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
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
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 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
might not have been a very good candidate to become a slave state, you
certainly couldn't say the same about
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
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
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
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.
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.
Return to the Calendar page!