Friday, March 06, 2009

"If those are Whig doctrines, I'm a Loco-foco"

I’m about half way through John C. Waugh’s On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History, and it’s a delight.

You won’t find any shattering revelations about the Compromise of 1850 in this relatively brief book (195 pages of text and footnotes). But the book lays out clearly the issues, the players and the developments during the crisis. If you don’t know much about the Compromise, it seems to be a fine introduction.

But even if you know a good deal about the Compromise, the book is a lot of fun and well worth reading. Mr. Waugh is a journalist by trade, not a professional historian. What he excels at is providing vivid portraits of the people involved and the dramatic moments that peppered the year 1850. Using memoirs and published personal recollections of participants and onlookers, Mr. Waugh paints arresting pictures of (for example) Henry Clay rising in the Senate to give one of his great speeches, or Daniel Webster acknowledging John C. Calhoun with a bow during his Seventh of March speech.

I said earlier that the book contains no shattering revelations. But it does contain a number of vivid, colorful anecdotes, previously unknown to me, that shed light on the players, large and small, and bring them to life in a way that academic history often does not. On the theory that one example is worth a thousand words (or something like that), here is a vignette that I just finished reading.

To set the scene, William Seward has just given his famous “higher law” speech. Waugh then describes the usually affable Willie Mangum (Whig – North Carolina) storming into Zachary Taylor’s office, and Taylor’s reaction:
[Mangum] denounce[ed] what he saw as “monstrous declarations,” telling the president that “if such were the doctrines of the administration, I was its decided opponent henceforth, and if those were Whig doctrines, I was a Loco-foco.” Taylor hurried in alarm to see A.C. Bullitt, the editor of the Republic, and stammered, “A-aleck, this is a nice mess Governor Seward has got us into. Mangum swears he’ll turn Democrat if Seward is the mouthpiece of my administration. The speech must be disclaimed at once, authoritatively and decidedly. Don’t be mealy-mouthed about it, but use no harsh language. We can’t stand for a moment on such principles. The Constitution is not worth one straw if every man is to be his own interpreter, disregarding the exposition of the Supreme Court.”

Isn’t that wonderful? It really gives you a feel for Mangum and Taylor, and on top of that it’s a hoot!


  1. Note that Willie was pronounced "Wylie." Mangum's beloved teacher was John Chavis, a free black Revolutionary veteran who was a special student at Princeton, and ran the most highly-respected academy in North Carolina.

  2. I must admit I knew neither of these facts.


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