The Creation of a Crusader: Senator Thomas Morris and the Birth of the Antislavery Movement by David C. Crago. Kent State University Press, 2023. Paper, IBSN: 978-1606354636. $39.95.
Thomas Morris, a one-term U.S. senator from Ohio and Liberty Party vice presidential nominee, has often been a footnote in antislavery politics. No historian has attempted a book-length study, and few have discussed Morris’s importance in the development of antislavery political thought. In this biographical account, David C. Crago paints Morris as a key developer—if not the originator—of the Slave Power idea and antislavery Constitutional arguments.
Crago highlights Morris’s feud with John C. Calhoun as the spark that ignited his antislavery constitutionalism. Morris began his senatorial career as an obedient, party-line Jacksonian, not inclined to press controversial ideas. But Morris saw Calhoun as attempting to gain special privileges and protection for slavery from the federal government—something heretical to his first principles. Crago claims Morris was the first to openly challenge Calhoun and the “slave holding power.” The Ohioan saw his southern colleagues’ actions as anti-Jacksonian and anti-democratic—privileging the few over the rights of the many (56).
The author places heavy emphasis on Morris’s contribution to a “true” interpretation of Jeffersonian Democratic principles: one that demanded “exact and equal justice” for all individuals. Bent on securing Jeffersonian equality for Black Americans, Morris concluded radical social inclusion was necessary and began flirting with federal intervention to end slavery (148).
Crago places Morris at the center of the debate over slavery in the late 1830s and early 1840s. By placing Morris in conversation with Calhoun, James Gillespie Birney, Salmon Chase, and Gamaliel Bailey, Crago amplifies a voice that proved crucial in the development of Liberty Party positions.
It Morris’s antislavery conversion was not instant; the senator’s radical beliefs took time to develop. Morris came to his more enlightened position towards the end of his political career. By1841, he opined that Black suffrage was an unalienable right for Black men in Ohio, even though his rivals in the Liberty Party used his previous stances on colonization and Black suffrage against him (139).
Despite lacking an archive of Morris’ personal papers, Crago conducts an excellent study through intensive spadework in newspapers and the personal papers of other prominent politicians. The author successfully pieces together the antislavery convictions of an elusive politician. Crago convincingly suggests that Morris’s arguments were key to developing an antislavery political movement in the United States. The Creation of a Crusader finally trains on Senator Morris the historical attention he deserves.
Frank Kalisik, III, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.