from Jefferson to Lincoln

It has taken me too long to read this massive book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, but I’m almost done and want to share a few quotes for your reflection. The reviews at Amazon are helpful except for the one negative reviewer.

p.381 But [President] Jackson was not content to refute the nullifiers’ reasoning on the tariff. He wanted to destroy the philosophical and political foundations of nullification itself. Once again he focused on the key issue: Calhoun’s theories of the Union and undivided state sovereignty. Those theories, Jackson charged, were recent inventions, unanticipated by the Framers and ratifiers of the Constitution. Laws whose effects were far more controversial than the ones currently at issue - the whiskey excise law in the 17990s, Jefferson’s embargo - had been deemed unconstitutional by a majority in one or more states, “but, fortunately, none of those States discovered that they had theright now claimed by South Carolina.”
Calhoun’s invention, Jackson proclaimed, was nothing more than a fraud wrapped inside an absurdity, produced by “{m}etaphysical subtlety, in pursuit of an impracticable theory.” The nation, Jackson instructed, was not created by sovereign state governments when the several states approved the Constitution. In fact, the nation was older than both the Constitution and the states. Before 1776, “we were known in our aggregate character as the United Colonies of America.” The Declaration of Independence was promulgated by the nation before the state governments (save those of New Hampshire and Virginia) were even organized. Even the highly imperfect Articles of Confederation included a provision that “every State shall abide by the determinations of Congress on all questions which by that Confederation should be submitted to them.” When framed and ratified “to form a more perfect union,” the Constitution became a new framework for an already existing nation. “The Constitution of the United States…forms a government, not a league,” Jackson concluded. Although the states retained all powers not delegated by the Constitution to the federal government, the federal government retained its complete sovereignty in those delegated areas. Any state’s denial of that sovereignty – based on the underlying absurd supposition that “the United States are not a nation” – would injure the entire Union. Thus Jackson smashed the logic behind nulligication. The politics of the great Calhoun? Hogwash.

pp.588-589 Although [slave holder, Washington College President and Reverend] Ruffner offered old arguments, he modified them with a Whiggish economic utilitarianism that was also appearing in northern antislavery newspapers and pamphlets. Slavery, Ruffner charged, not only propped up the artificial minority rule of the eastern planters; it was pernicious because it dishonored all labor and hampered economic development. Armed with the latest federal census statistics, Ruffner showed that based on all important indices – free population growth, agricultural productivity, commercial prosperity, the spread of common schools and public education – the slaveholding states lagged far behind the free states. “What has done this world of desolation? Not war; not pestilience,” Ruffner declared, “not oppression of rulers, civil or ecclesiastical; - but slavery, a curse more destructive in its effects than all of them.” In the impending struggle for her rights and prosperity, Ruffner concluded, western Virginia had to press beyond constitutional reform and get to the root of its oppression by completing slavery’s gradual destruction. (ca. 1847)

p.639-670 On March 4 [1850], the dying John C. Calhoun sat at his desk, wrapped in flannels, his eyes blazing from behind pale and hollowed cheeks, as his friend Senator James Mason of Virginia, chief sponsor of the new bill on fugitive slaves, read aloud his prepared remarks. Here was hard-line pro-slavery incarnate, grim and unyielding. The primary reason for the current discord, Calhoun’s test asserted, was Congress’s long-standing and systematic promotion of national legislation favorable to the North. The Northwest Ordinance and then the Missouri Compromise had prevented the South from occupying vast new tracts of land. Tariffs and internal improvements had enriched northern business at the direct expense of the South. The oppression would end only if the North ceased its aggression. The South must have equal access to western territories; all criticism of slavery must cease; a new law had to be enacted providing for the swift return of runaway slaves to their owners; and the nation had to ratify a constitutional amendment that, according to Calhoun’s vague description, ,would “restore to the South, in substance, the power she possessed of protecting herself before the equilibrium between the two sections was destroyed.”
Calhoun almost certainly envisaged, as the heart of any constitutional amendment, a proposal he had developed in his manuscript “Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States” (which, like his “Disquisition,” would not be published until after his death) institutionalizing his concept of the concurrent majority by establishing two presidents, one northern and one southern, each with the power to veto congressional legislation. The proposal was as far-fetched as the rest of his speech was devious. One would never guess from Calhoun’s syllogisms of oppression that he had supported not only the Missouri Compromise but also, early on and emphatically, the kids of tariff and improvement legislation he now denounced as evil. One would never guess that anybody lived in the South except for slaves and slaveholders – and that the majority of white southerners, slaveless, were not barred from taking one bit of their property into the western territories. One would never guess that if any portion of the Union enjoyed an artificial subsidy of federal power, it was the slave states, whose representation in the House, the Electoral college, and the parties’ national nominating conventions was greatly inflated thanks to the three-fifths clause – an arrangement which, in turn, had helped ensure that eight of the first twelve presidents of the United States, including the incumbent, were slaveholders. None of these evasions was new – but Calhoun’s urgency and disunionist hints gave his remarks a foreboding power. The choice was simple, Calhoun said: were California admitted as a free state, either under Taylor’s plan or Clay’s, the southern states could no longer “remain honorably and safely in the Union.”

p.703 Republican leaders proclaimed the virtues of northern free-labor society, which, they asserted, were under siege by the slaveholders and the Democratic Party – “[i]ts Democracy …a lie, a cheat, and a delusion,” one Republican editor declared. Above all else, they presented the Slave Power as a forceful and growing threat, “an aristocratic oligarchy” which would force “the twenty millions of freemen [to] surrender their dearest privileges at the ipse dixit of 347,000 slaveholder.”

p.705 As Seward remarked, the events of the mid-1850s threw into sharp relief how two different democracies, shaped by slavery, had arisen within the same nation. Although some southern franchises and systems of representation were, in fact, more equal than others, slaveholders, and normally wealthy slaveholders, held a commanding power in the courts and legislatures throughout the South. By contrast, power was more dispersed in most of the North, where ordinary farmers and even wage earners not only voted but also held state offices. Southern politics could brook no open criticism of slavery for fear of destabilizing the system; northerners were free to write and say whatever they wanted about any political subject. In Kansas, upholders of southern-style popular sovereignty had flagrantly rigged elections, violently seized control of polling places, and turned democracy into a mockery – and had gained federal sanction from a doughface Democrat bullied into compliance by Slave Power congressmen and cabinet members. When an elected northern Republican had the temerity to call the bullies to account, one of them cut him down and beat him mercilessly on the floor of the U.S. Senate.


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