Slavery or Sheep? The Antebellum Realignment in Vermont 1840-1860

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The 1848 Election and After
In 1848, the two principal parties nominated candidates opposed to New England interests. The incumbent Democrats had passed the Walker Tariff in 1846, reducing rates drastically. The new Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass of Michigan, was not only a foe of tariffs, but also an avowed opponent of the Wilmot Proviso, the never-passed bill to ban slavery from the territories acquired in the Mexican War. The Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, was a substantial slave owner. Under Democratic president James Polk, the economy was slipping badly, and sheep prices were as low as they had been after the expiration of the Tariff of 1833. Sheep in Vermont dropped from almost 1.7 million in 1840 to about 1 million in 1850, as farmers sold their flocks. “It appeared more obvious to Vermonters than it has to subsequent generations of economists that the Democratic tariff policy had destroyed the state’s wool industry and denied farmers their well-deserved prosperity” (Hand 2002, 4). The slave-owning Whig candidate was precisely the sort of man who had blocked tariffs in the past. Thus there was every reason to look for an alternative to the two main parties. New Yorker and former Democratic president Martin Van Buren, running as the candidate of the Free Soil Party, provided just that.
At the level of party leaders, Free Soil was an amalgam of former Liberty Party members plus disaffected Whigs and Democrats. (In New York, it was more closely related to factional disputes between “Hunkers” and “Barnburners.”) In addition to opposing slavery, the party platform endorsed internal improvements and a “moderate” tariff to support them.
In spite of being a new party, Free Soil ran well in Vermont. Votes for the party were remarkably little related to former party shares.18 (See Figure 4.) They were also unrelated to sheep densities, just as Liberty Party votes had been. However, votes for the two abolitionist parties were closely related to each other in Vermont, more so than one might expect from their very different origins and the struggles of Liberty activists to see Van Buren as one of their own (Sewell 1976, chap. 7). (See Figure 5.)

Figure 4.

If the Free Soil vote is not related to sheep and tariffs, how is a voting pattern of this kind to be interpreted? The simplest interpretation is sectionalism. By 1848, the earlier disputes over economics had become intensified by the Mexican War and the acquisition of new territory. Whether those territories were slave or free would help determine the economic prospects of the many Vermont emigrants in this period. It would also tilt the balance of power in Washington (Nichols 1961). Shrill criticism of all kinds, including fantasies of sexual immorality, became more common North and South, and sectional nationalism increased. Emerging from the tariff debates of the 1830s, the perceived threats spread to include Northern and Southern livelihoods (Owsley 1941; Simms 1942, chap. 7; Davis 1969; Grant 2000, 42, 46). Southern slaveholders needed slavery for their personal incomes, white non-slaveholders enjoyed racial dominance, and all white Southerners feared slave revolts (Wish 1939; Channing 1974, chap. 1). Northerners unaffected by tariffs saw in slavery a threat to “free labor” and the white working man (Foner 1970). Newspapers on each side fanned the flames (Grant 2000, chap. 3; Ratner and Teeter 2003). On these issues, a great many people in Vermont and in the North were on the same side. The result in Vermont was a quasi-uniform swing away from the two main parties and toward a purely sectional party that represented their interests.

Figure 5.

Thus by 1848, there were two almost orthogonal forces at work in Vermont politics, each tending to the same outcome. The first was the tariff, the second was sectionalism. Both represented economic threats rather than anti-slavery impulses, as election participation shows. For in 1840 and 1844, when the central issues were economic, Vermont’s turnout was 73% and 67%.19 In 1848, 1852, and 1856, when the slavery issue was central, turnout fell to 63%, 56%, and 64%, respectively. And in the critical election of 1860, with slavery debate at a fever pitch, just 56% of Vermont voters got to the polls, a full 17 percentage points fewer than in 1840 (Gienapp 1982, 18-19). Slavery and sectionalism simply did not engage the Vermont citizenry the way the tariff had.
In 1852, national politics calmed somewhat in the wake of the Compromise of 1850. In Vermont, the Free Soil vote fell off. The Democrats remained damaged by repeated association with tariffs and hard times. Hence the Whigs carried Vermont by a large margin. Nationwide, the Democrats won the presidency with sectional divisions relatively weak.
The calm was soon shattered. Wool prices took another plunge in 1854, focusing Vermont’s attention on the tariff and on sectional threats. Disputes over slavery weakened the Whigs’ cohesion as a national party, as did the Know-Nothing surge in many states. “Bleeding Kansas” and the Kansas-Nebraska Act re-opened sectional wounds. The idea of a “North” began to gain strength in 1854 as Northern politicians effectively invoked Northern nationalism and read the South out of the civilized world (Grant 2000, chap 6).
In July of 1854, Vermont became one of the first states to create a Republican party on a platform of anti-slavery, temperance, strong tariffs, and internal improvements (Burlington Free Press 1854). They swept to victory in the gubernatorial race in the fall as the Whigs and Know-Nothings collapsed and were absorbed into the party. By the 1856 presidential election, the realignment had happened in Vermont. In spite of the horrors of the Panic of 1857, which mattered mightily elsewhere (Huston 1987; Egnal 2009, 238-246), there was no subsequent increase in Vermont GOP percentages in the presidential races of 1860, 1864, 1868, or 1872.20

Figure 6.

In most Vermont counties, the Republican vote in 1860 was closely approximated by the sum of the 1852 votes for the Whigs (51%) and Free Soil vote (20%). (See Figure 6.) Only in formerly more Democratic counties did the Republicans gain. Thus the Republicans simply incorporated the two electoral forces that dominate this period of Vermont politics, the tariff constituency and the sectional-antagonism constituency. Both continued to matter.21 Both were economic concerns at base, but not in a reductionist way. Accurately or not, perceptions of slavery and its future sharpened the economic threats to each side in a way nothing else could have. Exacerbated by the Mexican War and given cultural resonance by the spiral of mutual antagonism, New England moralism, and Southern haughtiness and fear, sectional feelings grew at the expense of loyalty to the Union. When a president was elected on a purely sectional platform and with a purely sectional vote in the winter of 1860-61, secession and war followed.

In what sense was the sheep mania responsible for Vermont’s long love affair with the Republican party? In one sense, the answer is: “Not at all.” In the absence of slavery, sectional tensions would never have reached the level they did, and there would never have been a Republican party.
Yet sheep and tariffs played a central role. Most Northerners cared little about slavery or the slaves. Yes, they regretted the institution, but they were busy with other things. It was instead the bitter tariff battles that set off the spiral of hostility and continued to give it meaning. Calhoun saw the danger early. He stated in his 1831 Fort Hill Address: “The Tariff has placed the sections…in deep and dangerous conflict” (Cheek 2003, 329). Thirty years later, at the Republican convention in 1860, the loudest cheers for a platform plank came when the tariff commitment was read (Potter 1976, 423). As Horace Greeley phrased it, an “Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected; but a Tariff, River and Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free Homestead man, may succeed although he is Anti-Slavery” (Huston 1987, 237). Tariffs, homesteads, and internal improvements mattered.
Slavery entered because in such conflicts, stereotypes of the enemy flourish, and violence may result if the stakes seem high enough (Allport 1954; Newcomb et al. 1965, 451; Kinder and Kam 2009) Beginning in the 1830s, slavery or its absence increasingly become the marker for friend and foe. The opposing economic interests were not just mistaken; they were immoral. Rhetoric on both sides escalated over the next decades, and the new territories broadened the conflict to “all of us” against “all of them” (Owsley 1941; Craven 1953).22
Lines hardened, leading by the late 1850s to violence in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. It is hard to believe that most Northerners would have cared seriously whether distant Kansas was slave or free had not Southern economic interests threatened them directly over the tariff in the beginning. The same Slave Power opponents then confronted the North in the sectional controversies over who was to control the federal government and have better opportunities in the territories. Thus tariff disputes and territorial acquisition made slavery relevant politically, and once slavery attitudes and economic interests were combined in both North and South, sectionalism followed.
Republicans simply took advantage of the electoral opportunity. The “free labor” ideology of the Republicans appealed to Northern racism while it gave moral justification to the antagonism of Northern business interests toward the South. Slavery became a genuine political issue in the minds of Northerners, and it had a genuine independent impact. But its origins owed more to Northerners’ economic interests than to their moral codes.23 Tariffs and internal improvements did not create abolitionism, but they gave it the force at the polls that it had long been unable to create on its own.
Thus the cause of the Republican surge was neither economics alone nor slavery alone. Neither would have had dramatic impact by itself. Without slavery, the tariff battles and disputes over internal improvements were serious economic disputes, but not moral issues or life-threatening challenges. Tariffs do not cause civil wars. That has led some to dismiss economic bases for the war. At the same time, slavery in the absence of the tariff battle was a distant moral problem largely irrelevant to most Northerners’ daily life. That has led others to dismiss the North’s moral self-justifications as hypocrisy disguising their economic interests. Neither of these one-sided arguments does full justice to the dynamic of antebellum politics. It was the joint presence of tariffs and slavery that led to stereotyping, spiraling hostility and fear, Republican victory, and civil war.
The last word may be left to that thoughtful and appealing Southern diarist, Mary Chestnut of South Carolina. Anti-slavery but loyal to the South, she wrote in the early days of the war (June 28, 1861):
I think incompatibility of temper began when it was made plain to us that we get all the opprobrium of slavery and they all the money there was in it—with their tariff. (Woodward 1981, 84).

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