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XKCD ran an interesting infograph today on American Politics from the revolution to now. What all did he get wrong and what is presented in a partisan/misleading manner?(r/AskHistorians)
We go first to December 29, 1829. Connecticut senator Samuel Foot puts a resolution that would bring the legislature to a frenzy, touching on slavery, states’ rights, partisanship, and presidential power over the course of five months and sixty-five speeches.
The resolution is about the sale of public lands in the western part of the country–regulating expansion and settlement, and it sounds boring at first.
Then January 18, Thomas Hart Benton (Missouri) denounces it as an attack on the West. And he opposed it not just because he was representing a Western interest, but because it represented federal favoritism of particular parts of the country. If the West were forced to suffer for North-eastern interests, what next?
The next day (Jan. 19), ostensibly while contemplating a national treasury, Senator Robert Hayne (South Carolina) stated: “The fruits of our labor are drawn from us to enrich other and more favored sections of the Union.”
The book I’m working with suggests that Hayne saw an opportunity to protect slavery. It’s unclear on how that motivation was discerned. This is why the issue of slavery in the role of the Civil War has been somewhat contentious: because while the South voted to protect slavery, its political maneuvering was almost always in the context of the strength of the Union.
The key is that when it was forced to, the South voted to protect slavery over protecting general states’ rights, as in the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), granting federal power to return slaves.
But that’s still in the distant future.
Daniel Webster, one of the finest orators of American history, enters the fray. Jan. 20th, Webster argued that Hayne’s objections were “obviously to bring the Union into discussion as a mere question of present and temporary expediency.” Another excerpt: “Far, indeed, in my wishes, very far distant be the day, when our associated and fraternal stripes shall be severed asunder.”
It was always known that civil war was a real possibility.
Hayne takes the bait and provides the Southern talking points. Just as today we have a standard set of arguments and opinions on health care, there was a standard set of arguments and opinions on slavery.
The most important of these is nullification: the right of a state to reject part or all of a federal law. Gaining federal support of this right would have protected slavery and vastly weakened the power of the national government.
So Hayne was in many senses speaking for or at least with (current) Vice President John Calhoun. In case you were wondering when I was actually going to talk about something from the comic.
Then Webster gave one of his greatest speeches. I couldn’t find the full text, but here’s a larger section. The grammar of the rhetoric makes it really difficult to excerpt, so it’s going to start with a real clunky, terrible paraphrase.
>>[When I die, may I not see] those other words of delusion and folly, Liberty first, and Union afterwards–but every where, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole Heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart–Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!
A brief aside: there was no animosity between Hayne and Webster. An unnamed colleague jokingly told Webster he should die now, “and rest your fame on that speech,” to which Hayne responded, “You ought not to die; A man who can make such speeches as that ought never to die.”
The effect of these speeches was polarizing; the passion of it drew men to extremes. Senator William Smith (South Carolina) dramatically stated he would “be ready to shed my blood” to maintain states’ rights, and that, since other governments had fallen, this one could as well.
In case you were wondering, South Carolina is almost always the hothead. John Calhoun was from South Carolina, and around this time people began considering him “the Nullification candidate” for the 1832 elections.
One last Senate speech: Edward Livingston, senator from Louisiana. Giving a fairly moderate viewpoint, Livingston affirmed the validity of discourse, stating that it may “increase our own information on all the important points” so that “we may weigh them at leisure,” and simultaneously gave a warning against partisanship. I include this speech to demonstrate a pattern of discourse: extremes first, and then slow moderation.
American Lion (Jon Meacham), from which I’m drawing this detail, places Hayne as an advocate for Vice President Calhoun’s position, and Livingston as an advocate for Andrew Jackson’s position. This is born out, as we will now see.
Because we’re going to a party.
Tuesday, April 13th, in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, a dinner party took place at the Indian Queen Hotel. Jackson knew that the course of toasts and speakers made it a wholly political event, and “a nullification affair altogether.”
He prepared three toasts, then consulted Lewis and Andrew Donelson (secretaries, also relatives) as to which one they liked the best. They both picked the same one, which pleased Jackson because it was his favorite as well.
Now Andrew Jackson was one of the more powerful Presidents, not only as a person but also in that the office of the Executive held and wielded a lot of power during his Presidency. At this point he has not made a public statement about the controversy in the Senate, though he has kept well informed of the goings-on.
So there are toasts, and Hayne and others are praising Jefferson and how he stood against John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts–connecting, in other words, to previous conflicts over state and federal power.
And then it’s Jackson’s turn to make a toast.
“Our Union–it must be preserved.”
Presidential punch. But his own Vice President stands up to speak.
“The Union–next to our liberty the most dear,” he said, conceding. But he goes on: “May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and distributing equally the benefit and burden of the Union.”
The tension must have been electric. I wish I could have been there.
And yes, Calhoun may have been advocating for the defense of slavery, for the expansion and protection of it.
But that’s not how the debate unfolded, and it’s not what the debate decided.
And it’s not who John Calhoun was as a man or a politician.
[Most of the quotes, dates, and so forth come from Andrew Jackson in the White House: The American Lion, by Jon Meacham. The relevant pages are roughly 125-136]