Saturday, February 21, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Compromise of 1850

I was struck by this observation by Jonathan H. Earle:
Without the lifeblood of constant agitation to nourish its ranks, the Free Soil movement languished in the years between the compromise [of 1850] and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

* * *

When the 1852 votes were counted, the Free Democrats were pummeled in every quarter, even where they had done well four years before. With the exhausted David Wilmot in retirement, voters in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District voted overwhelmingly for [Franklin] Pierce . . .

* * *

For fourteen months after the 1852 election, Free Soil -- as a movement, an ideology, and a party -- was practically moribund. Then on January 4, 1854, the diminutive Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced a bill . . ..

The quote highlights the fact that, in many ways, the Compromise of 1850 was a striking success. 150 years later, a combination of hindsight and the tendency of events to get telescoped together makes it appear that the Compromise was doomed from the start. The history of the late 1840s and 1850s is often portrayed as a series of waves cresting ever higher as the flood tide of discord rushes in and eventually envelops the country (or, as David M. Potter has put it, "a kind of a vortex, whirling the country in ever narrower circles and more rapid revolutions into the pit of war"). But the men who crafted the Compromise did not, and could not, know that.

Even so great an historian as Professor Potter, who repeatedly emphasizes the contingency of history, sometimes falls into the trap. While admitting that "[a]ntislavery men were profoundly discouraged" after the Compromise, and that "outward appearances all indicated that the national yearning for harmony would banish the slavery issue from politics," he also refers to "the futility of the Compromise" and "the shibboleth of 'finality' as a slogan."

Professor Potter contends "that the sectional rapprochement" during the post-Compromise years "did not rest on broad or deep foundations." But if that is so, it only emphasizes the remarkable job done by those who constructed the Compromise. For ten crucial years the Compromise withstood a series of unforeseen and unforeseeable blows -- from Bloody Kansas and Lecompton to the caning of Sumner and Dred Scott -- that would have felled a less sturdy structure.

About the illustration:
A crudely drawn satire bitterly attacking Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Pierce and appealing to the "Freemen of America." The print, possibly executed by a free black, criticizes the Democrats' platform, as established by the Baltimore Convention, which in the interest of preserving the Union endorsed the Compromise of 1850. More specifically the artist condemns Pierce's pledge to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, included in the compromise as a submission to southern slaveholding interests. In the center Pierce prostrates himself before a "Slave holder & Peace Maker," a bearded man in wide-brimmed hat and striped trousers holding a cat-o-nine-tails and manacles. The upper half of Pierce is over the Mason Dixon line, his face in the dirt on the "Baltimore Platform." The slaveholder says: "Save the Union, / And with the "meanest" Yankee grease / Smear the hinges of your knees / And in "silence" pray for peace." Pierce, dubbed "one of the Southern "dirt" eaters "Saving" the Union," replies, "I accept this cheerfully." The Democratic platform is labeled "Southern pine" and is inscribed with reference to the compromise, "Fugitive Slave Law and nigger catching, and resist agitation on the Slavery question &c." On it lie a skull and crossbones, manacles, and a serpent. At far left is "the Devil come up to attend his revival," who commends, "Well done my faithful servants!" On the right is the infamous Hungarian general Julius von Haynau, who carries a whip and wears a "Barclay's Brewery" pitcher on his head. (Haynau was assaulted by Barclay employees while in England.) The Hungarian extends his hand toward the slaveholder, saying, "I feel quite at home in this company give me your hand my good fellow." Further to the right are Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas, disappointed aspirants for the 1852 Democratic nomination. Cass says, "We are down Douglass, "Pierce" has bid lower than either of us." Douglas: "There is nothing impossible for a New Hampshire "Hunker" [i.e., conservative] Democrat to do in that line." On the ground nearby are the words, "the "slave&1ocratic miscalled the Democratic party, how they obey the "crack" of the slaveholder's whip!"

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