Monday, March 31, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 2: Hugh White Pleads for an Amendment

Saturday August 8, 1846 had been a typically oppressive August day in the District of Columbia. After a long and contentious session during the day, many members of the House were not eager to return to the steamy chamber after supper for a frantic and potentially difficult evening session. The Congressional Globe reported that, when the House reconvened at 5:00 p.m., “but a very small portion of a quorum . . . was present.” Subsequent votes indicated that perhaps 172 of 228 members ultimately straggled in. Some, according to David Potter, were partially intoxicated. Ice water and fans were in heavy supply.

The House began the session by considering and disposing of a number of non-controversial bills and resolutions, such as “A bill for the relief of Ebenezer Conant,” and “A bill declaratory of the powers, and legalizing certain acts, of the chief clerk of the Patent Office.”

After disposing of these matters, Democratic Rep. James Iver McKay of North Carolina – who had acted as the administration’s point person on the President’s message during the afternoon – began to turn the House toward that issue, by moving that the House resolve itself, once again, “into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union.” The House did so, with Rep. Moses Norris, Jr., a Democrat from New Hampshire, acting as Chair of the Committee.

The Committee briefly considered two other matters and then turned to the President’s message. Rep. McKay promptly moved that the Committee consider the request and the implementing bill that he had introduced during the afternoon (quoted in my last post). Before doing so, he pointedly reminded the members that debate was strictly limited: a total of two hours, and no more than ten minutes per speaker.

Given the limits of debate, the Chair, Rep. Norris, presumably had substantial discretion as to which members to recognize. Perhaps he figured that he had to give the Whigs their pound of flesh and decided it was better to get the objections out of the way. Whether for that reason or another, he first recognized a Whig, Hugh White of upstate New York.

Rep. White launched into a bitter denunciation of both the procedure, designed to stifle debate, and the substance of the message and bill:
My efforts to obtain the floor [earlier in the day] while they [the issues relating to the message and bill] were under discussion were unavailing; had it been otherwise, I should then, as I shall in my published remarks, denounce the measure as fraught with more mischief and positive evil to the people of this country than any man has ability to estimate or comprehend . . ..

Rep. White then raised the issue that, he believed, had prompted the President to provoke a war: slavery:
I repeat, sir, I have no confidence in this application for money; territory is what is sought after, and I cannot give my sanction to this appropriation, unless the bill upon your table shall be so amended as to forever preclude the possibility of extending the limits of slavery.

Rep. White did not himself propose to amend the proposed bill to achieve this result. Instead, he implored his Democratic colleagues to do so:
And I call upon gentlemen on the other side of the House to bring forward such amendments as shall effectually prevent the further acquisition of territory, which may be caused by the adoption of that institution [slavery]. I call upon the other side of the House to propose such an amendment, not only as an evidence of their desire to restrain that institution within its constitutional limits, but as a guaranty that the President will honestly and faithfully apply the funds so generously placed in his hands to the ends specified in his message.

There is no evidence establishing that Rep, White knew that Democrats were about to propose the amendment he urged. However, his eloquent plea certainly leaves open the possibility that he was tipped off or had heard a rumor of the plans of David Wilmot and his co-conspirators.

The picture is of Committee Chair Moses Norris, Jr.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 1: President Polk Bites the Bullet

Like most of you, I have read about the Wilmot Proviso. But I’ve never actually read the proceedings as recorded in the Congressional Globe for myself. I thought we’d read along together.

As the First Session of the 29th Congress was drawing to a close in August 1846, President James K. Polk had a problem. Having launched a war against Mexico in May, he anticipated wresting large chunks of territory from that country. He needed money that he could use in connection with the negotiation of a treaty by which the United States would acquire that land.

This, Polk knew, was a political hot potato. As David Potter has explained, Polk had earlier tried to arrange funding through a vote “in secret executive session by the Senate,” which would then be ratified by the House without debate. This attempt failed because the Whigs had “made it clear that publicity would be the price of their support.”

Polk therefore decided to bite the bullet. August 8, 1846 was a Saturday. Congress had already voted to adjourn on Monday August 10, “and both houses were in the usual end-of-session turmoil.” President Polk gambled that, if he made his request that Saturday, there would sufficient time to pass an authorizing bill following a short debate. At about noon, he therefore sent to Congress a public message in which he expressed the hope that Mexico might cede territory and requested that the sum of $2 million be appropriated for that purpose:
I invite your attention to the propriety of making an appropriation to provide for any expenditure which it may be necessary to make in advance for the purpose of settling all our difficulties with the Mexican republic. It is my sincere desire to terminate, as it was originally to avoid, the existing war with Mexico by a peace just and honorable to both parties. It is probable that the chief obstacle to be surmounted in accomplishing this desirable object, will be the adjustment of a boundary between the two republics, which shall prove satisfactory and convenient to both, and such as neither will hereafter be inclined to disturb. In the adjustment of this boundary, we ought to pay a fair equivalent for any concessions which may be made by Mexico.

Under these circumstances, and considering the other complicated questions to be settled by negotiation with the Mexican republic, I deem it important that a sum of money should be placed under the control of the Executive, to be advanced, if need be, to the government of that republic immediately after their ratification of a treaty. . .

. . . I would, therefore, recommend the passage of a law appropriating two millions of dollars, to be placed at the disposal of the Executive, for the purposes which I have indicated. . . .

Immediately after the Speaker of the House, John Wesley Davis (Democrat, Indiana), laid the president’s recommendation before that body, Joseph Reed Ingersoll, a Whig representing a Pennsylvania district adjoining Philadelphia, moved to refer the proposal to the Ways and Means Committee, “with instructions to report a bill in conformity with the suggestion of the President.” Given the imminent conclusion of the Congressional session, Ingersoll’s motion was clearly designed to derail the president’s initiative.

Democrats leapt to the President’s defense. George C. Dromgoole (Democrat, Virginia) moved that the message instead be considered by the House sitting as a Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union. Speaker Davis, a Democrat, ruled that Representative Drumgoole’s motion had precedence and would be voted on first. The motion passed, and the House promptly “resolved itself into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union.”

President Polk had clearly conferred in advance with the Democratic leadership, for James Iver McKay, a Democrat from North Carolina and the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, had already written “a bill, (for the purpose, he said, of carrying into effect the recommendation of the President),” which he promptly offered for consideration:
AN ACT making further provision for the expenses attending the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations.

Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a sum of $2,000,000, in addition to the provision heretofore made, be, and the same is hereby, appropriated, for the purpose of defraying any extraordinary expenses which may be incurred in the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations, to be paid out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, and to be applied under the direction of the President of the United States , who shall cause an account of the expenditure thereof to be laid before Congress as soon as may be.

The debate quickly descended into a procedural free-for-all. To make a long story short, the House ultimately agreed, as the hour of the 3 p.m. approached, to recess until 5 p.m. The House approved Representative McKay’s motion that, when debate on the message was re-commenced, “all debate on the said message shall terminate in two hours after it shall again have been taken up in committee.”

After briefly considering other issues, the House recessed. The Representatives would reconvene at 5:00 p.m., after they had had dinner, and perhaps a few drinks. A momentous evening awaited them.

The picture is of Speaker of the House John Wesley Davis of Indiana.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Interstate Slave Trade 3

Sections 8 through 10 of “An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eight” were designed to prevent illegal smuggling of slaves into the country. They did so by imposing restrictions and regulations on domestic transfers of slaves by ship.

The sections distinguished between “any ship or vessel of less burden than forty tons” (Section 8) and “any ship or vessel, of the burden of forty tons or more” (Sections 9 and 10). As to the former, Section 8 imposed a total ban on their transportation, “to any port or place whatsoever,” of “any negro, mulatto, or person of color” “for the purpose of selling . . . the same as a slave.” The Section did contain a proviso that specified that it was not otherwise illegal to transport persons of color within the United States:
And be it further enacted, That no captain [etc.] of any ship or vessel of less burden than forty tons shall . . . transport any negro, mulatto or person of color, to any port or place whatsoever, for the purpose of selling or disposing of the same as a slave . . .: Provided, however, That nothing in this section shall extend to prohibit the taking on board or transporting on any river or inland bay of the sea, within the jurisdiction of the United States, any negro, mulatto, or person of color, (not imported contrary to the provisions of this act) in any vessel or species of craft whatever.

Sections 9 and 10 imposed detailed reporting requirements on vessels of 40 tons or more “sailing coastwise from any port in the United States to any port or place within the jurisdiction of the same, having on board any negro, mulatto or person of color, for the purpose of transporting them to be sold or disposed of as slaves.”

Before departing, the captain of any such vessel was required to fill out, in duplicate, a manifest describing each such slave in detail. He was to deliver the duplicate manifests to the port official, together with his sworn statement and that of the shipper that, to the best of their knowledge, none of the slaves had been illegally imported. The port official certified the manifests, keeping one and returning the other to the captain with a permit “specifying thereon the number, names, and general description of such persons, and authorizing him to proceed to the port of his destination."

When he arrived at his destination, the captain was obligated, before discharging any of the slaves, to deliver the certified manifest to the port official, and swear or affirm to its truth. If satisfied, the port official would issue to the captain a permit authorizing the “unlading” of the slaves.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Interstate Slave Trade 2

According to David Lightner, in his book Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War (Yale University Press 2006), it took almost twenty years before anyone realized that Congress’s power to regulate or abolish the interstate slave trade posed a potentially deadly threat to the peculiar institution.

The occasion was the debate in Congress in 1807 over the enactment of legislation to outlaw the international slave trade. In order to understand how the interstate slave trade issue surfaced in that context, let’s look at the bill as finally enacted, and then work our way backwards.

The bill that was passed, entitled “An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eight,” clearly represented an attempt to close all possible loopholes. It is therefore heavily laden with legal verbiage. However, in broad outline, the sections addressed the following:

Section 1 laid out the basic rule. It was unlawful to import “any negro, mulatto, or person of color” into the United States from any foreign place with the intent of holding, selling or disposing of him as a slave.

Sections 2 and 3 addressed preparations to send slaving ships from the United States. In effect, it was illegal to do anything to prepare a ship to voyage from the United States to any foreign place for the purpose of procuring slaves to be transported back to the United States.

Sections 4 and 5 addressed the taking on board of slaves in foreign waters. It was illegal for a United States citizen or resident to “take on board, receive, or transport” any person for the purpose of selling him as a slave in the United States.

Section 6 addressed domestic purchasers and sellers. It was illegal for a person to purchase or sell an illegally-imported slave in the United States, “knowing at the time of such purchase or sale” that the slave had been illegally imported.

Section 7 addressed international transportation and offshore “hovering.” It was illegal to transport on the high seas, or in any waters of the United States, any person for the purpose of selling him a slave in the United States “contrary to the prohibition of this act.”

I will outline Sections 8 though 10 in a following post.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Interstate Slave Trade 1

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it contained two provisions that related to Congress’s power over the slave trade. The first, the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3), provided (and still provides) that Congress had the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

The Commerce Clause, of course, did not specifically refer to slavery or the slave trade. It was clear, however, to the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that it might impact the slave trade. For this reason, the delegates also adopted a clause that restricted the power of Congress to meddle with the slave trade until 1808. This clause, which I will refer to as the “1808 Clause” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), stated:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

In his book Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War (Yale University Press 2006), David L. Lightner points out that the scope of the 1808 Clause is ambiguous. The ambiguity centers on the meaning and implication of the terms “Migration” and “Importation.” For example:

-- Were the terms meant to differentiate between the carrying of slaves between or among states (“Migration”) and the bringing in of slaves from outside the country (“Importation”)?

-- Or were the terms meant to differentiate between the immigration of free whites (“Migration”) and the bringing in of slaves (“Importation”)?

-- Or were the words simply synonyms, both of which were intended to connote the bringing in of slaves from outside the country?

Whatever the precise scope of the 1808 Clause, that Clause appears to provide powerful support for the proposition that the Founders understood that the Commerce Clause extended to the interstate slave trade, as well as to the international slave trade – and that Congress had the power after 1808 (if not before) to restrict or even ban interstate slave trading.

Even if we attribute the most restrictive meaning to the 1808 Clause – that it barred only the importation of slaves, nor their transfer from state to state – it demonstrates that the founders understood that slave trading was “Commerce with foreign Nations” within the meaning of the Commerce Clause. Otherwise, why go to the trouble of carving it out? And if international slave trading was a species of “Commerce” potentially subject to Congressional regulation, there is no textual reason to believe that interstate slave trading was not likewise “Commerce” that Congress could regulate.

Finally, the 1808, however construed, would seem to put to rest the possibility the founders did not understand that the power to regulate included the power to ban altogether. It was presumably precisely because the founders believed the contrary to be true that they restricted Congress’s ability to ban (at least) the importation of slaves from abroad before 1808.

In sum, the textual evidence provides overwhelming support for the proposition that the Constitution gave Congress the power, after 1808 if not before, the ban the interstate transportation and sale of slaves.

And yet, there is also powerful reason to wonder whether anyone understood this. Although most of the evidence is negative, it is striking that no one at the Constitutional Convention so much as mentioned that the Commerce Clause gave Congress the power to strangle the institution of slavery by banning the interstate slave trade. It is even more striking that no southern antifederalist tried to indict the Constitution on the same grounds. Nor did any northerner support or oppose the Constitution on these grounds.

As Professor Lightner summarizes the record, there is “spotty” evidence that a handful of men might have dimly perceived the issue. But it is clear that “it never entered the minds of most southerners that the Constitution gave Congress the authority to outlaw the interstate slave trade.”

Incredibly, southerners apparently did not recognize the danger to slavery presented by Congress’s ability to regulate interstate commerce for almost twenty years:
Not until 1807, when Congress moved toward exercising its acknowledged power to ban the importation of slaves from abroad beginning in 1808, did it dawn upon some southern representatives in Congress that there was a danger of federal intervention in the domestic slave trade.

It is to that episode that we will turn next.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Louise Wigfall Meets Gone With the Wind

Did you know that Texas politician Louis T. Wigfall was responsible for the caning of Charles Sumner?

South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks was carrying that cane as a result of injuries received years earlier in a duel with Wigfall. Here is an account of the duel as related by Wigfall's daughter, Louise Wigfall Wright:

Preston Brooks, of South Carolina, whose attack on Sumner is known to the world, had fought a duel with my father in 1841, in which they were both wounded. Preston Brooks was shot through the hip, and my father through both thighs. The latter was twenty-three years old and Preston Brooks twenty- two at the time. My father's second was John Laurens Manning, afterward Governor of South Carolina, and the second of Preston Brooks was Pierce M. Butler, afterward also Governor of the State. My father had been in several affairs of honor before this; but never fought another duel after his marriage. He seldom mentioned the subject, but when asked for his opinion would state with an earnestness of conviction, as refreshing as it was real, that he was a firm believer in the code duello as a factor in the improvement of both the morals and the manners of a community! He held that it engendered courtesy of speech and demeanor - had a most restraining tendency on the errant fancy, and as a preservative of the domestic relations was without an equal.

Mrs. Wright's memoir, by the way, is a wonder to behold, and well worth reading. Written at the beginning of the last century, it is a classic of Lost Cause literature. If you're hesitating, take a look first at this fine New York Times review from 1905, which captures nicely how Mrs. Wright combines the charming with the utterly grotesque.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ulysses Grant: Evolution of a Name

On April 27, 1822, Hannah Grant, nee Simpson, the wife of Jesse Grant, gave birth to a baby boy. The boy remained nameless for almost a month.

Members of the Simpson family proposed a number of alternatives, including Albert (after Albert Gallatin) and Theodore. John Simpson, Hannah's father and Jesse's father-in-law, proposed "Hiram, because it is such a handsome name." Sarah Simpson, Hannah's mother and Jesse's mother-in law, offered Ulysses: she had just finished "reading Fenelon's Telemachus and thrilled to its dramatic description of Greek heroes." Eager to please his in-laws, Jesse named the boy Hiram Ulysses. Jesse called the boy "my Ulysses," and the boy was generally known by that name.

It was Jesse -- not Ulysses -- who determined to try to get his boy admitted to West Point. On February 19, 1839, Hiram wrote a letter to his Congressman, Thomas L. Hamer, asking him to nominate Ulysses. Hamer did so, and on May 15, 1839 Ulysses left home for the first time.

He did so, however, with a new name: Ulysses Hiram Grant:
To identify his trunk, he and his cousins hammered in his initials, but it took only a moment to see that "H.U.G." would not do. Ulysses was not going to be the butt of any more jokes if he could help it. From now on he would be Ulysses Hiram Grant.

Two weeks later Ulysses had yet another new name. When he arrived at West Point on May 29, 1839, he was informed that there was no appointment for "Ulysses Hiram Grant." The appointment was for one "Ulysses S. Grant." If Mr. Grant was not Ulysses S. Grant, he could go home.

The mixup apparently originated with Congressman Hamer:
Apparently Congressman Hamer, in his rush to make out the papers of nomination, had mistakenly affixed an S (Hannah's maiden name was Simpson) to serve as a middle initial after the name by which the boy went -- Ulysses.

Faced with the choice of accepting the new name or going home, "Grant, who had never had much use for Hiram anyway, agreed to yet another name change."

The new initials "U.S." Grant promptly produced the nickname "Sam:"
As cadets scanned the list of the incoming candidates, their eyes fell on "U.S. Grant." Well, who was that? United States Grant? Uncle Sam Grant? . . . Grant explained what had happened, but it was no use. He was now Ulysses S. Grant. Before long his friends started calling him Sam, just as Sherman went by Cump; another cadet, James Longstreet of South Carolina, was known as Pete.

All quotes are from Brooks D. Simpson's Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Winfield Scott, Pimp

Nelson Lankford has a great way of picking out the juciest vignettes.

On the day the Electoral College votes were counted in February 1861, General Scott took no chances that the event would be disrupted by secessionist sympathizers. He posted artillery near the Capitol and "vowed to lash any malefactor to the mouth of a cannon, like defeated rebels in the recent uprising in British India, and 'manure the hills of Arlington with fragments of his body!'"

Those secessionist sympathizers repaid the compliment:
A secessionist crowd spat insults at soldiers on guard. Inside, southern congressmen and their friends in the galleries vented their spleen at Scott, denouncing him as a "dotard," "coward," and "free-state pimp."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Millard Fillmore Is Unfairly Dissed

At Volokh, Ilya Somin -- whom I otherwise respect -- disses poor Millard Fillmore (emphasis added):
Several times in our history, this has led to disaster when a dubious Veep ended up taking the presidency after the president died. The most blatant example was when Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency . . .. Had [Lincoln] stuck with incumbent VP Hannibal Hamlin (a Maine Radical Republican), history might well have turned out a lot better than it did. I would argue that the succession of VPs Millard Fillmore (1850), John Tyler (1841), Chester Arthur (1881) and Lyndon Johnson (1963) also caused significant harm, though these cases are more debatable than Andrew Johnson.

As to Millard, this is nonsense. As I have explained -- particularly here -- Fillmore's accession to the vice presidency after Zachary Taylor's death was almost certainly a large net plus to the country. Taylor was a fine man and an outstanding general, but the country was probably lucky that he died in mid-1850.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Compensated Emancipation and Colonization 1

It's hard for us now to take seriously the ideas of colonization bandied about before the Civil War as a solution for slavery. To modern sensibilities, the idea is offensive, and it's embarrassing that major figures from Jefferson to Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln found it attractive. In addition, in retrospect colonization plans seem so impracticable and half-baked that you wonder whether people were delusional.

Nonetheless, in this as with other matters, it's crucial to try to put yourself in the shoes of people living at the time. The very persistence and repeated appearances of colonization as a solution suggest that it retained a powerful hold over the imagination of a sizable segment of the population.

Probably the most serious attempt to translate the dream of colonization into reality took place in 1824-25.

On January 17, 1824, the legislature of the State of Ohio passed a resolution concerning emancipation and colonization. The resolution proposed that the federal government enact a law providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves born after passage of the act, with the freedmen to be transported to foreign colonies.

The Ohio legislature clearly framed the proposal in a manner designed to appeal to the southern states. The proposals specified that the law should be passed “with the consent of the slaveholding states” and “without any violation of the national compact, or infringement of the rights of individuals.” What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the proposal is that the Ohio legislature apparently expected (or at least hoped) that its proposal would meet with a sympathetic reaction even in the deep south. The legislature asked the governor to transmit the resolution to his counterparts in the other states for their consideration:
Resolved by the General Assembly of the State of Ohio; That the consideration of a system providing for the gradual emancipation of the people of color, held in servitude in the United States, be recommended to the Legislatures of the several States of the American Union, and to the Congress of the United States.

Resolved, That in the opinion of the General Assembly a system of foreign colonization, with correspondent measures might be adopted that would in due time effect the entire emancipation of the slaves in our country without any violation of the national compact, or infringement of the rights of individuals; by the passage of a law by the general government (with the consent of the slaveholding states) which should provide that all children or persons now held in slavery, born after the passage of such law, should be free at the age of twenty-one years (being supported during their minority by the persons claiming the service of their parents) providing they then consent to be transported to the intended place of colonization—Also—

Resolved, That it is expedient that such a system should be predicated upon the principle that the evil of slavery is a national one, and that the people and the states of this Union ought mutually to participate in the duties and burthens of removing it.

Resolved, That his Excellency, the Governor be requested to forward a copy of the foregoing Resolutions to his Excellency the Governor of each of the United States, requesting him to lay the same before the legislature thereof: and that his Excellency will also forward a like copy to each of our Senators and Representatives in Congress requesting their co-operation in all national measures having a tendency to effect the grand object embraced therein.

By June 1825, the legislators of eight other states had endorsed the Ohio resolution. It is, perhaps, not surprising that the states included the New England states of Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts. They were joined, however, by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and Indiana – Northern states that directly abutted the south and were hardly hotbeds of radicalism. The eighth was, amazingly, Delaware, a slave state.

Meanwhile, on Friday February 18, 1825, Senator Rufus King of New York proposed a Senate resolution designed to implement the Ohio resolution. Senator King proposed the establishment of a fund from the sale of public lands. The funds would be used for aiding in the emancipation of slaves and their removal from the United States, as well as the removal of “free persons of color.”

Even more so than the original Ohio resolution, Senator King’s proposal was clearly designed to appeal to – not alienate – the South. It did not require the emancipation of a single slave, or the transportation of any slave or free black. It simply proposed to make funds available for emancipation and transportation of such slaves and freedmen as state law might permit:
Mr. King, of New York, submitted, the following motion for consideration:

Resolved, by the Senate of the United States of America, That, so soon as the portion of the existing funded debt of the United States, for the payment of which, the public land of the United States is pledged, shall have been paid off; then, and thenceforth, the whole of the public land of the United States, with the nett proceeds of all future sales thereof, shall constitute and form a fund, which is hereby appropriated, and the faith of the United States is pledged that the said fund shall be inviolably applied, to aid the emancipation of such slaves, within any of the United States, and to aid the removal of such slaves, and the removal of such free persons of color, in any of the said states, as by the laws of the states respectively, may be allowed to be emancipated, or removed to any territory, or country, without the limits of the United States of America.

It appears that none other than Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri supported Senator King's proposal:
On motion, by Mr. Benton,

Ordered, That it be printed for the use of the Senate.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Abe Was Nominated Where?

Enough people have piled on to Gloria Steinem for her disgusting speech making fun of John McCain that I don't have to. But I did notice one extremely odd sentence that no one else seems to have called Steinem on:
There is, she said, “a great deal of pressure at play for her to act like her gender and give in.” Several shouts of “No!” came from the crowd. Steinem went on: “It’s a way of reinforcing the gender roles, right? Men are loved if they win and Hillary is loved if she loses. … But maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of an open convention that actually decides something. After all, it was an open convention in New York City that gave us Abraham Lincoln.

Er, Gloria, the Republican convention that gave us Abraham Lincoln was held in Chicago.

Thanks to Michelle Malkin for leading me to the quote.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Irrepressible Conflict

Deterministic views of history are not fashionable these days. Everything is contingent; nothing is inevitable. I recently reread an essay that runs against the grain. Since I tend to be a contrarian, I thought I’d discuss it.

In his essay “The Irrepressible Conflict” (found in The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War), Kenneth M. Stampp suggests that contingency can be taken too far. He does not argue that the Civil War was inevitable. He does observe, however, that it is hard to see how the country could have avoided some sort of showdown on slavery. Conflict was “irrepressible” in the sense that “the issues dividing the North and South were genuine and substantial and that conflict between them was a natural and logical result.”

Professor Stampp’s thoughts – the essay is more an exploration than a formal argument – are based, as he admits, on several assumptions. First, after a lengthy review of the historiography of Civil War causation, Professor Stampp makes clear that he accepts the contention that the dispute between the North and the South centered on slavery. “The abnormal irritant that created sectional tensions and placed so great a strain on the American political structure was the persistence of southern slavery far into the nineteenth century.” “The interplay of these proslavery and antislavery forces . . . brought on the” War. Second, he rejects the suggestion that slavery was “a decrepit institution about to die; rather it showed enormous vitality, remarkable flexibility as a labor system, and every prospect of a long life.”

Given these assumptions, Professor Stampp tries to imagine counterfactual scenarios in which Northerners and Southerners might not have reached an impasse over slavery – and rejects them all as unrealistic.

He addresses first the scenario implicitly presented by southerners and revisionist historians who have argued that Northerners artificially fanned antislavery sentiment for political gain: if only Northerners had shown more restraint, and suppressed their agitation against slavery, things would not have reached the point they did.

That, says Professor Stampp, is rubbish. First, any “plausible analysis of antebellum politics and of the options that were reasonably open to that generation must begin with the assumption that an antislavery movement would exist in the northern states.” That movement was the logical outgrowth of both secular, intellectual trends and religious trends. Moreover, “its characteristic rhetoric, tactics, and goals must also be recognized as quite normal for that age.”

In sum, it is not realistic, Professor Stampp submits, “to wish away the abolitionists” and their moralistic, condemnatory rhetoric. The burden therefore shifts to those who would “explain how an atmosphere favorable to political tranquility, compromise, and patient delay might have been maintained in spite of the irritant of an antislavery crusade.”

In the end, Professor Stampp concludes that it is equally fanciful to imagine a conciliatory South that turned the other cheek to such provocations, for such a hypothetical scenario “fails to recognize the predicament of the South.” “Slavery produced in the South . . . a special set of problems.” “Economic interests [i.e., the tremendous capital investment in slavery], racial beliefs [that helped to perpetuate slavery], and fear of slave insurrections impelled Southerners to make demands and take actions that precipitated a series of sectional confrontations culminating in the secession crisis of 1860-61.”

Professor Stampp concludes as follows:
There still remains the question of the evitability or inevitability of the Civil War itself – a question that will probably continue to be, as it now is, unanswerable. It may well be that the country reached a point sometime in the 1850s when it would have been almost impossible to avoid a violent resolution of the sectional crisis . . . and the point of no return may have been reached in 1857 . . .. This, of course, is sheer speculation, for, as Seward would have reminded us, to make a case for an irrepressible conflict is not to prove the inevitability of war . . .. The irrepressible conflict of the antebellum years made the war, if not inevitable, at least an understandable response to its stresses by men and women no more or less wise than we.

It strikes me that the issue of historical “inevitability” is something of a straw man: no one I know claims that historical events are inevitable. But, as I suggested at the beginning, I wonder whether the emphasis on contingency does not go too far. Is it not fair to suggest that at some point the range of likely options narrows to a precious few? Is it not reasonable to maintain that, at some point, the burden should shift to those who would argue that a radically different outcome remained feasible?

Sunday, March 02, 2008


When I started this blog, I explained that "elektratig" was a conflation of the names of my first two cats: Elektra and her sister Antigone. Here they both are, in mid-January 1982, at about nine weeks of age, perhaps a week after I adopted them. You may not have seen Elektra before; she died in 1996, long before I went digital. She's the gray girl on the left, peering out from behind her sister. Excuse my crotch.

Devil Cat

Antigone, about 21 years of age.


I was recovering some photos from an old computer and discovered these. Mollie Moo gave birth to Hope early on the morning of June 3, 2003. I missed the birth, arriving minutes too late. This is one of the first pictures I took, shortly after 6:30 a.m. Hope has not yet gotten to her feet (er, hooves):

Here is a close up. Mollie was prodding Hope to get up. For some reason, Mollie's principal strategy was to lick Hope's rear end:

At 6:45 a.m. Hope arose. She was a bit wobbly at first:

After a brief pause for a refreshment . . .

Hope received a congratulatory nuzzle from her mom.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Lincoln and the Decision for War

Having recently completed Russell McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (University of North Carolina Press 2008), I thought I’d provide a brief review.

To begin at the beginning, I fear that title, while perhaps accurate, conveys the wrong impression and may result in book’s intended audience avoiding it. When I first saw a reference to the book, the phrase “Lincoln and the Decision for War” led me to think that it might be a neo-Confederate polemic contending that that it was the North and Lincoln that foisted war on the innocent South.

In fact, the book is nothing of the sort. Following in the steps of Kenneth M. Stampp’s And The War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis (1950, paperback reprint 1970), the book is a meticulously researched and well written account of (as the second half of the title accurately summarizes) the response of the North to the threat, and then the reality, of secession by the seven deep south states during the period between Lincoln’s election and the call for volunteers in mid-April 1861.

In ten chapters, the book devotes roughly equal attention to each month to tell the story of the tortuous process by which the North and its leaders – and ultimately its new president – came to take the path they did. The text, almost sixty pages of endnotes (many of which contain additional discussion that should be read together with the text – if only they had been footnotes!), and a lengthy bibliography demonstrate that the author has mastered and incorporated a daunting amount of material, much of which consists of primary sources. The writing is clear, keeps the reader engaged, is never jarring, and gets out of the way, allowing the events to convey the drama and increasing tension that are inherent in the story.

The relationship between the northern public and its leaders is a theme that shapes the presentation of the book. In a representative democracy like the North, the views of the electorate influenced and placed broad limits on the actions of the public’s agents, elected politicians. At the same time, the electorate viewed secession as a political issue and naturally looked to its representatives for leadership to help explain the crisis and guide and channel opinion. Particularly during the confused early period, the public’s struggle to understand and formulate its responses to the crisis was hampered by the uncertain and conflicting signals given by the Buchanan administration, the public silence of the president-elect, and the absence of Congress (which did not convene until early December). Much of the earlier part of the book therefore focuses on the public, describing the range of its discordant and often contradictory reactions and opinions.

As the crisis wore on, however, the circle of decision makers contracted. Although state legislators made themselves heard, eyes increasingly turned to congressional leaders of both parties to form opinion and shape solutions, then more specifically to the Republicans and the incoming administration, including the seemingly hyperactive incoming Secretary of State, William Seward. But ultimately even Seward realized – to his great consternation – that the circle was reducing itself to a single point: the newly-elected president himself. Reflecting this reality, although the public does not disappear from view (indeed, the book notes and discusses the increasing pressure created by rising public impatience with inaction), the author correspondingly narrows and intensifies his focus -- until he pulls back at the end again to survey northern public reaction to the outcome of the decisions made by their representatives: war.

Another phenomenon that the author notes and watches carefully is the divergence of opinion within and without Washington City. Republicans outside the District (including a certain resident of Springfield, Illinois) were inclined to take a firmer stand against what they viewed as Southern threats and blackmail. As they arrived in Washington, however, northern legislators heard face-to-face the desperate pleas of border-state unionists for concessions seeking to hold their states in the Union. As the author puts it, “it was much easier to be resolute against compromise from a distance than it was when faced with the pleas of Southern unionists in Washington.”

Although the book devotes equal attention to the beginning and middle of the crisis, reader interest will inevitably focus on the figure who, in time, becomes the central character: Abraham Lincoln. Mr. McClintock (who is actually Dr. McClintock, having earned a Ph.D. in history from Clark University) paints a sympathetic but by no means iconographic portrait. Lincoln was neither Machiavellian schemer nor iconic father figure. He was uncertain to the point of paralysis and became frustrated and angry as he watched options being foreclosed by the passage of time. This plus inexperience and miscommunication threatened to turn the “administration’s first major decision” into “a comedy of errors.”

At the same time, the author gives Lincoln high marks in other respects. Lincoln refused to relinquish his authority to make the final decision to Seward (who is also portrayed sympathetically), General Winfield Scott (who comes across poorly), or anyone else. “[T]he remarkable representativeness of Lincoln’s views” and his determined search for options ultimately led him (albeit at virtually the last moment) to a course of action that “unif[ied] a polarized North behind a war that neither he nor they wanted.”

I do not pretend to be an expert in the literature, although I have now read the late Professor Stampp’s And the War Came and his essay “Lincoln and The Secession Crisis,” which may be found in his book of essays entitled The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (1980). However, I gather that the past seventy years or so have witnessed a wide range of views among historians about the decision that Lincoln reached, from Charles Ramsdell’s view (1937) that Lincoln cynically maneuvered the Confederates into firing the first shot to save his administration and the Republican Party, to James G. Randall (1940) and David M. Potter (1942), who argued that Lincoln’s policy was peaceful and designed to minimize the danger of war.

Mr. McClintock comes down between these extremes – somewhere close to Professor Stampp’s view that, while Lincoln never “intended deliberately to provoke a war,” he was willing “to risk one for the sake of the Union if the responsibility for aggression could be placed upon the South.” (1970 Preface to the Paperback Edition of And the War Came). Mr. McClintock concludes “that Lincoln acted as peacefully as he could given the political circumstances and own ideological constraints. He acted only when all other options that he was willing to consider – and that is the key phrase – were exhausted.”

Later in the same paragraph, Mr. McClintock perceptively notes that “[w]hether [Lincoln’s] strategy was devious simply depends on one’s perspective.” What is most valuable about Lincoln and the Decision for War, on this as with other issues (such as whether Seward was a “scheming, ambitious villain or a naïve idealist (or both)”), is that the author meticulously provides the facts and the underlying evidence that allow the reader to judge for himself and to reach his own conclusions. Mr. McClintock clearly sets forth, for example, what Lincoln knew and when he knew it, and correlates that with his actions directing the relief expedition. Where evidence is inconsistent or contradictory, Mr. McClintock (often in those detailed endnotes) examines the sources, explains the contradictions, and discusses the reasons why one version may be more accurate than the other.

My principal quibble (other than the title and my wish that the endnotes were footnotes) relates to the book’s treatment of the various compromise proposals (the Crittenden Plan, the border-state plan, etc.) that were flying around. The book describes them as they are proposed in the course of the story, but it is all too easy to get them confused and forget which is which. The book would have benefited from a chart that set out the elements of each plan side by side for easy reference – essentially the chart that appears as Table 8-1 in Daniel W. Crofts’s outstanding Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (1989).

The first shots of the Civil War are usually shrouded in myth and partisanship. Defenders of the Confederacy paint Lincoln as a bloodthirsty warmonger. Advocates of the Union conflate secession and the commencement of the war itself -- as if the period between November 1860 and April 1861 did not exist -- and pretend that the North and Northern politicians had no choices to make. Readers who are prepared to put aside their preconceptions and take a hard look at the actual events of this critical period in our nation’s history should not hesitate to consult this fine book.
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