From War With Mexico to the Rise of the Republicans: The Politics Leading to the Civil War

Pre Civil War political history began in 1844, particularly with the election. It resulted in a series of events that would result in America’s biggest in-country conflict.


By Mason Mohon | USA

Pre Civil War political history began in 1844, particularly with the election. It resulted in a series of events that would result in America’s biggest in-country conflict. The 1844 election was between Democrat James Polk and Whig Henry Clay. The two parties had very different outlooks about American policy. The Whigs, who were mostly in the North, advocated for state improvement of infrastructure and the financing of more networks, like roads, bridges, railroads, and canals. The Democrats of the South, on the other hand, were focused on America pushing its borders and expanding, and then leaving the new land in private hands. James Polk came out victorious in the election.

Polk had four goals he wanted to achieve, and he pledged to only serve for four years. In his first two years, he accomplished his goals of putting government funds in the treasury, rather than in Andrew Jackson’s pet banks, and to reduce tariffs. He was successful in both of these. Towards the end of President Tyler’s administration, the annexation of Texas had been pushed. This had given many fear that the territory would be divided up into up to five slave states, which would tilt the balance in Congress. In response, it was pushed to Polk that the US needed more Northern states to balance, so President Polk made the Oregon treaty with the British, setting the US-Canada border, and giving the US the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Idaho. When the potential dispute to the North was solved, Polk focused all efforts on Texas. The Mexicans were not happy about the US annexation of the current free territory of Texas, and they tried to stop it. When the purchase was stopped, Polk sent troops to the border, which provoked a Mexican attack. Polk in 1846 went for a declaration of war, which was granted, and began the Mexican American war. Many opposed the war and began to make theories of conspiracy. They argued that powerful and rich plantation owners were pulling the strings behind the war, resulting in the idea of “slave power.” The implementation of the gag rules on slavery and shut down of the Wilmot Proviso (which would have prohibited slavery in the territory gained from Mexico) raised these suspicions even more.

Votes for the Wilmot Proviso fell not upon party lines, but rather sectional ones. Northerners were for it, Southerners opposed it. The result was the split of the Whigs into the Northern “Conscience Whigs” and the Southern “Cotton Whigs.” This fragmentation killed the Whig party, so the Free-Soil Party came to take their place. The Free-Soilers advocated for the goals of the Wilmot Proviso, which was no more slavery in new territories. This was not because they wanted equality, but rather because they didn’t want white workers to have to compete with the cheaper labor of the slaves. Slavery would make it harder for the lower class white man to get hired, so advocacy against slavery to help white men get jobs was prominent.

The Mexican war raged on too, and the US was extremely successful. It got troops all across the Southwest (in hopes of gaining territory all the way to California) and invaded Mexico City, ending the war. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, giving the United States all of the modern southwest, which included Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Utah. This was called the Mexican Cession, and the US government gave Mexico $15 million in return. The potential wealth of the US was increased with the discovery of gold in the new territories, but an even more important issue arose. The status of slavery in these new states was unsure, for they were below the compromise line, yet they did not have soil fertile enough for plantations, adding a potential limit on the growth of slavery and meaning that the plantations would be kept in the Southeastern quarter of the US. The South would not settle for this, so they decided to rip up the Missouri Compromise line and go for the idea of popular sovereignty, meaning state populations would decide on the issue of slavery.

The gold rush caused many to move to California, and the number became so big that they wanted statehood. They had a state constitution drafted up that prohibited slavery, so Southern politicians heavily opposed it. They said that because it was below the Missouri Compromise line, California should be forced to have slavery. This was the first instance that Southern states began to openly discuss the potential of secession to keep slavery in existence. Democrat Stephen Douglas and Henry Clay organized the Compromise of 1850, which sought to solve this problem. The bill had many parts people didn’t like, though, so it was shut down. Douglas surpassed this issue by cutting it up into small bills, forming majorities for each, and passing those, getting the entire compromise of 1850 through anyway. It allowed California in as a free state, but it also increased fugitive slave laws. It allowed Utah and New Mexico into the union and gave them the choice to decide on slavery in their own constitutions, which increased popular sovereignty. It also banned the trade of slaves in Washington DC, but not slavery itself. This posed a couple of problems because popular sovereignty was so poorly defined that it could be cited as a legal argument in many vague instances, and the fugitive slave law made it very easy for Southerners to get slaves back from the North, and it forced the North to comply. Abolitionists argued that this forced compliance was heavily immoral and coercive, and it wasn’t right to force the North to use resources for a Southern cause. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe released her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was based on the stories of former slaves that she had known. It showed the horrors of plantation life and raised Northern anti-slavery sentiment, selling over a million copies. Similar to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, it played a serious role as a propaganda novel for the American North.

After California’s admission, no new states would be annexed until 1858, but the Kansas and Nebraska territories were flooded with people in need of order. The federal government wished to make a railroad through these territories, but that would prove difficult without a government to impose order. Douglas’ solution was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow the transcontinental railroad to end in his home state of Illinois, which also meant repealing the Missouri compromise line. This made antislavery Northerners angry, so they weakened fugitive slave laws by mandating that any fugitive slaves would go through due process. The slavery South was not happy about this.The Northern Whigs had nearly fallen apart, so they joined forces with Northern Democrats and the now defeated Free-Soilers, and created the Republican Party. It stood against the expansion of slavery, for increased infrastructure, high protective tariffs, and liberal land give away in expanded into territories. The diversity of policy did lead to a diverse range of support, for it appealed to people of different geographic location and political outlooks. The surge resulted in a Republican congressional majority by 1854.

Another party that arose was the Know-Nothing party, identifiable only by its anti-foreigner position. The party has deep prejudices against the Irish, Germans, and Catholics, and was expected to become the leading competition for the Democratic party. It failed only because of in-party conflict over the issue of slavery between Northern and Southern party members.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act resulted in serious conflict. An anti-slavery constitution was drafted and ready to go in Kansas because of an abolitionist influx, but all of a sudden proslavery Missourians called “Border Ruffian” went into Kansas to establish their own government. They drafted the Lecompton Constitution, which allowed slavery and was approved by then President Pierce. The proslavery crowd thought it was time to destroy the opposition they had just gained victory over, so they sought demolition of the Free-Soil city of Lawrence.The antislavery people would not take this, so John Brown led a raid on a proslavery camp and killed five people. The conflict continued to escalate and around 200 people died, giving Kansas around this time the title of “Bleeding Kansas.”

The conflict made its way into the seats of government when the nephew of pro-slavery Senator Andrew Butler, Preston Brooks, attacked an abolitionist senator named Charles Sumner after the Senator criticized Butler and Slavery kneegrows, in the South. This cost president Pierce the prospect of reelection. The Democrats nominated James Buchanan, who could not be blamed for the disaster in Kansas because he had been outside of the country. He carried his victory in the South while the North was split, and the Know-Nothing candidate gained 20 percent, spilling the Northern vote in Buchanan’s favor. This was the end of the Know-Nothing party as a third party.

James Buchanan only sought to maintain the status quo. He had no idea what a long-term solution to slavery would be, so he only hoped to keep the abolitionists at bay in the South and in the West. All he wanted to do was maintain the Union as it was. The issue of slavery would not be held down, though, because a runaway slave named Scott ran to a free state and sued for his freedom. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court as Dredd Scott v. Sandford. Chief Justice Taney had a blatant proslavery decision, saying that slaves were property that couldn’t be taken, blacks could never be citizens, and the Federal Government could not make regulations of slavery in the states, which overturned the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This declaration that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional meant that there was now no limit on the expansion of slavery, and the Republicans who wished to limit it were in trouble, while Southerners saw victory in the matter. Many Northerners, most of whom were not abolitionists, saw this as a dangerous tipping of power towards the South and a reaffirmation of the idea that “slave power” existed, which gave the fear to many that plantation lobbyists would soon control the government. Party wise, the scales seemed to be tipping to the sides of the Republicans, because the Democratic party was beginning to regionalize itself.

1858 saw the grand debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, where they debated for an Illinois Senate seat. Lincoln had been a rising Republican who gained notoriety for his Whig opposite to the Mexican war and Kansas-Nebraska act. The debates were heavily over the morality of slavery. Lincoln was attacked by Douglas for being anti-slavery and argued that Lincoln was an abolitionist. This was brought on by the fact that Lincoln claimed a country divided on slavery would not be able to exist. Douglas’ career was destroyed, though, when Lincoln challenged him to reconcile his concrete position in favor of the ambiguous policy of popular sovereignty with the Dredd Scott case decision. He could not, and popular sovereignty was seen as such an unviable solution that Douglas’ career was destroyed.

Secessionist fervor was on the rise, and John Brown’s violent raid on Harper’s Family did not decrease that. Rumor spread that the black radical was funded and backed by Northern abolitionists, so secessionists became even more enraged. The 1860 election was phenomenally fragmented, because in the North the race was between Democrat Douglas and Republic Lincoln, but in the South, the election was between Democrat Breckinridge and Constitutionalist Bell. Lincoln won the electoral vote through a clean sweep of the North, causing actual movements for Southern secession. Some Southerners wanted to stay in the union, but that possibility was destroyed when Lincoln stated he would be uncompromising in his concrete limitation of the expansion of slavery into the new territories. He was forced to stick with this policy, because if he swayed he would fall out of line with the principles he was elected on.

3 months before his inauguration, South Carolina seceded. In the following 6 months, numerous other states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, electing Jefferson Davis as president. This all resulted in the bloodiest war in American history: The Civil War.


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