Search the Lounge


« Shocking News From Western Michigan: Cooley Law School's President Doesn't Want the ABA to Tighten Standards | Main | Class Actions Challenging the "Tampon Tax" »

July 28, 2016


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jason Mazzone

That would be the Philadelphia Music Fund Hall, site of the first Republican Party convention in June, 1856. John Fremont defeated Justice John McLean as nominee for President; for Vice President, William Dayton (former NJ Senator) prevailed over Abraham Lincoln.

Al Brophy

Of course this is right. Jason always is. I've got one or two more presidential convention trivia if I dig up the photos. One of them is the other music hall I linked to in this post.

When thinking about the 1856 convention, and then the 1860 one, it's amazing how fast the Republicans came to power.


Al, the surge from 1856 to 1860 wasn't that great. Buchanan carried only his home state of Pennsylvania as well as the pro-southern states of New Jersey, California (both of which Lincoln would win only by plurality), Illinois, and Indiana of the free states. It wouldn't take much for the Republicans to push over the top and Buchanan's pro-southern policies and incompetence was probably enough even if the Republicans had not been shrewd enough to nominate a candidate from the lower North. Would the south have seceded in 1856-57 if Fremont had won? Hard to say but having a party whose reason for existence was opposition to the spread of slavery take control of the White House could very well have led to it. Given his lack of political skills as seen by his behavior during the Civil War, we should be grateful for Buchanan's election.

Al Brophy

PaulB, you make a very good point about the 1856 election. There's a similar point about the crisis of 1850. Had southern states seceded then, there likely would not have been the sentiments or power to maintain the United States. This is a point weighed in favor of Daniel Webster and the compromise of 1850, which at the time looked like too much of a compromise with slavery.

Steve L.

Webster's Seventh of March Speech was a surrender to slavery, not just a compromise. On the Fugitive Slave Act, for example, he said "the South, in my judgment, is right, and the North is wrong."

Although the Compromise of 1850 may have had the unintended consequence of delaying secession until Lincoln was president and the Union was strong enough to prevail, that obviously was not its purpose at the time.

Nor is it clear that secession would have been more successful in the early 1850s. There were two "Southern Conventions" in 1849 and 1850, neither of which endorsed secession (with at most nine states sending delegates). It is not obvious that an actual call for secession would have attracted a majority of southern states, let alone the 11 that eventually joined the confederacy.

In any case, secession in 1850 would have left the North without any obligation to return fugitive slaves, and it would have meant no slavery in the territories. The result would have been a massive legal and economic crisis in the seceding states. There's no telling where that might have led.

Steve L.

Another counter-factual: The North had consistently deferred to slavery interests in the face of southern threats to secede. The Compromise of 1850 was only one in a series of surrenders, as slavery expanded and became more entrenched.

This had the effect of emboldening the southern "fire-eaters," who believed that the northerners had no backbone or will to fight. The secessions of 1860-61 were the consequence of northern fecklessness over the previous decade, and they might never have happened if the North had shown more resolve during earlier crises.

Of course, this scenario is no more likely than any other counter-factual, which is why Webster's capitulation ought to be regarded as the moral failure that it was. There were others -- Charles Sumner, for example -- who saw things more clearly at the time.

Alfred L. Brophy

That's a great response, Steve. And well, well worth some mental elbow grease. I think the southern response to Lincoln's election had more to do with their belief in the correctness of their position (such as humans were part of their property) than in their sense of the weakness of the North. But those two are obviously related -- Dred Scott and other Supreme Court decisions, like Prigg v. Pennsylvania -- emboldened southerners in their thinking that they were right. And Webster's compromise added to their sense that they were right.

While I'm no fan of the arguments thrown around by northern judges that they had no choice but to support the fugitive slave act (and so brilliantly discussed by Robert Cover in Justice Accused), I think that on balance the Compromise of 1850 contributed to salvaging the Union. But there is a legitimate question of whether there would have been secession in 1850/1851 without it. Perhaps not, given that it took the election of Lincoln to push the south towards war in 1861 and even then it wasn't clear they were going to secede.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • StatCounter
Blog powered by Typepad