The Fate of Their Country

Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War

Michael F. Holt

Hill and Wang

The Fate of their Country
1
PANDORA'S BOX
In the winter of 1860-61, as one Deep South state after another seceded in a furious reaction to the November election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln as President, congressmen frantically sought to devise a compromise that would soothe southern tempers, lure seceded states back into the Union, and avert civil war. The compromisers aimed to reassure Southerners that the almost exclusively northern and now-victorious Republican Party represented no threat to slavery and what were called Southern Rights. So hoping, both the House and the Senate passed a proposed thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, with two-fifths of the Republicans in each chamber voting aye. This amendment would forever have prohibited the federal government from abolishing slavery. This action, so ironic in the context of what became the emancipating Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, hardly satisfied Southerners in 1861. Instead, they demanded that Republicans legalize the extension of slavery into all current and future western territories south of the parallel line thirty-six degrees thirty minutes. Congressional Republicans, pledged from the formation of theirparty in 1854 to bar slavery from all territories and urged by President-elect Lincoln to "hold firm, as with a chain of steel" against any compromise on slavery extension, refused to make that concession. Efforts at compromise collapsed. And the war came.
Thus attempts to resolve the secession crisis foundered on the question of slavery's future expansion into southwestern territories, where it did not exist, rather than on its guaranteed perpetuity in the southern states, where it already did. This phenomenon speaks volumes about the causes of the American Civil War. Most historians of the war's causation now agree that the issue that most aggravated sectional conflict during the fifteen years prior to 1861 was slavery's extension beyond the existing slave states, not demands for its abolition within them. That fact raises a host of questions. How and why did the issue of slavery extension emerge? Why did Northerners and Southerners apparently invest so much importance in that issue even when many believed that slavery could not exist profitably in most of the western areas they argued over so furiously? And why did this question prove so intractable? Like a bad weed, the issue popped up again and again after repeated attempts to yank it out had apparently succeeded. Raising the question of slavery's extension into or exclusion from the West truly was opening a Pandora's box of evils, for it could never again be closed. Why?
The slavery extension issue first emerged because of decisions by elected officeholders in the executive and especially the legislative branches of the national government in Washington, not because of a groundswell of public pressure for or against territorial and slavery expansion. The point is crucial. Sectional divisions widened in response to what politicians in Washington did; divergent sectional opinions about slavery and basic socialand economic distinctions between the free-labor North and the slave-labor South did not in and of themselves cause those decisions. At few other times in American history did policy makers' decisions have such a profound--and calamitous--effect on the nation as they did in the 1840s and 1850s. Those decisions by themselves, it must be stressed, did not cause the Civil War. As Lincoln later said, that bloody conflict was "a people's contest," not simply a politicians' war. Rather, the decisions were crucial because they did so much to deepen distrust and intensify animosity between the white populations of the North and the South.
The slavery extension issue emerged in Congress in its most explosively divisive forms between 1846 and 1854. The issue, however, also arose on two earlier occasions in the nineteenth century with considerable impact on what happened later.
In early 1819, southern congressmen bitterly opposed a northern attempt to prevent Missouri's admission as a slave state. The ensuing debate was exceedingly rancorous, and it contained almost all the elements that would characterize sectional controversy over slavery expansion until the Civil War. Northerners condemned slavery as immoral, as economically inefficient, as incompatible with free labor, and as an undemocratic source of southern political power in the national government. They called Southerners already overrepresented in the House of Representatives and electoral college, thanks to the Constitution's three-fifths clause. If Missouri were admitted as a slave state, southern senators would gain a two-seat edge over Northerners. Southerners, in turn, furiously resented Northerners' critique of their "peculiar institution." More important, they worried that if Northerners in Congress could force Missourians to emancipate their slaves as the price of statehood, Northerners would use that precedent to seek the abolition of slaveryin other slave states. That action would violate each state's sacrosanct right to determine its own domestic institutions.
The congressional debate over Missouri, while rancorous, was also relatively brief compared with later quarrels over the Mexican Cession and Kansas. In March 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, even though most Northerners opposed it. By this settlement, Congress admitted Maine as a free state to offset Missouri's admission as a slave state, thus preserving the sectional equilibrium in the Senate. More important, Congress "forever prohibited" slavery in the unorganized area of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the parallel thirty-six degrees thirty minutes. In the Senate, where all three provisions were bundled together in a single bill, only two of twenty-two Southerners opposed this package, despite its prohibition of slavery from the vast majority of the Louisiana Territory. In the House, where the ban on slavery north of what became famous as the Missouri Compromise line was voted on separately, all Northerners supported the prohibition while Southerners split narrowly 39-37 in its favor. In short, in 1820 a majority of southern congressmen accepted congressional prohibition of slavery from almost all of the western territories. The southern demand thirty-four years later that this prohibition be repealed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act was arguably the single most important turning point on the road to disunion and civil war. That demand clearly reflected a shift in the southern position since 1820, and no action by Congress ever outraged the northern public so much as the repeal of the Missouri Compromise line.
The second incident involving slavery's westward extension before 1846 took a different form and had a more immediate impact on subsequent events. In April 1844, President John Tyler asked the Senate to ratify a treaty annexing the pro-slaveryRepublic of Texas, which had won its independence from Mexico in 1836. Here the question was not prohibiting slavery from or allowing slavery into an area largely unoccupied by American citizens. It was whether to add to the Union an area where slavery was already legal, as had happened with the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819. More significant, the clash over Texas annexation took a decidedly partisan rather than sectional form. It did so largely because of a crucial intervening development between 1820 and 1844: the emergence of the nation's first truly mass-based two-party political system, a development that would critically affect all subsequent debates over slavery extension.
The Missouri crisis debates took a nakedly sectional form because, by 1820, the previous system of party competition between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans had collapsed and the Federalist Party had all but disappeared. Without an external foe to provoke internal party discipline and unity, Jeffersonians had fragmented along sectional lines over Missouri. In response, some exceptionally shrewd political leaders sought to revive interparty competition to preclude future sectional conflicts. Of these, New York's Martin Van Buren took the lead in constructing what became the Democratic Party behind Andrew Jackson's presidential candidacy in 1828. Called the "Little Magician" because of his political dexterity, Van Buren wrote a Virginia ally in 1827 that reviving a system of two-party competition between Jackson's friends and enemies would best neutralize "prejudices between the free & slaveholding states." "Party attachment," he declared, had once "furnished a complete antidote to sectional prejudices by producing counteracting feelings." The best way to restore that party loyalty was for northern and southern advocates of states' rights and strict constructionto combine behind Jackson against incumbent President John Quincy Adams, whose broad construal of national power struck states' rights men as anathema.
Andrew Jackson's actions during his two terms as President between 1829 and 1837 went far toward reviving partisan attachments. To his avid supporters, Jackson's contempt for established social and economic elites, his determination to remove Indian tribes still east of the Mississippi River from their lands, and his war against the Bank of the United States made him seem a champion of the people against the privileged. His foes, however, regarded Jackson, or "Old Hickory," as his admirers called him, as a potential Caesar. His alleged dictatorial penchant for flouting Congress, the law, and the Constitution endangered the Republic. In 1834 these opponents began to combine under the banner of the new Whig Party. They chose the name to identify themselves with the Revolutionary patriots who had fought King George.
Initially, only common opposition to "King Andrew" held Whigs together, and they failed to prevent the election of Van Buren as Jackson's successor in 1836. Within months of Van Buren's inauguration in March 1837, however, a sharp financial panic occurred that quickly developed into a full-fledged depression. As a result, the battle between Democrats and Whigs moved from personalities to economic policies. Led by Van Buren, Democrats blamed the panic and depression on excessive paper money and rampant speculation. They called for the national and state governments to divorce themselves from the private economic sector. Any positive governmental economic action, they charged, inevitably produced inequalities, privileges for some at others' expense.
Whigs, in contrast, called for positive governmental action--the chartering of banks and other corporations, expansion ofthe paper-money supply and sources of credit, protective tariffs, and subsidies for the construction of roads, harbors, and canals (or internal improvements, as such developmental policies were then known)--in order to promote economic recovery and expansion. Riding this program, Whigs made stunning gains in the off-year gubernatorial, congressional, and state legislative elections between 1836 and 1840 as they attracted tens of thousands of new voters into the political process. In 1840 they swept the vast majority of those elections and won the presidency for the first time behind their ticket of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too." Over 80 percent of the nation's potential voters went to the polls, compared with only 57 percent in 1836. This huge voter turnout created a mass-based two-party system.
In the new system, Democrats and Whigs tried to mobilize their supporters by defining the differences between themselves as sharply as possible, whether over men or measures. In the American federal system, those differences defined state public policy as well as national policy. Because the sectional wings of the two parties supported a common candidate only once every four years, in presidential elections, Northerners and Southerners could usually take different positions from each other on slavery. Whigs and Democrats in, say, Pennsylvania or Mississippi could offer contrasting positions to their own voters without always agreeing with fellow party members from the other section. As a result, when politicians positioned themselves on issues, shortsighted calculations of partisan advantage often eclipsed any broad-minded concern about the Union. Such was the case with the introduction of the Texas issue into the national political arena--and with so many subsequent decisions involving slavery extension.
John Tyler, a slaveholding Virginian, had been elected Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1840. Tyler became Presidentwhen William Henry Harrison died a month after his inauguration as President. Tyler promptly vetoed some of the Whig party's most cherished economic legislation. In response, Whig congressmen and most state Whig organizations formally read Tyler out of the Whig Party. Intent on redeeming his reputation, desirous of foiling his acerbic Whig antagonists, and deeply devoted to the perpetuation of slavery, Tyler hit upon the annexation of Texas as an issue on which he might win the presidency in 1844. England's reported attempts to persuade authorities in the Republic of Texas to abolish slavery also influenced him.
Intransigently hostile to Tyler, Whigs in Congress and around the country rallied behind the presidential candidacy of their beloved leader Henry Clay. Clay had engineered the formation of the Whig Party in 1834, and he had galvanized congressional Whigs' opposition to Tyler. Two weeks before his nomination in early May 1844, the Kentucky slaveholder Clay wrote a public letter to southern Whig senators. He attacked Tyler's intent to annex Texas as fraught with danger to the nation. Because Northerners objected to the addition of more slave territory, let alone another slave state, he wrote, annexation would inevitably erode the sectional comity on which the Union was based. Just as important, Clay forecast that annexation would inevitably produce a war with Mexico, which had never recognized Texas's independence. Opposition to Texas's immediate annexation became the standard Whig campaign theme in the presidential election of 1844, and in June 1844 all Whig senators except two Southerners voted, successfully, to reject Tyler's treaty of immediate annexation. Rallying around Clay, the Whigs' standard-bearer in the presidential campaign, reinforced the party's antagonism to Texas annexation. Thereafter,politicos usually shaped policy in the extension debates that spiraled toward secession and war.
In 1844 most Whigs expected ex-President Martin Van Buren to be Clay's Democratic opponent in the presidential race. On April 27, the same day that Clay's anti-annexation letter appeared, Van Buren published his own anti-annexation letter in order to preserve his electability in the North. His closest northern Democratic allies in Congress had frantically warned him that "the Texas treaty is made upon a [pro-slavery] record that is sure to destroy any man from a free state who will go for it." Van Buren's stand, however, opened a chink in his political armor. Democratic opponents used his anti-annexation stance to block his nomination. At the Democratic convention they forced the adoption of a two-thirds rule that prevented Van Buren's simple majority of delegates from nominating him. Van Buren's opponents then secured the nomination of the pro-annexation Tennessee slaveholder James K. Polk and the adoption of a platform calling for "the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period." Thus Democrats entered the campaign with a candidate and platform committed to immediate annexation.
Van Buren's disappointed followers loyally supported Polk's candidacy, but they raged that Texas annexation had been used to derail Van Buren's nomination. Thus when the Senate voted on ratification of Tyler's Texas treaty in June, eight Van Burenite Democrats, including Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton, New York's Silas Wright, and Connecticut's John M. Niles, joined all but two Whigs in the overwhelming majority that defeated ratification.
Tyler's treaty was dead. But the Texas annexation issue clearly helped Polk carry eight of thirteen slave states, thus contributingto his narrow victory over Clay in the November election. Polk also carried seven of the North's thirteen states, including the nation's two biggest electoral-vote prizes, New York and Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, with the possible exceptions of Illinois and Indiana, where the territorial expansion issue helped Democrats, northern Whigs had benefited enormously from Clay's opposition to the westward expansion of slavery. And since annexation also might result in war with Mexico, Van Buren prophetically warned his Democratic allies in Congress as early as February 1845 that "too much care cannot be taken to save us [northern Democrats] from a war" that northern Whigs "shall be able to charge with plausibility" that we Democrats wage "for the extension of slavery."
The Democrats' triumph in the 1844 elections increased the odds of Texas annexation, but it did not ensure it, since so many northern Democrats personally opposed slavery's extension and, for political reasons, feared flouting the dominant sentiment in the North against it. Yet Texas was annexed in 1845 and in a way that outraged most Whigs and many northern Democrats.
When the short second session of the Twenty-eighth Congress met in December 1844, lame-duck President Tyler immediately asked it to offer Texas annexation by passing a joint resolution that would require only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate. This tack would avoid the far-more-elusive two-thirds Senate majority required to ratify a treaty. With their heavy majority in the House, Democrats could easily pass the resolution containing the same terms as Tyler's rejected treaty. Aware of this near certainty and that their party had been damaged in the South by the annexation issue in 1844, a few southern Whigs were now eager to annex Texas. If annexation came now, they hoped, the issue would not hurt southern Whigs during the impending congressional and gubernatorial elections of1845. Led by Tennessee's Milton Brown, moreover, they saw an opportunity to turn the annexation issue to their own partisan advantage; southern Whigs could be portrayed as even more ardent champions of slavery and the South than southern Democrats. As would happen so often in the future, slavery extension became a political weapon rival parties vied to exploit for political reasons.
Under the original terms of the Democratic resolution, Texas would be admitted to the Union as a territory, not as a state; furthermore, in return for paying off the bonded debt Texas had accrued since 1836, the United States would own all the unsold public land in the huge republic. According to Brown's amendment, Texas would retain its public lands but also its debt. His amendment also stated that the United States should take responsibility for settling the disputed boundary between Texas and Mexico, for Mexico continued to insist that the Nueces River, not the Rio Grande, formed the southern and western border of Texas just as it had when Texas was a Mexican state. More important, Texas would be admitted as a new slave state with voting privileges in Congress. What is more, Brown stipulated that as many as four additional states could be carved from Texas and that future Congresses must admit them as slave states if Texans so desired. In short, Brown's amendment could add as many as ten new slave state senators. Under the plan, exulted one Tennessee Whig congressmen, "the South would acquire a wonderful increase in political power."
The House adopted Brown's amendment. But that form of annexation distressed many northern Democrats, to say nothing of northern Whigs and a surprising number of southern Whigs as well. In its amended form, the annexation resolution passed the House 120 to 98. The majority included 112 Democrats and only 8 southern Whigs. The minority was composed of 26 furiousnorthern Democrats and 72 more furious Whigs, 17 of whom represented slave states. Altogether 90 percent of the Whigs opposed and 81 percent of the Democrats supported the measure. The division over annexation remained more partisan than sectional.
Because of this partisan alignment, Senate passage of the Brown annexation proposal proved difficult. Whigs still held a three-seat majority in the Senate, and most of the northern Democratic senators who had voted against Tyler's treaty found the Brown amendment even more obnoxious. They denounced annexation as "wholly a struggle for political power at the South," pushed solely "for the benefit of the South; for the strengthening of her institutions, for the promotion of her power." As the congressional session neared its mandated end in early March 1845, therefore, the annexation resolution seemed to be perishing in the Senate.
It was saved by the very Van Burenite Democrats who abhorred the House bill. Missouri Democrat Thomas Hart Benton, renowned as "Old Bullion" Benton because of his rocklike devotion to Jacksonian hard-money policies, successfully moved an amendment that gave incoming President Polk two options. Polk could offer Texas annexation under the terms of the House bill, or he could negotiate new terms with Texas authorities. Benton, an antislavery man from a border slave state, and northern Van Burenite Democrats clearly expected Polk to pursue the second option. Then only the small, populated eastern fraction of Texas would be admitted as a slave state. The huge remaining area it claimed would be unorganized territory. Slavery might yet be excluded from it. In brief, they hoped to reduce the South's gain in political power from Texas annexation. They expected Polk to pursue this option because Polk explicitly promisedBenton that he would do so. Only that promise brought northern Democrats on board.
As amended by Benton, the annexation resolution narrowly passed the Senate 27-25. All twenty-four Democrats and three southern Whigs voted aye. Twelve southern and thirteen northern Whigs shouted nay. When this revised version arrived back in the House for action, party lines grew even starker. Every single Democrat and one southern Whig passed it over the opposition of every other Whig who voted. Despite the obvious sectional connotation of extending slavery by annexing Texas, partisan loyalties still outweighed naked sectional allegiance. An apparent verification of Van Buren's prediction that "party attachment" could be a "complete antidote to sectional prejudices," this achievement would quickly evaporate.
On his final day in office the apostate Whig Tyler foiled Benton and northern Democrats. He dispatched a courier to Texas offering annexation under the Brown-amended version of the House bill. Rather than recall this courier, Polk broke his promise to the Van Burenites and endorsed Tyler's action. Furthermore, rather than seek new negotiations to settle the boundary dispute between Texas and Mexico, as even Brown's amendment had called for, he declared the Rio Grande the recognized boundary and announced that he would deploy American military and naval forces to defend it. Furious Van Burenite Democrats never forgave Polk for his duplicitous betrayal. But the deed was done. In July, Texas accepted the offer of annexation, and in December 1845 Congress admitted it as a new slave state.
Polk called the Rio Grande the boundary between Mexico and the United States partly because he lusted for the country's expansion across the North American continent. Nor was he content with pushing the nation's boundary westward to theRio Grande. He sought the Mexican province of California and its ports on the Pacific coast, from which Americans could carry on trade with Asia.
Polk first tried to buy California from Mexico, but Mexican authorities rebuffed his emissary. The frustrated Polk then decided to provoke a war. He fully expected to win easily and to seize California as indemnity for America's war expenses. To do this, he focused on the still-disputed area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. He ordered troops commanded by Zachary Taylor to move to the northeastern bank of the Rio Grande near the Gulf coast. In May 1846, after Mexican troops attacked Taylor's soldiers for invading what they believed was Mexican soil, Polk told Congress that war had begun by an act of Mexico. He insisted that Congress raise the men and supplies necessary to fight Mexico's alleged aggression.
Whigs had almost unanimously opposed Texas's annexation and had never accepted its grandiose claim to all land north and east of the Rio Grande. That area encompassed more than half the Mexican province of New Mexico, including the trading center Santa Fe. Whigs furiously denounced Polk's justification for war. Recalling the political obliteration of the Federalist Party after it had openly opposed the War of 1812, however, most of them voted for the men and supplies needed to fight it. Polk's war of aggression equally outraged Van Burenite Democrats. "I fear," wrote New York's Democratic senator John A. Dix, that "the Texas fraud is carried out to its consummation by a violation of every just consideration of national dignity, duty, and policy."
The "fraud" Dix referred to was Polk's double cross on the terms of Texas annexation. He also correctly implied that Polk alone was responsible for the war. While Whigs had predicted war would inevitably result from Texas annexation, it could have been avoided had Polk not declared the Rio Grande the boundary between Texas and Mexico and then used that claim to provoke a war to seize California. This was his decision. He used his power as commander in chief to deploy troops to pursue his personal agenda. He did not seek the prior approval of Congress, and few if any Americans were dreaming about California, let alone clamoring for its seizure from Mexico, during the fifteen months between his inauguration and the attack on Taylor's troops. By completing Tyler's equally shortsighted initiative, Polk had pried open the lid on a Pandora's box. He had created Van Buren's nightmare, "a war" that Whigs could "charge with plausibility if not truth" that Democrats "waged for the extension of slavery."
Copyright © 2004 by Michael F. Holt