, Esq.