book report: The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

i finally finished this monster. it was excellent. i think Jefferson Davis's memoirs after being let off the hook for his rebellion disprove the post-modern decree that the victors get to write the history. when actual history is read, anything before JD that is, his claims that the southern rebellion was about anything other than the preservation of slavery are beyond absurd. southern disunionists were making a case for secession before Lincoln began campaigning for the presidency. they were upset that the union was resisting the acceptance of Nebraska as a free state. they were clamoring for the right to bring in their slaves to free states and retain their property despite an individual state's laws. in fact the immoral Dred Scott decision by the Taney court was an entirely anti-states' rights decision. Taney ruled that the illegality of slavery in other states did not make a slave free when passing through such states.

The Court ruled that:

not to mention the slimey back door, underhanded, improper pressure that the incoming President-elect put on a resistant Justice.

After the November vote, President-elect Buchanan wrote to his friend, Supreme Court Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided before his inauguration in March. Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a decision that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.

Buchanan later pressured Justice Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. By present-day standards, any such correspondence would be considered improper ex parte contact with a court; even under the more lenient standards of that century, political pressure applied on a member of a sitting court would have been seen as improper.


states' rights were already overruled by the fugitive slave law of 1850 that allowed slave catchers to demand free state assistance in the capture and return of escaped slaves.

A major cause of conflict between the Southern slave states and the Northern free states was the lack of assistance given by northerners to southern slave-owners and their agents seeking to recapture escaped slaves. (See Underground railroad.) In 1842 the Supreme Court had ruled in the Prigg v. Pennsylvania case that states did not have to proffer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, and in some areas locals had actively fought attempts to seize black fugitives and return them to the South. Some northern states passed personal-liberty laws mandating a jury trial before alleged slaves could be moved; others forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the process of arrest or return.

In response, the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 made any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere in the United States now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

In fact the Fugitive Slave Law brought the issue home to anti-slavery citizens in the North, since it made them and their institutions responsible for enforcing slavery. Even moderate abolitionists were now faced with the immediate choice of defying what they believed an unjust law or breaking with their own conscience and belief. The case of Anthony Burns fell under this statute.


Wilentz asserts that the slavocrats intentionally broke from the Northern democrats to allow the Republican, Lincoln, to win and cause a popular reaction in the south which they could exploit for secession. he tells us that Lincoln was not even placed on the ballots in 10 southern states. why anyone today would appeal to the good times of the south is beyond me. it was an aristocracy ruled by the enlightened, landed, slave-owners. Political offices were not available to the average yeoman or poor farmer without slaves. Democracy of the masses was considered a mobocracy and not something to be brought to the South.

the book is worth the read. don't believe that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. learn about history. now the book is not only about political evolution between the secession from England and the attempted secession of the south, but slavery was always a background issue. i appreciate Wilentz's consideration of the political ramifications of the great revivals in the US, both of which contributed to the anti-slavery movement.

i also think the American anti-abortion movement has much to learn from Lincoln. although he agreed to abide by the nation's laws, including the Fugitive Slave Act, he never stopped calling slavery evil, and something that could not be allowed to expand. he continually appealed to the founding fathers' conviction that slavery had to disappear. i don't think anti-abortion politicians should shy from calling abortion evil. it rankles the opponent, and doesn't make for comfortable dinner conversation, but the murder of innocent and helpless people can not be up for compromise.

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