Mr. Madison’s War



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Major political parties actually avoided the issue of slavery before the 1850s because party leaders understood the sectional and explosive nature of the issue. Northern Democrats feared losing Southern Democrats if they pushed abolition and the same was true for Whigs. Democratic and Whig party leaders, consequently, “danced around the issue” of slavery by declaring that slavery was a state and local issue not to be discussed at the national political level. The parties could dodge the issue of slavery in the states, but they could not avoid it in the Western territories, for it was clear that federal policy in the administration of these areas would either promote or discourage the expansion of slavery. The question of slavery in the territories would ultimately wreck the Whig Party and cause sectional tensions to reach the boiling point.

  • Abolitionists themselves were also very divided over the question of whether or not using the political process was the most effective and moral avenue toward ending slavery. William Lloyd Garrison was the leading “anti-political” abolitionist of the day. Garrison was called a “radical” abolitionist because he wanted slavery to be abolished immediately and without compensation to slaveowners. He organized the founding of the American Antislavery Society in 1833. The front page of Garrison’s first edition of The Liberator (published first in 1831) also announced, "On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation ...Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of a ravisher... but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present... I will not retreat a single inch----AND I WILL BE HEARD.” Garrison opposed using the political process because he believed that the blueprint for the nation’s founding, the Constitution, was fundamentally corrupt since it acknowledged and protected the institution of slavery. Garrison also rejected the political process because he was an “ultra” pacifist who felt that any use of force to coerce violated the principle of “Christian love.” All states, governments, and political processes, even democracies, rely on the use of force to maintain order and were, according to Garrison’s “doctrine of nonresistance,” therefore corrupt. Garrison’s objective was, theoretically at least, the conversion of Southerners to his way of thinking about slavery.

  • Political Abolitionists & the Liberty Party: Midwestern and New York abolitionists did not always support Garrison’s “anti-political abolitionist views.” Theodore Dwight Weld was one of the prominent American Antislavery Society members to oppose Garrison’s “anti-political” brand of abolitionism. Weld became famous initially for leading the “Lane Rebels” in 1834 by opposing Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe). Lyman Beecher became a prominent Connecticut minister and leader of the Temperance Movement in the 1820s and later directed the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1830s. Beecher eventually tried to suppress “radical” abolitionism on the seminary’s campus and Weld responded by organizing the “Lane Rebels” or mass withdrawal of students who reenrolled in Oberlin College which itself evolved into a major hotbed of radical abolitionism. Weld later married the prominent feminist pioneer and radical abolitionist Angelina Grimke. Weld and other more “political abolitionists” convinced James G. Birney to run for President of the United States, for the Liberty Party, in 1840. The Liberty Part existed to run again in 1844 and ultimately won 16,000 votes during the Presidential election of 1844 in the state of New York. While largely, symbolic, the Liberty Party’s candidacy hurt the Whigs badly. Whig candidate Henry Clay lost the New York battle by 5,000 votes to Democrat James K. Polk. The electoral result of losing New York cost Clay the election. Polk was elected President and quickly proceeded to fulfill the dreams of “Manifest Destiny” by adding Oregon and the Mexican Cession to the United States (Texas was also annexed shortly before Polk’s inauguration). Just think. How would the argument of abolitionism and slavery been different if Henry Clay had been elected and the US had never fought the Mexican War?

  • Political abolitionism continued to gain momentum as the nation acquired more territory. The Free Soil Party organized in 1848 to stop slavery from expanding into territories acquired in the Mexican War (1846-48). Prominent abolitionist, and one time disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass attended the first convention to found the party. Years later, abolitionists outraged by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (they were mad because it repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820) worked to form the Republican Party (created in Flint Michigan in 1854). The Republicans were basically a coalition of Northerners willing to support the Free Soil plank to halt the expansion of slavery (Northern Democrats, Northern Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Free Soilers). This Republican “3rd Party” elected its second presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to the presidency six years later in 1860.

    OTHER ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH ABOLITIONISM & ITS RISE IN POPULARITY



    1. It is important to also remember that the spreading of abolitionism was not something that every northerner favored: Abolitionists were actually a MINORITY in the North before 1860- a highly articulate minority but one that was also often very unpopular. Abolitionist newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy, for example, was murdered by a mob annoyed by Lovejoy’s abolitionism in Alton, Illinois in 1837. William Llyod Garrison was also almost lynched by a similar mob in Boston in 1835. Garrison’s weekly newspaper, The Liberator, never had a circulation of more than 3,000 subscribers.

    2. Abolitionist Propaganda: Despite their small numbers, abolitionists eventually achieved a powerful hold over Northern opinion. By the 1850s, the ceaseless abolitionist effort, through newspapers, books, pamphlets, and speeches, to influence Northern opinion was beginning to have a notable effect on Northerners who were not themselves abolitionists. More and more Northerners became convinced that slavery was an evil. Northerners also became more and more certain that Southern society was basically corrupt because it was based on slavery. More and more northerners felt that slavery should somehow be abolished by the 1850s even though the Federal government could take no action against slavery under the Constitution.

    3. Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas (1858): The two politicians met to debate during the race to represent Illinois in the US Senate. During the debate, Lincoln argued explicitly that he was not in favor of full civil rights for African Americans. Lincoln also did not advocate the “radical” agenda for “immediate emancipation.” Lincoln did, however, argue that, “A house divided could not stand- one half slave and one half free.” Lincoln stated, in other words that he understood slavery to be evil and that it ultimately had to be abolished. Lincoln was particularly crafty in his debates with Douglas. In one debate (in Freeport, Illinois) Lincoln asked Douglas, the architect and leading supporter of “popular sovereignty,” how popular sovereignty could survive after the 1857 Dred Scott decision (the Court had ruled that slavery had to be allowed in all territories and thus, Lincoln argued, popular sovereignty was an impossibility because voters were no longer allowed to vote to keep slavery out of the territory). Douglas, who eventually won the Senate election in 1858, responded with an answer that later became known as the Freeport Doctrine. Douglas’s response basically argued that popular sovereignty would still work because the institution of slavery could not flourish without local community rules, laws, and slave codes to enforce the system. Douglas’ Freeport Doctrine, in other words, was a bit of a lawyerly explanation for how the guidelines established in the Dred Scott decision (1857) could be bypassed: voters did not have to vote against slavery to keep the institution out of their territory, they could just decide to not pass the local laws necessary to manage slave populations. While acceptable to Illinois’ voters, Douglas’ explanation angered many Southern democrats because the Freeport Doctrine provided a plan northerners might follow to ignore the Scott cases’ ruling which allowed slavery to expand. Douglas’ Freeport Doctrine, consequently, contributed to the splitting the Democratic Party along sectional lines and helped Lincoln win the presidential race in 1860.

    4. The Great Slave Power Conspiracy” Abolitionist propaganda pictured the typical slave owner as a corrupt, immoral, lazy, cruel and arrogant person. Northerners gradually began to worry that all three branches of the federal government were infected with the “slave power conspiracy” disease. Abolitionists pointed to the congressional “gag rule” to support their cause. The gag rule (adopted by Congress in 1836) immediately “tabled” abolitionist petitions requesting Congress to consider abolishing slavery and slave auctions in the nation’s capital (Washington, DC). Abolitionists were angry about the gag rule because they felt it violated the Constitution’s 1st Amendment (freedom of the right to petition). Abolitionists also argued that the US Postal Service’s refusal to not mail abolitionist literature in Georgia and other areas of the Deep South represented an additional violation of the 1st Amendment (freedom of the press- Southern states began to prohibit abolitionist mailings after Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831). Another common complaint of North abolitionists was how slavery disrupted the family: White families were affected by the infidelity of slave owners who mated with slaves and slave families were disrupted when members of their family were cruelly transferred by slave auctions. Many Northerners were also alarmed about a possible “slave power conspiracy” during the presidency of James K. Polk. Polk had promised very clearly during his presidential campaign in 1844 to expand the nation’s borders (“manifest destiny”). Polk, however, later provoked war with Mexico (1846-48) to obtain southern and presumably slave territory after negotiating the splitting of Oregon (1846). More than a few Northerners began to worry about a President that would annex cotton-growing Texas, fight Mexico to obtain the American Southwest, but avoid war and divide the northern and presumably free territory of Oregon. The 1854 Ostend Manifesto (secret plot by the Pierce administration to capture Cuba- a sugar producing island with room for lots of slaves) also aggravated many northern views that the “slave power” was infecting and taking over the Executive Branch. The Bleeding Kansas episiode that resulted after fraudulent voting behavior of Missouri “Border Ruffians” (see page 38) also alarmed many Northerners because it looked as if slave interests were comfortable with violating the democratic election process. The 1857 Dred Scott ruling which opened up all federal territories to slavery provided additional fuel to northern abolitionist concerns that the “slave power” conspiracy was also infecting the Judicial Branch.

    5. The most important success of the abolitionists and other antislavery elements was the arousal of a determination on the part of Northerners to stop the spread of slavery into new territories and states. Specifically, the question of the admission of Texas and the Question of the Mexican War and the territory acquired in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo constituted the major issues of the expansion problem. Many northern Whigs, particularly, regarded both the admission of Texas and the Mexican War as pro-slavery moves; and both these moves were therefore opposed by growing numbers in the North.

    BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT ANTEBELLUM EXPANSIONISM



    1. Manifest Destiny: Magazine editor John L. O'Sullivan wrote in 1845, "Away with all these cobweb tissues of rights and discovery, exploration, settlement... The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence [God] has given us for the development of the great experiement of liberty." Below are a few reasons historians have cited to explain the national mood to expand West during the antebellum period:

    TRADE WITH CHINA- California and Oregon would provide harbors for American ships in the Pacific Ocean.

    FARMING- Texas would open a lot of land for cotton planters. Oregon and California also provided prime farm land (gold was not discovered in California until after the Mexican War). The antebellum period of expansion was primarily and agricultural movement. The late 19th Century period of expansion overseas was primarily the result of the need to find new markets for surplus industrial goods.



    IDEALISM- Americans were protestants.  Americans were capitalists.  Americans pioneered the use of representative democracy.  Antebellum Americans felt entitled to the land because they believed that American values were superior to all others.  Manifest Destiny is almost like an updated form of the Puritan mission of being "a city upon a hill" (remember John Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity). Imperialists in the late 1800 referred to this concept as the “white man’s burden” to “civilize, christianize, and uplift” the Filipinos, Chinese, and others.

    1. Manifest Destiny and the Slavery Question: The sentiment of manifest destiny was strong in both the North and the South. It is, consequently, a bit ironic when you consider how the desire to expand was inherently nationalistic while the debate of whether or not to allow slavery to expand was so inherently wrought with sectional tension.

    2. The Dark Side of Manifest Destiny:  Americans felt unique but they were hardly the only democratic, protestant nation in 1840.  The notion that Americans moving West would bring only good things and "progress" was very ethnocentric.  Native American land rights and values were cast aside with only limited concern.  The westward migration also produced significant ecological changes that were not always positive (small pox spread, buffalo herds were destroyed, forests were cut down, etc.).

    3. Oregon:  American land claims to the Oregon Territory date from the Lewis & Clark Expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase (1804-6).  Britain, Russia, and Spain also had earlier land claims.  Spain agreed to limit land claims to territory below Oregon along the 42nd parallel in the 1819 Adams-Onis or Transcontinental Treaty.  England and the United States agreed to joint occupation of the Oregon Territory in the Convention of 1818 (the Convention of 1818 also established the 49th parallel as the northern border of the Louisiana Purchase).  American demands to control all of Oregon north to the 54-40 parallel increased with the spirit of Manifest Destiny.  A "54-40 or Fight" plank was inserted in the Democratic Party's platform in 1844 (Polk’s election).  President Polk's inaugural speech in 1845 aggressively stated that the United States had full right to control all of Oregon.  Polk, however, was bluffing.  He knew full well that England would not give up Oregon without a fight.  Polk eventually negotiated a peaceful settlement to divide Oregon on the 49th parallel because he did not want to fight England while tensions were increasing with Mexico (one war at a time!). 

    4. Texas Revolution:  Texas was originally a province of northern Mexico.
      STEPHEN AUSTIN- Moses Austin was a Missouri businessman hoping to recover from the Panic of 1819.  His plan was to make money by leading a settlement of Americans in Texas.  Moses Austin negotiated with the Mexican government to allow the first Americans settle in Texas in 1821.  Mexico had just won its independence from Spain in 1821.  Mexico allowed Americans to move to Texas only if the settlers promised to follow the official Roman Catholic religion of Mexico and abide by Mexican laws.  Moses Austin died in 1821.  His son Stephen Austin actually led the first 300 American settlers into Texas in 1823.
      JQ ADAMS & ANDREW JACKSON- Both presidents offered to purchase Texas from Mexico.  Adams offered $1 million dollars.  Jackson offered $5 million.  Mexico, for obvious reasons (would America be willing to sell Texas today?), rejected both offers.
      ABOLITION- Mexico abolished slavery in 1829.  American settlers in Texas ignored the Mexican law.  Americans owned 3,000 slaves in Texas by 1835. Americans tended to disrespect Mexican authority in Texas because the Mexican central government was constantly changing (recall the first central government of the United States –the Articles of Confederation- also was unstable).
      ANGLOS & TEJANOS- Stephen Austin sold land for Texas land for 1/10th what was being charged in the United States.  7,000 Americans, many of them motivated by the boom in demand for cotton, were recruited by 1830.  American Texans outnumbered Mexican Tejanos by a margin of 2 to 1 by 1830.  The Mexican government officially closed the border to halt American immigration in 1830.  American settlers, however, continued to illegally migrate (the Anglo or American population doubled between 1830 and 1834).  American settlers deeply resented the Mexican government's attempt to enforce its authority over Texas.
      SANTA ANNA- Mexico experienced considerable difficulty establishing a stable government.  One leader after another came to power.  Stephen Austin attempted to negotiate a settlement to American and Mexican differences with Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexican leader who rose to power in 1833.  Austin's plan to allow American immigrants greater control over Texas policy, however, was unacceptable to the Mexican government.  In fact, Austin was jailed by Santa Anna for 18 months (1833-34) for treason against the Mexican government.  American settlers were outraged. The experience convinced Austin that an armed rebellion was the only solution.  Texas declared independence from Mexico March 2, 1836.
      THE ALAMO- Santa Anna was determined to force the American settlers to obey Mexican law in Texas (as Washington was determined to make western Pennsylvania farmers obey federal law during the Whiskey Rebellion and as Jackson and Lincoln were similarly motivated to make South Carolina respect federal authority).  He directed 6,000 Mexican troops to move into Texas in 1835.  Santa Anna's forces surrounded American rebels at the Alamo in San Antonio for 12 day (2/23-3/6/1836).  Santa Anna captured the Alamo but at a horrible cost.  Santa Anna lost over 1,500 troops.  All 187 Americans were killed (although 30 civilians survived).
      SAM HOUSTON- Houston and 900 Americans surprised Mexican forces and captured Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto River on April 21, 1836.  Mexico's leaders surrendered and Texas became an independent nation. Houston was elected the first President of the "Lone Star" Republic of Texas.

    5. Texas Annexation (1845)
      THE LONE STAR REPUBLIC- Texas immediately applied to Congress to enter the Union as a state.  Northern abolitionists, however, opposed adding another slave state.  Ironically, John Quincy Adams who had offered to purchase Texas for $1 million in the 1820s decided to oppose annexation as a congressman in 1838 (his views regarding slavery had evolved considerably).  Whig Secretary of State Daniel Webster also opposed annexation in 1842 (remember the Whigs were increasingly in favor of expanding government power- like the American System, and to correct social evils like slavery).  Some in Congress also understood that Mexico would be angered if the United States added Texas to the Union.  Texas remained and independent nation separate from the United States until 1845.
      ELECTION OF 1844- Tennessee Democrat, slave owner, James K. Polk defeated aging Kentucky Whig Henry Clay for President in 1844.  Polk's campaign message was clear: he favored westward expansion.    Congress moved to add Texas to the Union after the "Manifest Destiny" candidate (Polk) was elected.
      JOINT RESOLUTION- Texas and Hawaii are the only two territorial acquisition made by a "joint resolution" of Congress.  All other annexations were done by having a Presidential treaty by 2/3rd of the Senate.  The joint resolution requires approval of both congressional chambers but by only a simple majority (one more vote over 50%).  It is easier to get a joint resolution than a foreign treaty ratified.  The use of the joint resolution suggests that annexing Texas and Hawaii were indeed highly controversial topics.

    6. The Mexican War (1846-48)
      BORDER DISPUTE- After taking office in 1845, President James K. Polk insisted that the Texas border was the Rio Grande.  Mexican authorities insisted that the colonial border of Texas had always been 100 miles to the northeast along the Nueces River (be sure to review the map in your textbook).
      JOHN SLIDELL- President Polk sent ambassador Slidell to resolve the border dispute.  Polk's idea was to end the dispute by offering $25 million to purchase the California, New Mexico and the disputed territory.  The instability of the Mexican government hindered negotiations.  Dictator Santa Anna was forced to flee to Cuba after being removed from power by General Jose Herrera.  Herrera's future as a leader was on "shaky" ground during the Slidell negotiations (The United States actually supported Santa Anna's return to overthrow Herrera in 1846.  The support of Santa Anna proved, however, to be a misguided policy when Santa Anna later attacked US General Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista).  Mexico, for obvious reasons, flatly rejected Polk's offer (would America just sell 1/3 of its land area today?).
      "AMERICAN BLOOD HAS BEEN SHED ON AMERICAN SOIL"- After Slidell's "offer" was rejected, Polk ordered US troops to move south of the Nueces River toward the Rio Grande River.  The movement of US troops deep into disputed territory provoked Mexico to action.  Polk's order, from the Mexican perspective, was an invasion of Mexican land.  Mexican forces, viewing American troops as invaders, attacked on May 9, 1846.  President Polk spoke to Congress on May 11, 1846 saying that war "exists by the act of Mexico herself."   Polk's delivered his war message on May 13 asserting that , "Mexico has invaded our territory and shed American Blood upon the American soil."  Congress debated for only two hours before issuing a formal declaration of war.

    7. Antiwar Positions:  Not all Americans, however, supported Polk's war effort.  The Mexican War, like the War of 1812 intensified sectional tensions.
      ABOLITIONISTS-  Northerners in particular opposed a war which they viewed as a fight to expand slavery.  New England Whigs called the Mexican War "Mr. Polk's War" (recall that Federalist New Englanders also called the War of 1812 "Mr. Madison's War").
      CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE- Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau opposed the war for abolitionist reasons.  Thoreau was jailed for protesting the war and not paying poll taxes.  He wrote the famous essay The Duty of Civil Disobedience while in jail.  Thoreau's essay encouraged people to stand up for what they believe is morally right even if it is illegal- to be disobedient but endure legal consequences in a polite manner.  Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. were both influenced by Thoreau's essay.
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