Barnburners & Hunkers: The Divided Democrats

The Wilmot Proviso came from a Democrat who wanted to exclude slavery from the Mexican Cession. The Alabama Platform came from a Democrat who wanted it expanded. Could a party divided so deeply against itself survive, let alone prevail against its opposition?

An election year, 1848 made that question especially pertinent. Opposing the Proviso, the Polk administration favored extending the Missouri Compromise line through the Mexican Cession to settle the status of slavery. Essentially the status quo for more than a generation, nobody could claim such a policy broke radically from the past. Some of the Cession would be free, some slave, and no one need go home empty-handed. The extension passed the evenly divided Senate repeatedly, only for the Northern majority in the House to reject it.

Lewis Cass, promoter of popular sovereignty

Lewis Cass 

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

Polk declined to seek a second term, Secretary of State James Buchanan ran for the nomination on the Missouri Compromise line. At the Baltimore convention, where Yancey and his fellow Alabaman walked out when the party voted down the Alabama Platform, Buchanan faced Senator Lewis Cass (D-MI), who had his own ideas about slavery in the territories. Cass maintained that instead of setting the matter in Congress, the citizens of each territory should decide for themselves on slavery.

Calhoun rejected popular sovereignty on those grounds, but other Southerners saw potential in the late-voting approach permitting slaveowners time to establish themselves. Northern Democrats largely dropped the Proviso in favor of Cass’s formula as well. The convention rejected the Wilmot Proviso and the Alabama Platform, chose Cass but remained silent on popular sovereignty. Maybe if they said nothing, the slavery-induced tensions could just fade away.

A contingent of Northern Democrats had hard feelings going back to the 1844 convention, when an old rule requiring a ⅔ majority for the nomination got dusted off to deny Martin Van Buren a chance at a second term. Some New York Democrats, the Barnburners, opted to dust off Van Buren, age 66, and sent a slate of delegates to Baltimore on a Wilmot Proviso platform. Against them stood the nascent New York Polk machine and more conservative party elements, the Hunkers. The Hunkers sent their own delegation to Baltimore. The convention vote to seat both and the Barnburners, like Yancey, walked out.

Yancey tried to start a third party around the Alabama Platform but found few takers. Van Buren’s Barnburners had better luck. They joined with the Liberty Party, a group of outright, open abolitionists that won 3% of the Northern vote in 1844. Their radical fringe suggested the Constitution gave Congress the power to eliminate slavery in the states, but their pragmatists opted to join together with the antislavery factions of the two major parties on an incrementalist program.

The tiny Liberty Party, with its abolitionist agenda in an era where the most outrageous antislavery politician yet to enrage the South proudly proclaimed how he fought abolitionists, and disaffected Barnburners together hardly made for a powerful political movement. But in taking on the Liberty Party and endorsing the Wilmot Proviso, the nascent Free Soil Party put itself well to the left of the Democrats or Whigs on slavery. Abolitionism began to come in out of the cold.

And a group of Whigs would join the Barnburners in leaving their party for the Free Soilers. Their story will come in tomorrow’s post.

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