Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Policitcs / Christopher Childers -- Lawrence, Kan.: Univeristy Press of Kansas, 2012

It is often said the American Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery, but over the right of states to secede.  The assertion is initially appealing in that significant majorities in the northern states felt no need to go to war over the presence of slavery in the South, but a northern army was quickly mobilized when southern states seceded.  This analysis, however, overlooks the decades-long debate over slavery, particularly the debate over its extension into the U.S. territories, which was the core disagreement that finally led to secession.  Imagine two farmers who begin arguing about the ownership of a plot of land and find themselves coming to blows when they cannot agree on a subtle point in contract law.  We would not say that they were fighting over a legal principle, but that they were fighting over the land.  So too was the Civil War a struggle over slavery, not state sovereignty.  Christopher Childers's masterly book The Failure of Popular Sovereignty traces the long argument that finally led to the Civil War.  In the course of the account, the importance of slavery is revealed by the changing justifications offered by southern slaveholders in particular.

The central concern in both the North and the South was the extension of slavery into the territories.  In time, four positions surfaced:  (1) the federal government had authority to regulate and even outlaw slavery in the territories, (2) the government of a territory could regulate or outlaw slavery, (3) the citizens of a territory could regulate and even outlaw slavery, but only when applying for statehood, and (4) the federal government had an obligation actively to protect slavery in the territories until the territory became a state.  Other positions also surfaced, but they tended to be opportunistic modifications of one of these four.

Strong precedents existed for the first of the four positions, even since before the ratification of the Constitution.  The Northwest Ordinance (1787) prohibited slavery in the the territories north of the Ohio River and Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Ordinance of 1784 regulating territories contained a stipulation that slavery in the territories would be prohibited after 1800.  The stipulation was stripped from the ordinance, but only due the the sickness and absence of a single voter in the Confederation Congress.  In 1820, the federal government passed the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery in the Louisiana territory north of 36' 30".  It is noteworthy that during the discussion of the Missouri Compromise, John C. Calhoun, who later became the leading defender of the extension of slavery, endorsed the power of the federal government to prohibit it.

The Slave Power's early lack of concern over the federal power to restrict slavery changed as political sentiment against slavery grew in the country.  Proslavery officials came to adopt a version of popular sovereignty that excluded federal authority over slavery in the territories.  This headed off the extension of the Northwest Ordinance to the Orleans territory (Louisiana) and allowed the Arkansas territory to draft a slave code and be admitted as a slave state.  The proslavery arguments held that the federal government should not dictate legislation to the citizens of the territories.  To do so would be to treat them as colonies.  This view was not based on any specific language in the Constitution.  Indeed, Article Four, Section Three permitted the federal government to pass "needful rules and regulations" for the territories.  Instead, the proslavery endorsement of popular sovereignty was based on a basic principle of American government that the people are capable of self-governance and that local authority should trump federal authority.

With the conquest of the Mexican territories, the proslavery position changed.  The citizens of the territory of New Mexico were disposed to pass legislation prohibiting slavery, but to protect slavery, the Slave Power argued that the citizens of the territories were not politically mature enough for self-governance and that they could only prohibit slavery at the time they submitted an application for statehood.  The Slave Power derided their own earlier position that allowed the territorial government authority over slavery, calling it "squatter sovereignty."  It was thought by many that by insisting on "state sovereignty" instead, slaveholders would have time to emigrate to New Mexico and ensure that it would be admitted as a slave state.

By this time, Calhoun had recognized that even while the territorial governments might not be permitted to prohibit slavery, their slave codes (and social conditions) might effectively prohibit the emigration of slaves and slaveholders to the territories.  What was necessary, according to Calhoun was the active protection of slave property by the federal government in the territories.  Many southerners accepted Calhoun's analysis, but others, especially those in the upper South and border states, continued to adhere to "state sovereignty."  Calhoun's position was effectively endorsed years after his death by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).  More explicitly, Dred Scott rejected the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and held that the federal government had no authority to outlaw slavery in the territories, but by this time all four main positions regarding the extension of slavery were advanced by important political factions and various splinter positions were offered in an effort to reach a compromise over slavery.

Perhaps the most consistent position was held by the antislavery forces who argued that the federal government, empowered by the Constitution's Article Four, Section Three, could establish "needful rules and regulations" for the territories, that this included the prohibition of slavery, and that the frequent exercise of this power had established it in practice. 

Among Childers's most interesting observations are the fine legal distinctions that were made by proponents of various versions of popular sovereignty.  Proslavery radicals appeared to completely alter their views on popular sovereignty, moving through each of the four main positions to fit their interests in the extension of slavery.  Steven A. Douglas, a more moderate politicians, retained his view that territorial governments could pass legislation regarding slavery (squatter sovereignty, if you will).  Douglas argued that slavery could not exist where laws did not provide for its aid and protection.  Douglas, consistent with his previous support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, continued to argue for territorial sovereignty and against federal intervention in the territories.  Douglas remained true to his commitment to the principle of self-determination of local communities.  He also seemed to hope that this position would satisfy both southern and northern Democrats and maintain his party's political dominance.

Other politicians, particularly Lewis Cass attempted to satisfy both wings of the Democratic Party by issuing ambiguous statements on precisely when a territory was empowered to regulate slavery.  His cagey approach nearly won him the presidency in 1848, but he was defeated by the Mexican War hero Zachery Taylor, who simply remained silent about the practicalities of popular sovereignty.

In general, The Failure of Popular Sovereignty is the story of a decades-long struggle over the extension of slavery.  It provides an illuminating account of cross-cutting political considerations and evolving views about the constitutional protections afforded to slavery.  Specific political figures involved in the formulation of the doctrine of popular sovereignty are vividly drawn, and the rising stakes in the debate lend growing excitement to the story.  If there is a weakness to the history, it is the scant descriptions of the antislavery movement.  A better understanding the internal debates within the Democratic Party over popular sovereignty would be achieved by placing the debate within a more vivid description of the larger political context.  This would, of course, add a number of pages to the work, but the topic certainly deserves additional treatment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mr. Lincoln Goes to War / William Marvel -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006

In Mr. Lincoln Goes to War William Marvel makes a strenuous case against Lincoln's actions in the first year of the war.  Marvel's Lincoln appears to be eager for war and quite unconcerned about basic civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution.  Among the earliest and most famous violations of civil liberties came in the case of John Merryman, a prominent Maryland resident.  Well-know for his sympathies for secession, Merryman was arrested in May 1861and held without access to the courts until he was released in July.  Merryman's arrest occurred during the most systematic violations of the right to habeas corpus which continued through the first year of the war.  During that time, Lincoln authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the region between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and later extended the region to New York City. 

While the right of habeas corpus is fundamental to a free society, Lincoln faced uncertain circumstances that threatened the federal government and potentially the rule of law throughout the country.  In the early days of secession, it was not clear what path Maryland would take.  Furthermore, rumors were rife within Washington D.C. that the Confederates were amassing an army to capture the city.  Indeed, in early March 1861, the Confederate Congress called for 100,000 soldiers to volunteer for a one-year tour of duty.   Given significant support for the southern cause within the city and in the state of Maryland, one could make a case for unprecedented police actions.  As the threat to the capital subsided, Lincoln released all political prisoners (with some exceptions) on Feb. 14, 1862; however, following the imposition of a draft in the summer of 1863, Lincoln again suspended the writ of habeas corpus.  It appears that Lincoln exercised this power for specific purposes at specific times.  

Clearly, the Lincoln administration's record regarding civil liberties is at very least questionable, but Marvel's description of it as "arbitrary" seems too harsh under the circumstance.  Marvel does little to credit these circumstances.  In the case of civil war, one's mortal enemies are fellow citizens and so the protections of citizenship obviously will be strained. Indeed, the gravity of the conflict is illustrated by the violations of civil liberties on both sides, but Marvel makes no mention of the violations perpetrated by the Confederate government.  The Confederate Congress authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1862, passed the Alien Enemies Act which authorized the arrest of anyone in the Confederate states who did not acknowledge Confederate citizenship, and passed the Sequestration Act which authorized the permanent confiscation of the property of Union sympathizers.  These actions, along with formation of a hostile army demonstrate the gravity of the threat posed to federal authority and the government itself.  

Marvel makes much of the fact that many Union soldiers joined the army not out of a moral or nationalist impulse, but because of economic need.  He furthermore notes that a draft was required to sustain the Union war effort.  The conclusion Marvel is leading us to is that the war was -- from the beginning -- foisted upon the people of the country by an aggressive president.  It should come as no surprise that those signing up to military service would be disproportionately poor and unemployed, but some degree of allegiance to the cause is likely to part of the decision to enlist, particularly as the horror of the war became better known.  It is noteworthy that less than 20% of the Union forces were enlisted due to the draft.  Marvel does not mention that southerners also joined the Confederate army for economic reasons and that a Confederate draft was required a year prior to the Union draft.  Soft popular support for the Confederate cause lends credence to the view that the secession of southern states was in fact a rebellion by a privileged southern elite, not an act of northern aggression.  

Marvel also describes the suppression of the press in the North, but again, the exigencies of civil war are not recognized and little mention is made of the state of the press in the South.  Marvel does acknowledge that pro-union presses were closed by the Confederacy, but writes that presses in the South practiced "voluntary restraint" and that the infrequency of attacks on the press could be explained by the fact that in the South "the dominant slave culture had long repressed divergent opinion."  Time and time again, Marvel provides excuses for Confederate violations of basic liberties, but excoriates the Lincoln administration for similar violations.  

Lincoln is not the only object of Marvel's criticism.  In a chapter entitled, "The Crimson Corse of Lyon," Marvel describes the Union campaign to control Missouri.  For Marvel it is a rebellion against the authorized government of the state of Missouri.  Lyon is called "an insubordinate, self-righteous psychopath" who "would not hear of peace when he saw so rare and opportunity to fulfill his apocalyptic personal destiny."  It is remarkable that Marvel could diagnosis a personality disorder in Lyon one hundred and fifty years after Lyon's death, when it is difficult for qualified psychiatrists to make such diagnoses for their contemporary patients.  It says more about Marvel's polemical intent than Lyon's personality.  Marvel writes that Lyon's "unstable temperament" is revealed by his providing intelligence to McClellan that turned out to be incorrect.  The connection is so unclear that it borders on being a non sequitur, and in fact, in one case, the "incorrect intelligence" was not really off the mark at all.  Confederate forces really were assembling in Arkansas in preparation for an invasion of Missouri. 

For a revealing portrait of Lyon, Marvel credits Christopher Phillips's harsh 1990 biography of Lyon, entitled Damned Yankee.  I have not read Damned Yankee, but its initial paragraphs read less like history and more like an historical novel.  Phillips describes dramatic details that he could not possible know took place.  He does so clearly for literary effect.  "Pulling pensively at his unruly red beard, forty-three-year-old Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon watched the commotion in the street....His features hardened, the wrinkles at the top of his hooked nose deepened, and his small mouth clenched his cigar as tightly as his false teeth would allow."  Prose of this sort hardly engenders confidence in the accuracy of Phillips's accounts.  

This is not to say that Marvel's work is credulous.  His bibliography reveals the serious research that lies behind his work, but it is not exceptional by professional standards.  Marvel makes good use of primary sources, particularly letters and newspaper accounts.  He also makes heavy use of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, but any number of historians have done as well and have not drawn the starkly critical conclusions that Marvel draws.  The scrupulous detail tends, however, to ocur in the passages which provide rather tedious accounts of troop movements.  Such passages make up a substantial portion of Marvel's work.

At times Marvel's polemics clearly get the best of historical accuracy.  At one point he writes of "Lincoln's expedition against Ft. Sumter."  Here he is referring to a flotilla of ships that Lincoln ordered to deliver food and water to the besieged Union garrison.  Marvel has turned a defensive, holding action into aggression.  This may be a simple editorial oversight, but it reveals the lens through which Marvel views history and the extent to which it distorts his vision.  The actions "against" Ft. Sumter in 1861 were all perpetrated by the Confederacy -- first a siege and then a potentially murderous bombardment.  

Lying behind Marvel's work is the view that Lincoln's defense of federal property and willingness to engage in war was illegal, immoral, and unnecessary.  The best defense of this view that I have read is in Democracy in the United States by Ransom H. Gillet, published in 1868.  Prior to the war, Gillet was a member of the Democratic Party and a U.S. Representative from New York.  His book attempts to resurrect the much-tarnished reputation of the Democratic Party.  It is a scathing, partisan attack on the Lincoln administration.  Were Marvel to comment on Gillet's work, I suspect he would find Gillet the most accurate and astute observer of the times.  

We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 / William J. Cooper -- N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

The American Civil War was long in coming.  As early as the founding of the country, pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces struggled over slavery.  At various times in the first half of the 18th century, the political conflict threatened to lead to secession, and of course secession and war finally did come following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.

The main questions at issue were whether or not slavery would be permitted in the U.S. territories and in the states to be created out of those territories.  The Republican platform ratified at the 1860 convention in Chicago called for the complete prohibition of slavery in the territories.  The Democratic Party was, however, divided.  Under the banner of "popular sovereignty," the northern faction supported the right of territorial governments to prohibit slavery.  The southern faction held that only state constitutions could establish such prohibitions.  Unable to resolve their differences, the Democratic Party split and ran two candidates:  Steven A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge. 

Lincoln's election is often thought of as being a result of the split in the Democratic Party.  He certainly failed to receive a majority of the popular vote nation-wide and he received virtually no votes in the southern states. His victories in the northern states, however, gave him the electoral votes necessary to win the election, but even if Democratic Party voters had not split their votes, Lincoln's majorities in the northern states would have put him in the White House.  State by state popular vote totals demonstrate just how divided the country was on the issue of slavery, particularly the extension of slavery into the territories.

In the weeks following Lincoln's election, seven states seceded from the Union (South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas).  These states established the Confederate States of America.  Its constitution guaranteed slavery in all its states and territories.  The movement toward secession was unable to reach beyond the the deep south, though, until after the fall of Ft. Sumter on April 13 and Lincoln's subsequent call for 75,000 troops to defend the Union.  The prospect that federal troops would be used to occupy and "reconstruct" the seceded states led to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  The Kentucky legislature declared Kentucky neutral in the conflict, while the federal occupation of Maryland and Missouri precluded secession in those states.

William Cooper's We Have the War Upon Us provides a close account of events between the election of Lincoln and the fall of Ft. Sumter.  He especially examines the negotiations between Republicans and conditional unionists who sought to avoid the secession of the upper southern and border states.  His treatment is careful and generally even-handed, relying on both primary and secondary sources.  The actions (and non-actions) of William Seward and Abraham Lincoln play a central role in Cooper's account -- Seward working hard to accommodate the interests of the conditional unionists and Lincoln remaining largely silent on what his approach to the crisis would be upon his inauguration.  The out-going president James Buchanan also played an important role in the unfolding events.  Buchanan's view was that while states did not have the legal authority to leave the Union, the federal government did not have the authority to defend its sovereignty over the seceded states.  One might argue that his inactivity to address secession forcefully at an early stage left the new Republican administration with a irremediable problem.

The greatest weakness in Cooper's account of the events leading to war is his short treatment of the actions of southern "fire-eaters," i.e., southerners dedicated to secession and the defense of slavery without compromise.  By emphasizing the negotiations between the hard line Republicans and the conditional unionists, one is left with the impression that the intransigence of the hard line Republicans was more responsible for the coming of war than is justified.  Cooper does not, for example, give much time to discussing the call by the Confederate Congress for 100,000 troops to serve for one year.  This call was made more than a month before Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops to serve for 90 days.  To keep these numbers in perspective, the federal army was composed of only 16,000 troops prior to 1861, most of whom were stationed in the South and in the territories.  Many of these soldiers -- and most of the officers -- resigned from the federal army and joined the Confederate forces.  Under these circumstances, the rumors of threats to Washington D.C. could not be ignored and the vulnerability of the territories to Confederate annexation was significant.  In the end, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Lincoln followed the least belligerent course possible that still adhered to his responsibility to defend federal property.

Reviewing the efforts to negotiate an agreement that would prevent secession and war, leads the reader to conclude that Seward was correct in his assessment that the war was "irrepressible."  Efforts by Congress as a whole, the House of Representative's Committee of Thirty-three, the Senate's Committee of Thirteen, the non-governmental Peace Convention, and the Confederate commissioners who came to Washington to negotiate a peaceful separation all appeared to be futile exercises in the face of long entrenched, partisan commitments to an uncompromising resolution to the nation's problem.  In that sense, Cooper's title, We Have the War Upon Us is most certainly apt.