I’ve discussed in general terms most of the major crises and compromises leading up to the election of 1860 and subsequent war but my focus, has largely been on what the events meant and how the people of the time understood them, while paying less mind to the events themselves. As I’ve written those pieces, I’ve often thought I should step back and try to do something closer to a chronological approach handling the events that drove the rising tensions and increasing radicalism. So this is the first installment of The Road to War.
Any starting point is at least somewhat arbitrary. Most accounts begin with the Mexican War, but I wanted to take one more step back. Further entries might explore further back.
The Road to War: The Mess with Texas
Southerners settled Texas, taking advantage of newly independent Mexico’s law opening the land to anyone regardless of race or nationality. Always hungry for new land, planters came across the border with their slaves. The first few grants predated Mexican independence, but the big wave of settlement came after 1821. In relatively short order the Americans formed the local majority.
Then Mexico abolished slavery. The Americans in Texas promptly revolted to defend their right to slave property. Many Texans wanted back into the US. They sent a minister to the Van Buren administration seeking just that in 1837. He declined on the grounds that Texas’s unsettled borders would mean war with Mexico and that Texas would greatly expand American territory open to slavery.
Come 1843, things changed. Hoping to improve his feeble reelection chances after being drummed out of his own party, John Tyler pushed for annexation and saw a secret treaty negotiated to that effect. His Secretary of State, the nation’s leading proslavery radical and disunionist John C. Calhoun, defended annexation as a defensive move against British antislavery agitation. (Calhoun also threatened Southern secession if annexation did not proceed.)
Per the Constitution, treaties require a ⅔ majority in the Senate for ratification. It failed 16 to 35, with 28 of the Senate’s 29 Whigs voting against. (The odd Whig out was a southerner from Mississippi.) The Democrats split, five northerners and ten southerners in favor to six northerners and five southerners opposed. Though not as polarized as the nation would become, already in 1843 the vote had a strong sectional character.
James K. Polk ran in 1844 on an expansionist, annexationist platform. Seeing the popularity of annexation, Tyler and John C. Calhoun arranged a joint resolution of Congress to annex Texas instead of a treaty. Requiring only a simple majority, the resolution passed (Senate: 27-25, House 132-76) days before Polk took office. Texas accepted and Congress ratified the acceptance (Senate 31-14, with 7 abstentions, House 141-58, with 21 abstentions) and Texas skipped over the usual territorial phase, becoming a state immediately.
The deed was done, but it foreshadowed greater conflicts over slavery in the West, which drove much of the polarization before the war. The next of those would, of course, include the territory seized in the war that annexation brought on.