Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.

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