Sunday, June 21, 2009

John Calhoun's Pakenham Letter: The Background

Scholars have long puzzled over why John Caldwell Calhoun chose to write the Pakenham Letter. But first, some background.

In September 1841, members of the Whig caucus read “His Accidency” John Tyler out of the Whig party. Although now a man without a party, Tyler continued to harbor dreams of a second term. Perhaps he could persuade the Democrats to nominate him in 1844, or maybe he could form a third party or run as an independent backed by a coalition of southern Democrats disenchanted with the probable Democratic candidate, Martin Van Buren and conservative, state-right Whigs.

As part of this pipe dream, Tyler conceived the idea of boldly pushing for the annexation of the Republic of Texas. Both Democrats and Whigs had studiously avoided the issue for years because they recognized how hot a potato it would likely become. In particular, the annexation of Texas, in which slavery was legal, threatened to ignite disputes over the peculiar institution and sectional tensions. In addition, Mexico had never conceded the independence of what it viewed as a rebellious province. Annexation thus presented the likelihood of war. Andrew Jackson had therefore contented himself with recognition of Texas rather than annexation before he left office in March 1847, and his Democratic successor Martin Van Buren (in office March 1837- March 1841) had avoided the issue like the plague.

In May 1843, Daniel Webster, the last member of the original cabinet that Tyler inherited from William Henry Harrison, resigned his position as Secretary of State after completing negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Tyler responded by nominating as Webster’s successor his Secretary of the Navy and old friend and confidante, Abel P. Upshur. Upshur, who hailed from the eastern shore of Virginia, was, like Tyler, a conservative, state-rights Whig. He also was an enthusiastic advocate of annexation. Upshur assumed office in July 1843 and promptly entered into secret negotiations designed to result in the annexation of Texas via a treaty to be presented to the Senate.

Fast-forwarding eight months or so, Upshur’s negotiations and the proposed treaty were virtually complete by late February 1844. At that point, as I mentioned in the last post, chance intervened. On February 28, 1844, Upshur was killed by an explosion on board the USS Princeton. Tyler, who could turn to neither mainstream Democrats nor Whigs for a replacement, reached out (reluctantly or otherwise – it is not clear) to the quintessential anti-party man, none other than John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina, who assumed his duties at State a month later on April 1, 1844.

Meanwhile, however, news of the secret negotiations had leaked. Based on an inadvertent hint from Upshur before his death, Daniel Webster had figured out in February that a treaty was imminent, and he relayed the information to Whig allies. In March, Robert C. Winthrop introduced a resolution in the House demanding information. It quickly became apparent that the issue threatened to become a sectional one, with northern Whigs in particular denouncing the rumored treaty as a conspiracy of the slave interests.

Without admitting the existence of the negotiations, the administration backed efforts by friends who endorsed annexation as a commercial and strategic boon to nation as a whole. on a non-sectional basis. Tyler reportedly believed that any mention of the slavery issue or attempt to push annexation as a protection for the south would be fatal to ratification. Indeed, it appears that, for this reason, Tyler pushed to have the treaty signed and submitted for ratification before Calhoun became Secretary.

Such was not to be, because the Texas envoy did not arrive in Washington to sign the treaty until the last day of March, just as Calhoun assumed his new post. After final details were worked out, the treaty was signed Friday April 12, 1844.

The treaty was not, however, submitted to the Senate until Monday April 22. There were certainly understandable and legitimate reasons for the delay. Calhoun used the intervening ten days to approach the Mexican minister in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the likelihood of war after the treaty was formally announced. On a more practical level, in a world without word processors, faxes and email, documents had to be transcribed and cover letters had to be composed and approved.

But the delay was also occasioned in part by Calhoun’s apparently inexplicable decision to write a letter concerning Texas to the British minister to the United States, Richard Pakenham. Here we must take a step back.

Five months earlier, George Hamilton-Gordon, Lord Aberdeen, the British Foreign Secretary, had sent a dispatch dated December 26, 1843 to the British ministry in the United States, the contents of which were intended to be conveyed to the American Secretary of State. When the newly-appointed Pakenham arrived in Washington in February 1844, he discovered that Aberdeen’s message had not been communicated to Upshur. Pakenham remedied the omission by reading the message to Upshur and then sending him a copy. Upshur did not respond before he was killed on February 28, and acting secretary of state John Nelson apparently did not regard a response as necessary during his brief tenure (from the end of February to the end of March).

In fact, the Aberdeen message (the full text of which may be found in the Congressional Globe) was quite benign and conciliatory. In brief, Aberdeen confirmed (as the British Government had previously expressed) that the government preferred that slavery be abolished in Texas. However, he made clear that Britain had no designs on Texas and would take no actions to achieve that result. Norma Lois Peterson describes the dispatch in somewhat greater detail:
Aberdeen’s tone was courteous, not hostile. He admitted that his government had pressed Mexico to acknowledge the independence of Texas, but it had done so with “no occult design, either with reference to the slavery which now exists, and which we desire to see abolished in Texas.” It was well known to the United States and to every other nation, Aberdeen explained, that Great Britain desired and was “constantly exerting herself to procure the general abolition of slavery throughout the world.” But in attempting this, Britain would do nothing in a secret or underhanded manner. “We should rejoice if the recognition of that country [Texas] by the Mexican Government should be accompanied by an engagement on the part of Texas to abolish slavery eventually and under proper conditions”; but Britain did not intend to exercise improper authority on either Mexico or Texas. “We shall counsel, but we shall not seek to compel, or unduly control, either party. So far as Great Britain is concerned, provided all other States act with equal forbearance,” Mexico and Texas were at liberty “to make their own unfettered arrangements,” in regard to slavery or any other matter.

President Tyler reportedly took the message for what it was – an attempt to be conciliatory notwithstanding a difference in principle. As Calhoun told Pakenham, the president expressed his appreciation for the British government’s disavowal of any intention to disturb the internal tranquility of slaveholding states, although he regretted that Great Britain had officially transmitted its policy of abolition.

Calhoun, however, would not take yes for an answer and decided to escalate matters. In response, he composed and sent to Pakenham an incendiary reply dated April 18, 1844. Remarkably, I have not been able to locate a copy the “Pakenham Letter” online. For those with access to specialized databases or research or law libraries, it may be found at Senate Documents, 28th Cong., 1st Sess. 50-53 and Richard K. Cralle (ed.), The Works of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 5, pp. 333-347. Here is William W. Freehling’s description:
The administration, wrote the Secretary of State, “regards with deep concern the avowal” that England was “constantly exerting herself” to procure world-wide antislavery. The administration was also appalled that England was urging emancipation as “one of the conditions on which Mexico should acknowledge” Texas. “It would be difficult for Texas in her actual condition,” emphasized Calhoun, “to resist” this pressure, even “supposing the influence and exertion of Great Britain” remained within Lord Aberdeen’s “limits.”

An emancipated Texas, continued the Carolinian, would give “Great Britain the most efficient means of effecting in the neighboring States of this Union what she avows to be her desire to do in all countries where slavery exists.” A free labor Texas “would expose the weakest and most vulnerable portions” of slaveholders’ “frontiers” to inroads. But while England’s hope is to end what she calls our evil, warned Calhoun, our mission is to perpetuate what we consider our blessing. Under southern Christian slavery, bragged the American Secretary of State, “the negro race” has attained an unprecedented “elevation in morals, intelligence,” and “civilization.” The United States, concluded Calhoun, “acting in obedience” to racial “obligation,” and “as the most effectual if not the only means of guarding against the threatened danger . . . has concluded an annexation treaty.”

In a subsequent letter, dated April 27, 1844, Calhoun drove home the point that annexation “was made necessary in order to preserve domestic institutions . . . deemed essential to their safety and prosperity.”

“It was,” Merrill D. Peterson has coyly noted, “an unusual diplomatic dispatch.”

Meanwhile, on Monday April 22, 1844, four days after the dispatch of the first letter, the Secretary of State formally transmitted the proposed treaty with Texas to the Senate under seal. Based on precedent, and apparently presuming that the Senate would immediately call for production of supporting materials in any event, Calhoun also sent with the treaty itself copies of related documents and correspondence – including the Pakenham Letter.

Ironically, President Tyler’s letter of transmittal to the Senate emphasized the importance of the treaty to the nation as a whole, not its sectional benefit to the south. The inclusion of the Pakenham Letter, however, insured that there would be a sectional explosion and virtually guaranteed defeat of the treaty, which required ratification by two-thirds of the Senate under Article II, Section 2.

The question, then, is why Calhoun wrote the letter. Merrill D. Peterson summarizes the conundrum:
Politicians then and historians since have debated Calhoun’s motives for writing the Pakenham Letter. The 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?

In the next post, I will survey some possible answers.

1 comment:


    full text of the letter


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