One question that began to bedevil American politics in the decades following the War of 1812 was the role of slavery in American society.Discuss the ways American political leaders and their...
One question that began to bedevil American politics in the decades following the War of 1812 was the role of slavery in American society.
Discuss the ways American political leaders and their constituents sought to resolve the problems that the controversy over slavery seemed to generate.
One of the aspects of slavery that created great problems, and brought the issue to a head, and yet was rarely addressed or understood then or since was the economic drain on the nation's economy caused by the simple existence of slavery by the mid-19th century. The American economy was dependent on the production and export of cotton and tobacco by the Southern states, since 80% of the government's income came from export tariffs on those products. But the cost of upkeep for slaves on the large plantations, and even moderate sized production farms, was devastating to the economy of the South. Slaves were necessary for the mass labor involved, and yet the cost of purchase, food, housing, clothes and medical care was edging beyond the capacity of the Southern rural economy to maintain.
Large farms and plantations with slaves were only able to continue through loans from banks in the North or in Great Britain. This drained money from the South, often out of the country altogether. At the same time, protectionist legislation and import duties on manufactured goods forced Southerners to buy such goods from Northern industries, which did keep money in the US but led to Southerners being forced to pay exorbitant prices for manufactured goods. This led to the need for not only more loans yearly but ever larger loans. The drain on the Southern economy would have forced an end to slavery within another 20 years or so without the War of Secession, but it also was beginning to adversely affect the income of the federal government. The export tariffs brought in a great deal of money, but the balance between that and the outflow of funds from the South (a great deal of which went to Britain instead of businesses in America which could be taxed) was beginning to be a serious problem, and would only have gotten worse. The refusal of the government to address the issue of tariff balances was really the underlying (and usually unrecognized) cause of the war.
The bedevilment actually began at the founding of the United States. Jefferson's original version of the Declaration of Independence had a phrase stating that the king had
"waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."
The Southern Colonies had it stricken from the Declaration. Having not abolished slavery outright while declaring independence, the country maintained the balancing act of admitting new states contingent upon its status of slave or free; the Missouri Compromise in 1820 was not the first effort, it was merely a continuation of the balancing policy that actually began with the admission of the first two new states to the new republic -- Vermont, in 1790 as state number 14, and Kentucky, in 1793 as state number 15, one free, one slave.
The importation of slaves into the US ended in 1808, so international commerce could not be blamed for the increasing tensions over the slavery issue; as the country expanded and added more states it became wholly an American problem. The system of free state / slave state admittance broke down during the admission of Kansas into the United States the late 1850's, where pro and con arguments over slavery devolved into a shooting war.
The tug of war over the 'balance of power' in the Congress began soon after the end of the war of 1812, referred to as an the 'Era of Good Feelings'. The central issue was the crux between the new territories applying for statehood and whether the territory would enter as a slave or free state. Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun were two of the first to recognize that the nation was ultimately headed upon a collusion course with regard to the issue of slavery. Henry Clay, known as the great compromiser realized the the slave issue had to be handled with care because it held the potential to tear the nation apart. As a result he framed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and later the Compromise of 1850. In both cases Clay's efforts diverted a national disaster. As for Calhoun, his speech of nullification in 1828 only fueled the fires of war. Calhoun gave credence to the idea that the south had the right to secede from the union if the union imposed federal pressure (power) with any of the laws of the sovereign states, the laws in question were those concerning the south's right to own property (slaves). In 1857 the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scot case essentially voided the meaning of the Missouri compromise, thus paving the way for the complete breakdown of communications between the north and south. By 1859 abolitionalist John Brown said it best, there is no stopping what is about to happen here...God have mercy.
The emergence of the slavery issue revealed one of fundamental truths of any democracy and one never really addressed by the framers. In a setting where consensus and negotiation are of critical importance, one cannot really hold or legislate deep seeded political convictions. The idea of a "conviction" is one where individuals would be willing to go to war and sacrifice anything in order to preserve it. The maintenance of slavery and its abolition became two convictions to emerge in America post 1812. Both sides believed in the authenticity of their own convictions, unaware that a democracy cannot really possess such strong convictions because of its consensus nature. Invariably, compromises and negotiations were tried to appease both, but actually assuage none. Adding states to each side of the ledger, both abolition and pro- slavery did nothing but continue the tension. Henry Clay, the master negotiator, drafted the Missouri Compromise, which actually divided a state into sections and allowed popular sovereignty to decide the fate of the state. In the final analysis, America learned that convictions cannot be legislated in a democracy like ours.
This time period right after the War of 1812 also witnessed the birth of a different kind of abolitionist - those who wanted to buy slaves away from their owners and return them to Africa. The American Colonization Society was formed at this time, with President James Monroe among its most prominent members.
The nation of Liberia was founded by these freed slaves (the capital city today is named after James Monroe - "Monrovia").
Senator Henry Clay, known as "The Great Compromiser" for his ability to get pro and anti-slavery forces in Congress to make deals, helped forge the Missouri Compromise. But as we moved west with greater speed and numbers, and added more territory to the US in pursuit of Manifest Destiny, the slavery issue worsened to the point of eventual Civil War.
Really, this would be a whole book.
The main way that leaders and their constituents tried to resolve the problems was to push them down the road -- to try to compromise and hope that the problems would go away. You can see this, for example, in the Compromise of 1820 where no real changes were made -- the compromise attempted to extend the status quo and hope that somehow things would fix themselves.
Another thing that was tried was to sweep the whole issue under the rug. For example, the Congress banned consideration of anti-slavery petitions. By doing this, they were essentially trying to ignore the problem.
So I don't think they were trying very hard to resolve the problems because there really was no good way to actually resolve them.