Whiggery’s Last Gasp

What would prevent the United States from the impending disastrous split over the “slavery issue”?

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In 1850, American politics was nearing its breaking point. The Senate as well as the Administration was doing much in order to keep the peace between the Southern and Northern politicians. For example, Henry Clay was pulling out all the stops to pass a combination of compromise measures that would finally resolve the territorial crisis. However, his bill kept failing on partisan lines. No Southerners wanted to vote for restricting slavery, even if it meant getting a souped-up fugitive slave law in return. And no self-respecting or self-interested Northerner, wanted to vote for that fugitive slave bill, even if it meant abolishing the slave trade in Washington.

What did the Compromise of 1850 solve? Did it just put off an inevitable split in our nation over the slavery issue? What happened in the Presidential Election of 1852? Did nationalism take over in this period defined by great stress and division?

Further Reading:

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Life of Franklin Pierce” Holt, Michael.

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

Silbey, Joel. The Shrine of Party: Congressional Voting Behavior, 1841-1852. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1967.

Music by Kai Engel

Related Content:

1848 and Its Aftermath, Liberty Chronicles Episode

The World Wide Revolution, Liberty Chronicles Episode

The Virtues of Compromise, written by Charles Jared Ingersoll

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00:11 Anthony Comegna: In July of 1850, American politics was nearing its breaking point. After more than a decade of steady but isolated agitation, abolitionists and anti-monopoly radicals had succeeded in creating a new political party to put force behind their ideas. They had dragged out the latest speakership vote for 20 days and 63 ballots. And by summer time, they were refusing to accept any compromise measures to handle California’s application to statehood in the free column. The Free Soilers were gumming up the works, and President Taylor dug in his heels for his own plan. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Henry Clay was pulling out all the stops to pass a combination of compromise measures that would finally resolve the territorial crisis. The only problem was that his bill kept failing, and if the Free Soilers would not end the impasse it could mean civil war.

01:12 Anthony Comegna: From June 3rd to 11th 1850, almost 200 delegates from nine Southern states convened in Nashville, to decide either what possible compromises they would accept, or barring that, the best methods to secede from the Union. Among the secessionists at Nashville, one of the South’s wealthiest planters, Jefferson Davis.

01:43 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

01:55 Anthony Comegna: Clay’s problem during the compromise debates, was that no one wanted to go on record supporting measures favored by the other side. No Southerners wanted to vote for restricting slavery, even if it meant getting a souped-up fugitive slave law in return. And no self-respecting or self-interested Northerner, wanted to vote for that fugitive slave bill, even if it meant abolishing the slave trade in Washington. This increasingly difficult impasse reached a turning point with President Taylor’s 1850 Independence Day speech at the Washington Monument. DC is particularly hellish in the summertime, and to cut the heat, old Zach downed several massive bowls of cherries and ice-cold milk during the festivities. The President contracted gastroenteritis and died five days later. The second time in a row, fate seriously burned the Whig party. It was the single most important event which helped secure the Compromise of 1850.

02:56 Anthony Comegna: With a new president and Clay’s tactic clearly failing, political paths now opened up to pass the substantive elements of compromise without the actual spirit. The Senate broke up Clay’s omnibus bill into its constituent parts. Through expert political engineering, they then insured each piece had enough votes to allow most members to vote with their constituencies. There were always just the right number of abstentions and just the right number of sectional sacrifices on the altar of partisanship. In the end, of course, even though the Compromise of 1850 passed, almost no one was really pleased with it. President Fillmore was, though, and he eagerly signed each measure, declaring the intractable, insoluble crisis finally settled. The Compromise of 1850, was supposed to please Northerners by limiting the borders of Texas, admitting California as a free state, and abolishing the slave trade in DC. It was supposed to please Southerners by admitting New Mexico on the basis of popular sovereignty, and recommitting the national government to the capture of fugitive slaves. The politics of compromise ruled the day, but sectional tensions never again disappeared.

04:19 Anthony Comegna: Even before the Compromise of 1850 reared its nasty head, though, Whigs were already fuming against Free Soilers like the Van Burens, for abandoning the fight and reuniting with the democracy. Let’s take a few moments to remind ourselves about the ever critical political jockeying, between barn-burning Van Buren Free Soilers and dedicated anti-slavery Free Soilers.

04:44 Speaker 2: Brattleboro, Vermont Semi-weekly Eagle, September 20th, 1849, the end of Free-Soilism in New York. We have to record today the complete surrender of the boasted Free Democracy Party of the State of New York to its Hunker rival, Martin Van Buren, his son John, Preston King and their worthy associates, after 15 months of saintly bluster about Free Soil and the alarming encroachments of the slave power, have suddenly and with malice aforethought abandoned the famous Buffalo platform, erected with such pomp and ceremony one year ago, and returned to the embrace of old-fashioned Hunkerism. This result will by no means surprise those who have carefully watched the rise and progress of the Buffalo movement.

05:30 Speaker 2: From the beginning, it has been essentially Loco-Foco in its character, though modified in some respects, so as to embrace disaffected Whigs and members of the old liberty party. Men calling themselves Democrats, originated the movement and have controlled it from the outset, keeping steadily in the view the very event which has now come to pass, viz the transfer of all their stock in trade to Loco-Focoism. They mounted Free Soil, the hobby horse, not from any love they bore it, but simply as a beast of burden. And now that their object is accomplished, they cast it aside as a thing of no value. All this was plainly foreseen and proclaimed in the outset. Still, many honest and well-meaning men were deceived, but the game is now up. Almost up to the hour when the final surrender was made, the Free Democracy champions throughout the Northern states proclaimed, and none more emphatically than the leaders in New York, their unaltered affection for and adhesion to the Buffalo platform. They repeatedly declared that all the old political issues had dwindled into utter insignificance by the side of the one great absorbing question of slavery extension. In this state, they exhorted Whigs, with tears in their eyes, to forget the minor and ephemeral questions of tariff, distribution, etcetera, and go with them for Free Soil, asserting that the partiality of the administration for the institution of slavery could no longer be doubted.

06:55 Speaker 2: At the famous Free Soil convention held some two months ago in Cleveland, honest John Van Buren announced, in high-sounding terms, that the National Democratic Party was dissolved, and that he was ready at any moment to become a martyr for sweet freedom’s sake, such was the tone of the newspaper articles and speeches. Now what do we see? All that is left of the great and glorious Buffalo platform. It’s a single, shaky and rotten plank, fished up and preserved from the wreck by the fraternizers after a deal of trouble and vexation.

07:28 Anthony Comegna: One Whig paper put the current political dilemma, in the form of a humorous and fictional missing person’s report. “A conservative or Hunker Democrat has abducted a Free Soil young woman and threatens to sully her virtue.”

07:43 Speaker 2: Salem Massachusetts Gazette, November 6th, 1849: Abduction. Clandestine elopement. Sudden disappearance. Great excitement. Information wanted. Under this portentous heading, a waggish correspondent of ours refers to an event which took place in this city yesterday. Our columns were so much engrossed before the communication came to hand, that we can only find room for the conclusion as follows: The whole affair came to light this morning, she, Miss no-party liberty barn burner, Free Soil was seen to enter Lyceum Hall in company with her seducer, Mr. Hunker Loco-Foco. Since that time she has not been seen. Her friends entertained fears that she has been made away with, as the gentleman does not bear the best of characters in this respect, having before disposed of several young ladies in the same way without fulfilling his promise. It is hoped she is still living, but it is hardly probable. Any information wherever respecting her will be gratefully received by her anxious friends.

08:45 Anthony Comegna: After Taylor died, and given the compromised disaster, neither party had a clear chieftain leading up to the 1852 election. In the vacuum, Loco-Foco Free Soilers and regular Democrats, searched for suitable candidates to bear their respective standards. And the more Democrats looked towards Southerners or doughfaces, the more Free Soilers were convinced that entire party was a subsidiary of great planters. When Free Soilers praise people like Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Southerners took it as a sign that Benton was actually an intractable enemy. He had long been widely known as a friend to Loco-Focoism, after all, a friend to the Rhode Island Dorrites and their universalist revolutionary republicanism, and even the policies of the Free Soilers, so the Southerners were right to be suspicious.

09:38 Anthony Comegna: The Richmond Enquirer wrote that Benton’s supporters were miserable, the lowest and most abjectly ignorant and degraded of the Irish and German populations together, with the rogues and rowdies, abolitionists and barn-burners, with some half a score of Virginians and Kentuckians, who are satisfied to be distinguished as the leaders of a faction. Other barn burners and Free Soilers, looked instead to John P Hale of New Hampshire, who was also widely known as a Loco Foco and for his antislavery. Some even reached back a full decade to Rhode Island’s little civil war. The people’s former governor had been released from jail for treason against his state, though he always refused to take the required oath of allegiance to the new state constitution, and so he remained a person without recognized civil rights in his own home state. Dorr was not about to be run for president, but once Democrats finally did decide on a candidate, at their 1852 national convention, the party revived him as an image to win back their radical supporters. With Dorr as an ally, Democrats could help guarantee the permanent return of barn burner Free Soilers.

10:53 Anthony Comegna: The Whigs did what they always did. They found a general who they thought was popular enough to be elected on his own, and someone they thought totally devoid of personal principles, so they could just pour their platform right into him. They propped up General Winfield Scott, gave him a platform and ran him as the sort of candidate any given crowd might want. To me, the Whigs are entirely uninteresting as a party. And Pierce was by far the more interesting candidate. In an attempt to regain the Barnburners, Pierce’s first campaign stop was a private call to Thomas Dorr’s own home. Pierce was an old ally from the Dorr war years who spoke out in favor of free suffrage from the New Hampshire State Assembly. Northern Whigs were aghast that the Democratic nominee would so debase himself before a treasonous pretender like Thomas Wilson Dorr.

12:00 Speaker 2: Columbus, Ohio State Journal, June 22, 1852. A glorious and noble Democratic leader. We begin with a quote from the Democratic statesman. When Franklin Pierce received the news of his nomination, he was on a visit to Boston, a few days since he paid a visit to Providence, Rhode Island, and his first visit was to the residence of Thomas W. Dorr, with whom he remained some time. This was a noble, honorable, glorious act, and at once stamps the impress of worthy of the brow of this lucky Democratic leader. It is deserving of 10,000 hurrahs from the whole Democratic choir, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Democrats, we have not been mistaken, we have the right man for our standard bearer. His heart is in the right place, and beats in unison with the friends of free and enlightened government everywhere. This nerves us to redoubled energy, for in all our sympathies for the persecuted and oppressed, we never suffered ourselves to forget Thomas W. Dorr.

13:00 Speaker 2: Why did they not nominate Dorr himself? If Dorrism is the Mecca towards which their faces are all turned, why not take the original genuine article? Dorr was tried by a jury of his own countrymen, and by them convicted of treason, and he was then sent to the penitentiary. If there were any great merit in treason, Dorr is the man who embodies it. If to call and see Dorr is deserving of 10,000 hurrahs from the whole Democratic choir, from Atlantic to the Pacific, Dorr himself ought not to have been passed by. Why take a secondhand Dorr? There are enough return filibusters. If Dorr would not do it to fill the station, why did not the convention elect a trader or a filibuster, who has risked something in his cause. Can’t the whole democratic choir ever give us something that is not second hand and spurious, not even a convict or a filibuster? Are not the American people worthy to sit at the first table? Are they always to be put off with this sort of cold victuals?

13:58 Speaker 2: The whole democratic choir must be considered by such writers as the above, the most besotted and stolid set of fools in the universe. But let them try it on, it is an attempt to open the campaign upon the idea that the highest merit consists in violating the laws of one’s country, setting one’s country at defiance and tearing down the glorious temples of our own freedom, erected at the expense of so much blood and treasure. The American people are invited to honor Dorr, and to elect Pierce, in order to show that they have no respect for the laws made by themselves. And to show that they only consider themselves as so many children, putting up laws and governments as children do cob houses, the smartest boy being he who can knock the cob house to pieces soonest. This is it, is well enough to understand it to begin with. Pierce is thus incontinently unmasked as the Dorr and filibuster candidate. His greatest merit, his most exalted title, to the gratitude of the country, is to have called to see Dorr.

15:01 Anthony Comegna: Southerners of both parties, meanwhile, had cause for concern. Pierce was a compromise candidate at the convention, he was deemed suitable because Southerners could not secure one of their own, and because they were assured that he was a Northern man with Southern principles. Now, here he was making private calls on an avowed abolitionist.

15:25 Speaker 2: Montgomery Daily Alabama Journal, June 25th, 1852. Dorr and Pierce. The New York correspondent of the National Era, says that General Pierce has made a flying visit to Governor Dorr of Rhode Island. The same writer says that Mr. Dorr was once a leading abolitionist, and that he has sat with him in an antislavery convention. What in the world are Pierce and Dorr concocting? Is Dorr to be his Secretary of State?

15:51 Speaker 2: Columbus Daily Ohio Statesmen, July 6th, 1852. There are at least some sensible Whigs in Ohio. We clip the following from the Forest City, a strong Whig paper. For the Forest City: Mr. Editor, I observe in the Ohio State Journal of the 18th an editorial which for the sake of the Whig party, I hope does not express its sentiments, or the sentiments of any respectable portion of it, and against which I as a Whig enter a solemn protest. In speaking sneeringly of General Pierce’s recent visit to Thomas W. Dorr, the editor says Dorr was tried by a jury of his own countrymen, and by them convicted of treason, and he was then sent to the penitentiary. If there is any great merit in treason, Dorr is the man. The only reply which I condescended to make to this heartless imputation is that the conviction, instead of causing good Republicans to love them less, as damned eternally the court and jury. Signed, a Whig.

16:51 Speaker 2: The editor of The Ohio State Journal pours out his vile slang against every man that is great and good in the Democratic Party, and claims at the same time to belong to the decency party. Oh, shame, where is thy blush? This we have quoted from the Homes Free Press. It is not much wonder that the Whigs occasionally cry out against the shameless Tory doctrines of the Whig organ of this city. No advocate of freedom escapes the ruthless attacks of the paper, whether he is an American, a European or from any other country. Thomas W. Dorr despised the British charter under which the people of Rhode Island lived, and which deprived the poor man and foreigner from voting. His effort to reform these Whig abuses was what excites the journal’s hatred, and for which he has received the vile abuse of the enemies of human liberty.

17:43 Anthony Comegna: At Tammany Hall, the party threw an Independence Day celebration, that gives us a good set of examples to understand what was happening once again in the Democratic Party and America’s early libertarian movement. The day’s speeches were a long train of calls for reunion and revival of what was a now old young American cultural impulse, that once had inspired rebellion in Canada and Rhode Island, revolution in Texas and victories for Van Buren and Polk. Martin Van Buren was just one among many prominent leaders who sent letters of support to be read off at that meeting. He assured the audience that he had full faith in Pierce’s Jeffersonian principles.

18:27 Anthony Comegna: A letter from Thomas W. Dorr, illustrated just how broken he was during his time in prison for treason. Dorr was no longer interested in making even the smallest of political waves, and clearly he had abandoned his youthful abolitionism. Above all other concerns, he wanted the preservation of the national union, which he believed depended upon democratic unity. Dorr urged his fellow Northerners to show some restraint. And if that’s not enough irony for you, Dorr’s letter was followed by a short statement from John Tyler, the very man who arguably killed Dorr’s government in its cradle by committing federal advisors to aid Rhode Island’s charter regime in May 1842. John Tyler joined Dorr in his call for unity, and compared the Democrats to the embattled tribes of ancient Israel. Joining the chorus, Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan also sent letters, agreeing that Democrats once again had the perfect opportunity to rally behind a new Young Hickory, smash the [19:35] ____, and reap the rewards of office.

19:41 Anthony Comegna: Southern Democrats and a sizable majority of American voters were convinced. Pierce won every Southern state except Kentucky and Tennessee, both Whig strongholds, and he sailed to one of the most impressive victories in presidential history. Pierce had almost six times Scott’s total of electoral votes, though he scraped only a bare majority of the popular vote. The Free Soil Party, which suffered the permanent loss of most Barnburners, ran New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale, and received little more than half of its 1848 count. After the Van Burens abandoned it, the Free Soil Party was free to court the uncompromising radical edge of American politics once again, and their agitation never stopped, despite the drop in raw numbers.

20:33 Anthony Comegna: Even left with this rump party, Hale polled strongly in Massachusetts, with almost 22%, 20% in Vermont, 13% in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, 10% in Maine, and 9% in Ohio. He only took 25,000 votes in New York, though, less than 5%. Surely it was a low point for early libertarian principles and activism, but there was still an important core of radical William Leggett-style Loco-Focos out there unwilling to buy partisan lies any further. Walt Whitman was one of these few New Yorkers who stayed true to Free Soil and endorsed Hale. Whitman was no longer the rather arrogant Democratic youth, who would vote for a Polk despite his own serious misgivings. While the vast majority of his hopeful counterparts marched forward, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote Pierce’s campaign biography. Whitman heaped scorn on the morally bankrupt major parties. He and a significant portion of the electorate, could no longer rest easy, so long as slavery continued to exist. People still remembered Loco-Focoism in its most pure and radical form, they still respected the memory of William Leggett, and the good causes his Evening Post championed as a lone voice in the wilderness.

22:01 Speaker 2: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Freeman, November 20th, 1851, New York Evening Post. This once federal but now democratic journal has reached the close of its 50th year. In the issue of last Saturday, the editors gave an interesting sketch of its life, from its birth in 1801 to the present time. It was in this paper that William Leggett defended the liberty of speech and of the press during the anti-abolition mobs of 1834-35. For its present position upon the question of slavery we need not speak, since everybody knows that this is the champion of the Barnburner wing of the Democratic Party, it is conducted with marked ability and exerts a wide influence.

22:44 Anthony Comegna: And if it was just the Hawthorns and Van Buren of the world, if it were just the Thomas Dorrs and the Franklin Pierces and so many of the other compromising individuals we’ve covered at one point or another on the show, well, then, that would be manageable. But the fact is, as many historians have noted, the United States has always been a pragmatist imperialist power with a culture to match. Rank and file voters from each party were easily led into nationalist schemes of one kind or another, from trade war to wars of imperial conquest, in politics and ideas. Like perhaps everything else, change really happens on the margins. And our early libertarian Loco-Focos had a generation-long chance to change history’s course for the better. Instead, they too became drunk on nationalism and were easily swayed to embrace political victories over intellectual consistency. Too many of them prized power over principle and too few of them decided to risk status and station for the greater cause. But politics by its very nature as an exercise of force, is always pushing us towards civil war. And soon the grand event that everyone had been dreading for decades finally happened. Who knew that the Union would finally die from an overdose of railroads.

24:28 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.

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