ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Failure of Compromise

*The Mexican War was in many ways a great victory for America, but it was also the start of a great tragedy.  Just as many of the officers who served in the war would later go on to lead armies against one another in the Civil War, so too did the political debates that followed the war lead to the great debate that could only be solved by other means.

*Some Northerners were offended that, although Southerners had gotten as much of Mexico as they could hold in the Mexican War, the Northern Democrats’ slogan of ‘54° 40’ or Fight!’ had been compromised down to the 49th parallel.  Southerners, on the other hand, had been insulted by the proposed Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery in the new territories, and even by some Northerners’ attempts to prevent the War entirely.

*The issue at the heart of much Northern opposition to expansion was slavery.  However, the two major parties did not want to divide themselves (or the nation) along sectional lines, and so made every effort to ignore the issue.  Happily, the Senate remained balanced, and neither side could overwhelm the other.

*In 1848, James K. Polk, worn out from his term of office, stood by his pledge not to run for re-election.  The Democrats selected General Lewis Cass, a veteran of the War of 1812.  He was seen as pompous, unpleasant, and worst of all, outspoken on the issue of the expansion of slavery.  He believed in the concept of ‘popular sovereignty,’ which would allow the inhabitants of any given territory to determine for themselves if they wished to be a slave state or a free state.  Many people liked this idea because it made the decision democratic and also put the responsibility off on the inhabitants of the new territories rather than on their own Congressmen.  Abolitionists opposed it, however, because ending the curse of slavery was more important than respecting the will of the people, if the people chose wrongly.

*The Whigs chose a war hero, ‘Old Rough and Ready’ Zachary Taylor, and avoided discussing the slavery issue publicly.  Taylor, a man with few stated political views (but a slave-owning Louisiana sugar planter), was promoted as a common man and war hero, and he did not talk about slavery. 

*In fact, Taylor, despite being a Southern slaveholder, opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, while his Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, a self-made New Yorker, supported the expansion of slavery to appease the South.

*To oppose both the supposedly pro-slavery Democrats and the carefully silent Whigs, anti-slavery Northerners created the Free-Soil Party and nominated Martin van Buren as their candidate.  Their principal goal was to keep slavery out of the territories, but they also supported public works, protective tariffs, and free homesteads for western settlers.  They believed in the dignity of both the free factory worker and the small farmer who suffered from competition for money and respect with enslaved blacks, and their slogan was ‘Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.’

*Although many ‘conscience Whigs’ opposed to slavery supported the Free Soil Party, so did some Democrats, especially in New York, who stood by the Free Soil candidate, Martin van Buren, with the result that Taylor won the election by a narrow margin (Taylor won 1,360,967 popular and 163 electoral vote, Cass won 1,222,342 popular and 127 electoral votes, and Van Buren won 291,263 popular votes).  Still, the Senate remained balanced, and neither side could overwhelm the other, and as long as that balance remained, the Union was safe.

*In 1848, gold was discovered at John Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, California.  Soon more and more gold was found throughout Northern California and the California Gold Rush began.  A few men made fortunes mining, and many more made fortunes exploiting the miners—among them Levi Strauss, who sold his first blue jeans there. 

*Although the total number of migrants during the gold rush years is uncertain, the non-Indian population in California increased from 14,000 in 1848 to 223,856 by 1852.  In fact, by late 1849 the population had already reached 100,000.  This was more than enough to form a state, so in 1849, a group of Californians, wanting order in their settlement, drafted a state constitution that excluded slavery (partly so free white miners would not have to compete with slave labour), and applied for admission to the Union.  The South was outraged, knowing that, if the proposed California state constitution was accepted, the Senate would be unbalanced.

*In 1850, the South was powerful and prosperous.  Cotton production was expanding while remaining profitable.  Southerners dominated the Supreme Court, the Presidency, and the Cabinet, and the Senate (though not the House) was balanced.  However, there did not seem to be much room on the continent for new slave states.  In fact, the New Mexico and Utah territories had already indicated a desire to be free states, as had California, even though parts of California and most of New Mexico lay below the Missouri Compromise line.

*The US government also claimed that a large section of Texas was part of other US territories, while Texans threatened to attack Santa Fe, the major city in the area, and reclaim it by physical force if necessary.

*An additional insult was the attempt by abolitionists to end slavery in the District of Columbia, where it was regarded as a bad representation of the nation to foreign diplomats, as well as a moral crime.  A free district between slave-holding Virginia and Maryland would also increase the problem of fugitive slaves by giving them a place to escape to.

*Fugitive slaves were another sore point for Southerners.  Many slaves, especially in the upper South, were guided and protected on their way north along the Underground Railroad.  Although laws dating to 1793 required runaways to be returned to their masters, they rarely were, in part because Northern officials often would not enforce the law.  To some Southerners, the moral judgments constantly made by the Northerners in their assistance to runaway slaves was even more galling than the loss of valuable property.  Although by 1850 the number of slaves who escaped to the North and freedom was probably about 1,000 a year—fewer than the number who became free legally—the principle of the thing was too important to ignore.

*In 1850, great issues including California, slavery in the territories, fugitive slaves, and more threatened the nation with catastrophe.  Once more into the breach strode the three giants of Antebellum politics.

*Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, diplomat at Ghent, architect of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise Tariff of 1833, now seventy-three and suffering from a terrible cough stood up and with the assistance of the ‘Little Giant,’ Stephen Douglas of Illinois, proposed that both North and South compromise one more time, each giving up something so that both could co-exist peacefully.

*John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was sixty-eight and dying of tuberculosis.  He was so ill he could not read his own speech, so his fellow senator from South Carolina, Andrew Pickens Butler read it for him.  Calhoun also wanted to hold the Union together, and approved of the purpose of Clay’s plan, but not its methods.  He wanted more safeguards for the South and for slavery, and for a preservation of the political balance, although he also said that if the North was unwilling to settle with the South, then the two regions should separate peacefully, or the South might be forced to choose between submission and resistance.  It later turned out that he even had a scheme to hold the Union together whereby the US would have two presidents—one from the North and one from the South, each with his own veto.  However, Calhoun never got to present that plan, as he died shortly after, even before the debate ended.  His last words were ‘The South!  The South!  God knows what will become of her.’

*Finally, the Godlike Daniel Webster, sixty-eight and suffering from liver problems, gave his last great address to the Senate.  In order to preserve the Union, he pleaded for as many concessions as possible to the South, including a new fugitive slave law.  As for slavery, it would fail to expand on its own—the Great American Desert and the lands beyond the Rocky Mountains were too infertile to support plantations.  Compromise was the only answer.  In his 'Seventh of March' speech, Webster convinced the North and won the day, although abolitionists, who had long thought him their friend, now considered him a traitor.  In truth, though, he had never trusted the abolitionist movement, fearing it would split the Union.

*Among these abolitionist opponents was a freshman senator from New York named William Henry Seward, who opposed any concession as a betrayal of Christian principles on the evil issue of slavery.  He appealed to a Higher Law than the Constitution, as, to many people’s surprise, did President Taylor.

*Zachary Taylor was a Free Soil man, and, moreover, furious at Texas’s threat to attack Santa Fe.  He threatened to march an army to Texas and hang all the ‘damned traitors’ in the state.  He also threatened to veto the compromise if it was too compromising.

*Pro-slavery Southerners, especially the strident younger generation called ‘fire-eaters’ who had come to see slavery as not just a necessary evil, but as a positive good, preferable to the wage slavery in the Northern factories, suggested that they might secede from the Union if any concession were made to the North.  Taylor’s opposition to the expansion of slavery simply made them angrier.

*Then Taylor died.  On 4 July, 1850, one of the hottest on record, President Taylor badly over-ate at a Fourth of July party, particularly favouring the cherries and cream.  This apparently led to a case of acute indigestion (or perhaps cholera), and on 9 July, he died.

*Vice-President Millard Fillmore was a conciliatory man.  Although a New Yorker and no slaveholder, he supported concessions to the South for the sake of the Union.

*Northerners such as Fillmore who gave in to Southern demands were often known as Doughfaces (particularly Northern Democrats who were supportive of the South).

*Shortly after Fillmore's accession to the presidency, the Compromise of 1850 was ratified.

*California entered the Union as a free state, making it 32 to 30 in the Senate.  In return, both the New Mexico and Utah territories, such as they were, were opened to popular sovereignty—their inhabitants could decide if they were to be slave or free states when the time came.

*Texas gave up its large area of disputed land, almost a third of the total area it claimed, and in return got a $10 million credit towards its debts to the Union.

*Slavery remained legal in the District of Columbia, but the slave trade was outlawed, an apparently reasonable concession that cleaned up the city, as even Southerners considered actual slave auctions a bit uncouth, but it was another step toward the ending of slavery.

*The greatest concession to the South, which otherwise seemed to come out worse in other parts of the Compromise, was the Fugitive Slave Act.  The Act not only jailed suspected runaways and tried them without a jury, it paid judges more to find against the slave than for him, and could force local law enforcement officials in the North to help Southern slave catchers. 

*In practise the Fugitive Slave Act was even sometimes used to captured legally free Blacks and force them into slavery claiming that they were runaways (which was hard to disprove, especially before an unfriendly judge).

*Northerners were offended and disgusted.  Many moderates turned against the South and towards abolitionism.  Northerners, even officers of the law, often refused to assist, and even obstructed Southern slave catchers when they could, and support for the Underground Railroad grew.  Massachusetts even made it illegal to help the slave catchers or the Federal government in the enforcement of this Act.

*The Fugitive Slave Act embittered both North and South against one another.  Northerners hated the law, and Southerners hated the North for failing to co-operate in good faith.  The Compromise did not prevent a Civil War, it only delayed it for ten years—long enough for the North to grow strong enough to win it.

*In 1852, the Democrats chose a new candidate, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire.  He had been both a Representative and a Senator from that state, and had been president of the 1850 New Hampshire Constitutional Convention when the state created a new constitution.

*Pierce was largely unknown outside of New Hampshire, and was finally accepted at the Democratic National Convention after 48 ballots.  Even more of a dark horse than James K. Polk, Pierce’s opponents also ridiculed him by saying ‘who is Frank Pierce?’  He was principally famous for falling off his horse during the Mexican War (where he served as a brigadier general), for being very handsome, and for being very young for a presidential candidate--only 48 in 1852 and soon to be the youngest president up to that point.  Rumour also said that he drank, and he was described as the hero of many a well-fought bottle.

*The Democrats adopted as their platform complete adherence to the Compromise of 1850, especially the Fugitive Slave Law.  Pierce, known to be a pro-Southern Northerner (or Doughface), was acceptable to just about everyone in the party.  To muster support they called him ‘Handsome Frank’ and even the ‘Young Hickory of the Granite Hills.’

*The Whigs were in a difficult position in 1852.  Although they were proud of their accomplishment in creating the Compromise of 1850, and were most notable for their wisdom and statesmanship, they had only won presidential elections with war heroes, and their most prominent statesmen were no longer young.  So, rather than nominate Webster or Clay, the most prominent Whigs associated with the Compromise, or even a younger politician (and Clay and Webster both died between the nominating convention and the election), they chose ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ Winfield Scott.

*Scott was perhaps the greatest military mind of his generation, and his campaign in Mexico had been brilliant.  He was also an able statesman, but he did not come across that way to voters.  Somewhat stiff and pompous, he was seen by the common man as distant and arrogant.

*Because no-one dared discuss the major issue of the time, namely, slavery, this election once again centred on personalities and mudslinging.  Scott was attacked for his pomposity, Pierce for his obscurity and drunkenness.

*Many Whigs were unhappy with their party’s decisions.  Anti-slavery Whigs, angry at the tacit endorsement of the Fugitive Slave Law in the promotion of the Compromise of 1850 said ‘we accept the candidate but spit on the platform,’ while pro-slavery Whigs feared that Scott, who, though a Virginian by birth, opposed slavery, would not enforce the law.  Five thousand Whigs in Georgia voted for Daniel Webster, even though he had died shortly before the election.

*The Free Soil Party also ran a candidate, John Hale of New Hampshire, who siphoned 156,297 votes away from Scott.

*Pierce beat Scott 254 electoral votes (1,601,117 popular votes) to 42 electoral votes (1,385,453 popular votes) and, moreover, beat the entire Whig party.  The Whig Party, already disorganised and with its most brilliant leaders dead, ceased to function at all, and completely vanished by 1854, depriving the country of a major party with nationwide support, and bringing an end to the Second Two-Party System, leaving a dangerous void in American national politics.

*Pierce’s presidency was not a happy one, however.  On 6 January, 1853, Pierce’s youngest and only surviving son, Benny, was crushed to death in a train wreck.  After Benny’s death, Pierce took to drinking (and his wife also sank into partial insanity, writing letters to her dead son for months after his death and refusing to see visitors in the White House).

*Despite this personal tragedy, Pierce’s administration initially seemed strong and popular.  He had a Southern vice-president, William Rufus de Vane King of Alabama and appointed aggressive Southerners to his cabinet, including Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, a hero of the Battle of Buena Vista.

*Inspired by the ideal of Manifest Destiny and by the riches of California, Americans began thinking of ways to get west faster, and to seize more land for themselves.  One way to do this might be to build a canal across Central America, most likely in either Nicaragua or Panama.  This was especially popular among Southerners, who hoped to create new slave states in Latin America.  Some Southerners had schemes of taking control of more of Mexico, the rich islands of the Caribbean (particularly Cuba), and possibly other land in Central America as well.

*One such adventurer was the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny, William Walker of Tennessee, who made several attempts to lead small groups of followers--known as 'filibusters'--in invasions of Central American nations. 

*In 1853 and 1854, Walker attempted to take over north-western Mexico and declared himself president of the Republic of Sonora and the Republic of Baja California.  In 1856 he took control of Nicaragua, elected himself president, and legalised slavery.  Southerners viewed him as a hero, but Central American nations allied together to drive him out.  He was later executed by a Honduran firing squad after an attempt to take over that country failed.

*Concerned about American interest in Nicaragua, the British occupied Greytown on the Nicaraguan coast, thus encroaching on the Monroe Doctrine.  Fortunately, to ease tensions the US and Britain had already signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850, agreeing that neither nation would fortify or hold exclusive control over any future canal across the Central American isthmus.

*Now that America controlled a large stretch of the Pacific coast, trade with Asia became more interesting.  Americans already traded with China, but Japan had closed herself off to the western world for over two hundred years, only allowing a small amount of carefully regulated trade through the port of Nagasaki.  American merchants asked the government to do something about this, so the United States sent Commodore Matthew Perry, brother of the hero of Lake Erie, to Japan in 1853.  Using both modern warships and skilful diplomacy, on a second voyage in 1854 he convinced the Japanese to open their country to trade with America, which in turn led to Japan trading with other countries as well.  Soon the Japanese would learn from their new trade partners, and begin an incredible campaign of modernisation, the Meiji Restoration, creating a constitutional monarchy and bringing Japan's economy from a feudal agricultural system to an industrial model by the end of the 1800s.

*Having opened one wealthy island, Americans wanted another.  One of the last remnants of the mighty Spanish empire was the island of Cuba.  Polk had tried to buy it for $100 million, but the Spaniards had said they would rather see Cuba sunk into the ocean than sold to Americans at any price.

*Unable to buy Cuba, American adventurers, many from the best families of the South, made a couple of poorly-planned private invasions of the island, which both failed.  After the second, many Americans involved in it were executed. 

*In 1854 the Spanish tried to force a confrontation by seizing an American ship, Black Warrior, for not declaring the cotton in her hold to the customs officials (which was technically the law, but rarely actually required).  The owners eventually paid a $6,000 fine and got their ship back.  Many Southerners wanted to use her seizure as an excuse for war.

*America’s ministers to France, Britain, and Spain met in Ostend, Belgium to consider how to respond, and drew up the Ostend Manifesto, in which they said the US should offer Spain $120 million for Cuba and, if Spain would not relinquish it, the US would be justified in wresting Cuba from Spain. 

*Free-Soilers were outraged when they heard of this plan, and forced Pierce to drop it (although Spain did return the fine paid by the Black Warrior's owners and an additional indemnity).  Once again, slavery had prevented America achieving her Manifest Destiny.

*Aside from political problems, the United States also faced more practical difficulties in dealing with her new western acquisitions.  The sea routes from the east coast to the west were too long, and the overland route was too slow.  Some people feared that without adequate communication between the East and West, the Pacific territories might break away from the Union.

*Some suggested using camels for transportation, and some were imported, but most people felt the only way to manage it was with a transcontinental railroad.

*Once again, there was sectional competition—would the route of this great railroad benefit the North or the South, or would multiple railroads have to be built?  Southerners, feeling pressured by the industrial North, wanted a southern route.  However, the best route, it turned out, passed through northern Mexico.  To get the good passes through the southern Rockies, Pierce appointed James Gadsden of South Carolina minister to Mexico, where he offered Santa Anna, president for last time, $10 million for the small strip of land now known as the Gadsden Purchase.

*Northerners saw this as a waste of money, but the Senate confirmed it, in part because this southern route really was the best place to build the railroad at the time.  Not only was the terrain less difficult than farther north, but the proposed line would run through Texas, California, and the organised New Mexico Territory, whereas the most popular northern route would go through the unorganised wilds sometimes known as Nebraska.  Some Northerners wanted to organise that territory so the railroad could be safely run through it, but Southerners did not want another free territory or a profitable railroad line in the hands of Northerners.

*From Illinois came the Little Giant, Stephen Douglas, who thought of himself more as a Westerner than a Northerner or a Southerner, and as a Union man above all.  To help spur western growth and to promote the interests of railroads and real estate in which he had financial interests, he supported the creation of a transcontinental railroad across the Great Plains.  To get this done, he had a plan, proposed in 1854.

*The Nebraska Territory would be organised and divided into two territories:  Kansas and Nebraska.  Douglas would completely throw out the old Missouri Compromise and the 36° 30’ line and open both territories to popular sovereignty, thus letting the people decide if their land would be free or allow slavery.

*Many Southerners were excited.  At last they had a chance for more slave states in the existing lands of the United States.  Northerners bitterly opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, in part because it would abolish the almost-sacred Missouri Compromise, and because it might allow the spread of slavery.  Many Northerners regarded Douglas as a traitor.  He did not personally care one way or the other about slavery, but many of his countrymen did.  Congressmen came near to shedding blood, and many members of Congress carried pistols or knives for self-defence.  There was enough support for the Bill, including that of President Pierce, that it was passed in 1854.

*The Kansas-Nebraska Act was one more step towards sectional conflict.  Abolitionists and Free-Soilers condemned the act and made it clear they would oppose all future compromise, but without compromise, the Southern fire-eaters might well leave the Union.  Indeed, both sides came, more and more, to see their countrymen as their enemies.

*The Democratic Party would lose much of its power in the years to come, as anti-slavery Democrats, former Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, and others in the Midwest and the Northeast, came together to form a new party, one with entirely sectional and free labour interests:  the Republicans.

This page last updated 14 July, 2020.
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