Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"I must look to my own interest"

The few pro-secession tracts specifically addressed to non-slaveholders that I have seen are not subtle affairs. The central message is generally race war. Lincoln's ascension to the presidency will spark a slave uprising. Wealthy planters and merchants will use their resources to escape. But you, the yeoman farmer, will be trapped with your family – you wife and your children – in a blood-drenched orgy of rapine and murder.

So measured, what is most remarkable about Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown's December l860 public letter in favor of immediate secession (which may be found in Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860) is its restraint. Bloodshed is not entirely absent – thousands of slaves, Brown warned his north Georgia neighbors, would flee the cotton and rice fields of the Black Belt
and make their way to the healthier climate in the mountain region. We should have them plundering and stealing, robbing and killing, in all the lovely vallies of the mountains . . . [that] contain the place of my nativity, the home of my manhood, and the theatre of most of the acts of my life . . ..
But most of Gov. Brown's argument is far more sophisticated. The end of slavery, Brown predicted, would drive poor whites into tenancy. Wealthy masters, no longer able to invest in slaves, would instead “soon buy all the lands of the South worth cultivating.” The result would be a Dickensian nightmare:
Then what? The poor would all become tenants, as they are in England, the New England States, and all old countries where slavery does not exist.
But that was not the end of the governor's analysis. Landless whites, he pointed out, would have to compete with millions of former slaves for work and tenancy – former slaves who would work for a pittance, forcing whites to work for slave wages. Brown spelled out the consequences:
In this capacity [as laborers] they [former slaves] would at once come in competition with the poor white laborers. Men of capital would see this, and fix the price of labor accordingly. The negro has only been accustomed to receive his victuals and clothes for his labor. Few of them, if free, would expect anything more. It would therefore be easy to employ them at a sum sufficient to supply only the actual necessaries of life.
Although a lawyer by profession (did you know that Brown attended Yale Law School?), the governor sketched a hypothetical transaction in terms worthy of an economics professor:
The poor white man would then go to the wealthy land-owner and say, I wish employment. Hire me to work. I have a wife and children who must have bread. The land-owner would offer probably twenty cents per day. The laborer would say, I cannot support my family on that sum. The landlord replies, That is not my business. I am sorry for you, but I must look to my own interest. The black man who lives on my land has as strong an arm, and as heavy muscles as you have, and can do as much labor. He works for me at that rate, you must work for the same price, or I cannot employ you. The negro comes into competition with the white man and fixes the price of his labor, and he must take it or get no employment.
The same scenario would play out, Brown explained, when “the poor white man” sought to rent land or find shelter for his family.
The negro therefore [Brown summed up], comes into competition with the poor white man, when he seeks to rent land on which to make his bread, or a shelter to protect his wife and his little ones, from the cold and from the rain; and when he seeks employment as a day laborer. In every such case if the negro will do the work the cheapest, he must be preferred.
I find this passage fascinating. First, ironically, Brown sounds very much like a Free Soiler, except that he is using Free Soil-ish arguments to justify the continuation of slavery where it already existed. Free labor cannot compete with slave-ish labor – and therefore the two types of labor must remain distinct and in their own spheres.

Second, his characterization of the “land-owner” is striking. While Brown apparently assumed that his “land-owner” was merely acting in accordance with what we would now refer to as the law of supply and demand, how many of his wary mountain audience would have seen nothing more than a confirmation of their suspicions about haughty, selfish planters?

About the illustration, entitled The Dis-United States, Or the Southern Confederacy:
The Confederate leaders are portrayed as a band of competing opportunists led by South Carolina governor and secessionist Francis Pickens (far left). The artist criticizes the January 1861 secession of five states from the lower South, following the lead of South Carolina, which had formally declared its independence a month before. Armed with a whip and a pistol, Pickens sits on the back of a young slave, pronouncing, "South Carolina claims to be file leader and general whipper in of the new Confederacy, a special edict! Obey and tremble!" The other leaders are also armed. Pickens's tyranny is met by expressions of self-interest from the other confederates. The nature of these individual interests are conveyed pictorially and in the text. Leaders from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia sit on bales of cotton, while Florida and Louisiana sit on a wrecked ship's hull and a barrel of sugar respectively. Florida (represented by a bearded man, possibly Stephen R. Mallory, senator and later secretary of the Confederate navy ): "We want it distinctly understood that all the lights on the Coast will be put out, in order to facilitate wrecking business." Alabama (William L. Yancey): "Alabama proclaims that C̀otton is King,' and the rest of the Confederacy "must obey" that Sovereign. Mississippi (Jefferson Davis): "We came in, with the understanding that we shall issue bonds to an unlimited extent, with our ancient right of repudiation when they became due." Georgia (Governor Joseph E. Brown): "Georgia must have half the honors, and all the profits, or back she goes to old Pluribus Unum.'" Louisiana (a mustachioed man): "A heavy duty must be levied on foreign sweetening in order to make up for what we have sacrificed in leaving the Union, otherwise we shall be like a P̀elican in the wilderness!'" Although Texas, which seceded on February 1, is not represented here, the print probably appeared at the time of the Montgomery convention in early February when the Confederate States of America was formed, but before Jefferson Davis assumed its presidency. Texas did not attend that convention.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Immediate Secession: "If we fail to resist now . . ."

I have from time to time posted on arguments by proponents of immediate secession that imply that a motivating factor was concern that some white southerners were potentially disloyal. They might be seduced by the patronage and lure of office of a Lincoln administration into affiliating with the Black Republicans, forming a fifth column within the South.

On December 11, 1860, the Federal Union, a weekly paper published in Millidgeville, Georgia, published a December 7, 1860 letter written by Governor Joseph Emerson Brown explaining why he favored immediate secession.

Brown's letter, which you may find in Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860, is a remarkable document in a number of respects, reflecting as it does the Governor's north Georgia origins. Brown is clearly focusing on his low-slaveholding northern base and attempting to persuade them that Lincoln's accession will be disastrous to non-slaveholding farmers. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

For present purposes, the letter is also remarkable because it contains an unusually frank and detailed discussion of potential white southern disloyalty. Brown's “candid opinion” was that the failure to secede before Lincoln took office would be “the utter ruin of the South, in less than twenty-five years.” How? Brown painted a picture in which the Republicans would use patronage to co-opt a small but crucial bloc of white voters (paragraph breaks added):

If we submit now, we satisfy the Northern people that, come what may, we will never resist. If Mr. Lincoln places among us his Judges, District Attorneys, Marshals, Post Masters, Custom House officers, etc., etc., by the end of his administration, with the control of these men, and the distribution of public patronage, he will have succeeded in dividing us to an extent that will destroy all our moral powers, and prepare us to tolerate the running of a Republican ticket, in most of the States of the South, in 1864.

If this ticket only secured five or ten thousand votes in each of the Southern States, it would be as large as the abolition party was in the North a few years since. It would hold a ballance [sic] of power between any two political parties into which the people of the South may hereafter be divided. This would soon give it control of our elections. We would be powerless, and the abolitionists would press forward, with a steady step, to the accomplishment of their object. . . .

I do not doubt, therefore, that submission to the administration of Mr. Lincoln will result in the final abolition of slavery. If we fail to resist now, we will never again have the strength to resist.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

May 20 is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

Momentum seems to be growing. Dan Savage, Michael Moynihan at Reason, and now Allahpundit at Hot Air are spreading the word: May 20 is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day in support of Matt Stone and Trey Parker and in opposition to religious thuggery.

Be there or be square!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"The restive bullock chafes when the tender skin first feels the heavy yoke"

I was re-reading Thomas R.R. Cobb's November 12, 1860 speech to the Georgia legislature advocating immediate secession and noticed how nimbly he addressed the concern that some Georgians might reach an accommodation with the Republicans:
[W]hy wait for two years when at their close we hope for nothing? Will our hearts become braver by submitting to this rule? Will our arms become stronger by the paralysis of shame? Will our people be more unanimous when party spirit has enchained them by its bonds? The restive bullock chafes when the tender skin first feels the heavy yoke, but a few days hardens the neck, and the sober, patient ox receives uncomplainingly the lash and the goad as well as the yoke. Two years of shame may crush out mountains of patriotism.
What a powerful image! In Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860 (where you can read the full speech), editors William Freehling and Craig M. Simpson record that a person who heard Cobb deliver a similar speech in Athens, Georgia a few days earlier "proclaimed it 'the greatest speech I ever heard. . . . Get Mr. Cobb to make the same speech in Milledgeville' and 'that dilapidated little village will dissolve the Union forthwith.'"

"Even the fisherman of Massachusetts and New England demand and receive . . . a pure bounty"

Last week, I published a post explaining why I believed that the term “bounties” contained in Article I, Section 8 of the Confederate Constitution referred to payments made to specified industries to offset tariffs, and particularly to the codfish industry to offset the tariff on salt. Now that I have access to my books, I am writing to amplify upon that post.

As I explained, the very first Tariff, enacted in 1789, contained a provision for payments to exporters of dried and pickled fish. However, the real furor over “bounties” did not erupt until early 1792, when Congress debated a law that repealed the 1789 payments and replaced it with direct payments to cod fishermen and their crews.

Ironically, it was Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who set in motion a series of events that caused the 'bounty” issue to explode. On February 1, 1791, Jefferson issued a Report on the Cod and Whale Fisheries in which he concluded that the New England codfish industry remained in financial distress. The industry's continued problems were the result of “heavy duties on their produce abroad, and bounties on that of their competitors; and duties at home on several articles particularly used by the fisheries.” The earlier rebate on salt duties was inadequate, and the rebate was paid to the exporters rather than to the fishermen.

Jefferson's proposed solution targeted his favorite whipping boy: the British. In the words of David P. Currie:
Jefferson saw this occasion as an opportunity to impose retaliatory regulations and duties to counteract British restrictions on American trade. The crux of his recommendation was the Government should fulfill “its obligation of effectuating free markets” for exporting fish by making “friendly arrangements towards those nations whose arrangements are friendly to us.” He did not have to add that the result would be arrangements that were less friendly toward Great Britain.
Jefferson's Brit-bashing project went badly awry. Although Congress agreed there was a problem, it decided to fashion a remedy entirely different from that envisioned by the Sage of Monticello. On January 11, 1792, the Senate passed and sent to the House a bill entitled An Act for the encouragement of the bank and other cod fisheries, and for the regulation and government of the fishermen employed therein. The Senate bill proposed to repeal the 1789 system of payments and provided (Prof. Currie again) “for paying to the owners of vessels employed in the cod fisheries a 'bounty' based upon the size of their boats and the quantity of fish they landed, to be divided among all their crew.”

As Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have described, “the term 'bounty' touched off an uproar” in the House (paragraph breaks added):
William B. Giles of Virginia was “averse to bounties in almost any shape”; they were in a class with “exclusive rights, monopolies, &c.”; “occupations that stand in need of bounties, instead of increasing the real wealth of a country, rather tend to lessen it”; and the authority to grant them, if admitted, “would lead to a complete system of tyranny.”

Hugh Williamson of North Carolina warned: “Establish the doctrine of bounties, [and] . . . . all manner of persons – people of every trade and occupation – may enter at the breach, until they have eaten up the bread of our children.”

Even the members of from Massachusetts – those most directly concerned to get the bill passed – found themselves squirming at the word. [Elbridge] Gerry urged that “in reality it is no bounty,” and [Fisher] Ames protested that “instead of asking bounties . . . we ask nothing but to give us our money back.” “The word 'bounty'” lamented Benjamin Goodhue, “is an unfortunate expression, and I wish it were entirely out of the bill.”
Once again irony intervened, for it was James Madison who stepped into the breach to fashion a compromise that exalted form over substance. Congress did not have power under the Constitution, Madison gravely declared, to grant bounties.
The happy solution [in the words of Elkins and McKitrick] was to substitute “allowance” every time the word “bounty” appeared, and to pass the bill. This sophistry had the effect of recognizing the fisheries as a special case, and at the same time giving the coup de grace to that entire aspect of [Alexander] Hamilton's report [on manufactures] which envisioned a comprehensive system of bounties on industrial products. “This is the Virginia style,” wrote the long-suffering Fisher Ames to a friend back home. “It is chiefly aimed at the report of the Secretary of the Treasury [Hamilton] on the subject of manufactures.”

Seventy years later, the codfish industry "bounty" continued to exist in modified form, and it continued to rankle secessionists as a prime example of Northern robbery. As Georgia Senator Robert Toombs argued to his state's legislature in his speech of November 13, 1860 (which may be found in Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860):
Even the fishermen of Massachusetts and New England demand and receive from the public treasury about half a million of dollars per annum as a pure bounty on their business of catching codfish. The North, at the very first Congress, demanded and received bounties under the name of protection, for every trade, craft, and calling which they pursue . . ..

Friday, April 16, 2010

Stephanie McCurry Bellows

Stephanie McCurry's first book, Masters of Small Worlds, was, I thought, a masterpiece. Her second work, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, has managed to turn me off in the opening pages. So far, I am tremendously disappointed.

By way of example, here is a brief passage from page 22, in which McCurry is discussing the concept of "the People" and arguing that secessionist radicals viewed "the People" as limited to white males. She refers to the speeches given by Alexander Stephens and Thomas R.R. Cobb against and for immediate secession to the Georgia legislature in November 1860:
But while Stephens fetishized "the people," filling his speech with obsequious references to their sovereignty and majesty, it was the spokesman for secession, state legislator Thomas R.R. Cobb, who mastered the populist appeal. Cobb headed straight for the bottom line: "This Constitution was made for white men - citizens of the United States," he bellowed to the crowded hall.
Now I've written many arguments in my time and read more. When I see cheap rhetoric masquerading as argument it stands out.

Turning first to Stephens, he may or may not have "fetishized" the People, and he may or may not have used many "obsequious references." If you want to make the argument that he did, fine. But make it directly. McCurry simply uses loaded words to denigrate her target. And while she's at it, I suppose she ought to explain how Stephens was fetishizing and being any more or less obsequious than other politicians of his day. Instead, we get what amounts to a drive-by shooting that's not even directly related to her main point.

But my real disdain is reserved for her characterization of Thomas Cobb as "bellow[ing]". There is no reason to believe that he was bellowing any more or less than any other orator in those unamplified times. The use of the term is simply a cheap device intended to prejudice the reader against the target, and perhaps to convey that McCurry righteously disapproves of him. McCurry could have made her point equally or more effectively with an unloaded verb.

If I want to read rhetorical tricks, cheap invective and sleazy characterization substituting for argument I can buy the New York Times. It's disappointing to find such nonsense - and the opening of the book is littered with it - in a history book.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Fillmore . . . quizzically noted that he was already the national American candidate"

In a series of posts several years ago I argued that Millard Fillmore's run for the presidency in 1856 under the American Party (Know Nothing) banner had nothing to do with nativism or anti-Catholicism. Millard was using the Know Nothings as a vehicle to try to forge a pro-Union party - think of it as a precursor to John Bell's run in 1860 as the candidate of the makeshift Constitutional Union Party.

In Parties, Slavery, and the Union in Antebellum Georgia, Anthony Gene Carey makes clear that Georgian supporters of Fillmore, at least, backed his candidacy because they understood Unionism to lie at its core:
Georgian Americans . . . offered [Millard] their nomination at a July [1856] state convention. Fillmore, in graciously accepting the endorsement, quizzically noted that he was already the national American candidate, but his Georgia backers adamantly refused to regard him as such. Fillmore was only "nominally the candidate of a party"; he was really "the candidate of the people." The Fillmore movement was "an insurrection of the honest masses against the despotism of party and party leaders." The "proud and independent" Georgian Americans rejoiced that they and their candidate were untrammeled by platforms "framed in Northern latitudes." Determined to mold Fillmore in their own image, [Georgian] Americans created a proslavery, prosouthern Unionist who deplored partisanship but nonetheless loathed the national Democracy.
About the illustration, entitled The Great Presidential Race of 1856:
An animated comic scene ridiculing the Democratic and American party candidates. In the foreground is a somewhat rickety wooden "Democratic Platform," into which presidential candidate James Buchanan has just run, knocking his mount (running mate John C. Breckinridge, in the form of a buck) unconscious. Buchanan (center, dressed as a jockey) holds his right shin and curses a ragged black youth who stands laughing on the platform, "You infernal Black Scoundrel, if it had not been for you and that cursed Slavery Plank that Scared and upset my Buck, I should have won this race certain." The black youth jeers, "Ya! Ya! Ya! Why Massa Buck. Dis is de Democratic Platform, I tink I misunderstand you to Say dat you like dis Plank [. . .] in fac dat you was de Platform [. . . .]" One of the planks in the platform is labeled "Slavery," and another "Cuba," referring to the apparent proslavery and annexationist interests of the Democrats. On the far right a small boy is hoisted onto the back of a ragged, weed-chewing man with a beard. The urchin holds a flag reading, "We Po'ked em in 44, We Peirce'd em in 52 and We'll "Buck em" in 56." The bearded man looks at the child irritably and scowls, "Hello there!! are you a Fre'mounter." At left, American party candidate Millard Fillmore, riding a goose with the head of running mate Andrew Jackson Donelson and holding a "Know Nothing" lantern, cries, "I'm "All right on the Goose," and yet I dont seem to make much head way, Gentlemen you may all laugh, but if I'm not the next President the Union Will Be Disolved, The South Wont Stand It." In the background a crowd watches the race. Two men converse, saying, "Little too much Squatter Sovereignty about that Goose Fillmore?" and "A decided Curvature of the Spine, no Back Bone Sir, "All Dough" Sir, ha! ha! ha!" The majority of the spectators, however, cheer on Republican candidate John C. Fremont whose horse takes the lead at right. On an observation or judging deck nearby stands Brother Jonathan, holding what appears to be a timer's watch. The apt comic mise-en-scene and development of the minor characters here are characteristic of John L. Magee's work.

The Wilmot Proviso on the Moon

But to the South it [the Wilmot Proviso] is a practical question - a question of vital, momentous import. It asserts the constitutional right of Congress to entertain legislative jurisdiction over the subject of slavery. What is done here to-day will be plead as a precedent to-morrow. We war against the principle; and if you were to propose to prohibit slavery in the moon, I would stand here and battle against it, as long as I could raise my voice or move a muscle. You have no right to touch the subject; and it is insulting and humiliating to the South, merely because you have the numerical power, to attempt to prohibit slavery, where you yourselves say, it can never go. Let those who move it bear the odium of the consequences.
Georgia Senator Herschel V. Johnson, July 7, 1848.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Confederate Constitution: "No bounties shall be granted"

I was looking at some of the less sexy changes that were made in the Confederate Constitution to differentiate it from the original United States Constitution and ran across one that the commentary at this site (which I like a lot) seems to have misunderstood.

The change in question is to the provision that sets forth the power of Congress to lay taxes, which appears at the beginning of Section 8 of Article I. The original (1787) version provides:
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
The Confederate Constitution changed this somewhat as follows. Additions are bolded; deletions are bracketed:
The Congress shall have power

(1)To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises for revenue, necessary to pay the debts, [and] provide for the common defense [and general Welfare of the United States], and carry on the Government of the Confederate States; but no bounties shall be granted from the Treasury; nor shall any duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations be laid to promote or foster any branch of industry; and all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the [United] Confederate States.

The particular change in which I am interested is the addition of a clause relating to “bounties”: “but no bounties shall be granted from the Treasury”. The commentary at the site linked above assumes that the bounties referred to are soldiers' enlistment bonuses:
The CSA also makes a point that their government will not pay bounties (unlike the US government, which often paid bounties to soldiers, especially during the Civil War).
I do not have my books with me, but I am virtually positive that the reference to “bounties” has nothing to do with soldiers or enlistment bonuses. The clause almost certainly refers to specialized tax breaks granted by Congress to particular industries.

The most famous (or infamous) of these bounties dated back to 1789, when the First Congress passed the first bill establishing tariffs on imported goods, including a tariff on imported salt (six cents per bushel). Section 4 of the Act in effect subsidized the New England codfish industry by giving it an offsetting payment if the salt was used to dry or pickle fish for export:
Sec. 4. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That there shall be allowed and paid on every quintal of dried, and on every barrel of pickled fish, of the fisheries of the United States, and on every barrel of salted provision of the United States, exported to any country without the limits thereof, in lieu of a drawback of the duties imposed on the importation of the salt employed and expended thereon, viz::

On every quintal of dried fish, five cents.

On every barrel of pickled fish, five cents.

On every barrel of salted provision, five cents.

This arrangement became known as a “bounty”, and it caused quite a row at the time, with opponents of the Madisonian-Jeffersonian persuasion arguing that it amounted to an improper subsidy of a particular industry.

This May 20, 1858 New York Times article indicates that the codfish industry "bounties" continued to exist (presumably in modified form) as of that date, and that some southerners continued to resent them and regard them as improper.

So understood, it makes perfect sense that the opening taxation section of Article I, Section 8 of the Confederate Constitution referred to and prohibited “bounties”. Bounties were in effect the flip side of the protective tariffs condemned by the South. One abused the taxing power to tax for an allegedly improper purpose - protection of industry, not revenue. The other made a payment to (or in effect remitted a particular tax affecting) a particular industry for the same improper purpose - protecting that industry.

The illustration is courtesy of

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Immediate Secession: Did Georgians Fear Other Georgians?

In a recent post, I referred to the idea that southern radicals may have urged immediate secession in part because they were concerned that other southerners could be seduced by Republican patronage.

In his fine study of Georgia politics in the antebellum era, Parties, Slavery, and the Union in Antebellum Georgia, Anthony Gene Carey agrees that “[s]ome immediatists' exhortations . . . betrayed distrust of their fellow white men.” “Particularly worrisome was the prospect that the corrupting power of patronage could be used to create a southern Republican party.” Prof. Carey cites, among other things, a letter written by “Sentinel” that appeared in the Augusta Constitutionalist on December 13, 1860:
“Sentinel” had no doubt that Republicans intended “to build up in the South under the name of a Union party – first, a party for submission, and gradually through its instrumentality an antislavery party.” The “effects of patronage and the blindness of party zeal” would spread the “anti-slavery virus” first in the border states, and then Republicans would endeavor to “stir up class jealousies” in the Deep South and set nonslaveholders against slaveholders.
Prof. Carey analyzes the nature of the fear, at least in Georgia, as follows:
The concern was not so much that antislavery sentiment existed in Georgia (the doubtful loyalty of some white men in the upper South was another matter),but that it could be made to exist under certain conditions. Experience had taught that even the best men could be seduced by the lure of office, and it would be leaders, not common white men, whom Republicans would tempt. Only if influential politicians turned traitor would there be a danger of the masses embracing Republicanism. If it were built at all, in other words, a southern Republican party would be built from the top down, like other political organizations. . . . [I]mmediate secessionists hoped that quick action would prevent assaults by northern abolitionist officeholders and immunize the South against any possible antislavery contagion.
The illustration is courtesy of

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Millard Fillmore, Enslaver of the Proletariat?

Millard Fillmore was called many things. In 1848, for example, he was accused of being an abolitionist. But this is a new one on me: Anthony Gene Carey reports that
[Georgia] Democrats . . . spread rumors in 1856 that if Millard Fillmore were elected president, his supporters planned to erect "all over our country Cotton Factories, and all poor men who do not own land, with their wives and children, . . . will be forced to go to work in these Factories for TEN CENTS a day!"
The accompanying endnote indicates that the quote appeared in the August 3, 1856 edition of the Augusta Chronicle & Sentinel.

About the illustration, entitled "Buck" taking the "Pot":
A pro-Buchanan satire, critical of the divisive or sectionalist appeal of the other two presidential contenders in the 1856 race. "Buck" or Buchanan (left) has evidently won a card game over Fremont (fallen at right) and Millard Fillmore (at right, blindfolded). Holding four aces and a large cauldron of "Union Soup" Buchanan vows, "I have fairly beaten them at their own game, and now that I have became possessed of this great "Reservoir" I will see that each and Every State of this great and glorious Union receives its proper Share of this sacred food." Fremont has tripped over a "Rock of Disunion" and fallen to the ground, still holding his large spoon "Abolition." He laments, "Oh, that I had been born a dog!--This is too much for mortal man to bear. Had I not stumbled over that "Blasted" rock I might have reached the fount of my ambition and with this good ladle 'Deal' to the North, and leave the South to 'Shuffle & Cut' off their mortal coil, by starvation, I shall have to 'Pass'!" Behind Fremont, Fillmore wanders blindfolded, holding a Know Nothing lantern (reflecting his party's nativist affiliation) and a spoon. He despairs, "I regret to say that 'Going It Blind' is a loosing Game, I did hope that I would be able to dip my spoon in the Pot without much difficulty.--My Hand is played out--'Buck' wins, and I am satisfied--Four aces can't be beat! and Buck holds them."

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Michael F. Holt on Franklin Pierce

For those of you who don't know of him, Michael F. Holt is one of our finest antebellum historians. His The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War – 1,000 pages of microscopic print describing the battles of the parties during the era of the Second Party System – is a masterpiece of political analysis. His The Political Crisis of the 1850s made my Road to the Road to Gettysburg top ten list.

The editors of Times Books's American Presidents Series recruited Prof. Holt to author the most recent volume of the Series, a biography of Franklin Pierce – and it has proved an inspired choice. The book is, in a word, superb.

Consistent with the format of the series, the book is short (133 pages of text) and non-academic (there are no footnotes). Packed in the thin volume is a remarkably detailed description of Franklin Pierce's life and career. It turns out that our fourteenth president had many positive attributes and was in some ways a tremendously sympathetic personality. Prof. Holt recounts, for example, that, after Pierce looked after the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne while Hawthorne's daughter was sick, Hawthorne rendered a remarkable and moving tribute:
“Never having had any trouble before, that pierced into my very vitals, I did not know what comfort there might be in the manly sympathy of a friend, but Pierce has undergone so great a sorrow of his own, and has so large and kindly a heart, and is so tender and strong that he really did us good, and I shall always love him better for the recollection of those dark days.”
But that is not, I suspect, why you would consider reading even a relatively brief biography of Pierce. If you know even a smidgen about him, you probably know that he traditionally ranks among our worst presidents. Does Pierce (you might ask) deserve the low marks he has generally received? If so, what exactly did he do that warrants criticism, and why?

Prof. Holt does not dissent from the consensus that Pierce's presidency was disastrous, and the reason is not hard to find. “Signing off on the Kansas-Nebraska bill . . . was the biggest mistake of Franklin Pierce's political career.” And “the second biggest mistake of his political career” occurred when he “signed the bill into law at the end of May 1854.” These events pulverized the Democratic party, which suffered “crushing defeats in the North” in the fall 1854 elections. Even worse, Pierce unwittingly set into motion a course of events that would give rise to the Republican party and civil war:
If the 1854 and 1855 elections witnessed a massive repudiation of Franklin Pierce's party and the policy he had foolishly endorsed, it was not instantly clear who had benefited most from that rebuff. Northern voters had begun a marked realignment against Pierce's party, but it did not necessarily benefit that party's traditional foe, the Whigs. Instead, a diverse conglomeration of new political coalitions emerged.
Among students of the period, the most interesting question is not whether Pierce made a catastrophic miscalculation, but why. And it is here that Prof. Holt truly shines, and why this book is well worth reading even if you are generally familiar with the events. Historians have traditionally cited one or more reasons, which Prof. Holt discusses and concedes “played a role in wrecking what had once been a dazzlingly successful political career” - explanations focused on personal weakness, grief and “a lack of farsighted statesmanship.”

To these, Prof. Holt, adds an additional suggestion that will resonate with those of you familiar with his earlier work: “I argue here that the primary factor bringing Pierce to grief was his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic party,” Prof. Holt has argued throughout his long career that the parties in the Second Party system defined themselves against each other and gained their strength by doing so. Franklin Pierce's decision, according to Prof. Holt, was the result of his understanding of this dynamic. Pierce perceived the need to stake out an issue that united the Democrats and placed them in sharp opposition to the Whigs. “Reuniting Democrats . . . may explain the president's decision.”

In Pierce's defense, it was not entirely foreseeable that Kansas-Nebraska would be transformed from a partisan issue into a sectional one. Pierce was foiled by The Appeal to Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States - “one of the most masterful pieces of political propaganda written in the nineteenth century.”

I won't go on – after all, you should buy the book. Suffice it to say that Prof. Holt has provided us with a clear and succinct review of the relevant events and their consequences. More importantly, you will be the beneficiary of the insights of one of America's foremost historians into how and why things went so terribly wrong.

About the illustration:
The artist lays on the Democrats the major blame for violence perpetrated against antislavery settlers in Kansas in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Here a bearded "freesoiler" has been bound to the "Democratic Platform" and is restrained by two Lilliputian figures, presidential nominee James Buchanan and Democratic senator Lewis Cass. Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas and president Franklin Pierce, also shown as tiny figures, force a black man into the giant's gaping mouth. The freesoiler's head rests on a platform marked "Kansas," "Cuba," and "Central America," probably referring to Democratic ambitions for the extension of slavery. In the background left is a scene of burning and pillage; on the right a dead man hangs from a tree.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Franklin Pierce Selects a Cabinet

It's a beautiful Saturday morning, and it seems appropriate to say something nice about Franklin Pierce.

Selection of cabinet members was always a difficult process, what with the need to create geographical balance, satisfy feuding intraparty factions and the like - and that's before factoring in optional requirements like competence. Michael F. Holt suggests that Franklin Pierce did a pretty darn good job:
Carefully balanced by region, Pierce's cabinet would prove to be one of the most ethical and effective group of advisers to serve the nation in the nineteenth century. It was also the only cabinet during that century to remain intact for an entire four-year presidential term. By the end of the administration, the cabinet members had developed genuine esteem for Pierce, and some, like [Secretary of War Jefferson] Davis and [Secretary of State William L.] Marcy, possessed personal fondness for him.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Obligatory Cute (?) Baby Animal Post

Courtesy of Zooborns:
On February 18th, the Franklin Park Zoo welcomed the birth of a highly endangered Skeksis hatchling. This birth marks the first baby for proud parents Aughra and Fizzgig. Once plentiful in the Thra Valley and adjacent mountains, Skeksis are now extinct in the wild and only ten remain in captivity. Known for their characteristic whimper, Skeksis are happiest when feasting on podling essence or when keepers treat them to roast nebrey.

"The compromise [of 1850] could never have passed had Zachary Taylor lived"

I've argued before that the decisive strategy and firm statesmanship of our nation's least appreciated president, Millard Fillmore, was crucial to the passage of the Compromise of 1850, by which the country avoided civil war for ten crucial years.

I'm in the midst of reading Michael F. Holt's brief (133 pages of text) and so far excellent biography of Franklin Pierce, and I see that Prof. Holt agrees:
Despite the odd alignment in Congress [of the coalitions supporting and opposing the Compromise], the compromise could never have passed had Zachary Taylor lived, but he died on Jul 9, 1850. Taylor's death brought New York's Millard Fillmore to the presidency, and after some hesitation Fillmore named Daniel Webster, a strong pro-compromise man, as his secretary of state. In early August, Fillmore and Webster publicly announced their support for the compromise package, but even before that they had privately pressured northern Whig senators and representatives to allow passage of the concessions to the South. As a result of their pressure, usually involving threats about federal patronage allotment, a sufficient number of northern Whigs abstained on crucial roll-call votes to allow the prosouthern compromise bills to pass.
My chief quibble with Prof. Holt concerns his assertion that Fillmore named Daniel Webster as his secretary of state only "after some hesitation." To the extent this suggests that Fillmore was unsure of who he wanted in that position, I must dissent. Fillmore learned that president Taylor had died late in the evening of July 9, 1850. He was sworn in at noon the next day. Fillmore's biographer Robert J. Rayback relates that Millard settled on Webster his first night as president:
During his first sleepless night as President, Fillmore had settled on Webster as his cabinet's premier. On the day of his inauguration the two went into conference. The aged statesman from Massachusetts, Fillmore learned, was still willing to abide by the principles of his March 7 speech and was willing to take the post of Secretary of State.
What held up the announcement of Webster's appointment was not Millard's indecision but "[d]oubt about who would replace Webster in the Senate and whether Webster's financial friends would continue to pay for his services in the new position." Fillmore and Webster placed "extreme pressure" on Massachusetts governor George N. Briggs (who wanted the post for himself) to appoint Webster's protege Robert C. Winthrop as Webster's replacement in the Senate, while "Webster's friends . . . raised a fund for him, and by July 17 all was arranged for Webster to enter the cabinet."

And before you start howling that the Compromise of 1850 was a monstrous outrage against the laws of Nature and of Nature's God, for which Millard should be execrated rather than hymned, please read Was the Compromise of 1850 a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? and "Civil War between North and South would then have likely erupted".

How many of the men in the print at the top can you identify?
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