Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s

Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s

Paul Finkelman
Donald R. Kennon
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Ohio University Press
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    Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s
    Book Description:

    During the long decade from 1848 to 1861 America was like a train speeding down the track, without an engineer or brakes. The new territories acquired from Mexico had vastly increased the size of the nation, but debate over their status-and more importantly the status of slavery within them-paralyzed the nation. Southerners gained access to the territories and a draconian fugitive slave law in the Compromise of 1850, but this only exacerbated sectional tensions. Virtually all northerners, even those who supported the law because they believed that it would preserve the union, despised being turned into slave catchers. In 1854, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress repealed the ban on slavery in the remaining unorganized territories. In 1857, in theDred Scottcase, the Supreme Court held that all bans on slavery in the territories were unconstitutional. Meanwhile, northern whites, free blacks, and fugitive slaves resisted the enforcement of the 1850 fugitive slave law. In Congress members carried weapons and Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him. This was the decade of the 1850s and these were the issues Congress grappled with.This volume of new essays examines many of these issues, helping us better understand the failure of political leadership in the decade that led to the Civil War.ContributorsSpencer R. CrewPaul FinkelmanMatthew GlassmanAmy S. GreenbergMartin J. HershockMichael F. HoltBrooks D. SimpsonJenny Wahl

    eISBN: 978-0-8214-4399-6
    Subjects: Law, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction: A Disastrous Decade
    (pp. 1-17)
    Paul Finkelman

    It was a remarkable period, unlike any other in American history. It was the long decade of the 1850s. It began in 1848 with the end of the Mexican War and the presidential election. It ended in 1860 with the election of Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina. It began in crisis and ended in catastrophe. The crisis was rooted in the dramatic success of American forces in the Mexican War (1846–48). The war added massive amounts of new land to the nation—all or most of the present-day states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah...

  4. Politics, Patronage, and Public Policy: The Compromise of 1850
    (pp. 18-35)
    Michael F. Holt

    Worked out in fractious debates and seemingly endless roll call votes that lasted from early December 1849 until late September 1850, passage of the Compromise of 1850 is one of the most famous episodes in congressional history. It was necessitated by and helped resolve an increasingly rancorous sectional quarrel about whether slavery could be ex tended to the lands acquired from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War. That quarrel was ignited fully eighteen months before the actual acquisition of the Mexican Cession by ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in March 1848.

    War with Mexico began in...

  5. The Appeasement of 1850
    (pp. 36-79)
    Paul Finkelman

    The Compromise of 1850 has always been seen as a classic moment of American political history. Historians wax eloquent about the brilliance of the debate, the selfless dedication to the Union of some of the participants, and particularly the heroic role of Henry Clay in coming out of retirement to craft a compromise in 1850, as he had done in 1820. The traditional works also acknowledge the other “heroic” men of the age who worked with Clay, especially Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. Thus the historian Robert Remini has argued in his recent book on the compromise that “once...

  6. Beyond the Balance Rule: Congress, Statehood, and Slavery, 1850–1859
    (pp. 80-96)
    Matthew Glassman

    In February 1859 the U.S. House of Representatives voted on S. 239, an Act to Admit Oregon to the Union, which had passed the Senate the previous March by a vote of 35 to 17.¹ At the time of the vote, members of the House knew one crucial piece of information: Oregon was going to be a free state.² As part of the referendum on their new constitution in November 1857 and in accordance with the general principles of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, voters in the Oregon Territory had been given a choice on slavery in the future state, and had...

  7. Manifest Destiny’s Hangover: Congress Confronts Territorial Expansion and Martial Masculinity in the 1850s
    (pp. 97-119)
    Amy S. Greenberg

    How much land is too much land? In the course of a short but devastating war in the late 1840s, Mexico lost about half her territory to the United States. One might imagine that the Mexican Cession, over half a million square miles of land, would satisfy Americans and would satiate the seemingly unquenchable expansionist desire that had governed American international relations since at least the 1830s. How after dismembering Mexico in 1848, and becoming a continental nation, could anyone expect, demand even, that the United States grow yet larger? This seems like a particularly good question given the explosive...

  8. “When the Victims of Oppression Stand Up Manfully for Themselves”: The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Role of African Americans in Obstructing Its Enforcement
    (pp. 120-142)
    Spencer R. Crew

    The opening months of 1850 were a time of challenge for the nation and for the Thirty-First Congress. The successful war against Mexico and the acquisition of new lands once again raised the issue of the place of slavery in the nation. These were issues similar to those that had appeared with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which also dramatically in creased the size of the country. Southerners wanted assurances that they could bring slaves with them as they moved onto the new lands. They perceived not having that option as a threat to both their economic well-being and the...

  9. “Agitation Is as Necessary as Tranquility Is Dangerous”: Kinsley S. Bingham Becomes a Republican
    (pp. 143-158)
    Martin J. Hershock

    On December 6, 1847, in the midst of a controversial war with neigh boring Mexico, the Thirtieth Congress of the United States gathered together in Washington, D.C., for the first time. Among the 230 congress men assembled that day were 110 Democrats, 116 Whigs, two members from the new state of Wisconsin, and a handful of freshman members, among them Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a Whig, and Kinsley Bingham, a Democrat from Michigan.

    Nearly identical in age (Bingham was born on December 16, 1808, and Lincoln on February 12, 1809) and hailing from states on the old northwestern frontier, both...

  10. Dred, Panic, War: How a Slave Case Triggered Financial Crisis and Civil Disunion
    (pp. 159-202)
    Jenny Wahl

    In eerily familiar ways, the financial panic of 1857 prefigures the current subprime mortgage crisis. Then as now, lightly regulated institutions eagerly extended credit based on exciting new financial instruments, speculators assumed that real property values would continue to climb indefinitely, and the reverberations from the inevitable collapse echoed round the world. The words of one pundit seem apt: History repeats itself because nobody listens.²

    What follows is an account of the Panic of 1857, arguably the first truly global financial meltdown that involved multiple interlocking markets and sectors. In their landmark study of the panic, Charles Calomiris and Larry...

  11. “Hit Him Again”: The Caning of Charles Sumner
    (pp. 203-222)
    Brooks D. Simpson

    “We have before us a long season of excitement and ribald debate.” So wrote Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner (fig. 1) in March 1856.¹ Events two months later validated his prediction. Indeed, it would be Sumner’s own speech, “The Crime against Kansas,” delivered in May 1856, on the eve of the escalation of political violence in Kansas, that sparked a retort that would leave its mark on American politics as well as on the senator. That retort came in the form of South Carolina congressman Preston S. Brooks’s attack on Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate on May 22,...

  12. Contributors
    (pp. 223-224)
  13. Index
    (pp. 225-232)