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AMERICAN POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT: 1848-1861, BREAKDOWN

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SERIES:  This is the third in a Series about recent reinterpretations of important episodes in American Political Development. This Post treats 1848-1861, when North-South compromise over slavery broke down, and the American polity along with it.  Later Posts will treat late episodes.

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This Post reports a powerful new reinterpretation of the breakdown of American politics during the “long 1850s.” (John Ashworth 2012. The Republic in crisis, 1848-1861. New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 209 pages.)

History 

From about 1820 in the North, a new form of capitalist economic organization had gradually emerged. This new Wage Labor system increasingly out-competed the Slave Labor system in the South, making the South increasingly fearful for its longrun SECURITY. 

Wage labor was accompanied by a moralistic new IDEOLOGY: government should promote moral “improvement” of society and individuals should follow their consciences. This new moralism made further compromises with the South over slavery increasingly unacceptable to the North. 

From 1848 to 1861, the 1787 Constitutional compromise over slavery BROKE DOWN. From 1861 to 1865, North and South fought a Civil War. The North won, making its economic system and political ideology that of the nation as a whole.  

Obviously this was a crucial episode in American Political Development: a cruel test for American democracy and – since the USA was at that time the main experiment in mass democracy – a test for democracy everywhere. This episode also poses questions of theory.  

Theory 

Did the USA fall apart because of a REALIGNMENT of issues and parties? Or because too MANY issues emerged and overwhelmed politicians? Or because a particular KIND of issue emerged that required a war to settle? Ashworth does not address this, but I incline toward the third view. 

Thus, in the 1850s, both South and North felt increasingly insecure. Competing for new states, the South increasingly resorted to extralegal violence. The resulting SECURITY issues coincided with IDENTITY issues. That combination superceded previous ECONOMIC issues, temporarily.

“Temporarily” lasted from the late 1850s through the late 1870s. In a hideous war, the North defeated the South, occupied it, tried to “reconstruct” it, met southern terrorist resistance, and eventually withdrew (think Iraq). 

After 1877, American politics and parties went back to “normal”: preoccupation with ECONOMY. What role should government play in the USA’s accelerating economic development? Democrats versus Republicans in the 1880s resembled Democrats versus Whigs in the 1840s. 

(For the SECURITY-IDENTITY issues that temporarily superceded ECONOMIC issues, please see the Figure at the end of this Post. On the eventual return to ECONOMIC issues and previous patterns of party competition, please see the next Post, 140322.)          

ANALYSIS:  PROCESSES 

Ashworth disentangles and reweaves the many processes involved. Some of these occurred in different sectors of the ENVIRONMENT of politics, in what this Blog distinguishes as the Security, Economy, and Identity. Some of these processes occurred within the ORGANIZATION of politics itself, reprioritizing political issues and reshaping political parties. 

<> One underlying dynamic was SLAVE RESISTANCE: slaves resented enslavement, covertly resisted, and might rebel. This slowed southern economic development, made Southern whites insecure, delegitimized slavery to Northerners , and inhibited South military strategy. (Security)

<> Another underlying dynamic was ECONOMIC DIVERGENCE between North and South: New wage labor in the North and old slave labor in the South. The North developed much more rapidly and successfully than the South, causing the South to feel threatened. (Economy) 

<> Economic divergence caused IDEOLOGICAL DIVERGENCE: the North came to regard wage labor as a form of economic democracy essential for political democracy. In contrast, to the North, slave labor was destabilizing to economy and society, polity and morality. (Identity) 

<> The South – and Democrats – embraced an ideology of limited government and independent farmers. In principle, this ideology need have nothing to do with slavery. In practice, it protected southern slaveholders from ideological critique and national intervention. (Identity)   

<> These basic disagreements were aggravated as the South demanded more concessions to protect itself, the North reacted indignantly to those demands, making the South still more insecure and demanding, and so on. (Somewhat like what political scientists call a “security dilemma.”)   

<> The South feared extinction and the North feared destabilization. In this context, organization of new territories and admission of new states caused BREAKDOWN of compromises between North and South – in the 1787 Constitution and later – designed to protect slavery. (Security) 

<> A political dynamic was some REALIGNMENT of issues and parties. Old political-economic issues that had defined and divided Democrats and Whigs declined. New socio-cultural issues arose. All this damaged the old Democrats, destroyed the old Whigs, and created the new Republicans. 

<> These processes had major longrun implications. However, at the time, politicians suspected only some of those. Each side acted in terms of its basic worldview. Neither North nor South wanted war nor anticipated the huge death and destruction of the Civil War. (Dynamics) 

Ashworth pays little attention to supranational influences, unless one regards the absorption of new territories into a nation as a partly supranational process. However, he does briefly address the USA’s conquest of new territory from Mexico. Also, he regards the USA’s transition from slave labor to wage labor as part of a transnational transition at the time away from unfree labor to more modern forms of economic development and capitalist economy. 

NARRATIVE:  HISTORY 

Above we have summarized Ashworth’s analysis of the PROCESSES involved. Below we summarize Ashworth’s NARRATIVE of how those processes unfolded. We use parts of his chapter titles as section headings. 

Introduction 

Successive generations of historians have produced successive interpretations of the “long 1850s.” Before about 1960, older interpretations focused on white elite politics, still (dis)regarding black African-Americans as inferior and passive. After about 1960, as racism became increasingly repugnant, newer interpretations detailed the economic and social background that appeared to have made the Civil War inevitable. In the early 2000s, some “revisionist” works appeared, claiming that better political leadership in 1861 might have avoided war. In rebuttal, Ashworth regards the Civil War as virtually inevitable, given the nature and flaws of slavery, the regional economic trends of the period, and the ideological frames within which leaders made their decisions. 

A nation imperilled, 1848  (Chapter One) 

Despite the expansion of the USA into the West, before the 1850s politicians had been able to maintain rough balance between states that prohibited slavery (as in the original North) and states that permitted slavery (as in the original South). Politicians achieved this by a series of compromises over principle and by, in practice, admitting new territories to statehood in pairs (one free, one slave). In the 1820s and 1830s, such paired admission of new states avoided slave-territorial issues. However, in the 1840s, such issues were revived in the Southwest: admitting Texas, organizing California, and acquiring still more territories in the 1846-1848 war with Mexico. 

Meanwhile, in the North, a new system of wage labor had developed. It gave workers an opportunity to rise in society. The increasing gap between work and home permitted a new ideology of domesticity, with women in charge of virtue. Individuals should be free to consult and follow their consciences, which substituted for property ownership as an important guarantee of social stability.

In contrast, in the North’s view, the very essence of slavery was denial of the right to consult and obey one’s own conscience.  22-24  Across the South, white proslavery sentiment was directly proportional to the proportion of the population that was enslaved.  Loyalty to slaveholders of nonslaveholding whites was real but not uniform or unlimited, particularly in the most lightly enslaved areas.  8-9 

Crisis at mid-century, 1848-1851 (Chapter Two)

By 1848 American politics was at a crossroads. Old issues such as banks and tariffs no longer divided the Democratic and Whig parties. A new prosperity allayed mutual suspicions. At the same time, moral issues were emerging and regional conflict was deepening. Both parties contained a spectrum of opinion about slavery. The 1848 presidential campaign confirmed the difficulty that all major parties now had with the slavery question.  37, 55 

At the start of 1848, Whigs and Democrats both could recruit and win elections in all regions of the USA, each maintaining a fragile neutrality on the issue of slavery. Whigs put more faith in governing elites, Democrats more faith in “the people” (white males only). Thus the two parties did not yet fully agree on the feasibility of mass democracy.  30-33 

On the issue of slavery in new territories, the Compromise of 1850 was crafted by northern Democrats and southern Whigs who were moderate on regional issues. It reaffirmed even-handedness in admitting free and slave states (California came in free, Texas slave). But it made significant concessions to the South (a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law requiring Northerners to return escaped slaves).  Extremists – Northern Whigs and southern Democrats – opposed the Compromise for opposite reasons.  60 

Ethnocultural issues, 1851-1854  (Chapter Three) 

TEMPERANCE.  Discouraging the drinking of alcohol had arisen as an issue in the early 1800s at the local level:  by moral suasion only, prevent the intemperate use of alcohol. By the 1830s reformers began to demand total abstinence enforced by state-wide laws. Prohibition promised to bring both spiritual and economic regeneration. It would benefit both wage workers and their factory employers, who now needed regular and predictable output by sober and disciplined workers. 65-67  The temperance issue disappeared in 1856, partly because overshadowed by slavery, but basically because temperance couldn’t deliver the spiritual and economic regeneration it promised. 114-115 

IMMIGRATION.  Between 1845 and 1855, the USA received ten times the number of immigrants as in the previous thirty years. Most went to the North: Irish to cities, many Germans to rural areas. This alarmed nativists, who feared the immigrants’ religion and politics. (It was really a matter of class, but nativists couldn’t find way to articulate that.)  Nativists didn’t want actually to restrict immigration, just to lengthen the naturalization period, to delay immigrants’ access to voting and office. Unlike temperance, nativism persisted as an issue , even as the issue of slavery rose, partly because nativists too opposed slavery.  71-75 

The politics of slavery, 1851-1854   (Chapter Four) 

Despite the Compromise of 1850, the USA remained in crisis, though now nobody knew it, which made the problem more dangerous. Those who perceived the problem thought they had a solution; those who rejected the solution thought they could ignore the problem. Both were wrong. At the time, the main active source of tension between North and South was the Fugitive Slave Act, which contradicted the northern commitment to following one’s conscience. The more basic problem was how to organize the nation’s remaining territory without creating disastrous conflict between North and South. Actually, doing so had become impossible. There was no further room for compromise between North and South over slavery-territorial issues.  80-82 

The immediate problem was organizing the northern part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, called the Nebraska territory. Part of the attempted solution was to divide that territory into two states, Nebraska and Kansas. In 1820 a compromise over Missouri had confirmed the principle that Congress could exclude or permit slavery in territories. Amazingly, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (KNA) repealed that principle, allowing settlers in new territories to decide for themselves whether or not to have slavery (“popular sovereignty”). This was a huge win for the South, whose chance of establishing slavery in Kansas went from no chance to real chance.  Much of the North was absolutely outraged. 80-96 

The KNA, thinking that further compromise between North and South was possible, had attempted the impossible and had failed. After that – although few realized it yet – little stood between the USA and Civil War.       

Political maelstrom, 1854-1856  (Chapter Five) 

The mid-1850s began a global economic expansion that would last until the early 1870s. This was a Whig economic outcome without statist Whig policies. That made the Democratic doctrine of laissez-faire into bipartisan orthodoxy. Whigs and Democrats had reached agreement on infrastructure back in the 1830s. They reached consensus on banks by 1850 and on tariffs by 1852. So political competition between those two parties lost much of its policy meaning. Temperance and immigration were not yet obsolete issues, but neither could revitalize the existing party system because both issues crosscut both parties.  99-102 

In 1854 these longrun trends converged with shortun precipitators: rising dissatisfaction with the party politics of Democrat versus Whig and increasing vitality of ethnocultural issues. Most important was the sheer divisiveness of the KNA, dramatized by a series of outrages in Kansas that brought the regional issue to the top of the USA’s political agenda.  97-98 

The resulting process of partisan realignment differed by state, but there were five general factors: The rise of anti-immigrant nativists, Upper North versus Lower North, the antislavery West vs the anti-immigrant East, previous Whig strength, and a longstanding contrast between liberals and moderates within the Whigs. 109  

In the 1856 presidential election, Democrats nominated a northern pro-southerner. The Whig party had disintegrated over the issue of slavery, so ran noone. A new party of nativists nominated a moderate on the slavery issue. Another new party, the Republicans ran a presidential candidate for the first time. The Democrat won, carrying the South, but the Republicans carried the North. The slavery issue was creating polarization between North and South. 111-114 

In Kansas, southerners considered the stakes high: security, defense, and the right of self-defense.  Southerners knew they could not win through fair economic and political competition, so they resorted to extralegal activities, abandoned due process, and repudiated civil liberties. This was characteristic of the South’s defense of slavery throughout the nation. 115-118 

North and South, Republican and Democrat   (Chapter Six) 

Democrats continued to promote expansion of USA territory, showing that they didn’t understand that territorial expansion created regional conflict that threatened them. The deepening divide between North and South was expressed in trade patterns. Previously the North and South had been economically interdependent, which had discouraged antislavery activism in the North. Now North-South trade declined and the Northeast and mid-West became increasingly interdependent. This new trade pattern was expressed politically in the decline of southern Whigs and the rise of northern Republicans. 119-127  

Meanwhile the South resorted to increasingly extreme defenses of slavery. Southern demands posed a cruel dilemma for northern DEMOCRATS:  give in to the South and risk unpopularity in the North, or reject the South and be unable to win nationally without it. The 1850s were a tipping point, from  Democrats disabling antislavery to antislavery disabling Democrats. Their formerly covert defense of slavery became increasingly overt.  127-131 

Nonextension of slavery meant different things to different Republicans. Conservatives thought other issues should predominate. Radicals prioritized moral critique and favored abolition. The moderates who controlled the party prioritized a political critique:  the Slave Power of slaveholders posed a threat to American democracy. This security threat united most Republicans, though again radicals considered it secondary to morality. Finally, the economic critique of slavery – it just didn’t work – united all Republicans.  138-139  

Ashworth goes on to EXPLAIN how each of these critiques arose. The political critique responded not just to Southern practices but to increasingly strident Southern attempts to defend such a flawed system. The moral critique arose from changes in northern society. The economic critique arose from the success of the northern economy that made northerners think their system superior.  Meanwhile, because of its security weakness, the slave regime was unable to diversify economically, unable to match northern economic growth, and unable to loosen internal controls to reduce outside criticism. 143-146, also 156-157. 

Political polarisation, 1857-1860   (Chapter Seven) 

Nominations for president in the election of 1860 involved polarization between and within parties.

Democrats nominated a northern moderate (Stephen Douglas, author of the KNA) who could not satisfy southerners’ demands for guarantees of their slave property. Republicans nominated a northern moderate (Abraham Lincoln) who embodied the values of the new party:  social mobility, hard work, honesty, and integrity. Two additional candidates further split the vote. Therefore Lincoln could win with only 39% of the national vote (though he carried all eighteen free states by majorities). The main southern candidate received hardly any votes in free states, Lincoln none at all in the South (where he was not even on the ballot!). Slavery was further polarizing the USA into North versus South.  168-172 

Secession and the outbreak of war, 1860-1862   (Chapter Eight) 

At the outbreak of the Civil War, northern support for war to preserve the Union didn’t mean support for a war to free slaves, but war goals gradually enlarged to include abolition. One reason was that Republicans genuinely opposed slavery. Another was resistance to slavery by slaves themselves.  193-194 

The North won because of its economic superiority, Lincoln’s leadership, and chance. But one should explain WHY the South lacked resources and manpower, relative to the North. The explanation was the South’s reliance on slavery. 195-196 

Conclusion 

Lincoln explained the Civil War to the USA and the world as a war, not just for American union and democracy, but for democracy everywhere. To Lincoln, democracy was not just political but also social:  upward mobility, enabled by wage labor. Indeed, promoting economic democracy was the PURPOSE of political democracy!  203 

This was a new and transformative combination of ideas. “In effect Lincoln and the Republicans had achieved a synthesis of Democratic views of popular government with Whiggish views of capitalism.”  The antislavery implications of these views brought on the Civil War. Northern victory made them national values.  “So they remain.”   203 

NOTE   The following Figure is from Keith Poole’s site Voteview.  The figure shows the two main issue cleavages in the late 1850s House of Representatives. The major cleavage was for and against slavery, here shown as the horizontal left-right dimension. The minor cleavage was immigrants versus nativists, shown here as the vertical lower-upper dimension. Normally in American politics the major cleavage would concern the extent of government role in the economy, which normally would be the horizontal dimension. Normally, regional-cultural issues would be the minor, vertical dimension.  So this Figure shows how exceptional the late 1850s became.

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