restricted access 8. To Consummate Its Boldest Designs: The Slave Power Confronts the Republicans

From: Disunion!

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273 8 To Consummate Its Boldest Designs THE SLAVE POWER CONFRONTS THE REPUBLICANS ‘‘The country is now passing through the most portentous crisis which it has encountered since the revolution,’’ wrote Democrat Bedford Brown of Maryland to his party’s candidate, James Buchanan, on the eve of the 1856 presidential election. From North to South, Buchanan received letters expressing fear for the Union’s survival and counsel on what he needed to do to restore the sectional equilibrium. On the prospect of a Republican victory, a Philadelphia Democrat confided: ‘‘As an American, the bare possibility of the evils that might flow from the election of a sectional president cannot but alarm me.’’ But this correspondent censured his own party for sectionalism, too, urging Buchanan to distance himself from the ‘‘intemperate language of some professed Democrats of the South.’’ Many other Northern Democrats asked him to dispel the impression that their party served ‘‘the especial interest of the South and slavery.’’ Southern constituents, for their part, also expressed fear for the fate of the Union—fear that Northern public sentiment would ‘‘sweep away’’ the ‘‘barriers’’ that protected slavery. R. H. Glass of Lynchburg , Virginia, warned Buchanan: ‘‘If you, and those who sustain you in this momentous crisis go down, the Union and the constitution will go down with you as sure as God rules in the Universe.’’∞ With ‘‘Bleeding Kansas’’ and ‘‘Bleeding Sumner’’ dominating the head- 274 Δ 1851–1859 lines, the two major parties had geared up for the election of 1856 by holding nominating conventions in June. The Democrats met in Cincinnati on June 2 and passed over stalwarts Stephen Douglas and the incumbent Franklin Pierce in favor of Buchanan, a sixty-five-year-old bachelor (among the oldest men to run for president), with an impressive résumé of public service. A staunch Jacksonian and ‘‘doughface,’’ Buchanan hailed from Pennsylvania, a state that boasted the second most electoral votes in the nation. That ‘‘Old Buck’’ was regarded as an o≈cious bureaucrat served Democratic purposes, for his mandate was to uphold what Jean H. Baker calls the ‘‘clichés of midcentury conservatism’’: strict construction of the Constitution, the doctrine of state sovereignty, a commitment to reining in the power and spending of the federal government, and a belief that Northerners should cease ‘‘agitating’’ the slavery issue. Conveniently, Buchanan had been out of the country, serving as minister to Britain, during the Kansas-Nebraska agitation and thus could adopt the statesmanlike posture of someone who was above the fray.≤ The Republicans, meeting about two weeks later in Philadelphia, passed over their own stalwarts such as Seward and Chase for a new face—that of John C. Frémont, a youthful adventurer who had already won public acclaim as an explorer of the Rocky Mountains and Far West. Frémont’s romantic image was bolstered by his highly publicized elopement with the charismatic belle Jessie Benton—daughter of the powerful Democratic senator, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Frémont stood on a Republican platform that spelled out the doctrine of nonextension, upheld the Missouri Compromise, arraigned the Pierce administration for the outrages in Kansas, called for the admission of Kansas as a free state, and dubbed slavery a ‘‘relic of barbarism.’’ While Buchanan and Frémont faced o√ in the North, it was the American Party candidate, Millard Fillmore, who served as the alternative to Buchanan in the South. Representing a Whig–Know-Nothing coalition, Fillmore had little enthusiasm for nativism. As an architect of the Compromise of 1850, however, he was o√ered as a champion of Unionism; his party’s platform condemned the Democrats for fomenting sectional strife and placing ‘‘Ultraists’’ in power.≥ With their platforms and standard-bearers in place, the three parties embarked on a bitter and portentous campaign. In the Deep South, Democrats of both militant and moderate stripes predicted that a Frémont victory in the national election would justify disunion. Louisiana is a revealing example of The Slave Power Confronts the Republicans Δ 275 how the political ground had shifted. The Whig Party had boasted a strong base in the state, as it attracted the support of sugar planters who favored high tari√s on imported sugar and of merchants in the commercial entrepôt of New Orleans. But ‘‘by 1856, the only one substantial issue [that] remained in Louisianians’ minds’’ was ‘‘which party best protected the South and slavery .’’ The Democrats had long been accustomed to branding the opposition party as unsound on...


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865 -- Sources.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- Sources.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Causes.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
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