Wednesday, November 30, 2016

King's Survey: Compromising Situation, 1850


In which we view a nation teetering on the edge, and pulling back (for the moment)  

OK, kids. So I think we need to take a little stock of where we are in the United States of America in the Year of Our Lord 1850. Texas is securely in the Union as a slave state. The Mexican War is over. Gold has been discovered in the newly acquired territory of California. It appears that the manifest destiny of the nation is indeed to stretch from sea to shining sea, and amid a booming economy, there are efforts afoot to stitch it together with an transcontinental railroad. You might say things really couldn’t be better.
And yet the national mood is miserable. Tell me why.
—Because of slavery.
Yes, Jonah. But what about it?
—Well, people can’t agree on it.
Agree on what?
—Where it will go.
Yes: where it will go. You make a very important point. Where slavery is—and isn’t—is regarded as settled. The argument is over the future of slavery. Proslavery advocates are becoming more and more convinced that the peculiar institution, as it’s known, must expand, which is why they’re hatching schemes like taking over Cuba or founding a colony in Nicaragua. Antislavery activists are becoming more and more convinced that it must not. Both agree, largely implicitly, that if slavery stops growing it will die. There are also some curious tensions, contradictions, hypocrisies. As we discussed, proslavery advocates have long been suspicious of national government power for any reason except the protection of slavery, because they fear that power could be used to regulate or destroy it. Antislavery advocates have generally favored a stronger federal government, except when it comes to things like enforcing the return of fugitive slaves. The effect of all of this has been gridlock: it’s getting harder and harder to get anything done.
—Maybe we need a war.
Now Ethan, that’s really offensive. War talk is sensational and inappropriate. I demand that you apologize right now, young man.
—Are you serious?
—Really, Ethan. Don’t you know by now when Mr. K. is in drama mode?
I have no idea what Emily is talking about, Ethan, but I do apologize. I guess I just got carried away. It’s just that there’s been so much irresponsible talk lately. All the abolitionists on one side, fire-eaters on the other. People tend to forget that both sides are really minority voices. Most of us don’t care about slavery one way or another. We just want peace!
—Probably means proslavery people.
—Sounds like Harry Potter.
—Cool term.
—Cool fire-eaters. Brilliant, Jonah.
So what are we going to do, kids? How can we break the gridlock?
—I have no clue. But I have a hunch you’re about to tell us.
Henry Clay
Well, yes, I am. But first I want to bring back our old friend Henry Clay.

—Jeez, Mr. K. You’re obsessed with that guy.
Yeah, well, Em, a lot of us are. But in 1850, Henry Clay is an old man. He’s been dominant force in American politics for over forty years. He’s an antislavery slaveholder from agrarian Kentucky who seeks to promote the industrial revolution
—That doesn’t make any sense.
What? You're confused by the notion of an agrarian industrialist?
—Nevermind that. Antislavery slaveholder?
Well, he’s not an abolitionist, for God’s sake, Em. Yes, he owns slaves. But he’s looking forward to the day when slavery is gone.
—What a hypocrite. How can you be for something and against something at the same time?
Kylie, are you an environmentalist?
—Me? Sure.
Then why are you drinking whatever that is from a plastic bottle? You say you’re in favor of saving the environment at the very moment you’re destroying the environment!
—Oh, c’mon, Mr. K. That’s unfair to Kylie. You’re being ridiculous.
Am I, Em? Or am I simply pointing out that people are complicated?
—No. You’re just being ridiculous.
So says a former supporter of Andrew Jackson. I know where you’re coming from Em.
—You are impossible.
Why thank you, Emily. Anyway, Henry Clay is old, and he’s dying, but he’s still a patriot. And he’s been thinking very hard about what might save the country from disintegrating. He’s put together an interlocking series of proposals known as the omnibus bill.
—What does omnibus mean?
—Isn’t it like a bus?
In a way, yes. “Omnibus” basically means multiple. Like kids on a school bus. The idea here is Clay’s bill consists of a set of proposed laws. If you vote in favor of it, you get the whole thing. It will have stuff you like, but also stuff you don’t.
— Like a streaming service. You pay for all the shows, but only watch some.
—Or a combination plate at a food court. You get a good price on the whole thing, even if you don’t eat everything.
Right. Clay figures that’s the only way to get the job done. In a spirit of a compromise. Here are the highlights of the bill:
  1. California comes into the Union as a free state.
  2. The slave trade ends in Washington DC (a lot of people really hated the fact that slaves were bought and sold in the nation’s capital).
  3. There’s a new stronger fugitive slave law. I’ll talk about this in more detail later.
  4. Rather than decide now what will happen to the Utah and New Mexico territories (a whole bunch of future states there, but not for a long time—Arizona, for instance, doesn’t enter the Union until 1912a new principle, known as “popular sovereignty” will be used to determine whether such states will be slave or free. The voters will choose rather than Congress deciding.
  So, what do you think?
—The first two ideas seem to favor the North. The third one the South. The last one breaks even. So the overall law seems pro-Northern.
A reasonable assessment, Ethan. But point number three is a big one. Again, I don’t want to get into it right now. But suffice it to say that in Clay’s mind, at least, the overall package was truly balanced. What do you think, Sadie?
—Sounds reasonable. Does it work?
—Oh. Why not?
Well, that’s complicated, by which I mean you ask ten people you’ll get ten different answers. I will tell you that old man John Calhoun, who had been at it as long as Henry Clay and was in fact on death’s door, told his fellow Southerners to reject the bill, and he had a lot of influence in the Senate. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts—remember him? We talked about the big speech he gave, “Liberty and Union, now and forever” a while back—came out in favor of the bill, and got a lot of grief over it. Clay was known as “the Great Compromiser”—remember, he’s the guy who got the Compromise of 1820, a.k.a. the Missouri Compromise through Congress—but he just couldn’t summon the old magic.
—So what happened next?
Stephen A. Douglas
What happened next is counter-intuitive. Remember that the whole basis of Clay’s approach was compromise: you take a little, you give a little. He assumed the bill had to work as a package. But in the aftermath of the vote, another senator came forward, a younger man named Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. (You haven’t heard the last of him.) Douglas was a Jacksonian Democrat. But like Clay, he considered himself a patriot. What he did was break up the Omnibus Bill into separate pieces. An he got them passed one by one.

—How did he do that?
A very good question, Yin. The short answer is horse trading. So take the California piece for example. He’d go do you, a Southern senator, and say: Hey, I know you hate this bill. But if you pass it, I’ll make sure you get that bridge you want for your state. Or the railroad going through your town. That kind of thing. It was very complicated, and exhausting, but it worked. And before the year was over, President Millard Fillmore—the non-entity who followed the forgettable Zachary Taylor, who died a few weeks into office—signed the Compromise of 1850 into law.
—So what happened then?
Peace in our time, of course. Crisis averted.
—Well, we know that didn’t happen. So what went wrong? Who blew it?
Stephen A. Douglas did. But a few things had to happen before he could. We’ll get to them.
—Such drama!
All in a day’s work, kids.
The compromised compromise

Monday, November 28, 2016

King's Survey: Runaway Policy (II)

In which we see that one man’s crime wave is another woman’s path to freedom. (Note: this is the second of two posts on the subject, which can be read independently or as a pair.)
Charles T. Webber, "The Underground Railroad" (1893)

O.K. kids. So we’ve been looking at the issue of runaway slaves, and whether on not we need a stronger fugitive slave law, from the point of view of slave owners. Now let’s shift our gaze to those who aren’t. Chris, we’ll start with you. Your name is Joshua Freeman, and you live in Toronto. Actually that’s your name now. Previously you were known as Cicero. You lived on Robert Baron’s plantation in Mississippi. How does it feel, Chris, to be living in freedom.
—Pretty good. Cold, though. This place is freezing.
—Yeah, well, Mississippi was hotter than hell, wasn’t it, Chris? I mean Cicero. I mean…
Joshua Freeman. By the way, what to you make of that name?
—Duh. “Freeman.” Real subtle, Mr. K.
Fair enough, Emily. But what about “Joshua”? Anybody know where that comes from?
—The Bible?
Well, yes. But where in the Bible? Does anybody know?
Nobody? Ouch. Here’s a hint. Think Book of Exodus.
—Oh, well, now it’s obvious! Book of Exodus! Of course!
You have no idea.
Ugh. You’ve heard of Moses, yes?
—Yeah. Promised Land.
Right. But here’s the thing: Moses never actually made it to the Promised Land. God wouldn’t let him go. That job was given to Moses’s successor, whose name was….
—Heavy on the symbolism there, Mr. K.
Hey, it isn’t me. Joshua Freeman himself chose the name. He’s a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Cicero here has been reborn a free man. Seems only natural to give himself a new name. Right, Mr. Freeman?
—Whatever you say, Mr. K.
Well, I admit, I have been saying a lot. Let’s get some other voices in here. Brianna, you’re Robert Baron. How do you feel knowing that your former slave has escaped to Canada?
—Hey. Fine with me. Truth is, I was never comfortable with the slave owner thing you assigned me.
I understand. But we all have roles to play, Mr. Baron. And we don’t always get to choose what they are.
—Yeah, well, I want to write my own play.
A good idea. Go right ahead. Let me turn my attention here to Emily, who is actually Charity Wright of Cincinnati, a member of the American Tract Society, which as we all know publishes religious tracts by the millions (Cincinnati, by the way is an important publishing center in the United States). Miss Wright, we all know you to be a shy, retiring soul. So we’re glad you’re willing to talk with us.
—That’s me. Ms. Shy.
Well no, that’s Miss Wright. How long have you been a member of the ATS?
—Oh, I reckon twenty years now.
I had no idea it was that long.
—Well, you wouldn’t now, would you. I look very young and beautiful, I know.
Indeed. However there is something about you I do know, Miss Wright, that I’m now going to reveal to the class: you are a conductor for the Underground Railroad!
Go ahead kids, you can gasp.

—I’m horrified!
—I’m impressed!
—What’s a conductor for the Underground Railroad?
Good question. If you walk into the main parlor of Miss Wright’s Cincinnati home, you’ll see a rug in the middle of the floor. Lift that rug, and you’ll see a panel you can pull up. It leads to a small cellar with a bed, shelves, and a chamber pot.
—What’s a chamber pot?
—A place to pee.
—Or poop.
None other than our friend Joshua Freeman made a stop at Charity Wright’s home on his way from Mississippi to Toronto. Anything you want to say to Miss Wright, Mr. Freedman?
That’s it? This woman risked her life for you.
—Thanks a lot.
—That’s all right, Mr. K. I’ll send him a bill.
Well, Mr. Freeman’s wife is pregnant. Maybe she’ll have a daughter and name her “Charity.” In any case, you’re among friends here, Miss Wright. We won’t reveal your identity as a conductor, as we know you want to continue freeing slaves.
Keeping a low profile is not a goal for our friend Jonquil, who we will now know as Fred Burns. Mr. Burns is a Garrisonian abolitionist, which is to say that he’s a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, a militant opponent of slavery. Back in 1844, a mere four years ago, Mr. Garrison stood on the steps of Faneuil Hall in Boston and burned a copy of the Constitution, saying Massachusetts should not belong to a Union of slaveholders. You were there, weren’t you, Mr. Burns?
—Yeah, I was.
And you endorse these radical views? You would secede from this Union?
—Yes, I would. Slavery is evil.
Hmmm. Miss Wright, I wonder what you make of Mr. Burns. Do you endorse his radical views?
—As we all know, I’m sby and retiring. But yes, I agree with Mr. Burns.
—Damn straight. I’m down with Burns.
No shock there, Mr. Freeman. Ah, I see Mr. Evinrude has something to say. As you will recall, kids, Sadie is this small farmer from Missouri.
—I am sickened by this extremism. No respect for authority. They keep this up and there will be a Civil War.
—Calm down, honey. No need to get excited.
Glad to see Mrs. Evinrude try to calm you, sir.
—Shut up, woman!
—Hank! I am your wife! Treat me with respect!
—Sorry, sweetheart. It’s just that these abolitionists get me so mad sometimes.
—I understand. They are perfectly awful. Miss Wright, you should be ashamed of yourself. Breaking the law by helping the slaves escape. It’s wrong, gosh darn it!
—Gosh darn it? I think marrying this guy has messed up your brain, Kylie—I mean Mrs. Evinrude.
All right, all right no more name calling. We have one other person to hear from. And that’s Adam, also known as Alphonius Green. Mr. Green runs a New York insurance brokerage with a large Southern clientele.
—Alphonius? What kind of name is Alphonius?
It rhymes with “felonious.”
—What does “felonious” mean?
It means “criminal.” But never mind that. Mr. Green, you issue insurance policies to slaveholders that pays them back if their slaves run away. I wonder if you would be in favor of a stronger fugitive slave law.
—Of course.
And why would that be?
—It’s obvious. Runaway slaves cost me money.
Would it be fair to say, Mr. Green, that you are a New Yorker with Southern views?
—I’m a New Yorker with money views.
Understood. It has been estimated that forty cents of every cotton dollar comes through New York City. New York banks lend slaveholders money. New York newspapers take advertising for lost slaves. New York shipping houses arrange for the transportation of cotton across the ocean to Great Britain. And of course New York brokerages like yours insure slaves. Under such circumstances, Mr. Green, do you think slavery will ever end?
—Not if I have anything to say about it.
There you have it kids. But one more voice. Yin here is Mary Deed, a free black woman from Philadelphia. Hello, Mary.
Mary, I understand your family has lived in Philadelphia for for many generations.
—That’s right.
And what do you do for a living, Mary?
—I’m a teacher. I teach Negro children.
Wonderful. We’ll give you the last word, Mary. What should we do about a fugitive slave law?
Next: Compromising situation

Friday, November 25, 2016

King's Survey: Runaway Policy

In which we see a crime wave involving property with a distressing tendency to go underground and run away
Bounty notice for escaped slaves

Brianna, your name is Robert Baron. It’s 1849, you have a plantation in Mississippi and you own 200 slaves. You’re one of the great planters in the state, and your mansion, Twelve Oaks, is regarded as among the most beautiful. You’re legendary for your hospitality.
—Oh that’s just great. I’m so proud.
Well, I can understand your enthusiasm. A lot of people think you have reason to proud. After all, you came to this county thirty years ago with little more than a strong back. You worked hard, saved up some money, and used it to buy a farm. When the farm started to prosper, you bought slaves. As you continued to succeed, you added land, and slaves, and, eventually, overseers. Your shrewd investments have made you rich. Your friends call you a self-made man.
—More like a self-made slaveholder.
As you wish. Of course, part of what makes you successful is the way you take care of the small things, because the small things, good and bad, have a way of becoming big things. And right now you have a small problem that seems to be growing larger. That problem is runaway slaves.
—Can’t imagine why that would be a problem.
Well, a lot of your friends would agree with you. You’re known as a kind master. Your slaves are well fed and housed. You’ve instructed your overseers not to use force unless they really need tonot like those “white trash” types, wretched brutes who, drunk with power, are prone to crack the whip (one reason why they’re known as “crackers”). Actually, there’s some speculation that your slaves are running away because you’re too kind to them.
—Well of course I am. We slaveholders are a very, very gentle group of people.
Not sure I can agree with you there. Seems to me there are two types: slaveholders who regard, and treat, their slaves as savages, and those who treat them as children. You apparently fall into the latter camp. Of course, in the end, I’m not sure how much it matters. Some would say that the real problem is abolitionist agitators who keep making noise and whispering in the ears of northern negroes, who of course whisper into the ears of the ones down here. That’s bad enough. What’s even worse is this so-called Underground Railroad, which actively aids and abets runaway slaves through a series of checkpoints and safe houses until they reach Canada, where they can’t be retrieved. It’s rumored that Paolo herea.k.a. Robin Capeheartis a member of the Underground Railroad, though we can’t prove that. Would you care to comment, Robin Capeheart?
—Uh, no.
Didn’t think so. You folks keep a low profile.
But let me turn back to you, Robert Baron. Clearly, you have a problem. What do you think the best way is to deal with that problem?
—Free the slaves.
Won’t work.
—Why not?
Well, for one thing, you’ll go broke. Your whole economic way of life is leveraged on slavery.
—Fine. I’ll go broke.
Which brings us to the second problem. You can’t free your slaves by going broke. They’ll be sold to settle your debts (that’s what happened to Thomas Jefferson, and why George Washington was so ruthless about keeping his finances in good order so that he could free his slaves when he died, something he knew would anger his relatives). I hear the slaveholder down the road is legendary in his severity. You want him to get yours?
—Well then I’ll help them escape.
Good luck with that. A runaway slave is one thing; a clutch of them another. But you really think 200 runaways are going to go unnoticed? Or a steady stream that you release gradually? And who do you think your fellow slaveholders are going to blame when they find out ? How do you think they’re likely to treat a peer who does something like that? Friends, I’m afraid Robert Baron isn’t thinking too clearly. He needs help. Does anyone else have a suggestion?
—I think he needs you to turn her into an abolitionist.
Huh. Funny how that didn’t happen. My magical powers are curiously limited. Who woulda thunk Brianna's classroom destiny would be a plantation owner named Robert Baron? Chalk it up to the ironies of history, I guess. As it turns out, we do have abolitionists in the room.
—We do?
Yes. A couple. We’ll get to them. But first we need to come up with a proposal to assist poor Robert Baron. Channel your inner slaveholder, kids. What will help him?
Hmmm. A fascinating idea. Elaborate, Sadie. Or, should I say, Hank Evinrude.
—Hank Evinrude?
Yes. You’re a small farmer in Missouri. You don’t own slaves—yet. But you have your dreams, just like Robert Baron. You clearly think law enforcement would be a good approach. Here’s the problem with that: when slaves run away, they don’t stay within state lines. They in fact cross a bunch of them on their way to Canada. So local sheriffs, or even state ones, aren’t really a solution, because of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects states' rights. There is a fugitive slave provision in the Constitution that says errant property has to be returned, but clearly that isn’t working. So maybe we need a new federal law, a national approach to this crime wave.
—Sounds good to me.
I imagine it does. There is wee bit of a problem, in that Southerners like yourself don’t typically like a powerful federal government. But I guess in this case you’re willing to make an exception.
Can’t resist asking: how does your wife, Kylie, a.k.a. Amanda Evinrude, who’s sitting right next to you, feel about this fugitive slave law idea?
—My wife doesn’t trouble her pretty little head about politics.
—Oh, Hank is right. I always do whatever he says, the way a woman should.
—That’s right, my dear.
Well, Mrs. Evinrude, there are some who say that slavery is wrong, and that since a woman is the repository of moral values in any household, she has an obligation to speak out for what is right. What do you say about that idea?
—Well, like Hank says, I stay out of politics.
But I’m not talking politics. I’m talking morality. Do you believe slavery is wrong?
—Look, Mister, whoever you are. Leave my wife alone!
My apologies, Mr. Evinrude. I didn’t mean to be too aggressive. I was just trying to ask a question I know has multiple answers. There are those who say that slavery violates Christian teachings. And there are those who say that the Bible sanctions it. Saint Paul said, “Masters, obey your slaves.” In the Old Testament, Ham sees his father, Noah, naked, and God condemns his heirs to be servants. But I will respect your and Mrs. Evinrude’s wishes. Maybe this would be a good time to turn our attention to Jonah, who we will now know as Frank Berger. Frank is a farmer not far from Hank Evinrude. Hank, as I mentioned, is in Missouri. But Frank here comes from the other side of the Missouri River in Kansas. He doesn’t own slaves. Missouri is a slave state. But is Kansas?
—I think that’s a trick question.
Excellent, Ethan. Now tell me why.
—Because Kansas isn’t a state at all, Ethan.
—What do you mean?
—He asked if Kanas is a slave state or a free state. You’d think that it would have to be one or the other. But if he also said it’s a trick question, it means it isn’t a state at all.
Bravo, Adam! Excellent reasoning. So if Kansas isn’t a state, what is it?
—A territory.
Correct. Have a look at this map, which shows the Kansas territory. Based on what you know, do you think Kansas is positioned to be a free slate or a slave state?
—Hmmm. That’s a tough one.
—Missouri Compromise.
What did you say, Yin?
—There’s the Missouri Compromise, right? Kansas is above the line, so it’s free.
Well, well, well. You kids really are cooking with gas!
—Cooking with gas? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
It’s an old expression from about 60 years ago, Emily. I like it, but I never really have occasion to use it.
—Mr. K., you are a serious dork.
Thank you very much. OK, back to Frank Berger. Mr. Berger, you don’t own slaves, and it doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to. How much does that matter to you.
—I dunno. Not much, I guess. I guess if it did I’d move to Missouri or something.
Makes sense to me. So if you don’t have slaves, but Hank Evinrude across the border gets them, how are you going to feel about that?
—Well, I don’t like slavery, I think it’s wrong, but it looks like it isn’t any of my business.
Funny you should say that. Because while you’re a farmer, you are also, to some degree, in business. You raise food for yourself, but you hope to raise more than you need so you can sell it. And you may be able to run the farm for yourself, but chances are there will be times you’re going to need help—for getting in the harvest, for example. How are you going to do that?
—Hire someone, I guess.
Probably. Here’s the thing: If Hank has slaves, he doesn’t have to hire anybody. And he doesn’t have to pay anybody. Think about Robert Baron with all those slaves. He doesn’t pay any of them. Gives him a pretty big advantage, dontcha think?
—Well, if you put it that way, I guess it does.
Frank Berger, there are more and more people who are coming to the same conclusion. As you said, guys like you don’t like slavery, though you haven’t really felt you can (or, in truth, want to) do much about it. But now you’re more and more concerned about the economic problem with slavery, the way it gives a big advantage to the people who have a chunk of cash they can use to buy their way out of the labor market. In a way, the objection to the slaveholders is a little like contemporary objections to bankers and other kinds of big businessmen, who can use their access to money to set up a system that really makes it hard for the little guy.
—Yeah, but isn’t it expensive to buy the slaves, and then feed and house them? A person who hires workers doesn’t have to worry about that.
That’s true, Adam. As a matter of fact, it’s actually quite difficult to finally determine if slavery really pays or not as an economic system from the point of view of the people in power. There are lots of pros and cons, and there was a lively argument about this by the time the nation reached 1850.
But of course the argument over slavery wasn’t only an economic one. So the next thing we’re going to do is shift our gaze to those abolitionists I mentioned.
—Oh, good.
Let’s weigh how good.
Next: The other side of the runaway problem

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

King's Survey: Damned Spot

In which we see it's one thing to know a war is wrong, and another to know what to do about it.
 Mexican_map_en_1838OK, kids, what are we going to do about this war?
—Whatever you tell us, Mr. K.
No, Jonah. That’s too much responsibility. I don’t want to carry all of it. We need to come up with a plan.
—Well, what are our options?
That’s the problem. We’re kind of in a box. I mean, we all know this war was bogus from beginning to end.
—We do?
—Of course we do, Jonah!
—How’s that?
—I don’t know. What I do know is that Mr. K. is about to set it up.
That’s right, Ethan. Let’s review the facts here. We’ve had tensions in the neutral zone between the (more northern) Nueces River and (more southern) Rio Grande in Texas. President Polk claims shots were fired—note the passive construction there, scourge of English teachers and refuge for scoundrels everyone—and asked for a declaration of war. Naturally, the Manifest Destiny crowd and their Slave Power allies rushed to judgment and war was declared about a year and a half ago. In the time since, the U.S. army has won a string of victories over the Mexicans and now occupy Mexico City. So what do we do?
—Well, you said the war was bogus, right?
—So let’s protest it.
Not an option.
—Why not?
—Because, dummy, you can’t protest a war that’s already over. And one that you’ve just won. Decisively.
—You can if that war was wrong, Adam.
—No you can’t. Like Mr. K. said, it’s not an option.
Well, it is an option for people like that idiot Henry David Thoreau. He proudly announced he wasn’t going to pay his taxes because he didn’t want to fund the Mexican War. When the world did not react with shock and indignation, he convinced his friend, the constable of Concord, Massachusetts, to throw him in jail. But that got botched too, because, much to Thoreau’s irritation, an unknown benefactor paid his bail. Thoreau. What a jerk. Loved trees, hated people.
—Why don’t you tell us what you really think, Mr. K?
—God, Em, did you read Walden in your English class? We did. It’s terrible. Worse than watching grass grow. Which, basically, is what he did.
Sorry kids. I got distracted. Really it’s an avoidance device. Adam is right: we’ve got a real problem. Unlike Thoreau, we’re politicians. So we’re supposed to have answers.
—I still don’t understand why you can’t speak out against a war that was wrong, even if you’ve won it. How do things ever get better if people don’t speak up?
That’s a really good question, Yin. I just wish I had a clue about how to answer it. Particularly now, given that President Polk has just asked Congress for millions of dollars to help bring the negotiations with the Mexican government to a close.
—Well, isn’t that a place to start? To vote against giving him the money?
—You just don’t get it, do you, Jonah? How are you going to withhold money from someone who’s just succeeded?
—Yeah, well, Adam, I don’t see you coming up with any great ideas. You’re just saying no no no. How is that helping?
I think you’re asking the right question, Jonah: How do you challenge someone who’s just succeeded? Sadie, you’ve got your hand up.
—You show the person who succeeded cheated. He broke the rules.
—But is that what happened here?
Hmmm. Promising. Actually, we don’t know what happened. But we can ask. Maybe Paolo is really onto something after all.
Yes, Paolo. Anybody here gave the speech he gave on the floor of the House last week?
Nobody? Not surprising. He’s a freshman member. Nobody really pays attention. Paolo, you want to tell us what you said?
—Ummm, I don’t remember. Maybe you can remind us, Mr. K.
Sure thing, Paolo. Paolo introduced a resolution demanding to know just where the so-called spot was that shots were fired (his motion became known as the Spot Resolution). He asked President Polk to specify exactly what happened as a condition of giving him the money. Paolo figures that if Polk is forced to actually start talking, he’ll either start lying or revealing a truth he’d rather hide. Meanwhile, the Whigs, who have been scattered, can finally recover from their disarray. What do you think? Is it a good idea?
—Sounds good to me.
All right, then, fellow Whigs. Do we have a plan? Raise your hands.
Great. We’re unified.
—OK, now tell us, Mr. K. Is that what happened? Did it work?
No, not really. What happened is that the Whig Party lurched toward collapse. Southern Whigs could not really afford to come out against the war, but were outnumbered by Northern Whigs. They managed to paper over their differences for a while, principally by rallying around the presidential candidacy of General Zachary Taylor, a hero who was critical of the Polk administration. Taylor himself typified the divided soul of the Whig Party: he was a Tennessee slaveholder who also wanted to limit slavery. But he never really got the chance to work his way out of that box because he died shortly after taking office. Once he did, the Whigs fell apart entirely.
—So did that mean the Democrats ran the country?
In a way, yes. But if the Democrats didn’t actually die the way the Whigs did (gradually, I should point out, over a period of a few years), the they nevertheless came out of the war seriously divided. That’s because of a guy named David Wilmot, a member of the House from Pennsylvania. Wilmot was no abolitionist, but he hated Southern slaveholders, who he regarded as political bullies. So he made a modest proposal—it was called a “proviso,” the Wilmot Proviso—as the war broke out in 1846
—What did it say?
It said Congress should agree that whatever may come of the Mexican War (which, again, was just getting underway), the government should agree that slavery would not be allowed to go there.
—But wasn’t that the whole point of the war?
Pretty much. Not for everybody. But certainly for most of its serious supporters.
—So then why did he ask for it?
—Because he was as smartass.
Pretty much. The Wilmot Proviso had zero chance of becoming law. It was passed by the House dozens of times, largely because non-slaveholding Northern states were in favor of it, and the population of the Northern states was growing and reflected there. But it was rejected repeatedly by the Senate, where population changes didn't matter, and where powerful slaveholding Senators like John Calhoun (coming the end of his long career) had dominated for decades. What the Wilmot Proviso showed is that the Democrats were now divided along sectional lines, something that everybody had dreaded. Democrats divided, Whigs dead. Thoreau’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he predicted, “Mexico will poison us.” The country was headed for serious trouble.
—Yeah, but what I want to know is what happened to Paolo?
Paolo? Oh, you mean that freshman congressman? I told you nobody listens to guys like that. But that wasn’t entirely accurate. The voters back home did. They hated his “spotty” speech. He was voted out in the next election. (He wasn’t actually planning on running again, but he blew what had been a safe Whig seat.) Schmuck. He went back home to Illinois. Made a few waves again about a decade later. You may have heard of him.
—What was his real name?
Abraham Lincoln.
Next: A runaway problem

Monday, November 21, 2016

King's Survey: Mexican Mess

In which see see how politics can be a matter of avoiding stands, and the price that policy exacts.  

TexasQuestionMapDammit, Emily, I need to know where you stand on the Mexican War!
—And good morning to you, Mr. Abraham King.
—I think that’s a highly inappropriate question, Mr. K. Asking the political views of a student like that. Especially with poor, timid Emily.
Oh you do, do you, Sadie? Well for your information, this “student” is running for president of the United States in this Year of Our Lord 1844, and there are millions of American voters who wish she would clarify her position on this decisive issue of our time!
—Honestly, I don’t think I can be any more clear on that issue.
Ha. Sounds like standard Whig sophistry.
—What the hell does that mean?
You know exactly what I’m talking about, Jonah.
—No, really. I have no idea what “standard Whig sophistry” means.
You actually want me to spell it out for you?
—Well, not particularly. But given that class has just started and I don’t really have anything better to do, since you won’t let me whip out my phone, you might as well explain.
With an offer like that, Jonah, I can hardly refuse. As you all know, the current controversy goes back about a dozen years to what we called “the Texas Question.” The word “Texas” once referred to a region of Mexico. Mexico, of course, was a Spanish colony. It won its independence in 1821. At that time, Texas, like northern Mexico generally, was sparsely populated. The government hoped to promote economic development by inviting los Yanquis into the region. There were three conditions: the Americans would have to become Mexican citizens, convert to Roman Catholicism and give up their slaves. The Yankees flooded in, but they didn’t honor any of these terms. And when the Mexican government prodded them about it, they went to war to declare their independence.
—Isn’t that when the Alamo happened?
Yes, Adam, It is. A group of Yankee holdouts at that fort in San Antonio lost their lives to a surrounding Mexican army. But the quest for Texas independence was successful in 1836. In a way, though, that was a consolation prize. The leaders of the new Texas government did not really want to be an independent republic: they wanted to join the United States. The problem was that large segments of the American public, particularly in the Northern states, did not particularly want Texas, which would be a slave state, to join the Union. So while President Jackson supported the effort, it could never get through Congress, and Texas lived in limbo as its own country for the next nine years.
—Sound like kind of a sweet deal to me. Why not be your own country?
Well, Ethan, many of these Texas leaders, like Sam Houston, were Americans, even if most of the people who lived there were not. There were also trade considerations. And the matter of military protection. Texas and Mexico squabbled over their border; the Mexicans said it was at the Rio Nueces, while the Texans said it was the Rio Grande, and as you can the territory between those two rivers is a pretty big piece of real estate. The people who advocated Texas annexation pointed out that if the United States didn’t go ahead and do it, Great Britain might get involved (remember, this is a moment when the U.S. and Britain were squabbling over the borders of the Oregon territory).
—Sounds complicated.
Well, Yin, it was, at to some people. But there were others who saw the matter in amore straightforward light. Like James K. Polk. Polk’s nickname was “Young Hickory.” Anyone know why?
—Because he was wooden?
Nice try. Let’s try it this way: to say that Polk was young Hickory implies that there was an old Hickory. Anyone know who “Old Hickory” was?
—Oh, Mr. K. That like so totally gives it away. Old Hickory! Duh!
Love your sincerity, Em. Well, one more angle. I think I touched on this when we talked about him a while back. Hickory is a very hard wood. It’s tough.
—Andrew Jackson!
Ding ding ding! Ten points for Jonah. Polk was a favorite of old man Jackson, who in fact is near death in 1844. But he’s strongly in favor of Texas annexation, and when the Democratic Party deadlocks over the candidacy of former president Martin Van Buren, who’s trying to make a comeback as an antislavery Democrat, the party turns to Polk, a so-called “dark horse” who comes out of nowhere to take the nomination. The key to Polk’s appeal is his straightforward simplicity. Elect me he says, and I’ll only serve one term. But in that term I’ll work out the Oregon thing, work out the Texas thing, and realize the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States to stretch territorially from sea to shining sea.
—Yeah but what about slavery?
A good question, Adam. Polk is a Tennessee slaveholder. He’s happy for Texas to come into the Union as a slave state, as are all of the slaveholding states. He’s also got the support of the old Jacksonian coalition up North, though its solidity is weakening a bit. Which is exactly why we need to know where Emily, a.k.a. Henry Clay stands in all of this.
—That’s funny. Emily doesn’t look like Henry Clay.
—Sure she does. Sexy Beast. Love that Clay hair.
—What hair?
—It’s wispy. Totally cool.
So what’s it going to be, Em?
—Like I said, I couldn’t be more clear.
Oh, you’re too modest. We need to know: are you going to oppose annexation, and anger southern Whigs (and, very possibly, the majority of the electorate), or go along with it, and anger northern Whigs (who are probably more numerous and loyal) and abolitionists (who are annoying weirdoes, but increasingly influential)?
—Geez, Mr. K., you sure know how to pressure a girl, or a guy, or whatever I am. Can’t I come down somewhere in the middle?
You can, and you do.
—Phew. Disaster avoided. Thank you.
Not exactly. You fudge the issue: you say you can go along with annexation of Texas as a slave state, as long as the Northern electorate goes along with it, which is a little like saying you favor abortion as long as no one gets killed. Polk may be reckless, but at least you know where he stands. It’s sort of the worst of all worlds for Clay because he pleases nobody. That includes the abolitionists, who find the Whigs too timid. They have their own party, the Liberty Party. They get 2% of the vote. That 2% is enough to deny you the presidency, Henry Clay.
But let me shift my gaze from Senator Clay for a moment You happy now, abolitionists? You with your goddamned moral purity have landed a slaveholder who’s determined to expand slaveholding into across the continent in to the White House. Congratulations! This is what your radical activism has achieved. With friends like these, who needs enemies! Am I right, Mr. Clay?
—A little harsh. Mr.-K.-in-the-1840s. But kinda fair.
—No it isn’t, Em. Slavery is wrong. They said so. You’re telling me that the abolitionists, and not the slaveholders, are the real problem here? That’s what’s unfair.
—It’s not a question of what’s right or wrong in terms of the election, Sadie. It’s a question of what’s likely to work. The abolitionists may have been right, but they were dumb.
Kylie, what do you think?
—Well, I know slavery did end. So the abolitionists were on the right track.
Adam, you’re shaking your head.
—You can’t know the abolitionists were right in 1844. Who knows? Maybe if Clay won slavery could have ended without the Civil War.
How likely to do you think that would be, Adam?
—How should I know? But who’s to say I’m wrong?
Fair enough. In any case, Senator Clay, this election is strike three for you. You tried for the presidency in 1824, 1832, and now in 1844—and you’re out for good. But I still love you.
—Oh, well, that makes all the difference, Mr. K. And at least I don’t need to make any more difficult decisions.
Oh yes you do. There’s a war coming. And I want to know where you—and you, and you and you and you stand.
—Can’t we just sit back and have you tell us what to think?
Nope. History doesn’t work that way.
—Yes it does. Every time you read a book.
—Wait: Jonah, you’ve read a book?
—Well, not me, necessarily. I mean in theory. When you read a book you let someone else do the talking.
Maybe, but you shouldn’t let someone else do the thinking. You should be actively considering what the author is saying, and how, and how you feel about it.
—Yeah, but you don’t have to.
—Which is why we have history classes.
—Well, it’s why we have history classes like this. With Mr. K. stalking us demanding to know what we think.
—He doesn’t ask everybody what they think.
—Well, not every day. But there’s always that danger. Right Chris? Chris? Are you there, Chris?
—Uh ... Yeah, right.
Thanks, Chris, for that reality check.
Next: Spotty politics