MOOC | The Mexican War & Expansion of Slavery | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.4.1

MOOC | The Mexican War & Expansion of Slavery | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.4.1


>>We’re going to start now with our chronological look at the period right before the Civil War and what happened. One of the main things that happened of course is that the issue of slavery entered national politics to stay. It had popped up many a time but it always had been kind of pushed out. But slavery entered national politics in the mid to late 1840s and then throughout the 1850s, not in the form of abolitionism or really anything directly to do with slavery where it existed but in the form of the question of the westward expansion of slavery. Should slavery be allowed to spread into new territories? The United States and next, Texas, in 1845, the Mexican War, the Mexican American War of 1846 to ’48 led to the acquisition of a vast new territory in the southwest, the current states of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, et cetera, Colorado. What was going to be the status of slavery in that vast, new area, which joined the United States? This is a map of the United States and Mexico, around 1830, and you see how large Mexico was. You know, the boundaries of the United States — everybody here has a metal map of the United States, you know what our country looks like, more or less, but there is nothing ordained by nature or God about the current boundaries of the United States, they are manmade. It — we’re not like an island, like — I don’t, Cuba or Cypress, where there’s a kind of a natural formation for the nation. There’s no law of nature that said this couldn’t have stayed, why shouldn’t Mexico be big like that? Why — you know, it was a war that annexed a law — created the boundary we have today and during the 19th Century, a lot of Americans thought Canada was going to become part of the United States. If it had, we wouldn’t know anything about that boundary of the 49th parallel, but it’s still there, you know? So just didn’t — we actually invaded Canada twice, once in the American Revolution and once in the War of 1812 in order to enable them to join the United States but to the astonishment of the Americans, they kicked us right out. For some reason, they didn’t want to become part of the United States, I can’t understand why. But anyway, the Mexicans didn’t have much of a choice; one third of their country was invaded, conquered and annexed to the United States. When you read, as we all do, about the border, securing the border, this is a main political issue nowadays; just remember that border is totally artificial. There is nothing natural, it goes along the Rio Grande River but there are plenty of rivers down there and that border separated families, separated communities, just drawing that line through what was already a unitary community. So the fact that people want to cross that border, even though it’s 150 or more years later, should not surprise us ’cause that border is an unnatural thing. But anyway, the — in 1846, some people date the coming of the Civil War from 1846, David Wilmot, a congressman from Pennsylvania, introduced in the House of Representatives, a bill which became known as the Wilmot Proviso, actually an amendment to a bill about the war, in which it said that slavery would not be allowed in any territory acquired from Mexico. It wasn’t against acquiring territory from Mexico, it said in any such territory, slavery would not be allowed, okay? And this shattered the political parties temporarily, all the northerners in congress voted in favor, all the southerners voted against — with a few exceptions here and there, but why is it that this issue of the expansion, the territorial issue, as we call it, became the focal point of debate over slavery. Abolitionists were not bothered by the expansion of slavery; they wanted to talk about slavery where it was. We’re talking now about slavery where it isn’t. Mexico had abolished slavery in the 1820s so there was no legal slavery out there at the time the United States acquired those territories. Well, why? Well number one, the expansion of slavery was what we might call an available issue constitutionally speaking; that is to say, it was a widely shared belief that congress had no power whatsoever over slavery in the states. It was a state institution created by the states, state law protected slavery. The Constitution had protections slavery in it but didn’t create the institution so there’s nothing you can do in congress about slavery in the states where it exists but the territories — congress — the Constitution says that congress — I don’t have the exact language right here — you know, congress governs the territory of the United States. Moreover, this was a longstanding tradition; 1787, the Northwest Ordinance, this is even before the Constitution is ratified, banned slavery in what they — the territory then, the old northwest, what is now Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, et cetera, but allowed slavery in the southern territory of the United States, which was then let’s Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, et cetera, those were not states yet. Those were territories. 1820, the Missouri crisis arose over admitting Missouri as a slave state but it ended up with the Missouri Comprise, which you can actually see it. It admitted Missouri as a state but in the whole area north of the lower boundary of Missouri, the line 3630 of latitude, all the territory above that, except for the State of Missouri, slavery was prohibited, what is called on that map Iowa Territory, unorganized territory, Wisconsin Territory, slavery is prohibited by the Missouri Compromise and then it’s allowed in a smaller area, below Missouri, such as particularly Arkansas. So in other words, there’s a long tradition of congress dealing with slavery in the territories. Now this — why? Well, first of all of course obviously, the question of slavery in the territories raises the issue of regional political power, right? Territories become states and there was no example in American history of a free territory becoming a slave state or a slave territory becoming a free state so what the status is as territory seems to determine what the future of that area will be. States mean more members of congress, more senators, right, more electoral votes. The three fifths clause of the Constitution enhances the political power that comes along with slavery so both sides have a vested — even a — I say both sides but of course there are many — the north south division is not hard and fast at this point, but the fact that it is a political issue shows that large numbers of northerners or southerners thought they had different interests, not just about slavery but about other things like federal internal improvements, Homestead Acts, things like that. And so the debate over the territories is a way, in a sense, a debate over future political power in the country. Particularly in the south, there is a growing fear of becoming a permanent and shrinking minority. As we will discuss next time, immigration in the 1840s and, you know, immigration did not contribute a great deal to the growth of American population up to about 1830 but then it really begins to take off and certainly in the 1840s, it’s growing rapidly and most immigrants are going to the north for reasons we’ll talk about next time. Immigrants are swelling the population of the northern states and the south is falling further and further behind. Then there is the issue — so the southerners fear that if slavery is barred in those territories and they come in as free states, they will be a very — a shrinking minority in the country. Then of course there’s the point that for some people at least, the territorial issue raises the question indirectly of the future of slavery. Why? Well, it was commonly believed that the slave system needed to expand in order to survive. Certainly the expansion of slavery was not just a political issue, it was a fact. Everybody who lived in America in say 1850, knew that slavery had expanded. In 1850, there were more slaves in states that didn’t even exist when the nation was founded than in the older states. Slavery, as we saw last week, had spread down into the Gulf States, you know, the cotton kingdom and so slavery was expanding but what would happen if its expansion was stopped? Well, I think today, most historians, economists say nothing much would have happened economically, maybe politically it would have. There were — there was a tremendous area, millions and millions of acres of land in Texas, East Texas, perfectly suitable for cotton cultivation, which was as yet unsettled. In other words, slavery could expand — the cotton production could expand for a long, long time, even into states already there, particularly Texas, even if you couldn’t go into New Mexico and anyway, New Mexico and Arizona, not all that viable for agricultural production until irrigation. Of course now, Arizona particularly is a major cotton producer but not in the 19th Century. But to those who believed that cutting off the expansion of slavery would put it, as Lincoln would say, on the road to extinction, it may be a very long road but it would put it on that road than this issue of non-expansion does raise the question of the future of slavery. And paradoxically perhaps, this — the position of stopping the expansion of slavery, which comes to be known as free soil-ism, the idea of free soil, free soil, free of slavery; free soil could be and was in the case of many people, linked with racism. This is where it departs most significantly from the abolitionist point of view. The difference I’m — the distinction here, very, very important to bear in mind is between abolitionism and anti-slavery. If you’re an abolitionist, at least rhetorically, you believe in the equality of black people in America. You may not practice that in your personal life but that’s your position. Anti-slavery does not have any position on the future of blacks in America and indeed, large numbers of northerners who wish to stop the expansion of slavery felt they didn’t want any blacks out there, free or slave. They felt it was degrading to have black — a black population. Slavery would of course bring a black population with it but they didn’t want free blacks out there either. In other words, the free soil issue appeals to northern self-interest, white self-interest, people who want to go out and become farmers in the west don’t want to be competing with slave plantations but they often don’t want the presence of blacks at all so this is — we’ll get into this more as we go along, but the number one point here is this, which is — seems counterintuitive to us, it was perfectly possible to be genuinely anti-slavery and deeply racist at the same time. In fact, probably most northerners, more than whites, were exactly in that boat and that was the great barrier — or one of the great barriers to the abolitionists but free soil erases the question of racial equality from the debate over slavery so it has a much broader appeal than abolitionism.

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