The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860
I continue to try and catch up to the pile of books read over the last few years waiting for recap, with a little success. I find if I wait too long, I get a little vague on my impressions, or am tempted to read it all again.
This is one of the “read again” group, even though it hasn’t sat on the pile for as long as some others. It is another in the cluster of books I read in sequence on ante-bellum politics. The American Civil War is a great interest to me, although the blogs here don’t reflect that as much as writing in the field has tapered off slightly.
So the drift to all-out war is of great interest, as any sensible person would need to wonder what failures led to the all out cataclysm of the war. And failures there were – one side lost its entire basis for political contention and was physically devastated, while the “winners” paid a huge price in wealth and lives.
This short but information packed book describes the continuing huge influence of the slave power bloc in the young country from the very start, and how it distorted politics during the entire time. Picking up on the term that the young Republican Party used for them at the climax of their influence in the 1850s, he calls it “the Slave Power”. And rather than dismissing it as a conspiracy theory of the politicians of the time, he takes it as a real and important factor. It is almost always a good idea to assume that actors in the past actually knew what they were talking about rather than the reverse.
He goes all the way back to the initial “Three Fifths Compromise” debate in the development of the Constitution. Today, this is usually totally characterized as “those racists saying that blacks were only 3/5 of a person”. If only. Actually, blacks were considered no fifths. Rather, their owners got a political bonus for owning slaves without any cost.
Before this book, I was under the impression that the quid-pro-quo the rest of the nation was supposed to get was additional taxes from the slaveholders under the direct taxation principle. The government would assess the states based off of the representation, and thus the slaveholding states would pay more per capita. So at least both sides were honestly intending to exchange something.
As it happens, however, direct taxation never took off and other means that applied evenly per head such as import and export tariffs and assessments dominated, so the South got extra representation for nothing. This book, however, shows that even at the time there was significant opposition to the deal, because they knew that direct taxes would never fly politically. So rather than a bargain that went sour, it was instead a power play from the start, with a fig leaf of cover.
The effect of this was huge, as these extra seats were a large lump of political power at the federal level, and the federal spoils system could and did put these men in control of money that affected every corner of the country. Every postman in the entire country owed his job to the party in power, and more often than not this party depended on the slaveowning bloc for its victory.
To make matters worse, other issues came and went, and thus advocates would in other states get turned out of office more frequently. Slave holding never went out of style, so the seniority system at the federal, and the political party level all increasingly favored the influence of southern leaders. Even the most northern politician had to kowtow to them, and if they wandered too far the hammer of political purges could and did destroy them,
This would have a huge distorting effect on the democracy. The ideal is that a representative, or senator, would owe his job primarily to his own voters in his own district. Even the views of his opponents in his district would be of some interest, as then he could undercut future political battles before they began.
But if men instead owed huge debts to out-of-state power brokers, then at some level they have to pay that back in votes, votes that oppose those of their own region. And as this effect grew, the division of the parties outside the South grew as voters tried to call them to account. Factions beholden to the South warred with opponents to win control of State parties, again at the cost of their own constituents.
Finally, the use of this power broke loose – first with a sectional party that owed nothing to the South, and then with the northern Democrats having to break with the South in order to survive the wrath of northern voters increasingly angry at the domination. The Southern bloc then decided that war was preferable to a political solution without them as a dominant force. It turns out they were wrong.
An excellent book full of new insights on the politics of the US.