In the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.
The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]
A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Democrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]
The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]
Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.
Next post – the Antebellum South.
For further reading:
Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]
In this world of hustle and bustle, having books read to me is a wonderful luxury. Today I found a terrific site, Freeaudio.org, that takes largely public domain works and provides them free to the public in audio form. This trumps my Kindle 2 text-to-speech feature in that real human readers are easier to listen to.
To expand the discussion, let me share my perspective on the question I raised, whether The Compromise of 1850 was an effective political action or a forecast of disaster.
Michael F. Holt makes an excellent case in his classic, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, that the Compromise of 1850 was more a forecast of disaster than effective political action. His argument is founded on the premise that the Compromise was effectively a deathblow to the Second American Party System and the notion that the health of America’s political parties in the mid-19th century was crucial to containment of sectional strife. As long as “men had placed their loyalty to their own party and defeat of the opposing party within their own section ahead of sectional loyalty, neither the North nor the South could be united into a phalanx against the other.” (1)
This conclusion is, of course, more easily arrived at when looking back at the period through the lens of generations with the full knowledge that the country would be ripped apart within fifteen years in a tumultuous Civil War. The perspectives of the politicians who negotiated the Compromise of 1850 would have, at the time, been much different. Indeed, they might have seen it as artful politics. The agreements made in the Compromise appeared to solve, at least temporarily, the country’s major ills which – on the surface – revolved around slavery and the country’s expansion.
But the effect was the displacement of the country’s trust in “party” as voice and defender of political views. The void caused men to affiliate more with their section, North and South. The scene was set for the country’s festering issues to rise again to a boil, this time without the benefit of cross-sectional parties that had so successfully contained discord in the past.
Thus my conclusion is that the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster. It was effective for a time in that it allowed the country to continue forward with at least a fragile agreement on monumental issues. But its destruction of the Second American Party System led the country toward potential destruction.
And so…. what do you think? Comments welcome.
See images of the original document – The Compromise of 1850 here.
Studying Antebellum America, as I’m doing this term, provides a fascinating look at the development of the notion of “political parties.” Keeping track of all of the political groups in Antebellum America has become a challenge. I need a list or a matrix. That said, I’ve decided to build a new page called “The Political Groups.” The only content so far is as follows but I’ll be adding over time.
Federalists, Silver Grays, Whigs, Democrats, Free Soil Party, Unionists, Liberty Party, Know Nothings (American Party), American Republicans, Anti-Masonic
To all of my readers, your input on information, books, and links to good sites with information on 19th century political groups before, during, and after the American Civil War will all be enthusiastically received. The list above should not be in any way construed as complete. State as well as national parties are game.
To house this an other books on the topic, I’ve added a page titled Political Groups to my virtual bookshelves here. I’ve remapped some of the books on the Antebellum America shelf to this one as well since the topics overlap.
About the Image: “A cynical view of party competition for the working man’s vote in the presidential campaign of 1852. In a polling place, four candidates struggle to force their own election ticket on a short, uncouth-looking character in a long coat. The latter holds a whip, suggesting that he is either a New York cabman or a farmer. The candidates are (left to right): Whig senator from Massachusetts Daniel Webster, Texas Democrat Sam Houston, Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and Whig general Winfield Scott. The cartoon must have been produced before the June 5 nomination of dark-horse Franklin Pierce as the Democratic candidate, as Pierce is not shown. Webster: “My honest friend, these men are interested parties, I have no further interest in this matter myself, than the inclination to ‘Serve my beloved Country,’ My Family cannot subsist on less than 25,000 $ a year.” His comment may refer to his own personal financial straits or to the nepotism involved in securing his son Fletcher’s lucrative appointment as surveyor of the Port of Boston in 1850. Scott (in uniform, grasping the man’s coat): “My good Friend, allow me to present you this Ticket, I am ‘Old Genl. Scott’ you know me, I licked the British & the Mexicans, if elected I shall probably lick all Europe.” Houston: “This is the ‘Ticket’ for you, my good friend, I am ‘Old Sam Houston’ if elected I shall not only ‘lick all of Europe,’ but all ‘Creation’ to boot.” Douglas (his arms around the man): “There, there, go away, go away, don’t worry the man, leave him to me, leave him to me.” Affixed to the wall at right are two posters or signs marked “DEMT.” and “WHIG.” In the left background stands Henry Clay leaning against a chair observing the scene, along with President Millard Fillmore who looks in through a window.”
The “First Party System,” according to Donald Grier Stephenson, pitted the Federalists (created by Alexander Hamilton and including John Adams, Fisher Ames, and John Marshall) against the Republicans or Antifederalists (created by Thomas Jefferson and including James Madison, Albert Gallatin, and Philip Freneau) and “took shape at the national level soon after government under the Constitution got under way in 1789.” (1) Gerald Leonard points out that the Constitution was, by design, against parties, and so these first party-like-organizations were not “mass-based” but existed “more as parties in the government than as parties in the electorate.” (2) They were, in effect, political cliques.
“In supporting or opposing policy proposals in Congress, members found themselves increasingly voting with the same group of colleagues on one side of an issue or the other. In turn, members sought reelection by defending their positions on legislation and so carried to the electorate the disputes that had divided Congress. Partisanship thus filtered down to the voters, leading them to associate one kind of policies with one group and different policies with another. The result was that congressional factions acquired local followings that duplicated congressional divisions.” (3)
Until the early 19th century, the first party system focused on the issues surrounding political and economic structure. Federalists favored centralization and a strong national government that was more closed and elitist-based. They pushed for an active economic policy. Republicans championed more dominant state governments, openness, and thus less elitism.
With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, Republicans replaced the Federalists as the dominant party. Jefferson expanded the powers of the president, reasserted a focus on states rights and agrarianism, and expanded the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. The Federalists gradually faded away as a credible political force and by 1820 could offer no candidate for the presidency. “Rivalry among Republican leaders for the presidency and the reemergence of major national policy issues marked the end of the first party system between 1810 and the mid-1820s.”(4) The years between I8I6 and I824 saw a regression of sorts toward anti-partyism and the period “lacked major national issues of the intensity that had earlier sparked partisan combat. The period thus came to be called the ʻEra of Good Feeling.’”(5)
But economic developments in the 1820s caused a resurgence of interest among the populace in politics as they sought to influence their own circumstances through control of government. Southern fears of anti-slavery sentiments surged as the debate around the fate of Missouri’s statehood galvanized many to take interest in the polls. Grass roots political energy began to emerge indicating a clear deathblow to The First Party System, which pushed policy from government down to the populace. This would no longer do.
Historian Michael Holt, who approaches the questions surrounding causation of the American Civil War from the angle of politics, posits that what makes a democratic republic like the United States work is a political structure that allows for discord on issues to be managed as a part of debate among varying points of view. (6) Constructive debate works best when there exist at least two political parties with elected officials who can, at the national, state, and local level, wrangle with the issues and make decisions that direct civic direction. Citizens can align with the party that best represents their perspective and interests. Choice between party platforms provides opportunity for change via regular elections.
A single party system does not facilitate competition between ideas. In fact, Holt suggests that the lack of a two party system can cause people to align around other identifiers such as the region in which they live. “Sectional antagonism was most marked, powerful, and dangerous precisely at those times when or in those places where two-party competition did not exist.” (7) By contrast, these “sharp section lines often disappeared” when two parties were present effectively diffusing sectional antagonism. “When it persisted, party loyalties neutralized it so far as shaping political behavior. As many politicians recognized, in short, inter-party competition was an alternative to naked sectional conflict.” (8)
Thus the ebb and flow in the severity of sectional conflict in America can be traced to the relative competitive strength or weakness of a two-party system. Holt suggests that two strong parties did not exist in the years between 1819 and 1821 when the decision of whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state was being considered. Sectional strife resulted. To prevent the sectional strife from fully permeating politics, “Martin Van Buren helped form the Jacksonian Democratic party in the 1820’s specifically to revive a two-party system as a substitute for sectionalism. (9) The intent was to counteract feelings of sectional prejudices by encouraging party alignment. In this way, issues surrounding slavery contributed to the reemergence of strong parties, and thus “The Second American Party System.” As the Second Party System emerged between 1824 and 1828, the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Jacksonian faction, which became the modern Democratic Party in the 1830s, and the Henry Clay faction, which was absorbed by Clay’s Whig Party. Unlike the era of “The First American Party System,” this period saw mass-based parties that could mobilize the electorate. Voters could thus feel empowered to effect change through suffrage. Sectionalism and thus many of the critical questions surrounding slavery were, once again, contained within the boundaries of political debate, at least for a time.
(1) Donald Grier Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 27, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=111837005.
(2) Gerald Leonard, The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
(3) Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections, 27.
(4) Ibid., 28.
(6) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983).
(7) Ibid., 6.
(8) Ibid., 6 – 7.
(9) Ibid., 7.
Winner of the Avery O. Craven Award of the Organization of American Historians
New York Times 1992 Notable Book of the Year
Chosen by The Gustavus Myers Center as a 1992 Outstanding Book on Human Rights in the United States Outstanding Book on Human Rights
Dr. Anbinder is chair of the Department of History at The George Washington University. You can view his complete C.V. here.
Interesting reading from Bruce Levine’s text, Half Slave and Half Free : The Roots of Civil War, this evening. He contends that the fugitive slave law that was a part of the Compromise of 1850 actually did more damage to slavery’s cause than good.
So long as slavery seemed geographically contained and remote, free-state residents could despise it without feeling much direct personal involvement in its workings; slavery could thus remain the peculiar institution of the South, not a problem or responsibility of the North. By sending slave hunters into the free states and requiring even antislavery citizens to aid them, however, the new law made such rationalizations impossible.
Net-net: pushing compliance to slavery controls “compelled Northerners to confront slavery as a national, not just a sectional, issue.” (Levine, 189-190)
In 1850, Congress passed this controversial law, which allowed slave-hunters to seize alleged fugitive slaves without due process of law and prohibited anyone from aiding escaped fugitives or obstructing their recovery. The law threatened the safety of all blacks, slave and free, and forced many Northerners to become more defiant in their support of fugitives. Both broadside and print, shown here, present objections in prose and verse to justify noncompliance with this law.
Social historian David H. Bennett provides an in-depth view of the Know Nothing Party’s origins and attempts to get at the reasons for its emergence in his outstanding book, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement. He points to the incredible social upheaval occurring in America in the mid-19th century. Drawing from analysis of the way that people deal with change, Bennett points to the growing sense of a loss of control over personal destiny experienced by many native born American men, the complete antithesis of the self-deterministic opportunities upon which the nation was formed. The result was xenophobia, the target those who were not native born and the largest immigrant groups by the 1850’s were Irish and German.
Immigrants proved the perfect target for many Americans in these troubled times. They could associate their own loss of power or status with the emergence of a subversive group disrupting time-honored relationships. In a social order threatened by catastrophe, polarization between the forces of good and evil satisfied the desire for enemies on whom to pin the blame, whose defeat could restore the stability of the cherished past.
With the election of 1854, a stunning demonstration of the Know Nothings’ magnetic appeal, nativism became a new American rage.
Know Nothing candy, Know Nothing tea, and Know Nothing toothpicks were marketed, buses and stagecoaches received the charmed name, the clipper ship Know Nothing was launched in New York. Books appeared with “KN” on the cover, “Know Nothing” poems found easy publication, and the widely circulated Know Nothing Almanac or True American’s Manual was issued. The Almanac had schedules for sunset and moon phases mixed with a potpourri of nativist polemics, including stories of Catholic machinations in Ireland, statistics of foreigners in the almshouses and charity hospitals, as well as warnings of every kind of alien conspiracy. (1)
What had humble beginnings, as a fraternity, was now the American party. “Those in the movement remained proud of the secret order at the heart of the political organization.” (1) —— (1) David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 115.
About the image:An illustrated advertising label for soap manufactured in Boston, interesting for its imagery and allusion to the popular “Know Nothing” or nativist movement. In the foreground are two American Indians, emblematic of the movement’s prejudice against the foreign-born. In the lower right is a seated brave, leaning against a rock and holding a pipe. Above him a large American flag, with thirty-one stars, unfurls across the main picture area. The flag is supported in the upper left corner by an Indian woman, who points to the words “Know Nothing Soap” emblazoned on it. In the background is a landscape with tepees and a campfire on the bank of a stream. Medium:1 print : lithograph printed in red, grey, blue, and black on coated paper ; 15.2 x 12.6 cm. (image) Created/Published:1854.
In the spring of 1850, another nativist fraternity, The Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB) was founded in New York City by Charles B. Allen, a thirty-four-year-old commercial agent born and educated in Massachusetts. (1) At first a simple “local fellowship numbering no more than three dozen men, there was little to distinguish their order from many other ‘patriotic’ groups, little reason for anyone to expect that it would be the core of a major political party, the greatest achievement of nativism in America.” (1) By 1852, it began to grow quickly and leaders of the Order of United Americans (OUA) took notice. Many of their membership joined and the OSSB membership swelled “from under fifty to a thousand in three months.” (1) Later that year, the two organizations joined under the leadership of James Barker and, with astute organizational skill, hundreds of lodges were formed “all over the country with an estimated membership ranging up to a million or more.” (2) Those who joined promised, as a part of secret rituals, to “vote for no one except native-born Protestants for public office” and “the Order endorsed certain candidates or nominated its own” in secret councils. Because their rules required them to say they “knew nothing” about the organization if asked, the movement became known as the “Know Nothings” (3)
About the image: Cropping of Order of United Americans / M. Lafever, del. ; drawn on Stone by K[arl] Gildemeister.
Library of Congress Call Number:PGA – Nagel & Weingaertner–Order… (D size) [P&P]
REPRODUCTION NUMBER:LC-DIG-pga-02260 (digital file from original print)
LC-USZ62-91369 (b&w film copy neg.)
SUMMARY:A certificate for the nativist fraternal organization the Order of United Americans. The central illustration shows one of the society’s ceremonies in the interior of a massive neoclassical building with dome and barrel vault. The vignette is signed “M. Lafevre del,” as is the vignette of the “Adopted design for Washington Monument, New York.” Other scenes include (clockwise from upper right): “Adopted design for Washington Monument, New York”; a parade of United Americans passing a public school, with the title “Patriotism and Education Our country’s hope!”; the inauguration of George Washington; Washington’s reception at Trenton; the capture of Major Andr; the American Army at Valley Forge; General Marion at Snow Island; the Battle of Trenton; Bunker Hill; the British retreat from Concord; the Bunker Hill Monument; and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (after the painting by John Trumbull). At the top is an eagle with shield, and a streamer with the arms of the thirteen original states.
MEDIUM:1 print on wove paper : lithograph printed in buff, black, and gold ; image 63 x 48.2 cm.
CREATED/PUBLISHED:[New York] : Printed by Nagel & Weingaertner N.Y., c1850.
Elektratig, one of my favorite blogs on Antebellum American history, has a post worth reading on the origins of the name “Know Nothing” that you can read here. Recommended reading for those following my series on Know Nothings and/or Antebellum America.
Here is a snippet from Bennett’s book to show the context of his use of the word.
The greatest upheaval was the clash between the North and South. The issue of slavery, and the sectional conflict it helped to generate and exacerbate, was inextricably connected to territorial expansion. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 temporarily resolved that issue, setting the famous line (36° 30″) to the Pacific, north of which the South’s “peculiar institution” could not be extended. But the question flared anew with the Mexican War and the prospect of a rich California territory and a new estate in the desert and mountain West available for American settlement and development. This war of expansion did not unify the country as have international conflicts in some tranquil times. Nor did that otherjingoisticoutburst against the British in the debate over division of the Oregon territory in the far Northwest. (2)