Monday, October 5, 2009

Mount Vesuvius, Krakatoa, Mt. St. Helens, and the 1850s in the United States

What are four famous volcanoes?
Well, not really, but I have come to believe that the arrival of Civil War in the United States was the culmination of a long series of events, not just one election or one speech or any one single grandiose occurrence. It was a long, slow process that, in hindsight, gives the modern reader plenty of evidence of what was to come, and may even make the war seem inevitable given the many controversies, disputes and grandstanding that took place in the ante-bellum era. When trying to get a feel for this era and how a long and bloody Civil War resulted from it, the best metaphor that has come to my attention is that of a volcano, with years of pressure building underneath the surface, not really seen or understood by those living on top of it despite occasional venting that might now appear to have been foreshadowing of future events.
This thought has been in my mind for a while and I did express in publicly once, in a message board post on, which started some very good and interesting discussion. Most of the below message is from that post, with some tweaks I've made, including some thoughts gathered in feedback to my original claims and questions.
Perhaps the argument could be made that this time frame should be extended back to 1848 to include the Wilmot Provisio and the trouble it stirred, or to earlier events like the Mexican War, the acquisition of Texas, or even to the Gag Order or Nullification Crises, in the early 1830s. A strong argument could claim that such troubles were within this country from its birth, or even beforehand. I, however, chose to focus on the 1850s as the pattern of major public arguments taking place every couple of years really caught my attention with the start of this new decade. I do actually see the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso as part of that pattern as I read more about them and perhaps that's a topic for further exploration in the future, but for now I look into the turbulent 1850s. This decade may not be nearly as famous as the "Roaring 20s" or the 1960s of Vietnam and Civil Rights struggles, but, I contend, certainly belongs at the top of any list of decades which influenced this nation.

As the roar of cannon-fire sounded through Charleston Harbor early on April 12, 1861, and balls and bullets thudded into the earth or the masonry walls of Fort Sumter, the United States of America had descended not only into war, but into a type of war long regarded as the most serious, violent and harmful of all – Civil War. Where it would lead in the next few years in terms of death, bloodshed, lost limbs, split families, orphaned children, widowed wives and political and social change is a story that remains popular many years and decades after the men who fought in that war have passed away from this life. It will likely remain an object of study and curiosity for as long as the United States lives on, but the story of how that war came about, how and why that volcano exploded when it did is a fascinating tale itself.
The 1850s witnessed tensions between North and South grow like never before, more quickly, more constantly, with a series of events that served as both evidence of the pressure building underneath the American political groundwork and as additional pressure and stress.
In 1850, the very start of the decade, debate over the Compromise of 1850 stirred passions, but ended with several measures to try to sooth feelings, including major concessions such as the admission of California as a free state, the banning of the slave trade in Washington DC and a tough fugitive slave law. Neither North nor South found this totally satisfactory, but it provided enough for both sides, at least temporarily.
The possibility of compromise, upon which the nation's foundation had been lying for much of the 19th century, soon diminished early in this decade, however, with the deaths of the "Great Triumvirate" of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, all between 1850 and late 1852. Three great, influential men – from regions southern, border and northern – were now gone, along with their long and well-known work. The succeeding generation would find it impossible to replace such leadership and influence.
In 1852, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin created a firestorm about the issue of slavery and the treatment of slaves, as well as how the north and south perceived the institution and how it was to be publicly portrayed. Steam was starting to creep out from underground as the earth and politicians tried desperately to contain it.

1854 witnessed the capture of Anthony Burns in Boston and his return to Virginia. This may not have been the biggest event on a national basis, but it certainly did create an uproar in Massachusetts and the surrounding region, and did nothing to diffuse the tempers of the most radical of abolitionists.
A major political shift occurred during the middle part of this decade when the Whig party, the nationally organized opponents of the Democratic party, began to fall apart, as the slavery issue divided Northern and Southern wings of this party and the Know-Nothing party, with its nativist and anti-Catholic sentiments, managed to build support of its own, much of it coming from the Whig party.
Adding to the political strain was the Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854. With its concept of popular sovereignty being applied to the slavery question, its repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and its making possible the expansion of slavery into federal territories, it may have been symbolic of the first magma creeping onto the surface of the political world, showing how serious the situation truly was and was becoming. Perhaps it could be argued that this act and its after-effects in Kansas were the actual first eruption of civil war. That may be an exaggeration, but it is beyond dispute that this act enflamed the situation even more than it had been, especially in the North and among former Whigs, and even some Democrats. This was now a political crisis in the eyes of many.
One of the effects of this political act was to get a fairly unknown Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln back into politics on an active basis, first still as part of his beloved Whig party, then, when that party eventually died, as part of a new group that called itself the Republican party.

Preston Brooks attacked Charles Sumner in Congress in 1856, hitting him with his cane and beating him severely, due to a speech Sumner had made that was taken as an insult to Brooks' uncle and an attack on slavery as well as family honor. Freedom of speech was under attack by the slave power, or so it seemed to many Northerners (though the Southerners who sent Brooks new canes and re-elected him to Congress may not have agreed.)

"Bleeding Kansas" and the Lecompton Constitution controversy both were taking place during the middle of the decade as well, adding bloodshed and violence to all the political talk and grandstanding. It was no longer just an issue of talk and bravado.
These issues also added to the trouble within the Democratic party as Douglas split with President Buchanan over the issue of Kansas and its admission as a free or slave state, another sign of things to come.

1857 brought the Dred Scott decision, which said no government had any right to keep slavery out of the territories, meaning slave-owners could take their "property" with them to the lands to the west and northwest. This ruling outraged many people, including the Republicans, but also negated Stephen Douglas' theory of popular sovereignty, adding to the fissure within the Democratic Party, which resulted in the splitting of the party at its Charleston convention in 1860.
That year also saw the publishing of "The Impending Crisis of the South" by Rowan Helper, which claimed slavery was bad for the South from an economic viewpoint (not the same moral view that many/most abolitionists supported), an argument that offended many of Helper's fellow Southerners. Then, the 1859 House of Representatives had trouble selecting a Speaker of the House as the Democrats refused to vote for anyone who had endorsed Helper's book, as many Republicans had done. This was one of the events that may not have created an explosion of ash and dust, but which certainly added to the stress and strain on the political system, beyond the view of many citizens.
Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, John Brown and his few minions attacked Harper's Ferry in 1859, attempting to convince local slaves to rise up against their master. This scheme was a huge failure and Brown was quickly captured, tried and hanged, but he served as an important symbol to many people on both sides - a martyr to some in the North, dying for what he believed in, and a threat to many in the south, a sign of slave uprisings and how the North might encourage them.

One year later, the Democratic party split into Northern and Southern halves, a Constitutional Union party formed to compete for the nation's highest office and the new Republican Party, which had lost its first Presidential election in 1856, nominated that unknown prairie lawyer Abraham Lincoln as its second Presidential candidate.
Lincoln's victory in November preceded South Carolina's December declaration of secession. After a few more weeks of ineffectual leadership by outgoing President James Buchanan, the United States inaugurated its new leader, who, then had to decide how to react to Fort Sumter after only a few weeks in office.

The Civil War – long, bloody, violent, perhaps revolutionary – had finally erupted, spewing ash, dust, magma and lava throughout the land, leaving nobody perfectly clean over the next four years of incredible pain, suffering and violence.

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