Friday, July 30, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part III: The Past is Prologue


How did it come to this? How did it get so bad that the signs became so big that even a blind man could see them? The Election of 1860 had shaped up into a four-way scrum that was probably going to tear the country apart no matter who won. Only one and two generations before, their fathers and grandfathers had fought side-by-side against the British; now, they were practically baying for one another's blood. How did it get so bad, so fast?

There was a fundamental problem baked into the Constitution at its inception in 1787. Everyone knew what it was, but no one wanted to tackle the problem straight away. The coming storm would be the price of procrastination. But to understand the problem, and how it shaped the development of the United States during the first half of the 19th Century, we have to dig back a lot farther than that.

The first thing to understand is that passage from the Old World to the New wasn't exactly free. The ships involved in setting up the first colonies back in the 1600s represented the pinnacle of the day's technology. They might well have been dropped off in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but they rode there in the Space Shuttles of their day.

Not all of them could afford the fare for the trip. Actually, only about one in five could. The rest partook of an arrangement called indentured servitude.

Being an indentured servant wasn't any fun, but there was an end to it. Once you fulfilled your contract, usually three to seven years' labor, you were free to go about whatever business you could find. There was always new land to be broken up for farming.

Initially, this was how all of the North American colonies were populated. But, in parallel with this, another system of unfree labor was taking shape. In the labor-intensive tobacco plantations of Virginia, and also in Spanish Florida, farmers began to import Africans as slaves. Soon, these plantations stopped using indentured servants entirely, for several reasons. For one, no one in his right mind would sign an indenture contract to go hustle tobacco in Virginia, or (God help you) the Carolinas, when he could go to New England instead. There were few takers at any price, so the planters eventually stopped asking. For another, it takes a while to teach a new hand how the job is done, and that training is lost when the indenturee completes his contract.

So, even by the time of the Revolution, the northern and southern sections of the country had a markedly different composition. The North was a region of smaller farms, tradesmen, and craftsmen; a diverse economy based on manufacturing and trade. The South was dominated by wealthy planters who owned large plantations, and their economy lived or died by the export of their cash crop. The North was trending towards increasing egalitarianism, while the South was trending towards an entrenched aristocracy.

That was the situation as of 1787. Each side had its doubts about the other, but both needed each other in the face of the external enemy, the British. This state of affairs lasted to about 1820. Then, the knives started to come out.

It was all about the balance of power in the Senate. For the South, it was vital to maintain if not a majority, then at least a parity of power in the Senate. This would allow them enough seats in the upper house to block any Constitutional changes that would affect the institution of slavery. They were keen, very keen, on inducting new States into the Union that would permit slavery, and thereby keep parity. They were content to go one-for-one with the North on this. That is where the Missouri Compromise came from. Basically, this was the disposition of the new territories purchased for the Union by President Jefferson. The State of Missouri would be admitted as a slave-holding State. Slavery would be allowed in unincorporated territory south of parallel 36°30' north latitude, and forbidden in territories to the north.

Many observers hailed the Missouri Compromise as a triumph of negotiation. Not everyone was satisfied. Thomas Jefferson foresaw doom when he wrote to a friend that "this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror." He was right, because the Missouri Compromise Line basically sealed the deal, but it would be another generation before that fact became clear.

The next crisis would involve the Mexican-American War of 1848. In 1836, Texas fought a successful revolution against Mexico, and became an independent republic. But Texas was saddled with a massive debt that was becoming impossible to pay. So, Texas decided discretion was the better part of valor, and petitioned the United States Congress for entry to the Union in 1845. Congress accepted their offer, since Texas brought a nice chunk of land along with them ... except, of course, that they didn't necessarily have clear title to the land on offer. Mexico begged to differ. Mexico probably had a valid point, but the tips of General Taylor's soldiers' bayonets were pointier still, and carried the day. Mexico lost not only the disputed land that Texas had claimed, but everything between that and the Pacific as well.

On the one hand, people across the United States rubbed their hands together: "Oh boy! More land!" But on the other hand ... "Oh crap! NOW what do we do? How do we divide this mess up?" It took a couple of years to sort everything out. The basic shape of the deal was that the Missouri Compromise line would be extended to the Pacific. South of 36°30', slavery OK; north, forbidden. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bargaining table...

In 1849, a curious mineral find in California changed everything. Yes, sports fans, there's gold in them thar hills! Men flocked to California to get in on this action. Enough, in fact, to allow a shrewd group of Californians to petition the Union for Statehood. In an ordinary year they'd have been ignored. But they had gold, and plenty of it, and then just like now, cash talked.

And California entered the Union as a state forbidding slavery.

That sound you just heard was an echo of the wail of frustration from the South when they looked at this map:

Just like that, they'd been outflanked.

This was when the desperation began to flourish. This was when the really crazy things began to percolate. Like the Knights of the Golden Circle, for example; or the plans to invade Cuba and Central America to gain new slave-friendly territory to incorporate as States. This was the older, now-disused meaning of the word filibuster, as applied by one William Walker. Nothing came of any of this ... but any educated Southerner who could read a map knew they were doomed.

And that was ... a problem.

By 1860, there were four million slaves in the United States, collectively worth $3.5 billion. Yes, that's "billion" with a B, and yes, that's 1860. That's equivalent to $75 billion today: roughly the same amount of money (in 2010 dollars) that we spent to put a man on the Moon. Slaves were the single largest capital asset in the entire United States economy. Ahead of the railroads. Ahead of the factories.

Chew on that number for a second, and you'll know why they weren't giving up without a fight. The cause they fought for was evil, but by and large these were not irrational men.

Between 1850 and 1860, positions did nothing but harden. The North knew it held the trump cards, and knew time was on its side. Abolitionists became progressively more vocal and more strident. The South knew that, eventually, they'd be forced to forfeit a gigantic financial asset. Things almost came to a head in 1856, the first year a Republican candidate ran for President. James Buchanan, a Democrat, was elected on the premise that he'd be able to hold the Union together.

It would not come to light until a year later, but Buchanan's Secretary of War, John Floyd, was issuing some ... innovative orders to the Army. He had ordered 115,000 muskets and rifles shipped to Southern armories, and heavy ordinance shipped to depots at Galveston Harbor in Texas and Ship Island in Mississippi. He also saw to it that units posted in the South had, shall we say, sympathetic commanders.

The powder keg and fuse had been set. All it wanted was a match. The Presidential election was only three months away.

1 comment:

John said...

It's like reading the History channel!