1850-1877: Government and Politics: Overview
1850-1877: Government and Politics: Overview
National Epic. The events of 1850-1877 form the central drama in the history of American politics, a sequence of riveting episodes enacted by a cast of colorful characters and featuring astonishing twists of plot with profound implications. Although the major events of course connect to earlier and later developments, the narrative coherence of the period is remarkable. The set piece that opens the era, the Compromise of 1850, was perceived even by contemporaries as a grand conclusion to previous phases of American history. The debate marked a transition between the era of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who had played leading roles in politics since the War of 1812, and a generation of newcomers that included Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, William Henry Seward, and Salmon P. Chase. The primary issue at hand—the status of slavery in the federal territories wrested from Mexico—was one that Congress had memorably faced in organizing the territories won in the American Revolution and the territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase. From this starting point, the story of the sectional conflict can be seen as a succession of famous scenes: the resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law; the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates; secession; the crisis at Fort Sumter; the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; Radical Reconstruction and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson; and the disputed presidential election of 1877.
Narrative Hinges. Looking at the sectional conflict as a story helpfully points toward analysis of its parts, beginning with an overall division of the era into the coming of the Civil War, the war itself, and Reconstruction. Within each of these components, the turning points and dramatic peaks suggest important questions. How did the Republican Party come to power? Why did the lower South secede on the election of a Republican president? How did the Union disavowal of any interference with slavery turn into a commitment to emancipation? Why did Reconstruction not do more to establish equal rights? These questions trace crucial structures of American government, such as the Democratic-Republican party system or the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, back into circumstances that might have developed in very different ways and that contemporaries could not have predicted. For example, shortly after Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Lincoln observed that neither North nor South “anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” The analysis of such political contingencies in the Civil War and Reconstruction era has produced some of the greatest works of American historical scholarship.
Political Culture. As an alternative to detailed examination that breaks into segments the years from 1850 to 1877, it is useful to consider the period in its entirety and to consider some of the features that distinguished American political culture at the height of the sectional conflict from the patterns of the preceding Jacksonian era or the following Gilded Age. In some ways the similarities are more striking than the differences. Most important, throughout all three periods the dominant characteristic of American politics was active participation by a high percentage of the electorate, organized by mass political parties to which voters were consistently loyal. The Whig and Democratic parties, which had coalesced in every state except South Carolina by the end of the 1830s, were the first institutions of their sort in the world. Unlike Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, the Whigs and Democrats identified political parties not merely as temporarily necessary evils in a republic but as valuable instruments for generating alternative approaches to public problems, mobilizing candidates and voters, and containing conflict. Party alignments changed decisively during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, but for the most part the Republican and Democratic parties aimed to serve the same functions as their predecessors, and with some important exceptions voter turnout and loyalty remained high throughout the period. The casting of ballots by approximately 80 percent of the electorate in ordinary elections, the tendency of most voters to support the entire ticket of the same party throughout their lives, and the strong partisan affiliation of almost every newspaper typified nineteenth-century American politics.
New Expectations. The unchanged aspects of politics masked ways in which Americans made new demands on government during 1850–1877, or revised their traditional demands, and disillusionment often resulted from finding current institutions unequal to the challenges. At the beginning of the period, for example, the influx of immigrants and capital into the United States presented the Whig and Democratic parties with a fundamentally different social and economic framework from the context in which the parties had established their identities. As was common during the nineteenth century, voters’ expectations of policies to address these developments centered primarily on state and local government. Immigration, for example, intensified the focus on government responsibility for civic education, on the regulation of cultural customs like the drinking of alcohol, and on the incorporation of newcomers into the political community. The feeling that the parties did not offer alternatives on these issues—that Whigs and Democrats were both simply pursuing the support of immigrant voters—caused many xenophobic Americans to renounce the major political parties. The vehicle for their protest, the Know Nothing movement, was perceived by nativists as a revolt against the machinations of political managers. Similarly, new economic conditions transformed the familiar responsibility of the government to promote growth through policies on matters like banking, the tariff, and the chartering of corporations. The new relationship between politics and money created by rapid, self-sustaining economic expansion helped make the administrations of James Buchanan and Ulysses S. Grant among the most corrupt in American history, although no more venal than many state and local governments in the era of Boss Tweed. Critics increasingly sensed a gap between outsiders like themselves and powerful insiders who benefited from awards of contracts for public construction projects, municipal investment in enterprise, or federal land grants to support railroad expansion.
Expectations about Slavery. One of the central social and economic institutions in antebellum America, slavery was profoundly affected by changing circumstances and produced the most spectacular example of increased voter distrust of politics. One of the traditional responsibilities of government in the South had been to protect the institution of slavery. Southern Whigs and Democrats competed during the Jacksonian era to demonstrate their ability to safeguard slavery in controversies over the Gag Rule in Congress and the annexation of Texas. During the 1850s, however, slavery faced more serious threats than ever before. The drain of slaves from the upper South into the cotton belt and the sugar district had made Delaware only nominally a slave state and was rapidly undermining the institution in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. It was not difficult to foresee similar developments in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. At the same time, the realignment of politics had produced in the much more rapidly growing Northern states a Republican Party united by opposition to the extension of slavery into the federal territories. For decades slaveholders had dominated the federal government and effectively defended the institution against attacks by men as capable and committed as John Quincy Adams. The Southerners most experienced in Washington, including future Confederate president Jefferson Davis and future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, anticipated no greater difficulty in checking the Republican Party. Most slaveholders disagreed, however, fearful that their representatives could not protect them from a Northern majority that might form alliances with Southern critics of slavery like Cassius Clay of Kentucky and Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina. Seeing their only safety outside of the Union, they led the movement for secession. Later, many slaveholders would similarly look upon themselves as powerless outsiders when the exigencies of war impelled the Confederate government to assume new roles.
Alienation of Intellectuals. Like nativists and slaveholders, intellectuals largely became disillusioned with politics in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and reversed what had been a remarkable record of immersion in public affairs. Partisan politics had long attracted the energies of creative minds who found philosophical resonance in the reform agenda and organic nationalism promoted by Whigs or the more conservative view of human nature expressed by Democrats. George Caleb Bingham’s series of paintings about the electoral process vividly expressed the fascination with political rituals as a form of American popular culture, a sentiment reflected in Walt Whitman’s observation that “I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human-kind, than a well-contested American national election.” Nor were intellectuals merely observers of the political scene. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography for his Bowdoin College classmate Franklin Pierce; William Dean Howells performed the same service for Abraham Lincoln. Both were rewarded with diplomatic posts. Hawthorne had previously held a patronage appointment in a customhouse, as had Herman Melville and George Bancroft. Bookish men like Charles Sumner and Edward Everett devoted themselves to political careers and pursued their artistic aspirations in oratory; the speeches of Daniel Webster made him not only one of the leading statesmen but also one of the major literary figures of the Jacksonian era. The crisis over slavery intensified intellectual participation in politics, mobilizing the Transcendentalist circle around Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau that had mostly remained aloof from partisan affairs. But after the Civil War, intellectuals increasingly denounced politics as corrupted by corporate wealth, immigrant voters, and unprincipled bosses. Their estrangement was best expressed by Henry Adams, whose satiric novel Democracy (1879) articulated his deepening sense that politics offered no place for him as it had for his great-grandfather John Adams, grandfather John Quincy Adams, and father Charles Francis Adams.
Women in Political Culture. While party politics no longer satisfied some of the key participants of the Jack-sonian era, women generally abandoned the formidable critique of American political culture that they had developed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Denied the vote and ineligible for office, women had often disdained politics as a sordid struggle for self-interest and a debasing excitation of popular passions. They sought instead to influence public affairs through their roles as wives, mothers, schoolteachers, or lobbyists, and also through voluntary benevolent organizations that performed public functions like the distribution of charity. Thoughtful and public-minded women like Catharine Beecher and Louisa McCord argued strenuously that woman suffrage would undermine their special authority in society, and such important leaders as Emma Willard, Dorothea Dix, Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sarah Josepha Hale, and Harriet Beecher Stowe either agreed with Beecher and McCord or regarded the franchise as relatively unimportant. The woman’s rights conference organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 signaled the growing support for a strategy of entering into traditionally male-dominated political processes rather than competing with them. The rights-based approach to gender politics appealed overwhelmingly to women coming of age after midcentury who often did not share the religious premises of their predecessors. One commentator declared in 1852 that “moral suasion is moral balderdash.” The roles of women in the Civil War and the expansion of government in Reconstruction added to women’s determination to participate equally in politics. The passing of the older critique might be observed, for example, in Julia Ward Howe’s decision after the war to join the ranks of the suffragists that she had previously spurned.
African American Participation. The strategies pursued by African Americans mirrored the embrace of politics by women. Like women, blacks before the Civil War developed a stimulating alternative to the political system that denied them basic rights. The African American alternative was emigration, a repudiation of American government and its unkept promises, and a reformulation of racist colonization policies that had sought to exclude blacks from the country. The idea of emigration won support from many leading African Americans during the antebellum period, including Martin Delany, William Wells Brown, and Henry Highland Garnet. Brown declared that “to emigrate to Hayti, and to develop the resources of the Island, and to build up a powerful and influential government there, which shall demonstrate the genius and capabilities of the Negro, is as good an Anti-Slavery work as can be done in the Northern States of this Union.” The movement failed, however, not merely because the initial attempts to implement it met with frustrations but because the opponents of emigration won the debate within the African American community. John Rock summarized the majority view that “This being our country, we have made up our minds to remain in it, and to try to make it worth living in.” When Reconstruction revolutionized the political situation of blacks, they would be firm supporters of government institutions as instruments for achieving justice.
Labor. Although the two-party system managed to encompass challenges based on gender and race, the politics of the hardening class structure in industrialized regions of America proved to be more diffuse. The large, highly diverse group of wage-earning workers pursued their various interests through many different political strategies. Participation in electoral politics was an important approach, either through one of the major parties or through one of the labor political organizations that carried forward the legacy of the workingmen’s parties of the Jacksonian era. But another means to contest the division of power in society, direct action at the workplace, became increasingly important in the postwar era, culminating in the railroad general strike of 1877. The intensifying violence of postwar strikes, the radical example of the Paris Commune, and the growing international attention to socialist philosophies caused observers to anticipate at the end of the period that labor would be at the center of any impending upheaval in American political culture.
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