The summer of 1860 culminated a decade of increasingly bitter polarization among the citizens of the still-United States over the question of slavery, or as the common polite euphemism had it; “our peculiar institution.” At a period within living memory of older citizens, slavery once appeared as if it were something that would wither away as it became less and less profitable, and more and more disapproved of by practically everyone. But the invention of the cotton gin to process cotton fiber mechanically made large-scale agricultural production profitable, relighting the fire under a moribund industry. The possibility of permitting the institution of chattel slavery in the newly acquired territories in the West during the 1840s turned the heat up to a simmer. It came to a full rolling boil after California was admitted as a free state in 1850 . . . but at a cost of stiffening the Fugitive Slave Laws. And as a prominent senator, Jesse Hart Benton lamented subsequently, the matter of slavery popped up everywhere, as ubiquitous as the biblical plague of frogs. Attitudes hardened on both sides, and within a space of a few years advocates for slavery and abolitionists alike had all the encouragement they needed to readily believe the worst of each other.
Texas was not immune to all this, of course. Of the populated western states at the time,Texas was closer in sympathy to the South in the matter of slavery. Most settlers who come from the United States had come from where it had been permitted, and many had brought their human property with them, or felt no particular objection to the institution itself. In point of fact, slaves were never particularly numerous: the largest number held by a single Texas slave-owner on the eve of the Civil War numbered around 300, and this instance was very much a singular exception; most owned far fewer. Only a portion of the state was favorable to the sort of mass-agricultural production that depended upon a slave workforce. In truth while there were few abolitionists, there were many whose enthusiasm for the practice of chattel slavery was particularly restrained, especially in those parts of North Texas which had been settled from northern states, in the Hill Country and San Antonio, similarly settled by Germans and other Europeans.
One of the subtle and tragic side-effects that the hardening of attitudes had on the South was to intensify the “closing-in” of attitudes and culture towards contrary opinions. As disapproval of slavery heightened in the North and in Europe, Southern partisans became increasingly defensive, less inclined to brook any kind of criticism of the South and its institutions, peculiar or otherwise. By degrees the South became inimical to outsiders bearing the contrary ideas that progress is made of. Those who were aware that ideas, money, innovation, and new immigrants were pouring into the Northern states at rates far outstripping those into the South tended to brood resentfully about it, and cling to their traditions ever more tightly. Always touchy about points of honor and insult, some kind of nadir was reached in 1854 on the floor of the US Senate when a Southern Representative, Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner following a fiercely abolitionist speech by the latter. Brooks was presented with all sorts of fancy canes to commemorate the occasion, while Senator Sumner was months recovering from the brutal beating.
Even more than criticism, Southerners feared a slave insurrection, and any whisper of such met with a hard and brutal reaction. John Brown’s abortive 1859 raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry sealed the conviction into the minds of Southerners that the abolitionists wished for exactly that.
When mysterious fires razed half of downtown Denton, parts of Waxahatchie, a large chunk of the center of Dallas, and a grocery store in Pilot Point during the summer of 1860 – the hottest summer in local memory – it took no great leap of imagination for anti-abolitionists to place blame for mysterious fires squarely on the usual suspects and their vile plots. Residents were especially jumpy in Dallas, where two Methodist preachers had been publicly flogged and thrown out of town the previous year. The editor of the local Dallas newspaper, one Charles Pryor wrote to the editors of newspapers across the state, (including the editor of the Austin Gazette who was chairman of the state Democratic Party) claiming, “It was determined by certain abolitionist preachers, who were expelled from the country last year, to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas, and when it was reduced to a helpless condition, a general revolt of slaves, aided by the white men of the North in our midst, was to come off on the day of election in August.”
The panic was on, then, all across Texas: Committees of Public Safety were formed, as so-called abolitionist plotters were sought high, low, behind every privy and under every bed, and lynched on the slightest suspicion. Conservative estimates place the number of dead, both black and white, at least thirty and possibly up to a hundred, while the newspapers breathlessly poured fuel on the fires . . . metaphorically speaking, of course . . . by expounding on the cruel depredations the abolitionists had planned for the helpless citizens of Texas. When the presidential election campaign began in late summer, Southern-rights extremists seamlessly laid the blame for the so-called plot on the nominee and political party favored by the Northern Free-States; Republican Abraham Lincoln. Texas seceded in the wake of his election, the way to the Confederacy smoothed by rumor, panic and editorial pages.
It turns out that the fires were most likely caused by the spontaneous ignition of boxes of new patent phosphorous matches, which had just then gone on the market, and the usually hot summer weather. But speculation and conspiracy theories are always more attractive than prosaic explanations for unsettling and mysterious events . . . and were so then as now.