This is part three of my series of posts discussing exactly how slavery led to the Civil War and banishing the myth that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and that no one in antebellum America cared about slavery.
There were two parties for most of the period of 1800-1860: the Whigs and the Democrats (there were some name changes along the way). Both parties were completely evenly spread throughout the nation. There were no “red” or “blue” states. Every state was a pretty equal mix of Whig and Democrat. Americans believed in their parties, and expected to solve political problems through them.
Neither Whigs nor Democrats identified themselves with a particular region, religion, or social issue. They identified with their party. This meant that individual states had to fit their wants and needs into a national party platform. No single state or issue could take over a party’s agenda. Consensus building was the norm because any state with a particular piece of legislation to push had to get the support of the entire party. There were no factions to rely on to swing a vote.
So pro- and anti-slavery politicians who focused all their energies on the single issue of slavery could not build the majorities they needed to make their party adopt that stance. There were pro- and anti-slavery Whigs, and pro- and anti-slavery Democrats. But they kept it local. The Georgia Whig party might condone slavery, but they wouldn’t push for national laws about it, because they knew that would hurt Massachusetts Whigs, and then the Whig party might lose the Massachusetts gubernatorial election. And vice-versa, and the same went for the Democrats. So while slavery was an agitating issue, neither party took a stand on slavery on the national level.
But when the U.S. seized its huge western territories from Mexico in 1848 (today’s California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming), the south’s desire to take slavery into those territories, especially California, and the north’s desire to keep slavery out of those territories, started a conflict that eventually broke party unity. Southerners openly pushed for federal laws to protect and extend slavery. From 1846 through the 1850s, party-shattering events came in swift succession:
1846: Wilmot Proviso
1849: Nashville Convention
1850: Compromise of 1850
1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act
1854-6: the violence of Bleeding Kansas
1854: birth of the Republican party
1856: caning of Senator Charles Sumner
1857: Dred Scott decision
1859: John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry
1860: split of the Democratic party
The Democrats split at their convention into one group completely focused on protecting slavery throughout the U.S., and one “moderate” group content to let the western territories vote on whether to form free or slave states. Each side backed its own presidential candidate in 1860.
So we see that from the end of the Mexican War and steadily through the 1850s, the national parties became regional parties. This is why, although slavery was hotly debated for years, it didn’t lead to war until 1861. The acquisition of those western territories in 1848 suddenly raised the stakes on the slavery question to dizzying heights, and individual actions in the federal government and amongst the American people provoked partisan reactions that grew stronger with each incident.
The Whig party dissolved, leaving the Republicans to represent the north, with no southern members to keep happy. They were free to pursue their platform, which was based on restricting slavery. The Democratic party split, giving it no chance to win a national election.
When people saw that their old parties were no longer a good tool for dealing with issues, people lost faith in working through the political system at all. Many became convinced that they had to go outside politics and channels to get what they wanted. And war was the ultimate form of going outside politics and channels to effect change. When the south saw a Republican elected president, it withdrew from the United States altogether.
Next time: Secession