13 January 2012

CIVIL WAR: THE SEQUEL? The Election Of 2012 (Part 1)


As we look at an increasingly divided and partisan electorate in the run up to the election of 2012, I am concerned that this election is simply the continuation of the turmoil that divided the nation in the 12 years prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln. The basic questions are the same: the power of the federal government and the proper interpretation of the Constitution; the effect of the attempts of partisan groups and special interests to impose their particular solutions on the entire nation; taxation; and the proper role of the federal government in areas traditionally reserved to the States. The “usual suspects” are also present, individual and groups on the outer fringes of the political parties who have displaced the center. Does the comparison withstand closer scrutiny? Read on.


Between 1848 and 1860, the United States experienced a major failure of its political system. The result was the election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of, ultimately, 11 of the 34 States (another two had both “confederate and Union “governments”), and a bloody civil war. That 12 year period included the final “compromises” on the question of the expansion of slavery, the replacement of the existing political parties by “movements” as the real movers and shakers of the Nation, and exceptionally poor presidents.

ZACHARY TAYLOR      President Taylor served from March 4, 1848 to July 9, 1850, the second shortest presidency in our history. He was a Whig. The Whigs were guided by the principle of a strong legislature and a weak executive, favoring the supremacy of Congress over the presidency and a program of modernization and economic protectionism. The party self-destructed when it split internally on the issue of the expansion of slavery. Its tariff policies also led to its disappearance in the South. After the election of 1852, the northern voter base mostly joined the new Republican Party.

Although nominally a Whig, Taylor refused to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress.

In the period 1820-1840, American protestantism underwent a "Second Great Awakening," which was marked by huge growths in Christian denominations and a view that God had created a pristine and fertile North American continent in which a new people, freed from ties to European traditionalism, could ignite and establish a new evangelism of the Christian faith. Old established American religious orders prospered and new ones were established and grew on the frontier. Manifest Destiny, while never an official policy of any administration, was an accompanying national grass roots belief that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. In quasi-religious terms, its proponents argued that national expansion was not only wise but that it was manifest (readily apparent) and pre-destined (inexorable).

As the population of the Nation grew, the Jacksonian Democrat-Republican Party, in particular, adopted the concept to justify the war with Mexico and the annexation of Texas. The Whigs, on the other hand, opposed expansion qua expansion, favoring instead deepening the economy rather than broadening its expanse. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, all Whigs, opposed national geographic expansion, as did John C. Calhoun, a notable Democrat who generally opposed his party on the issue.

It is interesting to note That Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were the same "War Hawks" of the early 19th Century who promoted the War of 1812 as an opportunity for territorial expansion through the capture of Canada.

At any rate, the idea of manifest destiny had all but died out by 1860. (It would rear its head again, in new clothes, in the mid-20th Century.) A skeptic might argue that the concept died just as its aims were achieved.

The dominant issue of American politics in the 1840s was whether slavery would be permitted in the western territories of the United States.

As early as 1787, the issue of the expansion of slavery had been the subject of legislative action. The Northwest Ordinance, adopted by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, prohibited slavery in the lands north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. With the advent of the new Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance was ratified by implication by the new national government. It was, however, a question that would not go away.

As the country grew geographically, especially as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, southern States looked to an expansion of slavery into new States and territories created out of that huge parcel.

The The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a limited act, designed to control the spread of slavery, taken before the United States had begun to expand west of the Missouri River. Feelings ran high on both sides of the issue. A slave-owner himself, Taylor nonetheless was a moderate on the territorial expansion of slavery, angering fellow Southerners. Although the Whigs were the anti-Jackson party, Taylor’s main concern was to preserve the authority of the presidency, akin to Jackson’s opposition to the Nullification Acts of the 1830s.

A four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican War, came to a head in Taylor’s presidency. The parties were divided. Compromise became possible with President Taylor’s sudden death when Henry Clay proposed an omnibus compromise, one which Taylor had opposed.

MILLARD FILMORE    President Filmore, Taylor’s vice president, served from July 9, 1850 to March 4, 1853. The change in leadership also signaled an abrupt political shift. Fillmore had very different views on the slavery issue. Before Taylor's death, Fillmore told him that, as President of the Senate, he would give his tie-breaking vote to Henry Clay’s proposal. His first act as president was to fire Taylor's cabinet and to fill it with men of like-mind to himself.

Clay’s omnibus compromise died in Congress, but another, the Compromise of 1850, passed in September 1850. While it postponed the Civil war by a decade, the Compromise of 1850 also inflamed passions on both sides of the issue and drove the separate factions further apart.

The northern wing of the Whig Party opposed the compromise. They favored a failed part of the legislation, the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery in any new territories or states, confining it to the existing slave states only. This was anathema to the South, which recognized that national expansion and the admission of new free States would dilute the power of the South in Congress, ultimately reducing it to a nullity and leaving its "peculiar institution" defenseless from legislative and executive attack.

In fact, the compromise that finally came before both Houses of Congress was a faint image of the original proposal, and Fillmore actually urged Congress to pass the original bill. In response, as historian Gerald Bahles notes, "forces for and against slavery fought over every word of the bill." It was only at this critical juncture, that Fillmore announced his support of what we know as the Compromise of 1850.

Enacted in five separate bills, the Compromise of 1850 gave each side just enough to calm passions for a few more years. California's application for admission as a free state with its was approved; a Southern proposal to split California at parallel 35° north to provide a Southern territory was not defeated. Popular sovereignty became the new norm for the newly created New Mexico and Utah Territories: the decision to accept or reject slavery would be subject to referendum in those (and by implication) other newly created territories, at least those south of the Missouri Compromise line. A stronger Fugitive Slave Act was adopted and the slavery remained lawful in the national capital, although the slave trade was banned there except in the portion of the District of Columbia south of the Potomac that had reverted Virginia.

Each measure obtained a majority, and, by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them into law. Whigs on both sides refused to accept the finality of Fillmore's law (which led to more party division, and a loss of numerous elections).

Fillmore's greatest difficulty with the fugitive slave law, hated in the North, was enforcing it without showing favor to Southern Whigs. His solution was to appease both northern and southern wings of his party. He called for enforcing the fugitive slave law in the North, and enforcing in the South a law forbidding involvement in Cuba (for the sole purpose of adding it as a slave state).

The developing trend of seeking compromise on principle’s went largely unnoticed among the political class in Washington, but the people in the various regions of the Nation were beginning to catch on.

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