In the mid-20th century, it was fashionable for historians to speak of a “Blundering Generation” of pre-Civil War politicians, people who—well intended or not—made a long series of foolish and short-sighted mistakes. They made blunders that make for wonderfully detailed political histories “from below,” as it were, but what appear to be mistakes were often intentional, and what appear to be great men were often just the schemers whose plans succeeded in the end.
Who is the worst politician to come out of Illinois? Who were the “F Street Mess”? What happened to the Whig party between 1852 and 1856? Who were the first Republicans? Was the Civil War avoidable?
Stephen A. Douglas: A Featured Biography
Stephen A. Douglas, History Channel
What Can the Collapse of the Whig Party Tell Us About Today’s Politics?, Smithsonian Magazine
Music by Kai Engel
Whiggery’s Last Gasp, Liberty Chronicles Episode
Was Frederick Douglass a Libertarian?, Liberty Chronicles Episosde
00:08 Anthony Comegna: I have a question for you, liberty chroniclers, who is the worst politician to ever come out of Illinois? Who from that state exercised such a malign and corrupting influence, such truckling and sycophantic behavior at the altar of statism, that it would alarm libertarian souls across time and space? Which Illinois leader poisoned the Old Republic and stood there watching it die for purposes of personal and political advantage? I hate to burst your anti-Lincoln bubble, but the worst politician from Illinois has got to be his most serious competitor, Senator Stephen Douglas.
00:54 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to liberty chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
01:01 Anthony Comegna: Conveniently and with cover from the Pierce administration, Stephen Douglas and his representative shadow, William Richardson, also from Illinois, both controlled the Congress’s territorial committees in 1853. They determined to organize the West, shoot a railroad across the continent with Chicago as its starting point, and then spike the value of their personal real estate holdings. Nearing the close of session in the winter of 1853, Richardson introduced the Nebraska Territories Bill, which normally might not be a problem. According to the time honored Missouri compromise, Nebraska should be a free state. No fuss, no muss. But by now in this political climate where everywhere state after state in the North, abolitionists were seizing control of the remnants of the Whig party. In this post-Mexican war, Wilmot Proviso crazed, fugitive slave law driven, nullification charged climate, Southerners would not accept a single free state more.
02:09 Anthony Comegna: Richardson’s bill failed 98 to 43 on the final day of the session. He and Douglas retired for the holiday along with the rest of Congress, but Douglas was already hard at work on his next move. He spent the holiday personally strategizing with the President pro tempore, of the Senate, slave-holding Missouri and David Atchison, along with his DC roommates, a click of Southern Democrats called The F Street Mess, a pretty accurate name, I think you’ll probably agree. They lived together during the session in boarding houses pretty much just like modern Congressman do, and they plotted together. It’s the same old endless story of politics, but not one you hear if all you read of history is the bills put before chambers and the official speeches read into the record.
02:57 Anthony Comegna: On January 23rd, 1854, Douglas put his own Kansas Bill before the Senate. And once it passed, the old ways forever died and the Union lived on in name only. Politicians of all persuasions did a lot of barking and boasting about their patriotism and their love of liberty and union over the next seven years, but the long record of lies from above is easily countered with a bit of insight from below. In the mid 20th century, it was fashionable for historians to speak about a blundering generation of pre-Civil War politicians, people who well intended or not, made a long series of foolish and shortsighted mistakes. Unfortunately, the story goes, the Civil War was entirely avoidable, but for the poor leadership of certain key figures like Douglas or James Buchanan, and especially the Southern Fire-Eaters, those die hard secessionists. Even the abolitionists drew historian’s fire as a rowdy often violent faction of radicals totally unwilling to compromise.
04:07 Anthony Comegna: And as we will see Hell as we have seen, there is in fact a great deal of truth in this view, but as a broad interpretation of the era’s politics, the blundering generation idea leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, the very word blundering presupposes that the normal state of politics is one of great statesmen leading great Democratic Republican organizations, like the parties and the various constituted governments that litter our land. If these interwar politicians of the 1850s were blunderers, then surely we can all agree on the lofty patriotism and the moral example of people like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and the rest.
04:49 Anthony Comegna: We have to do what the cold warrior liberal historians failed to do. We have to extend the model out to all political figures, recognizing for example, that Washington’s version of republicanism was at least a bit of a blunder itself, you know given 200 years of hindsight and all this libertarian revisionism on the revolution in the Constitution. Or maybe Lincoln is a clearer case, given our prior commitments, rather than depicting him as a great national leader who sacrificed himself to atone for his generation’s failures, we can afford to see him too as a blunderer and a self-interested fraudster of historic proportions. As the great Robert Higgs has said of FDR, he might as well have been tossing darts at a board to fix the gold price day to day. And the new deal was top to bottom a haphazard and bureaucratic affair. It can be useful to treat your own historical enemies as mistake makers because it puts your own position automatically in the seat of righteousness and wisdom. But it’s even more useful to think of these people as they actually lived day to day. Yes, they made blunders that make for wonderfully detailed political histories from below as it were, but what appear to be mistakes we’re often intentional. And what appear to be great men, were often just the schemers whose plans succeeded in the end, so much so that they now own the historical record.
06:22 Anthony Comegna: By the way, as a side note, one of the most important blundering generation historians once proudly told me at a conference that he rode in Henry Clay for president in 2008 and in 2012, sort of a reaction against our own political leadership of blunderers. I can only imagine what he did again in 2016, but that’s enough of our birds eye historiography, let’s get back to the ground level, our Loco-Foco Free-Soil split with Van Buren’s old barn burners.
06:50 Anthony Comegna: During Fillmore’s lame duck period in early 1853, observers were holding their breath for the first round of executive appointments from incoming President Pierce. In the democratic ranks many believe Pierce’s smashing victory signaled a new era of party unity and young Americanism, the rise of yet another great Hickory. Others knew this blissful feeling of unity was really only temporary, mainly because they knew the Free-Soilers were not going anywhere. Partisan peacemakers and hatchet men like Marcus Morton in Massachusetts, Preston King, Samuel Tilden, David Dudley Field in New York, they used the Pierce years to shift their philosophy and rhetoric. They turned from their radical almost utopian roots in popular republicanism to defending a particular continental imperial system that worked primarily for planters and wealthy Northerners. The radicals of a generation earlier now morphed into a very odd sort of conservative coalition. Very odd and very uneasy.
07:57 Anthony Comegna: In New York, the factions were called the Softs or Soft Shells, which was John Van Buren’s circle of barn burning Free- Soilers, those who rejoined the democracy under the delusion that they were now back in control. Then there were the Hards, the Hard Shells, or the National Democrats, people who supported Cass in 1848, and courted deals with slave holders every chance they got. Whigs, now left without much of a party to speak of, could do little more than boast of their own supposed consistency.
08:31 Speaker 1: Concord, New Hampshire, Patriot and State Gazette, March 30 of 1853. Whig consistency. The Whigs are wonderful sticklers for the protection and encouragement of home industry. They go for forcing the people to pay high prices for home productions for the sake of encouraging home industry. This is about the only plank of their old platform that they now stand by, and upon this their organs talk loud and long and continually, and especially do they contend very strenuously that the farmers, and mechanics, and railroad companies of New England should pay a very heavy duty upon their iron for the sake of protecting the iron and coal interests of Pennsylvania. They tell us of the ruinous effects of the present Loco-Foco British Free Trade Tariff upon those interests and array the number of furnaces and mines abandoned because the Democrats will not tax the farmers, and mechanics, to protect home industry. Such is the way the federal politicians talk.
09:33 Anthony Comegna: As early as April 5th, 1853, just a few months after Douglas proposed the Kansas Bill, the Boston Daily Atlas reported on the coming dissolution of the Democratic Party, a death by overdose on railroads. In the Senate, Democrats clashed about how the railroad might affect party politics, but hold-out Whigs knew better than to doubt their rival’s skills. Those Cold War historians could have learned something from The Daily Atlas.
10:04 Speaker 1: Boston daily Atlas, April 5th, 1853, Dissolution of the Democratic Party. Several of the Loco-Foco senators during the debate in the Senate on the subject of a railway between the Mississippi and the Pacific, held a very edifying colloquy as to the effect which the construction of such a railway would have on the Democratic Party. Senator Thomas Jefferson Rusk of Texas, one of the ablest Loco-Focos in the Union, declared that the bill, as it then was, would probably if passed, cause him to be read out of the party. Mr. Mason of Virginia, who though a Loco-Foco, and a supporter of Loco-Foco men and measures, pretends to have sundry constitutional scruples declared that if the bill was fast, it would kill off the Democratic Party. The Honorable Senator became quite tender, touching, and pathetic, in his lamentation over the dead body of democracy that lay in its shroud stiff and cold before his fancy ‘Sir’ exclaimed, ‘Mr. Mason passed this bill and there will be no Democratic Party then, least of all will there be that party to which I belong, the Republican party, the party under whose banner you appeal from the people to the Constitution”
11:20 Speaker 1: The Louisville Journal says, “Mr. Mason here draws a distinction between the Republican Party and the Democratic party. The Republicans appeal from the people to the Constitution, if we understand him, while the Democrats appeal from the Constitution to the people. This distinction is true as far as the Loco-Foco Party is concerned. That party cares very little for the Constitution, so long as it is sustained by the people. Mr. Mason strived to amalgamate in his own person Loco-Focoism and Calhounism, latitudinarianism, and strict Constructionism. He finds this doubtless a very impracticable effort. Such isms are irreconcilable, and he is an unhappy man, who tries to mix them together in quantities that will agree with each other. Think of the demise of the Democratic Party. Along comes the coroner with his jury, and returns for a verdict that it died of the Pacific Railroad. Wouldn’t that be a very singular verdict?
12:19 Speaker 1: A party that had lived on an unconstitutional diet and regimen for a score of years cannot be suddenly strangled in its effort to swallow a railway. If anything of an unconstitutional nature could have killed the party, it would have died under Jackson, or if it would have survived him and his arsenic, Polk’s Mexican War would have made it as stiff and dead as a door nail. But the party is, we suspect, feline in its vitality and cannot be killed off by any attack of any one disease, however violent it may be. We do not think it will die, drowned, be hanged, strangled, or peg out in any form for a long while yet.
13:02 Anthony Comegna: People who still identified as Whigs were now in a strange position. They were used to being conservatives, counterpoised against those radical Jacksonians, but now they could no longer tell who was conserving what exactly. The defeated Whig Party stood and died for a small republic. Committed to serving domestic interest groups, the triumphant democracy was split between factions with seemingly opposite ideas. Yet somehow it all fit together well enough to win elections. So when confronted with President Pierce’s own plans for territorial expansion, Whigs of course bristled with fear, but so did many conservative Democrats. After all, their Democratic Republic made by white men, for white men, might finally crack apart if another Mexican War was forced on it.
13:57 Speaker 1: Items from the Little Rock Arkansas Whig, April 14th, 1853. The correspondent of the New York National Democrat writing from Washington says, “A number of wealthy Texans who have made themselves as rich as princes in California have just entered into negotiations with the copper colored king of the Sandwich Islands to buy all his kingdom, crown, and scepter, throne, and even reality, down to the last bead of royal adornment and the last yam patch of royal domain. If the bargain is agreed to, we are told these gentlemen intend making Uncle Sam a present of the islands.”
14:37 Anthony Comegna: It’s worth taking a minute to reflect on what actually happened to the Whig party from 1852 to 1856. After Scott’s catastrophic loss, the party never again fielded a presidential candidate. But there were still plenty of Whigs in office and they controlled many state governments, or at the very least they still held a commanding position in the overall political scheme. They did not disappear, and like the Federalists before them, they continued to run for office as Whigs, even without a functioning National Party. In fact, without Douglas and company pushing Kansas so hard, the Whigs may well have weathered the storm, they might have kept their heads down during the democracy’s term of misrule, and rise yet again to accept what contemporaries called ‘The sober second thought of the people.
15:26 Speaker 1: Columbus, Ohio, State Journal May 24th, 1853. Again, when has been the Whig policy of Ohio? Have we not always fostered and encouraged education? Has not the Whig party been the firms staunch friend and advocate of our system of internal improvements? Is it not known that the Whigs have freely advanced their means and given their time to the prosecution of these great works? Do we not know that our currency system was devised and put in operation by the Whigs? Is it not our financial system, our system of taxation, the result of Whig policy? Are the people tired of these things? Are they in favor of exclusive hard money? We ask any man of intelligence and observation if he believes the people of Ohio are ready or willing to desert all these measures of policy and adopt the wild, radical, and destructive notions that are proposed by the hot heads of the Loco-Foco Party in their place? No gentlemen, you are mistaken if you think the Whig Party of Ohio is dead. It is now in the minority, but it has been there before. It has no patronage to bestow, but it does not exist upon patronage. Its foundations are not laid on the spoils of office, its principles are eternal.”
16:39 Speaker 1: When Ohio Loco-Focoism develops itself, the people will reject it. That party had power from 1841 to 1845 in this state. How did they use it? Let the history of the frauds and corruption and venality of that period answer. The Whigs were again called to power to right the ship of state. They answered the call like true patriots, they built upon our currency and our financial system. Demagogues started new theories and humbugs, and on them, they have again rode into power. But they are the men of 1842, they will run the same race. Already the symptoms are evident, a change will come in due time, there will be a future to the Whig Party of the state. It may not be called into power this year or next, it is only a question of time, but it will come such is our judgment.
17:29 Anthony Comegna: But Douglas had all the support he needed to organize the territory, the first phase in building his great railroad. After two and a half months of vicious angry debate in and out of Congress, the Senate easily passed the bill 37-14 at 3:30 in the morning, had everyone been awake to vote, it might have been more like 40-20, or 42-18. But either way, the bill now went to the House, where Northerners and Free-Soilers exercised a greater share of power. When the vote finally came, Northern Democrats split 44 to 42. But the entire Northern Whigery held strong. All 45 of them voted against Kansas. And really at this point, what did they have to lose? They occupied their traditional conservative ground. Here were those damn Democrats and Abolitionists, Secessionists, and all of them yet again agitating, what would otherwise be a very lucrative situation. The Whig Party might be dead, but now the Douglas, that blundering fool, now that he killed the Missouri Compromise, surely the Union was next on the block.
18:38 Speaker 1: Washington, Pennsylvania, Reporter, June 7th, 1854. “The Nebraska Bill”. The first objection which has been justly urged against this bill, is that it was altogether unnecessary. Another objection, and the greatest in the mind of all reflecting and right minded persons is that the passage of this bill violates the faith of a solemn compromise between the two great geographical sections of our country. The time honored Missouri Compromise by which a dangerous national agitation was quieted, and which together with the compromise measures of 1850, by which a second dangerous agitation was also quieted, and by which measures faithfully adhered to, would have kept all future agitation on the same subject quiet. The passage of this bill has reopened all the dangerous questions about slavery and all the bitter denunciations and agitations which always attend these questions. And thus, it has unnecessarily and wickedly disturbed the internal peace and harmony of the country. It thus destroys all confidence between the different sections of it, and hence when any dangerous conjectures shall occur we lose one of the wisest and safest modes of settling threatening difficulties.”
19:51 Speaker 1: The extent of this evil, who can tell? This alone may overthrow as it now actually threatens the union of our states. Again, this bill shamefully violates the faith actually pledged of the nation to the Indians. Hence these four people are hastened to sell their lands as soon as they were made to understand what was about to be done about their region of the country. Whither shall they go? Have we not as a nation, cause to fear the wrath of a just God for such a violation of our faith towards the weak? We are a part of his kind care. It may now be asked if this measure is thus unnecessary in politic and iniquitous. Whose wish is it? Whence did it come, and for what purpose was it adopted? Let the people throughout the Union ponder these questions. Neither the South nor the North asked for this bill. Is it the work and measure of a Loco-Foco President and party for merely selfish political purposes? The present administration had given great offence to the South by rewarding with high offices the Free-Soil leaders who helped them, and threatened separation and vengeance.
20:55 Speaker 1: This bill was got up without doubt to regain Southern support for the present and future Loco-Foco candidate. We ever that is an administration measure got up for mere party purposes or the support of Mr. Pierce’s administration and for securing Mr. Douglas’s success for the presidency. Let the people of the Union look at it as it really is a mere party measure, a Loco-Foco measure, not as a sectional measure and not harass each other as Northern and Southern men, but husband up and at the proper time an occasion, pour out their indignation and visitation upon unprincipled party leaders and partisans.”
21:34 Anthony Comegna: Douglas pushed hard for Kansas statehood and popular sovereignty. In Congress, the blundering bunch of dummies and corrupt sycophants that they are, went right along with him off the cliff. But where were our heroes, our brave Free-Soilers during this fight? They were there, a rump of them at least, left over after the Van Buren people almost all went back to Pierce and business as usual. And with the Whigs now unable to field serious opposition, a very large, very powerful vacuum opened in American political life. With his railroad bill that opponents refused to call law even after it was passed, Douglas ripped the breach wide open and Northern politics spilled out into the void with independent actors spontaneously running in all directions. Over time, these diverse elements of opposition politics gravitated together into a single body, a new coalition far more powerful than the last because its very birth cut the final ties to Van Buren’s second party system.
22:45 Anthony Comegna: Next week we take a look at these first Republicans. Loco-Focos by yet another name.
22:58 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.