- Metropole and Periphery
One of the most consistent strains in Civil War historiography has been the argument that sectional crises over slavery's westward expansion had more to do with bringing on the conflict than protective tariffs, Northern resistance to returning fugitive slaves, and other issues dividing Northerners and Southerners in the antebellum decades. If Southerners wanted out of the Union in 1860-61 after Lincoln's election as president, it was primarily because of the determination of Lincoln and his Republican Party to prevent slavery from expanding. Neither Lincoln in his speeches, nor his party in its platforms, advocated, prior to the war, that the U.S. government abolish slavery in states where it already existed. Countless scholars, in making their case for the primacy of slavery expansion, make the obligatory allusion to Thomas Jefferson's foreboding, in the midst of the Missouri struggle of 1820, that the question of slavery's expansion would ultimately spell the "knell of the Union." The matter disturbed Jefferson "like a fire bell in the night" because he sensed that acquisitions of territory in the future would render that year's settlement, which divided remaining territory in the Louisiana Purchase between slavery and freedom at the 36º30' parallel, was impermanent. Sooner or later the disposition of other territory would kill the Union.1
Straddling the boundary between popular history and original scholarship, Steven E. Woodworth's Manifest Destinies argues convincingly that prior to the Texas annexation crisis of the mid-1840s, the problem of slavery within a democratic republic, though disruptive, was contained by America's political party system, which superseded the nation's geographical divisions. That is, the country's most important political disagreements were partisan rather than regional and focused on economic issues like banking rather than the morality of slavery. In 1840, the abolitionist Liberty Party's presidential candidate, James G. Birney, mustered a pitiful 7,069 votes—about one quarter of a percent of the electorate. However, once the nationalist president John Tyler's Southern sectionalist secretaries of state—the Virginian Abel P. Upshur and South [End Page 248] Carolina's John C. Calhoun—converted Texan annexation into an initiative to strengthen slavery, the bottle released the disunion genie. No longer feeling comity with fellow Southern congressmen, Northern representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1845 repealed the infamous "Gag Rule," which had been a damper on debate about slavery. From that point, things only got worse, since expansion westward lay at the center of the American national psyche, dwarfing other issues: "The very surge of expansion that led to the realization of the long-held American dream of a continent-wide empire of liberty also served to intensify and focus the national disagreement over slavery to the point that none of the old political methods sufficed to contain it anymore" (p. 356). Woodworth ends his book with a sustained analysis of the struggle over slavery expansion during and immediately after the Mexican War, observing that disputes over the Wilmot Proviso, California, and related territorial issues ensured, despite the Compromise of 1850, that the Union survived on borrowed time.
There is nothing original in this thesis, and Woodworth never claims there is. David Potter, in The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 (1976), observed that federal "jurisdiction over western lands" brought disputes over slavery into the national arena (p. 53). Michael A. Morrison contended in Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (1997) that once "slavery was taken up by American politics in the territorial question, the tragedy [disunion] was foretold" (pp. 277-78). Bruce Collins foreshadowed Manifest Destinies in The Origins of America's Civil War (1981), asserting that the "annexation of Texas opened the series of political crises which culminated in civil war" by shifting political disputes over economic policy "to a single problem, the extension of slavery" (p. 68). Countless quotations could be culled from other seminal works, including...