william_leggett
William Leggett. By: Erastus Salisbury Field.

With the emergence of the Democrats and the Whigs as the two main political parties in the late 1830s and early 1840s, this fostered significant tension on the issue of slavery.

The Whigs “tolerated antislavery among their northern supporters, while the Democrats did not.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 511. Members of both parties held true to these generalizations. See Thomas Alexander, Sectional Stress and Party Strength (Nashville, 1967).

In 1835, the Democratic Party’s Address to the People of the United States captured this with the following statement: “No man, nor set of men [can] even wish to interfere [with slavery] and call himself a Democrat.” See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 511 quoting Joel H. Silbey, The Partisan Imperative: The Dynamics of American Politics Before the Civil War, 90.

One Democrat, William Leggett, expressed sympathy for the abolitionist movement. He worked for the Democratic newspaper, the New York Evening Post, and while temporarily in charge of the newspaper, (as his boss, William Cullen Bryant, was in Europe), “Leggett exercised his authority to run editorials condemning the censorship and mob violence directed against abolitionists.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 511. Leggett would be fired and blackballed, with “his attempt to gain a Democratic nomination for Congress in 1838 thwarted,” for his actions in contravention of the Democratic Party’s principles. See id.

President Andrew Jackson and his successor, President Martin Van Buren, could not have been pleased with these developments. However, their politics had transformed what was a “minority proslavery interest into a majority that would dominate American politics until 1861.” See id. at 512.

Before the 1840s had dawned, America was already divided on the issue of slavery. While the issue had not led to direct confrontations yet in terms of the country nearing a violent conflict, the lines were being drawn. The nature of the politics, and the emergence of the Whigs versus the Democrats, seemed to only add fuel to the fire. What had begun as a small, stubborn flame would soon turn into a wildfire.

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