Construction on the Capitol in 1859. Courtesy: William England, Getty Images.

By 1859, the northern and southern sections of America had developed different economic systems, cultural norms, and approaches to permitting slavery. Congress and the political parties had been able to overlook those differences for the sake of self-preservation and advancement of the collective agenda. As 1859 concluded and 1860 sprang, Americans understood that the status quo of compromise was not to continue much longer.

James Buchanan (1791 - 1868) *oil on canvas  *155.9 x 119.7cm  *1859
President James Buchanan.

The 36th Congress, elected in 1858, did not convene for its first session until December 5, 1859. President James Buchanan, an experienced politician, knew that the first session of a Congress provided him the best opportunity to accomplish objectives in his agenda. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 386. The first session of the previous Congress, the 35th Congress, was consumed with President Buchanan’s goal of acceptance of the Lecompton Constitution, a goal left unfulfilled. See id. The first session of the 36th Congress would be perhaps the most contentious yet, as its convening immediately followed John Brown’s hangingSee id.

The potential for Congress to side with the president was also unclear, given the body’s composition. While Democrats controlled the Senate, the House had 109 Republicans, 88 Democrats that were likely proslavery, 13 Democrats that would likely not support slavery, and 27 members of the Whig or American Party who were proslavery but unlikely to support a Democrat. See id. citing Ollinger Crenshaw, “The Speakership Contest of 1859-1860,” MVHR, XXIX (1942), 323-38; Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York, 1948), 273-76. The House, upon Congress convening, took up the task of voting to fill the Speaker of the House seat: a task that promised acrimony.

Representative John Sherman. By: Mathew Brady.

One candidate for the Speakership was Representative John Sherman of Ohio, who enjoyed a reputation of being a moderate third-term representative. Far from a militant abolitionist, he described his position toward slavery as “opposed to any interference whatever by the people of the free states with the relations of master and slave in the slave states.” Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 1 sess., 21; Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950), II, 123. However, Sherman had lent his support to a new book that was flaring southern tempers: The Impending Crisis, written by Hinton R. Helper and published in 1857. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 386.

Cover of Hinton R. Helper’s The Impending Crisis.

Helper’s book articulated a view that the North’s economy had grown much more rapidly than the South’s, as the South was in economic decline largely due to slavery’s “wastefulness and inefficiency.” See id. at 387. Despite the fact that Helper was a vicious racist and called for the deportation of slaves, the South labeled him as “incendiary and insurrectionary” as well as a “dishonest, degraded, and disgraced man.” See Hugh T. Lefler, “Hinton Rowan Helper: Advocate of a White America,” in Joseph D. Eggleston, Southern Sketches, No. 1 (Charlottesville, Va., 1935). The Republican Party prepared to distribute 100,000 copies of an abridged version of Helper’s book throughout the North, adding captions to it such as: “Revolution—Peacefully if we can, Violently if we must.” See Hinton R. Helper, Compendium of the Impending Crisis of the South, (New York, 1860). Representative Sherman, perhaps not realizing the implications, signed a “letter endorsing the plan for a compendium of Helper’s work.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 387 citing Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 1 sess., 16. While Democrats immediately denounced Sherman and vowed to defeat his bid for the Speakership, he would come within three votes of winning the seat. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 388.

The Senate Chamber in 1859. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Problematically for the Democrats, even after two months of work, they could not capitalize from Sherman’s defeated bid for the Speakership and unify around one candidate of their own. Instead, they enabled the Republicans to withdraw Sherman’s bid and assert Representative William Pennington to fill the Speakership role. Pennington, a representative from New Jersey, was a known conservative and supporter of the Fugitive Slave Law which Republicans knew would garner support with southern representatives. See id. Republicans chose the right man. Pennington won the contest for Speaker of the House.

Composite Photographs of the Senators of the 36th Congress. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Thus began one of the most paralyzed and deadlocked Congresses in America’s history. Southern representatives exacerbated this paralysis realizing that they had an incentive to block legislation that may threaten the future of slavery and, by extension, their economy. From December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860, the House was deadlocked and “scarcely a deliberative body at all.” See id. at 389. There was a palpable fear that violence could break out at any moment. Senator James Grimes of Iowa wrote, “The members on both sides are mostly armed with deadly weapons, and it is said that the friends of each are armed in the galleries.” William Salter, The Life of James W. Grimes (New York, 1876), 121. Senator James Hammond of South Carolina said, “The only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers.” Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950), II, 121-22.

In this environment, southerners began to openly acknowledge that secession was a possibility. While the contest for the Speakership was not grounds for secession, the upcoming Election of 1860 could justify secession if a Republican won. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 389. Some in Congress perceived southerners’ talk of secession as bluffing, such as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who said of secessionists: “They have tried it fifty times, and fifty times they have found weak and recreant tremblers in the north . . . who have acted from these intimidations.” See Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 1 sess., 23-25, 71-72, 164-65.

These tensions further manifested as Congress took up the task of legislating with a newly surging Republican Party. In the 35th Congress, the “homestead bill,” which allowed a person to “acquire 160 acres of public land simply by settling on the property,” passed the House but died in the Senate when Vice President John Breckinridge cast the tie-breaking vote to kill it. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 391. In the new Congress, the bill passed both chambers only for President Buchanan to veto it. Id. citing Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950), II, 188-91. Then, when the House passed a bill for a protective tariff, the Senate killed it. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 391. While Republicans sought to advance their agenda by passing a “Pacific railroad bill” and a “bill to improve navigation on the Great Lakes,” Congress passed neither. See id. citing Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950), II, 193-96. Southerners viewed the homestead bill as an attempt to boost the northern population, the protective tariff as a boon for northern manufacturers, and the Pacific railroad as a way to strengthen the national government and threaten the South. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 391. Where once compromise had been achieved in Congress to advance legislation, the obstinacy of the North and South permitted it no more.

Representative John Covode. By: Mathew Brady.

Partisanship and division extended beyond the lawmaking powers of Congress. The House created a committee, headed by Representative John Covode of Pennsylvania, that was tasked with investigating corruption in the Buchanan administration. See id. at 392. In June 1860, leading up to the Election of 1860, the Covode Committee released a report detailing widespread corruption and “financial laxity” in the administration. See id. Republicans, with the release of the report, broadened their appeal and tainted the Democrats’ credibility. The Democrats were already split on the issue of slavery, and the Republicans were striking another blow by turning public opinion against the Democrats with proof of corruption.

Many southerners wished Congress would address the South’s economic concerns by reopening slave trade with Africa. By the time of the 36th Congress, the South’s economy was suffering as there was rising slave prices, scarcity of labor, and “increasing production costs,” all of which made reopening the African slave trade appealing for the South. See id. at 399. Southerners supposed that reopening the slave trade with Africa would “provide adequate labor at reasonable cost.” Id. However, the upper South and lower South had differing views on the issue. The upper South opposed reopening slave trade as it would affect the market for selling surplus slaves to the lower South. See id. The lower South fully supported the measure as it would ease the tightening pressure on their economy. The Richmond Enquirer weighed in on the issue:

“If a dissolution of the Union is to be followed by the revival of the slave trade, Virginia had better consider whether the South of a Northern Confederacy would not be far more preferable for her than the North of a Southern Confederacy.” Quoted in Ronald T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York, 1971), 234.

The divide between North and South was not limited to economics. Morality also was a factor. Just as many northerners found slavery repulsive but accepted the idea of racial discrimination, southerners characterized slave trade with Africa to be “repugnant to the instincts of Southern chivalry” but the existence of slavery acceptable as the slaves were “happy and contented.” See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 400-01 quoting Lillian Adele Kibler, Benjamin F. Perry: South Carolina Unionist (Durham, N.C., 1946), 282-83 and Speech of Roger A. Pryor of Montgomery, Alabama, Commercial Convention, May, 1858, in De Bow’s Review, XXIV (1858), 579-83. Fundamentally, northerners and southerners may have been able to broadly agree that racial discrimination was an acceptable feature in the legal system, as its absence would mean greater competition for work, but neither side was willing to concede on the issue of slavery.

Senator Jefferson Davis.

The contentious 36th Congress highlighted the increasingly divided Democratic Party as well. In light of the differences between the North and South, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi introduced a set of resolutions in the Senate articulating his view of how Congress should handle the question of slavery in the territories:

“It is the duty of the Federal Government there to afford . . . the needful protection, and if experience should at any time prove that the judiciary does not possess power to insure adequate protection, it will then become the duty of Congress to supply such deficiency.” Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 1 sess., 658.

Senator Davis, a southern Democrat, called for Congress to adopt a “federal slave code for the territories.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 403. The effect of this proposal was to further alienate northern Democrats, like Stephen Douglas, a top contender for president in 1860, while reinforcing the southern Democrats’ support of slavery. Ultimately, the Senate Democratic caucus adopted Senator Davis’ resolutions, illustrating the power of the southern Democrats in the Senate. See id. While the resolutions would not lead to Congress creating federal slave codes, southern Democrats showed that the South would not relent on preserving slavery and that the northern Democrats would not dominate the party’s agenda.

Where a de facto divide had long existed in American society between proslavery and antislavery forces geographically separated by the North and South, that divide had yawned and crept into Congress and the Democratic Party by the end of 1859 and the beginning of 1860. The animosity that the issue of slavery evoked ensured disruption in Congress’ lawmaking. For the Democratic Party, however, tensions were reaching a boiling point at precisely the moment coolness was needed. The Election of 1860 was fast approaching, and the Republicans, who generally favored abolition, were in the ascendancy.