The roaring '40s

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Serendipitous book-buying results in large piles of books on my library coffee table, and over the holiday weekend I happened to read three that deal with the 1840s, the decade when the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, gained full control of the Oregon Territory, and obtained by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the southwest corner of the continental United States, including California.

These books in question are Joel Silbey's Storm Over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War, Sean Wilentz's Andrew Jackson, and John Seigenthaler's James K. Polk. The first is part of Oxford University Press's Pivotal Moments in American History series, and the second two are part of Times Books' American Presidents series; Wilentz has also just published a much longer history of American politics from Jefferson to Lincoln, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which I look forward to reading. Silbey's Texas is a workmanlike product, which goes well beyond the pivotal moment of the Texas annexation controversy of 1844–45, right up to the months before the Civil War. Wilentz's Jackson is gracefully written and presents a thoughtful and sympathetic view of Jackson, while acknowledging of course that he was anything but politically correct by anybody's standards today. Seigenthaler's Polk is the product of a longtime journalist who is presumably less familiar with the history of the 1840s than the academics Silbey and Wilentz and is a dramatic and riveting portrait of a president who is, as Seigenthaler notes, not well known but who did as much as all but a few other presidents to shape the nation.

A common theme in all three books is the changing focus of American politics in the 1840s, from the economic issues (banking, tariffs) that separated Jackson's Democrats from the Whigs to the cultural issue of slavery that separated Northerners from Southerners. Silbey and Wilentz treat this as regrettable, since it led to the Civil War and to the weakening of the Democratic Party, and avoidable, since if James K. Polk had followed the precedent of Andrew Jackson and his heir Martin Van Buren, who as presidents resisted pressure to annex Texas, the issue of slavery in the territories might not have arisen as it did. There is a certain parallel here to the view taken by many Democrats over the past generation or so that it is a shame voters are focused on cultural issues and not on the economic issues (wealth or income redistribution, presumably), which would favor Democrats in most elections.

The problem is you can't just wave cultural issues away: They are what many, often most, voters care about most. Certainly slavery and the extension of slavery was one such issue. Westward expansion of the United States inevitably raised the question of whether slavery would be allowed in new territories and new states. And slavery in the territories was, under the Constitution, inevitably a federal issue, even if Congress should, as it did in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, decree that it be settled by popular vote in each territory. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which barred slavery north of the 36 "30" line west of Missouri, seemed to settle the issue for nearly 30 years. But the acquisition of Texas (where slavery was thriving under the republic) and California (which was almost entirely unsettled in the 1840s) inevitably raised it again.

In any case, the raising of such issues resulted in sectional polarization and increasing distrust. Silbey writes (Page 142):

As James K. Polk left office in early 1849, observers of the nation's political scene could discern some ominous cracks in the various processes of national unity that had characterized and shaped the United States to this point. The warfare originating in the Texas issue had become so bitter as to undermine belief among Democrats that reciprocity would always be followed in party, and perhaps national, affairs. Parring between sectional spokesmen was constant. As each side pushed, the other had pushed back; as one of them routinely constructed negative images of the other section and persistently questioned the motives and honesty of its leaders, notions of amity, tolerance, and common unities became quite strained.

To some this sounds like our politics today. Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times has read Silbey's book and seems to think so. Brownstein compares Polk and Bush, both relatively little-known Southerners who won their first elections by narrow margins. (Polk did not run for a second term and died at age 53 just a few months after he left office in 1849, the shortest-lived president except Garfield and Kennedy, who were assassinated; his widow, who had been his chief aide, lived on in Nashville till 1891.) Polk acquired Texas, the Oregon Territory, and California and the Southwest, and thus thrust the issue of slavery in the territories forward, an issue that split the parties and ultimately split the Union. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, in Brownstein's view, similarly split the nation. Here's his take:

Much like Polk with continental expansion, Bush has focused his presidency on a single goal: fighting Islamic terrorism, largely by encouraging the spread of democracy. In pursuit of that vision, Bush, like Polk, launched a war whose initial justification has spawned bitter dispute. And, like Polk, Bush has seen that war become more grueling and divisive than he had expected.

Polk's unwavering, impermeable conviction defines one approach for organizing a presidency in such circumstances. But Polk's early critic—Lincoln—offers Bush a better model for leadership during a difficult war. In the Civil War, Lincoln was nothing if not resolute. But as [Doris Kearns] Goodwin [in her recent book on Lincoln] notes, he also calibrated his decision —from key personnel appointments to the timing of emancipation—to hold together all shades of opinion committed to the Union.

There are a couple of answers to this. First, I think Brownstein gets Lincoln wrong. Lincoln was shrewd in holding together the Republican Party and the former Democrats who joined it. But he didn't give much ground to his Democratic opponents, even when, as in the summer of 1864, he seemed almost certain to be defeated for re-election by the hesitant general he fired, George McClellan. Polk's expansionism raised issues that the politicians of the 1850s had to deal with. It's not clear whether Bush's decision to go into Iraq is going to raise issues that politicians will have to deal with over all of the next decade.

Second, as Kaus puts it with admirable brevity in, "OK, how about 45 percent slave, 55 percent free? So if only Polk had been more of a consensus president we would have ended slavery without a war?" Counterfactual history is always a matter of speculation, but a United States without Texas, Oregon, or California could still have faced the issue of slavery in the territories. Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which led proximately to southern domination of the Democratic Party, the creation of the Republican Party, and the resumption of a political career by Abraham Lincoln, was not concerned with the territories Polk acquired but with parts of the Louisiana Purchase covered by the Missouri Compromise, which it explicitly repealed to meet the demands of southerners.

My own view is that it was a good thing that the United States expanded to the Pacific, Puget Sound, and the Rio Grande in the 1840s—even if it raised the issue of slavery in the territories that led to the Civil War. And it was a good thing that Lincoln fought to hold the Union together and free the slaves, even at terrible human cost. It's hard to see how the United States could have become the great nation that did so much to defeat Nazi and Communist totalitarianism in the 20th century if Polk and Lincoln had not made the decisions they did in the 19th. And how could the United States be what it is today without its two largest states, California and Texas?

A final note. One difficulty in following these narratives is that many of the key figures seem to change sides as issues present themselves. John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson all supported the Missouri Compromise in 1820. Calhoun served as vice president under Adams and Jackson and broke with both of them. Adams was the lone member of James Monroe's cabinet who in 1818 defended Jackson's conduct in Spanish Florida (where he summarily hanged two British officers). All of which is a reminder that politics isn't static, that serious people who take the same position on one issue can take very different positions on others, and that the political alignments of the 1830s could not be frozen in amber and preserved into the 1840s.