The Whigs, meeting in Philadelphia, cashed in on the "Taylor fever."
They nominated frank and honest Zachary Taylor, the "Hero of Buena Vista," who had never held civil office or even voted for president.
Henry Clay, the living embodiment of Whiggism, should logically have been nominated.
But Clay had made too many speeches--and too many enemies.
As usual, the Whigs pussyfooted in their platform.
Eager to win at any cost, they dodged all troublesome issues and merely extolled the homespun virtues of their candidate.
The self-reliant old frontier fighter had not committed himself on the issue of slavery extension.
But as a wealthy resident of Louisiana, living on a sugar plantation, he owned scores of slaves.
Ardent antislavery men in the North, distrusting both Cass and Taylor, organized the Free Soil party.
Aroused by the conspiracy of silence in the Democratic and Whig platforms, the Free-Soilers made no bones about their own stand.
They came out foursquare for the Wilmot Proviso and against slavery in the territories.
Going beyond other antislavery groups, they broadened their appeal by advocating federal aid for internal improvements and by urging free government homesteads for settlers.
The new party assembled a strange assortment of new people in the same political bed.
It attracted industrialists miffed at Polk's reduction of protective tariffs.
It appealed to Democrats resentful of Polk's settling for part of Oregon while insisting on all of Texas--a disparity that suggested a menacing southern dominance in the Democratic party.
It harbored many northerners whose hatred was directed not so much at slavery as at blacks and who gagged at the prospect of sharing the newly acquired western territories with African-Americans.
It also contained a large element of "conscience Whigs," heavily influenced by the abolitionist crusade, who condemned slavery on moral grounds.
The Free-Soilers trotted out wizened former President Van Buren and marched into the fray, shouting, "Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men."
As the first widely inclusive party organized around the issue of slavery and confined to a single section, the Free Soil party foreshadowed the emergence of the Republican party six years later.
With the slavery issue officially shoved under the rug by the two major parties, the politicians on both sides opened fire on personalities.
The amateurish Taylor had to be carefully watched, lest his indiscreet pen puncture the reputation won by his sword.
His admirers puffed him up as a gallant knight and a Napoleon, and sloganized his remark, allegedly uttered during the Battle of Buena Vista, "General Taylor never surrenders."
Taylor's wartime popularity pulled him through.
He harvested 1,360,967 popular and 163 electoral votes, as compared with Cass's 1,222,342 popular and 127 electoral votes.
Free-Soiler Van Buren, although winning no state, polled 291,263 ballots and apparently diverted enough Democratic strength from Cass in the crucial state of New York to throw the election to Taylor."
Tobacco-chewing President Taylor--with his stumpy legs, rough features, heavy jaw, black hair, ruddy complexion, and squinty gray eyes--was a military square peg in a political round hole.
He would have been spared much turmoil if he could have continued to sit on the slavery lid.
But the discovery of gold in California, early in 1848, blew the cover off.
A horde of adventurers poured into the valleys of California. Singing "O Susannah!" and shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold!" they began tearing frantically at the yellow-graveled streams and hills.
A fortunate few of the bearded miners "struck it rich" at the "diggings."
But the luckless many, who netted blisters instead of nuggets, probably would have been money well ahead if they had stayed at home unaffected by the "gold fever," which was often followed by more deadly fevers.
The most reliable profits were made by those who mined the miners, notably by charging outrageous rates for laundry and other personal services.
Some soiled clothing was even sent as far away as the Hawaiian Islands for washing.
The overnight inpouring of tens of thousands of people into the future Golden State completely overwhelmed the one-horse government of California.
A distressingly high proportion of the newcomers were lawless men, accompanied or followed by virtueless women.
A contemporary song ran,
Oh what was your name in the States?
Was it Thompson or Johnson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife,
And fly for your life?
Say, what was your name in the States?
An outburst of crime inevitably resulted from the presence of so many outcasts.
Robbery, claim jumping, and murder were commonplace; and such violence was only partly discouraged by rough vigilante justice.
In San Francisco, from 1848 to 1856, there were scores of lawless killings but only three semilegal hangings.
A majority of Californians, as decent and law-abiding citizens needing protection, grappled earnestly with the problem of erecting an adequate state government.
Privately encouraged by President Taylor, they drafted a constitution in 1849 that excluded slavery and then boldly applied to Congress for admission.
California would thus bypass the usual territorial stage, thwarting southern congressmen seeking to block free soil.
Southern politicians, alarmed by the Californians' "impertinent" stroke for freedom, arose in violent opposition.
Would California prove to be the golden straw that broke the back of the Union?"
The South of 1850 was relatively well off.
It then enjoyed, as it had from the beginning, more than its share of the nation's leadership.
It had seated in the White House the war hero Zachary Taylor, a Virginia-born, slaveowning planter from Louisiana.
It had a majority in the cabinet and on the Supreme Court.
If outnumbered in the House, the South had equality in the Senate, where it could hope to exercise a veto voice.
Its cotton fields were expanding, and cotton prices were profitably high.
Few sane people, North or South, believed that slavery was seriously threatened where it already existed below the Mason-Dixon line.
The fifteen slave states could easily veto any proposed constitutional amendment.
Yet the South was deeply worried, as it had been for several decades, by the ever-tipping political balance.
There were then fifteen slave states and fifteen free states.
The admission of California would destroy the delicate equilibrium in the Senate, perhaps forever.
Potential slave territory under the American flag was running short, if it had not already disappeared.
Agitation had already developed in the territories of New Mexico and Utah for admission as nonslave states.
The fate of California might well establish a precedent for the rest of the Mexican Cession territory--an area purchased largely with southern blood.
Texas nursed an additional grievance of its own.
It claimed a huge area east of the Rio Grande and north to the forty-second parallel, embracing in part about half the territory of present-day New Mexico.
The federal government was proposing to detach this prize, while hot-blooded Texans were threatening to descend upon Santa Fe and seize what they regarded as rightfully theirs.
The explosive quarrel foreshadowed shooting.
Many southerners were also angered by the nagging agitation in the North for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
They looked with alarm on the prospect of a ten-mile-square oasis of free soil, thrust between slaveholding Maryland and slaveholding Virginia.
Even more disagreeable to the South was the loss of runaway slaves, many of whom were assisted north by the Underground Railroad.
It consisted of an informal chain of "stations" (antislavery homes), through which scores of "passengers" (runaway slaves) were spirited by "conductors" (usually white and black abolitionists) from the slave states to the free-soil sanctuary of Canada.
The most amazing of these "conductors" was an illiterate runaway slave from Maryland, fearless Harriet Tubman.
During nineteen forays into the South, she rescued more than three hundred slaves, including her aged parents, and deservedly earned the title "Moses."
Lively imaginations later exaggerated the role of the Underground Railroad and its "station masters," but its existence was a fact.
By 1850 southerners were demanding a new and more stringent fugitive-slave law.
The old one, passed by Congress in 1793, had proved inadequate to cope with runaways, especially since unfriendly state authorities failed to provide needed cooperation.
Unlike cattle thieves, the abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad did not gain personally from their lawlessness.
But to the slaveowners the loss was infuriating, whatever the motives.
The moral judgments of the abolitionists seemed, in some ways, more galling than outright theft.
They reflected not only a holier-than-thou attitude but a refusal to obey the laws solemnly passed by Congress.
Estimates indicate that the South in 1850 was losing perhaps 1,000 runaways a year, out of its total of some 4 million slaves.
In fact, more blacks probably gained their freedom by self-purchase or voluntary emancipation than ever escaped.
But the principle weighed heavily with the slavemasters.
They rested their argument on the Constitution, which protected slavery, and on the laws of Congress, which provided for slave-catching.
"Although the loss of property is felt," said a southern senator, "the loss of honor is felt still more.""
Meeting in Baltimore, the Democratic nominating convention of 1852 startled the nation.
Hopelessly deadlocked, it finally stampeded to the second "dark horse" candidate in American history, an unrenowned lawyer-politician, Franklin Pierce, from the hills of New Hampshire.
The Whigs tried to jeer him back into obscurity with the cry, "Who is Frank Pierce?" Democrats replied, "The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills."
Pierce was a weak and indecisive figure.
Youngish, handsome, militarily erect, smiling, and convivial, he had served without real distinction in the Mexican War.
As a result of a painful groin injury that caused him to fall off a horse, he was known as the "Fainting General," though scandalmongers pointed to a fondness for alcohol.
But he was enemyless because he had been inconspicuous, and as a prosouthern northerner he was acceptable to the slavery wing of the Democratic party.
His platform came out emphatically for the finality of the Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Law and all.
The Whigs, also convening in Baltimore, missed a splendid opportunity to capitalize on their record in statecraft.
Able to boast of a praiseworthy achievement in the Compromise of 1850, they might logically have nominated President Fillmore or Senator Webster, both of whom were associated with it.
But having won in the past only with military heroes, they turned to another, "Old Fuss and Feathers" Winfield Scott, perhaps the ablest American general of his generation.
Although he was a huge and impressive figure, his manner bordered on haughtiness.
His personality not only repelled the masses but eclipsed his genuinely statesmanlike achievements.
The Whig platform praised the Compromise of 1850 as a lasting arrangement, though less enthusiastically than the Democrats.
With slavery and sectionalism to some extent soft-pedaled, the campaign again degenerated into a dull and childish attack on personalities.
Democrats ridiculed Scott's pomposity; Whigs charged that Pierce was the hero of "many a well-fought bottle."
Democrats cried exultantly, "We Polked 'em in '44; we'll Pierce 'em in '52."
Luckily for the Democrats, the Whig party was hopelessly split.
Antislavery Whigs of the North swallowed Scott as their standard-bearer but deplored his platform, which endorsed the hated Fugitive Slave Law.
The current phrase ran, "We accept the candidate but spit on the platform."
Southern Whigs, who doubted Scott's loyalty to the Compromise of 1850 and especially the Fugitive Slave Law, accepted the platform but spat on the candidate.
More than five thousand Georgia Whigs--"finality men"--futilely voted for Webster, although he had died nearly two weeks before the election.
General Scott, victorious on the battlefield, met defeat at the ballot box.
His friends remarked whimsically that he was not used to "running."
Actually, he was stabbed in the back by his fellow Whigs, notably in the South.
The pliant Pierce won in a landslide, 254 electoral votes to 42, although the popular count was closer, 1,601,117 to 1,385,453.
The election of 1852 was fraught with frightening significance, though it may have seemed tame at the time.
It marked the effective end of the disorganized Whig party and, within a few years, its complete death.
The Whigs' demise foreshadowed the eclipse of national parties and the ominous rise of purely sectional political alignments.
The Whigs were governed at times by the crassest opportunism, and they won only two presidential elections (1840, 1848) in their colorful career, both with war heroes.
They finally choked to death trying to gag down the Fugitive Slave Law.
But their great contribution--and a noteworthy one indeed--was to help uphold the ideal of the Union through their electoral strength in the South and through the eloquence of leaders like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
Both of these statesmen, by unhappy coincidence, died during the 1852 campaign.
But the good they had done lived after them and contributed powerfully to the eventual preservation of a united United States."
At this point in 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois delivered a counterstroke to offset the Gadsden thrust for southern expansion westward.
A squat, bull-necked, and heavy-chested figure, the "Little Giant" radiated the energy and breezy optimism of the self-made man.
An ardent booster for the West, he longed to break the North-South deadlock over westward expansion and stretch a line of settlements across the continent.
He had also invested heavily in Chicago real estate and in railway stock and was eager to have the Windy City become the eastern terminus of the proposed Pacific railroad.
He would thus endear himself to the voters of Illinois, benefit his section, and enrich his own purse.
A veritable "steam engine in breeches," Douglas threw himself behind a legislative scheme that would enlist the support of a reluctant South.
The proposed Territory of Nebraska would be carved into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska.
Their status regarding slavery would be settled by popular sovereignty--a democratic concept to which Douglas and his western constituents were deeply attached.
Kansas, which lay due west of slaveholding Missouri, would presumably choose to become a slave state.
But Nebraska, lying west of free-soil Iowa, would presumably become a free state.
Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska scheme ran headlong into a formidable political obstacle.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had forbidden slavery in the proposed Nebraska Territory, which lay north of the sacred 36° 30' line; and the only way to open the region to popular sovereignty was to repeal the ancient compact outright.
This bold step Douglas was prepared to take, even at the risk of shattering the uneasy truce patched up by the Compromise of 1850.
Many southerners, who had not conceived of Kansas as slave soil, rose to the bait.
Here was a chance to gain one more slave state.
The pliable President Pierce, under the thumb of southern advisers, threw his full weight behind the Kansas-Nebraska Bill.
But the Missouri Compromise, now thirty-four years old, could not be brushed aside lightly.
Whatever Congress passes it can repeal, but by this time the North had come to regard the sectional pact as almost as sacred as the Constitution itself.
Free-soil members of Congress struck back furiously.
They met their match in the violently gesticulating Douglas, who was the ablest rough-and-tumble debater of his generation.
Employing twisted logic and oratorical fireworks, he rammed the bill through Congress, with strong support from many southerners.
So heated were political passions that bloodshed was barely averted. Some members carried a concealed revolver or a bowie knife--or both.
Douglas's motives in prodding anew the snarling dog of slavery have long puzzled historians.
His personal interests have already been mentioned.
In addition, his foes accused him of angling for the presidency in 1856.
Yet his admirers have argued plausibly in his defense that if he had not championed the ill-omened bill, someone else would have.
The truth seems to be that Douglas acted somewhat impulsively and recklessly.
His heart did not bleed over the issue of slavery, and he declared repeatedly that he did not care whether it was voted up or down in the territories.
What he failed to perceive was that hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens in the North did feel deeply on this moral issue.
They regarded the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as an intolerable breach of faith, and they would henceforth resist to the last trench all future southern demands for slave territory.
As Abraham Lincoln said, the North wanted to give to pioneers in the West, "a clean bed, with no snakes in it."
Genuine leaders, like skillful chess players, must foresee the possible effects of their moves.
Douglas predicted a "hell of a storm," but he grossly underestimated its proportions.
His critics in the North, branding him a "Judas" and a "traitor," greeted his name with frenzied boos, hisses, and "three groans for Doug."
But he still enjoyed a high degree of popularity among his following in the Democratic party, especially in Illinois, a stronghold of popular sovereignty."
The Kansas-Nebraska Act--a curtain raiser to a terrible drama--was one of the most momentous measures ever to pass Congress.
By one way of reckoning, it led directly down the slippery slope to Civil War.
Antislavery northerners were angered by what they condemned as an act of bad faith by the "Neb-rascals" and their "Nebrascality."
All future compromise with the South would be immeasurably more difficult, and without compromise there was bound to be conflict.
Henceforth the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, previously enforced in the North only halfheartedly, was a dead letter.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act wrecked two compromises: that of 1820, which it repealed specifically, and that of 1850, which northern opinion repealed indirectly.
Emerson wrote, "The Fugitive [Slave] Law did much to unglue the eyes of men, and now the Nebraska Bill leaves us staring.
" Northern abolitionists and southern "fire-eaters" alike were stirred to new outbursts.
The growing legion of antislaveryites gained numerous recruits, who resented the grasping move by the "slavocracy" for Kansas.
The southerners, in turn, became inflamed when the free-soilers tried to control Kansas, contrary to the presumed "deal."
The proud Democrats--a party now over half a century old--were shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
They did elect a president in 1856, but he was the last one they were to boost into the White House for twenty-eight long years.
Undoubtedly the most durable offspring of the Kansas-Nebraska blunder was the new Republican party.
It sprang up spontaneously in the Middle West, notably in Wisconsin and Michigan, as a mighty moral protest against the gains of slavery.
Gathering together dissatisfied elements, it soon included disgruntled Whigs (among them Abraham Lincoln), Democrats, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, and other foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The hodgepodge party spread eastward with the rapidity of a prairie fire and with the zeal of a religious crusade.
Unheard of and unheralded at the beginning of 1854, it elected a Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives within two years.
Never really a third-party movement, it erupted with such force as to become almost overnight the second major political party--and a purely sectional one at that.
At long last the dreaded sectional rift had appeared.
The new Republican party would not be allowed south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Countless southerners subscribed wholeheartedly to the sentiment that it was "a nigger stealing, stinking, putrid, abolition party." The Union was in dire peril."
Sectional tensions were further strained in 1852, and later, by an inky phenomenon.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, a wisp of a woman and the mother of a half-dozen children, published her heartrending novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Dismayed by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, she was determined to awaken the North to the wickedness of slavery by laying bare its terrible inhumanity, especially the cruel splitting of families.
Her wildly popular book relied on powerful imagery and touching pathos.
"God wrote it," she explained in later years--a reminder that the deeper sources of her antislavery sentiments lay in the evangelical religious crusades of the Second Great Awakening.
The success of the novel at home and abroad was sensational.
Several hundred thousand copies were published in the first year, and the totals soon ran into the millions as the tale was translated into more than a score of languages.
It was also put on the stage in "Tom shows" for lengthy runs.
No other novel in American history--perhaps in all history--can be compared with it as a political force.
To millions of people it made slavery appear almost as evil as it really was.
When Mrs. Stowe was introduced to President Lincoln in 1862, he reportedly remarked with twinkling eyes, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war."
The truth is that Uncle Tom's Cabin did help start the Civil War-- and win it.
The South condemned that "vile wretch in petticoats" when it learned that hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans were reading and believing her "unfair" indictment.
Mrs. Stowe had never witnessed slavery at first hand in the Deep South, but she had seen it briefly during a visit to Kentucky, and she had lived for many years in Ohio, a center of Underground Railway activity.
Uncle Tom, endearing and enduring, left a profound impression on the North.
Uncounted thousands of readers swore that henceforth they would have nothing to do with the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law.
The tale was devoured by millions of impressionable youths in the 1850s--the later Boys in Blue who volunteered to fight the Civil War through to its grim finale.
The memory of a beaten and dying Uncle Tom helped sustain them in their determination to wipe out the plague of slavery.
The novel was immensely popular abroad, especially in England and France.
Countless readers wept over the kindly Tom and the angelic Eva, while deploring the brutal Simon Legree.
When the guns in America finally began to boom, the common people of England sensed that the triumph of the North would spell the end of the black curse.
The governments in London and Paris seriously considered intervening in behalf of the South, but they were sobered by the realization that many of their own people, aroused by the "Tom-mania," might not support them.
Another trouble-brewing book appeared in 1857, five years after the debut of Uncle Tom.
Entitled The Impending Crisis of the South, it was written by Hinton R. Helper, a nonaristocratic white from North Carolina.
Hating both slavery and blacks, he attempted to prove by an array of statistics that indirectly the nonslaveholding whites were the ones who suffered most from the millstone of slavery.
Unable to secure a publisher in the South, he finally managed to find one in the North.
Helper's influence was negligible among the poorer whites to whom he addressed his message.
His book, with its "dirty allusions," was banned in the South, where book-burning parties were held.
But in the North, untold thousands of copies, many in condensed form, were distributed as campaign literature by the Republicans.
Southerners were further embittered when they learned that their northern brethren were spreading these wicked "lies."
Thus did southerners, reacting much as they did to Uncle Tom's Cabin, become increasingly unwilling to sleep under the same federal roof with their hostile Yankee bedfellows."
The Dred Scott decision, handed down by the Supreme Court on March 6, 1857, abruptly ended the two-day presidential honeymoon of the unlucky bachelor, James Buchanan.
This pronouncement was one of the opening paper-gun blasts of the Civil War.
Basically, the case was simple.
Dred Scott, a black slave, had lived with his master for five years in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory.
Backed by interested abolitionists, he sued for freedom on the basis of his long residence on free soil.
The Supreme Court proceeded to turn a simple legal case into a complex political issue.
It ruled, not surprisingly, that Dred Scott was a black slave and not a citizen, and hence could not sue in federal courts.
(This part of the ruling, denying blacks their citizenship, seriously menaced the precarious position of the South's quarter-million free blacks.) "
Bitterness caused by the Dred Scott decision was deepened by hard times, which dampened a period of feverish prosperity.
Late in 1857 a panic burst about Buchanan's harassed head.
The storm was not so bad economically as the panic of 1837, but psychologically it was probably the worst of the nineteenth century.
What caused the crash? Inpouring California gold played its part by helping to inflate the currency.
The demands of the Crimean War had overstimulated the growing of grain, while frenzied speculation in land and railroads had further ripped the economic fabric.
When the collapse came, over five thousand businesses failed within a year.
Unemployment, accompanied by hunger meetings in urban areas, was widespread. "Bread or Death" stated one desperate slogan.
The North, including the grain growers, was hardest hit.
The South, enjoying favorable cotton prices abroad, rode out the storm with flying colors.
Panic conditions seemed further proof that cotton was king and that its economic kingdom was stronger than that of the North.
This fatal delusion helped drive the overconfident southerners closer to a shooting showdown.
Financial distress in the North, especially in agriculture, gave a new vigor to the demand for free farms of 160 acres from the public domain.
For several decades interested groups had been urging the federal government to abandon its ancient policy of selling the land for revenue.
Instead, the argument ran, acreage should be given outright to the sturdy pioneers as a reward for risking health and life to develop it.
A scheme to make outright gifts of homesteads encountered two-pronged opposition.
Eastern industrialists had long been unfriendly to free land; some of them feared that their underpaid workers would be drained off to the West.
The South was even more bitterly opposed, partly because gang-labor slavery could not flourish on a mere 160 acres.
Free farms would merely fill up the territories more rapidly with free-soilers and further tip the political balance against the South.
In 1860, after years of debate, Congress finally passed a homestead act--one that made public lands available at a nominal sum of twenty-five cents an acre.
But it was stabbed to death by the veto pen of Buchanan, near whose elbow sat leading southern sympathizers.
The panic of 1857 also created a clamor for higher tariff rates.
Several months before the crash, Congress, embarrassed by a large Treasury surplus, had enacted the Tariff of 1857.
The new law, responding to pressures from the South, reduced duties to about 20 percent on dutiable goods--the lowest point since the War of 1812.
Hardly had the revised rates been placed on the books when financial distress descended like a black pall. Northern manufacturers, many of them Republicans, noisily blamed their misfortunes on the low tariff.
As the surplus melted away in the Treasury, industrialists in the North pointed to the need for higher duties.
But what really concerned them was their desire for increased protection.
Thus the panic of 1857 gave the Republicans two surefire economic issues for the election of 1860: protection for the unprotected and farms for the farmless."