Sunday, June 21, 2009

John Calhoun's Pakenham Letter: Why?

I ended the last post with Merrill D. Peterson’s question:
Politicians then and historians since have debated [John C.] Calhoun’s motives for writing the Pakenham Letter. The [John Tyler] administration line on annexation was that it was strictly a question of national interest unconnected with slavery. Calhoun’s letter, which went to the Senate along with the treaty and became public knowledge on April 27 [,1844], placed annexation on pro-slavery grounds. Could he have been oblivious to the effect of this?

Years ago, Calhoun biographer John C. Wiltse contended that Calhoun did not anticipate that the letter would become public. Subsequent historians, however, have uniformly rejected this view. Charles Sellers, for example, responded, “Wiltse contends that Calhoun did not anticipate that his Pakenham letter would be published, but Bemis asks logically, ‘If so, why did he write it?’”

The chronology also renders Wiltse’s suggestion ludicrous. The Pakenham Letter is dated Thursday April 18. On Monday April 22, the treaty and the letter went to the Senate. Transcription of copies would probably have begun almost immediately after the letter was sent. Did Calhoun send the letter and then a few hours later smack his head in the realization that he now needed to provide it to the Senate? Ridiculous.

It is virtually impossible then, to reach any conclusion other than that Calhoun knew, when he wrote the letter, that he would be sending it to the Senate. He must also have known that it would create a firestorm. Why would he do such a thing?

William W. Freehling, for one, finds no mystery. Calhoun, he maintains, was simply being Calhoun. For some time, his primary goal had been to raise southern white consciousness and encourage the formation of a sectional southern party. This was a perfect opportunity to galvanize the south. The north, confronted by a unified south, would then have to cave:
No pre-Civil War mystery is less mysterious. Calhoun here pursued the policy he had deployed since nullification times. First he would find the issue to teach Southerners that outsiders hid antislavery intent behind camouflaged methods of proceeding. His issue would arouse southern apologists from their preference to diffuse blacks away. An awakened Slavepower would then compel Northerners into a pure states’ rights party, which would settle the precipitating issue the South’s way.

Prof. Freehling also questions whether Calhoun’s tactic put the administration and the treaty in any worse a position than they would have been otherwise. First, northern Whigs would almost certainly vote against the treaty no matter what the accompanying documents showed concerning the administration’s intent, and at least some northern Democrats would be forced to follow suit. Second, even without the Pakenham Letter the records to be delivered to the Senate would be littered with numerous letters and memoranda showing that many members of the administration had sought annexation to protect slavery and advance the interests of the south.

In fact, Prof. Freehling asserts that the strategy that Calhoun adopted (as Freehling understands it) was the only potentially winning strategy. “Calhoun’s scenario of rallying enough slaveholders to push enough Northern Democrats to stop evading the issue was exactly the way the election of 1844 and its annexation aftermath transpired.”

Merrill D. Peterson appears to make a similar point. Rallying the south was both desirable in itself and probably the only potentially winning strategy. “By linking Texas annexation to the defense of slavery, he divided political parties at the Mason and Dixon Line, terrifying [Henry] Clay and the Whigs and undercutting [Martin] Van Buren in the South.”

In her review of the literature, Norma Lois Peterson cites two other historians who likewise believe that Calhoun’s letter reflected a calculated political gamble. At best, he might convince southern Whigs to support the treaty without losing northern Democrats. If the worst happened, and northern Democrats voted against, at least he would have alerted southerners to the danger they faced:
George Poage thinks Calhoun wanted his letter to initiate a general debate with the British government over slavery, hoping this would alarm southern Whigs and bring them into a section bloc under his leadership. Their votes were necessary to ratification, but as yet, they remained loyal to Whig policy and seemed oblivious to the growing danger to their “way of life.”

To William R. Brock, “all evidence suggests that Calhoun knew what he was doing and calculated the odds.” Early in March, weeks before Calhoun had discovered Aberdeen’s letter, he lamented the disunity in the South . . .. Calhoun was convinced that southern Whigs would vote against the treaty unless they could be alerted to the impending destruction of their slave property . . .. The protection of slavery had to be made the central issue of annexation. This would be a test, not only for southern Whigs, but also for northern Democrats.

Merrill Peterson’s reference to Van Buren points up another potential and not inconsistent motive that has been highlighted by Charles Sellers in James K. Polk: Continentalist, 1843-1846. As of April 1844, it was generally assumed that Van Buren would be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president. As I noted in the last post, Van Buren had avoided the annexation issue like the plague during 1837-1841. In fact, he continued to oppose immediate annexation and would shortly issue a public letter to that effect.

As of mid-April, however, Van Buren had not yet announced his position. On Monday, April 15, 1844, the principal Democratic newspaper, Francis Preston Blair’s Washington Globe, endorsed annexation. Tyler and Calhoun, Sellers argues, incorrectly assumed that this meant that Van Buren was about to come out in favor of annexation and steal the issue that Tyler still hoped would somehow earn him a second term. (In fact, Blair produced the editorial at Andrew Jackson’s urging and over Van Buren’s objection.) By casting annexation as a pro-slavery initiative, they would force Van Buren to back off:
On Monday, April 15, [1844,] the Globe’s endorsement of annexation appeared according to promise, but the treaty did not. Learning in advance that the Globe would endorse the treaty, Tyler and Calhoun had jumped to the conclusion that Van Buren was about to rob them of the political fruits of their toils by coming out for annexation. “If the Globe, or any other organ of Mr. Van Buren, shall attempt to appropriate the measure in a manner to operate on the Baltimore Convention, or at the polls,” warned the Tyler organ in reply to Blair’s editorial, “we shall denounce such a proceeding.” Holding back the treaty from the Senate, Calhoun set to work to accomplish something Blair had warned Van Buren about a month before: introducing “stipulations on the negro question calculated to make it [annexation] odious in the north & peculiarly a southern question.”

About the illustration:
A pro-Democrat cartoon forecasting the collapse of Whig opposition to the annexation of Texas. James K. Polk, the expansionist candidate, stands at right near a bridge spanning "Salt River." He holds an American flag and hails Texans Stephen Austin (left) and Samuel Houston aboard a wheeled steamboat-like vessel "Texas." Austin, waving the flag of the Lone Star Republic, cries, "All hail to James K. Polk, the frined [sic] of our Country!" The Texas boat has an eagle figurehead and a star on its prow. Below the bridge pandemonium reigns among the foes of annexation. Holding onto a rope attached to "Texas" above, they are dragged into Salt River. Led by Whig presidential nominee Henry Clay, they are (left to right) Theodore Frelinghuysen, Daniel Webster, Henry A. Wise, and an unidentified figure whose legs are tangled in the rope. Clay: "Curse the day that ever I got hold of this rope! this is a bad place to let go of it--But I must!" Frelinghuysen: "Oh evil day, that ever I got into the footsteps of my predecessor." Webster: "If we let go, we are ruined, and if we hold on--Oh! crackee!" Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, straddling a barrel labeled "Abolition" in the river, shouts at Clay, "Avaunt! unholy man! I will not keep company with a blackleg!" referring to the candidate's reputation as a gambler.

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