Friday, November 14, 2008

"Civil War between North and South would then have likely erupted"

Several weeks ago, I highlighted Mark J. Stegmaier’s discussion of the firm and statesmanlike leadership that President Millard Fillmore and his hand-picked Secretary of State Daniel Webster displayed in bringing about the Compromise of 1850. I thought I’d take one more post to emphasize how much was at stake.

Some commentators downplay the importance of the Compromise because they focus only on whether southern states would have been prepared to secede at that point if no compromise had been reached. But, as Professor Stegmaier points out, that is not where the true danger lay. The most serious threat to the Union lay in the possibility that a shooting war might have broken out between Texas and New Mexico. In that event, it is possible – and I would submit probable – that at least some of the Cotton South states would have lined up with Texas. As was the case eleven years later, mid-south and border-south states would have been forced to choose sides, unless the federal government simply allowed Texas to complete its invasion of New Mexico, and allowed the seceding states to go their own way.

Since Professor Stegmaier describes the potential consequences far better than I, I’ll let him speak for himself:
No great feats of imagination are required to contemplate the probable consequences of a failure to settle the issues of 1850 in a manner acceptable to great majorities in both North and South. . . . Texas . . . might have attempted to send a military force toward Santa Fe. A bloodletting could have occurred there, and, even though the Texans would have probably suffered defeat, the incident would probably have rallied the Southern states to aid Texas. Civil War between North and South would then have likely erupted.

I have posted before about my belief in the importance of hypotheticals and “what-ifs” in assessing historical events. Again, Professor Stegmaier makes the point most eloquently:
“Might-have-beens” and “what-ifs” are always dangerous for historians perhaps stretching too far, but some consideration of possible alternative outcomes can illuminate the significance of what did take place.

The description of the illustration is as follows:
A crudely drawn but complex satire mocking Zachary Taylor's military background and lack of political experience. Student Zachary Taylor, wearing a paper cap made out of the journal "The True Whig" is seated on a low stool at the feet of his more politically seasoned running mate Millard Fillmore. Taylor reads from a book "Congressional Debates 1848. Slavery . . .", and spells out "W-I-L-M-O-T: Wilmot, P-R-O-V-I-S-O: Proviso. What do I know about such political stuff. Ah! Wait until I get loose, Then you will see what fighting is!" A torn sheet marked "National Bank" lies at his feet. Fillmore, who reads from "The Glorious Whig Principles [by] Henry Clay," admonishes Taylor, "This will never do, you must forsake this course,--for our party is a peaceful and rightous sect--free from wickedness." Behind Fillmore are an open book cabinet, the Constitution, and a globe. This are in obvious contrast to the maps of "The Late War" and a broadsheet "The Life of Johnny Tyler" on the wall behind Taylor. At Taylor's knee sits a bloodhound with a collar marked "Florida," a reminder of Taylor's controversial use of bloodhounds in the Second Seminole War. To the right two black youths polish Taylor's weapons. The first, kneeling and wiping a pistol, says, "By golly! Massa Taylor like fighting better then him dinner." The other, cleaning a sword, claims, "Dis am de knife wot massa use to cut up de Mexijins wid." In the center of the floor are a group of toy soldiers and a cannon.

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