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.

America’s Long Journey: Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

It should have been simple. Probably Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois persuaded himself that it would be simple. He reckoned without the lunacy of the times, or perhaps he persuaded himself that he could overcome it.

Senator Douglas was a national leader of the Democracy (the Democratic Party). He was Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Territories. He was a believer in railroads and in popular sovereignty – and he was particularly a believer in the political future of Stephen A. Douglas. As an ardent nationalist, he was anxious to see a trans-continental railroad constructed. As a Midwesterner with Midwestern constituents, he wanted it built along the central route, rather than via Louisiana or Minnesota. As a charismatic politician, he was hoping to reach the presidency. Kansas-Nebraska was supposed to accomplish all these goals.

For railroads to be profitable, they need customers, and for there to be customers there has to be political organization. Nebraska Territory — the future states of Kansas and Nebraska — contained tens of millions of acres of excellent farmland, and farmers were a railroad’s best customers. So he proposed to organize the Nebraska Territory. And had it not been for the political fortunes of pro-slavery Missouri Senator David Atchison, perhaps it would have been as simple as it should have been. But Atchison, campaigning for re-election and standing with the state’s slaveholders, said he would rather see Nebraska Territory “sink in hell” than become free states, and thereby blew on the fuse that was already burning.

Southerners were powerful in Congress. Atchison was the senate’s president pro tempore. Southerners chaired the Finance, Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. Douglas could not afford to disregard their opinions. He announced that Nebraska should be organized the same way that Utah and New Mexico Territory had been treated in the Compromise of 1850, that is, without restrictions on slavery.

The bill was reported to the Senate on January 4, 1854, with new language that said that the territory “shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.” That wasn’t enough for slavery advocates. They worried that slaveholders would be slow to bring their property to the new territory without prior approval by the settlers – and they worried that a majority of the settlers would be free-soil men, which is exactly how it turned out. The Southern solution? Explicitly repeal the prohibition of slavery above the compromise line of 36°30′.

Douglas and certain Southerners strong-armed President Franklin Pierce into making the issue a test of Democratic party loyalty (meaning, how one voted would determine how much federal patronage one got to disburse), and on January 23 a revised bill proposed to repeal the Missouri Compromise and divide the territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Once Kansas-Nebraska became a party measure, its success was assured, since the Democrats held large majorities in each house of Congress. But the debate continued for four months, with Democrat Salmon P. Chase of Ohio joining with Whigs William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in leading the opposition. Senate approval (37 to 14) came on March 4, 1854.

Outside of Congress, as the New York Tribune wrote on March 2, “The unanimous sentiment of the North is indignant resistance.” Opponents denounced the law as a triumph of the slave power. In response, anti-slavery Democrats, anti-slavery Whigs and some others formed the Republican Party, aiming to stop the expansion of slavery.

In the House, Kansas-Nebraska won (113 to 100), with the votes of 44 Northern Democrats (out of 86), no Northern Whigs (out of 45), 57 Southern Democrats (out of 59), and 12 Southern Whig votes (out of 19). The issue split both the Democratic and Whig parties and gave rise to the Republican Party. And, in partial compensation for so much evil done, it brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics, and, after his three-hour analysis of the moral, legal and economic arguments against slavery delivered in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, for the first time made him conspicuous on the national stage, serving as a forerunner of the effects of the Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial campaign debates four years later.

The Missouri Compromise had quelled sectional strife for more than thirty years. Kansas-Nebraska nullified the compromise, and led directly, and within seven years, to civil war.

America’s Long Journey: Bleeding Kansas

To understand about Bleeding Kansas, you need to know about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and to understand that, you have to see the connection between the results of the Mexican War, on the one hand, and the Missouri Compromise, on the other. This is why history is usually related past-forward-to-future, rather than future-back-to-past!

First, we must jump way back to 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. We’ll look at it in a little more detail later, but for now it is enough to remember that it did two things: It established the precedent of admitting one free state and one slave state simultaneously, so that the South, already outnumbered in the House of Representatives, would not find itself also outnumbered in the Senate. It also established a latitude (parallel 36°30′ north), above which slavery would be forever forbidden, except in the newly admitted state of Missouri.

Both provisions kept the Union together for a crucial thirty years. The first was abandoned in 1850, when California was admitted as a free state (see below). Four years later, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (again, see below) abandoned the second principle: Henceforth territories would be admitted as free states or slave states not depending on whether they were above or below the compromise line, but according to the wishes of each territory’s inhabitants at the time of admission. This “popular sovereignty” idea may have seemed sensible and democratic. In practice, it was disastrous.

Of the two territories being considered for admission to the Union, Nebraska was universally recognized as lying too far north for slavery. All the more reason, according to certain Southern hot-heads, why Kansas must be admitted as a slave state. California had already upset the balance. To add two more free states, rather than one free and one slave, would worsen the South’s already outnumbered position. More immediately, pro-slavery men in neighboring Missouri, already bordered by the free states of Illinois and Iowa, were alarmed at the idea of yet another free state to the west. They determined to avoid this by hook or by crook, especially crook.

Slavery advocates organized immigration to Kansas Territory from slave states, and established pro-slavery settlements near the Missouri border, at Leavenworth and Atchison. Then anti-slavery organizations in the North organized and funded Free-State immigration, traveling through Iowa and Nebraska when Missouri proved hostile, establishing Free-State settlements farther west in Topeka, Manhattan, and Lawrence, and pretty quickly establishing an anti-slavery majority in the state. But in November, 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men from Missouri (“Border Ruffians“) entered the state, posed as residents, and voted in the election to Congress of the territorial delegate allotted to Kansas. Given this rather extra-legal assistance (6,000 men voted, out of a total of 1,500 registered voters, not all of whom voted) pro-slavery forces won the election. The following March, the Border Ruffians did it again, packing the ballot boxes in favor of pro-slavery delegates to the first territorial legislature.

But by the summer of 1855, approximately 1,200 New Englanders had traveled to Kansas, armed and ready to resist coercion in or from Missouri. When the pro-slavery territorial legislature began to pass laws to institutionalize slavery in Kansas Territory, Free-Soilers drafted their own constitution and formed their own government. The stage was set for a pocket-sized preview of the Civil War. In October 1855, John Brown and some of his sons came to Kansas Territory.

In November and December, 1855, the first violent clashes occurred. In January, 1856, in Washington, D.C., President Franklin Pierce declared the Free-State Topeka government to be illegitimate! In May, Border Ruffians attacked Lawrence, burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and their printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores. Now events began to run out of hand, sped by telegraphed accounts of events hundreds of miles from each other.

The day after the Border Ruffian raid on Lawrence, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts Free Soil Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chambers with his thick cane. He hit him and continued to hit him until he was unconscious, while another gallant Southern representative, holding a pistol, refused to let anyone help Sumner. (It was another three years before Sumner was able to return to his Senate duties.)

Physical violence on the Senate floor! In response, John Brown led an attack on a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek which dragged five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. On June 2, at the Battle of Black Jack, he took two dozen pro-slavery soldiers prisoner. On July 4, the president sent federal troops to prevent the shadow government in Topeka from meeting. In August, thousands of proslavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. Hostilities continued until Brown departed and a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, managed to secure a fragile peace.

In 1857, a Kansas constitutional convention drafted the pro-slavery “Lecompton Constitution,” and it was ratified when anti-slavery forces boycotted an election that offered no way to vote against slavery. President James Buchanan accepted the vote, but Congress disagreed and ordered another election. In the second election the pro-slavery forces boycotted the process, the anti-slavery forces won, and the Lecompton Constitution was dead. Violence flickered on and off until, by 1859, the death toll had reached 56. In mid-year, residents voted 2-to-1 for the anti-slavery Wyandotte Constitution. A year and a half later, on January 29, 1861, Kansas entered the Union as a free state. By that time, South Carolina had already declared itself out of the union, and other slave states (though not all of them) were on their way. Bleeding Kansas had done its bit to bring on a war that would kill or wound more than 10,000 men for every one of the 56 who died on that frontier.

America’s Long Journey: Long-distance telegraph

Long-distance telegraph

The speed at which news could now be transmitted from point to point was nothing short of revolutionary. For example, the Pony Express from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, was a sensation when in 1860 it cut delivery time between the two points from weeks (over the Rockies) or months (by sea to Panama, across Panama and by sea to California) to about ten days. Eighteen months after the Pony Express opened, the final link of the transcontinental telegraph was installed, and the time was reduced from ten days to a few minutes. From weeks, or months, to a few minutes, within two years time. That’s what the 19th century was like. The 20th century, revolutionary as it was, was only more of the same.

The next barrier was water. Rivers could be bridged, and the telegraph cables strung across them, but what about oceans? It was only a matter of ingenuity, and (from a historical perspective) it didn’t take all that long. They learned to use the adhesive juice of the Palaquium gutta tree to make a substance called Gutta-percha, which turned out to be an excellent insulator for underwater cables. An Englishman laid the first undersea cable between England and France in 1850, across the English Channel. A cable under the North Atlantic followed in 1857, but soon failed, perhaps providentially. Had there been instant communications between the United States and Great Britain in late 1861, the Trent crisis might well have resulted in war between the two countries, which would have allowed the Confederacy to succeed, breaking up the country. As it was, the first successful cable didn’t come into operation until July, 1866, a year after the close of the American Civil War.

It has been pointed out that the telegraph in its day was something like the Internet in ours, what with message routing, instant messaging, slang, wire fraud, and other points of comparisons. Perhaps we should think of it as the Victorian Internet.


America’s Journey: Lincoln and Douglas

Lincoln and Douglas

The last politician who could walk both sides of the street inside the Democracy was none other than Stephen A. Douglas. And it was Abraham Lincoln — clever, long-headed, calculating Abraham Lincoln – who stopped him. Lincoln, as we shall see, was a popular and successful lawyer, well known throughout the state of Illinois. Brought out of political retirement by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the birth of the Republican Party in 1854, he was a political power in the state, but was relatively unknown elsewhere in the North. The campaign’s seven Lincoln-Douglas debates were printed in the newspapers and were carefully followed throughout the nation, much as, a century later, the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate was followed. The 1858 Senate campaign against Douglas made Lincoln’s reputation, because those who didn’t know him expected him to be chewed up by “the little giant.” When that didn’t happen – when in fact Lincoln more than held his own – the North’s anti-slavery men saw that they had a new champion. And then events made him president, as we have seen – but it was the contest with Douglas that displayed Lincoln’s strengths to the national audience.

And it was the Freeport Doctrine, which Douglas set forth in answer to one of Lincoln’s questions, that doomed his 1860 presidential campaign in advance. To understand why, you have to know about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, handed down the previous year, in which, in a 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court held that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery even in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States. (The ruling also held that nonwhites could not be citizens, regardless whether they were free or slave, but that particular injustice is not the thread we are pursuing here.) To opponents of slavery, this looked like one more piece of a conspiracy to remove all constitutional and legal barriers against the expansion of slavery. It raised the specter of slavery being legalized everywhere, and thus spreading to the free states.

So, in the second debate, in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln forced Douglas to commit himself on the question by asking, “Can the people of a Territory in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution?”

Douglas answered: “It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature; and if the people are opposed to slavery, they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a Slave Territory or a Free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill.”

With that answer, which may have been sincere, Douglas tried to square the circle. Had he answered “no,” he would have alienated the anti-slavery men of the North. But he didn’t dare answer “yes” – give the answer his presidential backers in the South wanted to hear – because he was too well aware that he could lose his Senate seat if he did. So he saved his seat, probably thinking he’d weasel his way out of his words in the next year or so. Rejecting the decision, he would alienate Southerners. So, he tried to wiggle through by delivering what people were soon calling the Freeport Doctrine.

And with his answer to Mr. Lincoln’s question, Douglas’ chances of getting the nomination went glimmering, because the Southerners weren’t ever going to trust him. They were ready to keep using him in the Senate, and they were willing to elect him president if they had to, but when he said the people of a territory could prohibit slavery from entering, Southern fire-eaters would have nothing more to do with him. It didn’t matter why he said it, nor how he qualified his statement, or even if he meant what he said. By this time the supposed right to expand slavery into new territories had been made into a dogma. Douglas might come into the national convention with a majority of delegates, but with the fire-eaters opposed to him, there was no way he could assemble the two-thirds vote then required. His answer in Freeport marked the beginning of the end for him. Mr. Lincoln blew it all up before John Brown, and the only people who noticed were the politicians, who weren’t going to say it in public. But probably it was only a matter of time. The people in the north with the money wanted their way, too. Sooner or later the Democracy was going to have to choose, when the ground of compromise ran out.


America’s Journey: John Brown’s raid

John Brown’s raid

The single most important event that brought sectional tensions to the boil – beyond the boil, to hysteria – was the seizure of the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, by abolitionist John Brown, “Old Brown,” who had become known nationally for his involvement with “bleeding Kansas” two years earlier, which we will discuss as part of the territorial question. It would be hard to overstate the emotional importance of the raid, and the supportive Northern reaction, and the infuriated Southern reaction to both. To Southerners, the raid seemed like evidence for the accusation fire-eaters had been making for years, that Northerners were inciting a race war that would leave the whites murdered in their beds.

It wasn’t the final spark that lit off the powder – not quite – but the raid and the reaction convinced many more southerners that coexistence of the two sections in one government was no longer possible, and it made certain that the following year’s presidential campaign would be fought at fever pitch.

The facts are beyond dispute. Brown was acting on his own initiative, but at least 80 others in the North are believed to have known of his plans. He rented a farmhouse 4 miles north of Harpers Ferry in Washington County, Maryland, under the name Isaac Smith. He had with him a small group of 16 white men, 3 free blacks, 1 freed slave, 1 fugitive slave, and two women (his daughter-in-law Martha, to serve as cook and housekeeper and his daughter Annie, who served as lookout). They were carrying with them 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and 950 pikes, arms contributed by Northern abolitionist groups. Brown expected to use these, plus whatever arms he captured in the arsenal, to arm the runaway slaves he hoped to attract. His larger scheme appears to have been to begin a long-term guerrilla operation, setting up a de facto free area all along the Appalachian chain, which would then serve as a magnet for runaway slaves and eventually destabilize the entire slavery system.

On Sunday night, October 16, 1859, Brown’s men captured several watchmen and townspeople in Harpers Ferry, cut the telegraph wire and seized a train that was passing through. (And then let the train proceed! Naturally the conductor alerted the authorities down the line.) That night they captured the armory.

The next day, local militia, farmers and shopkeepers surrounded the armory and captured the bridge across the Potomac River, cutting them off from escape. During the day two of Brown’s sons were killed, one while under a white flag. The only government troops in the immediate area was a detachment of U.S. Marines. President James Buchanan ordered it to Harpers Ferry, under the command of a Brevet Colonel named Robert E. Lee, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, who was recalled from leave. The following day, the 18th, a platoon of marines stormed the engine house and within three minutes, all the raiders were dead or had been taken prisoner.

The troops searched the surrounding country for fugitives. The governor of Virginia added to the hysteria by marching militia back and forth in search of additional conspiracies. Brown was tried in nearby Charles Town and found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia and was hanged on December 2. On the day of his execution, Brown wrote, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.” He was right, and the purging was not far off.

Republican politicians including Abraham Lincoln disclaimed responsibility for Brown and condemned the raid as morally wrong and effectually futile. Even noted abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison called the raid “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” But Emerson and Thoreau, among others, defended him because he had put his life, and the lives of his sons, on the line in an attempt to overthrow an immemorial wrong. “I think that for once the Sharp’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause,” Thoreau said.

How shall we think of John Brown? It was acknowledged that he was fearless and his motives altruistic. If he helped bring on a war that would kill 600,000 men – and he did – he certainly wasn’t the only one. Yet it is a fact that slavery had lasted on the North American continent for 250 years, and a sizable and politically strategic element was determined that it should continue into the far future. The day before John Brown’s raid, probably few expected (though some hoped) to see an end to slavery in their lifetime. The day after the raid, slavery seemed no closer to extinction than ever, and yet in half a dozen years it would be gone.


America’s Journey: The election of 1860

The election of 1860

In 1860, the nation’s last party to span both North and South was The Democracy. (Most of the anti-slavery men of the defunct Whig Party had joined the new Republican Party. But Republicans were not even allowed on the ballot in several Southern states.) By 1860, the Democracy’s most prominent son was Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Chairman of the Committee on Territories, popularly known as “the little giant.”

The party convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, in late April. From the beginning it was doomed, deliberately, by Southern extremists. They were determined to split the Democracy, which would assure the election of a Republican president (then expected to be William Seward), which they expected to precipitate a wave of Southern state declarations of secession from the Union. Some of them had been working on this for ten years, as we shall see. In the event, they got exactly what they wanted, and thus brought catastrophe upon themselves and their cause and their section and the Union.

Douglas went into the convention the clear leader, with a good half of the delegates. But most of them were Northern men, and Douglas faced implacable opposition from the Deep South. (Douglas, as we shall see, had lost much of previously considerable Southern support in his response to Lincoln’s question at Freeport, Illinois, two years before, during the second debate of their Senatorial contest.)

The Southern-controlled platform committee called for Congress to enact a slave code for the Territories, which would mean Federal protection for slavery everywhere. Delegates from the North pointed out that they would lose every Northern state if they included such a plank in the party platform, and so the convention adopted the platform committee’s minority report, which rejected the idea. Fifty delegates from seven Southern states promptly withdrew from the convention.

When the remaining delegates voted on a presidential nominee, Douglas received about 60 percent of the 250 votes, but in those days (and until Franklin Roosevelt got the rules changed after the 1932 election) nomination required a 2/3 majority. After 10 days and 57 ballots, the convention adjourned. When it reconvened on June 18 in Baltimore, the delegates who had withdrawn were replaced, which caused most of the remaining Southern delegates to withdraw. Douglas was then nominated by 190 1/2 votes of 203 1/2 cast.

The Southerners who had bolted the party nominated not one, but two slates. Southern Democrats named Vice President John Breckinridge. Some former Whigs formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell. The resulting four-way race allowed the Republicans to win without capturing a single Southern state, the first time this had ever happened, just as the fire-eaters had predicted and worked for.

Douglas’ role in the campaign earns his forgiveness for a multitude of previous political sins. He campaigned energetically, attacking abolitionism in the North, and disunion in the South. Then, in early October, when the Republicans won state elections in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Douglas told his secretary “Mr. Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go south.” He went to the South to rally Unionist sentiment. At Raleigh, North Carolina, he said “I am in favor of executing in good faith every clause and provision of the Constitution and protecting every right under it – and then hanging every man who takes up arms against it!”

The final results were

Party                Candidate                    Popular votes   Electoral votes

Republican      Abraham Lincoln         1,866,452        180

Democratic      Stephen A. Douglas     1,382,713          12

Democratic      John C. Breckinridge       847,953           72

Constitutional Union    John Bell            592,906           39

The disruption of the Democracy had let in Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, just as some had planned it – and it was the end of an era.