Friday, June 26, 2009

The American Political System Before and During the War

Who knows where this entry will go but I do feel like writing something and posting it.

The whole concept of how the American political system broke down, leading to the War, is quite complicated, at least more so than I had realized. In the book I'm reading, Why the Civil War Came, the last 2 chapters I've read have covered this subject, with discussions ranging from how the Constitution is set up, to the party system of politics, to the ease with which 3rd parties could start up and similar "political outsiders" could have large influences.

Other factors including the fall of the Whig party, the rise and fall of the American (Know-Nothing) party, the rise of the Republican party, the split of the Democrats, the radicalism of South Carolina and how the death of John C Calhoun left that state without leadership committed to the union.

Racism was a huge factor as well, and the ability of Southern extremists and slaveholders to "control" the Northern Democrats and more moderate politicians helped turn this minority (the so-called "Slave Power") into a very influential and powerful group. Some in that group even wanted to extend the concept of paternalism from beyond that of how slaveholders treated slaves to a broader concept of the white elite of society treating all lesser people, including poor whites, with the same paternalistic attitude. The desire to have a "white man's republican" form of government and how many in the North thought the slave power threatened that was key as well, an example of how racism played a role, north and south. (In the south, the use and spread of racism helped slaveholders convince non-slaveholders that blacks needed to be in slavery. Ironically, it convinced some non-slaveowners that a land without blacks was to be preferred to a land with black slavery, a concept that took hold in the border states and even the upper south, as slaveholders there sold their human chattle to the Deep South. As the number of blacks in the more northern states decreased, the support of slavery also seemed to lose its hold, as people there were no longer as threatened by the (diminishing) presence of blacks.

I'm not finished with the second essay and I'm sure I've skipped a few items and details that both discuss, but they sure do provide a lot of material to ponder, especially the first one. It's almost good enough for me to want to go back and notate different paragraphs or sections, but I don't really like to do that to my books. Still, it's something I'll consider.

I also would like to question the assumption that the coming of the War signaled a failure in the political system, but I honestly cannot think of any way to defend such an argument. I think the outcome of the war ended up being a positive for the country, but do the ends justify the means? Was war an acceptable way to end slavery and maintain one united nation?

If not, what was a reasonable alternative? The second essay referred to above seems to make it clear that the most influential people in the deep South had no intention of making any compromise to what they regarded as their right to hold slaves, and, in fact, some even wanted to re-open the African slave trade and/or acquire land such as Cuba or other Latin American countries to expand slave territory. These people did not see that slavery had been dying throughout much of the world as the 19th century progressed and they absolutely could not (or would not) picture life without it under any circumstances. Given that reality, would there ever have been a peaceful resolution to end slavery and keep the Union together? Or would have avoiding the 1861-1865 War only have postponed to a later date?

Was the War simply inevitable, no matter how the political system worked? Was there any way to avoid it as long as neither side (pro or anti-slavery) compromised on its beliefs? Did the political extremists, north and south, have enough influence to eliminate the more moderate politicians, or at least to weaken them greatly, giving both extreme sides more influence over the course of events?

In a previous entry, I wondered if John Tyler created the Civil War with his commencement of the process to annex Texas, but now I have to ask if the Gag Order Congress passed in the mid 1830's was the starting point. Of course, maybe the whole nullification crisis sowed the seeds of discontent.

It would seem at some point that further reading would provide more answers, yet I seem to be thinking of more questions. Maybe that's a good sign and evidence that my readings are not for naught.

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