Stealing Cuba, Part Two

Narciso Lopez

Narciso López

James K. Polk’s plan to buy Cuba failed in the face of Spanish disinterest. Narciso López’s plan to steal the island away from Spain and then throw it under American protection, possibly with an eye to annexation, stalled out when Zachary Taylor got wind of it and sent the Navy to seize his ships.  But López refused to call it quits in September of 1849.

Realizing that most of his six hundred man army came from the southern United States, López decamped from his previous headquarters in New York City and set up shop in New Orleans where the local fire-eaters had long dreamed of making their city the center of a Caribbean empire for slavery. On the way there, López called on John A. Quitman, who we last met planning to break the Union.

The Armistice had yet to pass when the Cuban filibuster met the Mississippi governor. As a major general, Quitman led the assault on Mexico City and later served as its military governor. With just the right skill set, which had seen recent successful application, Quitman cut the perfect figure to lead López’s little army. López wanted him for the job and Quitman had at least some interest in it, but with the possible dissolution of the Union looming he didn’t want to leave someone else to take Mississippi out of the United States. He did, however, help López recruit and raise funds.

In May of 1850, López finally set sail from New Orleans amid much fanfare and with a wink and a nudge from the authorities. The expedition landed in northwest Cuba, where López seized the town of Cardenas and torched the governor’s mansion. López expected to spawn a popular uprising to take care of the rest. The revolutionaries stayed home and Spanish troops closed in. López and his army raced back to their ship and ingloriously fled to Key West just ahead of Spanish pursuit.

John A. Quitman, governor of Mississippi

John A. Quitman

Little things like failure and the prompt collapse of his force did not get in the way of the hero’s welcome the Deep South rolled out for López. Southern Senators agitated for Cuba in Washington. DeBow’s Review imagined an America with dominion over all Mexico, South America, and the West Indies. Unmoved, the Taylor administration indicted López, Quitman, and their confederates for breaking the Neutrality Act.

Caught up in secession fever, Quitman wrapped himself in the flag of states’ rights and told Washington he would call out the Mississippi militia to defend himself and, incidentally, Mississippi’s sovereignty. But as hopes for secession petered out, Quitman resigned the governorship on February 3, 1851 to defend himself. The prosecution went after another Mississippi planter first, but after three New Orleans trials resulted in three hung juries, Washington gave up and the filibusters and their supporters celebrated.

Stealing Cuba, Part One

The dream of seizing Cuba for America and for slavery did not begin with Franklin Pierce’s administration. The last Democrat to occupy the White House, James K. Polk, scheduled the acquisition as the next step after the Mexican War. As with Mexico, Polk dispatched a minister with an offer to buy the land in question. That minister, Romulus M. Saunders of North Carolina, arrived in Madrid and made quite a splash. According to Secretary of State James Buchanan, Saunders barely spoke English. He certainly spoke no Spanish.

With such obvious diplomatic skills, Saunders so won over his Spanish counterpart that the latter promised he’d rather see Cuba sink than sell it to the United States. But even supposing Saunders had the skills to carry out the deal, and that the Spanish wanted to sell, the resulting treaty would have had to pass muster with the Whigs in Congress that lately favored the Wilmot Proviso.  Certainly no time remained for Polk to arrange another war. The Whigs won the election of 1848 and for four years expansion dropped off the national agenda, officially.

Certainly the Whigs did not have the same enthusiasm as the Democrats for expansion. They spent years fighting against Texas annexation, against the Mexican War, and against taking the largest possible slice out of Mexico after the war. But would a Whig administration refuse territory that offered itself to the nation? Henry Clay’s attempt to have that question both ways on the subject of Texas helped cost him the election of 1844 to Polk. Furthermore, if the Whigs could bend enough to accept the Mexican Cession and nominate a general from the war most of them opposed for president twice in a row, surely they could bend for a fait accompli.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat and military officer

Robert E. Lee

Unlike Texas, Cuba did not have a large population of American émigrés demanding, or even interested in, annexation. Instead Cuba had a would-be revolutionary, Venezuela-born Narciso López, that fled the island after the Spanish caught wind of his plan to stage a planter uprising and started making arrests. López gathered a force of six hundred to steal away the island and chartered three ships to carry them from their gathering point at Round Island, Mississippi.

To command his army, Lopez sought Mexican War hero and United States Senator Jefferson Davis and plied him with promises of hard cash and a coffee plantation. Davis passed  but recommended López ask a promising officer he knew from his time in Mexico, Virginia’s Robert E. Lee. Lee, who could probably have used the money and plantation far more than Davis, gave the proposal some thought but also passed. López resolved to lead the army himself.

López’s recruitment, chartering of ships, and audiences with prominent Americans drew the notice of the Mexican War hero just lately arrived in the White House. Zachary Taylor cared little for filibustering and dusted off the Neutrality Act of 1817, which itself reiterated a policy going back to Washington’s time that the United States did not permit its citizens to wage war on other nations except when Congress had also declared war on those same nations. Violators faced fines and a few years in prison. Taylor dispatched the navy to Round Island to seize the ships and keep Lopez’s little army from going anywhere.

Another Democrat, Another Expansionist

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The last Democratic president, James K. Polk, annexed more land to the United States than any administration before or since. Then he opted not to take a second term and the Whigs, who lacked the Democrats gung-ho enthusiasm for expansion by force occupied the White House for four years. The election of 1852 brought Franklin Pierce into the White House and the Democracy eager for still more expansion. Affirming the oath to office in March 4, 1853, the only president to do so rather than swear to it, Pierce turned from Chief Justice Roger Taney and delivered his inaugural address from memory. (Past presidents read their remarks.)

Looking back at the previous four years, Pierce said:

One of the most impressive evidences of that wisdom is to be found in the fact that the actual working of our system has dispelled a degree of solicitude which at the outset disturbed bold hearts and far-reaching intellects. The apprehension of dangers from extended territory, multiplied States, accumulated wealth, and augmented population has proved to be unfounded. The stars upon your banner have become nearly threefold their original number; your densely populated possessions skirt the shores of the two great oceans; and yet this vast increase of people and territory has not only shown itself compatible with the harmonious action of the States and Federal Government in their respective constitutional spheres, but has afforded an additional guaranty of the strength and integrity of both.

In other words, one ought to ignore the fire-eaters preaching secession, the narrow passage of the Compromise measures, the fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest. He had good reason to do so. However many copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold, the fire-eaters secession conspiracy fell before the forces of Southern Unionism. However small the coalition for compromise and Union, it had passed laws that both sections clearly found they could live with. After a first blush of resistance, fugitive slave rescues declined considerably and more fugitives went back into slavery. Expansion might have tested the Union, but the Union endured.

With Union clearly strong enough for expansion, why not another round?

With an experience thus suggestive and cheering, the policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion. Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection, if not in the future essential for the preservation of the rights of commerce and the peace of the world.

With an inaugural address like that, Mexico ought to up its defense spending. People of any era might recognize the rhetoric of national security. Nobody launches wars of aggression, only wars of preemptive defense. Much of the Mexican borderlands, like the newly American Southwest, had few population centers that nineteenth century Americans saw fit to respect. Lines on maps might split such empty lands, but the resources of modern nation-states did not police them and sudden revisions by forces on the ground might make their adjustment a fait accompli. Having taken the land for America, would America really demand that a successful filibuster (from the Spanish filibustero for freebooter or pirate) give that land back? Or take the land into the national possession and then cede it back?

America had not done so when the Texans relieved Mexico of some of its territory. Washington supported a similar scheme in California before the war. However easily Polk sold northwestern dreams of expansion short by agreeing on less than the maximum possible claim, pursuing that claim to the point of war with the United Kingdom presented serious risks that beating up Mexico again did not. But the expansionists in Pierce’s exceptionally Southern cabinet and administration had more in mind than the Halls of Montezuma.

Only ninety miles from the naval base on Key West sat one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere, outside of the United States, where slavery still endured. Southerners intent on breaking the 1808 law against the international slave trade often picked up their human cargo in Spanish Cuba. Why not make it, and its half a million slaves, into a new slave state to restore parity in the Senate and further secure the peculiar institution? With slavery already deeply entrenched, Cuba could hardly come in as anything but a slave state, a surety the South could not expect from additional slices of Mexico.

An Abundance of Californias

The desire to maintain something resembling a coherent and somewhat chronological narrative has led me to neglect certain important aspects of the early 1850s. The messiness of the past, like the messiness of the present, requires occasional diversions from a strict chronology to avoid a constant morass of shifting subjects organized only by dates. That diversions in turn require occasional correctives to add more nuance. In the early part of the decade, slavery achieved a new prominence in the national dialog but it did not come alone. Rather, just as in our times, large issues have a kind of intellectual stickiness. They bring with them constellations of other issues and measures that serve and feed into larger goals.

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Southern radicals in the very early 1850s responded to the Armistice of 1850 with a scheme to secede that ultimately failed before the forces of Southern Unionism and the promises of the new Fugitive Slave Law. While that failure may have dampened some passions, the facts of the Armistice remained law and however much Southerners could live with them, they could also seek changes which would realign circumstances in their favor. They could wash away the indignity of losing sectional parity in the Senate for California’s sake by sawing a new slave state off its southern end. Such proposals came up during the debates over the Mexican Cession’s future almost immediately. Mississippi’s Henry S. Foote tried to sweeten the deal for the North by drawing a line a bit to the south of the proposed extension of the Missouri Compromise line, ceding a bit of potential slave territory for surety on the rest.

Foote’s proposal did not win out, but the idea of partitioning California did not vanish there. Thanks to the Gold Rush, the San Francisco Bay and surrounding regions had a much higher population than Southern California. Completely aside questions of slavery, which certainly animated most outside interest in a California partition, the more rural, more Hispanic southern end of the state felt ill-served by the more urban, whiter San Francisco area. So in 1854 the California Assembly voted to give Southern California, and Northern California with a similar set of complains, their own states of Colorado and Shasta, respectively. The legislature’s session expired before the California Senate voted on the measure. The idea did not go away, however, and the state laid a proposal before the Congress to split off the section of California south of the 36th parallel off as, again, the state of Colorado.

I can’t say what Congress might have done with the proposal. A state voting to dismember itself seems uncontroversial and Texas had frequently been raised as a candidate for that in the name of producing more slave states. But of course a Southern California Colorado might vote to bring in slavery. Certainly its Southern advocates wanted just that and various Northern interests would oppose it on the same basis. The partition of California might have brought about a new sectional crisis, except that California passed the proposal in 1859. By the time it reached Washington the nation stood on a much higher precipice.

The Old Order’s Last Hurrah

The Free Soil Party did not make much of a triumphant return in 1852. Just four years before, the combination of Barnburner Democrats, Conscience Whigs, and Liberty Party alumni took over the opposition role in three Northern states and held the balance of power in divided legislatures. They used that influence to put some of their own into the Senate. But Martin Van Buren’s New York Barnburners returned to the Democracy in 1849, taking almost half of the Free Soil party’s support back into the party of Jackson. They, and Van Buren, cared more about settling scores with their fellow Democrats than they did about antislavery politics.

The collapse of the nation’s only avowed antislavery party might seem like good news for a system built on keeping slavery out of the political limelight. Without Free Soiler agitation, the election could revolve around other issues and the parties could return to the usual equivocations on slavery that helped keep the sectional peace both in the parties and in the Union as a whole. But by siphoning off the more dedicated antislavery voices into a separate movement, the Free Soilers had also removed much of the need for the Whigs and Democrats to appease them. Their return could meant they no longer conceded the old parties to politicians who stressed party unity over ideological purity on slavery.

The Barnburners and their ulterior motives did not account for all Free Soil men, however. Those with purer intentions remained in the party or returned to their old still committed to antislavery. Furthermore, their return reunited them with other antislavery men who preferred to work within the old parties. The Second Party System suffered either way. The Free Soilers temporarily lessened the sectional strains within the old parties by removing some of their more diehard antislavery elements. Their return to the fold might have helped make stands on slavery less of an imperative for the parties, but the circumstances of the Armistice made those stands and their costs unavoidable regardless.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

In the short-term, however, the old order had one last triumph in it. In November, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won fourteen free and twelve slave states. Winfield Scott, the Whigs general of the moment, claimed only two states of each section. The Second Party System, if strained, came roaring back to deliver a resounding win to the choice of both sections just as the nation almost always had before. Only four times had the choice of just one section won the White House and the last of those came in 1828. Furthermore, the Democrats’ choice of Pierce sidelined candidates who had just the sectional constituencies that could have struck against the precedent: Lewis Cass for the North and James Buchanan for the South.

Looking at just the most obvious data, one could conclude that whatever the Whigs’ troubles the old order endured. The Democracy had, after all, always dominated the Second Party System. Maybe the past four years had strained it, but the system withstood that strain. We have the benefit of hindsight to tell us otherwise, but those who looked deeper at the time could have noted troubling signs too.

Pierce’s 254 electoral votes the fact that he carried many states by slim margins. He won five states with less than 51% of the vote: New York (50.18%), Iowa (50.23%), North Carolina (50.43%), Michigan (50.45%), and Maine (50.63%). Four more came in under 52%: Pennsylvania (51.20%), Rhode Island (51.37%), Illinois (51.87%), and Louisiana (51.94%). He just barely won the national popular vote (50.83%) even with two parties to split his opposition. He won only a plurality of the North’s popular vote and those close brushes with defeat concentrate heavily north of the Ohio and the Mason-Dixon line.

But no president would do even that again until 1912 when Woodrow Wilson won the Southern popular vote and enjoyed electoral college majorities in both sections just as Pierce had. None would both win the popular and electoral majority of both sections until 1932.

The collapse of the Whigs, who contested the presidency for the last time in 1852, yielded the White House to the Democrats for the remainder of the decade. But the fall of the party did not mean that the men who filled its offices, sought its patronage, believed its values, and voted its ticket evaporated. Many would quit politics for a time, but nothing like the decade of one party politics that preceded the Second Party System ensued. The new Republican Party organized just two years later.

The Dying Whigs

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

The Second Party System rested on slavery staying at the margins of politics. As long as it did, both the Democrats and the Whigs could enjoy support in both sections and avoid the natural contradictions between a free and democratic government that permitted slavery. While the early 1850s did not see slavery completely eclipse all other issues, both parties drifted in similar directions. To draw on an example that will return later, argument in the early part of the decade did not involve whether to have internal improvements, but rather where to locate the largest internal improvement project the nation had ever contemplated: a transcontinental railroad. Differences remained, but many of them did not run so hot as they had in past decades. The Mexican War and ensuing fallout pushed slavery into the limelight in a more sustained way than ever before and the backlash did not push it all the way back into the political wilderness.

That presented a serious problem for the Whigs, who did not have quite the same party loyalty machinery that the Democrats had with which to manage internal divisions. The passing of the Armistice showed that Whigs could not even muster a coalition to support their own solutions to national issues. The prominent role of Stephen Douglas’s Democrats in making the Clay Measures into law sent a signal South that they could best trust the security of slavery to the Democracy. Up North, antislavery Whigs could have read that same signal with delight, but for the role their party had in prosecuting the most noxious part of the Armistice, the Fugitive Slave Law.

Who would the Whigs run for president, then? The Southern wing of the party wanted a second Fillmore administration thanks to his support of that most radical act of Congress in the nation’s history to date. The Northern Whigs hated Fillmore for the same reason. Fillmore’s home state of New York held many of his most dedicated foes, led by none other than William Seward.

Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott, Old Fuss and Feathers

Seward adopted the winning formula of the two previous Whig victories: find a winning general and nominate him. It worked for William Henry Harrison. It worked for Zachary Taylor. In both cases, the Whig nominee won and then died in office, which left Whig much less to Northern Whig liking in the White House. But 100% of Whig administrations still amounted to only two elections and thus hardly anything to draw a conclusion from. A general at least offered the potential to run a war hero who could distract from policy questions that divided the party and they couldn’t all die in office.

The general on hand for Seward’s faction again led armies to victory in a war that most Whigs hated. In the place of Zachary Taylor, victor of Buena Vista, they put Winfield Scott, who marched through the Halls of Montezuma. Like Taylor, Scott hailed from the South. But unlike Taylor, Scott did not own slaves. The Southern Whigs had seen Seward play this game before, picking a soldier that, they imagined, he groomed and wooed away from his natural Southern inclinations toward Yankee antislavery agitation.

The Whigs did not have an easy time of it when they convened in Baltimore. Southerners forced through a platform that endorsed the Armistice and its finality, forever closing the book on slavery and rubbing salt into the wounds inflicted by the Fugitive Slave Law. No Southern Whig voted against the platform. On the nomination itself, New England broke away to support Daniel Webster, but later came around to Scott. After fifty-three ballots, Scott finally received the nomination. His support came 95% from the North. Fillmore’s came 85% from the South.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

For Whigs like Alexander Stephens, the Scott nomination did not go down easy. They had just told the nation that Union rested on the Armistice, especially the Fugitive Slave Law. Now their own party rejected the man who did the most to ensure it? Stephens, Toombs, and seven other Southern congressmen refused to support Scott. They led a wave of defections. The Whigs did not immediately turn Democrat, but they stayed home on election day in droves. The Deep South delivered less than 37% of its popular vote to the Whigs, down from 50% just four years earlier. They did better, but still lost, in the Upper South and Border States. Of the entire South, Scott carried only Kentucky and Tennessee.

Outside the presidential race, the Whigs won no governorship in any of the future Confederate states. They retained control of the legislature only in Tennessee. Of the sixty-five congressional races they contested, they won only fourteen. The entire Southern Whig contingent in the House shrank in short order to twenty-two.

Surveying the wreckage in Deep South Georgia, Stephens pronounced Whiggery dead.

The Twilight of the Second Party System

The idea of party systems deserves more of an introduction than my passing references last week. Broadly speaking, major realigning elections make and break party systems. Those realignments in turn come out of major events, processes, and trends in the wider culture. In American history, the First Party System involved the Federalists squaring off against the Republicans. That invites no end to confusion with the Republican Party that formed in the 1850s, but Jefferson and his contemporaries picked the name with callous disregard for the primacy of the men who gathered decades after his death. Inheriting that mess, we usually call Jefferson’s party the Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans.

After the Federalists dissolved in the wake of the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans became by default the dominant party of American politics. For about a decade, during which many thought a republic might function better with only the one party instead of two, they had no opposition. But people do disagree, whether they have institutions built around those disagreements or not. In the absence of organized opposition, the Democratic-Republicans needed few institutions to keep themselves together through those natural disagreements.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Those disagreements over policy, over sectional interests, over party organization, and wrapped up in the personal animosities of various players, split the Democratic-Republicans four ways in 1824. In a time of weak party organization, with none of the four candidates commanding an electoral college majority, the election went to the House of Representatives. There Henry Clay managed to make John Quincy Adams president instead of war hero Andrew Jackson, who won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote alike. Clay in turn received appointment as Secretary of State.

Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party

Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party

Jackson saw all of that and cried foul, denouncing the whole thing as a corrupt bargain to hand the election to the man who lost it. He and his supporters, chief among them Martin Van Buren, set out building a thoroughgoing party organization to ensure a secretive band of elites couldn’t steal another election. Recent historians have dismissed Jackson’s accusations, but he and his supporters believed them and acted accordingly. They founded the Democratic Party as a kind of anti-elitist common white man’s conservative party, aimed at fighting moneyed business interests and preserving a kind of populist version of Jefferson’s elitist agrarianism against the forces of industrialization and modernization.

The Jacksonian Democrats, with Van Buren as their organizational mastermind, placed a strong emphasis on party loyalty on local and national levels. Even if one’s own faction did not prevail a Democrat ought to feel honor bound to support the candidate and platform of the national party. Martin Van Buren did not feel so obligated in 1848, but a conspicuous departure from the norm does not negate the general tendency.

The Whigs, from their inception as the anti-Jackson movement, did not have that kind of institutional unity. Their coalition had a Southern wing of dedicated Nullifiers enraged over Jackson’s embrace of federal power over the states. That kind of thing could lead to abolition. But the Northern Whigs wanted internal improvements to build national infrastructure for trade and commerce. That required a deep-pocketed, engaged federal government to take on projects that crossed state lines and might demand resources beyond any state’s ability alone. The Democrats thought that entire program would enrich the rich and do nothing for the common man, a prospect which did not discomfit well-heeled Whigs much at all.

Before slavery came to dominate everything, the Whigs’ internal divisions did not bring them to much sorrow. As long as it stayed off the table, the common interests of many wealthy planters and industrialists alike made for sufficient unity. Especially in the old Southwest, wealthy planters had a healthy interest in growing commerce.  (DeBow’s Review, published out of New Orleans, proclaimed commerce its king at the front of every issue.) They appreciated the tariff, which brought in revenue that could go to internal improvements, and in an era when the South increasingly felt left behind by the pace of national development the Whigs offered a path to sectional improvement. Especially in Louisiana, sugar planters also appreciated the tariff’s protection against cheaper sugar from more tropical climes. Calhoun’s South, like Jefferson’s, had largely passed away by the 1850s.

So too had the era when slavery might intrude into national politics and then recede back to the margins once the crisis passed. War, California, the rest of the new Southwest, four years of tension, and the fugitive slave law closed the door on that, at least temporarily.

With its organizing principles and sectional modus vivendi overthrown by fire-eater secession conspiracies and fugitive slave rescues, how long could the old order endure? Uncle Tom’s Cabin flew off the shelves and abolitionists spilled the blood of slave catchers as the days of Millard Fillmore’s term ran out and the election of 1852 loomed ahead.

The Past is a Foreign Country with Foreign Parties

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A few nights ago, a friend asked me about how the parties lined up historically. He wanted to name the good and evil parties. Those terms have a certain utility in thinking about history, but also invite us to sort the world into angels and demons instead of people with all their complexities. A man who owned slaves did not necessarily rape his wife or beat his children. A man who did not might engage in both acts. However much their positions on slavery skew our estimations of their characters, people in the past had all the same ability to surprise and disappoint us that people today have. That makes them interesting, if also sometimes frustrating.

One can, of course, go too far the other way. Viewing the past through a lens calibrated to strict separations of good and evil does not serve us well, except maybe for cheap debating points, but actually grants it more complexity than the opposite extreme where everyone ends up in a uniform moral grayness that invites only our indifference. I can only speak for myself, and I struggle to maintain the perspective, but I find history both less depressing and more edifying by granting historical figures a continuum full of shades of gray. How else can one make sense of Whigs against slavery but for the Fugitive Slave Act, like Abraham Lincoln, and Democrats, like Stephen Douglas, entirely disinterested in slavery who nonetheless devoted themselves to the suppression of the Confederacy created to preserve it? (Douglas died before he could play a major role in wartime politics.)

They do things differently in the past, as the cliché says. But that goes beyond just having different priorities. We naturally tend to see our present in the past. While we should not ignore the real continuities, but must also own up to the differences. The modern American left considers itself an anti-racist movement. I suspect most liberals would tell you that racism and liberalism simply do not go together. Fair enough, but the one time the American left included diehard white supremacists of the old Confederacy in the heart of its coalition. The New Deal, for all the good it did uplifting poor and desperate Americans, took great care not to challenge white supremacy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates brought it to mind and so reminded me of my talk with my friend. While certain general trends hold for much of American history, the party coalitions changed many times. We rarely talk much about a shift that happened within living memory when Southern whites left the Democratic Party in droves over civil rights and integration, finding a new home in the one-time Party of Lincoln. Those same Dixiecrats who left the party once supported such un-Republican ideas as collective bargaining and regulation of industry. Only when those commitments conflicted with their commitment to a segregated society where whites gave orders and blacks listened did their politics shift.

These shifts happen fairly often in American history, accompanied by realignments that change the dominant party and party system every few decades. (We live in either a very long-lived party system with a major division around 1968 or a very long-lived period of confused realignment.) Many of the same people who wanted slavery abolished feared the growing influence of Catholic immigrants and turned to nativist hysteria. Those do not seem like natural bedfellows to us in an era when the left sees itself as a cosmopolitan and egalitarian movement, but the Free Soilers and Republicans-to-be did not necessarily hail from the more cosmopolitan tradition of the day. Quite the opposite, a lot of brother’s keeper style New England puritanism informed their worldview. They might not express it in cold, Calvinist terms, but the same kind of religious sentiment that drove Puritans to whip Quakers played into a disdain for slavery and a desire for a kind of scoured-clean national uniformity. Slavery threatened that, but so did Catholics threaten the Protestant purity of the United States. Alcohol posed a similar threat in addition to serving as a useful way to make life difficult for those same Catholics, who everyone “knew” pickled themselves so thoroughly that two in a room together constituted a fire hazard.

While not as large a factor in American as in European history, the old Reformation idea that the Antichrist sat at the head of the Roman Catholic Church certainly played a role in the animosity too. Europeans, and transplanted Europeans in America, might have retired the notion that they must constantly murder their neighbors for religious uniformity, but that did not mean they entirely forgot their roots and their old hatreds. To some people of the era, Catholicism united the foreign radicalism of Old Europe, plain old distrust of new people and new ways, and genuine religious horror.

Most modern Americans would probably call those sentiments conservative. In modern American politics, their modern forms do cluster mostly on the right. But shifts in coalitions don’t amount to musical chairs either. The ideal of national purity, if long secularized, animates egalitarian movements seeking to improve the lots of LGBT people, the poor, and other disadvantaged groups. It also persists, in a far less secularized form, in the modern American right, which would rather see the nation purified, or at least isolated from, the influences of those same disadvantaged groups. Both sides happily claim the legacy of the abolitionists, as they understand it. All parties want a city on a hill, whether as a light to the world or as a sort of patriotic self-improvement.

I suppose that all amounts to saying that we can’t understand historical parties in terms of their simple switching positions any more than we can understand them as holding to eternal verities expressed consistently, if within the contexts of particular times. Continuities and discontinuities mark the histories of political movements. The left and right of the 1850s, a division increasingly to do with slavery, belong in the 1850s. The left and right of the 2010s, or of the 1960s, or 1930s, have major realignments dividing them from those past lefts and rights. Some ideas carry through, some switch sides, and some split and recombine with all the messiness we experience in our daily lives.

Backlash and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe, depicted in 1852 by Francis Holt

Harriet Beecher Stowe, depicted in 1852 by Francis Holt

Only 332 slaves returned to bondage through the Fugitive Slave Law’s offices. Slave catchers seized eleven more who proved their freedom. Of those 332, slave catchers took eighty-four in the first fifteen months of the law’s operation. Five of the eleven later found free came in the same period. After the first rush of dramatic captures and rescues, things settled down. In 1852, only one-third of the previous year’s number of slaves ended up back in the South.

Some degree of conservative backlash certainly played a role here, as Democrats and conservative Whigs championed the Fugitive Slave Law and the finality of the Armistice. After the initial shock, antislavery politics receded back into the fringes where decent, self-respecting white people ought not venture if they cared about their reputations. That backlash included Indiana and Iowa passing laws barring any black person from their territory in 1851, followed by Illinois in 1853. At least on paper, those laws closed a sizable portion of the border between slave and free states. In the parts of those states that bordered on slave states, the laws enjoyed considerable popularity. The white locals there often came from slave states originally or had close ties to them at present and so inclined more to helping slave catchers than fugitives.

But not every Yankee took part in the reaction consciously, of course. Many found the prospect of legions of Catholic immigrants simply a greater horror and thus directed their energies toward opposing the tide arriving after the Potato Famine and the European revolutions of 1848. Antislavery sentiment probably swelled to new heights right after the Fugitive Slave Law came into force, but just as the sky did not fall in the South over the Armistice, nor did it fall in the North. After a first rush of captures and rescues, life returned to something resembling the status quo. If the South could live under the Armistice, thanks in part to rising cotton prices, the North could live under it too and direct its energies to other concerns.

Harriet Beecher Stowe did not settle contentedly back into the status quo. She grew up antislavery and lived for a time in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio from slavery. She probably hid some fugitives in her home. But she credited her god and James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act as the inspiration for her serialized novel, written by candlelight after her six children found their beds.

I have never read it. I suppose I will eventually, but my tolerance for her sort of Victorian sentimentality and melodrama does not extend far and I have many other things I want to read first. Among them, I suspect I can get as much out of Frederick Douglass’s narrative as I would from Stowe. But my tastes in reading aside, Uncle Tom’s Cabin fairly blew the doors off Northern printers. Starting on June 5, 1851, white America read a story by a white woman depicting all the horrors of slavery. (Narratives by former slaves themselves often got passed off as written in secret by white abolitionists and in an era of deep racism must have carried a whiff of self-serving advocacy that a work openly written by a white woman could not.) The collected edition came out on March 20, 1852 and sold 300,000 copies within a year. It sold well in Britain, winning the admiration of a future Prime Minister, and saw several translations. Writers adapted it for the stage.

Stowe wrote for an audience that does not include me, but did include vast numbers of white Americans. To judge by sales alone, she struck a deep chord in their consciences. The South knew it and hated it. But Stowe hit some of them in the same place. They shared a common religious culture, if one increasingly at war with itself. Charleston devoured the book so fast that sellers could not keep the it in stock despite attempts to ban it as inflammatory abolitionist propaganda. Her Southern popularity probably had to do with how carefully Stowe implicated the entire nation in slavery, making her greatest villain a transplanted Yankee and focusing on the human effects of slavery on the slaves themselves, rather than on the customary aspersions the abolitionist press heaped upon the slaveholder. Books about terrible things you do go down easier than books about the terrible thing you are in any era.

That kind of success, especially one hitting so close to home, provoked a vehement defense. The next two years saw no less than fifteen novels inverting the story and showing just how wonderful slaves had it down South compared to the cold, inhospitable North. They even insisted black slaves in the South had happier lives than white industrial workers. Charleston’s William Gilmore Simms had one in print almost as fast as Stowe wrote. His book, Woodcraft, came out after Stowe’s but their serialized chapters came out almost together. Simms’s slave characters, naturally, refuse freedom whenever one dared offer it.

The Burned Over District and the Jerry Rescue

Not every fugitive slave rescue could involve a pitched battle like what happened at Christiana, surely to the relief of all involved. Nobody wanted to get shot, even if they accepted the risk in certain circumstances. Most fugitives captured ended up back in slavery with the cooperation or silent indifference of the white North, or by the simple expedient of the slave catchers seizing their quarry and bolting South without risking the proper channels. We should not take the inspiring, if also deeply troubling, stories of the more dramatic rescues as evidence of a unified North committed to ending slavery. One would have trouble finding that even fairly late in the war.

The Burned Over District (Wikimedia Commons)

The Burned Over District (Wikimedia Commons)

In Upstate New York, the Burned Over District got its name from the waves of religious revivalism that swept over it in the few decades before the Civil War. The area gave birth to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Adventist family of denominations. But the revivalists did not limit themselves to matters spiritual. The District helped make abolition from a movement largely focused on persuading slaveholders and limited to small discussion groups into a popular, if still very much minority, affair. Something similar, if on a smaller scale, happened with women’s rights. The area also gave us temperance, which we took far too long to give back.

All of those public meetings, sermons, lectures, platforms, and papers translated into real action too. The Burned Over District gave birth to the nation’s first antislavery party, the tiny Liberty Party. Its small share of the New York vote might have swung the election of 1844 from Henry Clay to James K. Polk, as Clay and his Whigs even then had a somewhat more moderate position on slavery than the Democrats did. One can thus presume that at least some Liberty votes came at the expense of Clay, who lost New York by a margin of 5100 votes. The Liberty Party delivered 15,800 votes for its own James G. Birney. Had Clay won in 1844, the entire course of the following decades might have run very differently. Or it might not have, since Clay would face many of the same pressures Polk did.

At any rate, the Liberty Party had its state convention in Syracuse, a major station on the Underground Railroad, in 1851. Secretary of State Daniel Webster warned the party, and Syracuse in general, that the government would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act even under their noses and on October 1, as they convened in a local church slave catchers took William McHenry, a cooper who escaped slavery in Missouri. In Syracuse, he went by the name Jerry.

His captors told Jerry that they wanted him for theft, put him in irons, and then told him the truth. Jerry then put up a fight, but did only as well as someone in chains could expect. Word reached the Liberty Party in their church. The wife of the commissioner who would hear the case may have tipped them off. Hundreds of Liberty Party faithful and other abolitionists stormed the jail, under the leadership of prominent abolitionists Gerrit Smith and Samuel J. May and with Seward’s Higher Law as their ideological backbone. They took Jerry out and saw him off to Canada.

The grand jury indicted twenty-four people, half white and half black, for their roles in the Jerry Rescue. In a step back from the charges after the Battle of Christiana, which had yet to reach trial, they faced only accusations of rioting instead of also treason. Nine of the black defendants remained safe in Canada. Of the remainder who stood trial, only one black man received a conviction. He died during the course of appeals.

This and the previous rescues sound wonderful to most modern people, but imagine what they looked like in the South. The Georgia Platform came out in December of 1850, telling the nation that only the Fugitive Slave Act’s zealous enforcement by the North held the South to the Union. Now they saw mobs of Northerners ready to in effect overthrow the Union by jury nullification, by base violence, and in fact by treason, to subvert that very act’s enforcement. The minds of the long dead do not sit on a shelf where we can peer into them to know their every reaction, but it must have resembled the way Northerners looked on a later South using the same tools to subvert civil rights laws.

The Unionism of Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs rested on a plank to which the North eagerly applied a saw. How long could it last? Every rescue further armed their fire-eating opposites.