A Bostonian on the Causes of the War, Part III

George Lunt

Part III from a section of Dr. Scott Trask’s work in progress, Copperheads and Conservatives. Part I. Part II.

Warnings of the Wrath to Come

Southerners were by no means alone in deprecating the antislavery agitation. The northern anti-abolition movement was far stronger than the movement it opposed. Many northern leaders accurately forecast the consequences of agitation. In his annual message to the legislatue (January 1836), the Democratic Governor of New York, William Marcy, reported that “a few individuals in the Middle and Eastern States, acting on mistaken notions of moral and religious duty, or some less justifiable principle, and disregarding the obligations they owe the respective governments, have embarked in an enterprise for abolishing domestic slavery in the Southern and Southwestern States.” Their agitation has excited “public indignation” across the north and provoked riots and mobbings, and it has excited fear and indignation in the south. Outside pressure and violent hectoring has led already to a proslavery reaction, and as long as it continues the prospect for meliorating reform or graduated emancipation is dark. The abolitionists may even know this, for their aim appears to be to convert the northern people to their cause. “I can conceive no other object that the abolitionists can have in view, … but to embark the people of this State, under the sanction of the civil authority, or with its connivance, in a crusade against the slaveholding States, for the purpose of forcing abolition upon them by violence and bloodshed.” The project is “mad” and the “first step toward its accomplishment would be the end of our Confederacy and the beginning of civil war.” He would go on to have a distinguished national career, as secretary of war under President Polk and secretary of state under President Pierce.

To the north, the conservative Whig Governor of Massachusetts, Edward Everett, warned his legislature (also in January 1836) that “if not abandoned” abolitionism “will prove the rock on which the Union will split.” Their forbears deemed it “a point of the highest public policy, … notwithstanding the existence of slavery in their sister States, to enter with them in the present Union on the basis of the constitutional compact.” “No Union could have been formed on any other basis.” “This compact expressly recognizes the existence of slavery, and concedes to the States where it prevails the most important rights and privileges connected with it. Everything that tends to disturb the relations created by this compact is at war with its spirit.” A “conciliatory forbearance” will do more to bring about slavery’s gradual and peaceful abolition than these angry demonstrations; for there are many southerners who desire “the removal of the evil,” but “who are struck down and silenced by the agitation of the question abroad.” It is best to “leave the whole painful subject where the Constitution leaves it, with the States where it exists, and in the hands of an all-wise Providence.”

Lunt also quotes Senator Henry Clay, about “the same period,” warning his Senate colleagues that should the abolitionists “succeed in their present aim of uniting the inhabitants of the free States, as one man, against the inhabitants of the slave States … union on the one side will beget union on the other. And this process of reciprocal consolidation will be attended with all the violent prejudices, embittered passions, and implacable animosities, which [has] ever degraded or deformed human nature. A virtual dissolution of the Union will have taken place, while the forms of its existence remain. The most valuable element of union, mutual kindness, the feelings of sympathy, the fraternal bonds which now happily unite us, will have been extinguished forever. One section will stand in menacing, hostile array against another; the collision of opinion will be quickly followed by the clash of arms.” Lincoln’s oft-expressed belief, even after being elected president in 1860, that there would be no secession, no war, no tumult of any kind, proves that whereas his political idol was prescient, he was blind.

The Liberty Party

Abolitionism first became overtly political in late 1839, with the founding of the Liberty party, in Warsaw, New York. Lunt cites two factors behind its emergence. While most of the eastern abolitionists were opposed to political action, the more practical and realistic among them (e.g. James G. Birney, Joshua Leavitt) realized that moral suasion alone (carried on by antislavery journalism, meetings, and petitions) might go on for years, or even decades, without accomplishing its purpose. They “knew that to affect men, [they] must act with men,” for “a sect promiscuously made up of male and female visionaries, might go on dreaming forever, to no end.” That meant political action. So why not work within the Whig party? They did not trust its leaders. Daniel Webster was a conservative constitutionalist, hostile to the abolitionists. Henry Clay a Kentucky slaveholder and fervant nationalist, also hostile to them. And it was well known that the Whigs were first and foremost devoted to national economic development. And finally, the party depended on southern support to remain competitive nationally. They knew that it would never be a reliable vehicle. Third, because of their fierce resistance they had encountered to their first projects (emissaries, mailings, and petitions), they concluded that southerners would have to be pressured, or coerced, into giving up their slaves, and that could only be done by politically uniting the more numerous north against them, allowing for the marshalling of federal power against an entrenched institution. The Liberty men “originated the unqualifiedly sectional idea,” “the plan of finally erecting a gigantic antislavery power in the North, which should compel the unwilling submission of the South to its purposes.”

In 1840, the Liberty party nominated a former Alabama slaveholder James G. Birney, who had been converted to the cause of abolition by Theodore Weld, as their presidential candidate. He won only 7,059 votes out of 2.4 million cast. Yet, however insignificant the showing, it was a beginning. The party ran Birney again in 1844, its Free-Soil successors followed with ex-president Martin Van Buren in 1848, John Hale in 1852, and the Republicans with John Fremont 1856 and Lincoln in 1860. Thus a northern sectional antislavery party competed for votes in every election from 1840 to 1860. He believed that most northerners who joined, supported, cooperated, or sympathized with the movement never understood its polarizing effect upon the south.

It was impossible that the appearance of such an ominous gathering on the horizon should not produce a profound impression upon the minds of thoughtful persons at the South. … While the one section, having direct personal interests in the question of slavery, would regard such a manifestation of ill-conceived hostility to the institution of slavery as tending to an infraction of their constitutional rights; the other section, having in the question merely incidental interests, looked upon the movement but as part of a political struggle, only involving the temporary political supremacy of the one party or the other, and not as seriously affecting the security of the common welfare. To the one section, it was the occasional exercise of a supposed lawful, but abstract right; to the other, it was thought to call for the steady, constant defence of home-bred concerns, which were absolute realities of daily and intimate necessity. … The distinction prevailed down to the very outbreak of the rebellion. The masses of the Republican party in the country, if not its representatives in Congress, though always forcing the matter hotly up to that point, yet never believed, to the last, that their action could provoke actual rebellion, and induce civil war.

The 1840 Election

The year 1840 filled the Whigs with hope that they might win the presidency. Two financial panics in alternate years (1837, 1839) followed by an economic depression turned many voters against the incumbent party, as it always does. Yet the Whigs were not confident enough in their brand to nominate either one of their two foremost statesmen, Webster or Clay, because both, they calculated, were too strongly identified with Whig policies and principles, hardly popular nationally, to win even in a promising year. Instead they turned to a political nonentity, a military hero from the War of 1812, General William Henry Harrison, whom they portrayed as a humble and brave son of the frontier, in contrast to the Democrat Martin Van Buren, whom they derided as an eastern aristocrat who cared nothing for the sufferings of the people. The Whigs saw themselves as the party of property, order, and law, but they ran a demogogic campaign based on personality, symbolism, and emotion. They wrote an ambiguous and platitudinous platform and avoided any discussion of principles or policies. Instead, they sought to create excitement and enthusiasm by holding frequent political rallies and torchlight parades, singing campaign songs and shouting slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler too”), handing out placards and paraphranalia, building effigies and floats, and lubricating it all with free barrels of alcoholic cider. It became known as the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign. The last item is worthy of note considering that temperance crusaders were invariably Whigs. Harrison and the Whigs won the election.

Eighty percent of those eligible to vote turned out, the highest rate of participation in American history. But what were they voting for? The Democrats promised to continue the policies of Jackson and Van Buren (hard money and an independent treasury), while the Whigs promised a return to prosperity but failed to explain how they would do it. As a result, they had no mandate, and when they began crafting legislation for higher tariffs and national banks found themselves facing vigorous opposition. Harrison’s death (due to pneumonia) just one month after his inauguration only added to the confusion, for the new president, John Tyler of Virginia, was a state’s rights Whig, who vetoed bills to re-establish a national bank.

Lunt, who was a Whig at the time, saw the victory as hollow, a triumph of expediency and demagogy over principle and statesmanship, the campaign as portentous of future evils for the country. “A defeat, in a contest of principles, would have been far preferable, and far more salutary in its future consequences, than such a short-lived triumph, achieved upon doctrines of expediency, and followed by complications and general public confusion.” What was worse, the political campaign “unsettled” the electorate and accustomed them to expect future contests to be just as exciting and entertaining. From that election on, prospective politicians would practice the base art of electioneering, or rabble-rousing, to the exclusion of principle, political economy, or constitutionalism. “More than ever before, politics, instead of serving as the expression of true patriotism, was fast sinking into a game of adventurers and mere self-seekers.” But not everywhere, not yet.

Lunt was careful to distinguish between the political culture of the northern states, where the “the natural tendency to political corruption in political affairs” was only too evident, and that of the southern, where the classical republican culture of the eighteenth century survived more or less intact. “Without meaning to institute any disparaging comparison, the middle class men at the South, whether owing to larger leisure, or to whatever cause, have in general more closely attended to, and more clearly understood, the principles of our government than the same class at the North.” What is more, northern men of fortune, education, and talent began to shun the field of politics, or even stop voting. As a result, “the field of active operation has been thrown wide open to an inferior order of claimants for popular favor, and ordinary persons have gained the public places once occupied by the abler and higher-minded statesmen of another day.” The south “was more careful to place in positions so responsible her citizens of the most eminent ability, the largest experience, and the most thorough training in public business.”

Texas and the 1844 Election

If the 1832 election had been a referendum on the national bank, the 1844 election was a referendum on Texas and territorial expansion. Should the United States annex the Republic of Texas, and should it insist upon its claim to the whole of the Oregon territory, then jointly occupied by Great Britain? By a narrow margin, Americans said yes to both and elected James K. Polk of Tennessee, even though they knew it might mean war. As events proved, they were quite willing to enlist to fight in such a war. (Notice the contrast with modern Americans who vote for wars but decline to fight in them, or pay for them.)

Lunt favored the acquisition of Texas and believed it clearly in the national interest. “Regarding it as a matter of mere territorial acquisition, comprising a region of vast extent and extraordinary fertility, and promising immense commercial advantages by its possession, the plan was not only unobjectionable in itself considered, but was received with great acceptance by large classes at the North, as it certainly met with almost universal favor throughout the South.” Yet that national consideration was overwhelmed by party interests that stood either to gain or lose by its annexation to the United States. In the northern states, the Whig and Liberty parties, and the pro-tariff forces, were vehemently opposed to annexation under any circumstances. Southern whigs were opposed only to immediate annexation. They wanted it done constitutionally and diplomatically and without war with Mexico. Most northern democrats, on the other hand, were all in favor and few cared whether it would lead to war or not. As Lunt remembered it, “the dispute raged in the North with a vehemence unexampled since the period of the Missouri settlement. The press, on both sides, was animated with all the vigor which a topic so intimately connected with extreme party interests was calculated to inspire.” Lunt did not believe that moral as distinct from political opposition to slavery had much to do with anti-Texas sentiment. Everyone knew that Texas would be Democratic-leaning, that it would vote in Congress with the other Gulf states, and strengthen “the political power of the slave States.” It was only logical, therefore, that the south would be nearly unanimously for it, while the north would be divided.

He observes, quite astutely, that the initial congressional voting to allow for the admission Texas, in February 1845, was along partisan not sectional lines. For instance, twelve northern democratic senators voted for annexation, while twelve southern Whigs voted against it. The final vote in December, after Texas agreed to the conditions for admission was overwhelming (141 to 57 in the House, 31 to 14 in the Senate) left only the northern Whigs in opposition. These two votes demonstrate that party control of the federal government was the most important motive for the north, while for the south it was the defense of an assailed and vulnerable institution.

Texas was a divisive and complex issue, involving in equal measure domestic and international politics, the balance of power both within and outside the American union, slavery, manifest destiny, and war. Here was a real conundrum for Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, the two front runners for their party’s respective nominations in 1844. Whatever position each took, he was sure to antagonize many of those he needed to win either the nomination or the general election. Consequently, in May 1842, the two met at Clay’s plantation in Ashland, Kentucky and agreed to avoid the issue during the campaign. But pro-Texas Democrats forced the issue. They obtained a letter from Andrew Jackson supporting the acquisition and published it in the Richmond Enquirer (March 22, 1844). The two candidates tried to defuse the issue by both coming out against immediate annexation. Van Buren thereby lost the nomination, which went to a Tennessee expansionist, James K. Polk. Clay won the nomination of his party, but his Texas problem was far from over. If he continued to oppose annexation, he would lose pro-Texas southern Whigs to the democrats and probably lose the general election, again (he had run and lost twice before, 1824 and 1832); on the other hand, if he came out for annexation under any conditions, he would lose anti-Texas northern Whigs to the Liberty party. He decided that the latter course offered his only chance of victory. In his second “Alabama letter” (July 27), he argued that “far from having any personal objection to the annexation of Texas, I should be glad to see it, without dishonor, without war, with the common consent of the Union, and upon just and fair terms. I do not think that the subject of slavery ought to affect the question, one way or the other.” With that, he held the southern Whigs, but lost New York…and the election.

The election was decided in New York. Its 36 electoral votes gave Polk a 170 to 105 victory in the electoral college. Had Clay carried them, he would have won the election, 141 to 134. A mere five thousand votes would have won him the state. (Polk won the popular vote there 237,588 to 232,473.) The Liberty Party had those votes, 15,812 of them, deriving mainly from those who would normally have voted for the Whig party, or who had voted for it in the past, but for whom antislavery had become a test question. The lesson was bracing. The Liberty Party polled only 62,300 votes nationally (or rather sectionally), representing only two percent of the total (2.6 million), yet that had been decisive. Five thousand antislavery votes in one state, representing one tenth of one percent of the national electorate, had decided the presidential election!

A politics of perfectionism and sectional animosity had defeated a moderate national statesman and elected an aggressive expansionist. A politics of extremes had triumphed over moderation. The consequences were dire. “From the election of Mr. Polk, an event procured directly by their means, proceeded the Mexican war, the annexation of Texas, the embitterment of the sectional conflict, and the long train of evils which has since ensued.”

Lunt believed that the wrong lesson was learned. Northern politicians took note that, small as it might still be, the antislavery party was growing (62,300 represented a ninefold increase since 1840), it held the balance of power in New York, and that to defy it could be fatal. Instead of spurning those who hated them for their constitutional and national principles, and who would rather wreck the republic than remain a minority within it, the Whigs began courting them, leading to the downfall of their party, and ultimately their country. The Democrats soon followed their lead, and “at length, in Massachusetts and elsewhere at the North, it became a contest between the leading parties, as to which should go farthest in pursuit of the common object [winning the antislavery vote] and outdo the others in the warmth and strength of the expressions employed … in their legislative manifestos” against slavery. The result was that “each weakened its own position, and lost its own adherents to the third party, instead of strengthening itself.”

Lunt recalled that there were Democrats and Whigs “who constantly remonstrated against this suicidal and unprincipled policy,” “but their more sagacious counsels were unheeded by the temporizing politicians, who either would not, or could not see the consequences to which it must lead.” Northern political discourse suffered too, as aspiring politicans resorted to “factious appeals to mere [antislavery] sentiment and passion, in disregard to more sober addresses to reason and conviction, which ought to govern the deliberate conduct of a free people, in high matters of state.”

Texas was invited to join the union just three days before James K. Polk took office. It was done by a joint resolution of Congress, which passed the Senate by a vote of 27 to 25, the House 132-76, and was signed by President Tyler on March 1, 1845. Lunt, who was nothing if not a consistent constitutionalist, called the procedure “clearly unconstitutional.” As a foreign republic, Texas could “be annexed, if at all, by Executive authority; that is, through a formal treaty negotiated by the President, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the members of the Senate.” Tyler had tried that method in the spring of 1844, but his treaty was rejected in the Senate by northern votes. Tyler and his secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, resorted to a desperate and unconstitutional expedient, annexation by joint resolution, requiring only a bare majority in each house to pass. Both feared that if Texas were kept out of the union for much longer, she might conclude a treaty with Great Britain, whose leaders were courting Texas with offers of naval and military protection and commercial advantage.

Lunt admitted that southern leaders had a sectional motive for bringing in Texas, but it was a defensive one. “The project was undoubtedly brought forward for the purpose of strengthening the political power of the slave States, in view of the antislavery storm which they had construed the various signs of the times to mean was likely before long to burst upon them from the North.” Yet if southern leaders were acting out of a sense of vulnerability and fear, and if their aim was merely to maintain the balance of power in the union, that it was not how it was perceived, or at least advertised, by many at the north.

Massachusetts subtly threatened secession. In 1844, the Whig-controlled legislature passed a resolution warning “that the project of the annexation of Texas, unless arrested on the threshhold, may tend to drive these States into a dissolution of the Union.” Lunt asked, dissolution by whom? By Massachusetts of course. It was the first of many warnings. In February 1845, the legislature passed another anti-Texas resolution asserting the right of state nullification, although not by name. “As the powers of legislation, granted in the Constitution of the United States to Congress, do not embrace a case of the admission of a foreign state or foreign territory, by legislation, into the Union, such an act of admission would have no binding force whatever on the people of Massachusetts.” A second resolution declared that “the people of Massachusetts will never consent to use the powers reserved to themselves to admit Texas, or any other state or territory now without the Union, on any other basis than the perfect equality of freemen.”

Lunt points out that these resolutions reveal a misunderstanding of the compact theory of the Constitution from which they are manifestly drawn. South Carolina had the power, if not the right, to nullify the federal tariff within its own borders, but Massachusetts had no way of nullifying the admission of Texas into the federal union. Second, the rights reserved to the states does not include the right to admit, or not admit, new states, that power having been clearly delegated to Congress. There followed more resolutions in March, not only denying the legality of Texas’ admission, but denying “the validity of any [pro-slavery] compromise whatever, that may have been, or that hereafter may be, entered into by persons in the Government of the United States.” Thus did Massachusetts repudiate the Missouri Compromise, though not by name, nine years before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska act.

The Mexican War

The war with Mexico tends to be subsumed into the larger war that followed, as the necessary first act in the sectional conflict that had its glorious denouement at Appomatox. It also tends to be simplified as a partisan morality tale, the kind so dear to the heart of Americans—pro-southern democratic war mongers versus peace-loving, antislavery whigs. Yet the war was very popular (Abraham Lincoln lost his Illinois congressional seat because of gave several antiwar speeches), everywhere, that is, except New England. The national whigs were opposed, at least initially, but for different reasons and with differing degrees of intensity. Some vociferously opposed what they regarded as an unjust land grab for the benefit of slavery, while others (northern conservatives and southerners) feared the war’s effect upon the internal peace of the republic. Democrats were nearly unanimous in favor of it, but they had different reasons. For the northerners, the war was about fulfilling the providential destiny of Americans to spread out over and rule all of North America, with the special prize this time the gleaming and spacious ports of California, opening to the Pacific and the East. For the southern democrats, the war was about expanding the southern frontier, adding more slave states, and acquiring a southern port on the Pacific. Lunt saw these aims as a defensive reaction to political abolitionism, a vain attempt to hold off the growing demographic and political preponderance of the northern states.

Once the war was underway, the debate shifted to the question of the postwar settlement. How much Mexican territory should the United States insist upon as their rightful spoil? How much could they safely incorporate into their confederation? Should the new lands be open, or closed, to slavery? The sectional perspective became the preponderant one when a Pennsylvania Democrat, a Jacksonian who had voted for Polk’s economic policies (hard money and free trade), proposed an amendment to an administation-sponsored funding bill. His motion was seconded by a Van Buren Democrat from Ohio, Jacob Brinkerhoff. Wilmot’s explosive “proviso,” introduced less than three months after the war began, would have banned slavery in any territory won from Mexico. It was an example of what Lunt calls the “double” game played by certain northern democrats who tried to reap simultaneously the votes of the prowar, expansionist majority along with the antislavery minority, or, to put it another way, win the first without alienating the second. This “double and mischievous part” was acted out in the Senate also. John Dix of New York and Hezekiah Niles of Connecticut, both Democrats, opposed John Berrien’s (a Georgia Whig) resolution declaring that the United States had no intention of dismembering or annexing parts of Mexico. They then returned home and took the lead in the agitation for Wilmot’s explosive proviso. Lunt notes that all these men went on playing both sides until they ended up as either Republicans (Wilmot) or pro-Lincoln, pro-war Democrats (Dix).

Lunt called the Wilmot Proviso a needless affront to the South, needless because slavery stood little chance of thriving in the desert wastes of the southwest, an affront because most of the coveted territory (southern California and New Mexico) lay the south of the Missouri line, and hence should have been open to slavery. To ban slavery there he considered a violation of the spirit and principle, though not technically of the letter, of the Missouri Compromise. He points out that on several occasions during the war and immediately afterward, amendments were proposed to extend the Missouri line to the Pacific Ocean, which would have partitioned the western territories into northern and southern spheres of expansion. The Polk administration supported this method of sectional resolution, as did Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Lewis Cass of Michigan, as well as other northern Democrats, and southerners from both parties. Yet on every occasion when it was proposed, northern Whigs and free soilers blocked it.

It is no surprise that southern leaders reacted with indignation and exasperation to these northern votes, especially when they were willing to settle for a territorial compromise extending the Missouri line. To make matters worse, southern leaders could now see the sectional balance of power tipping permanently against them. For decades, westward expansion had opened a far larger geographical area to southern settlement than northern. Both New England and New York had been hemmed in to the west by Canada and the Great Lakes, while the southern frontier opened to vast and fertile lands stretching to the Mississippi and beyond. However, by the 1840s, the situation was reversed. The south was now blocked by northern Mexico and the deserts of the southwest, while the north, having gotten past the Lakes, was beginning to settle the fertile plains of the northern Mississippi Valley, and far to the west of that, Oregon. Southerners began to do the math, and the sum of their calculations added up to permanent minority status. Lunt cites an alarmed John C. Calhoun, from an 1847 Senate speech, estimating that after Iowa and Wisconsin were admitted to the union, twelve more free states would follow out of the territories to the west. (The actual number turned out to be ten.) “How will we then stand?” wondered Calhoun. “There will be but fourteen [states] on the part of the South.” “We are to be fixed, limited, forever—and twenty-eight on the part of the non-slaveholding States! Twenty-eight! Double our number! And the same disproportion in the other House and in the electoral college! The Government, sir, will be entirely in the hands of the non-slaveholding States—overwhelmingly!”

Lunt believed such fears were understandable. “They either dreaded the injustice of the North, or felt humiliated at the prospect of trusting to its magnanimity.” Thus, how strange to see at this very moment of southern vulnerability and consciousness of weakness their position within the union exaggerated and caricatured into something menacing and malevolent—the slave power.

Lunt believed the phrase was first used in an April 1847 resolution of the Massachusetts’ legislature, which denounced the Mexican conflict “as a war against freedom, against humanity, against justice, against the Union, against the Constitution, against the free States,” and “that a regard for the fair fame of our country, for the principles of morals, and for that righteousness which exalteth a nation, sanctions and requires all constitutional efforts for the destruction of the unjust influence of the slave power, and for the abolition of slavery within the limits of the United States.”

Lunt considered the phrase a firebrand tossed into the house of the union, one that did its work only too well. “The expression appealed, with no little vivacity, to the imaginations of the excitable portions of the community, to whom it presented the idea of some undefined but portentous monster; and this impression undoubtedly exercised a vast influence in promoting the struggles and final disasters of the country.” Conjured by “partisans and fanatics,” the specter of a malevolent power, “gloomy, coiling, and insatiable, which, if not timely resisted, was soon to enclose the common country in its ferocious and fatal embrace” terrified northern voters disposed by rural isolation and apocalyptic religion to believe in such conspiracies. It “spread needless alarm” in the north, indignation in the south (where it was seen as evidence of both bad faith and intended aggression), drove the spirit of compromise from the temple of the union. Yet it was utterly devoid of substance or reality. “In reality, the North far surpassed the South in numbers and political power, to which every year was contributing a large increase.” The population figures were decisive. According to the census of 1850, “the federal representative population” of the northern states was 13.4 million, while that of the southern was only 8.3 million, about half of them slaves. In the Senate, there was yet a precarious sectional balance (15 free to 15 slave states), but everyone could see it tilting irreversibly to the north and west.

So why was this “preposterous phantom” evoked and, much more, believed in so fervently and in the end so disastrously? The evocation was easy to explain, for it was the Missouri stratagem, again: unite the North politically behind a campaign of hate and fear, cloaking ambition and interest in the garments of religion and morality. It was believed because it appealed to the non-rational voter, those for whom emotion is always “more influential than reason.” Add to that a neo-Puritan religious sensibility, with its propensity for cleansing crusades against the sins of other people, and the astute may work up a collective madness that serves the clarity of their purpose.

Just as slavery had become a metonym for the south (as in the slogan, “no compromise with slavery”), so would “the slave power” serve for the Democratic party. The new names represented both an intensification and a metamorphosis of the sectional divide. Differences over interests or principles could be compromised, but not differences over ideology and morals.

The compromise measures of 1850 pacified the country and ushered in a period of sectional calm, albeit lasting only a short time. It is commonplace now for historians to disdain the measures as yet another dishonorable compromise with slavery, a sordid example of southern dictation to a pusillanimous north. In doing so, they merely echo what Lunt considered the paranoid rhetoric of radical whiggery and free-soil fanaticism. The two Free-Soil Senators, John P. Hale of New Hampshire and Samuel Chase of Ohio, both voted against the compromise, as did New York’s radical whig senator William H. Seward. They did so even though its rejection would have resulted in the secession of the Gulf States. But they did more than that. In February 1850, Senator Hale presented a petition signed by citizens from Pennsylvania and Delaware praying for the dissolution of the union, presumably by the separation of the free from the slave states, on the grounds that the Constitution pledges “the strength of the whole nation to support slavery” and thus violates the “Divine Law, makes war upon human rights, and is grossly inconsistent with republican principles.” Senators Seward and Chase both voted with Hale for its reception. Yet just eleven years later, they were members of an administration waging war against the very same principle—secession.

Lunt cites other examples of moral flexibility on the part of those for whom there could be no political flexibility at all when it came to slavery or secession. Before he was elected to the United States Senate, Sumner gave a speech in Boston titled “Peace, Considered as the True Grandeur of Nations.” This speech earned for him, during his bid for the Senate, the endorsement of the Massachusetts Peace Society, “which, also, though disapproving of all war, yet, in a very marked manner, through its official organ, continued to make an exception in favor of that recently on foot.”

Lunt thought the south gained little or nothing by the congressional settlement of 1850 and found ridiculous the charge that it represented northern truckling to the “slave power.” Of the five key measures, each embodied in its own bill, the first provided for the admission of California as a free state; the second and third applied the popular sovereignty formula to the New Mexican and Utah territories; the fourth created a federal enforcement mechanism for the capture and rendition of fugitive slaves; the fifth abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. While the north gained the prize—an undivided and free California, “affording unexampled temptations to emigrants, and sure, at no distant date, to become one of the most populous and powerful States of the Union”—the south gained only the uncertain prospect of two large but deserted territories, “both unsuited to slave labor, furnishing comparatively slight inducements to emigration,” and, in any case, not likely to be admitted into the union for some time to come. He did not consider the fugitive slave law to be major northern concession, for it was no more than “the South was legally entitled, if any regard were to be paid to the provisions of the Federal Constitution.”

The law was a necessary deduction from the Supreme Court decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842). The majority opinion was written by Joseph Story, a constitutional nationalist and follower of John Marshall. It was decided that the execution of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution was a federal responsibility, hence the states were not obligated to return, or assist in the return, of escaped slaves, although they could do so if they wished. Most northern states responded by passing laws forbidding state authorities from doing what they were not required to do. Thus followed the necessity of a federal law for the fulfillment of a vital constitutional provision. Its constitutionality was affirmed not only by Prigg (by deduction) but subsequently by the chief justice of the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court, Lemuel Shaw, a respected jurist and also Herman Melville’s father in law. The suppression of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, the fifth provision, represented a concession to northern antislavery opinion.

The popularity of the compromise is attested by the presidential election of 1852. Both the Democrats and Whigs pledged to adhere to it in full, but the free soilers, who had won 291,263 votes in the previous presidential election, rejected it. Their platform included a categorical rejection of any sectional compromise, past, present, or future, and the renunciation of a constitutional provision: “no more slave States, no slave Territory, no nationalized slavery, and no national legislation for the extradition of slaves.” Since they considered the fugitive slave act as “repugnant to the Constitution, to the principles of the common law, to the spirit of Christianity, and to the sentiments of the civilized world,” they called for its “immediate and total repeal,” and even denied “its binding force upon the American people,” a kind of nullification by party platform. Lunt calls them “rebellious propositions,” and points out that the election delivered the clearest possible repudiation of such divisive politics. The antislavery vote for president fell to 156,149, while Franklin Pierce, a northern Democrat who had fought in the Mexican War, and was known as a friend of the south, won a decisive victory (1.6 million popular votes, 254 electoral, and 27 states) over Winfield Scott (1.4 million popular, 42 electoral, and four states). Scott was a Virginian and the conqueror of Mexico City, but he was also the stalking horse for Seward whose politics merged corporatism, sectionalism, and moralism in a firm that would before long would expropriate the name of Jefferson’s party.

Here was a setback. The antislavery cause had been growing stronger year by year since the mid-1830s, but it was now stymied, its leaders frustrated, its followers demoralized. The “fanatics and radicals” who had made the cause their hobby horse seized upon the only issue that seemed to be left them, and engaged in a “vigorous denunciation of the fugitive slave law.” But they did more than denounce it, which they had a constitutional right to do, they obstructed the execution of the law by forming vigilante associations in Boston and other cities and towns where antislavery feeling was strong; the object was to free fugitive slaves who had been arrested or were being held by federal marshals or federal commissioners. There were a series of famous “rescues” during the early 1850s, some of them violent, and attempts to enforce the law in Boston eventually required the deployment of federal troops (e.g. for the rendition of Anthony Burns in 1854). In addition, over the course of the decade, fourteen of the sixteen free states passed personal liberty bills in direct contravention of federal law and defiance of federal authority. Lunt describes them as nullifying ordinances, no more defensible than South Carolina’s in 1832, and requiring for their justification an appeal to either the most extreme theory of state sovereignty, or to the vague and inevitably arbitrary theory of a “higher law.” He believed these laws, along with the vigilante associations, prepared the mind of the south for secession, its own “rebellion,” as it could no longer trust the north to abide by its agreements, in this case the compromise of 1850, of which it was an integral part, or even to abide by federal law or constitutional provisions. Daniel Webster was so outraged by his state’s contumacy that he implied, in an 1851 speech given in Capon Springs, Virginia, that the southern states would be justified in leaving the union. Lunt quotes him: “I do not hesitate to say and repeat that if the Northern States refuse wilfully or deliberately to carry into effect that part of the Constitution which respects the restoration of fugitive slaves, the South would no longer be bound to keep the compact. A bargain broken on one side is broken on all sides.”

Lunt did not believe that opponents of the law had any ground to stand upon. No private citizen or state official who was opposed to slavery or slave renditions was required to enforce the law and go against his conscience. Northerners in the employment of the federal government were required to do this, but their service was voluntary and carried with it national obligations. “It did not touch a single right of any citizen of the free States. It was to be executed in those States, by officers of the General Government, just as the revenue laws were executed by such officers. … The real objection to the law, on the part of its more violent assailants, consisted in their opposition to any law for the delivery of fugitive slaves.” Abolitionist might object to specific provisions but “the real cause of offense consisted in the fact that any provision capable of being carried into effect was made.”

Lunt was embroiled in the controversy since he was the United States district attorney for eastern Massachusetts during this period, having been appointed to that position by President Taylor in 1849. In February 1851, a mob of abolitionists forcibly seized an escaped slave named Shadrack from a Boston courtroom and smuggled him into Canada. Lunt unsuccessfully prosecuted the government’s case against four blacks and four whites who took a conspicuous part in the assault, but such was antislavery feeling in Boston the trials ended in hung juries and dropped charges.

You might also enjoy these articles...