1850 to 1860
A Fire Bell in the Night
The period from 1850 to 1860 was notable for many things. Melville published Moby-Dick, Hawthorne his House of the Seven Gables, and Whitman Leaves of Grass. The New York Times started publishing in 1851. But the best-selling book of the decade (only surpassed by the Bible) was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin --- a searing indictment of slavery, exposing it as a brutal, inhumane system of bondage. That the Abolitionist Movement had grown significantly by 1850 (having started, unofficially, with William Lloyd Garrison publishing The Liberator in Massachusetts in 1831) and with the Underground Railroad abetting the escape of at least 1000 slaves a year, tensions had significantly increased between the North and South. That the decade also featured a string of four of our worst Presidents, along with the most reactionary Chief Justice of the Supreme Court only added to the inevitability (in hindsight) of the Civil War. Indeed, Jefferson’s fire bell in the night was ringing loud and clear throughout the decade.
The Compromise of 1850, the last deal consummated by “The Great Compromiser” Henry Clay (he and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts --- “The Lion of the Senate” ---both died in 1852, leaving a huge leadership vacuum in the Senate), was the first string that began unraveling the decade. With California’s application for admission to the Union (the territory’s population exploded after the 1849 Gold Rush), the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was defunct (California’s boundaries straddled the 36-30 dividing line). Since California had applied for admission as a “free” state, upsetting the free/slave “balance” in the Senate, the South needed to be appeased in some way, shape, or form. A series of separate bills were passed, comprising the final compromise.
After the Mexican War, the U.S. had vast new territories, including what would become the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwestern states, and California. Various bills were proposed but they either failed in the Senate or were turned down (before a vote) by President Zachary Taylor who, despite being a slave-owning Louisianan, opposed the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Taylor, however, died in 1850 and his Vice President, Millard Fillmore of New York, was more amenable to expanding slavery into the new territories and assuaging the South. As a result, the Compromise of 1850, passed as a series of individual bills (engineered by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas) which did the following: California was admitted as a “free” state and slave trading (not slavery itself) was banned in Washington, D.C. --- concessions to the North. What the South got was a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act (federally enforceable) and, most significantly, popular sovereignty, a concept that allowed new territories to decide (by “popular” voting) if they were to be admitted as “free” or “slave” states. The South was sure that New Mexico, Arizona, and any states formed from the former Texas territories --- Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada --- would swing for slavery. So, with Douglas and Clay guiding the bills and Fillmore amenable to signing them into law, the Compromise of 1850 was struck.
After the publication of Stowe’s Uncle Tom and the deterioration of the Whig Party --- originally created to oppose Jacksonian Democrats --- American politics began to swirl into a violent vortex. The Whigs were gradually replaced by the American (Know-Nothing) Party --- a group that was anti-Catholic, hostile to immigration, and xenophobic (if you’ve seen Gangs of New York Daniel Day-Lewis’s “Bill the Butcher” is the epitome of the Know-Nothing Party). In other words, not unlike today, the nation was becoming increasingly polarized. The tension was exacerbated by the lack of leadership from White House. Fillmore was not even re-nominated by his party, being succeeded by the equally lackluster Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire (who had a notorious drinking problem years earlier --- but tee-totaled in the WH). Pierce, too, was not re-nominated in 1856 and the Presidency went to Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan, a Southern sympathizer noted for being our only bachelor President but even more notable for his lack of courage and decisiveness.
Tomorrow: A Fire Bell in the Night, Part Two