Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Missouri Compromise: A "great Joy" to the North?

Several months ago, I wrote a post on the Missouri Compromise entitled The Missouri Compromise: Compromise, Armistice or Defeat? The post concluded, based on a review of congressional votes, that northern representatives viewed the first Missouri Compromise – the Compromise of 1820 – as a defeat:
In short, it would appear that, from the southern perspective, the Compromise of 1820 was in fact a compromise. An overwhelming majority of southern senators and a slim majority of southern representatives voted in favor of the compromise or the key concession they were asked to make to achieve it.

To the North, however, the Compromise of 1820 was not a compromise. It was not even an armistice – it was a defeat. Of those northern legislators who voted, 82% of Senators and 86% of Representatives voted against compromise or against the key concession they were asked to make.

Recently, Robert Pierce Forbes, the author of The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (which I see is slated to be released in paperback August 15), was kind enough to visit these pages and left the following comment to the post:
All very true. But what do you make of the fact that [James] Tallmadge and [John W.] Taylor celebrated and congratulated each other?

Since a comment from one of the leading authorities on the Compromise is not exactly an everyday event, I thought I’d explore it and venture a response.

Prof. Forbes describes the celebration and congratulations he refers to in his comment in greater detail in his book, as follows:
[T]idings of the Missouri vote brought “great Joy” to the originator of the restriction amendment and its principal backer. From former representative James Tallmadge, John W. Taylor received fervent congratulations: “You have in this business a monument to your fame. Accept the thanks of a sincere friend for your perseverance – Talents – & devotion to the cause of your nation – & of suffering human nature.” For his part, as he wrote to his wife, Taylor also felt satisfaction. “We have gained all that was possible, if not all that was desired. . . . an ample recompense for all the time and talent it has cost us.”

It strikes me that we are viewing here, in part, a not uncommon human reaction to defeat after a long and bitter struggle. The two warriors had lost, but they could console themselves with the knowledge that they had fought the good fight against large odds and had at least achieved something.

In addition, as Prof. Forbes himself points out in the next paragraph, it was possible to see this as the beginning, not the end, of the match. The first round had been close, and there was reason to believe the odds would be better in the second:
Moreover, the struggle to admit Missouri was hardly finished. The principal task for opponents of restriction was consolidating their position. They had prevailed by just three votes, and even if, as I think it should be, [John] Randolph’s assertion that six more northern votes waited in the wings if needed is taken seriously, this still amounted to a tenuous margin. By every indication, most “doughfaces” could expect stiff reelection challenges; the Seventeenth Congress would undoubtedly be still more unfriendly to slavery expansion.

Was the first Missouri vote a defeat? Yes, but a glorious one. The South’s nose had at least been bloodied, and Northern consciousness, as we might say today, had been raised. There would be future battles, and victory would ultimately result.

It goes without saying that I would be delighted to highlight any comment or response from Prof. Forbes.

"I protest against such a Union as that!"

In his speech of January 4, 1848, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun raised a number of arguments against continuation of the war against Mexico. The cost of subduing remaining resistance and occupying the country would be tremendous: Calhoun estimated that it would be $60 million, causing potentially catastrophic damage to the economy.

Calhoun also argued, as he had before (although I did not highlight the point), “that the more successfully this war is prosecuted the more certain will be the defeat of the object designed to be accomplished, whilst the objects disavowed will be accomplished.” This was because the destruction of all government in Mexico would make peace impossible: there would be no one left with whom to negotiate. Mexico, a fellow republic, would have been destroyed, leaving a military despotism by the United States in its place.
[Adopting the Polk administration’s proposed course] will lead to the blotting out of the nationality of Mexico, and the throwing of eight or nine millions of people without a government, on your hands. It will compel you, in all probability, to assume that government, for I think there will be very little prospect of your retiring. You must either hold the country as a province, or incorporate it into your Union. Shall we do either? That’s the question. Far from us be such an act, and for the reasons contained in the resolutions.

Calhoun’s proposed resolutions provided, first, that “to conquer Mexico and to hold it, either as a province or to incorporate it into the Union, would be inconsistent with the avowed object for which the war has been prosecuted.” Calhoun had already discussed this point at length. He turned therefore to the second proposition, that that conquest would be “a departure from the settled policy of the Government.” Calhoun contrasted the administration’s proposed course with the “settled policy” adopted concerning the Indians:
The next reason which my resolutions assign, is, that it is without example or precedent, either to hold Mexico as a province, or to incorporate her into our Union. No example of such a line of policy can be found. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we never thought of holding them in subjection – never of incorporating them into our Union. They have either been left as an independent people amongst us, or been driven into the forests.

This, in turn, served as an opening for Calhoun to address the issue that, I suspect, was at the heart of his objection to a wider Mexican war from the beginning: race. Calhoun feared that the incorporation of settled portions of Mexico would result in non-white Indians and “mixed tribes” becoming residents and citizens of the United States. “Ours,” Calhoun maintained, “is the government of a white race.” “[P]lacing these colored races on an equality with the white race” would be “fatal to our institutions”:
I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race – the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes.

I protest against such a Union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped – the Portuguese at least to some extent – and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.

Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races. . . . Are we to overlook this fact? Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Well, sir, what has been accomplished?"

Having discussed at great (some might say turgid) length John C. Calhoun’s position on and arguments concerning the war against Mexico in early 1847, I’d like to jump forward eleven months, to January 1848. By that point, of course, General Winfield Scott had completed his conquest of Mexico City, and the war was, for all practical purposes, over. The nature of the peace, however, remained to be determined.

On December 15, 1847, Calhoun had introduced resolutions concerning the war that reiterated the themes that he had struck (and which I have discussed) earlier:
Resolved, that to conquer Mexico and to hold it, either as a province or to incorporate it into the Union, would be inconsistent with the avowed object for which the war has been prosecuted; a departure from the settled policy of the Government; in conflict with its character and genius; and in the end subversive of our free and popular institutions.

Resolved, that no line of policy in the further prosecution of the war should be adopted which may lead to consequences so disastrous.

On January 4, 1848, the Senate took up Calhoun’s resolutions for discussion, and Calhoun took the floor to explain and defend them. He began as follows:
In offering, Senators, these resolutions for your consideration, I have been governed by the reasons which induced me to oppose the war, and by the same considerations I have been ever since guided. In alluding to my opposition to the war, I do not intend to notice the reasons which governed me on that occasion, further than is necessary to explain my motives upon the present. I opposed the war then, not only because I considered it unnecessary, and that it might have been easily avoided; not only because I thought the President had no authority to order a portion of the territory in dispute and in possession of the Mexicans, to be occupied by our troops; not only because I believed the allegations upon which it was sanctioned by Congress, were unfounded in truth; but from high considerations of reason and policy, because I believed it would lead to great and serious evils to the country, and greatly endanger its free institutions.

Calhoun reminded his listeners that “at the last session, I suggested to the senate a defensive line” to “prevent the evil and danger with which, in my opinion, [the war] threatened the country and its institutions.” He was, he said, now offering his resolutions for the same purpose.

After reviewing the United States’ and General Scott’s unbroken string of military victories, Calhoun asserted that they had accomplished nothing:
Victory after victory has followed in succession, without a single reverse. . . . Well, sir, what has been accomplished? What has been done? Has the avowed object of the war been attained? Have we conquered peace? Have we obtained a treaty? Have we obtained any indemnity? No, sir; not a single object contemplated has been effected; and, what is worse, our difficulties are greater now than they were then, and the objects, forsooth, more difficult to reach than they were before the campaign commenced.

About the illustration:
An exultant view of Winfield Scott's second major victory in the Mexican War, at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, where Mexican commander Santa Anna beat an unceremonious retreat. In the mid-April victory Santa Anna's military chest with $11,000 in gold and his wooden leg fell into the hands of American troops. For an explanation of the "hasty plate of soup," see "Distinguished Military Operations" (no. 1846-15). The print also mocks Winfield Scott's well-known fastidiousness and taste for comfortable appointments and James K. Polk's handling of the Mexican War. In Clay's cartoon, Santa Anna rides off to the left, while the rest of his cavalry is seen in the distance routed by American troops. Scott sits in the Mexican's abandoned carriage, equipped with a lavish dinner service and two cocks, doffs his hat and invites the departing enemy to "stop and take a hasty plate of soup? It's some of your own cooking & very good I assure you!" Santa Anna replies, "No I thank you, General, I'm afraid of an attack from the rear! (Jesus Maria! this beats cock-fighting!)" An American trooper holds the reins of the carriage's team -- one horse and a braying ass with blinders-- and a fighting cock on a leash, saying, "I didn't think when I left New York that I should have taken Santa Anna's best fighting cock prisoner!" Another trooper kneels before the open military chest, while a third marvels at "Santa Anna's Cork leg!" In the lower right corner is a paper "Pass port for Santa Anna" signed by Polk, a reference to the President's allowing the exiled general to return to Mexico in hopes that he would terminate the war.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"But did any of the presidents ever think of marching troops upon the line?"

As I discussed in my last post concerning John Calhoun, Texas and Mexico, Senator Calhoun maintained that the treaty annexing Texas intentionally failed to define the border between that state and Mexico. He used this as the starting point for raising a “great question”: if the boundary was undetermined, what gave the president, rather than Congress, the right to determine where it lay?
But the great question comes up, has the Executive the right to determine what our boundary is? When we have a disputed boundary question – and we have had many – does it belong to the Executive or to Congress to determine it? There are two ways to do it. One is by negotiation and treaty, to be performed by the Executive and this body, in case the two nations agreed to negotiate. The other is, if the party disputes the boundary and will not come to terms, for Congress to declare where the boundary is, and maintain it, if need be, at the hazard of war.

By way of example, Calhoun cited the border between Maine and Canadian Great Britain. That border had been long undetermined, and yet no president had attempted to define the boundary himself by “marching troops upon the line”:
How long did the boundary of the Maine remain unsettled? From the acknowledgement of independence, in 1783, down to the time that the Senator from Massachusetts [Daniel Webster] closed it by a treaty [the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842]. But did any of the presidents ever think of marching troops upon the line?

The late David P. Currie suggested that Calhoun did, in fact, raise an “intriguing” constitutional issue. While there was certainly something to be said for the proposition “that the president ought not to be required to surrender disputed territory to an occupying rival,” the fact was that Mexican forces had not advanced into “the controverted zone” – the area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande – before Zachary Taylor did so:
The intermediate possibility that the true boundary was unknown presented an intriguing opportunity for speculation. On the one hand there was a certain appeal to the defenders insistence that the president ought not to be required to surrender disputed territory to an occupying rival; he walked at least to be able to preserve the status quo. On the other hand, opponents pointed out with much just as that in the arguably analogous case of the Maine it was Congress that had empowered the president to prevent hostile military occupation of the disputed area. In any event, although Mexico had recently amassed troops along the Rio Grande, before Taylor’s advance it had made no military incursion into the controverted zone; Mexico had been in peaceable occupation of the Rio Grande valley, Texas in that of the Nueces for some years.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Team of Dysfunctional Schemers?

Dimitri will greatly enjoy this quote from Sean Wilentz's essay in The New Republic, Who Lincoln Was:

[Harold] Holzer's intense admiration of Lincoln sometimes leads him to make too much of a good thing. In accord with the argument presented by Doris Kearns Goodwin's recent book describing Lincoln's cabinet as a "team of rivals" -- an easily exaggerated view cited so often during the Obama transition that it became one of the platitudes of our day--Holzer is persuaded of the brilliance of Lincoln's selections. Holzer accurately presents Lincoln the cabinet-maker as a hard-nosed politician, who made good on promises extended during the fight for the Republican nomination (although the book could have said more on this), and who sought to placate every element of his faction-ridden party. Yet Lincoln's approach to the task was nothing new. Moreover, the cabinet that he picked was a dysfunctional collection of schemers far more than it was a team of any kind.

(Emphasis added)

"Polk confused Mexico's warlike acts with a legal state of war"

Pardon a brief interruption of the generally chronological narrative concerning John C. Calhoun, Texas and Mexico, but I would like to go back and supplement an earlier post on the subject.

You may recall that in May 1846 the Polk administration did not exactly seek a declaration of war from Congress. Instead it in effect asked Congress to confirm that war already existed. One of Calhoun’s stated objections to the resolution was that it failed to distinguish between the fact of “hostilities” and the legal conclusion that a state of war existed.

In his The Constitution in Congress: Descent into the Maelstrom 1829-1861, the late David P. Currie discusses Calhoun’s objection and finds it well taken:
Opponents correctly complained that Polk was not asking Congress to decide whether the United States should go to war, as was its right; he was asking for a mere confirmation of the fact that war already existed. . . . As Calhoun and others protested, Polk confused Mexico’s warlike acts with a legal state of war, which could not exist without congressional sanction. . . . At the end of the day, however, the distinction evaporated. Congress voted to declare the existence of war, and that was all the Constitution required.

About the illustration:
A satirical view of the scramble among newly elected President James K. Polk's 1844 campaign supporters, or "patriots," for "their beans," i.e., patronage and other official favors. Polk (upper right) sits in the Presidential Chair, his hands folded and apparently oblivious to the activity around him. From behind the chair Andrew Jackson prompts him, "That's right Jemmy, Non Committal. By the Eternal you're a chip of the old block." To Polk's right a group of homely women present a petition and ask, "Can't you do something for us? we are poor weak women in great danger of being seduced! We want a proclamation in behalf of our Moral Reform Society." Below him John Beauchamp Jones and Francis Preston Blair, editors of influential rival newspapers, the "Madisonian" and the "Globe," fight for the privilege of being the administration organ. In the center an Irishman, hat in hand, approaches Polk and asks, "Plaze yer honor's worship, can't ye do somethin' for me? I was bor-r-n in Boston and rared in New-Yor-r-k, be the howly St. Patrick, and nivver a bit of an office have I had yet." Nearby, a German or Dutchman walks away in disgust shouting, "Dod rot this administration! I've lost my sittivation that Tyler give me, that was worth $15 a year! Dod rot 'em, I say!" In the foreground Secretary of State James Buchanan asks a small, ragged figure, "What Office do you expect, my man?" The man, a Rhode Islander, responds, " . . . I was an Officer with Govr. Dorr, and I should like to be an Officer agin; but I ain't perticklar, if you haint got no office may be you've got some old Clothes to give me!" Dorr was the leader of an abortive revolution in Rhode Island in 1842. (See Trouble in the Spartan Ranks, no. 1843-6). At left South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, a frustrated aspirant for the 1844 Democratic nomination, rides off on a velocipede saying, "Let this Poke manage two stools if he can, I'll cut my stick, and be off for the sunny south." Above, in the background, members of the "Empire Club" wave their hats and fire a cannon. They may represent the expansionist platform on which Polk campaigned, which many Whigs feared would provoke war with Mexico. In the left foreground is a motley militia troop carrying a banner "For Oregon!! Liberty! or Death!!!" Their leader proclaims, "Follow me brave soldiers, strike but one blow, and Oregon is ours!" Polk's campaign platform favored reannexation of the Oregon Territory.

John Calhoun: "The line was intentionally left open"

Attentive readers may recall that, in his February 12, 1847 speech denouncing John C. Calhoun’s claimed inconsistency concerning Mexico, Senator Hopkins L. Turney asserted that the annexation treaty submitted to the Senate in 1844 had described the territory of Texas as extending to the Rio Grande:
As Secretary of State, [Calhoun] had concluded the treaty with the republic of Texas by which she was to be annexed to the United States. He (Mr. T.) had never read that paper, but he understood that it extended the territory of Texas to the Rio Grande.

In his reply, Calhoun now pounced on Turney’s mistake:
But the senator [Mr. Turney] says I had stipulated in that treaty that the Rio Grande was the boundary.

Mr. TURNEY. I remarked that I had never read the treaty, but I understood that its terms went to the Rio Grande.

Mr. CALHOUN. The senator is just as wrong in that as in all his understandings. No such thing; the line was intentionally left open. . . . It was expressly left open, in order that the boundary might be subsequently established by negotiation with Mexico. . . . As soon as the treaty was signed, I communicated directly with the Mexican Government, through our charge d’affaires, and stated that I was ready to settle all questions of difference, and amongst others the boundary, upon the most liberal principles. I did not apprehend that war would follow. But I am held responsible on the ground that if Texas had not been annexed, we should not have had a Mexican war. Is he sure of that?

Calhoun may not have “apprehend[ed] that war would follow”, but he clearly understood that war was possible. Norma Lois Peterson points out that Calhoun tried to communicate with Mexico precisely “to dispel fears of war with Mexico should annexation become a reality.”
After the treaty had been signed but before it was sent to the Senate, Calhoun tried to dispel fears of war with Mexico should annexation become a reality. The threat of hostilities, he felt, could stand in the way of ratification; therefore, he talked several times with Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, Mexico’s minister to the United States, to explore the possibility of Mexico’s accepting a financial settlement to compensate for the loss of Texas and explain how crucial it was for the United States to annex Texas in order to prevent British intrigue in the that area. Calhoun sent conciliatory dispatches to Mexico by special messenger, hoping for a signal of approval before the Senate voted on the treaty.

Calhoun’s decision to emphasize the fact that the treaty failed to specify the boundary of Texas was merely the introduction to a larger point he wished to make. But for that, dear readers, you will have to await the next post.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"I placed the question on its true ground"

Having described his understanding of British intentions as of April 1843 when he became Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun then provided a tantalizing summary of his intentions in writing the Pakenham Letter and thus casting annexation as a pro-slavery issue:
The time had come to act, and for consequences to be met, be they what they might. I accepted the office with all these difficulties before me. I said this office is unacceptable to me. I go in it with no small share of reputation, if I may judge from appearances. I shall experience great difficulty in accomplishing the object for which I have been appointed and may lose much reputation; but I must do my duty. I undertook it, and when I undertake a thing I go straightforward to it. I placed the question on its true ground, that this movement was intended to bring Texas under the control of England, with a view to abolish slavery there, and through that, abolishing it throughout the country. A treaty was formed, and it shared the fate that might have almost been expected from the weakness of the Administration. It was defeated.

While obviously inconclusive, Calhoun’s remarks may be read to support my earlier speculation as to his motives. Calhoun apparently knew from the start that passage of the annexation treaty was a long shot at best. The outcome was likely to be so lopsided that he feared his reputation would suffer. Reframing the debate in terms of slavery in order to attract southern Whigs thus had little or no downside. While Calhoun and the administration would probably still go down to defeat, at least he would have “do[ne his] duty” and “placed the question on its true ground.”

Lord Brougham Questions Lord Aberdeen, August 18, 1843

Continuing his remarks in the Senate on February 12, 1847, John C. Calhoun described his understanding of the intentions of the British government with respect to Mexico as of early 1844, when he assumed office as Secretary of State:
What was then the condition of Texas? She was weak, and could not long remain without the support of England or the United States. The British Government saw this, and commenced its operations under the suggestion of the World’s Convention, by pressing Mexico to recognize her independence on condition of abolishing slavery.

As we have seen, Calhoun based his understanding on communications from Duff Green and at least one letter from Ashbel Smith, the Texas minister to Great Britain. Calhoun and other southerners, inclined to see anti-slavery conspiracies, also thought they detected public confirmation by the British government.

They pointed in particular to an exchange in the House of Lords on August 18, 1843 between Lord Aberdeen and his political opponent Lord [Henry] Brougham, “a Whig who opposed both slavery and the slave trade.” Brougham asked what the government was doing to stop the sale of slaves from the United States to Texas. Norma Lois Peterson describes Aberdeen’s response, which alarmed southerners:
The foreign secretary tried to structure his reply in a manner that would neither offend the anti-slavery British public nor unduly alarm the United States. He began by announcing the armistice between Mexico and Texas, which had been arranged with the help of Great Britain, and he said he was willing to continue his country’s good offices until a firm peace could be established. Further, he reiterated his usual statement: namely, that the entire world knew the position of the British government on the subject of slavery – that it desired to see slavery terminated everywhere eventually. The Aberdeen–Brougham exchange was reported in the London Morning Chronicle on the following day.

In short, here was clear evidence that Britain was intervening in Texan affairs, coupled with a statement of its intent to remain involved in the Texas – Mexico negotiations. Moreover, as Professor Peterson explains,
the general nature of Aberdeen’s statements, the American pro-annexationists insisted, indicated that he had something to will hide, he was not revealing all. Britain, they were certain, did intend to interfere in Texas, using humanitarianism as a ruse; but the real reason was not a noble one, and there seemed to be enough truth in their accusations to convince some doubters. Certainly, Britain had no wish to see the United States expand its domain to include the strategically located Lone Star Republic, an area that was capable of raising, with slave labor, cotton and other products to compete with those produced by British colonies.

Stephen Pearl Andrews Meets With Lord Aberdeen

In my last post, I quoted John C. Calhoun as asserting that it was his understanding that in 1843 “an interview had taken place between Lord Aberdeen and a deputation of the World’s Convention.” Lord Aberdeen was then the British Foreign Secretary. The “World’s Convention” was a meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society held in England in June 1843.

Calhoun was, apparently, the recipient of misinformation. A meeting was held, but in fact no agreement was reached. Norma Lois Peterson relates the bizarre story.

Stephen Pearl Andrews was a “young abolitionist,” originally from Massachusetts. “In the summer of 1843, Andrews was in England for the purposes of raising funds to purchase and emancipate Texas slaves and of enlisting the British government’s assistance in the project.” Andrews attended the “World’s Convention” in June 1843 and also met with Lord Aberdeen and other British politicians. Aberdeen “listened politely to [Andrews’s] plan, but . . . made no promise of a loan.”

Thereafter, Andrews met with Ashbel Smith, Texas’ minister in London.
[A]ccording to Smith, Andrews had assured him that a loan had been promised [by Aberdeen]. Without verifying it, Smith gave this account to [Duff] Green and to his government in Texas; Smith did not say it came only from Andrews. A few weeks later, after hearing Aberdeen’s explanation of the meeting, Smith had to send a retraction to his secretary of state.

This sort of story meshed precisely with Duff Green’s visions of a conspiracy between international abolitionists and the British government, and he swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Green promptly relayed Smith’s account of the Aberdeen-Andrews meeting to Washington – and to Calhoun.

It is, apparently, not clear whether Andrews or Smith was primarily at fault for misreporting Aberdeen’s reaction. Andrews may have placed the most optimistic spin on Aberdeen’s diplomatic evasions. But Smith, too, was predisposed to see conspiracies:
Smith, as a very strong advocate of annexation, was not above spreading propaganda in an effort to frighten the United States into moving on the issue. A month earlier, probably at the instigation of Green, Smith had written directly to Calhoun. Smith expressed his sincere belief that Great Britain’s ultimate purpose was to make Texas a refuge for runaway slaves from the South and eventually to turn that republic into “a Negro nation, a sort of Hayti on the continent,” under the protection of the British government.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The "World's Convention" of abolitionists targets Texas

Having explained why he accepted the position of Secretary of State in March 1844, John C. Calhoun, speaking in the Senate on February 12, 1847, discussed why he then (in 1844) viewed the annexation of Texas as essential. Calhoun asserted that he had information indicating that representatives of a “World’s Convention” of abolitionists (this is apparently a reference to a convention held during June 1843 in Exeter by the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave-Trade Throughout the World), had urged the British government to intervene in Texas “to aim a fatal blow at slavery”:
But circumstances made action on it [annexation] inevitable. I ascertained [apparently in 1843], from sources perfectly reliable, that at the World’s Convention, the American delegation suggested to the Abolitionists of England, that then was the time to act, and if they wished to aim a fatal blow at slavery, it must be in Texas, and in order to do that, England must obtain control there.

I received information – I will not say official – but from a quarter in which there could be no mistake, that an interview had taken place between Lord Aberdeen and a deputation of the World’s Convention. I was then at home in South Carolina, and immediately transmitted to the Secretary of State [Abel P. Upshur] that information, accompanied by my opinion that it demanded instant attention. I suppose that letter and my communication formed one of the reasons for the movement then made for annexation.

Calhoun’s unnamed informant was likely Duff Green. President Tyler had sent Green as an unofficial agent to France in the Fall of 1841 and to London in the Spring of 1843. For those of you who are not familiar with him, Green was, as they say, a piece of work. Norma Lois Peterson provides an amusing summary of this quirky man. The decision to send Green to Europe, Prof. Peterson notes,
was a strange and unwise choice. Green, who had an overly inflated ego, considered himself a “master manipulator” and an expert in international affairs. In reality, he an irresponsible and dangerous person to have abroad . . .. Green was a Calhoun man. His daughter was married to Calhoun’s son, but their political ties were more important than the relationship by marriage. During the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, Green, then editor of the United States Telegraph, had given his complete support to the South Carolinian . . . [and] they were close personal friends.

The evidence, Prof. Peterson believes, suggests that Calhoun and Upshur pushed Green’s appointment, and that he fed them the same sorts of information that he reported to Tyler:
In all probability, Calhoun, through Upshur, suggested Green for the European assignment, and although Green went as Tyler’s personal representative, he kept Calhoun and Upshur as well, if not better, informed of his “observations” than he did the president. Green’s deep desire was to see Calhoun in the White House.

What information was Green feeding to Tyler – and presumably to Calhoun as well? Prof. Peterson summarizes it as follows:
During the spring and summer of 1843, Green constantly warned about a British plot to abolish slavery in Texas, not from any humanitarian motivation, but in the hope of checking the expansion of the United States and fostering the dissolution of the Union. With a few alterations from time to time, Green’s scenario . . . went as follows: Britain would encourage Texas, with promises of interest-free loans and support against Mexico, to emancipate all slaves in the Lone Star Republic. With Texas a free area, runaway slaves from the United States would seek sanctuary there. American slave owners would attempt to recover their property. Border incidents would occur, but the government in Washington, increasingly controlled by the North, would refuse to aid the slave owners. The South would have no choice but to secede from the Union.

"To no act in my life do I revert with more entire satisfaction"

John C. Calhoun responded immediately to the accusations that Sen. Hopkins L. Turney made in the Senate on February 12, 1847. Calhoun’s reply includes the only explanation he ever gave, to the best of my knowledge, as to why he cast the drive to annex Texas as a pro-slavery measure. By inference, it is only occasion on which he suggested, at least indirectly, why he sent the Pakenham Letter, which I discussed in several previous posts.

Calhoun’s defense of his conduct embraced a number of topics. He again adamantly denied, for example, that his actions or votes had been influenced by a desire for the presidency. He also vigorously denied the claim that he had not voted in favor of bills providing the troops in the field with provisions and other support.

Turning to the question of his actions in connection with the annexation of Texas, Calhoun initially provided only a brief defense: annexation was a “pure necessity.” When he expressed doubt that the Senate wanted to take the time to hear further explanation, his colleagues urged him to continue:
[Sen. Turney] spoke of the responsibility for the war as arising from the annexation of Texas. I take a deep interest in the measure of annexation, and to no act in my life do I revert with more entire satisfaction. Annexation at that time, according to my opinion, was a question of pure necessity. I might go into this matter if it would not occupy the time of the Senate. (Cries of “go on”).

Apparently satisfied that the Senate was prepared to hear him out, Calhoun continued. He began by discussing his decision to accept the position of Secretary of State following the death of Abel P. Upshur on February 28, 1844. Calhoun tacitly admitted that he was aware of the secret treaty negotiations with the Republic of Texas in which John Tyler and Upshur had been involved. The president, a political outcast, desperately needed help to pass what Calhoun then viewed as “a very important measure”:

According to my view, the time was not propitious in one aspect.

The then President had no party in either House. I am not certain he had a single supporter in this [i.e., the Senate]; and not more than four or five in the other. It appeared to me to be a very unpropitious moment, under such circumstances, to carry through so important a measure. When it was intimated to me that I would be nominated for the office of Secretary of State, I strongly remonstrated against it to my friends here [in Washington]; but before my remonstrance reached them [Calhoun was in South Carolina at the time] I was unanimously appointed, and was compelled to accept. I saw that the Administration was weak, and that that very important measure would be liable to be defeated.

Merrill D. Peterson points out the many incentives that Calhoun had in March 1844 to accept the post of Secretary of State:
Calhoun accepted with such alacrity because he saw an opportunity to serve the South and the Union by the consummation of Texas annexation and settlement of the Oregon boundary. And who can doubt that he also saw an opportunity, as James G. Blaine later suggested, to exact "an historic revenge which the noblest minds might indulge" on Martin Van Buren?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mr. T. Calls Out Mr. C.

In my periodic posts about John C. Calhoun and Mexico, I most recently reviewed the Senator’s February 9, 1847 speech advocating an immediate end to the war. Days later, a Democratic Senator condemned Calhoun as a hypocrite.

The accuser in question was one of the more obscure Senators of the period (at least to me). Hopkins L. Turney. Democrat of Tennessee, served a single term in the Senate, from 1845 to 1851.

On February 12, 1847, Sen. Turney delivered remarks in the Senate in which he, among other things, accused Calhoun and others of blocking measures necessary to support the war and the army in the field. In the process, he portrayed Calhoun (without naming him) and unnamed allies as constituting “a party . . . that might properly be termed the Balance of Power party.” This party, Turney suggested, sided now with the Democrats, now with the Whigs, in order to bolster the presidential aspirations of its leader.

Calhoun adamantly denied that his views and votes were “governed by the paltry and miserable consideration of being President of the United States.” Calhoun maintained that he voted at different times in accord with different parties precisely because he was he was not part of “the wretched system of caucusing, which has created in every State a party of men who work in concert to get offices for purposes of plunder.” He was “an independent Senator, governed by my own views, going for the good of the country, uncontrolled by anything which mortal man can bring to bear upon me.”

As for the war, Calhoun had not voted for it on the merits. “I saw in this very war what every man now begins to see – consequences which deterred me; and we are not at the bottom yet.”

In reply, Turney twisted the knife. Had not Calhoun been a principal advocate of annexation of Texas with a boundary of the Rio Grande? Was it not inevitable that annexation would lead to war? In fact, Turney maintained, Calhoun “had done more to bring this country into war now than any other man in the United States.”
[T]he annexation of Texas produced the war. . . . After that act war was inevitable. It was . . . predicted by the Whigs. . . . The Senator from South Carolina had done more to bring it about than any other man in the United States, for he had effected the annexation. He voted to recognize the independence of Texas in General Jackson’s time, and had been very influential in bringing annexation about subsequently. As Secretary of State, he had concluded the treaty with the republic of Texas by which she was to be annexed to the United States. He (Mr. T.) had never read that paper, but he understood that it extended the territory of Texas to the Rio Grande.

After an uproar and call to order, Sen. Turney resumed his indictment:
[T]he Senator from South Carolina did more to bring the war upon the country than any other man in the United States. What then? Texas was annexed. After she was annexed, it was declared by her Minister that annexation would be regarded as an act of hostility. He demanded his passports, and returned to Mexico. The United States Government sent their Minister to Mexico, with powers to negotiate all these matters, and Mexico refused to receive him. She then sent her army to the frontier, and invaded the territory of the United States. She claimed the whole of Texas; and yet the Senator voted against the bill, passed at the last session, giving men and money to resist the invasion, on the ground, as he (Mr. T.) understood, that the preamble of that bill was not true. That preamble asserted that the war had been brought about by Mexico.

It is worth stopping to note that Sen. Turney’s description of Calhoun’s actions and positions in the earlier session is not entirely correct. Calhoun did not vote against the bill; he abstained. Although Calhoun’s objection to the bill did focus on the preamble, Turney garbles the substance of Calhoun’s complaint. These events were the subject of an earlier post.

Turney then drew, or at least implied, his conclusion. “[S]ome powerful motive” – presumably thirst for the presidency – was responsible for Calhoun’s inconsistent positions:
Now, it would seem to him (Mr. T.) to require some powerful motive to induce anybody to bring his country into the war, and then, after getting her into the war, to back out of it, if not to denounce it as unjust and unconstitutional in direct terms!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sigur Ros

What can I say? Over the past several months I've gone Sigur Ros crazy. Here's a favorite.

"The permanence of the system depends on keeping the prices high"

If the price of slaves comes down, then the permanency of the institution comes down. Why? Because every man values his property in proportion to its actual intrinsic worth. . . . Would you be willing to shoulder your musket in vindication of slaveholding rights -- would you be willing to fight for them and risk your domestic peace and happiness if your slaves were only worth five dollars apiece? Why, every man sees that that is an absurdity. Therefore, the permanence of the system depends on keeping the prices high.

Henry S. Foote, quoted in Debow's Review, Vol. 27, Issue 2 (August 1859), p. 219.

Speaking of Mexico (or not) . . .

Hurricane Bound For Texas Slowed By Large Land Mass To The South

John C. Calhoun: "To whose benefit should [Mexican territory] enure?"

It has been a while, but when we last visited John Calhoun, he was explaining to the Senate on February 9, 1847 his proposed resolution to the war with Mexico.

After describing the line that he would draw, Calhoun circled back to outline its advantages. First, it would "enable us to fulfil all the objects for which the war was declared." Second, it was cheap. The border could be maintained with a handful of forts. The fact that the border would run through areas far from the principal Mexican population made it all the more defensible.

This, in turn, meant that the federal government could save tens of millions of dollars. The taxes that would be necessary to fund continued war would be eliminated, increased tariffs could be avoided, and free trade maintained:
What . . . will be the fruits of this policy? Why, sir, a large portion of the war expenses will be immediately cut off . . . thus effecting a savings of from fifteen to twenty millions of dollars a year. Further taxes will not be required; the credit of this Government will be immediately strengthened, and the measure which some of us have so much at heard, and which we are risking the enjoyment of -- I mean free trade -- may in a short time be secured . . ..

Conversely, continuation of the war threatened increased tariffs and would require the government also to impose "internal taxes." The people would not stand for it:
[C]an you provide the ways and means [to continue the war]? I fear there will be more difficulty in this than you imagine. Remember, that you have only as a reliance your treasury notes and such money as you can borrow. You must either borrow or impose taxes. What taxes can you impose? Your taxes upon imports can give you but a small supply; you must resort to internal taxes, a measure which is abhorred by the people of this country more perhaps than by those of any country upon the face of the earth.

Some of the states were already choking on debt, Calhoun maintained, and would not tolerate more:
[M]any of the States are indebted more than they can pay. If you lay an internal tax, it must be laid uniformly throughout all the States; and if you lay it upon those States thus indebted, will not repudiation extend? Will Pennsylvania, with a debt of forty millions -- will those States which are unable to discharge their obligations -- will they bear such a tax? No, sir.

Calhoun then turned to the sectional conflict that the seizure of all of Mexico would create. In a phrase, would slavery be permitted in Mexico? (Here, as in earlier posts, I am converting the third-person reporting of the Congressional Globe to the first person.)
But there is a still deeper, a still more terrific difficulty to be met -- a difficulty more vital than those to which I have alluded -- a difficulty arising out a division of sentiment which goes to the very foundation of our Government. How should these lands be acquired, if any are acquired? To whose benefit should they enure? Should they inure to the exclusive benefit of one portion of the Union? We are told, and I am fearful that appearances too well justify the assertion, that all parties in the non-slaveholding portion of the Union insist that they should have the exclusive control of this acquired territory -- that such provision should be made as should exclude those who are interested in the institutions of the South from a participation in the advantages to be derived from the application of these institutions to the territory thus acquired.

Calhoun put his northern colleagues on notice: if northerners were determined that territory acquired from Mexico would be slave-free, they could be assured that southerners would be equally adamant in demanding protection of their rights:
Sir, if the non-slaveholding States, having no other interests in the question except their aversion to slavery -- if they can come to this conclusion with no interest in the matter but this, I turn and ask gentlemen, what must be the feeling of the population of the slaveholding States, who are to be deprived of their constitutional rights, and despoiled of the property belonging to them -- assailed in the most vulnerable point, for to them this question is a question of safety, of self-preservation, and not a mere question of policy; and thus to be despoiled by those who are not concerned?

If there is sternness and determination [on] one side, you may be assured there will be on the other. If I may judge from what I have heard, from the appearances proceeding from the non-slaveholding States -- and I have no reason to doubt it, they being the first to cry out for a vigorous prosecution of the war -- can you suppose that less feeling will be exhibited on the part of those who are to be entirely excluded from their rights, and while this radical difference exists between them?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Die . . ."

For some reason, when I read a report a few minutes ago that Kim Jong-il has pancreatic cancer, this scene from the film "Independence Day" immediately came to mind:

The Gray Lady Sells WQXR

The New York Times announced today that it is selling WQXR, New York City's sole remaining radio station devoted to classical music.

I have seen surprisingly little speculation that the Times would make such a move. To me, at least, the sale was not unexpected, given the fact that the company is losing money hand over fist and will likely end up in bankruptcy within the next 18 to 24 months. The sale price of $45 million is chump change, but I guess every little bit helps while the Sulzberger family continues to live in a fantasy land in which Pinch Sulzberger can revive the brand before it swirls down the toilet.

Typically for the Times, the announcement appears to be laden with dishonest half truths and worse. Although the Times emphasizes that the deal "preserves WQXR as the only station devoted solely to classical music in New York City," the fact is that once the sale closes no contract will, as a practical matter, prevent the new owners from eventually doing whatever they want with the station. In addition, the new WQXR will have a signal one-tenth the strength of the present one, in other words, pathetic, no matter what the Times tells you.

I greet the news with mixed emotions. As a lover of classical music, I will regret the loss. As pathetic as WQXR usually is, it has been the only game in town, and I listen to it regularly in the car. I also feel bad for the announcers, who will sooner or later be swept aside. But to the extent the move represents one more revolution down the toilet and into the sewer, I rejoice. The Times has become pathetic and repulsive, and I will dance on its grave when it dies.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Zachary Taylor . . . is no more"

I have missed the anniversary by a day, but want to note it anyway. One hundred fifty-nine years ago yesterday, on Wednesday July 10, 1850, Millard Fillmore became the 13th president of the United States.

Fillmore had virtually no notice or time to prepare. Zachary Taylor had initially become ill late in the day on Thursday July 4, and his condition rapidly grew worse. On Sunday July 7, Taylor predicted that “In two days I shall be a dead man.”

However, early in the morning of Tuesday July 9 Taylor rallied, and people thought he was out of danger. John C. Waugh recounts the scene:
At 3:30 Tuesday morning – it was now July 9 – the crisis miraculously seemed to pass and the crowds were told he was out of immediate danger. Bells were rung and bonfires lit in celebration. Officials flocked to the White House with congratulations.

Daniel Webster saw the president at about noon. Satisfied with the president’s condition, he left to return to the Senate. Immediately thereafter, the president suffered a relapse. “[A]s [Webster] was returning to the Senate, word followed him that Taylor had abruptly plunged into a relapse and was unlikely to live through the day. The doctors had taken him off the medicine and said he was in God’s hands.”

Webster proceeded to the Senate, where Fillmore was presiding, and interrupted a speech by South Carolina’s Andrew Butler:
An hour into his speech, [Butler] abruptly stopped. A foreign visitor in the gallery described the scene. Daniel Webster, standing before Butler, was staring sadly at him out of those two cavernous eyes and “indicating with a deprecatory gesture that he must interrupt him on account of some important business.” Butler bowed and fell silent. “A stillness as of death reigned in the house, and all eyes were fixed upon Webster, who himself stood silent for a few seconds, as if to prepare the assembly for tidings of serious import. He then spoke slowly and with that deep and impressive voice which is peculiar to him.”

“A very great misfortune is now immediately impending over the country,” Webster said. “The President of the United States cannot live many hours.” “A thrill, as if from a noiseless electric shock,” the foreign visitor in the gallery later wrote, “had passed through the assembly.” She felt herself grow pale. Webster moved that the Senate adjourn, and it was immediately agreed to.

Zachary Taylor died at 10:30 that night. According to Robert J. Rayback, Vice President Fillmore was informed of Taylor’s death sometime before midnight. A messenger came to Fillmore’s room at the Willard Hotel and delivered a message from the cabinet: “Sir: The . . . painful duty devolves on us to announce to you that Zachary Taylor . . . is no more.”

“Reality,” Rayback recounts, “now burst upon Fillmore with terrible force.” Fillmore composed a message for the cabinet: “I have no language to express the emotions of my heart. The shock is so sudden and unexpected that I am overwhelmed. . . . I . . . shall appoint a time and place for taking the oath of office . . . [at the] . . . earliest moment.”

After a sleepless night, Fillmore formally assumed the presidency on Wednesday July 10, 1850. “At noon before a joint session of both houses, with cabinet present, Judge Branch of the district court administered the Presidential oath of office.”

It can be argued that Fillmore’s first day in office was as productive as any presidential first day in history. Although in shock, Fillmore promptly accepted the resignations of Taylor’s entire cabinet. He also met with Daniel Webster and determined to appoint him as the new Secretary of State. These key moves would lay the groundwork for the new president’s successful resolution of the crisis that had been building for almost four years, ever since David Wilmot first introduced his famous proviso on a hot night in August 1846.


After posting this, I realized that Ed Darrell, who never misses a significant Millard event, had almost certainly noted Millard's accession. And indeed he has: Historical anniversary: July 10, 1850, Millard Fillmore succeeds to the presidency

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Did Town Line, NY Really Secede from the Union in 1861?

A poster at Civil War Talk pointed out this odd Wikipedia entry concerning Town Line, New York, located in Erie County:
In 1861, in the small hamlet of Town Line in upstate New York, 125 voters met and voted 85 to 40 to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America. The reasons are unclear, but an article in The Buffalo News from 1945 cites discontent with President Lincoln, treatment of Confederate soldiers at a POW camp in Elmira, the interest of self rule or perhaps an incident by some runaway slaves at a local underground railroad stop. It was also reported that Town Line sent five men through the Union lines to fight for the Confederate States under General Robert E. Lee.

During the American Civil War, as casualties on both side increased and the nature of the Civil War changed, the secession was slowly forgotten by members of the community but never revoked.

During World War II, it was discovered that Town Line had not rejoined the Union, and on 26 January 1946, Town Line voted to officially join the Union. Even today, the local volunteer fire company has the words "Last of the Rebels" on their shoulder patch.

Can this possibly be true?

John C. Calhoun: "The line which I would suggest . . ."

In recent posts, we have seen that Senator John C. Calhoun opposed the Polk administration’s rush to war against Mexico in May 1846. By the end of the year, his concern had deepened. He saw the war as a disaster for the south. Continuation of the war threatened consolidation and increased tariffs. Most of all, Calhoun feared, acquisition of territory threatened to ignite a campaign by Free Soilers to demonize the South by moving to bar slavery from any land taken from Mexico.

On February 9, 1847, the Senate was debating the president’s so-called “Three Million Bill.” This was, ironically, the successor to the original appropriation request that had spawned the Wilmot Proviso in August 1846. The original bill had died at the end of the last session. Now, six months later, the administration was still seeking an appropriation “to bring the war with Mexico to a speedy and honorable conclusion.” In other words, the president wanted money with which to purchase territory from Mexico as part of a hoped-for treaty.

Calhoun decided to use the bill as an opportunity to address a more general issue: what, in fact, was the purpose of the war and, given that purpose, how should it be fought and concluded?

The principal purposes of the war, Calhoun asserted, were twofold: first, to repel invasion of Texas; and second, to establish the Rio Grande as the southern and western border of Texas. A third, subsidiary object was “to obtain payment of the indemnities due to our citizens for claims which they held against Mexico.”

Having defined the “objects” of the war, Calhoun then addressed the question, “How shall [the war] be conducted to enable us most advantageously to effect all of [those] objects?” The answer, he stated, lay in a limited, defensive war, and not the offensive war in which the administration was engaged:
I hold, then, Mr. President – such being the objects of the war – that all those objects for which it was declared can be accomplished by taking a defensive position. Two of them have been already thoroughly effected. The invasion has been repelled by two brilliant victories; the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande] is held from its source to its mouth as the American boundary; a single Mexican soldier does not remain within our territory; and such has been the success of our arms, that we have not only acquired enough territory from them, but vastly more than enough to indemnify us for the expenses of the war, if it should be the judgment of this body that it would be a sound, wise, or just policy on our part to seek such indemnity.

Using a phrase he had used privately, Calhoun condemned the dismemberment of Mexico as “forbidden fruit” that would destroy the United States (here I am converting the third person reporting in the Congressional Globe to the first person):
There is a mysterious connexion between the fate of this country and that of Mexico. Her independence and respectability, and capability of maintaining all those relations, are almost as essential to us as they are to Mexico. Mexico is to us forbidden fruit; if we should consume that fruit, it would be almost tantamount to the political death of our own institutions.

Calhoun did not immediately elaborate on why Mexico was “forbidden fruit.” He turned instead to the practical, bottom-line issue: where should the boundary between the United States and Mexico be drawn? The line, Calhoun argued, needed to be defensible and “eminently pacific” – that is, sensitive to Mexico’s needs, so that it would lead to a “speedy” and “permanent peace.” Based on these considerations, Calhoun proposed a boundary that was (if I understand him correctly) quite similar to the boundary ultimately negotiated by Nicholas Trist:
The line which I would suggest is one beginning at the mouth of the Rio del Norte [the Rio Grande] and extending up to the pass of the del Norte, a southern boundary of New Mexico, and thence due west to the Gulf of California. Such a line would strike the Gulf nearly at its head.

My knowledge of southwestern geography is weak, but “the pass of the del Norte” presumably refers to the area around what is now El Paso, Texas, and the 1847 map at the top shows "Paso del Norte" at about that location. Drawing a line due west from El Paso does in fact “strike the Gulf nearly at its head.”

As we shall see, Calhoun seems to have been most concerned about heading off a more aggressive outcome: a resolution of the war in which the United States would swallow all, or substantially all, of Mexico. But it is equally interesting that he failed to urge an even more conservative conclusion to the war, one in which the United States acquired no territory other than Texas expanded to the limits claimed by its most extravagant advocates, with a western border snaking north up along the Rio Grande and then farther north through what is now Colorado and into southern Wyoming.

It is certainly reasonable to suspect that this is the outcome that Calhoun would really have preferred. Logically, confirming the United States’ claim to an expansive Texas, but acquiring nothing else, was the only result that would avoid clashes with free soilers over slavery in the territories.

A navigable version of the map at the top of the post may be found here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Athenian Democracy

The Classics major in me (after all these decades!) can't help pointing out an interesting post by Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens - Why Ancient Athenian Voters Were Not as Ignorant as We Have Been Taught to Think, which in turn discusses what looks like a fascinating book, Josiah Ober's Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens.

Here's a taste of Prof. Somin's post on the book:
Ober shows that ancient Athens was relatively successful in dealing with the problem of political ignorance in large part because of the ways in which it differed from modern representative democracy. In today's democracies, voters have strong incentives to remain "rationally ignorant" because there is very little chance that their votes will actually affect the outcome of an election. In ancient Athens, by contrast, there were only a few thousand voters, and, at any given time, some 30 percent of them (according to data I calculated from information in Ober's book) were serving in public office under Athens' system of allocating many government positions by lot (most of these offices were not full-time jobs). This ensured that individual voters had a much greater chance of affecting the outcomes of key decisions, and also that a large number could have an impact on policy in ways that go beyond voting, which further increased the incentive to become well-informed.

In addition, ancient Athenian government had far fewer and less complex functions than the modern state, which reduced the amount of knowledge voters needed to make informed decisions. In striking contrast to the modern world, most Athenian voters actually had direct personal experience with the main functions of government, which put them in a better position to assess its performance. By far the most important activity of Athenian government was the waging of war. Many, if not most, members of the Athenian electorate (which was, of course, limited to adult male citizens) probably had themselves served in the army or navy. Ancient military strategy and tactics were simple enough that common soldiers and sailors could assess the performance of generals more easily than today.

I would add only this. In Athens, if you voted for war, you were going to war. Nothing serves better to focus the mind.

The reference to Donald Kagan at the end of Prof. Somin's post reminds me to remind you, once again, to view or listen to Prof. Kagan's wonderful Introduction to Ancient Greek History course. Superb.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summer's Eve

A beautiful Rick Klauber shim painting for a beautiful summer evening.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

John Calhoun, "A man trapped in the 1830s"?

I think William W. Freehling exaggerates a bit for effect, but I really like his observation about John C. Calhoun:
After the Civil War, careless commentators would claim that Calhoun's ghost led the South to war. Contemporaries knew better. Few claimed Calhoun's tradition during southern debates of the late 1850s. His last Senate speech and posthumously published masterpieces [his A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States and A Disquisition on Government] explain why. They reveal a man trapped in the 1830s.

About the illustration:
The artist employs Aesop's fable about the mountain which was said to be in labor, its dreadful groans attracting expectant crowds only to be disappointed when it issued forth a small mouse. Here the mountain is the "Volcano of Loco-Focoism" which spews "Repudiation" from its peak and sends out two mice, Martin Van Buren and John C. Calhoun, from its base. "Loco Foco," originally an appellation of a radical faction of New York Democrats, was by 1844 a pejorative label applied to the party in general. In "The Mountain in Labor" the artist seems to belittle Van Buren and Calhoun, the early front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination. Van Buren says, "Don't be afeard its only us!" and Calhoun expresses his anti-tariff stance with, "Free trade!" A crowd watches from the lower right, one of them declaring, "It's the old Kinderhook mouse and his nullifying crony!" Also witnessing the event is Henry Clay (left) who comments, "The mountains labor and bring forth ridiculous mice! Here's the trap that will catch them!" At his feet is a mouse trap "National Faith." In a nearby armchair sits President John Tyler, dressed in a uniform and holding a "Veto" sword. The uniform may be an allusion to his Jacksonian policies, or the mantle inherited from his popular predecessor, Gen. William Henry Harrison. Tyler, who acceded to the presidency on Harrison's death, earned his party's wrath by repeatedly vetoing Whig efforts to reestablish a national bank. Here he reflects his determination to retain the White House, saying, "Possession being nine points in the law I must head them [the mice] both off!" The cartoon was probably published in 1843 or early in 1844. It may have been issued around the time of the late-August 1843 New York City Democratic convention, at which both Van Buren and Calhoun showed considerable strength. It must in any event predate the May 1844 Democratic national convention. By that time the range of Democratic hopefuls had widened considerably and Calhoun, appointed Tyler's secretary of state in March, was no longer a likely nominee. Weitenkampf cites an impression of the print with an H. R. Robinson imprint.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Road to the Road to Gettysburg: 10 Favorite Books On the Period Leading Up To the Civil War

When Brett Schulte approached me to participate in his “10 Best Gettysburg Books” project, I told him that I’d be delighted to do so – except for the fact that I haven’t read 10 Gettysburg books. In a shameless attempt to get a piece of the action, I’m therefore contributing in my own way, by supplying a list of my favorite books dealing with the period leading up to the Civil War – let’s call it “The Road to the Road to Gettysburg”.

In order to accommodate different types of readers and interests, I’ve included a variety of books. Some are broad in their geographic and temporal scope, while others focus on particular events (e.g., the Nullification Crisis) or issues (e.g., Free Soil). In many instances I have tried to mention alternatives or follow-up suggestions for those so inclined. There are books here both for true beginners – those students of the Civil War who have never delved into the fascinating pre-War world – and a few that even those with more experience may not have encountered.

All of the usual caveats apply, plus some others. This is not a list of the "best" or "most important" books. I carefully selected the adjective "favorite" to make this clear. I am not a professional historian, simply a reader who has become drawn to American history of this period. I read what interests me, and some things interest me more than others. For this reason, and because my interest in American history came late (fewer than ten years ago), there are large gaps in my knowledge that necessarily affect my selections. And my reactions to the books I have read are of course personal. Where I have selected one book on a topic rather than others that might be regarded as leading candidates, I have tried to explain why. If I have missed a favorite, I encourage you to take me to task (gently!) and add your suggestions in the comments. I may or may not have a good excuse.

A. Introduction and Prequel

1. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press 2007).

This first selection is in the nature of a prequel or introduction. Daniel Walker Howe’s book, covering the period from the end of the War of 1812 through the Mexican War, is not a “coming of the Civil War” book. It is, however, the finest general survey of the era that I know of. If you want to orient yourself and understand the events, personalities and trends of the period leading into the immediate pre-War era, there is no better place to start. Jill Lepore has a penetrating review of What Hath God Wrought in the New Yorker, Vast Designs: How America Came of Age, that will whet your appetite by giving you a feel for the book’s virtues.

Prof. Howe’s principal competition is probably Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton & Co. 2005). As the title suggests, Prof. Wilentz covers more ground than Prof. Howe does – ground that is unnecessary for present purposes, since the period 1848-1861 happens to be covered by one of the finest American history books ever written.

If you are thinking about exploring the period, but not at treatise length (Wilentz’s book contains almost 800 pages of text, Howe’s in excess of 850), Harry L. Watson’s Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (Hill & Wang 2006, originally published 1990) (roughly 270 pages of text) is an outstanding alternative. Watson focuses primarily on the period through the end of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, but his ability to impart his knowledge of and feel for the period and the Second Party System are superb. Somehow, you manage to get 75% or more of Howe in less than one-third of the pages.

One other way to explore this period, for those so inclined, is via biography. Robert V. Remini is probably the leading authority on Andrew Jackson. I haven’t read his three-volume magnum opus on Old Hickory, but the single volume condensation, The Life of Andrew Jackson, is quite good, and his biography of Jackson’s arch-enemy and Abraham Lincoln’s idol, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union is even better.

B. Overviews of the Pre-War Period

2. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Harper Perennial 1977) (first published 1976)

If you read only one book about the period leading up to the Civil War, David M. Potter’s magnificent The Impending Crisis is the book you should get. More than thirty years after it first appeared, it continues to stand head and shoulders above all competition. This is not a close call, people.

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Professor Potter (1910-1971), together with Kenneth M. Stampp, was one of America’s finest historians to come of age around the mid-20th Century, and The Impending Crisis is his masterpiece. First published in 1976, after Professor Potter’s death, it is the culmination of a lifetime of study and research. Beautifully written and highly readable, it is both comprehensive and passionately argued. If you read this single book with care, you will be richly rewarded with a nuanced understanding of the political events of the antebellum period and the arguments about Civil War causation.

It is rare, in my experience, that a work so completely dominates its field. Take advantage of the opportunity.

3. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (W.W. Norton & Co. 1983) (first published 1978)

After – but only after – you have read and absorbed Prof. Potter’s masterpiece, you might consider Michael Holt’s Political Crisis of the 1850s for a somewhat different view. Prof. Holt is an intensely political historian: elections, and the officials elected, matter.

Prof. Holt’s most valuable contribution is his focus on the fact that the mid-south, unlike the cotton south, did not immediately secede in response to Lincoln’s election but only after Sumter. Any theory of Civil War causation, he maintains, must account for this phenomenon – and slavery density alone is not an adequate explanation. In a brilliant piece of detective work, Prof. Holt identifies the continued presence of a viable two-party system as a potentially key piece of the puzzle. By the mid-1850s, Democratic parties dominated all of the lower south states, while vigorous Whiggish opposition persisted in the mid-south, providing a political base around which opponents of secession could rally when the crisis came.

4a. William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford University Press 1991) (first published 1990)

4b. William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (Oxford University Press 2008) (first published 2007)

It is impossible to compile this list and not include William W. Freehling’s obsessive, often fascinating and quirky Road to Disunion series. As Professor Freehling relates in the preface to the first volume, he initially expected that a book about the causes of secession would cover the late 1850s. His research took him further and further back in time until he wound up in the American Revolution.

I should disclose up front that Professor Freehling is not a great writer. All I can say is that, if you can get past his idiosyncratic prose (and you even come to savor it after a while), you will benefit from the insights of a man who has been obsessively (that word keeps coming to mind) studying and cataloging the antebellum south for virtually his entire adult life. The volumes move chronologically, but they also repeatedly stop to survey the terrain. Entire chapters can be, in effect, discrete essays – about the southern transportation system, or southern literature, or the intellectual arguments that were constructed to transform slavery from a “necessary evil” into a positive good.

Prof. Freehling's greatest contribution lies in his ability to highlight and explain the profound differences that existed among antebellum southerners, and in fact that theme structures the volumes. How did it happen that secessionists, repeatedly defeated and rejected by their fellow southerners for decades, finally triumphed and were able to lead their previously-unwilling cohorts out of the union? In Prof. Freehling's words (which will give you a taste of that prose style):
Secessionists are the desperadoes in the Old South's story. . . . Between Calhoun's unconditional desire to perpetuate slavery and Jefferson's conditional hope to end the institution, so many Southerners fought for so many visions that secessionists lost and lost and lost, losing finally all confidence in winning. After Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, this minority of the southern minority conspired to bring off a last gamble. In 1861, to extremists' amazement, disunion triumphed. This is the tale of how and why vanquished secessionists became victors -- and of a south which remained too divided for the victors to win their gamble with the sword.

C. Particular Events and Issues

5a. William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina: 1816-1836 (Oxford University Press 1965)

5b. Richard E. Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights and the Nullification Crisis (Oxford University Press 1989) (first published 1987)

When it comes to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches – and the two books listed above complement each other beautifully. Professor Freehling’s book (which is much better written than his later Road to Disunion series) focuses primarily on the situation within South Carolina – how did it come to be that the inmates took charge of the asylum? He tells a gripping story and argues with some persuasiveness that South Carolinian leaders viewed resistance to the tariff as a preemptive strike against future threats to slavery.

Richard Ellis’s book, on the other hand, focuses on the reactions of Andrew Jackson and other national leaders, and then examines the effects of the president’s aggressive rhetoric and posture on the Democratic coalition. Presaging the reaction of mid-south states before the Civil War, many southern Democrats both adamantly denounced South Carolina’s position and yet were repelled by Jackson’s consolidationist and anti-state’s rights rhetoric and his willingness to “coerce” South Carolina if necessary.

6. John C. Waugh, On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History (SR Books 2003)

I do not think that the definitive book on the Crisis and Compromise of 1850 has been written yet.

Many would disagree. Holman Hamilton’s Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (University Press of Kentucky 2005) (originally published 1964) is usually cited as superb. The paperback version of Hamilton’s book contains a forward by Michael Holt to that effect, and Prof. Holt’s opinion is not to be taken lightly. Since I am apparently the only person who has not been swept off his feet, take my alternate recommendation with many grains of salt.

John Waugh’s book may lack some of Hamilton’s detailed analysis – Waugh is a journalist by trade, not an historian – but it is a tremendous amount of fun. Mr. Waugh grippingly relates the inherently dramatic story, provides vivid portraits of the many famous figures who participated in the drama – Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, among others – and supplies arresting and often hilarious stories and vignettes (some of which are related here and here). It is true, as I mentioned in an earlier post discussing the book, that Mr. Waugh does not do justice to the end of the crisis, the period after the collapse of the Clay omnibus plan at the end of July. But that is the also a weakness (in my humble opinion) of Prof. Hamilton’s book, so I don’t think you’re losing anything.

For those particularly interested in the Crisis and Compromise of 1850, one other book deserves mention as a supplement. Mark J. Stegmaier’s Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis (Kent State University Press 1996) focuses, as the title suggests, on the role played in the Crisis by the looming border dispute between the State of Texas and the newly-acquired unincorporated territory of New Mexico. The book is therefore a valuable corrective to most accounts, which typically underplay what I see as the most potentially dangerous issue: the possibility that a clash along that border might have precipitated a wider conflict. It also highlights the critical role played by one of our greatest presidents, Millard Fillmore, in resolving the crisis.

7. Jonathan H. Earle, Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 (University of North Carolina Press 2004)

The spread of the anti-slavery-expansion impulse in the North is generally conceived of as largely an outgrowth of Whiggish, moral objections to the peculiar institution – Abraham Lincoln being the paradigm. But this perspective is ultimately unsatisfying, for it leaves a mystery: loyal, hard-money Jacksonian Democrats such as David Wilmot, who seem to have had few moral qualms about slavery if confined to the South, precipitated the anti-slavery-expansion crisis in 1846, and large numbers of Democrats (including Martin Van Buren, the architect of the Democrat Party) thereafter joined that movement. Who on earth were these people, where did they come from, and what motivated them?

Jonathan Earle’s Jacksonian Antislavery is the only book I know of that explores these and similar issues, and does so to fascinating effect. Prof. Earle convincingly shows how resistance to the Slave Power and slavery expansion were, in many ways, natural outgrowths of radical Democratic values such as fear and hatred of perceived monopoly and “aristocracy” and devotion to the continued availability of “free soil” (both cost-free and slave-free) for settlement and farming. Abolitionism was always a fringe movement. Free Soilism transformed the North. If you want to begin to understand why masses of Democrats ultimately deserted to the Republicans (and by inference why they were absolutely critical to the Republican coalition), this is the book to consult.

For an earlier discussion and review of Prof. Earle’s book, see here. A runner up in this category is Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, although it has a very different focus.

8. Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (W.W. Norton & Co. 1978)

For the more adventurous among you, Gavin Wright’s book remains, more than 30 years after its publication, the single best work on economic issues relating to the antebellum south, slavery, farming, cotton and secession. If you are not an economist, as I am not, you may skim over portions of the book and miss some of Professor Wright’s subtler points, as I certainly did. Even so, an attentive lay reader will encounter a host of brilliant insights. Prof. Wright’s development of the idea that slavery was a method of capital accumulation and not simply a method of labor organization, and the consequences flowing from that insight, are worth the price of the book alone.

Those concerned about impersonal, economic explanations for historical events should fear not: Prof. Wright goes out of his way to make clear that he is not an economic determinist who believes that economics alone dictate events. At the same time, his penetrating analysis points out economic phenomena that help explain southern society and southern reactions to perceived northern threats against slavery.

For earlier discussions of aspects of Prof. Wright’s book, see here, here, here and here.

9. Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (Oxford University Press 1992) (first published 1990)

I mentioned earlier that Kenneth M. Stampp was, together with David M. Potter, one of America’s finest mid 20th Century historians. America in 1857 focuses, as the title suggests, on that pivotal year and the dramatic events it encompassed – from the inauguration of James Buchanan and the issuance of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dred Scott days later, to the short but sharp Panic of 1857. But the core of the book is an outstanding discussion of the situation in Kansas and President Buchanan’s disastrous decision to betray his own emissary, James Walker, and support the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. To make this story comprehensible, Prof. Stampp ventures back to provide a superb summary of the tremendously confusing earlier events in and concerning Kansas (where there seem to have been elections held every other week), and he takes us through the conclusion in the following year, when the Democratic anti-Lecompton forces spearheaded by Stephen A. Douglas administered a devastating defeat to their own party’s president.

I particularly like Professor Stampp’s book because it also tacitly provides a well-argued counterpoint to the contention that all historical events are utterly contingent. Prof. Stampp is no determinist, but he points out convincingly that, with the passage of time, certain outcomes became more likely. The Civil War was not inevitable in mid-1858, but many doors had closed in the previous eighteen months. In a real sense, the nation was materially closer to the “brink” than it had been.

D. The Secession Winter

10a. Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (University of North Carolina Press 2008)

10b. Daniel Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists In The Secessionist Crisis (University of North Carolina Press 1993) (first published 1989)

10c. Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University Press of Virginia 2001)

Although this may appear to be a transparent attempt to shoehorn extra books into list that is supposed to be limited to 10 – and it is – my linkage of these volumes is actually not all that unreasonable. All three examine the same period – the Secession Winter from Lincoln’s election through Sumter – but from different perspectives: the North, the mid-South, and the deep South. Reading them together provides an excellent opportunity to watch as the sections maneuver for position and thus to discern their concerns and motivations.

Partisans tend to label President Lincoln as a rabid warmonger intent on starting war to subjugate the South, or paint him as a rosy-hued semi-pacifist who did everything he could to avoid armed conflict.

Russell McClintock’s book absolves the president of both charges. A meticulous and extremely well documented study of Northern reaction and response during the Secession Winter (and Spring) of 1860-61, it is a worthy successor to Kenneth Stampp’s And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (Louisiana State University Press 2006) (first published 1950). I reviewed Dr. McClintock’s work in an earlier post, which I invite you to read. If you want to take a look at the facts before you reach your conclusions on Lincoln, this book is an excellent place to start.

As students of the Civil War know, the slave states did not secede en masse before President Lincoln’s inauguration. While the seven Cotton South states did so, the mid- and upper-south states resisted. As I mentioned previously, Michael Holt has argued that no theory about the causation of secession and the Civil War is worth its salt that does not explain this obvious but usually ignored discrepancy. In his superb book, Daniel Crofts takes Prof. Holt up on his challenge by conducting an in-depth analysis of the “reluctant Confederates” who resisted secession in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina between November 1860 and the Spring of 1861.

What Prof. Crofts finds is that the interplay among a number of factors seems to account for the difference. The degree of enslavement was clearly important, but that alone does not explain the massive resistance that developed in the mid-south to the secession tidal wave that swept the lower south away. A vigorous two-party system (which had largely disappeared from the Cotton South but persisted in the mid-south), geographical patterns of political affiliations and their interactions with high-density slave ownership regions contributed significantly to the positions adopted by these states.

Along the way, Prof. Crofts does an admirable job of making understandable a host of phenomena that are difficult for us to absorb today. Among other things, what was “conditional unionism”? Why or how could people simultaneously proclaim devotion to the Union, and abhor and denounce secession as disastrous lunacy, yet insist that only the carrot, and not the stick, be used to persuade the lunatics to return – and then themselves secede when the stick was applied? Prof. Crofts also provides the most comprehensible review I have seen of the myriad proposals, conferences and plans that were proposed and floated during the period.

Charles B. Dew’s slim volume is not a precise counterpart to the studies of Prof. Crofts and Dr. McClintock, but it is a fitting way to end this list. During the Secession Winter, five deep south states sent commissioners to other slave states in an attempt to persuade them to secede. Prof. Dew’s work examines the messages that the commissioners brought and demonstrates that slavery and race were at their heart. Anyone who contends otherwise must grapple with this powerful and persuasive study and refute it. To the best of my knowledge, no one has.

E. Postscript and Conclusion

Readers may have noticed that, for a “pre-Civil War” list, mine is light on books that focus specifically on secession in the lower south – Prof. Dew’s book is probably the only one that can be so classified.

Unfortunately, the finest books that I have read on secession in the lower south – and they are superb – are single-state studies that I deemed a bit too specialized for this list. That said, I cannot bear to omit them altogether. I have previously discussed three of them in an earlier joint review, which I invite you to read: J. Mills Thorton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, Lacy K. Ford’s Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860, and Stephanie McCurry’s Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. Having re-read all three since composing that review, my respect for them has only grown.

As I said at the outset, this is one lay person’s idiosyncratic "favorite" list. I welcome your thoughts and additions. Don’t hesitate. As any blogger will tell you, comments – including constructive criticism – are always welcome. Conversely, if you are looking for leads on particular issues or events that I have not addressed, I would be pleased to provide suggestions if I have them.
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