Posts Tagged ‘Antebellum America’
In this world of hustle and bustle, having books read to me is a wonderful luxury. Today I found a terrific site, Freeaudio.org, that takes largely public domain works and provides them free to the public in audio form. This trumps my Kindle 2 text-to-speech feature in that real human readers are easier to listen to.
I picked up the American Library version of Frederick Douglass’ works back in January and love it, but with freeaudio.org, I can clean the garage and “listen” to a professional reading of Douglass’ work as performed by Marvin Pain, an excellent reader.
I will be adding the site to my “Primary Sources” links. Note that some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches are also available.
I plan on submitting a donation and asking that they begin putting up some of the biographies and autobiographies of our American Civil War military men as well as soldiers diaries.
Ah the thrill of the sound of book boxes being dropped on my front porch and then the doorbell ringing. Nothing like it!!
I had to put them on my bookcase where I won’t open them until after finals. Too much to do before the term ends. Torture.
Apologies for short post. Know you’ll understand. Two papers due by Sunday and need to read the last two chapters of Holt.
To expand the discussion, let me share my perspective on the question I raised, whether The Compromise of 1850 was an effective political action or a forecast of disaster.
Michael F. Holt makes an excellent case in his classic, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s , that the Compromise of 1850 was more a forecast of disaster than effective political action. His argument is founded on the premise that the Compromise was effectively a deathblow to the Second American Party System and the notion that the health of America’s political parties in the mid-19th century was crucial to containment of sectional strife. As long as “men had placed their loyalty to their own party and defeat of the opposing party within their own section ahead of sectional loyalty, neither the North nor the South could be united into a phalanx against the other.” (1)
This conclusion is, of course, more easily arrived at when looking back at the period through the lens of generations with the full knowledge that the country would be ripped apart within fifteen years in a tumultuous Civil War. The perspectives of the politicians who negotiated the Compromise of 1850 would have, at the time, been much different. Indeed, they might have seen it as artful politics. The agreements made in the Compromise appeared to solve, at least temporarily, the country’s major ills which – on the surface – revolved around slavery and the country’s expansion.
But the effect was the displacement of the country’s trust in “party” as voice and defender of political views. The void caused men to affiliate more with their section, North and South. The scene was set for the country’s festering issues to rise again to a boil, this time without the benefit of cross-sectional parties that had so successfully contained discord in the past.
Thus my conclusion is that the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster. It was effective for a time in that it allowed the country to continue forward with at least a fragile agreement on monumental issues. But its destruction of the Second American Party System led the country toward potential destruction.
And so…. what do you think? Comments welcome.
See images of the original document – The Compromise of 1850 here.
Studying Antebellum America, as I’m doing this term, provides a fascinating look at the development of the notion of “political parties.” Keeping track of all of the political groups in Antebellum America has become a challenge. I need a list or a matrix. That said, I’ve decided to build a new page called “The Political Groups.” The only content so far is as follows but I’ll be adding over time.
Federalists, Silver Grays, Whigs, Democrats, Free Soil Party, Unionists, Liberty Party, Know Nothings (American Party), American Republicans, Anti-Masonic
To all of my readers, your input on information, books, and links to good sites with information on 19th century political groups before, during, and after the American Civil War will all be enthusiastically received. The list above should not be in any way construed as complete. State as well as national parties are game.
By the way, there is an interesting book I’ve run across on the subject, The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois, by Gerald Leonard, University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 328 pgs. I’ve quoted Mr. Leonard in at least one of my posts this term: On Slavery, Sectionalism, and the First and Second Party Systems here.
To house this an other books on the topic, I’ve added a page titled Political Groups to my virtual bookshelves here. I’ve remapped some of the books on the Antebellum America shelf to this one as well since the topics overlap.
Leonard provides an outstanding list of books and articles on this topic in his bibliography. Some I own including both of Holt’s books: The Political Crisis of the 1850’s and The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, and thanks to reader elektratig, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, by Tyler G. Anbinder 9See earlier post on Anbinder’s book here). Others, I’d like to obtain. I may load the entire bibliography to my virtual bookshelves over time as reference and have started that effort here. It’s a long and fantastic list so will take some time.
About the Image: “A cynical view of party competition for the working man’s vote in the presidential campaign of 1852. In a polling place, four candidates struggle to force their own election ticket on a short, uncouth-looking character in a long coat. The latter holds a whip, suggesting that he is either a New York cabman or a farmer. The candidates are (left to right): Whig senator from Massachusetts Daniel Webster, Texas Democrat Sam Houston, Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and Whig general Winfield Scott. The cartoon must have been produced before the June 5 nomination of dark-horse Franklin Pierce as the Democratic candidate, as Pierce is not shown. Webster: “My honest friend, these men are interested parties, I have no further interest in this matter myself, than the inclination to ‘Serve my beloved Country,’ My Family cannot subsist on less than 25,000 $ a year.” His comment may refer to his own personal financial straits or to the nepotism involved in securing his son Fletcher’s lucrative appointment as surveyor of the Port of Boston in 1850. Scott (in uniform, grasping the man’s coat): “My good Friend, allow me to present you this Ticket, I am ‘Old Genl. Scott’ you know me, I licked the British & the Mexicans, if elected I shall probably lick all Europe.” Houston: “This is the ‘Ticket’ for you, my good friend, I am ‘Old Sam Houston’ if elected I shall not only ‘lick all of Europe,’ but all ‘Creation’ to boot.” Douglas (his arms around the man): “There, there, go away, go away, don’t worry the man, leave him to me, leave him to me.” Affixed to the wall at right are two posters or signs marked “DEMT.” and “WHIG.” In the left background stands Henry Clay leaning against a chair observing the scene, along with President Millard Fillmore who looks in through a window.”
Quoted from the Library of Congress.
The “First Party System,” according to Donald Grier Stephenson, pitted the Federalists (created by Alexander Hamilton and including John Adams, Fisher Ames, and John Marshall) against the Republicans or Antifederalists (created by Thomas Jefferson and including James Madison, Albert Gallatin, and Philip Freneau) and “took shape at the national level soon after government under the Constitution got under way in 1789.” (1) Gerald Leonard points out that the Constitution was, by design, against parties, and so these first party-like-organizations were not “mass-based” but existed “more as parties in the government than as parties in the electorate.” (2) They were, in effect, political cliques.
“In supporting or opposing policy proposals in Congress, members found themselves increasingly voting with the same group of colleagues on one side of an issue or the other. In turn, members sought reelection by defending their positions on legislation and so carried to the electorate the disputes that had divided Congress. Partisanship thus filtered down to the voters, leading them to associate one kind of policies with one group and different policies with another. The result was that congressional factions acquired local followings that duplicated congressional divisions.” (3)
Until the early 19th century, the first party system focused on the issues surrounding political and economic structure. Federalists favored centralization and a strong national government that was more closed and elitist-based. They pushed for an active economic policy. Republicans championed more dominant state governments, openness, and thus less elitism.
With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, Republicans replaced the Federalists as the dominant party. Jefferson expanded the powers of the president, reasserted a focus on states rights and agrarianism, and expanded the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. The Federalists gradually faded away as a credible political force and by 1820 could offer no candidate for the presidency. “Rivalry among Republican leaders for the presidency and the reemergence of major national policy issues marked the end of the first party system between 1810 and the mid-1820s.”(4) The years between I8I6 and I824 saw a regression of sorts toward anti-partyism and the period “lacked major national issues of the intensity that had earlier sparked partisan combat. The period thus came to be called the ʻEra of Good Feeling.’”(5)
But economic developments in the 1820s caused a resurgence of interest among the populace in politics as they sought to influence their own circumstances through control of government. Southern fears of anti-slavery sentiments surged as the debate around the fate of Missouri’s statehood galvanized many to take interest in the polls. Grass roots political energy began to emerge indicating a clear deathblow to The First Party System, which pushed policy from government down to the populace. This would no longer do.
Historian Michael Holt, who approaches the questions surrounding causation of the American Civil War from the angle of politics, posits that what makes a democratic republic like the United States work is a political structure that allows for discord on issues to be managed as a part of debate among varying points of view. (6) Constructive debate works best when there exist at least two political parties with elected officials who can, at the national, state, and local level, wrangle with the issues and make decisions that direct civic direction. Citizens can align with the party that best represents their perspective and interests. Choice between party platforms provides opportunity for change via regular elections.
A single party system does not facilitate competition between ideas. In fact, Holt suggests that the lack of a two party system can cause people to align around other identifiers such as the region in which they live. “Sectional antagonism was most marked, powerful, and dangerous precisely at those times when or in those places where two-party competition did not exist.” (7) By contrast, these “sharp section lines often disappeared” when two parties were present effectively diffusing sectional antagonism. “When it persisted, party loyalties neutralized it so far as shaping political behavior. As many politicians recognized, in short, inter-party competition was an alternative to naked sectional conflict.” (8)
Thus the ebb and flow in the severity of sectional conflict in America can be traced to the relative competitive strength or weakness of a two-party system. Holt suggests that two strong parties did not exist in the years between 1819 and 1821 when the decision of whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state was being considered. Sectional strife resulted. To prevent the sectional strife from fully permeating politics, “Martin Van Buren helped form the Jacksonian Democratic party in the 1820’s specifically to revive a two-party system as a substitute for sectionalism. (9) The intent was to counteract feelings of sectional prejudices by encouraging party alignment. In this way, issues surrounding slavery contributed to the reemergence of strong parties, and thus “The Second American Party System.” As the Second Party System emerged between 1824 and 1828, the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Jacksonian faction, which became the modern Democratic Party in the 1830s, and the Henry Clay faction, which was absorbed by Clay’s Whig Party. Unlike the era of “The First American Party System,” this period saw mass-based parties that could mobilize the electorate. Voters could thus feel empowered to effect change through suffrage. Sectionalism and thus many of the critical questions surrounding slavery were, once again, contained within the boundaries of political debate, at least for a time.
(1) Donald Grier Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 27, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=111837005.
(2) Gerald Leonard, The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
(3) Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections, 27.
(4) Ibid., 28.
(6) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983).
(7) Ibid., 6.
(8) Ibid., 6 – 7.
(9) Ibid., 7.
My study of Antebellum America this term has revealed a significant gap in my library. That has been filled with the arrival this week of Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies. I purchased The Library of America edition. I like the look and feel.
It includes three works:
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
- My Bondage and My Freedom
- Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
From historian Bruce Levine,
“Frederick Douglass’s magnificent autobiography, The Life and Time of Frederick Douglass is indispensable.”
I look forward to getting to know this important American.
Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, Revised (Hill and Wang: New York, 2005), 264.