Sectional Tensions Unsolved, 1850–58

I judged she would be proud of me for helping these rapscallions, because rapscallions and dead beats is the kind the widows and good people take the most interest in.

MARK TWAIN, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn1

The Compromise of 1850 initially appeared to work. For two years afterwards an uneasy accord prevailed and the South made no more demands on the political system. Indeed, southern radicals were defeated in state elections. This prudent, conservative trend in political life was symbolized by the election in 1852 of another ‘dark horse’ candidate, Franklin Pierce. He restored Democratic domination of the Executive Mansion, easily beating the decaying Whig Party led by the pompous, opinionated General Winfield Scott, who broke precedent and actually campaigned on his own behalf. Consumed with his own importance, Scott was ill-at-ease with multitudes of ordinary people, and was an awkward campaigner prone to say the wrong thing at the crucial moment. A Whig sympathizer observed that ‘Scott’s person and personal appearance is doing something for him, when he says nothing, but when he talks he is sure to be … a damn fool’. Pierce won 254 votes in the electoral college to Scott’s 42.

Pierce was born in 1804 in New Hampshire. He was exceedingly handsome, charming, a good persuader and always keen to make friends and keep them, though on occasions he could steel himself for uncongenial tasks should party interest demand it. He had served two terms in the House of Representatives and was elected to the Senate in 1837. If his career had one unifying theme it was party loyalty. A scion of the Democratic Party, his flamboyant antics in the Mexican War were transformed by party publicists into the inspiration of a brilliant tactician, and he was likened to Andrew Jackson as ‘The Young Hickory from the Granite Hills’. But as a statesman and leader, Pierce was vacuous. He had few ideas of his own, except to forge the strongest possible alliance with southern Democrats. This required him to accede to all southern demands irrespective of their effects on the northern wing of his party. Pierce typified the kind of politician who reached the pinnacle of his profession in the 1850s. He was conservative on all issues, accepted wholeheartedly the settlement of 1850, and represented the triumph of style over substance. Because of his good looks, amiability and reassuring mien, he was a great favourite with women. This was a factor that was not insignificant in the choice of James Buchanan to succeed him. But ultimately, Pierce was a tragic figure. He was catapulted into a position beyond his talents, failed to learn from his experience, and left the White House the same politician as he entered it. His presidency was a thoroughly disillusioning experience for a pleasant and well-intentioned man. Excited by his triumph, he left office embittered, his bibulous habits having degenerated into alcoholism as a result of enthusiastically throwing himself into Washington society. He was cursed by the very qualities that brought him success. Even his close friendship with Jefferson Davis, which survived the Civil War, brought upon his head the suspicion of treason. In 1857 he returned to the obscurity from which many believed he should never have emerged.2

Franklin Pierce was mainly concerned with preserving the unity of the Democratic Party and keeping it in power both in the executive branch and in Congress. He was the embodiment of the strength and the weakness of the two-party system; its managers had calculated that his amiability and conciliatory gifts were best suited to guide the party system and keep in check those tensions that had threatened political stability in 1850.3 However, Pierce’s measures only aggravated those tensions. Matters were not helped by the universal disrespect with which he was held by the end of his term: for Pierce was denied his party’s nomination in the presidential election of 1856.4 In pursuit of party unity, Pierce, like his successor, Buchanan, made too many concessions to the South. He did not, and could not, grasp that he was attempting to placate the implacable, and this grave weakness was concealed by his friendship with Jefferson Davis, and other southern politicians.5 In pursuit of further concessions from the federal government, southern Democrats managed, by their maladroit conduct and bellicose manner, to alienate northern opinion, which was by no means hostile either to the South or slavery; it was certainly hostile to northern abolitionists. Indeed the mood grew that the growth of slavery should be restricted More than any other factor, southern demands and their intrusive strategy towards the institutions of the northern states, coupled with the impression that southerners were over-represented in those chambers where the levers of power were pulled and manipulated, led to a slow but sure hardening of northern opinion against southern demands. This was misinterpreted by rash and quarrelsome southern politicians as northern ‘aggression’, and stimulated further southern aggressive actions resulting in an increase in secessionist influence.

Other complex forces, unrelated to the slavery issue, operated on it indirectly. But the overall result of these developments and the effect of political tumult was the disintegration of the two party system. Its strength had permitted the passage of the Compromise of 1850; its demise led to the rise of a sectional party, the Republicans, and the splitting of the Democratic Party into two constituent sectional halves. Its disruption, furthermore, led to the rapid spread of secessionism, which had been resisted (even in South Carolina) until the late 1850s. It is this fateful event that led to the anarchic state of 1860–61 and the sudden and dramatic events that resulted in Civil War. This is why the presidential election of 1860 is such a pivotal event.6 Perhaps a statesman of greater insight and weight than Pierce could have built on the Compromise of 1850 an enduring solution to these intractable dilemmas. But his efforts gravely weakened and disillusioned northern Democrats. ‘The old Democratic party is now the party of slavery’, lamented Hannibal Hamlin, soon to be a Republican and Lincoln’s vice president. ‘It has no other issue in fact and this is the standard on which [it] measures everything and every man’. The opinion gathered momentum that the Democratic Party had succumbed to the slave power.7 It is now time to consider those forces that contributed to the advance of new political parties.

The rise of the Republican Party

Despite the high hopes that the Compromise of 1850 would usher in a period of stability, consolidation and contentment, the years after 1850 witnessed upheaval and tumult. One major party, the Whig Party, disappeared, to be replaced by another, the Republicans – a sectional party with a more consistent anti-slavery character. Such a major transformation does not happen frequently in American history, and it has not occurred since. Previous historians, mindful of the momentous events that followed, the end of the second party system, the disruption of the Democratic Party in the presidential election, southern secession 1860–61, and the consequent outbreak of the Civil War, tended to view all political developments in the ante-bellum United States through the distorting lens of the Civil War experience. They then looked backwards in a frantic search for an explanation of the origins of the war, which were interpreted in rather narrow, political terms.

In the late 1960s this approach came under increasing attack, as the study of political history itself broadened, became more demanding in its statistical rigour, and responded to demands that it be informed by the social sources of political action and ideology. Historians, studying politics intensely in individual states, came to see that, ‘Interpreting the rise of the Republican party in the North solely in terms of hostility to slavery or economic issues is, therefore, too simplified’. Such historians emphasized ethnic disputes and competition, cultural developments (such as the rise of Anti-Masonry) and racial fears as key factors in the Republican rise. They argued that the desire to limit the westward expansion of slavery into the territories was motivated by a concern that they be settled exclusively by white men. Anti-slavery critics were not inspired by any altruistic wish to help black slaves. These arguments are debatable, but they performed a signal service in revealing the full significance of the ‘Nativist’ movement which was adamantly opposed to Central European and Irish immigration, the high tide of which was reached after 1848. Nativism was also characterized by a rabid anti-Roman Catholic prejudice. None of these issues were directly concerned with anti-slavery, sectional tensions (although they became harnessed to them). As this interpretation gained favour, it became increasingly persuasive to attack ‘the habit’ by which all political movements were interpreted with the events of 1861 in mind. Furthermore, certain continuities were observed between the politics of the 1850s and the 1870s. In one local study, a distinguished historian perceived that ‘Beneath the surface rhetoric about slavery and the South, politics in Pittsburgh developed along lines historians have generally ascribed to the Gilded Age’. Thus ended the ‘Civil War Synthesis’: ‘our previous image of American politics in this period’, Joel Silbey believed, ‘must be reconsidered in the light of this fact and despite the emergence of a Civil War in 1861’.8

The historiographical ramifications of this debate lie outside the focus of this book. But one feature deserves some attention. Much of value and insight has emerged from this adjustment of historical focus. Yet an interpretation which ignores, or at best underplays, an historical event as momentous as the Civil War, with almost three-quarters of a million dead, must surely be as misguided as that which seeks to fit all political activity into a pattern which explains its outbreak. There may not be precise unanimity as to the extent of the Civil War’s impact on social and economic life after 1865, but it cannot be ignored. Yet in pursuit of ever more accurate voting returns, the ‘new’ interpretations sought to ignore what Richard Hofstadter (echoed by Eric Foner) once called the ‘massive and inconvenient reality of the Civil War’.9 We may also detect here not just an absorption with ethnic issues which has transfixed so many American historians since the 1970s, but an abhorrence from the unpleasant frequency of war. Such a reaction was exacerbated by the experience of the Vietnam War. This has led to an attempt, most striking among recent social historians, to conceal the true significance of the Civil War; indeed write it out of the historical record altogether.10

This ‘ethnoculturaľ approach (which by no means includes all those political historians interested in quantitative techniques) has also underlined another feature of contemporary American social and intellectual life – a fissiparous tendency. Joel Silbey frankly acknowledges that the difference in interpretation is rooted ‘in a particular style of research’. And in the mid-1980s, he could look forward to establishing some future ‘coherent perspective’ on agreed anatomical lines, ‘but its connecting tissue and the exact configurations of the thousands of cells have not been fully examined’. The prospect was daunting: innumerable local studies, overwhelming detail, with more in train, but geared to what? The overall perspective was vague, and for the Civil War historian, seemed to answer the wrong questions. The South did not secede because of foreign immigration, indeed it was hardly affected by it. Yet immigration to northern cities accentuated the differences between the North and South, and emphasized the growing urban character of the former. The South might have seceded because of the cultural distance that grew up between her and a North transformed by foreign immigration. Yet great armies did not fight monstrous and bloody battles for Roman Catholic rights, even when commanded by Roman Catholic generals like William S. Rosecrans. Was there not a danger that such a one-sided interpretation could lead to severe distortion? Were not the ‘ethnocultural’ historians focusing on the symptoms affecting the body politic rather than on a deep-seated malady which was choking its tenuous life? This suspicion seemed confirmed when a number of its distinguished practitioners began to backtrack rapidly and began to produce more traditional, very northern-centred and narrow political history, reminiscent of the ‘revisionists’ of the 1930s.11

There can be no doubt that these interpretative insights contribute significantly to explaining the political background to the secession crisis even though their connection with the actual outbreak of war is indirect. The first of these developments, the disappearance of the Whig Party, now needs to be explained. All political parties live to gain office, and if they fail to secure this they offer their members no reason for remaining loyal, whatever their degree of ideological contentment. In truth, American political parties were vehicles for acquiring office and patronage, and compared with their European counterparts were not significantly divided over ideology. This accounts for the savage personal denunciation in which American politicians indulged. Whether ‘anti-slavery’ views represented an ‘ideology’ as part of a free labour view is a moot point. On two occasions in 1840 and 1848 the Whigs were unfortunate in their choice of presidential candidate, because he did not live to see the end of his first term; the result was fractiousness within the Whig Party, and when it failed to win a second term under the banner of Winfield Scott in 1852, that fractiousness became more intense, exacerbated as it was by lack of spoils.

American parties were loose coalitions of local parties with divergent views. Scott’s conduct of the 1852 presidential election had been inept. But one aspect had major consequences. Scott had gone out of his way to flatter the Irish and German voters. This greatly annoyed Nativist Whigs and strengthened a conviction that a new party would spring out of the ruins of the Whig defeat. Between 1846 and 1855 the United States accepted over 3 million immigrants fleeing from either the Irish Potato Famine or the upheavals following in the wake of the revolutions of 1848. This influx predated the 1852 presidential election. Dynamic social and economic change helped to precipitate the Whig collapse; it was not just a response to defeat at the polls. The anti-immigration lobby, or ‘Know Nothings’, began as secret societies with arcane and elaborate rituals, like the Masons; if members were challenged as to the character of these rituals, they were enjoined to reply: ‘I Know Nothing’, hence the name. As they grew in confidence and influence, Know Nothings produced publications denouncing immigrants for their impious and dirty habits; immigrants were at the root of crime, drunkenness, but above all, corruption. Know Nothings abominated the worst features of the spoils system, with repulsive professional politicians pandering to new immigrant constituencies. But they also attracted large numbers of Protestant voters agitated by a deep-seated fear of Roman Catholicism. A visit of the Papal Nuncio in 1854 provoked hysterical and violent scenes. ‘This election’, observed a New Yorker of the Democratic defeats, ‘has demonstrated that, by a majority, Roman Catholicism is feared more than American slavery’.12 Other causes close to the hearts of evangelical Protestants, such as the temperance movement, eroded old party loyalties and structures; a prohibition law in Maine was passed in 1851 and support for such a law gained ground in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. In Maine, Connecticut and Ohio, this movement was intimately associated with Nativism and anti-Catholicism.13

The advance of these causes filled a political vacuum because the Whig Party’s traditional causes – the national bank and internal improvements – were either dead or had been appropriated by the Democrats. Furthermore, the Scott candidacy had also reduced this appeal on two other issues: anti-slavery and Nativism. The pace of the Whig decay varied in individual states; by 1853 internal strife had thrown it into chaos. In the 1854 elections the Know Nothings made significant gains. In Philadelphia their entire ticket was elected. There were some Whigs who approved of this progress, because they believed erroneously that Know Nothingism would revive the Whig Party. But often Whigs, such as Senator William H. Seward of New York, led counterattacks against the movement. Seward eventually won re-election against a Know Nothing onslaught in 1854. Another faction existed which sought to achieve a ‘fusion’ between Whigs and Know Nothings, but it was unclear what such a realignment represented.14

The evidence is certainly convincing that a variety of anxieties promoted the decline of the Whig Party and the rise of Know Nothingism. These were no doubt exacerbated by the recession of 1848–55, which badly affected northern urban craftsmen, traders and some manual workers; they were native-born and resented their hardship while others prospered. Robert W. Fogel calls this a ‘hidden depression’.15 Rapid urban and economic growth seemed to be upsetting the equilibrium of American politics. Know Nothingism signified a dissatisfaction with the style and conduct of American political life as much as a consistent view of policy. But the question must be faced. Why did these developments contribute to what William Gienapp has called ‘the first faltering steps towards the formation of the Republican Party’,16 rather than the giant strides towards the creation of a new political realignment based on a Nativist Party?

The year 1854 was a major turning point in American history. Had the Nativists come to the fore then it is unlikely that the Civil War would have detonated in the way it did in 1861, though this is not to suggest that it might not have come a decade or two later. Yet the Know Nothing advance was too rapid and dazzling for the movement’s own good. The more it advanced, the more difficult became the task of finding adequate let alone able candidates. It also attracted opportunists who lacked commitment. In a desperate effort to retain sectional unity, the Know Nothings supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This alienated northern anti-slavery elements who shifted to the Republicans. They also faced skilful tacticians such as Salmon P. Chase in Ohio and Henry Wilson in Massachusetts, who out-flanked them with a Free Soil appeal. The peak of the Know Nothings’ success corresponded with a decline in immigration and an improvement in the economic outlook. As with other ‘one issue’ political parties, Know Nothings lost momentum. Finally, attention was diverted from the supposed Popish subversion of the Constitution by the storm of protest following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the hyperbole arising from the Kansas Confrontation, and the caning of Charles Sumner in 1856.17

The axle around which the anti-slavery, sectional controversy revolved was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. But there was little awareness that legislation of this kind would lead to civil ructions. Men and women in these years, as David Potter reminds us, did not get up each morning and remind themselves that they were one day nearer the outbreak of war.18 The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the brain-child of Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas believed that Democratic Party unity could be maintained only by dynamic and creative leadership. He argued that the building of a transcontinental railroad would benefit not just the state of Illinois, and the owners of Chicago railroad companies who supported him, but also the Democratic Party. The settlement of these territories would demand a railroad, but their settling was the first priority. Douglas was eventually cajoled into accepting nothing less than the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, as he confidently believed that slavery could not thrive in the western territories; any electorate would automatically vote for a free state constitution. The legislation that he introduced between 14 December and 23 January 1854, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Territories Committee, sought to organize two new territories; when debated in the Senate these were opened to slavery north of 36°30’; but their constitutions would be decided by a ballot of their inhabitants as an expression of ‘popular sovereignty’. This was a term first popularized by Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate in the presidential election of 1848.19 Douglas took this concept over, and though he intended to use it as a means of finally settling all the fuss over the future of the territories, he only succeeded in returning the slavery extension issue to the forefront of American politics and smashing the remnants of the second party system. This was misdirected energy, for in attempting to forge Democratic Party unity, Douglas threatened to split it with what many deemed to be a craven surrender to the slave power. At any rate, Douglas enjoyed the tepid support of Franklin Pierce, who, in the absence of any legislative initiatives of his own, shared his belief that all pro-Compromise Democrats should support the measure. Pierce would have preferred an amendment acknowledging the validity of the 1850 Compromise. In addition, he knew the South would approve of being able to take slaves north of 36°30’. He remained convinced that sectional animosity arose from northern ‘aggression’. Instead, all parties rejected Douglas’s formula.20

The most savage denunciation of the Act came from the North. Free Soilers, like Charles Sumner, denounced the bill bitterly in the Senate, and Sumner, with a verbal ferocity that would rebound upon him in the end, dubbed Douglas as ‘that human anomaly – a northern man with southern principles’. He, Joshua Giddings, and Salmon P. Chase issued The Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States’ on 24 January, but this did not prevent the bill being passed by the Senate on 4 March 1854 with a majority of thirty-seven to fourteen. As a disgruntled Chase and Sumner left the Capitol in the early hours of the morning, they heard cannon celebrating Douglas’s victory. Chase muttered: ‘They celebrate a present victory but the echoes they awake will never rest till slavery itself shall die’.21

It is often argued, and the ‘ethnoculturalists’ have not denied this, that the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act detonated northern opinion with unexpected ferocity and heat. Many northerners believed that it showed that the South always got what it wanted whatever obstacles were put in its way. This was an ironical twist considering that the South did not want popular sovereignty. Northern men rallied to defend the system of free labour: opposition to slavery was dear to the heart of many northern Whigs. They, and other Free Soilers, feared that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise would lead to an acceptance of the nationalization of slavery. The Democratic Party suffered severely in the mid-term elections of 1854, losing control of the House of Representatives. James Shields reported of Democratic losses in Illinois, ‘The Anti-Nebraska feeling is too deep – more than I thought it was’. Yet this upheaval of opinion did not immediately result in a new party alignment. It was clear that the Nativist controversies had destroyed the Whig Party but the Know Nothings had not taken their place.22

An important catalyst in arousing emotions against the South, and channelling opposition, was northern clergymen – though anti-Nebraska groups were more successful in the western than in the eastern states. The Protestant evangelical churches were another national institution that split along sectional lines in the 1850s. We cannot overlook the great influence on Republicanism (and the importance for ante-bellum northern politics generally) of post-millennialism, and the fusing in many intellectuals of religion and politics. This undoubtedly influenced the overall outlook, though it may not have been shared by the huge numbers that went to the polls (perhaps not many knew what post-millennialism meant). The evangelical Protestants were probably not the Republican Party at prayer, but political evangelicalism certainly permeated every level of that nascent political organization. Thus the ‘ethnoculturalists’, and other historians concerned with tracing voter opinion in minute detail, too easily overlook the importance of intellectuals to the political outlook of the age. The moral issue of slavery, and not just anxiety about the economic impact of the spread of the slave power, lay at the heart of the sectional conflict. A political system that attempts to ignore the views of the most intelligent and articulate of its citizens is foredoomed. Any historical interpretation that rests on a similar misconception will not ultimately convince because it is narrow and sterile.23

Nevertheless, the explanation that the Know Nothings constructed a ‘bridge’ over which converts to Republicanism crossed from both the Whig and Democratic Parties, is a convincing one. Many Know Nothings suffered from the delusion that they would dominate the Republican Party. This was not likely, mainly because they struggled to present a coherent view of the slavery issue. Some Know Nothings hoped for an agreement with the South on slavery; others passionately opposed slavery extension. At the Know Nothing Convention in Philadelphia in 1855 this party, too, split along sectional lines, thus strengthening the Republican Party. The organization of the Whig Party had now entered terminal decline. Yet the future of Republicanism was still not assured. Despite Chase’s success in winning the Ohio governorship in 1854, the Know Nothings still remained ahead of the Republicans in Massachusetts and New York. It was national, rather than local political moves, that effected a transformation of this state of affairs. The first was the election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Although this was finally won by a Know Nothing, Nathaniel P. Banks, Congressional manoeuvres accentuated the sectional flaws in the Know Nothing movement. The Republicans aimed at dividing them by emphasizing sectional disputes. The second was the emergence of former President Millard Fillmore as the Know Nothing candidate in the 1856 election. His stress on the Union, rather than Nativism, reduced the party’s prime appeal, and its novelty, in the North and in the South.24

The third event was the caning of Senator Charles Sumner. It is certainly true that the strength of Know Nothingism in 1852–54 prevented the creation of a new party to replace the Whigs. Know Nothingism could not be overcome easily and needed the added force provided by a series of dramatic sectional events. Kansas-Nebraska was one. The sudden and unexpected assault on Sumner while he sat working at his desk in the Senate Chamber was the other. This was the kind of event in American politics, the product of bravado and impetuosity, that could not have been predicted. After the attack, Sumner himself whispered, ‘I could not believe that a thing like this was possible’. After the Kansas issue had forced its way to the forefront of northern politics in December 1855, Sumner had delivered two meticulously rehearsed speeches on ‘The Crime Against Kansas’ in which he had showered personal abuse, in a characteristically undiscriminating, intemperate and counter-productive fashion, on Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. His nephew, Representative Preston S. Brooks, waited a couple of hours as if acting out a ritual, and then calmly walked from the House of Representatives into the Senate Chamber, and replied to Sumner’s criticisms by raining down on Sumner’s large, handsome and noble head, innumerable blows with his gutta-percha cane.

There was dark murmuring that other northern anti-slavery spokesmen should receive similar treatment. The Richmond Whig suggested that perhaps Seward ‘should catch it next’. The atmosphere of violence and intimidation perpetuated by the slave power seemed to have reached the halls of Congress itself; northern liberties were imperilled. The so-called ‘sack’ of Lawrence in Kansas occurred on the same day and presented the Republicans with the vivid, if repulsive, issues of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and ‘Bleeding Sumner’. Sumner did not resume his Senate seat for four years. Brooks was threatened with expulsion from the House, but was saved by southern votes. He, in any case, resigned and was triumphantly re-elected. He became a southern hero. ‘Every southern man sustains me’, Brooks bragged. ‘The fragments of the stick are begged for as sacred relicts [sic]’. He was showered with new canes; one was engraved, ‘Hit Him Again’.25

Northern outrage had a galvanizing effect on the anti-slavery movement. Many felt they had been personally defiled and assaulted by Brooks’ brutal act of reckless bravado. ‘Never in my life’ reported one northern activist, ‘have I felt anything like the stirring excitement and earnest determination which has been roused up by the blows of that bludgeon’. Republicans not only successfully linked the attack with the Kansas issue but also presented it as a question of free speech, for the Senate had done nothing to protect its privileges and censor its attacker. In an exaggerated manner, an anti-southern image was conveyed of a violent, unpredictable, uneducated, ‘genteel’ savage. These attacks had two important strategic advantages for Republicans. In a sectional confrontation, the Know Nothings were divided and unclear. Secondly, the northern Democrats were closely identified as the hapless puppets of their southern slavemasters.26

The caning of Sumner galvanized the Republican Party in the states. Party organization in all states was vital for success in the 1856 presidential election; it now began to operate in key states like Illinois. Such was the prelude to the Republican Convention at the Musical Fund Hall, Philadelphia. The Republicans devoted much attention to slavery – more than in 1860. They referred to the ‘rights’ of citizens, not aliens, but hoped to seduce moderate Know Nothings away from their first allegiance. They also appealed to immigrant, especially German, voters by nominating John C. Frémont, who was not tainted by any previous connection with Nativism. Frémont has been severely criticized as a candidate of poor stature, but comparison with many of the men who sought the presidency shows this to be exaggerated. Frémont enjoyed a superficial glamour and celebrity as the ‘Pathfinder of the West’. Some years before, he had participated in a number of intrepid exploratory journeys. But in truth he was a rather halting and hesitant figure, much dependent on his formidable wife, Jessie Benton Frémont. Yet he was consistent in his views and by no means a poor candidate – though a poor speaker. By comparison with, say, Chase, however, he was a lightweight politician, floating in deep, murky waters, for no matter how hard he struggled, his feet could not touch the bottom. The Republican platform over which Frémont presided endorsed the Declaration of Independence and argued that the Founding Fathers were profoundly anti-slavery; slavery was damned as a relic of ‘barbarism’. There were to be no more slave states and expansion of slavery into the territories was to be prohibited. Nonetheless, despite this radical thrust, mention of the Fugitive Slave Law was conspicuous by its absence, for fear that it would antagonize conservative supporters of the Compromise of 1850, who had previously voted for the Know Nothings.27

In the event, Frémont failed to win over the conservative Whigs. Although Frémont was defeated by the Democrat nominee, James Buchanan, in the electoral college 174 to 114 in an election which witnessed an 83 per cent turnout (a 7 per cent increase on 1852), this electoral defeat turned out to be the greatest victory of Frémont’s troubled and disappointing career (in 1861–62 he was to prove a poor general). Whereas Buchanan gained 45 per cent of the popular vote, Frémont gained 33 per cent – a more than satisfactory performance for a new party facing its first major test. The signs seemed auspicious for 1860. Recent accounts stress the fragmentary and fragile state of the Republican Party in 1856. Of course, this is true of all new parties; they depend above all on progress at election time, especially in national elections, because this provides the all-important bridgehead for further advances. If it is accepted that defections to the Republican Party did not begin in some states (like New York) until 1858, Frémont made these moves possible by generating much needed ‘momentum’, which, in turn, inspired more organizational improvement and growing numbers of enthusiastic party members. The Republicans suffered occasional setbacks, but by 1856 had overtaken the Know Nothings and had formed a viable, sectional party which had effectively replaced the Whigs as the opposition to the governing Democratic Party.28

It remains to assess why such a sectional party succeeded in the 1850s whereas previous efforts had failed so miserably over the previous two decades. By its nature, the Republican Party had avoided the fate of Fillmore in 1856, who enjoyed sympathy but could not excite fervour because many southern conservatives voted for Buchanan to ensure that Frémont would not win (Fillmore gained eight votes in the electoral college with 21 per cent of the popular vote). The Republican Party escaped the fate of a third party struggling in a two-party system. How did it manage this feat and overtake the Know Nothings? First, because of the importance of the sectional issue, on which the Know Nothings did not impress. This again became of crucial importance after 1854. But we can agree that this process was more prolonged and complicated than has been previously admitted. The realignment of the 1850s was moving apace before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In this process the Know Nothings were not in a never-ending competition with Republicans, because they shared certain aims, such as temperance, and in the North, opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Secondly, the Know Nothings dissolved previous party loyalties. The Republicans depended for their success on attracting to their ranks, not just former Democrats and Whigs, but those who had previously not been attracted by politics, and had been lured into the polling booths by Nativism. It was this factor, the Know Nothing ‘solvent’, to use Gienapp’s term, that quickly eroded previous loyalties, thus destroying the Whig Party, that made the rapid Republican advance possible and distinguished it from earlier failures. The Republicans replaced the Whigs but they were not the Whig Party in bright new clothes; they appealed to members of the northern electorate who were concerned about a variety of issues, and the intensity of these concerns varied at different times for different reasons. Yet though this realignment began as a rejection of conventional politics, and a loathing of party politicians, it became transformed by contact with the national scene. Voters may vote in a contradictory fashion at local and national levels and not see the inconsistency.

But there can be no doubt as to the increased intensity of sectional hostilities as a result of the growth of the Republican Party. Anti-southern and anti-northern caricatures became more widespread, and sectional animosity in Congress began to assume a sharper edge after the caning of Sumner. Brawling between Senators was not unusual. Gienapp rings echoes of James G. Randall in his criticism of irresponsible northern agitation and the ‘more strident’ Republican attacks on the South. He suggests that such propaganda ‘magnified’ the growing conflict between the North and South. Perhaps he is right. But political historians like Gienapp and Holt, among others, tend to interpret the rhetoric of political life too literally. People may feel passionately about their political beliefs, cheer their leaders and cast their votes accordingly in the poll booth. But the relationship between these peaceful acts and the coming of organized violence is not a self-evident one. There were many politicians who used inflammatory language. Benjamin F. Wade in 1854 claimed, ‘I go for the death of slavery whether the Union survives it or not’. But he was the exceptional politician rather than a representative voter. Four years later William H. Seward spoke of an ‘irrepressible conflict’. This does not denote a northern readiness to accept war; on the contrary, it was a warning of its dangers, and Seward himself was a natural reconciler who tried frantically to avoid war in 1861.29

We must, therefore, not assume a readiness, let alone a willingness, to wage civil war because of the frequency of the warlike images and ferocious language resorted to by politicians. Northern public opinion remained remarkably pacific, and reluctant to face up to war – as opposed to stand up to the South in the political arena. The two are not synonymous. We cannot just assume that a chronological treatment (as called for by Professor Holt) of all the party political developments before 1861, both sectional and ethnocultural, somehow explains the causes of the war, or that they ‘account for the war’.30 This is far too narrow an approach, especially if we believe, like Clausewitz, that war is an instrument of policy, and further, that ‘War is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with a mixture of other means’. To assess some of these ‘other means’ we must now turn to consider the legal background, before assessing the southern reaction to political and economic developments in the 1850s.

The Dred Scott decision

To be denied his own party’s nomination was the most humiliating blow that could be inflicted on the self-esteem of an incumbent president (only Chester A. Arthur would receive comparable dismissive treatment in 1884). What kind of man did the Democratic convention in Cincinnati in Tune 1856 choose to replace Pierce?31 All contemporaries agreed that James Buchanan was a considerable advance on Pierce. J. H. Plumb once observed that it was almost impossible for monarchs to be dull, no matter how foolish their statecraft. Few American presidents have been stupid though a number have been dull. Although there are some presidents who are more interesting than Buchanan, there are many who are more uninteresting. Before 1856 he was a man of considerable reputation, especially in foreign affairs. He was deemed a knowledgeable and experienced politician, with skills beyond the ken of the hapless Pierce. In short, the portrait of Buchanan painted by post-war historians, especially Roy F. Nichols and Allan Nevins, as a quivering, psychologically maladjusted, weakling, putty in the hands of his southern-dominated cabinet, is exaggerated.32

Nonetheless, Buchanan’s tenure of the presidency ruined his reputation. He was far from being a dynamic leader. He was an elderly, fussy old bachelor, who could be petulant and petty. Like other determined men who are overshadowed by more charismatic figures, Buchanan could be steadfast in his hatreds. He was a sly man who dominated his cabinet by guile and retained its respect. But Buchanan had worked so hard for the presidential nomination that he was mentally drained and had lost all spark. Once installed in the Executive Mansion with the panoply of presidential power he lacked ideas, except one, a profound emotional attachment to the South and the southern wing of the Democratic Party. Only the impulsive or foolish crossed Buchanan. If his power was challenged, he could act with masterful decisiveness, as Stephen A. Douglas discovered in 1857–58. Adept political manoeuvring, however, should not be confused with creative statesmanship. Buchanan failed not because he was supine or indecisive but because the pro-southern policy he pursued so obstinately was wrong-headed. Buchanan made mistakes but it is misleading to claim that his errors alone caused the Civil War, though they certainly contributed to the environment which made it possible.33

Increasing political tensions resulting from the decline of the Whig Party were expressed, and given symbolic form, in the Dred Scott decision enunciated by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on 6 March 1857. In a country as litigious as the United States it is perhaps not surprising that legal forms should intrude into the political forum with such authority – not least because American politicians who were not lawyers were exceptions rather than the rule. Consequently, their natural instinct was to view politics as an extension of the legal process. Clearly, such an approach has advantages, and it is striking that United States historians themselves view the intermixture of legal process and political activity as wholly admirable and natural, and they take it for granted. In this admixture, the American Republic can be compared with the Roman Republic. Although there were many differences between them, the two republics attached considerable political significance to the courts, and sometimes to criminal trials. Among the characteristics they shared was the enormous publicity that was generated around cases of political significance, which highlighted the careers of those who prosecuted and defended them. Sub judice has never been a strong point of American federal or state law. The criminal courts were, of course, open to all who wished to attend, and therefore not only symbolized free speech in both the Roman and American republics, but in Lily Ross Taylor’s words, the ‘language of the law court has gone over into the theatre’. Histrionics has always been an important feature of American political life. Finally, in both Republican Rome and America, the courts have provided a forum in which ambitious young men could make a reputation for themselves, especially in public speaking, and advance their political prospects.34

Yet, it has many disadvantages. Americans have a tendency to confuse litigiousness with the ‘rule of law’, which they equate with republican democracy. However, it is grossly misleading to assume that the ‘rule of law’ is not significant under political systems quite different from the American experiment (including other kinds of democracy). Furthermore, it also overlooks the possibility that litigiousness can not only lead to a major abuse of the law, but also result in its subversion. Justice itself can be (and is) subordinated to other priorities, whether they be financial, economic or political. No judicial decision, however majestic and authoritative, can be an adequate substitute for a political consensus. As for the hapless Dred Scott himself, Professor Don Fehrenbacher, in his masterly treatment of the entire episode, observes that Dred Scott was ‘a pawn in the political game’.35

The intermixture of political ends with legal means resulted in one disruptive feature. American parties, or factions of parties who viewed themselves as defending political minorities, invariably tried to turn political differences into constitutional questions of profound import. This was in part a reflection of the low esteem accorded to ‘politics’ and an attempt to find a ‘higher’ justification for a political argument. But it was also an expression of the extremist tendency latent in American political rhetoric that threatened to upset its stability. The hyperbole indulged in by American politicians (especially southerners) strained reality and indulged in ghoulish imagery beyond the ken of their experience. So Thomas W. Cobb declared during the Missouri Compromise in 1820, ‘We have kindled a fire which … seas of blood can only extinguish’. Such cries, therefore, were not the product of the 1850s only; they were endemic in the ante-bellum system. Recourse to legal disputation was an attempt to circumvent verbal confrontation of this stark and blood-curdling kind. Had not Senator Henry A. Foote of Mississippi in 1850 invited John P. Hale of New Hampshire to visit his state, a sojourn that would end with Hale ‘ [gracing] one of the tallest trees of the forest, with a rope around his neck, with the approbation of every virtuous and patriotic citizen’?36

Such tiresome rhetorical bravado was a far cry from the prosaic facts of the Dred Scott case. Scott himself was a middle-aged, diminutive, illiterate slave, characterized by a certain dogged courage and obstinacy; but his personality is obscure because he left no written record of any kind – an unlikely figure to have inspired so much written, legal scholarship and disputation. Some time after December 1833 Dr John Emerson, a citizen of St Louis, on gaining a commission in the United States Army as an assistant surgeon, purchased Dred Scott from his previous owner, Peter Blow, and reported for duty at Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Shortly afterwards Emerson applied for a period of sick leave because he needed to seek treatment for a ‘syphiloid disease’ he had contracted after a visit to Philadelphia which had involved him in adventures rather more exacting than the mere consultation of medical textbooks. This resulted in a transfer to Fort Snelling, then part of Wisconsin territory, in 1836. Scott had thus lived as a slave for two years in a free state and was removed to a territory and continued in bondage for another three years where slavery was prohibited. Emerson was posted to Florida in 1840, but left the service in 1842, returning to St Louis. In 1843 he moved to Iowa and died suddenly in December of that year. Dred Scott began his legal odyssey in 1846.37

In his will Emerson left almost all his estate to his wife and then his daughter. Scott at this time attempted to purchase his freedom, but to no avail. In April of the year that witnessed the debate over the Wilmot Proviso, Scott successfully sued Mrs Emerson in the Circuit Court of St Louis County for his freedom on the grounds that prolonged residence in a free state and in territory where slavery was forbidden had conferred liberty on him. Who sponsored this audacious act is not clear, but the verdict was reversed after a retrial in 1850.38 The legal proceedings that followed this decision often displayed the American judicial system at its worst. Not for nothing is the Dred Scott case known as ‘the most frequently overturned decision in history’. And at each litigious stage the issues presented, expounded and distorted by learned counsel, became further and further detached from the fate of Dred Scott until it came to have an important influence on the presidential election of 1856.

Mrs Emerson returned to the attack with an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court in the autumn of 1851. This concluded that Scott was indeed still in a state of bondage. ‘No state’, Judge William Scott averred, ‘is bound to carry into effect enactments conceived in a spirit hostile to that which pervades her own laws’. His judgment was really a manifesto for southern pro-slavery Democrats and his statement formed a thinly disguised public protest on their behalf against increasingly strident anti-slavery criticism. Here was illustrated one of the great dangers of muddling up legal intercourse with political controversy, because although William Scott concluded to his satisfaction, ‘I regard the question as conclusively settled by repeated adjudications of this court’, the legal process had not finished with Dred Scott. Each judge who approved of the verdict claimed that his court had pronounced the final verdict. But each successive judgment against Scott provoked opposition outside the courts that fatally impaired their reputation for impartiality and probity, until the Supreme Court itself became the focal point of political controversy.39

The case made its way back to a Missouri trial court so that a judgment could be made on implementing the Missouri Supreme Court decision. Further skirmishing occurred in the Missouri courts before Scott’s lawyers appealed to the United States Supreme Court. It was at this skirmishing stage in 1853–54 that the case began to acquire its reputation for conspiratorial overtones. Did the defence deliberately allow itself to serve as a punch-bag to absorb and repel anti-slavery blows? There is no evidence that Mrs Emerson, and her brother, John F. A. Sandford, were interested in any other matter than winning. The same was true of Scott and his backers. They were motivated by what Fehrenbacher calls ‘honesty of purpose’. Their greatest failure was not looking beyond their immediate ‘goal to the possible consequences of submitting such an issue to a hostile Supreme Court’.40 It was parties indirectly involved with, or interested in the results of this case that manoeuvred with matters perhaps less noble than justice in mind.

Scott was represented by Montgomery Blair, later Postmaster-General in Lincoln’s cabinet. A Free Soiler, and opposed to slavery expansion, he was out-matched by his two pro-slavery opponents, former senator Reverdy Johnson and Senator Henry S. Geyner. That all three of these counsel were practising politicians of repute is an indication of how much the law and politics had become mixed up. Until the case came before the Supreme Court the press had only given it perfunctory coverage. It now received rather fuller treatment, stirred by Franklin Pierce’s final annual message in which he had intemperately claimed that Congress lacked ‘constitutional power to impose restrictions’ on states and argued that the Supreme Court had.

In February 1856 the Supreme Court heard the case, and then ruled in May that the case be reheard; this hearing consisted of twelve hours of arguments which were carried over four days. The fundamental issue was, could a Negro, enjoying the rights of citizenship, sue in the federal courts? If this was confirmed then such a legal decision would be comparable to placing a stick of dynamite in a crack in the Hoover Dam. If blacks had a constitutional right to sue in federal courts then the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 would be in the words of Roswell M. Field, an attorney working for Blair, ‘of little value’, and this was clearly a judicial decision with great constitutional and political import for the South.

The actual decision adumbrated by the Supreme Court on 6 March 1857 was heavily influenced by political interpretation. The issues before it, however, whatever the legal quibbling and hair-splitting, were four-fold:

1Did the Supreme Court have the power to overturn the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court?

2Was Dred Scott a citizen of Missouri who could take legal action in the federal courts?

3Was Scott a free man because of the time he had lived in Illinois?

4Was Scott free because of the time spent in the northern territories above the Missouri Compromise line?

All of these questions had profound political, constitutional, and ultimately, sectional implications.41

It is likely that the Chief Justice, the elderly, desiccated, Roger B. Taney, added material to his judgment unilaterally without consulting the other justices.42 Taney’s activity in these years contradicts the widespread assumption that physical decrepitude and a decline in intellectual vigour go hand in hand. Taney’s logic is selective and warped by modern standards, but there can be no denying the energy that he injected into the pro-slavery argument in a wrong-headed effort to settle the issue, with all the solemnity and force of a Supreme Court pronouncement. The essence of the judgment was that the Supreme Court could rule on earlier judgments in this matter. Taney decreed that Negroes did not enjoy citizenship of the United States and therefore could not pursue cases in the federal courts (or indeed anywhere else). Dred Scott remained a slave: he had not become a free man while in the northern territories because, the Court ruled, the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and, moreover, Congress had no power whatsoever to forbid slavery in the territories. That is to say, any congressional enactment which attempted to restrict slavery in the territories was ipso facto unconstitutional. Finally, Scott had not been freed by virtue of his time in Illinois because his legal status was determined by Missouri law, and not by that of Illinois. Thus was granted by legal sanction the power to extend the institution of slavery, and move individual slaves about the country where it had previously been abolished. It was then but a short step to demand a federal slave code that would protect slavery in areas outside the South.43

As politics in the United States is often the pursuit of power by means of legalistic style and language, it is not surprising that the Dred Scott decision had such an explosive political impact – not least because of the timing of the decision. Taney’s judgment was severely criticized throughout the North. Some Republican state conventions and legislatures passed resolutions affirming Negro citizenship, and the Supreme Court of Maine agreed that free blacks enjoyed the franchise. This dedication to the belief that free blacks were citizens and that their rights deserved legal protection remained part of the Republican credo before 1861, and was upheld during the Peace Convention held in Washington DC in February 1861.44

But the worst and most pregnant consequence of Taney’s decision was the air of collusion, if not outright conspiracy, that it introduced into the somewhat fevered political atmosphere. Two days before the decision was due to be announced, Chief Justice Taney attended the inaugural address and administered the oath of office to the president-elect, James Buchanan. They exchanged some whispered words, and Buchanan then announced in his inaugural that he believed that the question of whether slavery was permitted in the territories was ‘a judicial question which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court’ and that he would ‘cheerfully submit, whatever this may be’ and urge that Kansas enter the Union at the earliest opportunity. There was a strong measure of disingenuousness in Buchanan’s declaration because he had been informed by Justice John Catron of Tennessee of the general direction of the decision. Catron had urged the president-elect to write to the pro-southern justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania in an effort to prevent him from siding with other northern justices, who opposed Taney’s views. So Buchanan was offering to accept a decision ‘whatever this may be’ because he knew that he agreed with it. His dubious behaviour and duplicitous action did much to provoke suspicion over the probity of the Dred Scott decision, even though Republican reaction to it was initially restrained. But Buchanan’s anxiety over the Dred Scott decision and its timing, which had led him into such impropriety, had been caused by his desire to lay down a policy on slavery extension in Kansas. He was determined to demonstrate that the Dred Scott case would show that a territorial legislature, before statehood had been conferred, could not prohibit slavery – which was not a matter that had been put before the Supreme Court. But this example only reveals further the manner by which an attempt to ‘setde the matter’ by judicial action, only served as a pretext by which the political controversy was actually widened beyond the legal purview. Buchanan’s attempt to secure a complete victory over northern ‘abolitionism’ was ultimately self-defeating.

Given the nature of the Supreme Court’s decision with its obvious Democrat bias, and the Democratic Party’s dominance of the executive and the legislature, it was only to be expected that many Republicans would draw the conclusion that this was not a coincidence. A conspiracy existed to strengthen the hold of the Democratic Party on all levels of power by pandering to the whims of the ‘slave power’. After all, had not the optimistic words of the president been endorsed by a whispered conversation with the Chief Justice? The whole case had been manipulated to provide the decision that the Democratic Party both wanted to hear and needed to fortify its electoral victory. William H. Seward denounced the whole business as ‘the first among all the celebrations of that great national pageant that was to be desecrated by a coalition between the executive and judicial departments to undermine the national legislature and the liberties of the people’. Several opponents compared Buchanan with a Roman Emperor or King Charles I. These were not intended as compliments.45

Of course, Buchanan’s election had relieved the anxieties of the out-going President Pierce, and there was a considerable measure of continuity between the two Administrations, not least in the assumption that the slavery problem could be settled only if it was taken out of the hands of politicians and placed before some ‘higher’ tribunal. Of course, Buchanan expected that it could be ‘settled’ only in the Administration’s favour, and not in that of its critics. These were dangerous illusions.

The notion that the legal process could provide a siphon which could take bellicose impulses, defuse them, and channel them into peaceful political intercourse must be seen as dangerously complacent. So was the assumption that the courts could provide a substitute for a non-existent political consensus. On the contrary, violence had erupted in Kansas during the Supreme Court’s deliberations and would get worse. Furthermore, Republicans were more than ever determined to seize control of the patronage, including, of course, appointments to the Supreme Court. This aim was to cause much alarm in 1859–60, especially among southern Democrats. Both their reputations and that of the Democratic Party, not to mention the United States herself, were to suffer much from the lack of political common sense exhibited by Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan in the 1850s.46

Finally, the Dred Scott decision had the opposite effect intended by its architect and supporters. Far from settling the matter once and for all, the Dred Scott decision provoked fear about the scope of the ‘slave power’. It was transformed from a Republican bogey into a northern spectre. Abraham Lincoln, whose eye was firmly on the local political scene in Illinois, uttered a resounding phase in a speech delivered in Springfield on 16 June 1858, and for the first time made an impact on the national scene.47 A house divided against itself, he warned, could not stand for long. Although national dissolution could not be expected, Lincoln did not believe that the prevailing condition of a Union half-slave and half-free could survive: the Union would become completely free or slave. Lincoln now believed the latter more likely, especially if northerners passively permitted the slave power to exert insidious control over their own institutions and legal forms. The Kansas-Nebraska Act made this possible, and the Dred Scott decision gave it legal sanction. No state could now legally, in the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States, prevent slavery from moving across its boundaries. ‘We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.’48

It was perhaps the most unexpected result of the Dred Scott decision that it conferred public prominence, and gave that initial impetus to the rise, of the politician, Abraham Lincoln, who would enter the White House, gain control of the patronage for the Republicans, and carry out ‘the most sweeping removal of political opponents in US history’. Historians have pointed out on a number of occasions, however, that the fears that Lincoln and others expressed were greatly exaggerated. But politicians are not academics who enjoy the advantage of having access to a body of accepted knowledge and fact; they give expression to fears and feelings which are based on a sense of how events are moving, and sometimes the intellectual foundations for these feelings are fragile. Speeches are also expressions of political manoeuvre, or direction, as Lincoln moved to ensure that his position on the slavery extension issue, and combating the ‘slave power’ could be unambiguously distinguished from that of Senator Douglas.49

The threat of the slave power

The combination of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision succeeded in keeping sectional antagonisms at the forefront of American national politics in the 1850s. Continual, and somewhat fevered, discussion contributed to the widespread apprehension of a political ‘crisis’ which might end with some kind of explosion. An outgrowth of this fear was revulsion at the ‘slave power’: a fear that this insidious, creeping and powerful conspiracy would throttle the life out of the tenuous American experiment in democracy. Indeed, some regarded it by 1857–58 as a distinctly ‘un-American’ threat against which all loyal citizens should be on their guard. The essence of republicanism itself was endangered. The existing political parties could no longer protect the system. One was enfeebled and the other was in thrall to the slave power. It was a disillusionment with parties as previously organized that gave a potency to sectional alarms; yet sectional animosity did not decisively weaken the political system until the presidential election of 1860.50

But was this agitation just a symptom of the political crisis or was it a root malady? Surely it was a crisis of fundamental import. Comment on the exaggerated extent of the slave power’s grip on northern politicians and voters has become a commonplace. Yet fear of the slave power conspiracy was a product of belief. What people believe in politics has little to do with established objective fact (which is, in any case, a retrospective reconstruction) but what they perceive as happening from their everyday experience.

All that many involved in the northern anti-slavery movement (and many who were not) could see after 1854 was a remorseless advance of the slave power. Northern Democrats were regarded contemptuously as mere puppets of the slaveowners. It seemed that the forces of republican democracy were engaged in a battle with a brutal, authoritarian and subversive threat. The response of northern liberals in the 1850s can be compared with left-wing reactions to the threat of fascism in the 1930s. The martial activity in Kansas in 1856–58 can be compared with the efforts of the various international brigades in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39. Both these movements stemmed from a comparable measure of exaggeration of the threat they confronted. But their political impact arose from this exaggeration and should not be discounted.

Developments in southern party politics seemed to confirm that the North faced a united and homogeneous foe. The defeat of Scott in 1852 had thrown the southern Whigs into turmoil. Here the Whig Party slowly unravelled (it controlled only two southern state houses after 1853, North Carolina and Tennessee). Southern Whigs blamed the northern anti-slavery Whigs for their plight and attacked the Democratic Party as a free-soil fastness. Their plight allowed southern Democrats to force their northern colleagues to acquiesce in a southern interpretation of the Compromise of 1850 and ensure that popular sovereignty was imposed on all the territories. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30′ which had been a prime southern demand was realized in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Here was a hint that the old Southern Whig-Democrat rivalry, based on wild assertions that the one was more anti-slavery than the other, would be replaced by a consensus that was essentially anti-Republican and anti-northern.51

Southern Whigs, like their northern counterparts, flirted with the Know Nothing Party. Know Nothing leaders realized that dedication to a consistent line on the slavery question was central to its survival as a major political party. They thus rallied round three prime tenets that were central to the southern case: untrammelled execution of the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and popular sovereignty in all territories. After the split of the Know Nothings in 1856, the southern wing of the party came under a fierce barrage of fire from southern Democrats. They were accused of colluding with free soil and abolitionist forces. In the Deep South (except for isolated outposts like New Orleans) the party was decimated and this part of the slave states was now dominated by one party. The Know Nothings survived in parts of the Upper South and the Border states (including Maryland) in alliance with Whig remnants. The persistence of some form of two-party system in these states would have a major influence on the pattern and outcome of the secession crisis.52

The prime significance of these events was a shattering of the national perspective on American politics by these sectional interests. There was also a tendency to downplay the value of any northern alliance. Southerners had always been prone to demand that the interests of their northern colleagues be sacrificed at their behest, as was evident during the crisis of 1850. Zachary Taylor had not been prepared to do this, but both Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan (both northerners) were. Thus fewer and fewer southerners were prepared to participate in a national party which aimed to present a southern view of the politics of slavery. Where the two-party system degenerated so, after the setbacks of the elections that confirmed the Compromise in 1852–54, did secessionist fervour revive. The opponents of the southern Democrats tended to focus on local issues, but they were poorly organized and ill-coordinated; they even lacked a name, and were often vaguely referred to as the ‘Opposition Party’ which hardly created a positive impression. Many other southern Whigs joined the Democratic Party. Even within Democratic ranks, however, there was by no means unanimity on the wisdom of separatism. There were still some prudent voices that called for a national perspective, and even others who were audacious enough to call for a rally around the standard of Stephen A. Douglas. If Douglas faced disaster so did the South. But the great majority of southern Democrats saw control of the entire party as essential to their cause.53

The increasing stridency of southern demands is reflected in increasing calls for measures sponsored by the Federal government to protect slavery in the territories. Such a policy became the essential bedrock of the southern demand for protection against the rising strength of the Republican Party. Southerners loathed the Republican Party because of the acid tongues of its spokesmen and its propagandists’ assaults on southern integrity and institutions. Those who ladle out vitriol, as southern spokesmen were wont to do, often do not like the effect when it is returned in full measure. They believed, furthermore, that Republicanism posed a danger to local political control that was central to the southern notion of liberty. The Republicans posed a major threat to the vaulting ambitions of certain southern Democrats. They were increasingly convinced that the security of the South and its peculiar institution demanded not just the unrestricted freedom to move their property into the territories, but the creation of at least one new slave state. This attitude culminated in 1859 with Jefferson Davis’s call to have slavery protected in the territories ‘under the Federal Constitution’. This amounted to a slave code. If the judiciary could not enforce it, ‘it will then become the duty of Congress to supply such a deficiency’.54

The two Administrations of Pierce and Buchanan appeared suffused with southern attitudes, indeed appeared extensions of the southern interest. The Fugitive Slave Act was stringently enforced. In May 1854, a former slave, Anthony Burns, was arrested in Boston. The spectre of slavery being accepted as a national institution could no longer be ignored, for it would restrict northern liberties. Fifty thousand people hurriedly assembled to protest, and an army of marines, soldiers and police kept them at bay while Burns was returned to enslavement in Virginia. The cost of this venture was about $100,000. In 1856–58 there were a number of other celebrated cases, but the numbers of escaped slaves were small, with an average annual loss of 1:5,000 slaves; in 1859 only 803 slaves escaped, and 500 of these were from the Border states. The 3,000 brave men and women involved with the ‘Underground Railroad’ escape route hardly warranted the opprobrium hurled upon this inflnitesimally small group. Yet, though northern opposition to the workings of the Act has been exaggerated (only three examples exist of forcible rescue of arrested former slaves by northern mobs before 1856), the folly of attempting to ‘solve’ agitation over slavery by this kind of legislation was manifest. The Fugitive Slave Act sought to return not only recent runaways to enslavement, but also those who had long since thrown off their manacles and had made new lives for themselves in the North. This imparted to the Fugitive Slave Act a brutality, an arbitrariness, and a malicious character, and a propensity for elementary injustice, which was bound to inflame moderate northern opinion. This was shocked by the implications of the Act, even if most northerners did not share abolitionist views, or wished to see any alteration of slavery in the southern states. It forced northerners to confront the inescapable dilemma that slavery was not a ‘peculiar’ southern institution, but a national problem. It was not far distant, it was increasingly sinister and was beginning to intrude into the workings of northern democracy, and threaten ‘free speech’. Would the next step be the legal silencing of not just those who criticized the Fugitive Slave Act but slavery itself? Under such conditions Republican warnings of a ‘slave power’ threat gained credence. In the broadest sense, the objective reality of the figures involved, of the numbers of escaped slaves, those helping them, and those returned to enslavement by the sheriffs, are irrelevant. The moral indignation, and the latent guilt on all sides, contributed to that series of unspoken assumptions and stereotypes which increased the animosity that eventually resulted in war – though that animosity was felt most pointedly in the South. It was in this kind of atmosphere that sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental but tense and driven novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), flourished and popularized such stereotypes.55

The southern influence seemed paramount in foreign affairs as well. Pierce had exploited his gift of patronage by appointing pro-slavery expansionists to overseas missions. In October 1854 three of these ministers from London, Paris and Madrid had issued the Ostend Manifesto. James Buchanan was its final author, but all three feared the results if Spain abolished slavery in Cuba. The Ostend Manifesto argued that the United States should either purchase the island or seize it by force.

This document was issued at a time when demands for an expansion of the South into the Caribbean, and the creation of a great slaveholding empire, were gaining in persuasiveness. ‘Filibustering’ expeditions grabbed the headlines in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Jefferson Davis argued for a transcontinental railroad built along a southern route. The Gadsden Purchase (1853) of southern parts of New Mexico and Arizona made this seem more feasible. De Bow’s Review, the premier periodical advancing southern states rights views, saw tremendous potential for southern trade in the west. This expansionism caused considerable disquiet in the North. Should the South expand at the expense of her Latin American neighbours, then her political character would come to resemble more closely that of Brazil rather than the original federal Union. It was not expansionism itself that northern critics opposed (as is sometimes implied), for northern anti-slavery critics, like William H. Seward, had expansionist dreams which appeared to know no horizon; what they objected to was expansion that would transform the political and social character of the United States itself. The fundamental ideals on which this polity rested were being altered and abused by a small group of unrepresentative southern ‘aristocrats’, whose political power was out of all proportion to the resources and population of their region. The Ostend Manifesto especially, by revealing the slave power’s naked, aggressive designs, provoked much bitter denunciation.56

But it was southern action in Kansas that provoked more fear of the slave power than anything else. There have been many previous detailed accounts of these events, which have usually been interpreted from the political angle.57 Their significance is assessed in the next chapter. Kansas had been the source of violence for several years. The source of the dispute was the legalistic doctrine of popular sovereignty and blatant electoral fraud. In the elections to the territorial legislature of November 1854, March 1855 and October 1857, fraud and intimidation were rife. This had been perpetuated by a rabble of drunk, unruly, unkempt, pro-slavery Missourians, several hundred of whom crossed the Kansas border in the best traditions of a frontier range-war. A series of pro-slavery laws were then passed. In response, free soil settlers mainly from New England (who constituted the bulk of the population) in the summer of 1855 set up their own territorial government in Topeka. Civil war seemed to threaten in Kansas, though the violence was on a very small scale. It was written up in the newspapers – especially in the ‘Wakarusa War’ of December 1855, and the ‘sack of Lawrence’ of May 1856 – as if the territory was being subject to the attentions of Attila the Hun himself.58

In October 1857 a convention of these unseemly pro-slavery enthusiasts met at Lecompton and put together a constitution of breath-taking audacity. They were hardly a group of highly educated lawyers, but they knew what they wanted and were determined to impose their views on the residents of this territory. They paid lip-service to the requirement for electoral endorsement by offering the voters the chance to accept the constitution with slavery but not reject it; voters were also presented with a Hobson’s choice of how many further slaves would be permitted to enter the territory, not whether they should enter at all. No slaves could be emancipated who were already in Kansas, and the Fugitive Slave Law should be rigorously enforced. This was known as the Lecompton ‘juggle’. A calculated vagueness on suffrage computations, by which all white males present in the territory on election day were eligible to vote, would enable large numbers of their cronies from Missouri – ‘an horde of imported voters’, as they were described by one observer – to repeat the incursions of 1854 and 1855.59

President Buchanan decided to support the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution; Senator Douglas decided to oppose it, and thus confronted directly the titular head of his party over a matter of policy. The question of motives on both sides is not easy to disentangle. Buchanan had not excited much enthusiasm among southern Democrats in 1856, and it was likely that he was trying to strengthen his hold on that important Democrat bastion.60 As for divisions within his own party, Buchanan could (and did) exercise his formidable command of the patronage to purge most of Douglas’s supporters, especially in Illinois. In this he acted with decisiveness and also with the vindictiveness of which he was capable when crossed. As for Douglas, he had his eye on succeeding Buchanan in 1860 and was manoeuvring to ensure that his base in the Old North West would not be outflanked by Republicans. He had antagonized northern opinion by sponsoring the Kansas-Nebraska Act and he was anxious to restore his popularity. But a point of principle was involved: Douglas loathed seeing popular sovereignty abused, with gerrymandering calculated to produce a result the opposite of which he had always expected from this device. Buchanan, by contrast, accepted the spurious legality of Lecompton as legitimate. There is some evidence that northern opinion was divided, and was not so anti-Lecompton (and therefore so anti-Buchanan) as some previous historians have suggested. Nonetheless, the Republican Party thrived on the kind of turmoil that this dispute produced among Democrats. Then conflicting results were produced in Kansas in 1857 by the elections sponsored by the pro- and anti-slavery parties. The Lecomptonites produced a victory for the pro-slavery constitution of 6,143 to 569 opposed (though at least 2,700 anti-slavery votes were dismissed as fraudulent). The anti-Lecomptonites, in January 1858, however, gained a victory of 10,336 who rejected the pro-slavery constitution, against 138 who supported it (with a further 24 who wanted it without slavery).61

The other prime consequence of this dispute was to sow excitement, confusion, and not a little irritation in Republican ranks. In Douglas’s many speeches denouncing Lecompton, he sounded more and more like a Republican. Some eastern Republicans, especially Horace Greeley, began to conjure with visions of some kind of electoral alliance with the Douglas faction; perhaps even a coalition; could not Douglas himself be tempted to join the Republican Party? Such views were not welcome among Illinois’s Republicans, to whom Douglas was their natural and bitter enemy. They were especially annoying to that former Whig, Abraham Lincoln, who had served one term as a member of the House of Representatives, 1847–49. He had re-entered politics in 1854, had denounced Douglas and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in two striking speeches at Peoria and Springfield, Illinois in 1855. He had stood down in favour of the ex-Democrat, Lyman Trumbull, during the Senate race of that year on the understanding that he would be the uncontested candidate against Douglas. By the summer of 1856 Lincoln embraced Republicanism. Out of this sequence of events arose Lincoln’s epic battle for Douglas’s Senate seat, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.62

In these celebrated debates with Douglas, Lincoln strode on to the national stage for the first time, and he would not subsequendy leave it. His prime significance at this date was delineating very lucidly the differences between mainstream, conservative Republicanism and Democrats of the Douglas hue. Lincoln did this so effectively that he presented himself as an available Republican candidate for the 1860 presidential election that was to stoke up southern fears and provoke the secession crisis. This strange, moody, enigmatic, quirky but eminentiy lovable and humorous man was now given the opportunity to show something of his true mettie. After this experience of debating with Lincoln (which had been foreshadowed in 1855 or even earlier as they had jousted in the winter of 1839–40),63 Douglas never made the error (committed by so many in 1860–62) of underestimating him. Lincoln’s law-partner, William H. Herndon, may have been right in thinking that his ambition resembled a ‘little engine’ which never stopped running, but if so this thirst for advancement was not achieved at the expense of others. Lincoln was highly ambitious, but good natured, kind, and much liked – a rare combination. Although wily, he was neither unpleasant nor unscrupulous. He was to demonstrate wisdom without self-satisfaction, eloquence without bombast, and never talked down to his listeners. He was to prove shrewd without being over-confident, and an uncannily accurate judge of character.

Lincoln was self-educated, but not an intellectual. He was a thoughtful, practical politician. He was not audacious (unlike Douglas), and never advanced far beyond the consensual mean of his party. He was certainly not a superman. By the late 1850s he was middle-of-the-road without being mediocre: he was inexperienced in administration, provincial and prone to diffidence. Yet, whatever his inner torments and self-doubt, Lincoln did not share Hamlet’s fear of responsibility. His attributes were hardened and sharpened by the harsh fires of challenge and experience. Perhaps the gift that more than any other transformed him from being a mere notable frontier politician to the most revered of all American presidents is that, in the words of Mark E. Neely Jr, Lincoln enjoyed the ‘deepest form of self-confidence: he knew no fear of the talent of others’.64

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were staged against the background of Buchanan’s ruthless and single-minded attempt to settle the Kansas issue once and for all, reduce the potency of the Republicans’ appeal in the North, and lance with one thrust the festering boil that threatened the unity of the Democratic Party. He did not hesitate to employ cash bribes to ensure votes in Congress. Here was the slave power at its most arbitrary and determined, with its corrupt but willing tool doing its bidding. It is surely correct to suggest that the attacks on Free Soilers in Kansas incensed northern opinion to an extent that an assault on black slavery, or the cloudy, legalistic phrases of slavery extension, could never have done. Here were graphically presented the struggles of ordinary men and women with whom northern voters could readily identify. But this is far from suggesting that the morality of the slavery was an irrelevant consideration.65

Douglas accepted Lincoln’s challenge to debate with him on 24 July 1858, as he had no real choice in the matter: for to refuse would have left him vulnerable to the charge of cowardice, which was unthinkable for a frontier politician. In pursuing the electoral contest (which should not be confused with the eight Lincoln-Douglas debates) Lincoln made sixty-three major speeches and Douglas fifty-nine (most of these would have been about three hours long), while Lincoln travelled 4,300 miles and Douglas 5,200. Lincoln, as the lesser known candidate, had much more to gain from the debates than Douglas, but also more to lose; if Douglas worsted him his reputation would have been irreparably shattered. Douglas was a most formidable opponent: dynamic, alert, perceptive. One of Douglas’s biographers described his voice as ‘Round, deep and sonorous, his words reached his remotest hearer’. He was a brilliant master of fence, and particularly adept at misrepresentation – knocking his opponent off-balance by distorting his true views. He would be keen to exploit mid-western racism and depict Lincoln as an abolitionist who advocated full social and political equality for blacks, in a state where free blacks were denied the franchise.66

Like most such debates, little that was new was ventured in the confrontations. The arguments had been heard before, and would be heard again. What was novel was the jousting between the candidates, their degree of preparation, and the quality of the exchanges, given point by the threat – the threat of the growing strangle-hold of the slave power as exemplified by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott, the outrages in Kansas and the craven conduct of the Buchanan Administration in pushing for the admission of Kansas as a slave state. There were four general patterns of argument: conspiracy, legal, historical and moral. The first was a reconsideration of the whole nature of the slave power. This was a very flexible and somewhat indefinable argument, but it should not be dismissed because contemporaries believed in it, and the events of political life seemed to confirm the danger. In this context Douglas strove to reveal Lincoln as an abolitionist who, therefore, could be also presented as a disunionist threat. There can be no denying either that both Lincoln and Douglas had much to gain from exploiting fears of a slave power, as both sought electoral office by reference to its supposed dangers. Yet it is a big jump to assume from this that both were unscrupulous opportunists who cynically exploited the fears they were inflaming. Both understood that the issue of slavery was potentially explosive, but they differed over the means by which the crisis could be resolved. If it is true that most voters are against something rather than for it, then many northern voters were opposed to the slave power.67

The legal cluster of arguments demonstrate the legalistic nature of American politics and the veneration of the Constitution. The style of argument adopted by the candidates reflected their political style – they were both skilful, practising lawyers. Obviously the import of the Dred Scott decision was explored at length. Lincoln scored a major point by showing that Douglas’s basic ‘Union’ appeal rested on a very vague formulation: that the two sections would interpret the same documents differently, and then would agree to disagree. Douglas retorted by warning of the dangers posed by Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech. ‘Our fathers intended that our institutions should differ. They knew that the North and South having different climates, productions and interests, required different institutions’. But the most significant development occurred at Freeport, when Douglas enunciated his so-called ‘doctrine’, as a response to the Dred Scott decision. This was not new, he had said it before: Democrats should interpret the decision negatively – the Supreme Court did not demand that the territories recognize slaves as property with ownership rights. If, therefore, they failed to create a legal code for the protection of slavery, slaveholders would not dare risk bringing their slaves into the territories. This approach was typical of Douglas’s ingenuity and sleight of hand. It provoked anger among southern Democrats because he appeared to be denying them their true constitutional property rights.68

Exploring the historical arguments gave Lincoln an opportunity to address some of his favourite themes. He rejected Douglas’s notion that the Founding Fathers had created the United States half free and half slave. They found it in that state and struggled with their heritage. Lincoln believed the Constitution to be fundamentally anti-slavery. The redolent phrase ‘all men are created equal’ lay at the core of Lincoln’s case. He did not accept Douglas’s accusations that he was in favour of ‘nigger equality’. But he scored heavily off Douglas when he declared of all blacks, ‘in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man’.69

This permitted Lincoln to develop the core of his case vis-à-vis Douglas’s advocacy of popular sovereignty and his assertion that no community of free men could require of other free communities that they order their domestic arrangements in a certain way. Lincoln’s view of the morality of the issue was not particularly daring by the most radical standards, but it was a risky strategy that paid off. It revealed most markedly the differences between Douglas and himself. Lincoln believed that slavery was unutterably wicked, and he exploited Douglas’s moral relativism on this score shrewdly. Douglas could not admit that slavery was evil because it would infuriate his nominal southern allies. There could be no sectional truce, Lincoln contended, until slavery stopped expanding. Once this ceased, the North would become more contented, and in its turn, the South would stop attacking the North. The containment of slavery must be a high priority. T believe if we could arrest the spread, and place it where Washington, and Jefferson, and Madison placed it, it would be in the course of ultimate extinction and, the public would, as for eighty years past, believe that it was in the course of ultimate extinction.70

The debates were not about making proud and grand statements but about winning votes. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were not, and could never be, a philosophical seminar on the slavery issue.71 In the nineteenth century senators were not elected by the popular vote, but by a vote in the state legislature. The way in which the counties voted was crucial to the result. Buchanan turned the full power of the Democratic machine against Douglas, and thus aided Lincoln. Lincoln gained a majority of the popular vote, 125,000 to Douglas’s 121,000 (with 5,000 going to Buchanan supporters), but the breakdown of the legislative districts guaranteed Douglas’s re-election, forty-six Democrats to forty-one Republicans.72 No prizes are awarded for coming second in politics, but in Lincoln’s case, it was a noble failure – and a useful bridgehead for a future advance. He showed beyond doubt a capacity to win votes. If he had been trounced by Douglas, then it is likely that William H. Seward, and not Lincoln, would have been nominated in 1860 as the Republican presidential candidate. But a close scrutiny of the results reveals that the voters in the counties gave comparable attention to economic issues, and it is to a consideration of this essential backround to the sectional crisis that we must now turn.73

The slump of 1857

The economic development of the United States in the nineteenth century was handicapped by a series of economic recessions that followed one another at almost twenty year intervals: in 1819, 1837, 1857 and 1873–78.74 This chapter will conclude with an assessment of the impact of economic misfortunes on political tensions. Geoffrey Blainey in his book, The Causes of War, points out that the Scottish economist, A. L. Macfie, had argued that wars are more likely to be fought when economies are recovering rather than stagnant.75 This has less to do with any jejune Marxist argument that capitalists are prepared to fight to enlarge an already growing market, or to conquer areas into which they wish to export capital. The evidence of the American Civil War indicates that the businessmen (especially of New York City) were the least enthusiastic for the commencement of hostilities (though they rapidly switched to belligerency). It has much more to do with the elementary but often overlooked fact that expanding economies lighten the prevailing mood and contribute to an optimistic outlook. This grants politicians the means to fight wars (by raising loans) should they decide to do so, as the Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase, assured President Lincoln in April 1861.76 Otherwise, it is doubtful whether there exists a link between prosperity and enthusiasm for war, except that those who are living comfortably invariably assume that their voluntary martial servitude and discomfort would be of short duration.77

A study of the economic vicissitudes of the 1850s offers a different perspective on the political disputes of the day, not least that of slavery, labour and the tariff. It also helps integrate the working-class unrest discussed above, which tended to focus on local and state issues, with the national questions. All parties, of course, whatever their perspective and political bias, agreed that the Federal government should remain small and weak and that it should have little or no power over the workings of the economy. The expansion of the American economy in the mid-1850s had, in any case, been due to factors out of the government’s control, such as the Crimean War (1854–56). The United States had begun to export foodstuffs previously supplied by a beleaguered Russia; the ending of that war brought uncertainty. Another area of vulnerability lay in the rapid creation of an urban working class who made their grievances felt, and sympathized with mid-western farmers; this combination contributed powerfully to the Republican congressional gains in the 1858 elections.78

Economic setbacks obviously had an important impact on the voters, though mainly of a negative sort. The Republicans, for example, criticized slavery’s economic backwardness. In 1857, however, the efforts of politicians were rendered superfluous during the months August-October, when panic erupted on Wall Street. Investors withdrew their funds, so that within a month total deposits had been reduced from $94,500,000 to $78,800,000. Bank failures precipitated a run on the banks, which led to a decline in investment and credit confidence, and a sharp fall in the prices for cereals. Bankers (and this is not uncommon in recessions) were excoriated for their selfishness and incompetence. The whole structure of finance in the United States seemed on the brink of collapse. By November 1857, the bottom of the recession was plumbed, but contrary to expectations, recovery was sluggish, and the Pennsylvania iron and coal industries were serious casualties. Strikes and even food riots broke out in the ensuing months. North eastern financiers were reluctant to make loans, especially to western agriculture, which, in turn, had a deleterious effect on the railroad industry.79

All of this brought much satisfaction to southern spokesmen. The ‘South pays up its bills well and promptly, while it is almost impossible to get a dollar from the West’ they claimed. Southern staple crops, cotton and tobacco, continued to sell well, and attempts were made to attract investment to southern railroads by pointing out the contrast between the two sections. The United States was not thrown into deep depression by the panic of 1857, but it was sufficient to arrest economic growth in the northern states.80 But the recession had also brought hard times to the South and renewed calls for free trade rather than a protective tariff and direct trade with Europe. It was in the South that protest against the panic was heard loudest; in the North the initial impact was muted. There were renewed southern calls for a reduction in tariffs and an impetus was given to the economic value of slavery. Southern polemicists rounded upon the northern bread riots. They seemed to symbolize all that was rotten, capricious and unjust about urban civilization. The slump of 1857 seemed to contrast in a piquant form the relative merits of slave labour versus free labour. The South lacked rioting workmen, but had contented slaves; preconceptions were emphatically reaffirmed.81 Provoked by the debate over the Lecompton Constitution, southern spokesmen claimed that the North was drowned in cries of ‘Blood or Bread!’ In a speech delivered on 4 March 1858 in the Senate, James H. Hammond offered an interpretation of politics based on economic wealth. The peroration of his speech was as inaccurate as it was famous: if cotton was ever embargoed, ‘old England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, sir, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king.’

Hammond believed that the wealth of a region was governed by the quantity of its exports, and southern staples had held up during the recession. Indeed the North had depended on them. He likened northern ‘freedom’ to chattel labour: ‘your whole hireling class of manual labourers and operatives … are essentially slaves’. Hammond’s ‘cotton is king’ speech – an outgrowth of pro-slavery thought of the late 1850s – added to southern overconfidence and swagger. It contributed to a fatal overestimation of southern resources and their importance in the world’s affairs. Furthermore, the debate over the effects of the Panic of 1857 and the Lecompton Constitution shared the common characteristic of revolving around whether an economic system was better served by a chattel or free system of labour.82

The electoral impact of the recession affected the North more slowly but no less significantly. The effect on the Buchanan Administration was serious because it led to a severe reduction in the Federal government’s revenues which were drawn from customs receipts. The most significant event was the Democrats’ loss of Pennsylvania in the mid-term elections of 1858. This state had witnessed an increase in protectionist sentiment, and recent studies have emphasized that the Democratic Party’s divisions on this urgent question were effectively exploited by Republicans (and Nativists who supported protectionism because it struck at foreigners and aided distressed American workers). ‘The tariff question’, as observers noted, ‘is really paramount to all others in the minds of the masses of the people of this [Chester] and Delaware Counties’.83 The ensuing serious loss had grave implications for the presidential election of 1860, for Pennsylvania was one of only five northern states carried by the Democrats in 1856. The most convincing explanation of the relationship between state and national elections is the way these multiple elections shaped and endorsed emerging impressions about political parties and their ‘image’ and ability to govern at all levels.

For instance, in Ohio in 1858, the Democratic vote held up strongly against Republican pressure, and a collapse on the scale of Pennsylvania was resisted. In short, the multiplicity of interests and issues in state and county politics balanced party competition; but only at national level could this be disrupted. For all the enthusiasm and vigour with which voters embraced local economic and social issues, the anti-southern stance of the Republican Party was popular with northern voters. But in Ohio the demands of campaigning in a recession allowed the Republicans to focus on the need for ‘retrenchment’ and fiscal prudence, and present a less radical, more prudent, responsible image. In short, these important state elections made an important contribution to the coalescence of voter opinion and mood that would focus on national issues.84

‘Political crisis’ or war?

The fundamental question to be addressed is the extent to which the ‘political crisis of the 1850s’ caused the Civil War. The Republican Party had gained many of its objectives by 1858, and was to secure many more by 1860. The extension of slavery would be prevented and the growing influence of the slave power over liberties of northerners resisted. But the drift to war cannot be charted adequately by merely considering the vicissitudes of party politics. The real reason why the United States was thrust into civil war lies in the southern decision not to accept the decisions made by a majority of voters in supporting the views of the Republican Party.

As the territorial extent of the United States grew by 73 per cent in the years 1848–53, it is hardly surprising that such a rapid expansion should promote fervent discussion about its future. This debate covered not only the kind of political structure these territories would enjoy, but also the very nature of the Federal government itself. Its functions had been enlarged. Should such a federal union be centralized or diffuse? The answer to this question revealed significant differences in cultural perspective and belief. Stephen A. Douglas felt that the Union should be made safe for cultural diversity. In December 1857 he argued, ‘You have no more right to force a Free-State Constitution on Kansas than a Slave-State Constitution…. It is none of my business which way the slavery clause is decided. I care not whether it is voted down or voted up.’ Communities, in his view, should decide for themselves how they wished to order their affairs.

During the years 1850–58, however, an increased polarization occurred. Voters were not obsessed by the slavery issue; they were also agitated by other issues – social, economic, cultural – that impinged more directly on their daily lives. Nonetheless, the result of these elections at the national level was the growth of an exclusive, sectional party, prone to disseminating abusive, anti-southern propaganda which confirmed certain unflattering southern stereotypes and basic prejudices about the slave power. Republican influence grew also during a time of enormous expansion in northern industrial power, population, and communications. The check this received in 1857 caused considerable southern satisfaction. But despite efforts to conceal the increasing disparities between the sections, the South appeared as a beleaguered and backward section, much in the minority. Dynamism within the American economy and society stemmed from the North, not the South. Yet the latter appeared to exercise excessive power within the Federal government. The South’s material interests were not just protected, they seemed to expand in the 1850s. As a reaction to this, northern cultural nationalism became more powerful, and was dedicated to interpreting the federal union, its rights and powers, on northern terms.

The southern response was to liken the federal union and the states to a fleet of separate ships. ‘And as the ship may sail away from the fleet, when her own safety demands it, so, in a similar emergency, may the state or states, secede from the Union’. Growing awareness of the disparity of northern power vis-à-vis the South had agitated southerners for some years. Jefferson Davis had warned in 1849 that the South might ‘sink … to the helpless condition’ of Ireland in the British Empire. The southern response was to make greater and greater demands on the political system, while abdicating a national perspective on its problems, and this stimulated hostility and resistance. Southerners believed erroneously that this was inspired by sectional feeling stirred up by ‘abolitionists’.85

It is thus worth reiterating that the issues underlying these disputes were profound and genuine, not superficial, or somehow artificial. They reflected sincere, as opposed to spurious, anxieties on both sides. Some political historians give the impression that it was the party ‘game’ that was really decisive in provoking the crisis. Slavery (or any other issue) was just a pretext to advance careers and secure office. In the words of Professor Holt, ‘Politicians who pursued very traditional partisan strategies were largely responsible for the ultimate breakdown of the political process’. Elements of opportunism and self-interest can be found without difficulty. But this effort to eradicate ideas, ideals and belief from politics is itself strained and artificial, and mistakes the symptoms for the disease. Here there are loud echoes of much older schools of historiography – not just the ‘revisionists’, such as Randall and Avery Craven, but of the followers of Sir Lewis Namier and his influential work on British politics in the reign of George III. Thus Holt downgrades Lincoln’s attempt to raise the moral issue in his debates with Douglas. He suggests that it was a mere tactical ploy designed to ‘supplement’ the ‘House Divided’ speech. Politics could not exist without tactics, but tactics are not the object of politics. As for Lincoln, even Douglas, they may have manoeuvred, and changed the emphasis on certain issues, as it suited them, but they had more in mind than just attaining ‘credibility’. Their political position rested ultimately on a hard core of belief and real feelings which did not exist in a vacuum. Their beliefs determined their responses to the challenges of party politics, and the slavery question was central to their development.86

Finally, the breakdown of the second party system did not by itself cause the Civil War. It provided, however, the essential preconditions that made war possible. Where the two-party system broke down, secessionism gained ground and confidence. It is the secession crisis that provides the issue for a confrontation between the secessionists and the Federal government, and the circumstances which forced men to pull their triggers and yank their lanyards. But why decision-makers were disposed to use force can be explained only by reference to the hearts and minds of men, not how they allot their votes. The sources of the martial spirit will be the subject of the next chapter.

1. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1884, 1985), p. 131.

2. Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991), pp. xii–xiii, 18, 20, 24–5, 29–31, 37–9, 44, 48; Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (New York: Scribner’s, 1947), II, pp. 16, 20, 22, 29, 30, 32–3, 35, 38.

3. Gara, Pierce, p. 180.

4. Ibid., p. 167; Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, II, pp. 44–5, 47–8, 51.

5. See e.g. Pierce to Davis, 6 Jan. 1860, in Jefferson Davis: Private Letters, 1823–1889, ed. Hudson Strode (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1966), pp. 113–14, when he attributed the secession crisis to ‘the madness of northern abolitionism’.

6. See below, pp. 244–5, 398.

7. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford UP, 1970), pp. 162–3.

8. Michael F. Holt, Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1969), pp. 6, 8, 123–5; Joel H. Silbey, The Partisan Imperative: The Dynamics of American Politics Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), p. 7.

9. Eric Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford UP, 1980), pp. 10, 11, 19–20, 30.

10. It is not suggested that these general observations should be attributed to any of the individuals mentioned in the previous paragraphs.

11. Silbey, Partisan Imperative, p. xx: Holt, ‘Introduction’, in Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992), esp. pp. 11–13 for some stimulating comments; but even shrewder is Donald RatclifFe’s review of Holt in Journal of American Studies 28 (April 1994), pp. 142–3.

12. Holt, ‘The Anti-Masonic and Know Nothing Parties’, in Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development, pp. 115–19.

13. William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856 (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), pp. 44–6, 50–2, 59–60, 95, 98, 142.

14. Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 35, 37, 42–3, 81–91, 95–100; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford UP, 1967), pp. 160–1; Silbey, Partisan Imperative, pp. 137–40.

15. R. W. Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: Norton, 1989), pp. 354–62.

16. Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, p. 103.

17. Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 72–3, 145, 176; Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, pp. 309–16; Peter J. Parish, ‘Ethics and Economics: Slavery and Anti-Slavery Re-examined’, Georgia Historical Quarterly LXXV (spring 1991), p. 668; Holt, ‘Anti-Masonic and Know Nothing Parties’, pp. 119–20.

18. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 145; his ch. 7 is an authoritative account of the Act’s passing.

19. Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case (New York: Oxford UP, 1978), pp. 136–7; Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford UP, 1973), pp. 239–40, 404–13.

20. Gara, Pierce, pp. 80–1, 91–2; Foner, Politics and Ideology, pp. 45–6.

21. David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), pp. 251–9; Frederich J. Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics (Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1987), pp. 94–5. It did not pass the House of Representatives until May, and then with a much narrower majority.

22. Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 73, 76–8, 104–5, 106, 126, 201.

23. Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1994), pp. 246–7, 277–8.

24. Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 183, 190, 200, 203, 224, 240, 243, 247–8, 251, 260–2; Holt, ‘The Politics of Impatience’, in Political Parties and American Political Development, p. 177; W. E. Gienapp, ‘Nativism and the Creation of a Republican Majority in the North before the Civil War’, Journal of American History 72 (Dec. 1985), pp. 529–59.

25. William E. Gienapp, ‘The Crime Against Sumner: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party’, Civil War History XXV (Oct. 1979), pp. 218–23; Donald, Sumner, pp. 292–303.

26. Gienapp, ‘The Crime Against Sumner’, pp. 224–36; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 218–24.

27. Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, pp. 128–31; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 256–9; Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 336, 342–3, 370; Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, II, pp. 462–3.

28. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Norton, 1983), p. 198; Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 358–65, 413, 417; Silbey, Partisan Imperative, pp. 134, 143–9, 162–5; Parish, ‘Ethics and Economics’, pp. 72–3. Parish is critical of Fogel’s ‘grudging’ comments on the Republican achievement in 1856. See Without Consent or Contrast, pp. 377–80, 381–7.

29. Gienapp, Origins of Republican Party, pp. 115, 443–8; Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics, p. 274; Hans L. Trefousse, Benjamin Franklin Wade: Radical Republican from Ohio (New York: Twayne, 1963), pp. 63, 87; Van Deusen, Seward, pp. 193–4; see below, pp. 346–50.

30. Holt, ‘Introduction’, in Political Parties and American Political Development, pp. 12–13.

31. For a detailed account, see Gara, Pierce, ch. 7.

32. Brian Holden Reid, James Buchanan, 1791–1868’, in Peter J. Parish (ed.) The Reader’s Guide to American History (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1996).

33. Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1975), p. 16.

34. Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945, 1971), pp. 98–100.

35. A. R. Myers, Parliaments and Estates in Europe to 1789 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975), pp. 14, 19; Fehrenbacher, Dred Scott, p. 287; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 283–4.

36. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 104–5, 148–9.

37. Fehrenbacher, Dred Scott, pp. 239–48.

38. Ibid., pp. 250–64; Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 268.

39. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 262–5.

40. Ibid., p. 275.

41. Fehrenbacher, Dred Scott, pp. 291–304.

42. Ibid., pp. 320–1. Up to 50 per cent may have been added. Taney’s denial that he had done this, Fehrenbacher considers ‘inaccurate’.

43. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 270–86; Fehrenbacher, Dred Scott, pp. 322–7; Bruce Collins, The Origins of America’s Civil War (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), pp. 125–6. Taney was undoubtedly in error in denying Negroes US citizenship.

44. See below pp. 281–92; Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, pp. 292–5.

45. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 287–9; Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford UP, 1990), pp. 92–3, 106–7; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 24–6.

46. Gara, Pierce, p. 178.

47. Hugh Brogan, ‘Tocqueville and the Coming of the American Civil War’, in Brian Holden Reid and John White (eds) American Studies: Essays in Honour of Marcus Cunliffe (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 91–2, points out that the phrase was in common usage (it was, after all, a biblical phrase), but transforming and ennobling the commonplace lay at the heart of Lincoln’s rhetorical genius.

48. ‘A House Divided: Speech at Springfield, Illinois’, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1953), II, p. 467. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford UP, 1962), ch. 4, but esp. pp. 82–95; Fehrenbacher, Dred Scott, pp. 485–8.

49. Waldo W. Braden, Abraham Lincoln, Public Speaker (Louisiana State UP, 1988, 1993), pp. 51–2; Mark E. Neely, The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993), p. 168.

50. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s, pp. 151–2, 184, 190.

51. William J. Cooper, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), pp. 239–41.

52. Ibid., pp. 245–7.

53. Cooper, Liberty and Slavery, p. 259; Silbey, Partisan Imperative, pp. 120–3; Holt, ‘The Democratic Party, 1828–1860’, in Political Parties and American Political Development, pp. 71–86, 125–6.

54. Silbey, Partisan Imperative, p. 122; Cooper, Liberty and Slavery, pp. 256–7; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 403–4; William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and his Hour (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 268–74.

55. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 130–40; Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, pp. 209–10; Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992), pp. 187, 189–90.

56. G. Connell-Smith, The United States and Latin America (London: Heinemann, 1975), pp. 80, 82; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 15–16; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 180–92; Ernest N. Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire: William H. Seward and U.S. Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1973), pp. 8–11.

57. A good starting-point is Potter, Impending Crisis, ch. 12, and Stampp, 1857, ch. 6.

58. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), I, pp. 159–61; Stampp, 1857, pp. 145–6, 150, 153–4; Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Anti-Slavery Politics in the United States, 1831–1860 (New York: Norton, 1976, 1980), pp. 279–81,290, 294–5.

59. Smith, Buchanan, pp. 38–9; David E. Meerse, ‘Presidential Leadership, Suffrage Qualifications, and Kansas: 1857’, Civil War History 24 (1978), pp. 295, 310–11.

60. B. W. Collins, ‘The Democrats’ Electoral Fortunes during the Lecompton Crisis’, Civil War History 24 (1978), p. 315.

61. Smith, Buchanan, pp. 40–2; Stampp, 1857, pp. 307–10; Collins, ‘Democrats’ Electoral Fortunes’, pp. 325–6; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, I, pp. 346–8; David Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate (Chicago UP, 1990), pp. 11–17.

62. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, pp. 49–50, 57–7, 73, 109; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953), pp. 95–101. On the differences between Douglas and Lincoln, see Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959, 1973), pp. 107–10.

63. Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery, pp. 36–8.

64. J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1947), I, includes a detailed study of his early life, marred by the belief that Lincoln and Douglas were divided by ‘red herrings’ (pp. 121–6). Also see M. L. Houser, Lincoln’s Education (New York: Bookman, 1957), Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln’s Quest for Union (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), Mark E. Neely, Jr, The Last Best Hope of Earth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993), p. 167.

65. See Holt, Political Crisis of the 1850s, pp. 193–4, 196–7, 203–4; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 42–3.

66. Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery, pp. 20, 28, 30, 34, 51–1. On Lincoln’s distaste for abolitionism, see Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, pp. 199–201; on his preparation, Braden, Lincoln, Public Speaker, pp. 52–4.

67. Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery, pp. 78–83, 86–7, 90–6, 99, 103–10; Holt, Political Crisis of the 1850s, p. 180; Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, p. 81.

68. Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery, pp. 132, 137–8, 143; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, I, pp. 380–2; Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, pp. 135–42; Smith, Buchanan, pp. 52–3; Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, pp. 350, 357.

69. Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery, pp. 147–8, 152; Smith, Buchanan, p. 51.

70. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, p. 31; Smith, Buchanan, p. 50.

71. See Zarefsky’s criticisms of failures to ‘grapple with the opponent’s conception’, in Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery, p. 224.

72. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 354–5.

73. Bruce Collins, ‘The Lincoln-Douglas Contest of 1858 and Illinois’ Electorate’, Journal of American Studies 20 (Dec. 1986), pp. 410–11, 420.

74. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper, 1988), pp. 512–24. The last was in 1893.

75. Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of Wars, 3rd edn (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 91–6. Macfie was concerned primarily with international rather than civil wars.

76. Philip S. Foner, Business and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1941); Chase to Lincoln, 2 April 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

77. Blainey, Causes of War, pp. 95–6.

78. James L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987), pp. xii-xiii, 4–8, 31–2, details the decline of European purchases of American foodstuffs and cereals; David M. Goldfrank, The Origins of the Crimean War (London: Longman, 1994), pp. 255–6, 295.

79. Huston, Panic of 1857, pp. 10–11, 14–15, 17–29, 32, 40; Stampp, 1857, pp. 220–1,222–7.

80. B. W. Collins, ‘Economic Issues in Ohio’s Politics during the Recession of 1857–1858’, Ohio History 89 (1980), p. 50; Stampp, 1857, p. 230.

81. Huston, Panic of 1857, pp. 62–5, 79, 80–4.

82. Huston, Panic of 1857, pp. 122–7; Stampp, 1857, pp. 325–6; J. H. Hammond, Secret and Sacred, ed. Carol Bleser (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), p. 273 (entry for 16 Apr. 1861). Like most other symbols of southern nationalism, ‘King Cotton’ is counterfeit (see Hammond, Secret and Sacred, p. 63). The phrase had been coined by David Christy of Cincinnati in 1853. Another precious southern symbol, the song/anthem ‘Dixie’ (1859), was probably composed by two northern blacks. See Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).

83. Huston, Panic of 1857, pp. 42–53; Collins, ‘Economic Issues in Ohio’s Politics’, p. 62; Holt, Forging a Majority, pp. 239–55, tends to underplay the significance of protectionism; Collins, ‘Democrats’ Loss of Pennsylvania in 1858’, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Oct. 1985), pp. 512–20, 522–6; Huston, Panic of 1857, p. 120; Stampp, 1857, pp. 233–4.

84. Collins, ‘Economic Issues in Ohio’s Politics’, pp. 48, 61; Collins, ‘Democrats’ Loss of Pennsylvania’, pp. 502–3, 536.

85. Bruce Collins, ‘American Federalism and the Sectional Crisis, 1844–1860’, in Andrea Bosco (ed.) The Federal Idea, I, The History of Federalism from the Enlightenment to 1945 (London: Lothian Foundation Press, 1991), pp. 54–5, 57–60, 62–4.

86. Holt, Political Crisis of the 1850s, pp. 184, 210.

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