Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Democracy and Free Soil

Some of my recent reading has caused me to wonder about an issue I hadn’t thought much about: why was it that a number of otherwise orthodox northern Democrats – Andrew Jackson loving, hard-money, anti-Bank Democrats – came to embrace the concept of Free Soil? By all accounts, David Wilmot was such a man. The fact that he was such a loyal Democrat was probably why the Speaker of the House felt safe in giving him the floor on that fateful evening in August 1846. What on Earth had motivated his apostasy? And why, a year later, did the Radical Democrats of New York – the Barnburners – embrace him as a kindred spirit?

The usual suspects seemed to include Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk. In 1844 Southern Democrats had denied Van Buren renomination in favor of Polk by invoking the two-thirds rule. After his election, President Polk had snubbed Van Buren by failing to accept Van Buren’s recommendations for cabinet appointments and patronage. Most glaringly, Polk wound up nominating conservative Democrat and Van Buren rival William Marcy as Secretary of War.

And yet . . . I was getting the sense that the Van Buren angle was not holding together. Nobody was pointing to hard evidence demonstrating that Wilmot was a Van Buren disciple. Polk had been the beneficiary of Van Buren’s convention defeat, but he was not involved in the conspiracy. Van Buren knew this, and in fact got on well with Polk. Likewise, Van Buren almost certainly understood that Polk was not snubbing him intentionally. Finally, whatever Van Buren’s private views, his public embrace of Free Soil came late in 1848. Men such as Wilmot would have had no way of knowing in August 1846 or October 1847 that Van Buren would join their ranks.

Another cause of friction I had seen mentioned was Oregon. Polk had taken office promising to acquire (or re-acquire) Oregon as well as Texas. He had made his peace with England, however, to concentrate on Mexico. Some northern Democrats were reportedly upset that Polk had “sacrificed” Oregon. But could that issue alone have precipitated a rebellion by a substantial number of otherwise loyal and orthodox Democrats? That seemed unlikely.

About the illustration:
Here [the illustrator, Edward Williams] Clay is critical of James K. Polk's public advocacy of the 54.40 parallel as the northern boundary of American territory in Oregon. The cartoon also alludes to widespread uncertainty as to the course the secretive Polk would actually pursue on the issue. The artist invokes the specter of an earlier Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, as the inspiration for what he considers Polk's rash and autocratic handling of the dispute. Standing at the foot of Polk's bed in a cloud of smoke is a devil, who, concealing himself behind the mask and hat of Andrew Jackson, commands the sleeping Polk, "Child of my adoption, on whom my mantle hath fallen, swear never to take your toe off that line should you deluge your country with seas of blood, produce a servile insurrection and dislocate every joint of this happy and prosperous union!!!" Polk, slumbering in a large canopied bed, has one toe on the 54.40 line of a map of Oregon which lies on floor. Also next to bed is a potted "Poke" weed (a pun on his name) and a table with his readings: "Art of War, Calvin's Works, Practical Piety," and "Life of Napoleon." Polk answers the devil, "I do my venerated and lamented chieftain! I do, by the eternal!" (The vow "By the eternal" was a well-known Jacksonism.) At left, dressed in nightshirts, three cabinet members steal into the room. They are (left to right) George Bancroft, James Buchanan, and Robert J. Walker. Treasury Secretary Walker carries a "Tariff" document, no doubt the controversial and recently introduced tariff bill of which he was generally considered the architect, and comments, "It seems to me there's the devil to pay with the president; yet behold his great toe, greater than any Pope's fixed firmly on the line 54.40. Patriotic even in dreams!" Behind Walker Secretary of State Buchanan, holding a candle and a portfolio marked "Packenham Correspondence," says, "There's certainly a strong smell of brimstone in the room! Perhaps his excellency has been practising pyrotechnics previous to commencing his campaign." The "Packenham Correspondence" refers to Buchanan's July 1845 note to British ambassador Richard Pakenham, wherein the forty-ninth parallel was proposed as a compromise. Pakenham's response, a rejection, touched off Polk's pursuit (at least temporarily) of a more hard-line stance, claiming the 54.40 boundary. "I guess there's a screw loose here! I wonder what Polk's going to do!" muses Navy Secretary Bancroft.

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