Sunday, January 18, 2009

Barnburners and Hunkers: Texas Intrudes

After 1842, tensions deepened between the Radicals and the Conservatives in New York. The substantive disputes between them, however, remained focused on the Erie Canal and economic issues. National issues and politics did not seriously intrude on the intra-party feud. The Democrats' rejection of Martin Van Buren in favor of James K. Polk in 1844 was not perceived as favoring one side or the other -- the participants were not even sure where Van Buren stood. Likewise, in assembling his cabinet, Polk had offended Van Buren by declining to accept his cabinet recommendations and instead nominating Conservative William L. Marcy as Secretary of War, but there was no immediately apparent connection to the intra-party feuding.

In fact, Texas and slavery extension seem to have come in as issues in the dispute through the back door. In January 1846, at the beginning of the 1846 New York legislative session, a Hunker state senator "offered a set of resolutions approving all the policies of the National Administration, including the annexation of Texas." His motivation for doing was apparently not substantive. "His object . . . was believed to be strengthen the hands of the Hunkers in Washington by making Marcy and [Hunker U.S. Senator Daniel S.] Dickinson . . . the peculiar friends of the president."

A Radical Senator "promptly moved amendatory resolutions omitting all references to Texas." The ensuing debate was "warm" but had nothing to do with Texas or slavery extension. The Senators instead engaged in name-calling about "the loyalty and justification of the public course of the leading men of the two factions."

Quoting an earlier observer, Herbert D.A. Donovan suggests that the event demonstrates fundamental substantive differences over slavery extension between the factions:
"The debate," says Alexander, "indicated that the Free-Soil sentiment had not only taken root among the Radicals, but that rivalries between the two factions rested on differences of principle far deeper than canal improvement."

But the facts that Donovan relates do not necessarily support this conclusion. The Radical who moved to strike the pro-Texas resolution may well have disliked the idea of slavery extension or resented the Slave Power, but he seems to have seized on the issue primarily in order to embarrass and discredit the Conservatives with the president. The two factions then fought over the issue, just as they fought over a number of other auxiliary issues, in order to gain tactical advantage and to deny victory to their adversaries.

Nonetheless, the Texas issue -- and by extension the spread of slavery -- had been raised.

About the illustration, which dates to an earlier period (1838, when William H. Seward and the Whigs swept the Democrats out of power in New York):
A satiric commentary on the effects of the landslide Whig victory in New York state elections in the autumn of 1838. President Van Buren (left) greets two of his defeated allies: incumbent governor William L. Marcy (center, in uniform) and Representative Churchill C. Cambreleng. Both men had the support of New York radical Democrats, or "Loco Focos." Van Buren: "Welcome old friends to me yet dear, Pray what the devil brings you here?" Marcy: "I have had leave to resign, and wish to be taken care of. If you had nothing better, I'll take the Office of Collector!" Cambreleng (wiping his eyes): "I am defeated in spite of the lamentations of the people!" Servant at the door, in a Dutch accent: "Vot rum-looking Coveys these is. I vonder Master admits them!" A portrait of Van Buren supporter Francis Preston Blair hangs on the wall of the room.

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