6. Expansion and Slavery: Legacies of the Mexican War and the Compromise of 1850


Professor David Blight:
If you haven’t noticed, at the back of my edition of
Douglass’s narrative, which is the one I’m hoping you
are using–. Come on down, in, quickly.
Anyway, if you haven’t noticed, at the back of this edition of
Douglass’s narrative there are not only a variety of ancillary
documents, Douglass’s greatest speech is
also included. A word on that.
It’s Douglass’s 4^(th) of July Speech.
If you’ve never read it, you should read it.
It is the rhetorical masterpiece of American
abolitionism, one of the greatest works of
oratory in American history. It was Frederick Douglass as
Beethoven on steroids, but with language. It’s like a symphony in three
movements; I say that in a little
head-note introduction to it. He gave that speech in 1852.
I may refer to it at the end of this lecture,
depending on the time. It is all about the crisis that
has gripped the country in the wake of the Compromise of 1850,
in the midst of this expansion of slavery into the West,
and the way it has begun to tear apart America’s political
culture. And on the 4^(th) of July,
amidst his friends in Rochester, New York,
he’s invited to give the 4^(th) of July oration.
He says “thank you very much.” The invitation was from the
Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York,
many of whom were his friends. He gave the address in the
house of his friends, Corinthian Hall in Rochester,
600 people in the audience; double, more than double your
numbers. Read that speech because it’s
as if Douglass, after that first opening,
gentle introduction where he sets his audience at ease about
the greatness of the Founding Fathers,
the genius of the Declaration of Independence–he calls it the
ring-bolt of American independence,
the ring-bolt of American identity.
He just makes them feel good about the founders. And then it’s as if he has a
staff bolting the doors around the hall, and then he’s got a
staff riveting people into their seats,
puts metaphorical seatbelts on them and says,
“you won’t move until I rain Hell down on you for the next
twenty minutes.” Which is what he did. And he says,
in effect–he says more than in effect, he says it
directly–“why have you invited me to speak to you on your
Fourth of July?” And he just rains the pronouns
on them: you, you, you, you,
your, your, your, your.
“The Fourth of July is yours and not mine;
you may rejoice, I must mourn,” and on and on he
goes. And then there’s the moment,
one of the most brilliant rhetorical moments in American
letters, in my view, certainly in
abolitionist writing, where he doesn’t even announce
his text to his well rooted Biblical audience, and he says,
after raining down on them this long passage about–“the Fourth
of July is yours, you may rejoice,
I must mourn, to drag a man in fetters into
the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to
join you in joyous anthems, is inhuman mockery,” he says.
And then he just floats, without announcing his text,
into the 137^(th) Psalm. And he simply reads:
“By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down.
Yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof,
for there they that carried us away captive required of us a
song, and they who wasted us required
of us mirth, saying ‘sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her
cunning, if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to
the roof of my mouth.” What has Douglass just done to
his friendly audience? He’s used one of the most
famous passages in the Bible. His audience would’ve known
that passage. People wouldn’t today,
in most circles. “By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down.” We were the captives from Egypt
and he said, you made us sing for you.
And in effect he is saying to them, “I’ll sing for you but you
may not like it.” That was Douglass’s–and he did
it hundreds of times elsewhere–it was Douglass’s
most brilliant expression of–or critique of–this American
hypocrisy about freedom in a land of slavery.
A lot of people were worried about this contradiction. It was Douglass as well in the
midst of the Mexican War–which is what we’re about today–in
1847, in the midst of that
expansionist war, where at least modest numbers
of northerners, certainly abolitionists,
opposed it because they saw it as a war for the expansion of
slavery. It was Douglass who said
America is a nation of inconsistencies,
completely made up of its inconsistencies. But you know,
the young Abraham Lincoln had always been worried about this
very same question. He comes at it from a different
perspective, he comes at it from different experiences,
largely. He’s never going to be an
abolitionist. But his very first public
address, The Young Men’s Lyceum speech of 1838,
the first public address that a young Abraham Lincoln ever gave,
in the middle of it is this quite remarkable passage where
it’s as though he’s almost predicting–we don’t want to
give him too much credit for his predictions–but it’s almost as
if he’s predicting this crisis that we’re now about to try to
understand for the next several weeks.
“At what point,” said Lincoln in this speech way back,
in 1838, “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger
and by what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect”–we here is
this American nation–“Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic
military giant to step over the ocean and crush us at a blow?”
He answers, “Never. All the armies of Europe,
Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the
earth, could not by force take a drink
from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge
Mountains, in a trial of 1000 years. If destruction is to be our lot
we must ourselves be its author and its finisher.
As a nation of free men we must live through all time or die by
suicide.” He doesn’t say what that
problem in the midst would be, directly, but he’s already
implied it. What is civil war?
A kind of collective suicide. Now, briefly,
and I’m going to put the Underground Railroad story off
until after we do the aftermath and the collapse of the
Compromise of 1850. Oh, I just predicted it would
collapse, sorry about that. But this anti-slavery impulse
that does take hold in the American North went through
various stages. That first stage is the 1830s
into the 1840s, which is largely a time of
great expansion in abolitionist organizations,
in societies, in newspapers.
It tends to be a decade, decade and a half,
driven largely by a kind of Garrisonian–and I outlined the
various tenets of Garrisonianism–but it tended to
be a kind of Garrisonian moral suasion.
This was an era in which most abolitionists were largely
devoted to this idea of reforming or changing the heart
of the American people. This was driven very much by
the kind of evangelical second great awakening impulse of
changing the conscience of the American people;
indeed, just changing the conscience of the slaveholder
himself. A second stage of American
anti-slavery impulse-there’s no single moment when it
begins–but that second stage is essentially a political stage.
It begins largely with the birth of the Liberty Party,
as it was called, in 1837,
the first attempt at an anti-slavery political party,
founded by some pretty serious abolitionists.
These people were the real thing.
They’re going to run James G. Birney for President a couple
of times, and they got miniscule numbers of almost countable
votes. James G.
Birney who had been born in Alabama, a former slaveholder
who moves north and becomes an abolitionist.
His symbol was quite remarkable. That Liberty Party will morph,
in the 1840s, after its record of very little
success, into–especially in the midst
of this Mexican War–what became known as the Free Soil Party,
by 1848. And we’ll pick up the Free
Soilers here in a few minutes. The Free Soil Party–as it was
founded in 1848, directly in response to this
expansionist war, with Mexico–was a party
largely devoted, by its very title,
to keeping the West free of slavery;
a political impulse to try to keep America’s future free of
slave labor systems. But what’s really going on here
is a shift out of the moral suasionist impulses of early
abolitionists to a learning of the art of politics; of engaging a larger political
culture with the nation’s greatest issues.
And it is of course when abolitionism–or an anti-slavery
impulse is what I want to it call here,
because these are not necessarily rabid abolitionists
that become Free Soilers, nor who become the Republicans
after 1854. But it is a fear of slavery–a
fear of its power, a fear of its denigration of
free labor, a fear of the way slavery as a
system could control America’s future–that becomes,
especially in the wake of the Mexican War, front and center
the greatest political issue in America.
Now how did we get a Mexican War?
Now I don’t know if you know much about the war with Mexico.
We speed right over it in a lot of American history classes.
But after the annexation–time for some maps,
yes. I think that’s visible, mostly.
Well after the annexation of Cuba in– Texas in 1836–the
South was always trying to annex Cuba,
four times before the Civil War, I can’t get that out of my
head. But after the annexation of
Texas, by the United States, and Texas became a state–so
said the United States, after 1836–Texas was to be
that great Western territory, seemingly limitless.
Its western border had never been determined.
For that matter, a southern border with Mexico
had never been negotiated. The United States just took
Texas and said, “well;
we’ll figure out its boundaries later.
Oh, by the way, Mexico–we’ll let them know.” Mexico never accepted the Rio
Grande as a border between the United States and Mexico–never.
They assumed if there was a border with this first
independent Republic of Texas, and now State of Texas,
it was to be the Nueces River. Can you see the Nueces River?
Not very visible but it’s up here.
Oh, my hand’s not too steady. Anyway, the Rio Grande was
never accepted as the border by Mexico;
but that’s never stopped wars of conquest before,
and why would it then? Now, just to give you a bigger
sense of this story. We’ve already talked a lot
about how the westward expansion of a slave society and the
westward expansion of the South was just booming from the 1820s
through the ’30s into the ’40s. And there was a deep and
abiding assumption in America–and we call it Manifest
Destiny. At the time not everybody was
walking around mouthing the phrase Manifest Destiny.
People didn’t meet in bars and taverns and say,
“What do you think of Manifest Destiny?”
But they spoke a language of inevitability,
they spoke a kind of racialism about what needs to be done,
should be done, has been done about Indians.
And the Indian removal policies under Jackson of the 1830s did
indeed, of course, remove: Indian removal.
I have a whole map of that. I love my maps.
This one’s cool. But, of course,
it’s a brutal story. The five great tribes,
sometimes called the civilized tribes of the American
South–the Creeks, the Chickasaw,
the Choctaw, the Cherokee,
and the Seminole from Florida–were,
indeed, between the early 1830s and the late-1830s removed,
by and large–not all the Seminoles–but removed out west
to what became Oklahoma Territory or it was originally
called Indian Territory. But that Indian removal was in
great–was part and parcel of opening up this southern
frontier to expansion and to the possibilities now of the cotton
boom and the development of the greatest,
as we’ve said now more than once, source of wealth in the
United States. Now, the presidential election
of 1844. James K.
Polk, the Democrat, a kind of hard money successor
to Andrew Jackson, avid expansionist and a
slave-owning cotton planter from Tennessee,
got elected President. They called him Young Hickory
instead of Old Hickory. He ran against Henry Clay,
who ran for President, three, four,
five times, depending on how many times you count them,
in the antebellum years, as will Daniel Webster.
But Henry Clay, essentially the intellectual or
ideological founder of the Whig Party, ran as the Whig.
Clay, too, ran on an expansionist platform of a kind,
but the Whigs tended to argue for expansionism by negotiation.
We were going to negotiate treaties of expansion,
we were going to negotiate our way into the southwest,
we were going to negotiate the British out of the northwest.
Polk said: “negotiation–bullshit,” is what
he said. “Elect me and I will give you
Mexico, elect me and I will give you Oregon.”
And he did. It was a close election.
Polk won by only about 36,000 votes, out of about 2.8 million
cast. He barely won New York state,
a Democratic stronghold, in part because of immigration
to New York, and he carried,
therefore, New York’s 36 electoral votes and was elected.
The Liberty Party of James G. Birney got 16,000 votes in
1844, most of them in about three counties in upstate New
York. They didn’t cause a lot of
ruckus, but they existed. Now, just before Tyler,
John Tyler, left office as a lame duck he pushed through the
annexation of Texas as a state. Not as a negotiated treaty,
which would’ve required, as I hope you know,
a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate.
He just did it, and Texas was annexed.
Now, Congress eventually did vote approval of this,
in a frankly sectionalized vote, which was a harbinger of
things to come. But James K.
Polk, this expansionist president, expansionist
slaveholding president, now,
became the sixth of the first ten American presidents who was
a slaveholder. This is significant.
If you’ll actually look back–there’s a great book on
this that demonstrates–there’s lots of writing on this that
demonstrates it–but Don Fehrenbacher’s book called
Slaveholding Republic shows us that before the
American Civil War two-thirds of all American presidents were
slaveholders or deeply sympathetic with slaveholding,
as in the case of James Buchanan by the late 1850s.
Two-thirds of all members of the U.S.
Supreme Court were slaveholders.
And, so far as we know, James K.
Polk was the only president in American history to actually buy
and sell slaves from the Oval Office of the White House.
He kept on retainer a broker with whom he communicated
regularly, buying and selling–speculating in slaves.
It was kind of his hobby. You know, some presidents
engaged in the Hot Stove League in the winter,
and do some baseball on paper. Polk was selling and buying
some people. Polk was aggressive toward
Mexico. He ordered American troops to
march south to the Rio Grande River, in Texas.
There are already occupation troops in Texas.
He ordered them to move south to the Rio Grande and just,
in effect, see what the Mexicans would do.
And he sends Zachary Taylor, the American general,
to Matamoras, on the Mexico border,
in early 1846. There was a negotiation
initially set up between the American and Mexican military
commanders which was conducted, by the way, in French because
the Americans did not speak Spanish and the Mexicans did not
speak English, but they found enough people on
either side of it to understand at least some French. Mexico had never acknowledged
the Rio Grande. It said their border was the
Nueces, north about 150,200 miles.
There was a kind of a three-week standoff between
troops along the Rio Grande River,
and then on the 24^(th) of April, 1846, a Mexican cavalry
contingent ambushed American troops on the north side of the
Rio Grande, killed eleven American troops,
captured sixty-three. Two days later,
Zachary Taylor sent a dispatch over land to Washington,
DC. It took two weeks to get
there–hot news!–and it simply announced, quote,
“Hostilities have been commenced with Mexico,”
and it briefly told the story of the Mexicans attacking on the
north side of the Rio Grande. Polk received the news and he
immediately went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war.
He announced, quote, “Mexico had passed the
boundary of the United States and had invaded our territory
and shed American blood on American soil,”
unquote. Blood and soil. On May 13,1846,
the House of Representatives voted a declaration of war,
174 to 14. The U.S.
Senate voted 40 to 2, with a lot of abstentions from
Northerners, to declare war on Mexico.
And off we went. The first major expansionist
war in American history. War fever broke out all over
the country. The romance of going abroad,
an exotic place like Mexico, full of strange people speaking
weird languages, and they’re Catholics and you
never know what you’re going to find there.
There are all kinds of strange practices.
Herman Melville, the young writer–hadn’t yet
published Moby Dick but he was working on it–from his
upstate New York home, he said in his town,
“The people here,” he said, “are all in a state of
delirium. A military ardor pervades all
ranks. Nothing is talked about but the
Halls of Montezuma,” meaning Mexico City.
This was going to be an adventurous war,
it was going to be quick. It was going to be a war of
destiny. An Illinois newspaper justified
the war on the basis that Mexicans were,
I quote, “reptiles in the path of progressive democracy.”
Now, you know in Vietnam we called some people “gooks” and
we’ve had “Horrible Huns” and we’ve had all kinds of names for
our enemies. But they would get more direct
than that–reptiles in the–I’m sorry.
[laughter] Reptiles in the path of
progressive democracy. Yes, well. People rewrote the lyrics to
the song Yankee Doodle to fit the Mexican War.
It went like this. I promise you only one verse.
[sings] “They attacked our men upon our
land, and crossed our river, too, sir.
Now show them all with sword in hand what Yankee boys can do,
sir.” I’m sorry, I have a cold.
[applause] Actually, you should do that
with an Irish brogue, because that’s the way it
would’ve been done then, making fun of the Irish while
you make fun of the Mexicans, while you recruit the Irish to
go fight in Mexico. [laughter]
Many abolitionists had very serious things to say about this
war, lots of them. I already mentioned Douglass.
There are many, many others. The abolitionist James Russell
Lowell considered the war–his words–“a national crime
committed in behoof of slavery, our common sin.”
And most poignantly of all, and a title for this lecture,
was Ralph Waldo Emerson. As usual Emerson wrote this
into his private journals, from his study in Concord.
He wasn’t out thumping too many public platforms on this one,
at least not yet. Emerson wrote into his journals
in early 1847: “The United States will conquer
Mexico,” he said, “but it will be as
though a man swallows arsenic, which brings him down in turn.
Mexico will poison us.” It did.
By the end of 1846, the U.S.
had established dominion over the southern half of California,
which Mexico also claimed. In 1847, the United States
forces, in the face of pretty ferocious resistance,
invading largely through Vera Cruz on the Gulf Coast but also
from the North, conquered Mexico City–the
Halls of Montezuma–hence the line in the Marine hymn. The United States lost 13,000
Americans in the war with Mexico in about a year and a half of
fighting. By far, the vast majority died
of disease and not in battle. An estimated 50,000 Americans
died at the sword and the cannon of American troops.
And by the end, the United States negotiated a
treaty with Mexico. We conquered them and we
dictated the terms, and the terms had everything to
do with American geography. The Mexican Cession,
as it became known–the land the United States gained from
Mexico–is, of course, the whole southwest.
In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848,
the United States obtained, what is today all of the
western part of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona,
Southern Calif–well all of California–Utah,
parts of Colorado, Nevada–the great southwest. That same year,
1848, was a terribly important year of turning points,
in the world, especially in Europe.
There are those arguing now that in some ways,
1848 should be as important a turning point year in American
history as it is in Europe, because of the great
democratic/republican revolutions in Europe. There are debates now in some
history departments whether the U.S.
survey courses should be divided in thirds now,
since American history is into the 21^(st) century now.
It’s just getting too long in this country,
it’s got too much history now. And instead of dividing our
survey courses at 1877 or 1865, it should be ’48.
Who cares? But, as these nationalistic
revolutions against monarchy were breaking out all over
Europe–in Hungary, Austria, Italy,
Germany, France–some will succeed and establish republics,
some will not–republican America was seizing territory
and launching an empire on its own continent.
Oh, by the way, for ceding us all of that
territory of the great southwest, Mexico was paid 15
million dollars. Sitting in the U.S.
House of Representatives at that very time,
during the Mexican War, in his only two-year term in
the U.S. Congress, there was a young
congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.
He voted against the Mexican War;
every chance he got he opposed it.
He called it Polk’s War. And then he said Polk’s
justification–these were the days of direct political
language–he said Polk’s justification for the war was,
quote, “a half insane mumbling of a fever dream.”
Tell ’em Abe. He didn’t mince any words.
Fever dream. All right, but what did the
Mexican War unleash? What are the legacies of the
Mexican War? Why was there such a fuss?
In the outline it says “why all the fuss”?
Slavery in the western territories.
Who cared? Daniel Webster,
who’ll play a big role in this compromise of 1850 debate–the
great Whig of Massachusetts, probably the most powerful and
important northern, certainly New England
politician–kept warning that this really wasn’t all that
important. He said the problem of slavery
in the west is like, is, quote, is a big fuss over,
quote, “an imaginary negro in an impossible place.”
And the idea there was, “oh, that southwest,
it’s all desert isn’t it?” What’s the problem?
It’s not Louisiana in New Mexico, it’s not Alabama in
Arizona. Cotton won’t boom there.
He called it a mere abstraction. But if it were a mere
abstraction, why did so many people care?
Let’s examine this just for a moment.
Why the fuss? First, Northerners.
And I know I’m generalizing here, there’s no thing,
there’s no such thing as “The North” and “The South.”
At this point I hope you’ve grasped that.
There are complexities within. But to northerners,
one, they cared about this because there was the belief
that slavery could indeed take root in the southwest.
Why wouldn’t it be a perfect environment for mining of silver
and gold? And, lo and behold,
right after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the end of
the Mexican War what happened? Gold was discovered in
California and it just capitalized, it just–and they
had all bets off now, on just how important this
question might be. And why wouldn’t slavery work
for the building of the railroads, why wouldn’t slavery
work for building canals? And for that matter,
nobody wanted to compete for the slave labor system because
it denigrated or degraded the idea of free labor.
Secondly, there were a lot of northerners, particularly in
politics, who wanted a non–who favored here a non-extension
approach to slavery, whatever they thought of black
people and the future of their rights and the idea of any kind
of racial equality. They favored non-extension on
constitutional grounds. The idea was that those who
would not attack slavery where it already existed–because
slaves were property and protected by the Fifth
Amendment–they nevertheless believed they could use the
Constitution, under Congress’s sole authority
to admit new states to the union, to stop this system from
expanding. To stop America’s future from
becoming defined by slave labor, rather than free labor for the
little man. Non-extension of slavery,
therefore, became a kind of idea whereby you could cordon
off slavery and blunt its future.
Three, for northerners: bills in Congress for the
territorial organization, which already existed now,
as soon as the Mexican War–before the Mexican War was
even over–there were bills before Congress to establish the
territories now of Utah and New Mexico.
Now, in large swaths of land, mind you, that could become
more than two states. And there were northerners who
found these bills simply personally obnoxious,
and they were being asked, they said, to be complicitous
now in the expansion of slavery. There were now enough northern
politicians who said, “Look, I can’t stop anything
that’s going on in Alabama and I won’t try,
but don’t ask me to vote to create a new territory that will
become a slave state.” And already in the language of
the Free Soil Party, and eventually in that
Republican Party that will come out of it,
is this idea that what northerners had to work to do,
they said, was to make slavery sectional but freedom national. Slave labor–sectional,
regional, bound to a place–but free labor national,
eternal and the definition of a future.
There was also racism as a motive in this.
There were lots of northerners who saw the West as the hope of
the northern immigrant, the hope of the young farmer in
Ohio who’s got three sons, and they want to go West,
and they don’t want black people around.
They want a Kansas or a Nebraska, eventually,
that’s free for small white farmers. And that’s rooted,
of course, in what we’re going to come back to again and again
in the next three, four lectures,
is this idea of a kind of free labor ideology,
a cluster of ideas. No single idea but a cluster of
impulses, assumptions, ideas–one of which was
defensive representative government,
another of which was a devotion to individual liberty for small
people, small farmers, lone mechanics,
coupled with now a fear of concentrated power.
And what could be a more concentrated form of power than
an oligarchy of slaveholders who can lo and behold control the
presidency, the Supreme Court and enough of
Congress, especially the Senate, if they can keep getting more
states into the Union, than the South,
as a concentrated power? Free labor ideology was also
rooted in this kind of now old-fashioned American fear of
conspiracy against individual liberty.
Free labor ideology was really a fanfare for the common man,
a defense of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant small
farmer. And, of course,
finally there were some real abolitionists around,
who opposed the expansion of slavery on moral grounds.
And sometimes that person who believes in free labor ideology
and may not want to many black folks around,
also takes a kind of moral position against slavery,
all at the same time. And his name was Abraham
Lincoln. Now in the South,
why did the South care about slavery in the West?
In part, because an assumption had set in among southern
leadership, now, for a long time, that it was not only the
destiny of the American people to expand west,
it was not only the destiny of the slave society to expand
west–and remember they’re manufacturing decade by decade a
more intensive justification of the system–but it was the
necessity, they’re going to argue,
that it expand or it would die. To check the expansion of
slavery would be to strangle the southern economy and way of
life, is what so many southern politicians are now arguing.
Slaves in existing states, also they came to realize,
were becoming a burden, possibly a danger.
As the slave population in a Georgia or an Alabama or a
Mississippi continues to grow and grow and grow and grow,
but nowhere to expand to, that slave population may
become indeed a powder keg. One of the things that southern
statesmen feared the most–and I cannot stress enough,
because it’s going to be right there at the heart of their
secession debates in 1860–is they feared what they kept
calling now this–it’s more than a theory to them–this theory of
a shrinking south. If they couldn’t expand this
system beyond its limits and beyond its borders–get into
Arkansas, get out into Oklahoma,
Texas, West Texas, further west,
Caribbean–that the south would begin to shrink as an economic
entity, as a political culture,
as a force in the national government.
And if you cordoned off slavery, what’s going to happen
to the price of slaves around its borders?
Well, they might begin to go down.
What happens if the price of slaves starts going down in
Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, around the edges?
Well, people start selling them off.
Where are they going to sell them?
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi. And you would have the
beginnings now of an economy turning in on itself. Southerners,
many southerners, came to believe slavery had to
expand or it could die. They also wanted political
parity in the United States Congress.
Every new state meant two new senators.
And the number of states–free states to slave states,
folks–in 1850, was 15 to 15.
They wanted to sustain that parity.
And California out there–it’s going to have a sudden statehood
in 1850 because of gold being discovered–is going to be the
problem and the test case. Then there was this question of
constitutional power. The question of checks and
balances–the states’ rights question if you want. Did anybody have the right to
prohibit anybody from taking their property anywhere?
To John C. Calhoun, at the end of the day,
all these other arguments here were important,
but the only argument at the end of the day that mattered–I
mean he could drive it home with a brilliance unlike anybody
else’s–“You have no right–you northerners have no right to
stop me from taking my wagon and my horse and my slave anywhere I
wish.” And he would just recite the
Fifth Amendment. Let me put it yet one more way.
There is a certain element of honor at stake here,
in the South, about slavery. Their moral stance comes from
this belief, this position–and think about this in your own
time. The idea set in among
northerners that the legal status of slavery in the western
territories stood as a measure of its moral standing
everywhere. Let me repeat that,
the legal standing of slavery in the western territories stood
as a measure of its moral standing everywhere.
If you tell me slavery is wrong enough that you will not have it
in America’s future, then you’re telling me it’s
wrong where I have it; and I don’t accept that,
and I won’t live in the same political culture with you,
if I have to–if I don’t have to–on that basis. So why all the fuss?
Think today, think today about some of our
greatest, salient, polarizing issues–at the risk
of bringing them up. If I were a gay American,
and I believed in my right to be married, I would believe that
the legal status of gay marriage in a Kansas where they have a
referendum, is a measure of its moral
status everywhere. And extrapolate from there,
to other issues. If you outlaw who I am,
what I do, what I stand for in one state, what are you saying
about it in another? Oh, we shouldn’t talk about the
present in history courses, I’m sorry. The fuss is because this is
really a debate about America’s future.
What kind of future would it have?
Well, there were four plans put in place and these four plans
are going to come together around this debate over the
Compromise of 1850. The first plan–these are all
on your outline if you could see it earlier–you want that back
up? The first we call the Wilmot
Proviso, for good reason–it’s named for David Wilmot,
a young Democratic Party Representative in the House of
Representatives, who in 1846 got up in the midst
of the Mexican War–this is a Democrat now and not a Whig or a
Free Soiler. He’s from Pennsylvania,
and he didn’t particularly care about black folks but he got up
in the debates over the Mexican War about provisions for the
troops and all those debates and he said “okay,
we’re going to war with Mexico, but in any new territory we
gain from Mexico slavery shall never exist.”
It’s as simple as that, that’s the Wilmot Proviso.
It’s a great trivia question. If you ever have to play trivia
in a bar ask what’s the Wilmot Proviso?
Nobody knows. But it was the rallying cry of
the Free Soil Movement. Okay, we’re going to war,
we’re going to get millions of acres of territory but slavery
will never exist. This was the Free Soil formula.
The language was borrowed from the Northwest Ordinance.
All but one northern state legislature endorsed it.
All southern legislatures condemned it.
Gee, a little harbinger of things to come there,
perhaps. It first passed the House of
Representatives on the first try 83 to 64, reflecting that the
House had far more northern representatives because the
north has more population. But it did not pass the Senate
where the Slave states still have parity.
There was a good deal of racist support for this.
Wilmot himself said–well I’ll quote him.
And here again this free labor ideology, it’s a mixture of
ideas. This is Wilmot in the debates.
“I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject
of slavery nor no morbid sympathy for the slave.
I plead the cause and rights of white freemen.
I would preserve to free white labor a fair country,
a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil of my
own race and color can live without the disgrace which
association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.”
It doesn’t get more direct than that.
Keep the west free of slavery–and black people–was
really David Wilmot’s position. The second possible plan is
what was known formally, legally, as state sovereignty.
This is the states’ rights position.
This is the South’s position, at least on this question–the
individual’s constitutional right of ownership in slaves as
property and transport of slaves as property.
State sovereignty, states’ rights was indeed
deeply at the root of the South’s growing position here
that, ultimately, no Federal
Legislature, President–no Federal authorit–existed to
stop slavery’s expansion. The third position,
a very American position, a natural outcome of the first
two. The first two mix like oil and
water, you need a compromise position–and that’s popular
sovereignty. Popular sovereignty was not a
new idea in the midst of the Mexican War and its aftermath.
It’d been around for awhile. It was the simple idea that
there would be no Act of Congress on this.
Take Congress out of the story and simply let the people in the
Western Territory have a vote. Let them have a referendum.
Let there be popular democracy. If the people who settle Utah
want to vote to have slave labor then they vote for it;
if they don’t, they don’t. Democracy, what could be better? This had the wonderful kind of
charm of ambiguity, as David Potter once
beautifully put it–a charm of ambiguity.
There’s kind of a place there for everybody,
as long as you trust the democratic process. But if you’re going to have
that referendum the problem of course always was,
when do you hold the vote? Do you hold the vote early in
the territorial process or do you hold the vote late in the
territorial process? Do you establish a rule,
there’s got to be a certain amount of population before you
hold that vote. Southerners wanted that vote
held late in the process because it would give their system
longer to get there. It would take awhile.
If you’re going to take fifty slaves out to Kansas and
Nebraska, or further west, it’d take awhile;
for that lone farmer in his Conestoga wagon,
he can get there quicker. And fourth, they went back to
the old Missouri Compromise–it’s the principle
of geographical division–here–it’s the old
principle of geographical division. The Missouri Compromise of
1820–you all learned this somewhere in school–established
the 36º30′ parallel from the Mississippi River to the
Pacific Ocean, and it said in 1820–a very
important Act of Congress in 1820 in this story,
now to be so twisted and abused and debated in the 1850s as a
sacred act. It said slavery would never
exist north of that line. The problem was that half of
California was already north of that line.
Now a lot of people said, “all right, the way we’re going
to head this problem off now is just to keep drawing careful
geographic lines across the continent,
free soil above, slave labor below;
we’ll just keep drawing that line.”
All right, I’m going to have to leave you hanging here about the
compromise itself. That’s fine because we can do
the compromise–its collapse–aand lead right into
the Kansas Nebraska–hold on, I got a minute,
I think. The Election of 1848 was
crucial. Democrats ran Lewis Cass of
Michigan–a thoroughly forgettable politician,
I’m sure you’ve never heard of him–but he was a great
proponent of popular sovereignty.
They ran on a popular sovereignty platform.
The problem with slavery in the West now, this whole Mexican War
problem, we’ll solve it–popular democracy.
The Whigs ran Zachary Taylor, the war hero of the Mexican
War, old rough and ready; the problem was he was a
Louisiana slaveholder. And out of this furor over the
expansion of slavery in the West came two new political
offshoots. One was called the Conscience
Whigs. They were created first in
Massachusetts and they gave us Charles Sumner,
among others; a group of abolitionist Whigs
who broke with the Whig party now and would never go back,
a harbinger of the ultimate death, within the next four
years, of the Whig Party. And the other was the Free Soil
party. Born in the Convention in
Buffalo, New York in 1848, it ran Martin Van Buren–an odd
choice–for President in 1848; a former President. They stood for one thing:
stopping, at all costs, the expansion of slavery into
America’s west. The Free Soilers took ten
percent of the electoral vote in the 1848 election when Zachary
Taylor, war hero, was elected.
And then gold was discovered in California and overnight,
it seemed like–it was overnight–California was going
to be ready for statehood and, oh God, what to do with it?
Because if it comes in as a Free state or a Slave state it’s
going to upset the balance in the Senate;
and it’s that huge territory out there.
And suddenly there was a need, a desperate need–threats
coming from the South. John C.
Calhoun is calling a Southern Convention.
Threats from some northerners who are saying “no,
under all costs we will stop the expansion of slavery.”
There’s a need to find yet new middle ground. And on a night in January,
1850 Henry Clay got together and sloshed down a hell of a lot
of brandy with Daniel Webster and they cut a deal.
It became the Compromise of 1850.
I’ll leave you hanging there. Clay and Webster are drunk but
they’re fashioning the Great Compromise, or they hope,
that would save the Union. Clay, at the end of that month,
would go before the U.S. Senate and announce the five
provisions of his compromise, and in so doing he stood up and
he held a piece of the coffin of George Washington–now I don’t
know if it really was or not–but it was a piece of the
True Cross, a little piece of wood.
“This is from George Washington’s coffin,” he said.
We must circle the wagons, we must save the Union,
we must swallow this and do that.”
And there were groans and there were cheers.
People wept, shouted. And people were really worried
that the Union was going to unravel and fall apart–and it
almost did. See you.

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