Mr. Madison’s War

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SPOT RESOLUTIONS- Illinois Whig Abraham Lincoln attempted to get Congress to pass several "spot resolutions" in December of 1847.  The resolutions challenged President Polk's claim by demanding that the Democrat President (Polk) identify exactly where "American blood had been shed on American soil."  Whig congressmen correctly pointed out that while the United States had once claimed eastern Texas as part of the Mississippi River basin, the American government had never before attempted to claim land beyond the Nueces River. Historian Howard Zinn, of course, downplays the significance of the Spot Resolutions. Zinn emphasizes that while the Spot Resolutions were indeed symbolic, Lincoln and other Whigs continued to approve appropriation bills to fully fund the military effort. Zinn argues that true objectors to the war would have done more to get Congress to use its “power of the purse” to stop the war.
DANIEL WEBSTER- A Whig who opposed the war on constitutional grounds. Whigs had organized to oppose the excessive and arbitrary power of "King Andrew" Jackson in the 1830s.  Whigs interpreted Democrat President Polk's actions to provoke Mexico as an abuse of executive or presidential power.  Webster charged that Polk had started the war without permission from Congress.  Such an action, Webster argued was unconstitutional because only Congress was granted authority to officially declare war.  Webster, like many Whigs, feared that Executive power would grow to take power away from the Legislative Branch.  Northern Whigs had power in Congress but found it difficult to retain control of the White House.

  • Wilmot Proviso- Passed in the House of Representatives but died in the Senate where there were an equal number of free and slave state representatives. David Wilmot’s proviso would have amendmed appropriations bills funding the war against Mexico by declaring that all land gained from the war would be closed to slavery. The Compromise of 1850 ultimately resolved the issue of slavery in the Mexican Cession.

  • The "Hero of Buena Vista": Zachary Taylor became an instant American war hero after the American victory at Monterry in 1846 and Buena Vista in 1847.  Taylor's 5,000 US troops defeated Santa Anna's 15,000.

  • The "Halls of Montezuma"  US Colonels Robert E. Lee and Uylsses S. Grant helped 62 year old, War of 1812 veteran, Winfield Scott capture the Mexican port city of Vera Cruz in March of 1847.  Scott's troops won battle after battle until capturing Mexico City in September 1847.  American artillery proved decisive in both Taylor and Scott's military campaigns.

  • Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848)  American Generals Winfield "Fuss & Feathers" Scott and Zachary Taylor directed American forces to conquer Mexico in just over one year.  Members of Congress, however, refused to annex all of Mexico.  Many in Congress feared adding southern lands where slavery could be expanded.  More worried about the difficulty of assimilating Roman Catholic Mexicans into Protestant American culture.  Labor interests also worried about the impact of adding the Mexican population to compete with the existing American working class.  The treaty accomplished
    RIO GRANDE RIVER- the Texas border was extended to the Rio Grande
    MEXICAN CESSION- Mexico ceded (gave up) California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of Colorado and Wyoming for $15 million.
    CITIZENSHIP- 80,000 Mexicans (more than the number of Americans then living in Texas)  lived in the Mexican Cession.  Mexicans living in the area annexed by the United States were, in theory, supposed to have their rights protected.


    1. The Election of 1848

      1. Party Policy on the Slavery Controversy: Leaders of the Whigs and Democratic parties were terrified by the possibility that the slavery-expansion controversy would completely divide their party coalitions. The continuing debate over the Wilmot Proviso had already produced hard feelings and intra-party strife. Both Democratic and Whig candidates, consequently, avoided the slavery issue directly during the 1848 campaign

      2. Democratic Nominee: Democrats praised the one term leadership (Polk chose to not run again) of Polk. They selected Lewis Cass, an anti-Wilmot politician from Michigan. Cass supported the solution to the “question of whether or not to allow slavery to expand into the territories” that was first proposed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas: Popular Sovereignty (let the territorial voters- not Congress- decide the status of slavery in the territories).

      3. Whig Nominee: The Whigs elected a military hero (William Henry Harrison- Tippecanoe) in 1840 and felt that a similar approach would work again in 1848. Zachary Taylor, the “hero of Bueno Vista” was consequently selected (Winfield Scott would be nominated by the Whigs in 1852). Taylor was a good choice by the Whigs because he attracted Northern votes for his political affiliation and Southern votes because he was a slave owner from Louisiana. Taylor and the Whigs remained completely silent about the slavery controversy.

      4. The Free Soil Party: Abolitionists lost hope in this election of getting any real political support from the major parties for the anti-slavery crusade. They, consequently, decided to form their own multi-state political party to abolish slavery. Anti-slavery, anti-Whigs in New York were organized by Martin Van Buren. Wilmot Democrats from Pennsylvania were also enlisted. A number of “conscience Whigs” from other northern states also joined the Free Soil party. Leftover Liberty Party members also joined. Locofoco “workingmen” Party members also supported the Free Soil Party’s support for a western Homestead Act which would give small farms to persons who wished to settle on federal lands on the Great Plains. The “homestead” variety, Free Soil party member observed that many southern slave owners wanted to restrict the sale of western farm land so that it would be distributed mostly in large tracts suitable to slave-oriented plantation harvesting methods. Thus the Homestead Act and Wilmot Proviso became the primary planks of the Free Soil Political Platform of 1848. Martin Van Buren was nominated for President by the Free Soilers while Charles Francis Adams (son of JQ Adams) was nominated for Vice President.

      5. Outcome of the Election of 1848: The major Whig and Democratic parties did a fairly good job of avoiding the slavery issue. Whig Zachary Taylor was elected. The Free Soil Party, however, did surprisingly well. The Liberty Party won a measly 60,000 votes in 1844 while the Free Soil Party won 300,000 votes in 1848. It would clearly be more difficult for the major parties to continue to ignore the slavery issue if “Free Soilism” continued to expand so rapidly.

    1. Development of the Sectional Controversy (1848-1850)

      1. Zachary Taylor was a strong and honest man, but he was devoid of political experience and unfamiliar with the issues of the time. He had pledged that he would follow an independent course, ignoring purely sectional considerations, and he made a conscientious effort to do so. Cabinet positions were divided between Northern and Southern Whighs, and sectionalism was minimized in other Presidential appointments and recommendations. But the fact that the territories acquired from Mexico were still without political organization meant that the slavery-expansion issue could not be overlooked indefinitely.

      2. Possible Solutions To The Slavery-Expansion Issue:

          • Extension of the Missouri Compromise 36-30 Line. The original line stopped on the western border of the Louisiana Territory. Extending the line through the Mexican Cession to the Pacific Ocean was considered a fairly moderate proposal

          • Popular Sovereignty. The program of Stephen Douglas and Lewis Cass. Significant support for this proposal existed in both the North and South. This solution was described by its supporters as the “most democratic” because it let the territorial residents and not far away leaders in Congress make the final call.

          • Adoption of the Wilmot Proviso. This was the extreme anti-slavery proposal. Supporters of this policy cited the antislavery provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to support the notion that Congress did indeed hold the power to halt the expansion of slavery into federal territories (the NW Ordinance banned slavery in the region north of the Ohio River valley). Wilmot Proviso supporters also pointed out that Mexico had already adopted abolition and that there was no moral justification for re-introducing slavery into the region.

          • The Protection of Slavery In All Federal Territories. This was the extreme pro-slavery point of view. John C. Calhoun was a chief supporter of the argument that personal property was protected by the 5th Amendment to the Constitution. Calhoun and his affiliates argued that neither Congress nor territorial legislatures could prohibit slavery because slaves were chattel (property) and denying the right to own or bring slaves into territories violated the 5th Amendment’s promise that the federal government would not deny citizens the right to “life, liberty, or property” without due process of law. Only when a territory applied for admission as a state might the people prohibit slavery, in their state constitution, if they so desired. Calhoun argue that the federal territories were the common property of the people of all states, and that a ban on slavery would discriminate against slaveholders who desired to settle in them.

      1. Congress debated through 1848 and 1849 about how to organize the newly acquire Mexican Cession. The delay was tolerable for a time. The California Gold Rush of 1849, however, resulted in a massive population increase and forced Congress to react.

      2. President Taylor thought he had the formula for compromise: To the people of California and New Mexico he suggested that constitutional conventions be held and that Congress be petitioned, not for territorial government, but for admission as states. Since it was admitted by Northerners and Southerners that states had the right to determine the status of slavery within their own borders, the whole issue embodied in the Wilmot Proviso would be sidestepped.

      3. California acted in accordance to Taylor’s suggestion, in the Autumn of 1849, and when Congress convened in December, representatives of the would-be states were knocking at the door with state level constitutions that embodied the antislavery views of the majority of Californians and New Mexico settlers. Taylor recommended the admission of both California and New Mexico in his first annual message to Congress in December, 1849.

      4. Taylor soon realized, however, that instead of solving the problem, he had merely set the stage for one of the bitterest sectional debates in the history of the United States – a contest which almost brought the civil war 10 years before the election of Lincoln in 1860. The South refused to accept Taylor’s proposal because the admission of two free states would have upset the sectional balance of free and slave states in the US Senate.

      5. The entire nation was upset by the agitation of section viewpoints. The Mississippi state legislature initially threatened secession if slavery was not protected in the territories. Northern abolitionists held larger and larger meetings and deluged Congress with mass mailings of resolutions and petitions opposing concessions to the “slave power.”

      6. Fortunately, this was not the first sectional crisis; passions had reached a fever pitch in the 1819-1820 debates over Missouri, and during the Nullification controversy in 1832-1833. Henry Clay, architect of the first two major sectional compromises was also still around to craft his final and most hard fought compromise. The majority of American people also remained relative detached from the heated debate positions of the pro and anti-slavery forces. This group of “middle Americans” hoped and expected that a compromise solution would be developed.

      7. Clay’s Proposal: Clay was a sick man who died during the debate. President Taylor also died during the crisis. John C. Calhoun also died shortly afterwards. His proposal was eventually adopted. The Compromise included the following points:

          • California be admitted as a free state

          • Popular Soveriegnty would be applied to the remainder of the Mexican Cession- New Mexico and Utah territories

          • A new strict Fugitive Slave Act would be passed to shut down the Underground Railroad and assure the return of runaway slaves

          • Slavery would be retained but slave auctions would be abolished in Washington, DC

      1. Counterfactual Reflection: What if Clay had not successfully crafted the Compromise of 1850? Here’s a possible scenario:

          • The South may have seceded if the North allowed California to enter as a free state without any concessions (like the fugitive slave act and opening part of the Mexican Cession to slavery by way of Popular Sovereignty)

          • The South put up a considerable fight against the North during the actual 1861-1865 Civil War. The South’s chances for victory and achieving actual secession were actually probably even stronger in 1850. The North was not as unified ideologically or politically against secession and slavery in 1850 as it would be in 1861. Furthermore, the North’s population and industrial advantages over the South were not as large in 1850 as in 1860.

          • The South would have had a better chance of winning the war even if the outcome was not certain.


    1. The election of 1852 is often regarded as a referendum on the Compromise of 1850. Among the circumstances favoring an endorsement of the Compromise of 1850 were:

      1. A new era of proseperity was dawning, ending the long depression which had followed the Panic of 1837. There was a general desire to avoid political disturbances which might disturb the economic trend toward the business cycle’s expansion.

      2. Party leaders were still bent on holding together the Northern and Southern wings of their parties. They met in informal caucuses and agreed to support the Compromise of 1850 and even endorse candidates who did not share their own sectional views.

    2. The Election of 1852

      1. Moderate opinions prevailed at the 1852 Democratic nominating convention. Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas were both probable candidates but fought each other to a stand off after 48 convention votes. “Dark Horse” candidate Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire (the “young hickory of the granite hills”) was, consequently, nominated for President.

      2. Whig moderates were less successful in finding compromise. William Seward and other abolitionist members pushed the party to nominate Mexican war hero Winfield Scott. Scott was a Virginian but outwardly pro-slavery enough to win the support of Southern Whigs.

      3. The Free Soil party nominated John P. Hale on a platform which obviously had no good word to say about the Compromise of 1850.

      4. Franklin Pierce and the Democrats won a decisive victory. Southern Whigs deserted the party by the thousands and the party never recovered from the setback. The Whigs, consequently, disappeared as a national organization by 1856.

      5. The Free-Soilers also earned only 150,000 votes (half that earned in 1848). The voting American public clearly favored compromise over sectionalism in the election.

    3. Economic & Social Developments

      1. In his inaugural address and in his first annual message, President Pierce took occasion to comment upon the growing prosperity of the nation, and on the fact that all sections seemed to be enjoying that prosperity. The industrial revolution was kicking into high gear and the agricultural markets of the South and West were booming.

      2. Pierce also pointed to the phenomenal territorial growth of the nation. The western boundary had been extended to the Pacific Ocean, encompassing a domain of incredible soil, mineral, and timber resources.

    4. Railroad Construction

      1. Railroads were being constructed at a rapid rate. The railways first tied the Mid-western farms to the Eastern urban centers mostly. Some historians point to the development of the Midwest-East railroads and observe that this trend reduced the dependence of Midwestern farmers on the Mississippi River. This in turn, it is argued, resulted in the loosening of ties between the agricultural West and the agricultural South and eventually produced significant political consequences.

      2. By 1860 the transportation network was substantially complete in the North; the South lagged behind, still depending on navigable rivers and investing capital in slaves. This disparity in railroads eventually proved decisive during the Civil War (1861-1865)

    5. “King Cotton”

      1. Cotton remained the basis of Southern wealth. The size of the cotton crop grew rapidly throughout the antebellum period and doubled again between 1850 and 1860. The price of cotton remained fairly stable despite the increase in American production because foreign markets expanded.

      2. Southerners developed great confidence in the economic and political power of cotton. Many shared the sentiments of Senator James H. Hammond of South Carolina, who, in 1858, defied the abolitionists by saying, “You dare not make war on cotton- - no power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king.”

    6. Immigration

      1. A tide of newcomers began to flood into American during the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s. Economic distress in Germany and the potato famine in Ireland stimulated the mass migration, and American railroad and steamship companies did their best to advertise and encouraged it.

      2. The Irish tended to settle in the Eastern cities or to seek employment on railroad and canal construction projects, while the Germans tended to settles in the upper Mississippi valley.

      3. The Know-Nothing nativist movement eventually developed in response to the wave of immigration.

          • American workingmen were attracted to the movement because they feared that immigrants would flood the labor market and drive down industrial wages.

          • Protestants were also attracted to the Know-Nothing Party because they were hostile to the Catholic Irish immigrants

          • The Whigs were also in great decline after 1852 and the American Party (also called Know Nothings) filled the void for voters who no longer called themselves Whigs but also did not want to join the Democratic Party

    1. Writers: The 1850s are often regarded as the most remarkable decade in American literature before the 1920s. Important figures to remember include:

          • Pessimist Nathaniel Hawthorne published the Scarlet Letter in 1850

          • Herman Melville’s dark tale Moby Dick was publish in 1851

          • Transcendentalist HD Thoreau published Walden in 1854

          • Optimist Walt Whitman poetically celebrated American culture in his Leaves of Grass in 1855


    1. By 1854, it had become parent that the Compromise of 1850 had been only a superficial one. Leaders of both the Whig and Democratic parties tried to accept it as “final settlement” while rank and file members began to split along sectional lines.

    2. Grievances of the South:

      1. The South was still a minority section, and as its leaders viewed the actions of Congress with increased suspicion and fear. Southerners continued to reject Northern pressure for a protective tariff and federal funding of internal improvements. Southerners also continued to reject plans for the Homestead Act (because it opened small and mid-size farm plots more favorable to Northern agriculture than Southern plantation practices). Southerners became even more concerned as northern demands for higher tariffs increased after the economic Panic of 1857.

      2. The tariff and funding of internal improvements became important economic issues during the election of 1860.

      3. Southerners were also unhappy with immigration trends. Immigrants tended to settle in the North to avoid the difficult task of competing in a slave-oriented labor market. The North’s population, consequently, grew much more rapidly than the South’s. Southerners understood that the rapid expansion of the Northern population increased the likelihood of free territories seeking admission to the Union while the chances of adding slaves states seemed increasingly less obtainable.

      4. The “40 Bale Theory.” This theory was based on the South’s growing understanding that the region was essentially an economic colony of the North. According to the theory, the profits of 40 out of every 100 bales of Southern cotton were collected by Northerners in the form of banking interest, service charges for marketing and transporting cotton to northern and foreign manufacturers, and unnecessarily high prices for manufactured goods.

    1. Antislavery Agitation

      1. The growth of the antislavery movement in the North helped to keep sectionalism alive. The Free-Soilers and the abolitionists flatly condemned the Compromise of 1850 because it allowed for the possible expansion of slavery into part of the Mexican Cession. Abolitionists were also unwilling to comply with the strict Fugitive Slave Act that was passed in an effort to shut down the underground railroad (abolitionists viewed slavery as a serious moral evil and greatly resented the federal law passed to make them support the institution of slavery- a person who is opposed to abortion would similarly be outraged by a federal law forcing them to have an abortion). Still, probably only 100,000 of the 12 million northerners were actual contributing members of all of the abolitionist societies throughout the North. The average citizen, however, was probably influenced by their propaganda campaign. You might, for example, still be concerned about the environment even if you’re not an official paying member of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. Abolitionists also were dissatisfied that slavery was still legal in the nation’s capital (slave auctions were, however, abolished).

      2. Non abolitionists also began to become more supportive of stopping the expansion of slavery into the territories. Northern farmers who may have accepted slavery philosophically or morally as an acceptable institution found basic economic reasons to restrict the institution: slave owners had an unfair advantage over non-slaver owners because slave owners had free labor to work large plantations while Northern farms were restricted to family operations or operations that paid hired hands.

      3. The first part of the Compromise of 1850 to break down was, as hinted earlier, the Fugitive Slave Act. Abolitionists opposed the act for previously described (letter a above) reasons. A majority of Northerners, however, also opposed the act because they regarded it as an unfair denial to alleged fugitives of a jury trial or the right to testify in their own behalf, and they denounced as “proslavery bribery” the system of compensation established by the act, according to which a judge received a $5 fee if he held that a Negro was free, and $10 if he ruled that the accused was a runaway slave. In the end, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was poorly enforced because Northerners refused to comply with federal law. Many slaves continued to escape and few were recaptured when they reached the North. Southerners were outraged that the North refused “to live up to its end of the bargain” of the Compromise of 1850.

      4. More specifically, the Northern answer to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was the Personal Liberty Laws, which were enacted by most of the free states in the 1850s. By denying the use of state and local jails for apprehended runaways, and by forbidding state officials to assist in the capture of fugitives, these laws virtually nullified federal law. The Supreme Court actually ruled the Wisconsin Personal Liberty law to be unconstitutional; but the legislature of that state responded by denying the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and declaring the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional and therefore null and void. Southerners were, of course, more and convinced that Northerners were irrational, trustworthy and fanatically dedicated to radical abolitionism.

      5. New Political Leadership: The nationalists who came of age during the War of 1812 (Clay, Calhoun, Webster, etc.) were dieing out (Clay & Webster died in 1852) and loosing power in the 1850s. A new generation of leaders raised in the climate of growing sectionalism began to replace the nationalists of 1812 vintage. On the rise were Northern politicians like Samuel Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, and Abraham Lincoln. Emerging pro-slavery Southern politicians were Howell Cobb of Georgia and William Yancey of Alabama.

      6. Stephen Douglass was a moderate politician for the most part. He tried to keep the Democrats from splitting but never recovered after the Freeport Doctrine debate of 1858 (review earlier description on page 29). Senator John J. Crittenden was also a moderate politician who attempted to craft a last ditch to save the Union after the election of Lincoln in 1860.

      7. Slavery in the territories: The one issue that did the most to break the Union and precipitate the Civil War was that of the status of slavery in the territories- and issue that the Compromise of 1850 ultimately failed to settle.

      8. The Kansas Nebraska Act (1854) This law is regarded as the issue that revived the slavery-expansion controversy. It was introduced into Congress by Stephen Douglas, in January 1854 to organize the two new territories of Kansas and Nebraska (northern areas of the Louisiana purchase territory). One reason for providing political organization to these areas was to facilitate the construction of a transcontinental railroad to link San Francisco and Chicago. The bill proposed to open both territories to the principle of “popular sovereignty.” This is turn meant that the repeal of the 36-30 line established by the Missouri Compromise in 1820.

      9. Northerners were outraged by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Republican Party was organized in direct reaction to the passing of the law in 1854 (review page 28). This was an ominous event because the party was purely sectional- located only in the North.

      10. Bleeding Kansas: President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law on May 30, 1854. Immediately afterward, a frantic contest for control of Kansas began. Both free-state settlers and slave-state settlers organized and encouraged settlers moving into Kansas. Proslavery elements elected and controlled the first territorial legislature through fraud and intimidation (recall the “Border Ruffians” from Missouri- they crossed into Kansas to illegally vote during the territory’s referendum determining the status of slavery in the territory). Popular Sovereignty, consequently, became a farce as free-state settlers equipped with “Beecher’s Bibles” (rifles), used bullets and ballots against armed Missouri “border ruffians” and other emigrants from the pro-slave state South. For the people of Kansas, the Civil War began in 1855.

      11. Election of 1856: Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, a Democrat, defeated the Republican candidate, James Freemont, and Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore. The Democrats were successful because they had not yet split along sectional lines while the Whigs had disintegrated.

      12. The Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision on March 7, 1857- just days after Buchanan was sworn into office. The decision marked the second use of judicial review and repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The decision was condemned by antislavery Northerners and viewed as evidence that the “slave power conspiracy” had captured the Supreme Court.

      13. The Lecompton Constitution: Buchanan made little effort to conceal his pro-Southern sympathies (112 of his 152 electoral votes were drawn from the South). His cabinet was dominated by Southerners and he failed to use any of his office’s authority to resolve the Bleeding Kansas problem (Kansas was still a territory so the federal government retained complete jurisdiction over the area and could have intervened forcibly). Antislavery settlers, representing 90% of the territorial residents, boycotted the territorial elections to elect delegates to develop the territory’s state constitution. Nearly all of the delegates who were elected were, consequently, from the pro-slavery camp. The delegates met and drew up the first constitution in Lecompton, Kansas (thus the name Lecompton Constitution). The Constitution was then sent to Congress for approval. Abolitionists urged Congress to reject the Constitution because it only represented the views of 10% of Kansas’ voting population. Buchanan, desiring a quick political solution to the crisis disregarded the concerns of abolitionists and urged Congress to approve the Lecompton Constitution and admit Kansas as a state. Democratic Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, long-time supporter of popular sovereignty, was outraged because the elections in Kansas were so fraudulent. Douglas reacted harshly against Democratic President Buchanan’s support for the Lecompton Constitution. The consequence of the rift between Douglas and Buchanan was enormous: their dispute resulted in the splitting of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party was, consequently, in a weakened position after the debate over the Lecompton Constitution and eventually lost the presidential contest to sectional candidate and Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

      14. The Civil War was an irrepressible conflict because it was the product of deep-seated economic and social, as well as political differences between the sections.

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