The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861
David M. Potter with Don E. Fehrenbacher, 1976

My U.S. presidents project continues with this book, which covers the period before the Civil War with the obscure presidents that San Francisco's streets are named after. So obscure were they that this is the one period of U.S. history in which the senators are more famous (take these guys, for instance). The book is pretty good, full of interesting points, though Potter seems more interested in shooting down other historians' theories than in advancing any overarching thesis of his own, which makes it hard to boil down for an article like this. Oh well.

Potter disagrees with Daniel Walker Howe that the Whigs and Democrats represented distinct, fully fledged schools of political thought: "The Democrats had a generalized and mildly populistic orientation; the Whigs an equally mild orientation toward property values," he says, going on to assert that "Relatively unencumbered by ideological mission, the two parties did not have enough intellectual focus to offer voters clear-cut alternatives." There was a rivalry between the parties, of course, but in Potter's account, it was more like the rivalry between Cal and Stanford than that between today's Republicans and Democrats. The parties had somewhat different constituencies and pledged fealty to a different set of men, but each attempted to encompass as much of the political spectrum as possible rather than merely half of it. The story of the 1850s, by these lights, is about how this changed.

So we start in 1848, when, as I was saying last time, the United States under James K. Polk had just won a war of conquest against Mexico, bringing in a giant swath of territory stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific. You know the Lufthansa heist of 1978? The one that was in Goodfellas? You know how that windfall had the thieves killing each other in a matter of weeks? Same basic deal here. The question of how to divide up the territory seized from Mexico consumed the nation for a decade and culminated in 620,000 Americans killing each other.

The basic problem was that, for decades, the United States had been divided roughly in half between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South. In 1848, in fact, there were exactly fifteen of each. The addition of a vast new territory threatened this balance. Many people who were willing to accept slavery where it already existed balked at the idea of extending it to new areas. One of Polk's allies in Congress, a fellow named David Wilmot, surprisingly took to the floor to offer a proposal that slavery be barred from the entirety of any territory taken in the Mexican War, regardless of whether it fell north or south of the 36°30' line established by the Missouri Compromise. This so-called Wilmot Proviso was the opening shot in a decade-long dispute over how to settle the question of slavery in the territories: All free? All slave? Divided along the Missouri Compromise line? Left to a vote of those in each territory? One of the points that Potter makes in The Impending Crisis is that as the 1850s unfolded, the South won a string of victories — first the Proviso was defeated, then the Kansas-Nebraska act allowed territories north of 36°30' to vote in slavery, then the Dred Scott case opened all territories to slavery — which were symbolic and self-defeating. The new territories, most everyone agreed, were simply unsuitable for plantation agriculture, without which slavery would never take hold, legal though it may have been. The South, as a cultural region, had already filled out its natural boundaries. This constituted half of the 1846 United States but much less than half of the 1848 United States that the Southerner Polk had brought about. Whoops! And every year the South fought to hang on to the fiction that it still constituted half (or more!) of the country, the North grew more populous, more wealthy, more industrialized, and more equipped to win a war against any states that chose to secede.

The North might not have had that dozen years to gain that edge had Zachary Taylor had his way. Though both parties had Northern and Southern wings, the natural base of the Whig Party was in the North (particularly New England), while Democrats were stronger in the South. Each party attempted to shore up its weak flank in its choice of candidates. The Whigs, who had largely opposed the Mexican War, now selected Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder who had made a name for himself as a general in that very conflict, as their nominee. For their part, the Democrats went with Lewis Cass, a senator known for backing the notion of popular sovereignty (which would have allowed slavery in territories that voted for it) but who was from the Northern state of Michigan. Both these candidates were too friendly to slavery for some Northern Whigs and Northern Democrats, who banded together to form the Free Soil Party. This was less an abolitionist outfit than one worried about what the extension of slavery would mean for white job prospects in the West, and its nominee was hardly a radical — it was former Democratic president Martin Van Buren, whose selection drove away many of the Whigs who had joined up with the Free Soilers. (There were also those who found both candidates insufficiently friendly to slavery, but their walkout in 1848 was humiliatingly small. This would not be the case later on.)

Voters thus had a choice among Van Buren, who seemed likely to keep the new territories free; Cass, who seemed likely to open them to slavery if they so voted; and Taylor, whose position was unknown — the Whigs adopted no platform at all in 1848 and ran entirely on Taylor's military record. Taylor won. And, much to the surprise of his Southern supporters, the Louisiana slaveholder announced that his solution to the question of the day was simple: chop up the territories and admit the chunks as free states. No territories, no problem, right? Naturally, Southerners freaked out and began to talk of secession — particularly in Texas, as one of the new states Taylor planned to bring in was New Mexico, and Texas considered the eastern half of New Mexico to be Texan territory. Taylor's reaction to such talk was a shrug. He was a general; if it came to a war, he'd be in his element. While the lions of the Senate scrambled to put together a compromise that would defuse the crisis, Taylor seemed set on fighting the Civil War in 1850. And then he drank some cold milk on a hot day and keeled over dead.

Millard Fillmore became president. Fillmore had absolutely no intention of allowing a civil war to erupt on his watch. He worked with Sen. Stephen Douglas to rescue the measures that had failed when packaged together as an omnibus compromise, for Douglas had discovered that allowing the legislators to vote only for the planks they liked would result in all of them passing. If the U.S. presidents were a football team, Fillmore would be the punter.

One of the bills Fillmore had signed as a sop to the South was a harsh fugitive slave law, which got many Northern Whigs wondering what the point of being a Whig was if Whig presidents — or, rather, Whig vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency upon the deaths of the elderly generals who had actually been elected — behaved like Democrats. Their response was to block Fillmore's nomination in favor of... yet another elderly general, Winfield Scott. This, in turn, made Southern Whigs wonder what sort of party they were supporting if signing pro-Southern legislation made a candidate unacceptable. They bolted the party, and Scott lost overwhelmingly to the Democratic nominee.

That nominee was Franklin Pierce. The Democratic convention had required almost as many ballots (49) as the Whig convention had (53), as five different candidates led the count at various points. Pierce was obscure enough not to have many enemies, and was exactly the sort of man the Democrats were nominating in this period: a so-called "doughface" who could be trusted to support Southern interests without actually being a Southerner (for slave states controlled only 120 electoral votes and thus the Democrats needed to pick off some Northern states to win). Taylor had surprised people by turning out to be more of a Whig than his background had led them to believe. Pierce turned out to be every inch the Southern Democrat despite coming from New Hampshire. If James K. Polk had been "Young Hickory," Pierce was set on becoming, I dunno, one of Jim Henson's Hickory Babies or something. He picked up right where Polk had left off four years earlier.

That meant trying to gobble up more territory. And while New Mexico might not have been a very good candidate to become a slave state, you certainly couldn't say the same about Cuba! Or Nicaragua! Pierce apparently failed to recognize that by so transparently catering to Southern interests, and by doubling down on an expansionist policy that had almost torn the country apart just a few years earlier, he was driving Northerners away from the Democratic Party much as Southerners had fled the Whigs. People who had supported the notion of "Manifest Destiny" in the 1840s now began to see it as a slaveholders' scam.

Meanwhile, the transportation revolution that Howe talked about proceeded apace. It was clear to all that a transcontinental railroad was in the offing. But what route would it take? The U.S. acquired what is today the southernmost part of Arizona in order to construct a rail line from San Diego to El Paso and thence to Memphis. Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois thought that Chicago sounded like a better terminus. The problem was that a line from Chicago to the Pacific would have to go through the territory known as Nebraska, which had yet to be organized. Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, any states carved out of the Nebraska territory would be free. The Southern bloc made it clear to Douglas that any hopes he had of a rail line to Illinois were contingent upon the Missouri Compromise line being explicitly repealed. Douglas was amenable. Pierce was, as always, amenable to whatever the Southern bloc wanted. And so even though it was a Southern Whig who had introduced the amendment eliminating the 36°30' line and opening the Plains to votes on slavery, with Douglas and Pierce as backers it was the Democratic Party that became associated with the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The immediate effect of Kansas-Nebraska was that true believers on both the free and slave sides relocated to Kansas, hoping to influence the outcome of the vote. Some did so by casting ballots but many also contributed to the effort by killing members of the other side. Kansas bled. The secondary effect was that the Northern wing of the Democratic Party collapsed. Not as thoroughly as the Whig Party, which virtually disappeared, but enough that the Democrats became a Southern organization with a few token Northerners in it (but see the next paragraph). Potter makes a really interesting point about how, once a party became unbalanced, it tended to stay unbalanced: imagine it's the 1850s and you're part of the Democratic Party apparatus in Vermont, where Pierce (who won 86% of the electoral vote nationwide!) didn't even hit the 30% mark. Do you launch a recruitment drive and try to build the Vermont Democratic Party? No! Your chances of bringing in enough people to swing Vermont to the Democrats are close to zero. But the Democrats can still win the White House. That means patronage. That means the White House needs to find Democrats to run the post offices and custom houses up in Vermont. And that means that the fewer people there are in your state party, the greater the likelihood that you'll get one of these plum jobs. It was in the interest of party operatives to keep their parties as small as possible! Thus regionalism reinforced itself. Kind of puts a new spin on Howard Dean's "50-State Strategy."

One interesting twist here is that, as Howe notes, the Whig ideal for America was a country of medium-sized towns full of hard-working, church-going WASPs. Potter summarizes this by calling the Whigs the English party. Meaning that when the potato famine hit Ireland and flooded American cities with Irish-Catholic immigrants, they sure as hell weren't going to hook up with the WASPy Whigs — they registered as Democrats and basically replaced the Northerners who left the party in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska. Thus, when the Whig Party basically dissolved, there were two main Democratic constituencies: in the North, urban Catholic immigrants; in the South, proponents of slavery. Each of these constituencies attracted its own opposition group! The Republican Party formed as an explicitly anti-slavery party. Opposing the Catholic immigrants was the Native American (later just American) Party, better known as the Know-Nothings. The anti-Democratic vote in 1856 was 55%, but it was split two ways, meaning that even in the wake of Pierce's dismal performance, the presidency went to another Democratic doughface, James Buchanan.

Buchanan was old enough that he'd started his political career as a Federalist. He'd held a number of offices — multiple ambassadorships, House and Senate seats, a Cabinet post as Polk's Secretary of State — and with Pierce unable to secure renomination, it seemed like Buchanan's turn. (Helping his cause was the fact that he was popular in the South, yet came from Pennsylvania and could therefore likely pick off that free state and thus secure an electoral majority.) Like Martin Van Buren before him, Buchanan, known as the "Old Functionary," basically wanted to be a caretaker president; he'd paid his dues and now wanted to enjoy the perks of a head of state without really doing much of anything. On the all-consuming issue of slavery in the territories, for instance, Buchanan declared that he was happy to leave it to the Supreme Court, which immediately following his inauguration announced the Dred Scott decision declaring the South's most extreme proposals as the law of the land. All in all, if Millard Fillmore was the punter of presidents, then Buchanan was one of those coaches Bill Simmons makes fun of who stand there with a glazed expression, doing nothing as the game gets away from them.

In 1859 a militant abolitionist named John Brown and his small band of companions seized the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the idea of distributing weapons to the local slaves so they could revolt. Potter points out that the precise nature of Brown's attack basically assured that a civil war would follow. Why? Because all the wrangling of the 1850s over where slavery was and wasn't legal was ultimately beside the point. Yes, Southerners feared that they would be outvoted in a country where fewer than half the states permitted slavery. Yes, they feared being stuck within their current boundaries, unable to try their luck in the territories as generation after generation of their ancestors had before them, pressing from Virginia to Tennessee, Tennessee to Mississippi, Mississippi to Texas. But mainly they feared that the human beings whose lives they had destroyed would rise up and exact bloody vengeance. Why had the Wilmot Proviso become a flashpoint? The threat was not the Wilmot Proviso per se. The threat was that the Wilmot Proviso served notice that abolitionism was becoming mainstream in the North, and if enough Northerners argued that slavery's time had come to an end, word might reach the slaves. And the slaves might look around, realize they outnumbered the whites on the plantation by several orders of magnitude, and decide that they agreed with the abolitionists.

John Brown has been called "the father of American terrorism," and that seems like a fitting term. Brown and his handful of associates had basically pulled a 9/11 on the South: a raid that didn't do that much actual damage — al-Qaeda knocked down a few buildings and killed 0.001% of the U.S. population — but which scared their targets into launching a wider war. For the Southern gentry lived a neurotic existence: they lived in nicer houses than their Northern counterparts, and worked fewer hours, but at the price of being surrounded at all hours by scores of people who they knew, deep down, had every reason to want to kill them. Their reaction to Brown's raid, with its explicit agenda of fomenting a slave revolt, was precisely terror. And they looked north, and found that on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, Brown was widely considered a new hero in the American pantheon! Church bells rang in his honor! Flags flew at half staff the day he was executed! This was no longer a matter of two distinct societies sharing a government. It was two enemy societies sharing a government.

That government had, however, largely been in Southern or Southern-controlled hands. Losing the 1860 election to an anti-slavery man would be the last straw. But would any such man be nominated? Potter argues that, while today it seems inevitable that the anti-slavery Republican Party would eclipse the anti-Catholic American Party to become the Democrats' chief opposition, it could conceivably have been the other way around. Uncle Tom's Cabin may have been the most popular book of the period, but right behind it was the anti-Catholic pot-boiler The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Ex-Whigs of Puritan stock shuddered as they imagined the country in the grip of a vicious conspiracy of slaveholders who spent their days raping slaves like lords of a harem; the same imaginations produced lurid pictures of the country threatened by a conspiracy of priests who spent their days raping nuns, and many considered the latter crisis more urgent. The problem for the Know-Nothings was that there were pro-slavery nativists as well as anti-slavery nativists, and the tension between the two groups ripped the party in half. The so-called "South Americans" did run a candidate against Buchanan in 1856 — Millard Fillmore, of all people, who also won the endorsement of the last Whig convention — but the "North Americans" wound up endorsing the Republicans' sacrificial lamb, John C. Frémont, and thus hooking up with a party that was abolitionist first and nativist second. And Frémont wasn't even on the ballot in the South. Nor, in 1860, was Abraham Lincoln.

I said at the beginning of this article that in a sense the story of American politics in the 1850s is about the sectionalization of the party system. In 1848 both major parties competed nationally, with Northern and Southern wings. In 1860 there was only one national candidate for president, Stephen Douglas, and even he didn't make the ballot in Texas or Florida. In most free states, voters were offered a choice between Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, who trounced him — Lincoln won every free state except for New Jersey, which he split with Douglas — while in the slave states the election came down to Democratic VP John Breckinridge vs. John Bell of the "Constitutional Union Party" which had picked up the mantle of the South Americans. Douglas was an afterthought. Lincoln was nonexistent: the only slave state to put him on the ballot was Delaware. Today's pundits may talk about polarization between red states and blue states, but at least every state is a contest between red and blue. Here's the map for 1860:

East of the Rockies, that looks like two different countries. And in the aftermath of the election, the governments of eleven Southern states decided that they agreed.

TLDR version:

Zachary Taylor: Louisiana slaveholder who turned out to be a rigid free-soil president. Would have started the Civil War in 1850, but suddenly died. Milk was a bad choice!

Millard Fillmore: Kicked the proverbial can down the proverbial road. "Let's have the Civil War after I'm out of office kthx."

Franklin Pierce: Doughface. Wanted to be the second coming of Polk but fucked everything up. Made "Manifest Destiny" look like a Slave Power scam by ineptly trying to annex Cuba and Nicaragua. Made popular sovereignty look like a Slave Power scam with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which turned Kansas from a free territory into a free fire zone.

James Buchanan: Another doughface, but even more of an Art Shell Face. Sat in the White House doing nothing while the slavery crisis boiled over.

Abraham Lincoln: Can't say because I haven't gotten to him yet but I think he's probably going to be better than these other dudes.

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