Compromising Compromisers, with Stephen Maizlish

Stephen Maizlish joins us to discuss how important the power of words is when reconstructing the reality of political discourse prior to the Civil War.

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Stephen Maizlish sifted through 1700-1800 different documents and speeches from the 19th century in order to recreate an accurate depiction of the discourse that was occurring in Congress prior to the Civil War. His book, A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War (A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era), is the product of his outstanding work. He found that many speeches and documents of lesser-known congressman of the time were the most profound and the least read by historians today.

What exactly caused the Civil War? What is the importance of intellectual history? What are the power of words when reconstructing a reality? How different really were the Northern and Southern Congressmen during the Compromise of 1850? How was the division between the North and the South created? How prevalent were the concepts of masculinity in discourse during the time of the Compromise of 1850?

Further Reading:

How Calls for Civility Led to the Civil War,” by Oliver Bateman

Holt, Michael. The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Hill & Wang. 2004.

Ransom, Roger. Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1989.

A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War (A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era), written by Stephen W. Maizlish

Related Content:

The Virtues of Compromise, written by Charles Jared Ingersoll

1848 and Its Aftermath, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

The Greatest of Nullifiers, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

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00:03 Anthony Comegna: We have covered American politics and thought during the late second and early third party systems quite a bit by now. But what to make of it all? It’s no trade secret that historians, myself included, have had difficulty sorting it all out, discovering what exactly it contributed to that worst conflagration in American history and communicating these lessons to audiences in the present. On the one hand, we see a blundering generation of massive mistake makers, politicians recklessly leading their respective peoples to war for their own personal gain. Their constituents did not disagree on the fundamentals about life in America, but the politicians and media depended upon hype and discord. On the other hand many Yankees and Southerners live fantastically different lives with different interests, their ideas and rhetorics swiveled on critical points that both sides refuse to abandon. They were developing different types of civilization within the same monopoly system, that is the constitution and sooner or later. One side would have to give up and accept conquest by the other. So wait, what exactly caused the Civil War? You’d think we’d have a good answer by now, to help us sort it out. We’ve invited historian Stephen Maizlish on the show to discuss his new book, “A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War”.

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01:35 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. So Professor Maizlish thank you for joining us. And I think it’s fair to say first off the bat, that political and intellectual histories, like we have spent so much time on on the show, are somewhat looked down upon today by most historians. At least in my experience, historians today don’t seem to be so concerned with elite political figures or intellectual figures, the great big philosophers, the lives that they lead and the great things that they did. And so traditional political, and intellectual history have sort of fallen out of vogue. They used to be much, much more popular to the point where that was almost the only kind of history out there. And this book is a political and an intellectual history but it’s very different from the traditional version of either one of those. So I wonder if you could say a few words first about what you see as the importance of intellectual history.

02:41 Stephen Maizlish: Well, I certainly agree with you and think it’s true that traditional intellectual history is not as dominant as it once was, but that’s only because intellectual history is no longer seen as the history of intellectuals. Intellectual history as the history of ideas has, I think, been resurgent. There’s a new organization, new around 10 years old, the United States Intellectual History Association, meets annually all over the country, has websites and blogs, and all those things, and has become a very vibrant, popular organization. So, history has… Study of history has broadened, you stated it very well, beyond the elite, but ideas and the power of ideas and the power of words to create the frame events, to give context to them, to give meaning and power to events, that I think, is still or increasingly important, especially the history of discourse, which is what I was engaging in, is something that people think about a lot, the power of words, the power of language are almost events in themselves in that they create the way people perceive reality. And that understanding of intellectual history, I think is increasingly popular in the profession.

04:24 Anthony Comegna: Now, I love that you choose the word discourse to focus on, ‘cause this book is not just about the ideas that particular individuals hold privately, but it’s really about the exchange of those ideas in practice on the floor of the House or in the Senate. And you continue to cite this great phrase from Abraham Venable, that words become things. So tell us about that phrase and what exactly do you mean by citing that words become things?

04:51 Stephen Maizlish: Well, I was very happy to find that. I don’t know if he said that, knowing I would be reading it later. But what he meant by it, and I think what that new type of intellectual historian that I described, what they mean by it, what I think I mean by it, is that words can become things, words can become reality. He was concerned as a Southerner that in these debates and elsewhere, Southerners were called ultras and were called traitors, and were called dis-unionists. And he feared that saying that enough times would create the reality, people would believe that’s what they were. That would become almost an object, an understanding of what Southerners represented. He was hopeful that it could be turned around, but he understood the power that those words had in constructing a reality. And that’s I think what was happening on the floor of the Senate and the House in these debates, a reality was being reinforced, intensified by the language that was being used and was making it more difficult than it already was and it was very difficult for people to engage in compromise.

06:19 Stephen Maizlish: These words were read almost religiously, widely throughout the country, words that were stated in Congress, it was very… Words, Congressional Globe as it was called the Congressional Record of the time was reprinted around the country. People read what was said and learned from that. Those speeches developed their understanding, it’s very hard for congressmen and senators to go back to their constituents after creating the reality they had with their words, and ask them to make compromises and give up some of the reality that they had created with their language.

07:06 Anthony Comegna: I also found your book interesting because in its way, it is a history of elites from below. In a sense you take the widest possible view of Congress, so you gather together all of the public speeches and private letters of all of these congressman from the debates who left a paper trail of it, at least, and it was what, something like 1700 or 1800 different documents and speeches that you used to write this book. And to me that…

07:40 Stephen Maizlish: I guess.

07:41 Anthony Comegna: That makes you the world’s expert on this nine-month or so period of Congress, in Congress that seems like a pretty good claim as good as anyone else would have. And you really reconstruct this experience from the widest possible amount of evidence.

08:00 Stephen Maizlish: Well, it’s interesting because you used the word elite, and I think that applies to the way Congress, in particular this dispute over whether slavery… Dispute in Congress over whether slavery should be allowed in the Western territories has been treated. People read the speeches of John Calhoun and Daniel Webster and Stephen Douglas, and of course, Henry Clay and other leaders, and they should read them, they’re very important. But I was stunned to find that speeches by less well-known congressman, many of them, many, many of them, were never read, never cited in the historical accounts that I read. I didn’t expect that at all, I thought I would be very systematic. And every time a congressman’s name was mentioned, I would put it in a file. And so I’d have more and more to say about each one. And as I started reading the speeches, I discovered I didn’t have a file for any of them. They had never been mentioned, I’d never had a cause to create a file for them. And so many are gems really capturing in so many ways, the views that many, many in Congress shared and really a shame that they had been neglected.

09:32 Stephen Maizlish: So, I didn’t quite see myself as writing history from the bottom up, but… But in a way, I was writing history of those who had been made inarticulate because their words had simply not been read and they occupied hours and hours and days and months of debate yet they were ignored by historians, excuse me just by the historical profession, anyway.

09:57 Anthony Comegna: Is this one of those books that you’ve been kind of writing or researching your entire career?

10:03 Stephen Maizlish: Well, not technically. I hadn’t whatever six, seven years ago, I started to do it but the topic of slavery expansion is one that I’ve been teaching and writing about since the beginning of my career. I’d focus much more on the North and written a book on political transformation as a slavery issue in Ohio, in the 1840s and 1850s. I had never really studied the South. That was exciting to look at a national stage and look at Southerners and see their point of view. But it’s true, it’s a topic I’d been interested in, but not a specific subject on a specific year and debate that I’d focused on before. But I was fascinating… Fascinated by the idea of people who had demonized themselves for decades, being forced into the same room to listen to speeches that they must have abhorred and see how they would interact with each other and what they would say to each other. And this nine month debate over the compromise of 1850 gave me that opportunity.

11:24 Anthony Comegna: Now, we have covered the compromise of 1850 a bit on the show, but if you could give us a brief overview of the compromise debates, the background and the progress of the debates.

11:37 Stephen Maizlish: Well, the issue was what to do with the land conquered from Mexico in the Mexican War. Those lands included largely California, New Mexico, Arizona, and then what we know parts of Colorado, Nevada. Utah, that entire area, a large area that the United States sought to acquire. President Polk hoped that the United States would acquire that land, have a presence on the Pacific. And did acquire it, but in doing that, raised a deeply divisive question: What to do about the presence of slavery in those areas? In fact, many conservative representatives, senators, Americans opposed the Mexican War just because they knew it would raise this sectionally difficult issue of how to resolve the question of slavery in the West, and those territories that were acquired. And amazingly, during the war and as it ended, many of these same people advocated not taking any territory as a result of the war. Not a very winning position but they were so fearful of how divided the country would be over the future of slavery in those areas and they were right. Finally, by 1850, a decision about slavery in the West had to be made. California… Gold had been discovered in California, there were already enough people there, a large enough population to qualify as a state.

13:32 Stephen Maizlish: There were these other areas that had to be… The decision about slavery and then had to be decided, they had to be organized on some basis or the other. And the country divided and for nine months debated the future of slavery in those areas as well as other issues. And there were some who dealt with the issue by denying it, saying, “Well, slavery can’t go anywhere,” [14:01] ____ anyway. Daniel Webster famously said that the land there was Asiatic in its nature. I’m not sure what he meant by that, but he… What he did, certainly mean is, “Don’t worry, we don’t have to deal with this issue of slavery. It’s an abstraction, it’s a distraction. It’s not really going to exist in those areas.” And that really was the only way to compromise the issue, sadly, was to deny it. Southerners wanted at least the right to bring slaves into those areas. Many Northerners wanted it made clear that slavery would not be allowed in those areas and that was the state of the debate, for many months.

14:50 Stephen Maizlish: How to decide whether the area would be open to slavery or not. The solution was… Was really to kick the can down the road in a way and say, “Well, we won’t decide, let the people there decide, the people in the territories make that decision themselves.” That was interpreted… That really wasn’t a solution. Northerners said. “Well, good they’ll… We’ll decide right away not to have slavery there,” and Southerners said, “No, no. That decision should come many years later after slavery has had a chance to take root and when those areas became states.” So there were divisions, there were divisions over the compromise language, which is let the people decide, nobody could really agree on when that decision would take place. It was not an issue that was really resolved in 1850, it was finessed with obscure language that could be interpreted differently by each side.

15:58 Anthony Comegna: And they had to break up the bill into pieces so that Congressmen from the North could vote for their favorite measures, and not have to vote for the Southerners’ measures and vice versa, and things barely passed on a shoe string. Can you remind us of what the outcome was of the compromise?

16:18 Stephen Maizlish: Well, that’s correct on how it was finessed. Originally that is into the early parts of the debate, Congressmen including Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, the senator from Kentucky, had the idea that we should put all of these measures, and there were other measures, other disputes over the fugitive slave law, over the slave trade in the district of Columbia, over the border of Texas. Other issues dividing the country. We’ll put them all together and people will therefore have to compromise to get what they want. Let’s say if they’re Northerners get California in as a free state, they’ll have to accept a tougher fugitive slave law. Every side will have to compromise because they’ll get what they want only by agreeing to what they would prefer to avoid.

17:29 Stephen Maizlish: But it didn’t work because people at that point already 10 years before the Civil War were not ready to accept what they opposed. And the only way to pass this compromise set of bills, was to divide them and say, “Okay, we’ll vote separately on California coming in as a free state.” And of course, the North voted for it, the South voted against it, there were some border state people who could figure out where the Civil War would take place, they always wanted compromise, they voted with the North and it passed. Then there was the fugitive slave bill. Strengthening the fugitive slave laws. The South voted for it, the north voted against it, compromised people in the Middle States voted with the South this time and it passed, and they went through each one of these bills with the middle… North voting for or against, South voting for or against, the Middle State always voting to pass and they had to compromise, but the bills passed.

18:40 Stephen Maizlish: But nobody in the North, few people in the North, few the people in the South actually voted for a compromise, they just voted for what they believed in, and the Middle State people shifting their loyalty to the North or South depending on how they could help this pass, were the ones that made it happen. And everybody said, “Well, we have a compromise,” but nobody compromised. They voted how they wanted, and the problem was finesse, but there was more territory to be organized and more conflicts that lay ahead in the 1850s.

19:21 Anthony Comegna: I’m so glad you made that point about how actually very few people were compromising here.

19:27 Stephen Maizlish: Right.

[chuckle]

19:30 Anthony Comegna: It was a very select segment of the Congressional population, I suppose that was actually actively compromising. And one of the things that I wondered, still by the end of your book, I wondered, “Well, to him, is compromise a dirty word or not?” And I’m not quite sure, but I’m very interested to figure it out. And as you know, historians are constantly debating. Well, how different from each other were the Antebellum North and South, did their differences lead to the Civil War or did their similarities contribute to the Civil War? What do you think about that? How different were these Northern and Southern congressmen?

20:10 Stephen Maizlish: I think that as you know and as you’ve stated, is a critical question people ask all the time, were how different were these sections? Were their differences real, were politicians bungling, or exagg… Bungling the problems into conflict, or were they exaggerating them into conflict for political gain? I think there were some very basic similarities between the sections. It was, after all, they had been a country for a number of years and they shared many assumptions, assumptions that we may not agree with today, but there was a universal belief in white supremacy, in the North and the South. There was universal acceptance of success as defined as capital accumulation. That’s what planters in the South, slave holding planters wanted, that’s what Northern farmers wanted, and to the extent there was manufacturing in the North, that’s certainly what they wanted as well. They shared those concepts and… I’m sure we’ll talk later more about this. But they had the same images of gender, of masculinity. They differed over slavery but especially over the expansion of slavery. Northerners, most of them could live with the institution of slavery if it stayed where it was, but it was expanding and Southerners made clear they wanted the right to expand it.

21:52 Stephen Maizlish: And that created difficulties, and that’s created the division. And once that division was set and deep, the Gulf was wide. People on each side used concepts, values, they shared to attack their opponents. So they would attack them as being… If they were Southerners, they would attack Northerners as being feminine and weak and not bold and masculine enough. And Northerners would attack Southerners the same way. They take assumptions they shared and claim the other was disloyal to those commonly shared beliefs. And that’s true with all that they shared, they weaponized these shared values and rather than bringing the country apart, the shared values… I’m sorry, rather than bringing the country together, shared values, they were used to divide the country further and emotionally charge all of these pre-existing divisions. So there are a lot of similarities, but the differences over slavery and slavery expansion made what they shared vehicles for division.

23:18 Anthony Comegna: And I do wanna tease at that gender threat again because that is one of the more interesting aspects of this study too, that you look at the use of gendered language, and you try to quantify it. I wonder what was some of your method and your methodology here? What words stood out to you as particularly gendered? And did you sort of set out to do this gender analysis or did the force of language and frequency of use push it on you?

23:50 Stephen Maizlish: That’s… Question is very well stated. And I was aware that as we share the same profession of historians, that people had been writing a lot about gender, and I thought, “Well, I’m a political historian, women couldn’t vote, that’s not gonna be a subject that I’ll be dealing with.” But as I started to read these speeches and read the letters, I saw how very prevalent concepts of masculinity were in the way congressmen… Their constituents expressed themselves. It turned out, when I counted these, close to 10%, 8.8% to be exact, of every speech and every letter I read, had some form of gendered language in it. That seemed terribly significant and something to really look at more closely and see how it became involved and intensified and added additional emotion to this sectional conflict. And so I started to look at this more carefully, see how the language was used, how it contributed to sectionalism, and what the concept of masculinity was? I wondered if I could contribute to that debate, as well. There was a transition in the meaning of masculinity in the 19th century, some people argued, and I found them to be correct. In early part of the century, being a man meant being frank and honest and fair. And by the end of the century, the meaning had shifted somewhat, and it was more bold, courageous, strong, that meaning.

25:53 Stephen Maizlish: And then in 1850, I could see evidence in both sections, both sections of all of those meanings. It really was a period of transition, but it was also important, I think, in the way it was used to intensify the sectional conflict. People would be calling each other unmanly for example, you asked about the words manly, manful, manhood, being a man, manliness, those kinds of words just all over the place, used frequently, as a way of either celebrating one’s own position or saying… Attacking another position. Abolitionists were unmanly, or if they were abolitionists, they’d claim slavery unmanned a man. That kind of rhetoric. One of the more interesting instances was, Henry Clay would explain to the North that really their interest in keeping slavery out of the territories was only a sentiment, because slavery wasn’t really gonna go there anyway, it couldn’t survive in that soil and that climate. That was his claim, that denial that I mentioned earlier. Well, he used the word sentiment and Northerners looked at that and thought they were being accused of being feminine, and weak because sentiment was something that was associated with women and femininity, and they were upset by that.

27:45 Stephen Maizlish: Let’s see, another very specific incidents was the omnibus. You mentioned the attempt to put all of these bills in 1850 together into one. Many northerners looked at this and said, “We’re being coerced into voting for what we oppose in order to get what we want. Coercion is an attack on our manhood.” And they expressed it that way, and now they said, “This is unmanly for us to be put in that position.” And so it intensified their opposition to this omnibus solution. It surprised me, to be able to see that language playing that role. I hadn’t expected that. I didn’t think that gender was an issue for political historians but it really was permeating society and if I was gonna look at the ideology of each society, I didn’t see how I could avoid including that as well.

28:55 Anthony Comegna: So just to reiterate, and you tell me if I have your argument correct here.

29:00 Stephen Maizlish: Sure…

29:00 Anthony Comegna: The fact that the two sections and their political intellectual cultures, the fact that they so deeply agreed about gender and race, and some other fundamentals was exactly what allowed those subjects to be so divisive and contribute to the ratcheting up of tensions between the two sections. The fact that they had this fundamental baseline to work upon and then accuse both sides of being traitors to those ideas meant that this one particular issue, that they were fighting it out about politically remained kind of insoluble. And if you’re there as a Southerner being accused on the House floor of being unmanly and you do the exact same thing to your Northern colleagues, it doesn’t matter how much you agree on what manliness is or even maybe you have some disagreements about it, but you can all agree that you don’t wanna be unmanly, so it doesn’t matter what the other side is arguing, this automatically puts you in the antagonistic camps.

30:06 Stephen Maizlish: Yes, absolutely. Because you agree those value… You can use those values, those trigger words, I guess if we call it… People might call it today, to your advantage, you’re disloyal to what we all agree on.

30:27 Anthony Comegna: So then the libertarian and even somewhat of the small federalist that’s in me, wants to say, well, the real problem here is that we have this monopoly system of government under the constitution, we have this one single central arbiter of law and order. And everybody’s trying to appeal to that to push it their way, and because there’s this central authority, that becomes the point of conflict. And if we didn’t have that, if we had some other system that allowed people to exit more easily without so much conflict or the need for compromise, we wouldn’t have problems like this. So you tell me, did conflict or compromise cause the Civil War?

31:10 Stephen Maizlish: Well, of course there is the problem of the territories and they are held in common. So it’s very hard to exit from that system and yet, determine the fate of areas that are held in common. That is the core of the debate. And that would be very hard to avoid. Of course, the debate was really about, and it gets very close to what you’re talking about, Anthony. The question of what was called state equality and Southerners would argue that those territories were not national territories. They were held only in trust by the Federal government, and so that government could not restrict state citizens from bringing their property into lands that were only being held in trust by the central government. That was their position. And the Northern position was, “What do you mean? We fought a war for those territories, the war was fought under the American flag, not under State flags. It was paid for with federal money, and we as a majority… Country as a majority has the right to decide the fate of those territories.” So those are conflicts I don’t… That are very hard to resolve in any other but a national setting.

32:55 Stephen Maizlish: I guess, I would say, I don’t know if I’m responding directly to that, to some of the notions you were expressing. As far as conflict or compromise, well, there was conflict that made compromise impossible, I guess is the way I would say it or at least very, very difficult and certainly a failure in 1850.

33:23 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, no, I love that you are very careful to point out to readers that you do not think the Civil War was inevitable. This catastrophe was not unavoidable. It was caused by particular people that could have chosen differently. So then, if you had to choose one, do you hold to the old blundering generation idea that politicians really misled the country? Most people agreed, like you said on the fundamentals. And so this was a failure of leadership throughout the course of the 1850s especially. Or was there really this significant kind of tension between those fundamental views that people thought they agreed on?

34:10 Stephen Maizlish: Well, I… Anyone who talks about fundamental disagreements, any historian is charged with arguing the Civil War is inevitable. And I wanted to separate myself from that particular view because, of course events intervened, we see that daily, in our political life today and shift views and always we have to keep open the possibility that that could occur. But on the other hand, there was a fundamental difference which put all of the shared values in a different context. And that was the central one of slavery and its expansion. And politicians who spoke to that conflict were not creating it, were not bungling into it, were not taking advantage of it, they were doing what politicians do, they were expressing what they thought would be the popular point of view. And so I would say that the conflicts overwhelmed the shared values and were fundamental and more real, were certainly intensified by the discourse and which, if anything, made it more difficult to compromise. No question, that’s what I think I’m showing. But, they also were there and were not created… Created by the politicians.

36:00 Stephen Maizlish: One of the leading examples that’s debated, as you know Anthony, is not in 1850, so much as it’s in 1858 and Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln was running for the Senate, and he’s talking to the people of Illinois. He’s running against Stephen Douglas for the Senate in Illinois, and he’s speaking to them about a recent Supreme Court decision which bars Congress from banning slavery in the territories, the Dred Scott decision. And he says, “You know, you go to sleep thinking that’s what the decision is. You’ll wake up and Illinois will be a slave state. The next decision the Supreme Court will make is that no one can bar slavery from any State, from not only any territory but any State, even the state of Illinois.” And he’s accused of being one of those agitating politicians who was putting unreasonable fears, unrealistic fears in people’s minds. But I think he’s talking to a fear that Northerners have had for a couple decades anyway, that Southerners and the slave power as they called it, was gonna move North, and was gonna spread their institution, not only to the West, but to the North. It was only because his constituents believed what he was saying that he could say it and hope to take advantage of the words he used.

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37:34 Anthony Comegna: Our greatest thanks and appreciation go out to Professor Maizlish for taking the time to come on Liberty Chronicles. He has a PhD in History from UC Berkeley and is an associate professor at UT Arlington. Be sure to check out his latest book, “A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War”.

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38:00 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.