Free Soil and Popular Sovereignty


*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 (nicknamed 'Handsome Frank'), 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 made a mistake 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.  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 part with nationwide support, and bringing and end to the Second Two-Party System, leaving a dangerous void in American national politics.


*Pierce’s administration 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 Van 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 $1 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, and perhaps Pierce should have taken it—most of Europe was about to go to war in the Crimea, and Spain would have been on her own.


*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).  Likewise, Southerners, angry over this, refused to let Northerners consider annexing more of Canada.  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 wilds of 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.

AP United States History Practice Exam and Notes

This page last updated 25 January, 2019.
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