America’s Long Journey: The politics of the house divided

Politics usually isn’t principles and statesmanship and high purposes, but a contention for offices, and government contracts, and useful connections. In the North, it was about putting together machines to control jobs and contracts, using people’s personal ambitions to forge continuing alliances. In the South, politics was an entirely different game, because rather than different interests fighting for control, the party machinery was always in the same hands. Individual ambitions burned just as fiercely as in the North, but in the South the machine was always run by the same class, the same interests. It was a very tight system because it represented a very tight system. If the men who ran the machine liked you, and you had ability, you could move up. If they didn’t like you, you could move, period, because you weren’t going anywhere. That’s what people meant in those days when they talked of the Slave Power. Regardless what other issues divided parties in the South, they all served the slave power, so the South’s internal politics was merely about who was going to serve it.

The North had farmers, and it had the first factories, and the beginning of the iron and steel men, and inventors, and shippers, and bankers and financiers. Besides that, it had different regional interests: New England, the Northeast, the Midwest and, after 1850, the Pacific states. The North had all these cross-currents the south did not have, so it was a real continuing battle to see which interests would be served. A mixture of that many elements isn’t going to function in the same way as in the South where anything beyond slave plantations just did not figure.

Therefore Northern politics was different. Therefore, too, the slave power ran the Union from George Washington down to secession, because the slave power could always swing the balance between competing interests. This was obvious not only in presidential elections, but in Congress, in state elections in the north, and even lower in the system – for someone running for a lower office who had the approval of those in higher offices had an advantage, and those higher office-holders often enough were running errands for the national party, and that often enough meant the slave power was recruiting and grooming its future allies.

The South didn’t care if the president was from the North – as long as he only got to the White House with slave-power help and consent. And it didn’t much care about the North rapidly growing population (because it was getting the lion’s share of the immigrants, since the South’s economic system, geared to slavery, couldn’t have absorbed them), as long as the South could block what it needed in the Senate.

Because southern politics was about maintaining a small class in control, while northern politics was about various elements scrambling to be king of the hill, politics was played for different stakes and by different rules. After the Whigs dried up and blew away, in the 1850s, the Democracy was left as the only national party, because Republicans weren’t even allowed on the ballot in many Southern states. For a while, the Democracy tried to be all things to all people, but after a certain point, it couldn’t hold together. But the Democracy sooner or later was going to have to decide what it really belonged to, slave power or the new thing coming into being north of the Ohio and the Potomac. Things kept sharpening, sharpening, and there came a time you couldn’t serve both masters, but had to choose, even if you didn’t give a damn about principle.

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