The following deals with events, conflicts, and people during 1848-1854.
DISCLAIMER: This does NOT serve as a replacement for reading Chapter 18.
After we brought California, Texas, and space in between into our possession, the age old question of slavery heated up again. The Northerners supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would outlaw slavery in the Mexican Concession territory, but the Southerners struck it down in the Senate. The issue of slavery would come to divide US politics more than it already was.
In order to maintain national union, the North and South would have to work together. With the abolitionists in the North and the fire-eaters in the South, it seemed impossible. After Polk wanted only one term due to poor health, the Democrats turned to General Lewis Cass, an advocate for states’ rights and popular sovereignty (a state would determine whether or not it would outlaw slavery). For a short time, it seemed like a good compromise, but if slavery spread even more, it would have horrific consequences.
The Whigs, meanwhile, nominated Old Rough and Ready Zach Taylor, who would dodge pressing issues and hard questions at every turn. Zach, though he wouldn’t state a position on slavery, owned a multitude of slaves in Louisiana. Fed up with the candidates, the Free-Soil Party was formed and nominated Van Buren for another stay as President. The Soilers didn’t want an end to slavery because it was immoral or because it enslaved blacks; they instead abhorred it because it took away jobs from deserving whites. Van Buren would spoil the ticket for Cass in New York and give Zach Taylor the Presidency.
The discovery of gold in Sutter’s Mill, California in 1848 set off a mass migration never before witnessed. Very few miners made the big bucks and those that did did so from doing services for the miners at crazy high prices. The small government couldn’t handle all of these new, lawless men and women and in 1849, drew up a state constitution that outlawed slavery and applied to Congress for admission into the Union. Cali had completely bypassed the normal territorial stages, which made many southerners angry.
The Antebellum South was doing great. They controlled the White House and the House, while having the same votes as the North in the Senate. Cotton fields were expanding and the price for it was rising. But with California’s admission into the Union, as well as Utah and New Mexico on the path to become free states, the balance between the North and South quickly became lopsided. Since the area of Mexican Cession was won with southern blood, it made no sense why they shouldn’t all be slave states.
Out west, Texas insisted that it owned half of New Mexico and southerns were angry at the possible abolition in Washington, DC, an area between two slave states. Harriet Tubman helped 300 slaves escape from bondage on the Underground Railroad and by 1850, infuriated southerns enough for them to demand a new slave law. The old law from 1793 did little to help slaves return to their ‘rightful’ owners in the South. What’s funny is that only about 1,000 slaves escaped each year.
In October of 1849, the South threatened to meet in Nashville the next year to discuss secession. Henry Clay and Stephen Douglass stepped up their game in the Senate and provided that both regions make concessions, the North making a more accepting fugitive-slave law. Daniel Webster, meanwhile, thought it unwise to legislate slavery, seeing as the Mexican Cession area was not built for slave labor, thought it later would have flourished with it. Webster’s Seventh of March speech won over the North for compromise and he was compensated greatly for it from the wealthy of the North, who had a lot to lose from secession.
A group of youthful Congressmen, dubbed the Young Guard, vehemently fought against slavery. Their leader, William Seward, believed God’s law to be higher than the constitution and didn’t realize that compromise kept the Union together. President Taylor, it seemed, agreed with Seward and vetoed all compromises. In 1850, Texas threatened to march into Santa Fe to take over New Mexico and could’ve started the Civil War then and there with the South coming to their rescue.
With Taylor’s death in 1850, Millard Fillmore stepped into his shoes and passed most of the compromises. Henry Clay, though a year from death, gave some seventy speeches on behalf of concessions. Still, the South was angry and some even boycotted Northern goods. They met in Nashville in 1850 as planned, though nothing came of it and they gradually accepted compromise. Prosperity for the North meant prosperity for the South and a second Era of Good Feelings dawned, in which the general consensus was that slavery was no longer an issue.
The South sure got the short end of the stick with the Compromise of 1850, as both Utah and New Mexico were able to decide whether or not they wanted slavery (both didn’t). Texas was forced to give up their claim in New Mexico for $10 million. Meanwhile, total abolition wasn’t granted in DC, but the slave trade was outlawed there. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it harder for slaves to escape, as anyone caught helping them was jailed and fined. The law also made it impossible for slaves to testify in their defense and have access to a trial-by-jury. In addition, the commissioner handling the case would be paid $5 if the the slave was freed and $10 if he wasn’t.
There was an outcry in the North. The Underground Railroad worked even faster and Massachusetts, taking a page out of the South Carolina Exposition [see Chapter 13], made it illegal for state officials to enforce the new slave law. Since the law was the only thing the South actually gained from the Compromise, they were angered all the more. The Compromise of 1850 did much to aid the North’s prosperity, which would give them a decisive edge in the Civil War.
In 1852, the Democrats opted again for another dark horse candidate in Franklin Pierce. Pierce, though a northerner, supported the South and was committed to territorial expansion. The Whigs nominated Winfield Scott, though they probably could’ve won with Webster or Fillmore. Winfield had a horrible personality and wouldn’t earn the Whigs many votes.
The Whig party was irrevocably split among the North and South. Though Scott claimed to support the Fugitive Slave Law, many southerners doubted it. With Scott’s defeat, the Whigs were effectively done as political organization, though they had done much to keep the states united.
With gold found in California, Manifest Destiny was reborn. Now, there only needed to be an easy way to navigate from one coast to the other. With the Brits encroaching on the shortest way to California (Central America), the Americans signed a treaty with Columbia in 1848 that granted them access across the isthmus (future site of the Panama Canal), so long as the US stayed neutral. A long railroad was then completed in 1855 with the loss of many lives. Britain and the US then agreed that neither would fortify an isthmus in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.
Meanwhile, the South hungered for more slave states after the Compromise left them with nothing. William Walker took over Nicaragua for a while as a slave state, but was quickly killed by a coalition of Latin American countries. Cuba was another option, but Spain wouldn’t sell. American pirates had attempted to invade Cuba to no avail. In 1854, Cuban officials seized the Black Warrior, an American ship, and forced President Pierce’s hand on the matter.
At the same time, the American ministers in Spain, France, and England met secretly and drew up the Ostend Manifesto. Pierce would offer $120 million for Cuba and when Spain refused, war would be justified for taking the island. The Manifesto leaked to northerners and soon Pierce was decried for his sneaky efforts. Virtually all attempts at territorial expansion in the 1850s had to do with slavery.
In 1842, Britain opened up five treaty ports in China for all the world. The US had capitalized on this offer, sent over gifts for the Chinese diplomats, and soon the Treaty of Wanghia was signed, orchestrated by Caleb Crushing. The US became China’s favorite nation and enjoyed decades of great trade. Missionaries were also welcomed in China, though the mood against the US would turn to resentment after we allied with Western powers that essentially shat on Chinese culture.
President Millard Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan in 1852 to give gifts to the Japanese delegation. His battleships were at first alarming and after he gave the gifts, he gave the Japanese a year to think it over. The Treaty of Kanagawa was signed in 1854 and stopped the brutal treatment of shipwrecked sailors in Japan (they weren’t allowed to leave before) and opened up American coaling rights in Japan.
Transportation to California was still a problem. The isthmus route was a tad too long and wagon travel was slow and dangerous. A railroad had to be built. Appeasing the South, the rail would start in Houston and then end in Los Angeles. Because the New Mexico territory was so rocky, the Gadsden Purchase had to be made in order for the railroad to be built. $10 million was paid to the cash-strapped Santa Anna and with it, New Mexico was deemed an organized territory. Northerners then insisted that Nebraska also should be organized.
Senator Stephen Douglas set up a compromise of sorts with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would divide the massive Nebraska Territory into two parts that would each vote on whether or not they wanted slavery. It was assumed that Kansas would vote to be a slave state and Nebraska, a free one. This of course was in direct contradiction with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which stated that slavery was outlawed in every territory above the base of Missouri. The anti-slavery northerners hated this Act, though with Douglas’ political precision, it got passed through Congress.
The K-N Act did more to induce the Civil War than anything else passed by Congress. Its complete disregard for the Missouri Compromises of 1820 and 1850 also encouraged northerners to resist any southern expansion. Antislavery activists funneled into Kansas to fix the votes while the Republican party was getting its start in the Mid-West. Former Whigs, Know-Nothings, and all foes of the K-N Act quickly joined. They grew into a major party overnight and were largely sectional and won no elections below the Mason-Dixon line.
It was clear now more than ever that the Union wouldn’t be united for very long.