Before the Storm

The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861(Oxford History of the United States) new editionby David M. Potter, 2011

I listened to the Audible Edition. Image : Library of Congress.

This volume of the Oxford History of the United States traces the events that led up to the American Civil War. It begins with the election of a new President in 1848, amidst the conflict over the issue of slavery in the territory acquired in the Mexican War. After an epic legislative struggle, the Compromise of 1850 allowed among other things, the admission of new free states, but gave to the slave interest the Fugitive Slave Act

At this stage in the intensifying struggle over possible extension of slavery, there were three answers proposed. One was to recognize that the Constitution protected the rights of slaveholders in US territories, a view favored by many southerners. The second solution was enactment of something like the Wilmot Proviso (which had been proposed in the run-up to the Mexican War) forbidding slavery in the new territories, accepting that it was up to Congress to regulate slavery in the territories, which was the view of abolitionists. The last was “popular sovereignty” – meaning the voters in each territory were free to decide whether slavery was legal. This was put forward by those eager for compromise.

The Compromise was made possible after Millard Fillmore replaced Zachary Taylor, who died in office. Stephen Douglas successfully pushed the separate parts of the deal through Congress at the behest of Henry Clay.  After the debates 1850, the great old compromiser Clay, along with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the most recognized pro and anti slavery leaders, passed from the scene, but the debate over slavery was not settled. New leaders, like Douglas, William Seward and Jefferson Davis, to name a few, continued to contest the issues. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act in the North and filibustering by a number of prominent southerners, aimed at annexing Cuba and other territory as slave states, deepened tensions in what was becoming a more definitively sectional conflict.

Douglas, whose great ambition was to secure the construction of a Pacific Railroad benefitting his home state, Illinois, was the force behind the Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854. Douglas found himself caught in trap: to get needed support for his proposals he was forced to offer inducements to slave state Congressmen. The deal reached, which created separate Kansas and Nebraska territories, where slavery would be decided by popular sovereignty, amounted to abandonment of Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The fight over slavery in the territories was more symbolic than real. Slavery had little role to play in the west beyond Texas, and very few slaves were held in Kansas. The point seems to have been to establish that Congress could not regulate slavery there and to try to maintain some sort of balance in the Senate between slave and free state votes, since the rapid demographic increase of the North seemed certain to give the free states control of the House. The result, however, was “Bleeding Kansas,” a conflict marked by fraud and violence as abolitionists and pro slavery men alike supplied men and guns  to try to win the contest. Popular sovereignty degenerated into near anarchy.

The elections of 1852 and 1856 marked the death of the Whig Party and the brief rise of Know Nothings (aka American Party). Potter makes clear that the important change was the replacement by 1860 of the parties that had crossed sectional (North/South) boundaries, namely the old Democrats and the Whigs, with parties that were essentially sectional in their outlook. Northern Democrats lost most of their representation in Congress by the late 1850s, as first the Know Nothings, the Free Soil Party and then the Republicans defeated them. The northerners, including especially Douglas, continued to influence presidential politics, because the states had representation at Democratic Party conventions.

The next blow to compromise came with the decision in the case of Dread Scott. Potter depicts Chief Justice Roger Taney as not the monster I imagined. A Maryland Catholic who had freed his own slaves, Taney hoped to settle the slavery issue. He and his fellow justices chose to decide Scott’s case on a broad basis, rather than the narrow one available to them. Potter draws a fascinating parallel to Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Both cases were decided on broad Constitutional grounds, and both decisions provoked fierce resistance and support. Potter is careful to say that while Brown was the right decision, Dred Scott was wrong. Among other things, it denied that any African, slave or free could be considered a citizen of the United States and also ruled the Missouri compromise was unconstitutional. Potter shows clearly the flaws in the arguments and the unfortunate consequences. I also learned from this account that Dred Scott and his family were freed in 1857, but that he died a year and a half later.

After Dred Scott, the South was on the losing end of a number of fights, including the admission of Kansas. President Buchanan recommended admission based on a pro slavery Constitution. The whole process by which it had been adopted appeared to northerners to have been tainted by fraud, however, and with support of northern Democrats, Republicans in the House rejected it.

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, despite the swift federal response and Brown’s execution, fed southern outrage and fears of slave insurrection provoked by northern abolitionists. The South  then lost the fight over the speakership of the House in 1859/60. Many saw this as a harbinger of future legislative defeats.

The presidential election of 1860 amounted to two separate contests in north and south. The Democrats had split at Charleston in April 1860 and failed to reunite at Baltimore in June. Lincoln the Republican faced Douglas the northern Democrat, while John C. Breckinridge the southern Democrat was opposed by John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. There was a clear threat by many southerners to secede if the Republicans won. Douglas’s heroic efforts to save the union after Lincoln’s election became a sure thing were an aspect of this election that I had not known about. He shifted his campaign to the South, telling his hearers that Lincoln was not a danger to them, but few were convinced.

According to Potter, sectionalization was clearly in ascendancy by 1860. It was driven to some degree by cultural and economic differences, but slavery was the ultimate issue. Slavery had led the South to develop a system of white supremacy, which in a vicious circle, justified continued enslavement. This system discouraged universal education and promoted social hierarchy. Even today in parts of the South some aspects of this culture remain with us, I think. Southern desire to be respected by the North, coupled with a feeling that instead they were looked down on, deepened their resentment. This also is a divisive factor in our politics today. Potter, however, reminds us that at the same time, culturally, North and South were more similar in 1860 than before or after. Americans were still mostly farmers, egalitarian, independent and Protestant. They shared a reverence for the revolution and the founding fathers. The Confederacy adopted the United States Constitution as its provisional constitution.

What finally drove the South to succeed was the evident loss of power once the Whig and Democratic parties ceased to function as engines of national unity. Republicans were essentially entirely northern. Lincoln did not campaign in the South and wasn’t even on the ballot in the lower South. In southerners’ view, Lincoln’s acceptance of states’ right to regulate slavery was overshadowed by his belief that slavery, as a moral wrong, was on the way to ultimate extinction. This power shift, which was manifested in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1860, was driven by the demographic growth of the free states.

Why secede? Several southerners pointed out that slavery was safer in the union that out. If they split, there could be no more return of fugitives from the north. There would remain a continued danger of insurrection (a huge fear in the South, probably unwarranted) There would be loss of commercial relations and of the western territories as possible new slave states. There was a near certainty of strife and probable defeat. On the other hand, even though if southerners in Congress could block anti slavery legislation, the Lincoln administration might use its appointment powers, especially  for postmasters, to undermine the southern power structure, controlled by the big planters. Incendiary ideas might be spread, leading to slave uprisings.

Lincoln’s election was followed almost immediately by action in South Carolina. There were many who favored waiting until the rest of the southern states were prepared to act in concert, but as things developed, South Carolina acted alone. The rest of the lower south states followed, and by February had formed the Confederacy. What remained to be seen was whether the upper South and border slave states would follow. Buchanan, the lame duck president, tried to find a way, through Congressional action to placate the South and even bring back the states that had seceded. A range of concessions was offered, but nothing that could gain assent from the new Republican Congress. Buchanan, a known supporter of slavery, had insufficient influence over the staunchly anti slavery majority. Lincoln, meanwhile, kept quiet throughout most of the time between his election and inauguration, offering neither reassurance to the wavering southern states nor a clear indication of how he would respond to secession. His intentions and character were so little understood, even among Republicans, that William Seward, Lincoln’s choice for Secretary of State, imagined that he would be a sort of prime minister to the inexperienced President. Think George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

During this time, the potential flashpoints for war were becoming apparent: two forts, Sumter in South Carolina and Pierce in Florida, were held by small garrisons of US soldiers. The seceded states demanded that they be handed over. Instead, the federal government made plans to hold and resupply, if not reinforce, them. The local forces of the states prepared to seize both, and by the time Lincoln took office, it was too late to reverse the course of events. Lincoln tried to diffuse the crisis in his inaugural address, acknowledging the controversy that had occupied the past decade. He reaffirmed his commitment to leave slavery in the states alone, along with his belief in the inviolability of the Union. He stated that the federal government would not take aggressive action. Despite his conciliatory position, in little over a week, Fort Sumter had been forced to surrender. The Civil War had begun.

The Impending Crisis is an excellent account of the deep complexities, political and cultural that led up to the bloody disaster, which as we all learned, gave birth to a new and freer country. Unlike the earlier and later volumes in this series, The Impending Crisis does not cover the economic or social developments during the 1850s. While these must pale before the momentous events leading up to the Civil War, I would still like to have a sense of how the country changed in those years. What, for instance, was the impact of California gold on the economy? Perhaps there are other sources that describe how progress in industry and communications, etc. formed the basis for the North’s success and the South’s ultimate failure in the conflict.

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