Abraham Lincoln: The Final Straw for Southerners

The country had been steadily moving toward Civil War arguably since the Missouri Compromise, which first prolonged the fight over slavery in the United States. In these chapters, Wilentz discusses how Lincoln won his party’s nomination and why his election was the breaking point for most Southerners. The Southern Democrats had been fighting a more radical Republican opponent in William Seward in the years leading up to the 1860 election. After John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry, the Republicans realized that radical Republicans could ruin their chance of winning an election. Seward, while not as radical as the Democrats made him out to be, seemed to be driving votes away as people attached Brown’s actions to him. This connection between Seward and Brown helped give the primary to Lincoln, who received his nomination after focusing his campaign in Chicago, near his hometown of Springfield. While other western-born candidates had won the presidency, Lincoln’s base in the lower north became even more integral to this election, since the Border States, or the Lower North, had the important swing votes from non-slaveholders who still benefited from a slave-holding economy. Lincoln was then able to win the general election mostly because the Democratic Party split during the nomination process and chose two candidates, splitting the party’s voters. Wilentz writes about Lincoln just as Davis does and backs up Mac’s point (http://sites.davidson.edu/his141/lincoln-moral-idol-yet-still-a-politician/) that while “historically, we see Lincoln as the just idol,” he still had to be a politician. He was not as radical as other Republicans of the time, and he won the Presidency by playing off the split in the Democratic Party. While Lincoln did run a politician’s campaign, he was committed to his platform of halting the spread of slavery, but at the same time would not interfere with slavery in the slave states or the Fugitive Slave Law. What seemed to scare Southerners the most about Lincoln was his commitment to the law. He would not do anything outside of the powers stated in the Constitution, whether they would benefit his party’s motives or not. Therefore, the Democrats could not fight him as easily because he never said he would use his powers illegally. His pledge to this platform is where the image of a “just idol” comes from.

The Southern Scare: Southern Fear of British Abolitionism

In Chapter 14, Davis makes the case that one of the driving forces behind the South’s fear of restriction on the expansion of slavery was British abolitionism. Davis makes the case that the south saw this British abolitionism as a new form of british control as NIPAPPAYLIOU noted. “… Southerners believed that Britain was attempting to spread their abolitionist ideas throughout the world as a new form of imperialism.” This fear of British cultural imperialism coincided with a period of vehement anti-British sentiment, which fed into anti-Federalist sentiment, as the federalists were viewed as being too pro-British. This anti-British sentiment, alongside connections between Britain and abolitionism, and a fear that Britain was seeking to collapse slave-holding economies so that their newly slave-free colonies could become competitive, lead to intense suspicion of Northern abolitionists as potentially being unpatriotic and likely to be in bed with British interests. The irony of this all was of course that, despite Britsh abolitionism and anti-British sentiment which was strongest in the south, when the Civil War finally came to the fore, Britain would consider joining the war, but on the Southern side, rather than the Northern side. Thus while Southern fear may not have been entirely unwarranted, with regards to beliefs that Britain was seeking to abolish slavery more broadly, it was almost certainly overstated.

Antebellum Southern Stubbornness

The decade leading up to the Civil War featured tenacious animosity between politicians.  Southern proslavery figures constantly butted heads with their Northern counterparts, and politicians pushing for compromise had extremely limited success in appeasing both groups.  In both Davis’s and Wilentz’s accounts, slavery legislation seemed to favor the South.  The North appeared willing to allow slavery to continue where it already existed and simply wanted to slow or halt its expansion.  The proslavery South, however, never seemed satisfied and continually pleaded for more slavery.  The repeated threat of disunion revealed excessive Southern discontent and lack of adaptability.

The South came out of the Missouri Crisis with Missouri as a slave state and even maintained the possibility of more slave states in the future despite growing criticism of the institution.  This criticism was even limited by the proslavery gag rule.  Nonetheless, the South kept battling for more slave states, best evidenced by the blatant disregard for the Missouri compromise in the debate of Kansas’s status. David Brion Davis provided a hilarious consequence of overly aggressive pursuits for more slave influence by Jefferson Davis.  Jefferson Davis’ push for “federal protection of slave property” alienated the North and split the Democratic party (293).  This split allowed for Southerners’ worst nightmare to come true as Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election as the first outspoken opponent to slavery.

Southern resistance to popular sovereignty, essentially the only proposed compromise, marked the South as more stubborn.  In addition, no Northern legislature prior to 1860 infringed on slaveholders’ right to own slaves.  The Fugitive Slave Act, however, significantly affected and altered lives of antislavery proponents in the North.  It was no surprise that this Act stirred up the strongest opposition, as it inherently imposed Southern ideals in the North.  Not to mention its inhumane principles.  The North seemed much more open to compromise, but this policy clearly crossed the line.

The South came off as ungrateful and greedy in antebellum politics.  It had enjoyed prolonged dominance and still maintained its most prized possession, slavery.  Whether its vigor stemmed from Anglophobia, as WEKING suggests (http://sites.davidson.edu/his141/a-great-experiment-british-abolition-and-southern-paranoia/), racism, or sheer greed, the South should have been content with the continuation of such a controversial and widely hated practice.


Wilentz Discusses the Inevitable Showdown

In chapters 21 and 22, Wilentz discusses the inevitable fight over slavery between the pro-slavery southern Whigs, led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, and the adamant abolitionists, led by John Taylor, during the compromise of 1850. After the victory over Mexico in the recent war and the gain of the California, New Mexico, and Texas territories, the debate of whether these new states would host slavery or not dominated the American political system. Newly inaugurated President Taylor wanted to be his own man, and attempted to create his own party of Taylor Republicans with strong feelings over slavery and territorial expansion. While the figureheads of the pro-slavery movement Clay and John C. Calhoun were fed up with the apparent northern aggression. Summarizing Wilentz on page 343, President Taylor wasn’t scared by the threat of southern secession, and it seems Calhoun wasn’t afraid to act on his promise. This unfaltering resolve on both sides of the fight, further fueled by the failed compromise of 1850, propelled the country into the Civil War.

Even though many thought that Whig-candidate Zachary Taylor would be an indecisive president, they never thought he would turn on his party entirely. Himself a slave owner, Taylor thought that “the southern insistence on slaveholders’ rights was a divisive conceit that might destroy; the Union in the name of legalistic abstractions.” (Wilentz 342) While he may have participated in slavery, Taylor believed that the issue over slavery was exaggerated by the wealthy plantation owners in the south and believed their puerile fighting would destroy the fundamental unity of the country. In his steadfast determination to show the “ultra-Whigs” (338) they were going to tear apart the Union, Taylor also showed that he wouldn’t back down from a fight. Although commendable, his aggressive stance only elevated the situation and forced the Whigs to act on their promise to secede.

Although I have repeatedly talked about how much I enjoy Wilentz’s depiction of Calhoun in my previous blog posts, I think the way he discusses Calhoun on page 345 is by far the most entertaining. He portrays, “The dying John C. Calhoun sat at his desk, wrapped in flannels, his eyes blazing from behind pale and hollowed cheeks.” Almost depicted as the archetype of the devil, Calhoun is shown as the symbol of unyielding pro-slavery. As Wilentz writes, “Calhoun blamed “sectional discord on Congress’s long-standing and systematic promotion of national legislation favorable to the North.” (345) Calhoun concluded that the oppression would end only if the North ceased its aggression and as Sherwood mentioned, perhaps the “slavocrats” felt backed into a corner and felt obligated to stand strong. Calhoun gave an ultimatum to Taylor and the abolitionists, “were California admitted as a free state, either under Taylor’s plan or Clay’s, the southern states could no longer ‘remain honorably and safely in the Union.’”

In nearing the start of the Civil War however, the 1850 compromise or other concessions like the Fugitive Slave Law couldn’t stop the inevitable conflict. The death of Calhoun on March 31, as Wilentz says, didn’t solve anything either. Rather, “the spirit of Calhounism lived on, in an even more radical disunionist form, picked up by a new generation of unswervingly pro-slavery Deep South Democrats.” (349) In his blog, Sherwood questioned whether the stubborn, inflexible positions either side was the best way to resolve the problem of slavery and defuse the situation. I would answer that the country was headed towards this conflict regardless. Even attempts of diplomacy, such as the attempted compromise measures or the Fugitive Slave Law concession, all failed and only delayed the unavoidable conflict.

The Troublesome British and Not so Honest Abe

In Chapter 14 of Inhuman Bondage, Davis discusses American foreign policy, the Missouri Crisis, the impact of Britain’s emancipation in the Caribbean on the United States, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the late 1850s. A major theme of the chapter that stood out to me was Davis’s description of Britain’s emancipation and its impact on the South. As the abolitionist movement in Britain gained momentum emancipation seemed evident, Southerns became paranoid that the British emancipation in the Caribbean could spread to parts of North America (Davis, 269). In fact, many Southerns believed that Britain was attempting to spread their abolitionist ideas throughout the world as a new form of imperialism. The newfound American animosity toward Britain at this time is demonstrated best by people who unintentionally supported political movements that were deemed to be in the best interest of Britain being condemned for preventing the “westward expansion of the United States” (Davis, 271). Although it is possible for certain political movements to spread across national borders, it was highly unlikely for British lawmaking to have a significant impact on a country that very invested in a slave society as well as country where slavery was deeply engrained in its culture. Despite this, Southerns were almost certain that the “monumental emancipation bill” would foster a swift and severe revolution by the blacks (Davis, 283). Of course, no such revolution came but Southerns began blaming the British emancipation for the slaves’ refusal to work plantations and the negative impact it had on the cotton and sugar production in the South. Even after the pro-slavery Southerners’ greatest fear was eliminated, they irrationally explained their additional problems on those awful British.
Although I usually find most of Davis’s writing to be dense, I consider Davis’s discussion of the British emancipation of slavery in the Caribbean to be interesting and insightful. He provides numerous details to enhance his argument through the use of direct quotes and the citation of a primary source. Moreover, Davis is able to convey to the reader that the South was in no position to accept abolition in their own country or in neighboring territories and that they would go to war to prevent such a thing from happening. Overall, I would say that Davis’s argument of Southern paranoia of and opposition to abolition at all costs is a reasonable one and is quite effective.
Another aspect from Davis’s writing that I found interesting was his section on Abraham Lincoln. As my classmate MASPEED said, Lincoln is remembered as a man who believed in the equality of all men and the destruction of slavery. However, Davis is able to demonstrate how Lincoln’s words and tone were changed when he found himself running for political office. Rather than haphazardly speaking of a nation where blacks and whites are politically equal, he diluted his message to one of blacks and whites deserving the natural rights guaranteed by the declaration of independence. Davis is able to show Lincoln’s skill as politician as well as his awareness that some of his inner convictions could cause him lose him an election.

Running The Risk

While it does not come as a surprise, every single time I open Wilentz I am reading about slavery. I realize that it is a product of the time period we are studying. However, it seems unreal to me that one thing could dominate every sphere of politics for so long. Slavery seems to me, to be the only issue ever to be able to accomplish a dominance of this kind. I could not envision a time or idea that could do that today. While we have specific issues that dominate politics, both economic and social, there is no one issue that stands alone as a contributor to all other issues. Slavery was just that, it was a dominant force socially, economically, and politically.

Particularly, the issue of the Fugitive Slave Law is intriguing. MIHAN on 11/19 mentions that among some compromises made there was a “much more stringent Fugitive Slave Act, which inadvertently led to tensions…” I was not surprised to read what I did in Wilentz on the issue. However, I did find that the specific people mentioned with regard to the Law are among the most powerful anti-slavery advocates out there. John Brown, a rabblerousing abolitionist from Massachusetts, is mentioned with regard to his armed resistance. Frederick Douglass is also mentioned, and he is in support of a violent end to the Fugitive Slave Law. Wilentz writes of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionists, black and white, that stuck their necks out for the runaway slaves. This also brings to light the so-called hero of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. The Fugitive Slave Law made the entire United States a dangerous place for all slaves, former slaves, and even free blacks. Wilentz writes, “The new Fugitive Slave Law compelled ordinary northerners to participate in slave recoveries, on pain of fine and imprisonment, and placed heavy penalties on any found guilty of aiding runaway slaves–in effect turning the entire northern population, black and white, into one large slave patrol” (353). This made the Underground Railroad much more dangerous, and also created a tough internal controversy for many people in the north and south. This law made everyone punishable if they helped or even knew about a runaway slave. In no way was this meant to last forever. The everyday tension brought upon all people under this law was too much to bear.

I would argue that the new and improved Fugitive Slave Law was a substantial problem in the antebellum United States. With slavery dominating every facet of life, the Fugitive Slave Law pushed it one step too far.

1850s: The Era of Impending Crisis

After the Mexican War, the United States was stuck in a period of impending crisis. Tensions concerning the introduction of slavery into new territories continually spurned bitter debate between southerners and northerners. As such, several sects developed all promoting particular ideas concerning slavery and the acquisition of new lands. Although Sherwood already aptly summarized the various groups, I still find it helpful to briefly restate them.

First, many supported popular sovereignty, which dictated that the people in the territories should decide whether or not they wanted to be slave states or free states. As Wilentz previously discussed in earlier chapters, Lewis Cass was a strong purporter of popular sovereignty, although it proved ineffective in his run for the White House. Next, some individuals, like Henry Clay, encouraged the reinstatement of geographical boundaries to define slave states versus free states. In theory, had this principle been adopted, it would have extended the border previously defined in the Missouri Compromise. Thus, many northerners discarded the idea, as it would have ceded too much land to the South. In contrast to such compromises, individuals like John C. Calhoun emphasized non-exclusion, which laid out a rigorous argument that any act by Congress to impair the right to take property, i.e. slaves, into a territory would be unconstitutional. Finally, in response to such harsh disputes, many also favored exclusion policies. Exclusionists generally favored the Wilmot Proviso, which would have mandated that all new territories would join as free states. Not surprisingly, the bill did not pass in the Senate, even though it passed through sectional lines in the House.

After thorough debate concerning the continuation of slavery, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. Essentially, the bill marked Clay’s, Webster’s, and Calhoun’s final legislative battle and sought to please different sections of the country. Although the bill struggled initially, Stephen Douglas eventually helped in breaking apart the bill and passing individual sections. Ultimately it stipulated that California would enter the Union as a free state, that there would be clear borders between Texas, that the the U.S. would assume Texas’ debt, that the sale of slaves in the District of Colombia would be abolished, and that there would be a stronger fugitive slave law instated.*

As A.J. accurately observed, the Compromise of 1850 hardly confronted the issue of slavery as it only delayed conflict, rather than settling the issue entirely. That being said, the larger question becomes whether or not the Civil War was inevitable. That is to say, had the Compromise of 1850 truly confronted slavery in the United States, would the conflict have been entirely avoidable?

*Incidentally, Wilentz’s discussion of abolitionist literature in the middle of the chapter reminds the reader that the Compromise of 1850 inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

British Tensions

In the book Inhuman Bondage, Davis in chapter 14 talks a good deal about Anglophobia and Britain’s effect on domestic policy surrounding slavery.  Davis explains how the majority Americans saw the british empire as a “natural enemy… ruled by selfish interest, lusting for domination of the world, and filled with a deep rooted hatred for everything America represented,”(Davis 272).  Through this worldview, Americans started to recognize every part of the British entity as “evil,” including slavery.  As Davis explains, slavery in the early to mid 1800’s, was a fairly heated political topic that shaped a large part of the identity of American policy in this time period.  Because of Britain’s anti-slavery policy and influence in the United States, many Americans began to lose support for the abolitionist cause because Britain’s ways must be evil. This in turn not only gave the South a great political strength nationally, but also gave them a boost in confidence.  Meanwhile, British American tensions grew throughout the 1830’s and 40’s through territorial boundaries, the slave ship Caroline, and the Annexation of Texas (Davis 284). Britain’s attack on slavery in particularly worsened the Anglophobia which subsequently divided America even further.  Davis seems to put much focus on the impact of Britain’s actions during this time to such an extent that he almost insinuates that British presence in political issues that deepened the divide that sparked the Civil War.  I feel that Davis’s analysis here may be correct, yet I feel that this was not the only issue that sparked serious debate leading up to the civil war.  David eludes here that this political debate started to become a serious issue only after the strong Anglophobia was influencing politics.  I disagree to an extent, I feel that policies such as the gag rule, or the Missouri Crisis of 1819 are examples of where slavery was a very serious issue; however these issues were merely covered up instead of dealt with directly.  Overall Davis has a strong argument on why it the slavery issue erupted later in the season, but in my opinion slavery was always a serious issue that politicians simple chose to act indecisively about.


As a side note I found that MASPEED made a good point about how Lincoln is alway portrayed as this great idol, often times we don’t see the over all picture of Lincoln’s life—the good and the bad.  I also agree with MASPEED in that Lincoln was an overall admirable morally sound figure, even though he wasn’t the perfect idol that our middle school history teachers portrayed him as.  Although Lincoln should not be the epitome of an honest person, his life is one of admiration and good example.

A “Great Experiment”: British Abolition and Southern Paranoia

From the racism of John Henry Hammond to the staunch support of slavery by John Calhoun, we’ve addressed the various manifestations of the Southern proslavery ideology. But I don’t think we’ve entirely understood why such radical sentiment arose. Sure, we’ve postulated slavery’s economic incentives and the fear of slave revolts as possible motives for certain policy measures. But neither of these, I don’t think, sufficiently explain the vitriol of slavery’s Southern defenders. So, why were the proslavery ideologues so radical? While it’s certainly not a complete explanation–for proslavery radicalism in particular—I think that David Brion Davis provides a fair explanation for the rise of anti-abolitionism in the South. Great Britain, he insists, was largely responsible.

As we’ve discussed a number of times already in class, “anglophobia” was prevalent in the US for much of this period, particularly during the War of 1812 and the subsequent demise of the Federalist Party. But, as Davis points out, the pervasive opinion that Britain was “America’s ‘natural enemy'” led many to perceive British abolitionism as a veiled threat of imperialism (272). In fact, some Southern leaders, such as Robert Turnbull, feared that the rise of abolitionist sentiment in Britain in the 1820s coupled with the effects the abolition of the slave trade would drive an “entering wedge” into the public minds of non-slaveholders, leading to the destruction of plantations, human chattel, and the slave economy (281). Such fears, Davis suggests, explain why the nullification movement coincided with British abolition and were no doubt aggravated by the declaration of Lord Aberdeen, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, that “Great Britain . . . is constantly exerting herself to procure the general abolition of slavery throughout the world” (282). Humanitarianism appeared, to many Southerners, a very present threat to humanity, a British conspiracy to undue American prosperity.

As abolitionist sentiment slowly disseminated into the Northeast, Southern antipathy escalated as the “Northeast was becoming a perfect replica of the British enemy” (286). Not only had Northern states—with the exceptions of Delaware and Maryland—abolished slavery but much of the industrialized North was fraught, like Britain, with wage-labor issues. In many Southern minds, this illustrated the failure of the “great experiment” of abolition not only in Britain, but more generally (281). Just as Britain had experienced economically decline following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, so too did Southerners speculate that the US would suffer economic turmoil were emancipation declared nationwide. The Southern press subsequently published editorials from the London Times exclaiming that “slave emancipation had been a colossal failure” (285). Meanwhile, Southern leaders, such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, sponsored American reports on the state of the free British colonies, stating that “England has ruined her own colonies, and . . . wishes to see other countries . . . in a similar state” (284). Restoring the memories of the anglophilic Hartford Convention and the Garrisonians’ support of British abolition, the Southerners stigmatized the North as in league with the British. The so-called humanitarian threat had formed on the home front.

I think Davis’ explanation of Southern radicalism might also explain certain features of our conversation in Tuesday’s class. In his post “The Mouth of the South,” Justin Hill notes the abuse of the Irish at the hands of the British as well as how “along with their mistreatment [by the British], the nativists of the north attacked the Irish immigrants” (http://sites.davidson.edu/his141/the-mouth-of-the-south/). Such injustices, he suggests, explain why Irish immigrants headed south. I agree. But I also think that, when viewed in light of Southern anglophobia, one might suggest that a shared animosity toward both the British and the Northeast more generally likely influenced Southerners’ acceptance of Irish immigrants.

So, reevaluating last class’ discussion, I would like to ask the class: Were Irish immigrants so willing to join the Confederacy merely because of their sense of “belonging” in the South? Or might the perceived threat of a British conspiracy brewing in the Northeast have inspired the Irish to join the Southern ranks?

The Delaying Compromise of 1850

It comes as no surprise that there were many political tensions between the North and South in the ante-bellum period. One of these main issues was the institution of slavery and its possible expansion into new territories.Each side feared that with the inclusion of new states that whether they be free or slave that it would tilt the balance of power to one side which would allow the stronger side to either further enforce slavery or to abolish it. The two sides needed to come to some form of agreement in hopes of maintaining the balance of power. Many compromises occurred to curb the spread of slave states to the west such as the Missouri Compromise while not outright restricting growth. One major compromise Compromise of 1850.

In 1850, congress wished to allow the territory of California to be admitted as a free state, as well as New Mexico. The southerns were outraged by this expansionary policy and believed  it was a move for the North to gain more political power. Clay offered a more “fair” alternative to this plan. In this plan, Texas releases its claim to New Mexico and allow the future states New Mexico and Arizona to have the decision to be free or slave. California would still be admitted as a free state. The South gained a stronger Fugitive Slave act to enforce slavery.

This compromise only proved to delay the inevitable succession of South Carolina and the southern states who followed. It was a vain attempt at compromise that just didn’t do enough. It did not truly limit or allow slavery which caused discontent for both sides leading to future conflict.