Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Mockingbird Dances

At least I think it's a mockingbird. But it was dancing. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Calhoun on the Mexican War: "We are made to dig our own grave"

Merrill Peterson describes John Calhoun's concerns about the Mexican War as of December 1846, when Congress reconvened:
Calhoun returned to Congress determined to bring the war to a rapid close. Making war was inevitably centralizing; the revenue to finance it must upset the finances of the country and, after the struggle to reform the tariff, force it upward again; above all, by raising the specter of new slave territory, the war inflamed abolitionist feelings in the North and turned all parties against the South. "They are willing that our blood and treasure shall be expended freely in the war to acquire territory, not for the common good, but as a means of assailing and ruining us. We are made to dig our own grave," Calhoun wrote gloomily.

"Mexico is to us the forbidden fruit"

On May 15, 1846, three days after the Senate effectively authorized war against Mexico over his objection, John C. Calhoun wrote to fellow South Carolinian Henry W. Conner a letter in which he apparently alluded to the underlying source of his concern. "Mexico," Calhoun warned, "is to us the forbidden fruit; the penalty of eating it [is] to subject our institutions to political death."

Three months later, David Wilmot introduced his famous proviso.

John Calhoun on the War Against Mexico: "It is monstrous"

Having devoted several posts to John C. Calhoun’s Pakenham Letter, I’d like to turn to an event in Calhoun’s career several years later. It’s one that I’ve always found somewhat odd and jarring in light of Calhoun’s earlier advocacy of Texas annexation.

On Monday May 11, 1846, President James K. Polk delivered to Congress a Message concerning relations with Mexico. To make a long story short, Polk reported that the Mexican government had in March refused to receive John Slidell, whom Polk had sent there (so Polk asserted) to seek peace. Then, on April 24, 1846, Mexican troops had attacked American troops on the north side of the Rio Grande, resulting in “some sixteen” American casualties, and others “appear to have been surrounded and captured.”

“[W]ar exists,” the president asserted. And with “[w]ar actually existing,” he called on Congress “to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace.”

What I find both jarring and fascinating is that John Calhoun opposed Polk’s rush to war. At the very outset of the debate in the Senate, he resisted a call to print 20,000 copies of the president’s message and accompanying documents because they would be distributed as pro-war propaganda and implied endorsement of a decision that had not yet been reached. Calhoun emphasized the moral and constitutional gravity of the issue that the Senate was being asked to consider:
Mr. CALHOUN . . . The question now submitted to us is one of the gravest character, and the importance of the consequences which may result from it we cannot now determine. I do hope that this body will give to it that high, full, and dispassionate consideration which is worthy the character of the body and the high constitutional functions which it is called on to exercise. I trust that we will weigh everything calmly and deliberately, and do all that the Constitution, interests, and honor of the country may require. . . .

A little later that day, Calhoun fleshed out his position somewhat more fully. He objected to the president’s suggestions that “war” already existed. Armed conflict, or invasion, may or may not exist. But under the Constitution “war” can exist only when the Congress so declares.
Mr. CALHOUN. . . . [T]he President has announced that there is war; but according to my interpretation, there is no war according to the sense of our Constitution. I distinguish between hostilities and war, and God forbid that, acting under the Constitution, we should ever confound one with the other. There may be invasion without war, and the President is authorized to repel invasion without war. But it is our sacred duty to make war, and it is for us to determine whether war shall be declared or not. If we have declared war, a state of war exists, and not till then.

It was in this aspect of the question that I regarded it as one of great magnitude, and deprecated any precipitate action on the part of the Senate. There is a certain forbearance, dignity, and calmness, which will make war not the less effective if it should be our fate to be involved in war.

The last few sentences of Calhoun’s short statement are remarkable for their expression of patriotism. Notice the reference to the country as a whole as “my country”:
I hope that I shall never indicate, on my part, the earnestness with which I go into any measure by a precipitate course of action. I am prepared to do all that the Constitution, and patriotism, and the honor of my country, may require. But I wish time to consider on all points, and desire that our whole action may be marked by dignity.

Notwithstanding Calhoun’s position, within twenty four hours the Senate was finalizing a bill authorizing the raising of troops and supplies. Most troubling in Calhoun’s view, as he expressed it on May 12, 1846, was the fact that the bill recognized war as already existing. The proposed legislation was entitled “An act providing for the prosecution of the existing war . . .” and the introduction to the act repeated that characterization:
Whereas, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States:

Be it enacted . . ., That, for the purpose of enabling the Government of the United States to prosecute said war to a speedy and successful termination . . ..

Calhoun rose to repeat his objections. Whether it acknowledged it or not, the Congress was declaring war (the Globe reporter reports this and Calhoun’s later statements in the third person, past tense [e.g., “Mr. Calhoun said that . . .”]; I have transposed these to the first person present in the hope that you will read them aloud):
Mr. CALHOUN . . . I hope, at least, one day will be allowed to those who are to vote upon this bill, as an opportunity to consult the documents which have been submitted to the Senate by the Executive, as containing the ground on which the bill is to pass. It is a bill amounting to a declaration of war. I have no objection whatever to voting the amount of supplies contained in the bill, or even a greater amount; but I am at present unprepared to vote anything which amounts to a declaration of war. The question is one of great magnitude, and gentlemen who entertain doubts respecting the facts on which the bill is founded, or in regard to the necessity or propriety of a declaration of war, should certainly have some short time allowed them for reflection. . .

Other senators complained that the troops needed immediate help. Calhoun’s request would result in fatal delay. What game was he really playing? In response, Calhoun denied the charge. The troops could be supplied and reinforced immediately; it was only the preamble to which he objected. And he had no covert agenda; he was simply not prepared to vote on the gravest constitutional responsibility he held as a senator:
Mr. CALHOUN . . . I seek no delay, and resort to no indirect course to conceal my true intent. . . . [W]hy can you not accommodate gentlemen who have honest doubts as to the state of facts, by consenting to strike out the preamble of the bill, and to suffer the question of supplies to be separated from the question of a declaration of war? Is not such a course reasonable? Is it not fair and just? Gentlemen stated to the Senate that the information received from the frontier was such as to require instant action; if so, they can have instant action. If any delay occurs, the delay is their own. I will create none.

I am prepared to vote the supplies on the spot, and without an hour’s delay; but it is just as impossible for me to vote for that preamble as it is for me to plunge a dagger into my own heart, and more so. I cannot; I am not prepared to affirm that war exists between the United States and Mexico, and that it exists by the act of that Government. How can I affirm this, when I have no evidence on which to affirm it? How do I know that the Government of Mexico will not disavow what had been done? Am I to be called upon to give a vote like this? It is impossible for me to utter it, consistently with that sacred regard for truth in which I have had been educated.

The Senate, Calhoun charged, was proposing to “make war on the Constitution.” It was “monstrous”:
I have no difficulty as to my course. My mind is made up; it is made up unalterably; I can neither vote affirmatively nor negatively. I have no certain evidence to go on. Whether any one will go with me in this course I do not know; I have made no inquiries, and I do not know that a single friend will be found at my side. As to what might be said of such a course, and all that is called popularity, I do not care the snap of my finger. If I cannot stand and brave so small a danger, I should be but little worthy of what small amount of reputation I may have earned.

I cannot agree to make war on Mexico by making war on the Constitution; and the Senate will make war on the Constitution by declaring war to exist between the two Governments when no war has been declared, and nothing has occurred but a slight military conflict between a portion of two armies. Yet I am asked to affirm, in the very face of the Constitution, that a local rencontre, not authorized by the act of either Government, constituted a state of war between the Government of Mexico and the Government of the United States – to say that, by a certain military movement of General [Zachary] Taylor and General [Mariano] Arista, every citizen of the United States is made the enemy of every man in Mexico.

It is monstrous. It strips Congress of the power of making war; and what is more and worse, it gives that power to every officer, nay, to every subaltern commanding a corporal’s guard. Do you gentlemen call on me to do this? Do you expect that I would vote for a position so monstrous? If you force the question upon me, I will take my own course. If you want unanimity, you can have it; but if you choose to proceed on your own petty party views, be it so.

Later that day, Calhoun made his final protest. Substantively, it added little, but I invite you to picture the Cast Iron Man standing in the Senate and making this plea:
Why, in the name of all that is reasonable, would you rush at once to the ultimate resort? Suppose this turns out to be a case in which war ought to be declared, after examination of all the documents: let the declaration be made in due form and with becoming dignity – not in this side-way, as if you were afraid to do it. Show a front to the world, such as becomes the character of the nation.

In the present condition of the world, war is a tremendous thing. The whole sentiment of the civilized world is turning stronger and stronger against war. Let us not, for the honor of our country – for the dignity of the Republic – be the first to create a state of war. Mortal man cannot see the end of it. When I look on and see that we are rushing upon the most tremendous event, I am amazed. I am more than amazed; I am in a state of wonder and deep alarm. This is not the tone of character to go into war. They who go into war in this manner – as if seeking a divisive course – cannot expect to succeed. It is a hasty, thoughtless course.

I do not wish to use any words in an offensive sense -- but with all possible emphasis, I exhort you to avoid even the appearance of precipitancy, or want of that deep reflection and profound meditation which alone can guide you to a successful issue.

Shortly before 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday May 12, 1846, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 40-2, the only two dissenters being Senators Thomas Clayton (Whig, Delaware) and John Davis (Whig, Massachusetts). Two the votes recorded in favor of the bill were partial or conditional. “When Mr. [John J.] CRITTENDEN’S [Whig, Kentucky] name was called, he voted ‘ay, except the preamble.’ So also did Mr. [William] UPHAM [Whig, Vermont].”

“Senators [John M.] BERRIEN [Whig, Georgia], CALHOUN, and [George] EVANS [Whig, Maine], being in their seats, did not vote.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

John Calhoun's Pakenham Letter: What Did Calhoun Know?

A postscript to my previous post about John C. Calhoun’s Pakenham Letter.

As you have seen, one issue underlying any analysis of Calhoun’s actions is whether the annexation treaty had any realistic chance of passage in the first place. If passage were likely, then Calhoun’s decision to write the letter looks more like an attempt to unite the south, consequences be damned. If on the other hand, passage was not in the cards in the first place, well then the letter might be seen as a long-shot attempt to shake things up.

The eventual vote on the treaty suggests that the chances for passage of the treaty, even without the Pakenham Letter, were slim and none – and slim, as they say, had just left town. Remember that, because the annexation document was in the form of a treaty, it needed to pass by a 2-1 margin (two-thirds of those voting). In fact, it was rejected by more than a 2-1 majority:

For Against
Northern Dems 5- 7
Northern Whigs 0- 13
Southern Dems 10- 1
Southern Whigs 1- 14
Total 16- 35

John Calhoun was one smart guy. I think it's safe to say that he knew that the treaty was DOA when he wrote the Pakenham Letter.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Langdon Cheves: Chivis or Cheevz?

A few weeks ago, Brett Schulte had a post on pronouncing Civil War names and places.

I thought of Brett's post because I was wondering today about the pronunciation of the last name of South Carolinian Langdon Cheves.

I still don't know. Wikipedia (link above) states "pronounced chivis." So do this site and this site.

On the other hand, this site, this site and this site claim the name is pronounced cheevz.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

John Calhoun's Pakenham Letter: Why?

I ended the last post with Merrill D. Peterson’s question:
Politicians then and historians since have debated [John C.] Calhoun’s motives for writing the Pakenham Letter. The [John Tyler] administration line on annexation was that it was strictly a question of national interest unconnected with slavery. Calhoun’s letter, which went to the Senate along with the treaty and became public knowledge on April 27 [,1844], placed annexation on pro-slavery grounds. Could he have been oblivious to the effect of this?

Years ago, Calhoun biographer John C. Wiltse contended that Calhoun did not anticipate that the letter would become public. Subsequent historians, however, have uniformly rejected this view. Charles Sellers, for example, responded, “Wiltse contends that Calhoun did not anticipate that his Pakenham letter would be published, but Bemis asks logically, ‘If so, why did he write it?’”

The chronology also renders Wiltse’s suggestion ludicrous. The Pakenham Letter is dated Thursday April 18. On Monday April 22, the treaty and the letter went to the Senate. Transcription of copies would probably have begun almost immediately after the letter was sent. Did Calhoun send the letter and then a few hours later smack his head in the realization that he now needed to provide it to the Senate? Ridiculous.

It is virtually impossible then, to reach any conclusion other than that Calhoun knew, when he wrote the letter, that he would be sending it to the Senate. He must also have known that it would create a firestorm. Why would he do such a thing?

William W. Freehling, for one, finds no mystery. Calhoun, he maintains, was simply being Calhoun. For some time, his primary goal had been to raise southern white consciousness and encourage the formation of a sectional southern party. This was a perfect opportunity to galvanize the south. The north, confronted by a unified south, would then have to cave:
No pre-Civil War mystery is less mysterious. Calhoun here pursued the policy he had deployed since nullification times. First he would find the issue to teach Southerners that outsiders hid antislavery intent behind camouflaged methods of proceeding. His issue would arouse southern apologists from their preference to diffuse blacks away. An awakened Slavepower would then compel Northerners into a pure states’ rights party, which would settle the precipitating issue the South’s way.

Prof. Freehling also questions whether Calhoun’s tactic put the administration and the treaty in any worse a position than they would have been otherwise. First, northern Whigs would almost certainly vote against the treaty no matter what the accompanying documents showed concerning the administration’s intent, and at least some northern Democrats would be forced to follow suit. Second, even without the Pakenham Letter the records to be delivered to the Senate would be littered with numerous letters and memoranda showing that many members of the administration had sought annexation to protect slavery and advance the interests of the south.

In fact, Prof. Freehling asserts that the strategy that Calhoun adopted (as Freehling understands it) was the only potentially winning strategy. “Calhoun’s scenario of rallying enough slaveholders to push enough Northern Democrats to stop evading the issue was exactly the way the election of 1844 and its annexation aftermath transpired.”

Merrill D. Peterson appears to make a similar point. Rallying the south was both desirable in itself and probably the only potentially winning strategy. “By linking Texas annexation to the defense of slavery, he divided political parties at the Mason and Dixon Line, terrifying [Henry] Clay and the Whigs and undercutting [Martin] Van Buren in the South.”

In her review of the literature, Norma Lois Peterson cites two other historians who likewise believe that Calhoun’s letter reflected a calculated political gamble. At best, he might convince southern Whigs to support the treaty without losing northern Democrats. If the worst happened, and northern Democrats voted against, at least he would have alerted southerners to the danger they faced:
George Poage thinks Calhoun wanted his letter to initiate a general debate with the British government over slavery, hoping this would alarm southern Whigs and bring them into a section bloc under his leadership. Their votes were necessary to ratification, but as yet, they remained loyal to Whig policy and seemed oblivious to the growing danger to their “way of life.”

To William R. Brock, “all evidence suggests that Calhoun knew what he was doing and calculated the odds.” Early in March, weeks before Calhoun had discovered Aberdeen’s letter, he lamented the disunity in the South . . .. Calhoun was convinced that southern Whigs would vote against the treaty unless they could be alerted to the impending destruction of their slave property . . .. The protection of slavery had to be made the central issue of annexation. This would be a test, not only for southern Whigs, but also for northern Democrats.

Merrill Peterson’s reference to Van Buren points up another potential and not inconsistent motive that has been highlighted by Charles Sellers in James K. Polk: Continentalist, 1843-1846. As of April 1844, it was generally assumed that Van Buren would be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president. As I noted in the last post, Van Buren had avoided the annexation issue like the plague during 1837-1841. In fact, he continued to oppose immediate annexation and would shortly issue a public letter to that effect.

As of mid-April, however, Van Buren had not yet announced his position. On Monday, April 15, 1844, the principal Democratic newspaper, Francis Preston Blair’s Washington Globe, endorsed annexation. Tyler and Calhoun, Sellers argues, incorrectly assumed that this meant that Van Buren was about to come out in favor of annexation and steal the issue that Tyler still hoped would somehow earn him a second term. (In fact, Blair produced the editorial at Andrew Jackson’s urging and over Van Buren’s objection.) By casting annexation as a pro-slavery initiative, they would force Van Buren to back off:
On Monday, April 15, [1844,] the Globe’s endorsement of annexation appeared according to promise, but the treaty did not. Learning in advance that the Globe would endorse the treaty, Tyler and Calhoun had jumped to the conclusion that Van Buren was about to rob them of the political fruits of their toils by coming out for annexation. “If the Globe, or any other organ of Mr. Van Buren, shall attempt to appropriate the measure in a manner to operate on the Baltimore Convention, or at the polls,” warned the Tyler organ in reply to Blair’s editorial, “we shall denounce such a proceeding.” Holding back the treaty from the Senate, Calhoun set to work to accomplish something Blair had warned Van Buren about a month before: introducing “stipulations on the negro question calculated to make it [annexation] odious in the north & peculiarly a southern question.”

About the illustration:
A pro-Democrat cartoon forecasting the collapse of Whig opposition to the annexation of Texas. James K. Polk, the expansionist candidate, stands at right near a bridge spanning "Salt River." He holds an American flag and hails Texans Stephen Austin (left) and Samuel Houston aboard a wheeled steamboat-like vessel "Texas." Austin, waving the flag of the Lone Star Republic, cries, "All hail to James K. Polk, the frined [sic] of our Country!" The Texas boat has an eagle figurehead and a star on its prow. Below the bridge pandemonium reigns among the foes of annexation. Holding onto a rope attached to "Texas" above, they are dragged into Salt River. Led by Whig presidential nominee Henry Clay, they are (left to right) Theodore Frelinghuysen, Daniel Webster, Henry A. Wise, and an unidentified figure whose legs are tangled in the rope. Clay: "Curse the day that ever I got hold of this rope! this is a bad place to let go of it--But I must!" Frelinghuysen: "Oh evil day, that ever I got into the footsteps of my predecessor." Webster: "If we let go, we are ruined, and if we hold on--Oh! crackee!" Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, straddling a barrel labeled "Abolition" in the river, shouts at Clay, "Avaunt! unholy man! I will not keep company with a blackleg!" referring to the candidate's reputation as a gambler.

John Calhoun's Pakenham Letter: The Background

Scholars have long puzzled over why John Caldwell Calhoun chose to write the Pakenham Letter. But first, some background.

In September 1841, members of the Whig caucus read “His Accidency” John Tyler out of the Whig party. Although now a man without a party, Tyler continued to harbor dreams of a second term. Perhaps he could persuade the Democrats to nominate him in 1844, or maybe he could form a third party or run as an independent backed by a coalition of southern Democrats disenchanted with the probable Democratic candidate, Martin Van Buren and conservative, state-right Whigs.

As part of this pipe dream, Tyler conceived the idea of boldly pushing for the annexation of the Republic of Texas. Both Democrats and Whigs had studiously avoided the issue for years because they recognized how hot a potato it would likely become. In particular, the annexation of Texas, in which slavery was legal, threatened to ignite disputes over the peculiar institution and sectional tensions. In addition, Mexico had never conceded the independence of what it viewed as a rebellious province. Annexation thus presented the likelihood of war. Andrew Jackson had therefore contented himself with recognition of Texas rather than annexation before he left office in March 1847, and his Democratic successor Martin Van Buren (in office March 1837- March 1841) had avoided the issue like the plague.

In May 1843, Daniel Webster, the last member of the original cabinet that Tyler inherited from William Henry Harrison, resigned his position as Secretary of State after completing negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Tyler responded by nominating as Webster’s successor his Secretary of the Navy and old friend and confidante, Abel P. Upshur. Upshur, who hailed from the eastern shore of Virginia, was, like Tyler, a conservative, state-rights Whig. He also was an enthusiastic advocate of annexation. Upshur assumed office in July 1843 and promptly entered into secret negotiations designed to result in the annexation of Texas via a treaty to be presented to the Senate.

Fast-forwarding eight months or so, Upshur’s negotiations and the proposed treaty were virtually complete by late February 1844. At that point, as I mentioned in the last post, chance intervened. On February 28, 1844, Upshur was killed by an explosion on board the USS Princeton. Tyler, who could turn to neither mainstream Democrats nor Whigs for a replacement, reached out (reluctantly or otherwise – it is not clear) to the quintessential anti-party man, none other than John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina, who assumed his duties at State a month later on April 1, 1844.

Meanwhile, however, news of the secret negotiations had leaked. Based on an inadvertent hint from Upshur before his death, Daniel Webster had figured out in February that a treaty was imminent, and he relayed the information to Whig allies. In March, Robert C. Winthrop introduced a resolution in the House demanding information. It quickly became apparent that the issue threatened to become a sectional one, with northern Whigs in particular denouncing the rumored treaty as a conspiracy of the slave interests.

Without admitting the existence of the negotiations, the administration backed efforts by friends who endorsed annexation as a commercial and strategic boon to nation as a whole. on a non-sectional basis. Tyler reportedly believed that any mention of the slavery issue or attempt to push annexation as a protection for the south would be fatal to ratification. Indeed, it appears that, for this reason, Tyler pushed to have the treaty signed and submitted for ratification before Calhoun became Secretary.

Such was not to be, because the Texas envoy did not arrive in Washington to sign the treaty until the last day of March, just as Calhoun assumed his new post. After final details were worked out, the treaty was signed Friday April 12, 1844.

The treaty was not, however, submitted to the Senate until Monday April 22. There were certainly understandable and legitimate reasons for the delay. Calhoun used the intervening ten days to approach the Mexican minister in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the likelihood of war after the treaty was formally announced. On a more practical level, in a world without word processors, faxes and email, documents had to be transcribed and cover letters had to be composed and approved.

But the delay was also occasioned in part by Calhoun’s apparently inexplicable decision to write a letter concerning Texas to the British minister to the United States, Richard Pakenham. Here we must take a step back.

Five months earlier, George Hamilton-Gordon, Lord Aberdeen, the British Foreign Secretary, had sent a dispatch dated December 26, 1843 to the British ministry in the United States, the contents of which were intended to be conveyed to the American Secretary of State. When the newly-appointed Pakenham arrived in Washington in February 1844, he discovered that Aberdeen’s message had not been communicated to Upshur. Pakenham remedied the omission by reading the message to Upshur and then sending him a copy. Upshur did not respond before he was killed on February 28, and acting secretary of state John Nelson apparently did not regard a response as necessary during his brief tenure (from the end of February to the end of March).

In fact, the Aberdeen message (the full text of which may be found in the Congressional Globe) was quite benign and conciliatory. In brief, Aberdeen confirmed (as the British Government had previously expressed) that the government preferred that slavery be abolished in Texas. However, he made clear that Britain had no designs on Texas and would take no actions to achieve that result. Norma Lois Peterson describes the dispatch in somewhat greater detail:
Aberdeen’s tone was courteous, not hostile. He admitted that his government had pressed Mexico to acknowledge the independence of Texas, but it had done so with “no occult design, either with reference to the slavery which now exists, and which we desire to see abolished in Texas.” It was well known to the United States and to every other nation, Aberdeen explained, that Great Britain desired and was “constantly exerting herself to procure the general abolition of slavery throughout the world.” But in attempting this, Britain would do nothing in a secret or underhanded manner. “We should rejoice if the recognition of that country [Texas] by the Mexican Government should be accompanied by an engagement on the part of Texas to abolish slavery eventually and under proper conditions”; but Britain did not intend to exercise improper authority on either Mexico or Texas. “We shall counsel, but we shall not seek to compel, or unduly control, either party. So far as Great Britain is concerned, provided all other States act with equal forbearance,” Mexico and Texas were at liberty “to make their own unfettered arrangements,” in regard to slavery or any other matter.

President Tyler reportedly took the message for what it was – an attempt to be conciliatory notwithstanding a difference in principle. As Calhoun told Pakenham, the president expressed his appreciation for the British government’s disavowal of any intention to disturb the internal tranquility of slaveholding states, although he regretted that Great Britain had officially transmitted its policy of abolition.

Calhoun, however, would not take yes for an answer and decided to escalate matters. In response, he composed and sent to Pakenham an incendiary reply dated April 18, 1844. Remarkably, I have not been able to locate a copy the “Pakenham Letter” online. For those with access to specialized databases or research or law libraries, it may be found at Senate Documents, 28th Cong., 1st Sess. 50-53 and Richard K. Cralle (ed.), The Works of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 5, pp. 333-347. Here is William W. Freehling’s description:
The administration, wrote the Secretary of State, “regards with deep concern the avowal” that England was “constantly exerting herself” to procure world-wide antislavery. The administration was also appalled that England was urging emancipation as “one of the conditions on which Mexico should acknowledge” Texas. “It would be difficult for Texas in her actual condition,” emphasized Calhoun, “to resist” this pressure, even “supposing the influence and exertion of Great Britain” remained within Lord Aberdeen’s “limits.”

An emancipated Texas, continued the Carolinian, would give “Great Britain the most efficient means of effecting in the neighboring States of this Union what she avows to be her desire to do in all countries where slavery exists.” A free labor Texas “would expose the weakest and most vulnerable portions” of slaveholders’ “frontiers” to inroads. But while England’s hope is to end what she calls our evil, warned Calhoun, our mission is to perpetuate what we consider our blessing. Under southern Christian slavery, bragged the American Secretary of State, “the negro race” has attained an unprecedented “elevation in morals, intelligence,” and “civilization.” The United States, concluded Calhoun, “acting in obedience” to racial “obligation,” and “as the most effectual if not the only means of guarding against the threatened danger . . . has concluded an annexation treaty.”

In a subsequent letter, dated April 27, 1844, Calhoun drove home the point that annexation “was made necessary in order to preserve domestic institutions . . . deemed essential to their safety and prosperity.”

“It was,” Merrill D. Peterson has coyly noted, “an unusual diplomatic dispatch.”

Meanwhile, on Monday April 22, 1844, four days after the dispatch of the first letter, the Secretary of State formally transmitted the proposed treaty with Texas to the Senate under seal. Based on precedent, and apparently presuming that the Senate would immediately call for production of supporting materials in any event, Calhoun also sent with the treaty itself copies of related documents and correspondence – including the Pakenham Letter.

Ironically, President Tyler’s letter of transmittal to the Senate emphasized the importance of the treaty to the nation as a whole, not its sectional benefit to the south. The inclusion of the Pakenham Letter, however, insured that there would be a sectional explosion and virtually guaranteed defeat of the treaty, which required ratification by two-thirds of the Senate under Article II, Section 2.

The question, then, is why Calhoun wrote the letter. Merrill D. Peterson summarizes the conundrum:
Politicians then and historians since have debated Calhoun’s motives for writing the Pakenham Letter. The administration line on annexation was that it was strictly a question of national interest unconnected with slavery. Calhoun’s letter, which went to the Senate along with the treaty and became public knowledge on April 27 [,1844], placed annexation on pro-slavery grounds. Could he have been oblivious to the effect of this?

In the next post, I will survey some possible answers.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Two Short Takes on Historical Inevitability

Having posted recently on the inevitability of the Civil War (or lack thereof), I can't miss the opportunity to flag Dimitri's recent post sardonically noting an attempt by the Director of James Buchanan's Wheatland estate to revive Old Buck's reputation by asserting that nobody elected in 1856 could have averted the war. As I have suggested here and here, quite possibly the opposite is true.

All of which brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, by Merrill D. Peterson, concerning the February 28, 1844 explosion on board the USS Princeton, which killed (among others) John Tyler's Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and resulted in the installation of John Caldwell Calhoun as his successor. The explosion, Peterson observed, was "one of those random events which in its consequences makes a mockery of every attempt to impose some grand law on the history of nations." I suppose the same characterization might apply to the fact that "His Accidency" became president in the first place.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Barbara Boxer is a Pompous Ass

Nuff said.

Brett Schulte Is Looking for History Carnival Nominations

Over at TOCWOC, Brett Schulte reminds us that he is hosting the next History Carnival on or about July 1 and asks other bloggers to spread the word that he is looking for nominations. I hereby comply with his request.

The illustration at the top of the post is included only because (a) I really like it, and (b) I've been thinking about John Calhoun and the annexation of Texas:
A satire on the Democrats' approach to the delicate question of the annexation of Texas. In marked contrast to his portrayal of the issue as a beautiful woman in "Virtuous Harry" (no. 1844-27), the artist here presents Texas as the ugly hag War or Chaos, brandishing a dagger, pistols, whips, and manacles. She embodies the threat of war with Mexico, feared by American opponents of annexation. The whips and manacles in her left hand may also allude to slavery, whose expansion into the new territory was desired by southern annexationists. Bucholzer parodies Van Buren's evasion of the controversial and sectionally divisive issue and Democratic candidates Polk and Dallas's motives in favoring the measure. Senators Thomas Hart Benton and John C. Calhoun confront Van Buren with Texas, whom they support on a plank across their shoulders. Calhoun says, "Come, Matty, we introduce you to the Texas Question, what do you say to her Ladyship?" Van Buren, backing away, replies, "Take any other shape but that and my firm nerves shall never tremble!" Andrew Jackson, who prods Van Buren from behind with his cane says, "Stand up to your lick-log Matty or by the Eternal you'll back into Salt River before you know it." In the background right are Polk and Dallas. Polk says, "What say you Dallas? She's not the handsomest Lady I ever saw but that $25,000 a year-- Eh! it's worth a little stretching of Conscience!" (The annual salary of a U.S. President was $25,000.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Were Cultural and Economic Dissimilarities Causes of the Civil War?

I’d like to address another facet of Bob’s interesting post concerning whether the Civil War was avoidable after Lincoln’s election. In his discussion, Bob places a good deal of emphasis on the cultural and economic dissimilarities of the North and the South. As such, it provides a good opportunity to explore whether and, if so, in what way, these dissimilarities were causes of the War.

Before turning to Bob’s contentions, some background. In a post entitled Cultural Differences and the Civil War, I cited and quoted from David M. Potter’s masterpiece, The Impending Crisis, in support of the proposition that cultural differences do not explain the war. Prof. Potter’s cogent argument is worth repeating:
To begin with, the cultural argument exaggerates the points of diversity between North and South, minimizes the similarities, and leaves out of account all the commonalities and shared values . . .. These features had proved their reality and their importance by nourishing the strong nationalism which was in full vigor by the 1840s. Further, any explanation which emphasizes the traditionalism of the South is likely to lose sight of the intensely commercial and acquisitive features of the cotton economy.

Cultural dissimilarities exist between or among sections or groups in many countries. Yet they usually do not lead to war. Likewise, in the United States cultural differences between North and South were probably greater during the founding period and the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century than they were in 1860, and differences persisted long after the Civil War ended. Yet southerners were in the forefront of founding the nation and the nationwide Second Party system, and enlisted in the United States army and fought under the American flag in 1898 and 1917.

The cultural diversity argument fails because it cannot account for these phenomena: To explain an antagonism which sprang up suddenly, and died down suddenly, the historian does not need to discover, and cannot effectively use, a factor which has been constant over a long period, as the cultural difference between the North and the South has been. He needs to identify a factor which can cause bitter disagreement even among a people who have much basic homogeneity.

Likewise, Prof. Potter addressed and, in my view, persuasively dismantled the argument that economic dissimilarities caused the War:
The flaw in the economic explanation, when it is rigidly applied, is that history can show many instances in which economic diversities and conflicts existed without producing the separatist tendencies of acute sectionalism. Economic dissimilarities may, in just the opposite way, promote harmony between two regions, if each supplements the other, and if their combined resources can give them self-sufficiency. For example, in the United States, the Middle West and the East have had very dissimilar economies, and their interests have often clashed violently, but since the diverse economies could be made to supplement one another in important ways, a separatist sectionalism never developed in the Middle West. Could not the economy of the South have been drawn into some similar interdependence? In the United States in the forties, the South’s cotton exports paid for the imports of the entire country, and it is an arbitrary theory which would deny that North and South might have found roles, to some degree complementary, in an economy of national self-sufficiency.

Finally, Prof. Potter also debunked the suggestion that cultural and economic differences somehow joined forces to create a causative sum that was greater than the whole of its parts. The two individual elements, Prof. Potter argued, differed fundamentally in their emphases, and it was not apparent they reinforced one another:
It is possible to join the cultural and the economic explanations in one overall analysis that begins by demonstrating the existence of social dissimilarities which, in themselves, do not necessarily cause friction, and then goes on to show how these dissimilarities are translated into specific conflicts of interest. But though the two may be treated as complementary in this way, they differ basically in emphasis. At bottom, the cultural explanation assumes that people quarrel when they are unlike one another; the economic explanation assumes that no matter how much alike they may be, they will quarrel if the advantage of one is the disadvantage of the other. One argues that important cultural dissimilarities cause strife; the other that strife causes the opposing groups to rationalize their hostility to one another by exaggerating unimportant dissimilarities. One explains sectionalism as a conflict of values; the other, as a conflict of interests. One sees it as a struggle for identity; the other as a struggle for power.

All that said, it may well be that Bob is in fact saying something quite different. The most substantial clue comes, I believe, toward the beginning of Bob’s discussion (emphasis added):
So, one must ask why the southern states made such an extreme response to Lincoln’s election. The reasons are complex and there is no way I can discuss them in any depth here. Suffice to say that there were economic, social, and political reasons for the break, and they all begin with slavery, with the perceived right to hold property in the form of a human being.

Although Bob goes on to discuss economic, social and political differences between the North and the South, the context of the discussion suggests that he sees these differences as arising, ultimately, from the root cause of slavery. In other words, the cultural and economic (and political) differences Bob discusses were effects or manifestations rather than ultimate causes themselves.

This distinction is precisely the one made by Prof. Potter. Cultural and/or economic differences between the sections were not the root causes of the War, Potter maintains – slavery was. But slavery and disputes over slavery did have the effect (among others) of magnifying and distorting perceived social and economic differences:
Thus in cultural and economic matters, as well as in terms of values, slavery had an effect which no other sectional factor exercised in isolating North and South from each other. As they became isolated, instead of reacting to each other as they were in actuality, each reacted to a distorted mental image of the other – the North to an image of a southern world of lascivious and sadistic slavedrivers; the South to the image of a northern world of cunning Yankee traders and of rabid abolitionists plotting slave insurrections. This process of substituting stereotypes could be very damaging indeed to the spirit of union, for it caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared.

Furthermore, Potter argues, these perceived differences, once established, themselves amplified tensions. Potter describes what amounts to a feedback circuit in which slavery and negative stereotypes continually reinforced one another:
[The process of substituting stereotypes] also had an effect of changing men’s attitudes toward the disagreements which are always certain to arise in politics: ordinary, resolvable disputes were converted into questions of principle, involving rigid, unnegotiable dogma. Abstractions, such as the question of the legal status of slavery in areas in which there were no slaves and to which no one intended to take any, became points of honor and focuses of contention which rocked the government to its foundation. Thus the slavery issue gave a false clarity and simplicity to sectional diversities which were otherwise qualified and diffuse. One might say that the issue structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged. It transformed political action from a process of accommodation to a mode of combat. Once this divisive tendency set in, sectional rivalry increased the tensions of the slavery issue and the slavery issue embittered sectional rivalries, in a reciprocating process which the majority of Americans found themselves unable to check even though they deplored it.

Although Prof. Potter does not put it this way, from this perspective it is possible to see perceptions of economic and particularly cultural differences as amounting to a sort of secondary cause of the War.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Was the Civil War Inevitable? The Secession of South Carolina

In his excellent new blog, Thoughts, Essays and Musings on the Civil War, Bob poses the question “Given Lincoln’s election in 1860, was the Civil War avoidable?” I thought I’d put in my two cents.

Luckily, I wasn’t one of Bob’s students, because this is precisely the sort of question I have trouble with. Most of the problem is that I see too many questions or issues within the question: I get bogged down in an infinite regression. The question can’t be answered, for example, without first considering the question whether the secession of the southern states was inevitable as of November 1860. And that question can’t be answered without first considering whether the secession of any southern state was inevitable as of November 1860.

I also get tied up in knots because there are all sorts of intermediate issues or hypotheses that must be considered. For example, what if secession had succeeded elsewhere in the deep south, but conditional unionists had been successful in staving off immediate secession in Georgia, where the ultimate vote proved fairly close?

Finally, Bob’s question also gets me tangled up in issues relating to counterfactuals, for after all this is in effect an attempt to pose a counterfactual scenario. But, to be worthwhile, counterfactuals need to be plausible. Some counterfactuals I can dream up are plainly beyond the pale: South Carolina is struck by a massive plague; Lincoln endorses constitutional amendments granting the right to bring slaves into all the territories and outlawing all state personal liberty laws. But in closer cases, where do you draw the line between plausible and implausible?

Having reduced myself to utter confusion, let me start with what seems to be the easiest sub-question: was the secession of even a single state inevitable in November 1860? It’s very hard for me to imagine a scenario in which at least one state did not do so. But I can imagine events unfolding somewhat differently than they wound up doing.

In Secessionists Triumphant, for example, William Freehling tells a dramatic story of a fortuitous event that hastened the calling of the South Carolina secession convention (previously discussed here). After Lincoln’s election, the most radical South Carolinians pushed for a secession convention as soon as possible: December 17, 1860. They lost. On November 9, 1860 the South Carolina Senate endorsed a January 15, 1861 date by a vote of 44-1. This created the threat, radicals feared, that “the legislature’s timetable might well leave South Carolina deciding [on secession] last, so that the Lower South’s majority could drag the most fiery state into a southern convention, where an Upper South majority might rule.” At about the same time, South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond wrote a letter in which he counseled against immediate secession.

Luckily for the radicals, Hammond’s letter was suppressed and never became public. And then a chance event permitted them to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat. On the evening of November 9, 1860 a dinner was held in Charleston to celebrate the opening of a railroad link between that city and Savannah, Georgia. Radicals arranged to have several of the Georgia celebrants give speeches in which they declared themselves, and by extension Georgia, in favor of South Carolina’s immediate secession.

The crowd was electrified. The celebrants wired the legislature in Columbia to demand an immediate convention and advising that they were hiring a special train to send representatives to enforce the message. The emissaries arrived at 2:00 p.m. on November 10. To make a long story short, the wire, the emissaries, and the belief that Georgia stood behind her (reinforced by a rumor that Georgia Senator Robert Toombs had resigned) did the trick:
The smothering atmosphere engulfed Columbia after the transforming news from Charleston arrived. By 4:30 P.M. on Saturday, November 10, almost exactly twenty-four hours after the Senate had voted 44-1 for a January 15 convention (with elections for delegates on January 8), the House voted 117-0 for a December 17 convention (with elections for delegates on December 6). That evening, the Senate concurred 42-0. Two days later, the . . . [December 17] convention date sailed unanimously through all three readings in both houses.

Professor Freehling believes that secession and war remained probable even if the date of the South Carolina convention had not been moved up. Charleston radicals might have mounted a coup d’etat and taken the state out of the Union.
If illegal mobs failed to cancel a South Carolina legislature delay, a Mississippi convention might have seized the Separatist initiative . . .. Alternatively, a southern convention might have met and served Separatists ironically well. Uncompromising Lower South delegates might have stormed out in protest against Upper South compromising. Such an exodus would likely have led to a cooperative Lower South secession. . . . Or the Lower and Upper South might have agreed on demands for northern concessions that Lincoln would have rejected. A northern rejection of a southern convention’s ultimatum could have led to disunion as swiftly as did the Charleston and Savannah Railroad’s celebration. All in all, the chances for the nation to finish 1861 peacefully intact were very poor.

Nonetheless, Prof. Freehling cannot eliminate the possibility that delay might have averted secession:
Thus as South Carolina Separatists feared (and Cooperationists elsewhere hoped), several weeks of delay just might have dulled the first sting of Lincoln’s election, even in South Carolina and then in Mississippi too. Subsequently, a southern convention just might have settled for an overt act ultimatum: No secession now but automatic disunion hereafter, if Republicans secured a federal antislavery edict. Or perhaps a southern convention just might have insisted on northern concessions that President-elect Lincoln might have considered negotiable. Or perhaps an unexpected coincidence, akin to the accident of the railroad’s timing, might again have deflected history a little off course [true in theory, but this sort of speculation might be deemed to violate the rule against unreasonable counterfactuals, discussed above]. All humans know, or should know, that the fortuitous can somewhat deflect apparently remorseless trends at any time or place.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jefferson Cries Wolf in the Night? 3

In his book The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America, Robert Pierce Forbes argues persuasively that Thomas Jefferson’s April 22, 1820 “fire bell in the night” letter to John Holmes – previously discussed here and here – was, let us say, a trifle disingenuous.

Apart from the fact that the letter conveniently catapulted Holmes, a loyal Republican, to the United States Senate, Forbes notes that other contemporaneous Jefferson correspondence is free of the doom-and-gloom predictions the letter contains. In fact, what stands out is that the tone of Jefferson’s letters depends on the identity of the recipient. “Jefferson reserved his tone of fatalism for northerners and anticompromise southerners.”

Procompromise confidantes like president James Monroe heard a different message from the Sage of Monticello. Forbes cites, for example, a letter that Jefferson wrote three weeks later to the president. In the letter, dated May 14, 1820, Jefferson gushed about the nation’s future prospects (emphasis added):

Dear Sir,

—Your favor of the 3d is received, and always with welcome. These texts of truth relieve me from the floating falsehoods of the public papers. I confess to you I am not sorry for the non-ratification of the Spanish treaty. Our assent to it has proved our desire to be on friendly terms with Spain; their dissent, the imbecility and malignity of their government towards us, have placed them in the wrong in the eyes of the world, and that is well; but to us the province of Techas will be the richest State of our Union, without any exception. Its southern part will make more sugar than we can consume, and the Red river, on its north, is the most luxuriant country on earth. Florida, moreover, is ours. Every nation in Europe considers it such a right. We need not care for its occupation in time of peace, and, in war, the first cannon makes it ours without offence to anybody. The friendly advisements, too, of Russia and France, as well as the change of government in Spain, now ensured, require a further and respectful forbearance. While their request will rebut the plea of proscriptive possession, it will give us a right to their approbation when taken in the maturity of circumstances. I really think, too, that neither the state of our finances, the condition of our country, nor the public opinion, urges us to precipitation into war. The treaty has had the valuable effect of strengthening our title to the Techas, because the cession of the Floridas in exchange for Techas imports an acknowledgement of our right to it. This province moreover, the Floridas and possibly Cuba, will join us on the acknowledgement of their independence, a measure to which their new government will probably accede voluntarily. But why should I be saying all this to you, whose mind all the circumstances of this affair have had possession for years? I shall rejoice to see you here; and were I to live to see you here finally, it would be a day of jubilee. But our days are all numbered, and mine are not many. God bless you and preserve you muchos años.

Forbes correctly observes, “Nothing in Jefferson’s boldly activist letter to Monroe reveals any trace of pessimism for the nation’s prospects.”

Likewise, Forbes points to Jefferson’s letter to his old friend the Marquis de Lafayette dated December 26, 1820, in which Jefferson described “Missouri” as involving little more than political posturing and “noise”:
With us things are going on well. The boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave, and that from Missouri is now rolling towards us, but we shall ride over it as we have over all others. It is not a moral question, but one merely of power. Its object is to raise a geographical principle for the choice of a president, and the noise will be kept up till that is effected. All know that permitting the slaves of the south to spread into the west will not add one being to that unfortunate condition, that it will increase the happiness of those existing, and by spreading them over a larger surface, will dilute the evil everywhere, and facilitate the means of getting finally rid of it, an event more anxiously wished by those on whom it presses than by the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity. In the meantime, it is a ladder for rivals climbing to power.

To antislavery men and northerners, however, Jefferson purported to convey fear and uncertainty. In a letter written on December 26, 1820 – the same day that he wrote to Lafayette – to Pennsylvanian Albert Gallatin, “a pronounced Republican opponent of slavery then serving as U.S. minister to France," Jefferson reverted to pessimism, clearly designed to persuade the influential Gallatin to support and lobby for compromise. Although the Missouri question was nothing but a Federalist plot, it had stirred up a hornets’ nest, and secession was not out of the question unless cooler heads prevailed (emphasis and paragraph breaks added):
But nothing has ever presented so threatening an aspect as what is called the Missouri question. The Federalists, completely put down and despairing of ever rising again under the old divisions of Whig and Tory, devised a new one of slave-holding and non-slave-holding States, which, while it had a semblance of being moral, was at the same time geographical, and calculated to give them ascendency by debauching their old opponents to a coalition with them. Moral the question certainly is not, because the removal of slaves from one State to another, no more than their removal from one country to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it. Indeed, if there were any morality in the question it is on the other side; because by spreading them over a larger surface their happiness would be increased, and burden of their future liberation lightened by bringing a greater number of shoulders under it.

However, it served to throw dust into the eyes of the people and to fanaticize them, while to the knowing ones it gave a geographical and preponderant line of the Potomac and Ohio, throwing fourteen States to the North and East, and ten to the South and West. With these, therefore, it is merely a question of power; but with this geographical minority it is a question of existence. For if Congress once goes out of the Constitution to arrogate a right of regulating the condition of the inhabitants of the States, its majority may, and probably will, next declare that the condition of all men within the United States shall be that of freedom; in which case all the whites south of the Potomac and Ohio must evacuate their States, and most fortunate those who can do it first.

And so far this crisis seems to be advancing. The Missouri constitution is recently rejected by the House of Representatives; what will be their next step is yet to be seen. If accepted on the condition that Missouri shall expunge from it the prohibition of free people of color from emigration to their State, it will be expunged, and all will be quieted until the advance of some new State, shall present the question again. If rejected unconditionally, Missouri assumes independent self-government, and Congress, after pouting awhile, must receive them on the footing of the original States. Should the Representatives propose force, 1, the Senate will not concur; 2, were they to concur, there would be a secession of the members south of the line, and probably of the three Northwestern States, who, however inclined to the other side, would scarcely separate from those who would hold the Mississippi from its mouth to its source.

What next? Conjecture itself is at a loss. But whatever it shall be you will hear from others and from the newspapers; and finally the whole will depend on Pennsylvania. While she and Virginia hold together, the Atlantic States can never separate. Unfortunately, in the present case she has become more fanatisized than any other State. However useful where you are, I wish you were with them. You might turn the scale there, which would turn it for the whole. Should this scission take place, one of the most deplorable consequences would be its discouragement of the efforts of the European nations in the regeneration of their oppressive and cannibal governments. Amidst this prospect of evil I am glad to see one good effect. It has brought the necessity of some plan of general emancipation and deportation more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before, insomuch that our governor has ventured to propose one to the Legislature. This will probably not be acted on at this time, nor would it be effectual; for, while it proposes to devote to that object one-third of the revenue of the State, it would not reach one-tenth of the annual increase.

My proposition would be that the holders should give up all born after a certain day, past, present, or to come; that these should be placed under the guardianship of the State, and sent at a proper age to St. Domingo. They are willing to receive them, and the shortness of the passage brings the deportation within the possible means of taxation, aided by charitable contributions. In these I think Europe, which has forced this evil on us, and the Eastern States, who have been its chief instruments of importation, would be bound to give largely. But the proceeds of the land office, if appropriate to this, would be quite sufficient.

God bless you, and preserve you multos años.

Likewise, in yet another letter written on December 26, 1820 (seems to have been a busy catch-up day!), “to his old friend David Baillie Warden, an Irish Presbyterian encyclopedist and dedicated opponent of slavery and racism,” Jefferson sounded similar themes:
But nothing disturbs us so much as the dissension lately produced by what is called the Missouri question: a question having just enough of the semblance of morality to throw dust into the eyes of the people, & to fanaticise them; while with the knowing ones it is simply a question of power. The Federalists, unable to rise again under the old division of whig and tory, have invented a geographical division which gives them 14. states against 10. and seduces their old opponents into a coalition with them. Real morality is on the other side. For while the removal of slaves from one state to another adds no more to their numbers than their removal from one country to another, the spreading them over a larger surface adds to their happiness and renders their future emancipation more practicable.

Jefferson Cries Wolf in the Night? 2

A long time ago, I began to discuss Thomas Jefferson's famous 1820 "fire bell in the night" quote concerning the threat presented by slavery. I want to revive the topic and evaluate the quote by looking at the context.

As I noted in my earlier post, the quote comes from a letter that Jefferson sent on April 22, 1820, about seven weeks after the first Missouri crisis had been resolved by the passage of bills that called for the admission of Maine as well as Missouri as new states, and provided that slavery would not be permitted in the Louisiana Purchase territory (other than the future state of Missouri) above 36 degrees 30 seconds north latitude (which latitude formed the southern border of Missouri). Why did he send this after-the-fact correspondence to an addressee who is now virtually unknown? For that matter, who on Earth was John Holmes, anyway?

The identity of the addressee is in fact one clue as to Jefferson’s motivation and purpose in sending the letter. John Holmes, it turns out, was a former Federalist turned Republican politician from the Maine "district" of the state of Massachusetts. For our purposes, the most important thing to know about Holmes is that he served in the House of Representatives as a representative of the Maine district of Massachusetts from March 1817 until he resigned on March 15, 1820 as Maine was about to be admitted as a new state. Three months later, on June 13, 1820, the newly-assembled Maine legislature elected Holmes as one of the state’s first United States Senators.

During the first Missouri crisis, southerners in Congress, irate over northern refusal to admit Missouri as a slave state, tied the pending admission of Maine to the admission of Missouri. It would therefore be logical to think that Mainers would have favored Missouri’s admission in order to realize their long-sought ambition of statehood.

In fact, a large number of Mainers (like Timothy Claimright, whose views I recently discussed) took exactly the opposite view. They favored restriction (i.e., restricting slavery in Missouri) and were furious when they learned that slave interests were holding their own statehood, the merits of which no one questioned, hostage to Missouri’s admission. Determined not to give in to what they perceived to be blackmail, many insisted that their representatives stand firm on Missouri.

John Holmes appeared to be well-positioned to take advantage of this popular outrage. As a delegate to the Maine constitutional convention in the fall of 1819, he had opposed a proposal to exclude black men from the vote:
I know of no difference between the rights of the negro and the rights of the white man; God Almighty has made none; our [Massachusetts] declaration of rights has made none. That declares that “all men (without regard to color) are born equally free and independent.”

When Congress assembled in December 1819, it was Holmes who notified the House that Maine had completed all prerequisites to admission. He soon learned, however, that Maine’s admission was being held hostage to Missouri – and he was outraged. Initially, he protested that the admissions of the two states were “wholly unconnected” and suggested (albeit with some circuitous language) that he “should forfeit the chance of Maine rather than forfeit my opinion.”

By New Year’s day, 1820, however, he was backtracking, apparently endorsing the proposition that “it would be best that the Mother should have twins this time.” Soon after, he convinced another Maine District congressman to join him in supporting Missouri’s unrestricted admission.

Holmes presumably expected that his position would be understood and supported as a reluctant necessity. He was wrong. He soon discovered “that Maine’s citizens considered the move to extend slavery an outrage,” and that he and colleague Mark Langdon Hill (whom Holmes had converted) were the only members of the seven-man Maine District delegation to support Missouri's unrestricted admission. He also “came under withering attack in the northern press and on the floor of Congress.”

By the end of January 1820, Holmes was virtually alone, detested by many of his constituents, and in deep political trouble. Quoting from letters of William King, Maine’s leading politician (and soon to be its first governor), to his half-brother Rufus King of New York, Robert Pierce Forbes has summarized the political landscape as follows:
“In the attempt to associate the admission of Maine and Missouri together,” William [King] wrote his half brother, “the motive is so apparent, that it has excited general disgust in this State.” Maine’s citizens desired statehood, but only “on terms honorable & correct . . . they will not, I am sure, consent to bargain their way along let the consequence be what it may.” John Holmes was the only member of the Maine delegation intending to vote with the South, William informed his brother; “it is hardly fair to judge his motives, altho’ opinions are expressed freely on the subject.” . . . “Mr. Holmes’ course is generally complained of here, and I am inclined to think his constituents will not be disposed to overlook his present conduct.”

When the final vote came on March 2, 1820, Holmes and Mark Hill were the only two members of the Maine District delegation to vote in favor of the Compromise. Holmes, returning to Maine hoping to be elected one of the state's first Senators, instead met "anger and vilification at home for his part as the arch-doughface of the Missouri capitulation."

Jefferson's fire bell letter to Holmes -- in which the revered founding father "tender[ed] the offering of my high esteem and respect" to Holmes "as the faithful advocate of the Union" -- proved to be a godsend:
It could be argued that nothing less than an endorsement from the author of the Declaration of Independence himself could have salvaged Holmes's political career in Maine. Fortunately for him, [Holmes] had exactly that. . . . Armed with this powerful document by the founder of their party, with its forecast of doom for the infant nation, Holmes secured election as one of Maine's first senators from the new state's chastened Republican legislature.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Democrats and Whigs on Citizens and Citizenship

In his excellent book, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, Harry L. Watson comes up with a wonderful insight into one difference between Democrats and Whigs. Democrats, Watson points out, emphasized complete equality between citizens; some citizens were not more equal than others. As a result, Watson argues, Democrats tended to view citizenship as an all-or-nothing proposition, and they shrank the boundaries of citizenship correspondingly to encompass only white males, who could truly be equals. Many Whigs, on the other hand, regarded citizenship as involving a "gradation of rights and responsibilities". That in turn permitted at least some to be more inclusive when defining should be entitled to be regarded as a citizen:
If Whigs were unwilling to grant full rights to "unqualified" immigrants, their acceptance of human inequality made them more willing than Democrats to accord partial rights to blacks and Indians. Instead of treating manhood and full citizenship as indivisible, Whigs could envision a gradation of rights and responsibilities ranging from one end of the social scale to the other. Edward Everett thus maintained that "the wholly untutored white man is little better than the wholly untutored red man," while the Whig editor of the American Review declared that "free institutions are not proper to the white man, but the courageous, upright and moral man." Democrats tended to oppose any suffrage rights for nonwhites, but even Southern Whigs could occasionally support the right to vote for free blacks who could pass requirements such as a property test.

It seems to me that the conflicting understandings of Roger Taney, a Democrat, and Benjamin Curtis, a Whig, concerning the meaning of the Privileges and Immunities Clause in the Dred Scott case perfectly illustrates Watson's hypothesis. Taney maintained that free blacks could not possibly be citizens because they would then be entitled to all the "privileges and immunities" of citizens, which he defined to include specific rights. Curtis, conversely, disagreed with Taney precisely because he did not accept Taney's premise that "privileges and immunities" were a specific set of rights. For Taney's argument and understanding of "privileges and immunities", see my discussion here. For Curtis, see here.

About the illustration:
A comic scene representing two New York city political factions, the Whigs and the radical Democrats (or "Loco Focos"), as scuffling newsboys. The scene takes place before the half-built Customs House, where several newsboys and a black chimney sweep are gathered watching a scrap involving a ragged youth selling "loco foco" matches and another newsboy. The match-seller raises his fist and threatens, "Oh! you d---d Whiggy." The latter, striking him, "I'll loco poke you." On the left three of the newsboys hold Democratic newspapers the "New York Evening Post" and the "New Era," and a copy of radical reformer Frances ("Fanny") Wright's lectures. One says, with a sidelong glance at the unfortunate match-seller, "I told him he had better not fight." The chimney sweep taunts them, "Does Fanny know you're out?" On the right, a second group of newsboys, holding copies of Whig journals, the "Transcript, Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, Gazette," and the "Evening Star," cheer on the winning fighter.

"Wot a south paw he has given me!"

I ran across an 1848 illustration that is interesting both because it includes Millard Fillmore and because it contains an early use of the term "south paw".

Yahoo Answers asserts that the term "southpaw", referring to left-handed pitchers, dates back to 1885, but notes that "south paw 'a person's left hand' is attested from 1848 in the slang of pugilism." If so, the illustration apparently records one of the first uses of the term. Bowery B'hoy Lewis Cass (the Democratic presidential candidate in 1848) has decked poor Millard (the Whig nominee for vice president). Lying on the ground with a black eye, Millard cries out, "Curse the Old hoss wot a south paw he has given me!"

All of which raises the question: was Lewis Cass left-handed?

The 2012 Pelosi GTxi SS/RT Sport Edition

Iowahawk strikes again!

Saturday, June 06, 2009



They Both Make Cheese, I Suppose

Back in the early 1970's the original National Lampoon magazine had a hilarious article that purported to be a newsletter of an organization devoted to exposing the nefarious conspiracy by the Dutch to dominate the world. Although I'm not sure, it was probably "Americans United to Beat the Dutch," from the April 1973 "Prejudice" edition. My recollection is that the pseudo-newsletter featured a towering figure, who looked like an evil version of the Dutch Boy Paint boy, standing menacingly astride the globe, about to kick it over with one of his pointed wooden shoes.

I mention this only because the article came to mind when I read Harry L. Watson quoting North Carolina Whig Senator Willie P. Mangum (emphasis added):
Some Whigs, notably New York Governor William Seward, made strenuous efforts to appeal to immigrant voters and to meet their legitimate needs. More commonly, Whigs tended to reject those whom North Carolina Senator Willie P. Mangum called "the bandit of the Apennines, the mercenary Swiss, the hungry loafer of the cities of the Old World, the offal of the disgorged jails, penitentiaries, and houses of correction of foreign countries."

Anna Ella Carroll

Although I had not heard of her, the Wikipedia entry for Anna Ella Carroll, mentioned in my last post, is very intriguing. A Maryland Whig and Know-Nothing (and Fillmore supporter in 1856!), she freed her slaves, opposed secession, supported Lincoln and allegedly forwarded intelligence of Confederate plans.

Most interesting probably to Civil War buffs, in 1861 Carroll allegedly investigated and advocated the use of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as an invasion route into Tennessee, the basis for Grant's Forts Henry and Donelson campaign, and later in the War advised Lincoln on colonization and emancipation. I don't vouch for the Wikipedia description of her role, but here it is:
In the fall of 1861, Carroll traveled to St. Louis to work with secret agent, Judge Lemuel Dale Evans, who had been appointed by Secretary of State William H. Seward, to assess the feasibility of an invasion of Texas. Carroll worked on her second war powers paper at the Mercantile Library where she sleuthed out information from the head librarian who was Confederate General Joe Johnston’s brother. She took military matters into her own hands when she initiated an interview with a riverboat pilot Capt. Charles M. Scott about the feasibility of the planned Union Mississippi River expedition. Scott informed her that he and other pilots thought the advance ill conceived due to the fact that there were many defensible points on the Mississippi River that could be reinforced and it could take years just to open it up to navigation. Carroll then questioned Scott about the feasibility of the use of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers for a Union invasion. Scott provided Carroll technical navigation details. Based on this information Carroll wrote a memorandum that she sent to Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott and Attorney General Edward Bates in late November 1861, advocating that the combined army-navy forces change their invasion route from the Mississippi to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Scott took the plan to Lincoln who deemed the plan viable, although no actual documentary evidence of this meeting exists. Evidence indicates that on the advice of Senator Benjamin F. Wade, chairman of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Lincoln appointed Edwin Stanton secretary of war in January 1862 to implement the Tennessee River plan. Lincoln scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin, on the other hand, argues in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, that Lincoln chose Stanton to replace the crooked Simon Cameron on the advice of Secretary of State William Henry Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, surprising the entire Cabinet with his selection, having consulted no one but Seward and Chase, the latter of whom claimed full credit for the choice of Stanton.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, Major General Henry W. Halleck was planning the same movement without Lincoln’s knowledge. Upon learning that Confederates were possibly sending reinforcements west from Virginia, Halleck ordered Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote to immediately move on Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in a telegram dated January 30. Scott was dispatched to the Midwest to mobilize reinforcements for Halleck on the night of January 29. On February 6, Fort Henry fell to Foote’s gunboats and on February 13, Fort Donelson fell to Grant’s and Foote’s combined forces. These comprised the first two “real victories” of the Civil War for the Union as Gen. William Sherman wrote later. Thus Carroll’s submission was critical to providing needed reinforcements for Grant and to gaining Stanton the appointment as secretary of war. At the time Carroll’s role in the effort was kept secret, and immediately following the war, she herself gave credit for the plan to Capt. Charles Scott in a letter printed in a leading Washington newspaper, but years later Assistant Secretary of War Scott and Senator Wade testified to it before Congress.

During the remainder of the war, Carroll worked with Lincoln on issues pertaining to colonization and emancipation. She and Aaron Columbus Burr lobbied him to establish a colony of freedmen in British Honduras, today Belize. Although Carroll had freed her own slaves, she lobbied Lincoln against issuing the Emancipation Proclamation fearing that support of Southern Unionists would be lost and resistance to the Union would be stiffened. But, she wrote that Lincoln did have the constitutional right to free the states as a temporary war measure under his power as commander-in-chief, since the proclamation would help cripple the organized forces of the rebellion. Yet the measure was not a transfer of title and would have to be suspended once the war emergency ended. To free the slaves required a constitutional amendment.

Wikipedia further asserts that the empty chair at the right of the painting at the top of this post, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1864) is "believed by some to be an allusion to Carroll."
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