tv The Compromise of 1850 CSPAN August 1, 2016 10:49am-12:10pm EDT
slow in the early part of our country people didn't want to serve there and rather be in the house where the action was. so i think the senate has kind of been the brakes against the heat of the moment. against overreacting to things. for most of our history. and it was employed back in the 19th century, as well. there was no way to cut it off. until the world war i period. good question, curt. i guess we're through. next on american history tv, author fergus bordewich talks about the two generation senators who generated the great debate. it focuses on henry clay, steven douglas and the impact of slavery on the compromise that preserved the union. the new york historical society, oxford university press and the bryant park corporation host this event. it is just under 90 minutes.
>> -- all the way down. can you hear me? good evening. thank you, paul. and we're delight partner with the bryant park corporation and oxford university press on this exciting series. tonight's program will be followed by question and answer session and a book signing, so please do join in for both. i'm really delighted this evening to welcome author and historian fergus bordewich. he's the author of six nonfiction books. he's published and written children's books and written the jefferson pbs documentary. he's a regular contributor to smithsonian magazine mainly on subjects in 19th century american history and his articles have appears in many magazines and newspapers including the "new york times," the "wall street journal" and
american heritage. his new book "america's great debate" explores the way in which slavery distorted american democracy in the years leading up to the civil war. >> david levering lewis is one of the country's most distinguished historians of the civil rights movement. he's the julius silver university professor and professor of history at the new york university and recipient of the national humanities medal. which was conferred by president barack obama in 2009. he's the author of many books, including "king" a critical biography, which is an essential exploration of the life of dr. martin luther king jr., and a two-part biography of w.e.b. dubois, which earned him a prize, department prize and two pulitzer prizes in biography. i'm proud to welcome both of them back to a new york historical society-sponsored evening. they are great favorites with us.
and delighted to ask them to begin their conversation. thank you. >> thank you. >> fergus, what a cast of characters your book has. the familiar ones, thomas heart benten, perhaps not so familiar, james seward, william seward, perhaps not so familiar, but still of great importance at the time. but clay and calhoun and webster. and you catch these men at what must be the epitome of their public lives, a moment in american history. 1850, the great debate. and the compromise that preserved the union. and we follow this debate some nine or ten months, i think, of
1,000 pages of discourse and expatiation and debate. and god knows how many votes. and finally, in september, thanks to the wizardry of stephen a. douglas, we have a compromise that not even henry clay had the alchemy, the political alchemy to produce. well, all of this was necessitated, i suppose, wasn't it, by the regime crisis of 1850 coming from america's first imperial venture. this is when we become an empire and we haven't stopped since. the mexican american war of 1846-'48.
but as i read these debates swirling around the dividends and consequences of that mexican american war, i thought i'd ask you this question. is it mischievous, counter factual, but nonetheless i think useful, would the topic of your book have been unnecessary if the whig party headed by henry clay, had won the election of 1844? you cite historian gary cornblitz's counter factual presentation of that of a different outcome in 1844. henry clay president, not james polk. and a very different scenario. well, before asking you to answer that question, would you remind us of the national real
estate options presented at the conclusion of america's first empir -- imperial war? what did the treaty of guadalupe hidalge actually give us? >> well, i'm eager to get to the hypothetical that you pose. but to answer the perhaps larger question of what this war meant, and indeed, it was the country's first openly and eagerly imperial war. the creation of an american empire was part of the warp and woof of the language at the time. americans by and large, not without exception, were proud to march off to earn an empire on the battle field by marching into mexico. what we acquired, what the nation acquired, of course, was virtually all the rest of the continent. as you know, from the western
edge of the louisiana purchase to the pacific ocean including all of the giant new mexico territory, which encompassed far more than the present-day state of new mexico. and significantly california. just on the cusp of the discovery of gold in california. and already without gold stirred into the political mix here, the question, the country faced the question, what was this going to become? this vast, largely terra incognita west of the present-day united states. what kind of states would be formed there? would there be states in fact? people assumed there would be. would they be slave? would they be free? because by the end of the 1840s, slavery of course infected every question bearing on the expansion of the united states.
and to put this into context, of course, there were many additional imperial ideas circulating ranging from the conquest of chunks of canada, the acquisition of cuba, which could form one or two new slave states, to compensate for free states that might be carved out of the western territory, or perhaps a second mexican war that would incorporate getting more of mexico into the united states. so the country faced huge questions about what it was going to be, what was going to be the political nature of this vast western territory. and to come to your teasing question about the outcome of the election of 1844 and henry clay, henry clay for those who may not be quite as immersed in
him as you and i have been at one time or another, clay was a -- was probably after webster regarded as the most compelling and charismatic orator of his day, founder of the whig party. a man who inspired an intensity of emotion both enthusiasm and among his enemies contempt. he was so charismatic that there was kind of a cult of kissing henry clay. women swarmed after him and competed with each other to kiss him as many times as possible or to snip bits of his hair when he wasn't looking. but at any rate, here was clay at the -- one could say the apigy or at least the great
final phase of his career. he'd aspired to be president for decades. >> having given us of course the missouri compromise. >> and indeed also crafting the compromise that terminated the nullification crisis of the 1830s. clay had in fact been in retirement before 1850 for a while and was called back onto the stage to craft yet this third compromise. clay hoped to be the whig nominee in 1844. it's been argued by gary cornblitz whom you mentioned that there probably would have been no mexican war. clay opposed the mexican war. though his son was to die in it. on one of the battle fields of the war. with clay as president would the nation have expanded all the way to the pacific? would california ever have become part of the united states? these are open questions. what do i think personally? i think the imperatives of expansion and the desire for empire, american ambitions,
transcended the personality of any one man. and i think clay's politics might have held -- clay might have kept his finger in the dike a bit longer, but i don't really think that the on rush of empire would have stopped. >> and so then the will not proviso is the element that will make this disposition of real estate really incomparably difficult and challenging. without that proviso of pennsylvania backwoods congressman rather shambling and stumble bum, as you described it, and seems to be just who proposed that any of the territory exceeded to the united states from the mexican war would be based on popular sovereignty.
and that slavery would be absent from that territory. and this really fuelled the controversy from almost the get-go, didn't it? >> yes, it did. the will not proviso is probably one of those items of american history that most high school students forget instantly as soon as they've gotten through the exam. but indeed it was the -- one of the certainly a pivot on which the crisis of 1850 began to turn. it predated 1850 by a couple of years. but it meant that every time the discussion of statehood for any western territory came before congress, there would be a bitter not to say violent increasingly violent collision between demographically
increasing northern forces that wanted to preclude the westward expansion of slavery and increasingly fierce and secession-minded southern defenders of slavery who by 18 -- the late 1840s were insisting that slavery by and large was nothing to be embarrassed about but rather an essential part of the american dream. and to deprive any americans of the right both to own slaves and to carry slavery where any slave master pleased was to deprive him of his essential rights as an american. and this came to a head, of course, with the application of californians to enter the state as a free state. why did that precipitate a crisis? because at that point in 1850, free states or representatives of free states held an ever enlarging majority in the house
of representatives. but in the senate, 15 slave states were balanced against 15 free states. the admission of california as a free state would tip the balance and southerners feared, with good reason, permanently. because they could see that if settlers in the west by and large were allowed to choose whether it would be slave or free, very few would make their states slave states. california made the decision imperative because gold had been discovered. 200,000 settlers moved from the east coast or from the eastern states to california in the space of barely a year, far far far more people than the law required to be present to form a state. so willy-nilly, california was going to come into the union.
how was it going to come? >> so that's the challenge of henry clay, then. who in january delivers his first address on this roiling question. and you paint a picture of such a tenseness, such drama. i think the guardians of the senate had to bar the door against naybobs who had come from afar, wanting to see this spectacle. this was the television drama of its day. and when quiet is restored, clay rises and he makes three proposals, or rather i'm sorry, he proposes eight resolutions, rather complicated. but the upshot of them would
have been that there would have been to satisfy the south a prohibition on congress having anything to say about the constitution of the states from the point of view of the institution of slavery, that there would be a settlement of the border of texas finally with mexico, the rio grande, that there would be compensation to new mexico for the properties that it had lost to texas as the map was redrawn, that there would be -- this seemed to be not a great issue at the moment, a really effective fugitive slave law so that the property of southerners that migrated to the north and elsewhere on the
underground railroad that you have described so well that filtration of property through the years would cease because the federal government would assure that the apprehension of these vagabonds and escapees would take place and there would be a return of the escapees. and then finally the guarantee that congress would never attempt to prohibit the slave trade within the slave holding states. well, that seemed for a moment, i gather, to satisfy enough people that there seemed to be a compromise within reach that week. but i gather by the end of the week as people thought about it, as the details were scrutinized carefully, it began to be more and more difficult to press this.
but on the fifth of march, he stood again. and this time with all the eloquence that you capture, he expatiated on these resolutions. well, you say -- you ask, you say, how on earth, how on earth did they do it? how did they make the paralyzed system finally work? if we will just jump ahead to what actually did work. and i want to to read, if i may, the prose that applies to that question. you say, in your preface, "the poll tested, spin doctored, solderly argued and dramatically
challenged messaging that today passes for political communication is pathetic and often incoherent by comparison. it can be no surprise that many americans have lost interest in politicians who have forgotten how much can be accomplished by the persuasive power of well-crafted english. in 1850, senators and congressmen who more often than not lacked college educations, spoke from the barest of notes or none at all for hours on end and were confident that their colleagues and the public would understand them in speeches that were peppered with illusions to shakespeare, the bible, american history, british common law and classical literature. they also said what they meant. men who believed in slavery said so, as did those who hated it. no matter how much odiom the words attracted. by listening in on debate of 1850, we can learn much not only
about the american thought, about what the americans thought about their new empire, about the profound ways in which slavery warped our political system, and about the creative craft of compromise, but also about how to talk politics to each other so that we actually listen. i read this as i had just listened to a talking head program about the gridlock in our congress. and i thought, is it really true that if salons have cogency and eloquence and candor that in fact they could deliver us from
stasis and paralysis and an idealogical warp that makes negotiated settlements possible. so i really wanted to read what happened with clay and douglas and the compromise. what was the compromise? and then i'll ask after you tell us what the compromise, what we might think of it. >> okay. well, first just a word or two to kind of create the atmosphere in which this was taking place. it's impossible to exaggerate the sense of crisis that pervaded the nation at large. taverns, churches, crossroads, villages, cities, every class of americans, and of course congress itself on the cusp of this great ten-month-long debate in 1850. there was a perception, a very widespread perception that the country was about to crack
apart. as of course it finally would in 1861. civil war seemed imminent. war pap warfare, an invasion of south by the north or vice versa. and newspapers predicted that there would be blood on the floors of congress itself any day. and indeed, in one instance there practically was when senator henry flick pulled a horse pistol on thomas hart benton on the floor of the senate and threatened to blow his head off. i was talking to someone about this not long ago who said, well, if you listened to thomas heart benten for two months, you might want to do the same thing, but that was unkind. >> might i add that senator 'was also a believeiator, and i
think we were lose our president zachary taylor because on july fourth of 1850, foote is going to give the july 4th oration which will go on and on and on, under a sun hotter than today, so the president will die of sunstroke later. >> so the compromise itself, bear in mind this atmosphere of terrible crisis. you're familiar with the sense of crisis of 1861. it was the same in 1850. people expected the country to break any time, and break not necessarily just into two parts, a southern confederacy and the remainder of the union, but perhaps into three or four because once secession had begun, it would be established as a precedent and on the floor of congress fearful congressmen and senators are talking about the near inevitability of a pacific confederacy, a
north-midwestern confederacy, of new england going its own way. this is the fear that pervades people, and this is what clay is addressing when he stands up in the senate as david has described him. clay has a profound faith in the power of persuasive political argument. he is indeed persuasive. his speeches are magnificent. they're literature that rises to the level sometimes of art, as many of these speeches by webster and many of the less well known men of the moment did as well, so he believes in the power of persuasion, and he believes that by persuading other members of the senate and bear in mind the same debate is taking place in the house of representatives although we're dwelling here primarily in the
senate, that he can win enough people from the radical fringes, that means the left and the right of the time, that means from amongst abolitionists who oppose any compromise of the south and from amongst southern nationalists who oppose any kind of compromise that would undermine their rights in their minds to enslave other people and to carry slavery as far as they wished. does clay succeed? you have outlined his various proposals, and these are the core of the compromise. clay comes into the senate with the idea in his mind, his brain as one of the commentators of the time described it. he has a rather large forehead that looks as if it is stuffed
with wonderful ideas, and he is determined to craft a compromise that will answer all the country's anxieties about slavery, not just the admission of california, not just a resolution of this extremely dangerous and contentious texas border conflict and a tiny correction, it was texas that got the pay off rather than new mexico. it was texas' claim because texas was financially under water and was looking for a federal handout. >> i stand corrected. >> and it would be texas' pay off for not invading the new mexico territory on behalf of the rest of the slave-owning south. texas has mustered an army or is mustering an army of texas rangers ready to march on santa fe, and had there been a civil war in 1850 the first shots wouldn't have been in charleston
harbor, they would have been in santa fe, new mexico, because the federal forces there were prepared to fight the texas troops if they crossed the territorial line. at any rate clay understands as many do that slavery is going to bring on a war unless the rush to war is halted, so he is trying to address the concerns of the north, concerns of the south, by giving a piece in his view to each part of the country, whether those pieces are fairly shared out in the end is a subject of very lively scholarly debate. did his persuasion work? no. clay did not accomplish the compromise that he believed over months and months and months of contentious, exhausting debate that goes into the summer in
washington, 100-degree heat day after day. clay is so brutal in his handling of the senate, he is in effect the floor leader during this debate, that he refuses to allow a recess even to take up the filthy tobacco stained smelly carpets or to have the curtains cleaned. senators are begging him pathetically to have this done, but he is pushing, pushing, pushing, and in the end he can't do it because he can't poach his persuasiveness, can't poach enough, in fact, any people from either radical end of the political spectrum. >> at some point does it not happen, though, that clay initially had thought that each element could be voted on but
that along the way senator foote, a mississippi unionist, and a curious man, who will end up opposing secession in 1860, he thought he could do clay a favor and bundle all of them together in an omnibus bill and it is that omnibus bill that clay has to argue in ways he hadn't planned to and he will argue and argue and argue until, i think, july 22nd when it fails, the omnibus bill, so the whole thing crashes and so the possibility of compromise would seem to be precluded. >> yes. so one might ask why did clay do this? you're quite right. clay initially did not set out to bundle all of these ideas in a single bill. his initial notion was to argue them one after another. so why did he change his mind?
why did he take on board a proposal by henry s. foote largely forgotten to history although a very colorful individual in his own right in addition to his horse pistol, i mean, he was famous for challenging people to duels and he got into a fist fight with his rival, his mississippi rival, jefferson davis, at one point. why? because clay needed to bring somebody on board from the deep south who could bring other, he hoped, other senators belonging to the deep south slave owning states and foote was an ardent defender of slavery and at the same time an ardent unionist. these men existed at that moment. in the end foote, he is such a contentious, irritating
individual, his personality is sort of like apoplectic elf. imagine david sedaris vintage 1850 wearing black broadcloth and a horse pistol. anyway, it doesn't work, and, yes, he is saddled with foote's omnibus bill. the first use, incidentally or at least popularization of the term omnibus to apply to legislation is this bill. so finally as david just observed, the omnibus crashes and newspapers reported as the wreck of the omnibus. >> lots is going on outside the senate chamber actually and you retrieve some historical doings that i think really quite arcane
these days but to read them is to say my goodness, gracious, what was going on while these debates were happening in the senate and we have a curious man who is familiar to us because we live near his birthplace, don't we, in rhinebeck, new york. john quickman, the rabidly slave-holding governor of mississippi, a yankee, who migrated to mississippi and reinvented himself, and in the process of reinvention he displayed great valor at the battle that gave the united states the victory ultimately in the mexican-american war. he reached a generalship there and then he becomes mississippi governor. he decides that given all of
these things going up in washington, the south needs to look after itself in rather adventuresome ways, so we have this filibuster moment in american history where some 550 men are organized under quitman and a cuban emigr erk, and what is the story there? >> this is a wonderful story and indeed i was so enthralled about it, i wrote another 50 pages on it that isn't in the book because it deserves it's own extended treatment. this is the first american invasion of cuba which occurred in the midst of the debate, while the debate is taking place in washington, this force lands -- it is the bay of pigs in 1850. an american army lands, all of them togged out in bright red
shirts and bandanas and black hats and striped trousers, uniforms for the invasion, and fully expecting to be met by a huge popular uprising pro-slavery pro-american uprising in cuba that will welcome them, strewn roses in their path all the way to havana. john quitman expects to become essentially the governor but he really means dictator of cuba with a view to cuba being brought into the united states as one or two new slave states. these ambitions will persist a lot far beyond this particular expedition as they said, the bay of pigs. there is no popular uprising. there is a battle, but the americans are pretty nearly driven back into the water, reboard their steamships and high tail it to key west,
florida, chased at a distance of just a few hundred yards by a spanish war ship straight into key west harbor. this is part of the same atmosphere of crisis. >> in nashville we have the anticipation of secessionist of congresses we will have later in nashville represented by maybe some nine, i think, of the confederate states there, and so that is serious business, articulating reasons for leaving, exiting the union. >> i think it is worth pointing out that the south, the leaders, the political leaders of the south have already by 1850 in
large numbers, not universally, but in large numbers already have arrived at a belief that secession is both desirable and probably inevitable. john calhoun, the grandfather of southern nationalism who will die also in the midst of this debate, not quite on the floor but across the street from the senate. it is his last gasp. clay and webster will die not long afterwards. zachary taylor, as you mentioned, the president dies in the midst of this debate as well, but one of the truths that was brought home to me in the course of researching this book was that spiritually if you like, psychologically, mentally, most of the southern leadership had already embraced the idea of secession. they had seceded in their minds already. they were ready to go.
now, that didn't occur because a compromise was crafted and secession was postponed. jefferson davis who is calhoun's heir apparent and indeed steps into the leadership position once calhoun is gone, apologists for davis have frequently said he didn't really believe in secession. he regarded it as a tragedy. you will hear him stating again and again on the floor of the senate in 1850 that it is pretty nearly the only option left of the south and if there should be secession and there is a confederate states of america, he would be available to lead it. 1850. he made it perfectly clear. >> so how do we then rethread this? how do we pull this all together? it seems that we have fragments on the floor of the senate we need to gather them together,
weave them into something viable that will become a compromise. who on earth does this and how? >> the man who pulls it all together is both the youngest man in the senate and the shortest man in the senate, i have a great fondness for short politicians. feel a certain affinity. this is stephen a. douglas who you all know from the lincoln-douglas debates and as the democratic candidate for president against lincoln in 1860, but that was the climax of stephen a. douglas' career. stephen a. douglas was widely regarded as an almost inevitable president around 1850, a dynamic, brilliant illinois politician and only 38 at the time of this debate and widely regarded as one of the most skilled strategists and
tacticians in the senate and is writing the issue of popular sovereignty, that is to say the right of citizens in any territory to decide for themselves whether to be slave or free. he is writing this to he believes to the white house. clay is exhausted. he's got tuberculosis. he is physically broken by these many months of debate. he can't keep it up any longer. he leaves washington and goes to newport, rhode island, to go swimming which is his favorite form of therapy and relaxation preceded by women clipping his hair and snatching kisses as he passes through new york and philadelphia. he is 72 years old at the time. stephen a. douglas steps into
the arena, and here is clay, the founder of the whig party and douglas who is mr. democrat, mr. western democrat, pulls apart on many of the issues of the day but almost welded at the hip on the necessity of crafting compromise. now, clay's persuasiveness hasn't all gone for naught. that's to say, he has laid out the issues that everybody agrees has to be addressed. and there is a widespread feeling that if there is a solution, it lies in the proposals that clay has articulated. what douglas does is count the numbers, do the math, do the math in a completely different way. he has no illusions by this point certainly that a great consensus omnibus can be enacted.
>> so these are deals that are going to be wheeled? >> deals are being wheeled in the corridors of the senate and particularly in douglas' favorite hangout which is an eatery literally known as the hole in the wall just off the senate floor where senators could nip and sip and you have to imagine douglas who was rather johnsonian in the lyndon sense in his way, a very short guy as i said, but his arm would sort of creep around another senator's shoulders until the man was practically in douglas' face, and douglas was making him promises and blandishments and -- and -- >> so we have, you can imagine, a robert claro and his cloakroom description in the previous
johnson volume, that's what's going on? >> imagine, yes, this is what's happening. to cut to the chase here, what douglas succeeds in doing is crafting seven different coalitions to pass seven different pieces of legislation which were all the key components of clay's compromise, but with a different mathematical formula for each one. for example, to pick the most obvious ones, california brought in as a free state with support from abolitionists and anti-slavery and free soil northerners and not a single deep south vote. by the same token the draconian fugitive slave law which one could argue is perhaps the single, the piece of this compromise that has the greatest
immediate impact by having a terrifically alienating impact around the north. i don't know if we might address that in a moment or two, the fugitive slave law very, very harsh law, is passed without a single anti-slavery vote but with a solid southern backing. different configurations pass different pieces, so this is douglas' triumph, and it is a triumph that very much resembles lyndon johnson as in the 19th century. >> your review in the "sunday times" richard brookhiser says this: the compromise of 1850 did not resolve the underlying intransigence of the south. it did not even try. for the task could not be accomplished by traditional
horse trading. i gather what brookhiser is saying is that this delayed the inevitable, the irrepressible conflict, seward's words, was irrepressible. what did it really accomplish then? delay, temporized, fudged over issues. but it also actually accelerated the inevitable, didn't it, because of that one element you mentioned that you said we might look at it a bit, and that was the fugitive slave law, which everybody thought not a good thing to do, but like, say, the immigration act of 1965, in the united states, something that would have very little real consequence. it was electric, though, wasn't it? >> yes.
let's take the bigger question first and then bore in on the fugitive slave law. so what did this compromise mean? how much did it really matter? had this compromise not been formed and enacted in 1850, there would have been secession and civil war in 1850. this was a war that in 1850 the north would not have won because it wasn't prepared to fight a war. the deep south was ready to go out. it is perfectly clear that the core states of what became the confederacy were ready to go in 1850. they were motivated. they were arming themselves. they were ready to act decisively. there was none of the determination to confront that politically or militarily that you found in the north finally by 1861.
millard fillmore, a new yorker from buffalo was not abraham lincoln although he was a more interesting politician and president and very deft in this particular year, more than he's given credit for, but he was no abraham lincoln and he would not have taken the united states, what remains of the united states, to war. could the u.s. have won it had it tried to fight the civil war, i doubt it. it was not militarized in the same way as the south was, so by postponing the irrepressible conflict by a decade, it became a war that the united states, the north, could actually win, and of course as we know did win, and that makes all the difference in the world. had compromise not been brokered in 1850, this country would have fractured once and quite possibly more than once as i
said earlier, had secession been established as a precedent. how did the fugitive slave law -- i am sorry, david, have you a question. >> perhaps i would like to interpose this. okay. we buy a decade, 11 years, but is that so? in 1850 we have the compromise. it might have held for 15, 20 years but for an abrogation of the compromise by the man who put it together, stephen a. douglas with the kansas/nebraska bill. what's going on here? >> okay. let's look at what happened between 1850 and 1860. several things happened. let me start with the fugitive slave law. i want to talk about, and i think its importance can't be underestimated. this was a nasty law, a very nasty law. it was not the first fugitive slave law. >> we have one in the
constitution. >> yes. it was tightened in 1793, and southerners demanded that it be tightened yet again by 1850 wildly exaggerating the impact of the underground railroad in the deep south, the underground railroad didn't reach deeply into the south but southerners were determined to shut down the anti-slavery movement and shut down what it believed, what they believed was the reach of abolitionism into the south. in short, the bill provided for extremely harsh punishments of anybody, white, black, who assisted in the escape of the fugitive. people were punished under it. they were punished harshly. what white northerners saw who might have been nominally anti-slavery but didn't care a great deal about the fate of
black americans in the deep south so long as slavery remained in the south, cared a lot when the slave power as it was called reached into their own communities and plucked either self-emancipated fugitive slaves out of their communities, or punished farmers who did nothing but what most northerners regarded as a charitable act by assisting fugitives. in addition, the fugitive slave law sent thousands of fugitives into northern communities where for the first time ordinary white northerners encountered people who have been enslaved and many were radicalized by the experience. the fugitive slave law had a decade long effect of radicalizing white northerners and bringing many to the point where they were willing to fight slavery which they saw as increasingly encroaching on their own cherished freedoms.
yes, stephen a. douglas is more ambitious for the presidency and more ambitious for the leadership of the democratic party than he is consistent in his defense of the compromise that he brokered in 1850, and, yes, the compromise or that part of it that relates to the settling of the west is in effect abrogated in 1854 in the kansas/nebraska act which enables slavery, in fact, to be carried into in principle into any territory in the west. that principle is later affirmed by the dread scott decision, which declares that one, as you all know, of course, that slaves and black americans basically, have no rights that need to be
respected because they're not citizens. but it also supports the principle that a slave is a slave anywhere, and in mr. scott, mr. dread scott, was not emancipated by virtue of the fact he lived for a considerable amounts of time with his owner in the free state of wisconsin. finally, you have as an outcome of the kansas/nebraska act a civil war or the first battle of the civil war some would say in kansas, john brown leading kansas, increasing radicalization both north and south. quick tour of the 1850s there. >> quick tour of the 1850s, and perhaps before we open up the floor for questions, i might just read this statement from william seward just as all of this is being wrapped up, the compromise of 1850.
seward was an interesting man. he truly was a civil libertarian, truly a person who believed that the rights of african-americans were of concern, and this is what he said. i think it is wrong to hold men in bondage at any time and under any circumstances, and i think it right and just therefore to abolish slavery when we have the power at any time, at all times, under any circumstances. if the present is not the right time, then there must be or there must have been some other time, and that must be a time that has already passed or time yet to come. well, sir, slavery has existed here under the sanction of congress for 50 years undisturbed, the right time, then, has not passed. it must therefore be a future time. will gentlemen oblige me and the country by telling us how far
down in the future the right time lies? he also confected a construction or interpretation of the constitution which said that there is a higher power than the constitution, of course, that felt like a lead balloon in the chamber of the senate. it seems to me he was quite percipient about the fragility of the compromise. >> david, may i just say a word about seward? i think that is the perfect note on which to bring this part of the discussion to an end. seward is the most modern man in the senate. you read as david just did seward's words in 1850, he is speaking to us. we're hearing ourselves when we hear seward. seward talks about civil rights. he talks about human rights, and he understands these things in
the way that we do today. he could walk in here and be sitting in the back of the room, and he would fit right in. he would know what we're all talking about and what our politics of the 21st century is about when we talk about human and civil rights, and he is a lone, fierce voice on the floor of the senate in 1850, and in a way he is kind of the unspoken hero, the quiet hero of this debate. >> he loses to lincoln in 1860 for the presidential competition but he will be lincoln's indispensable counselor throughout the lincoln administration. well, i think we have to accept questions because they are about to stampede with them. [ inaudible ]
>> i am curious, what did john calhoun sound like? is there any analogous contemporary politician because seward sounded great, but i don't know what calhoun sounded like. >> well, he sounded like a guy from up country south carolina, clemson university sits on his property, if you have ever been there. his house is there. it is an interesting visit. he was educated in the law in connecticut. he was an unusual man. he is not likeable. frankly, for me it was a struggle to try to get close to calhoun as it was for his contemporaries. he was not an approachable man. he was very cold individual. he was very cerebral, and somewhat disparagingly some of his southern contemporaries said he is as cold as a yankee.
>> hofstetter said he was the marx of the master class although we had a different prediction of the outcome of the dialectic. he was sort of cadaverous, was he, that's the sense i have, a very dry orator. >> harsh, harsh. he is not an orter of the caliber of clay and webster either. he was extremely intellectual. he was possibly the most intellectual major senator of that period. he did a lot of thinking. he had all sorts of complex ideas about the way society worked and he was very wonkish if you like, but he couldn't craft vivid oratory the way others did.
>> thanks a lot. that was fascinating. as you sort of implied at the end, we now have a lot of difficulty, i think, appreciating the mindset of people who think that slavery is remotely acceptable let alone desirable, so why -- you mentioned that all the new territories were obviously going to come in as free states if they were left to their own devices. clearly back then people, a lot of people thought slavery was i guess okay or something. why were they all going to come in as free states and if it was because a lot of people actually didn't think slavery was okay, what would have happened if we hadn't had a civil war?
would it have died out anyway without killing all of those people? >> it didn't look like it demographically. it was a real growth industry. by 1860 there was no indication that slavery would have petered out if left alone. indeed, we have already seen that there was a southern imperialism to match the manifest destiny of the free-soilers which would have incorporated cuba, the austin manifesto, for example, is one of the great scandals of the next administration. the franklin pierce administration, if anyone remembers franklin pierce. he was determined we get cuba from spain and was secretly negotiating until wikileaks revealed what he was up to, so, no, it wouldn't have died out and if you look at brazil, it didn't die out there either.
it was abolished finally in the 1880s, and that was, i think, because it was a going concern economically. fergus? [ inaudible ] pardon me? >> why didn't any of the new territories want to come in as slave states, then? >> kansas is a little dubious, isn't it? we're not quite sure what would have happened there. it was certainly a split. well, there are enough people who will not benefit from that institution, mostly the immigrants coming over from ireland, mostly workers in the north, when the plains are opened up for grubstakes, you don't want to move into these territories and compete against slaves, and so quite apart from any kind of post-enlightenment
view that slavery was wrong. there were good economic reasons not to want to be a part of it, but then your point is a good one, and david bryan davis reminds us, doesn't he, that the unnatural institution was not slavery for most of mankind's history, it was liberty. >> i think to add to that, advocates of southern nationalism who were many and forceful had every intention of carrying slavery westward across the new mexico territory. that's what was behind the putative texas invasion of new mexico, to carry slavery all the way to the west coast, and slavery's advocates talked in this debate about the future state of slave state of south california, and there was every
intention to settle those territories with slaves. john a. quitman, new york renegade who went south and became one of the fiercest advocates of slavery stated that he intended to take a thousand of his slaves to california and settle them there, except he felt he was deterred by the uncertainty of them being protected by federal law. so there was every intention to expand it. but slavery, the number of slaves was not shrinking, it was increasing from about one million in 1800 to about four million finally in 1860 and it was continuing to inkrecrease i and the more slaves there were, the less political will there was regardless of economic concerns to emancipate them. in the south, southerners were
terrified of a nat turner rebellion writ large, they say so over and over again. haiti, a reliving of what had happened in haiti at the turn of the century. there's much more to be said on this except that without the war slavery would have continued -- had secession succeeded, slavery would have continued to grow. there's no sign whatsoever that it would have just died away on its own. the argument was made by many historians but i don't think it would have gone that way. i think it would have found new fields to conquer. >> thank you very much, very interesting. i have a question about the senate and compromise. a couple questions. the first is if the filibuster rule had been in effect in 1850, would there have ever been a compromise and are there any
lessons that you could draw from your study of that debate and that moment in history and the challenges that are facing testimony congress and america right now with what's being called a grand bargain. >> well, those are two good big question questions. filibusters were taking place in the course of this debate and thomas hart benton was essentially filibustering. he was plying an independent role. benton opposed the omnibus for a variety of reasons which i don't think we should digress into at this late, late moment. fascinating character.
he was from missouri. yes, they was grandfather of the painter, by the way. from missouri, he owned slaves, he adamantly opposed the expansion of slavery westward. his daughter married john c. fr freemont and was an abolitionist. fascinating guy. so filibusters did occur and they did delay the climax of the debate and it drove clay crazy. and he said so. do you want to take that? >> no, go right ahead, i'll come along. >> i'll say parenthetically here, my wife works on capitol hill, she 's the staff director of a u.s. senate committee and this is my dinner table conversation every night.
and -- are there lessons to be learned, let's say. is there -- i think there are some. i think the debate illuminates where we stand today. i think the analogy between the gridlock which we didn't talk about very much here but both the house and the senate were gridlocked, the term didn't exist in 1850, but that was very much the situation. it took scores of ballots for the house to elect a speaker, for example, in 1850. scores of ballots. it's an amazing debate in its own right which i cover in the book. and the senate did nothing else in 10 months but to debate this. nothing. all other business was pushed to the margins. whatever else government was supposed to do basically didn't get done except in a hastily organized session now and again
here are some things that seem to me pertinent. one is that in all the debate, in all the great debate, in all the great oratory of 1850, never once, never once is there a speaker no matter where he's coming from, whether it e's the deepest corner of pro-slavery south or anywhere else, no one attacks the federal government today we have a political faction in the united states which regards the government as the enemy and therefore sees its role as dismanning or damaging government itself and that was not the case in 1850. everybody shared a consensus that the american system was a
good system. they all express genuine pride and admiration for the founders and the founding documents and both southerners and northerners claim the founders as their patrons. and jefferson davis thinks -- and calhoun think they are the embodiment of the founder's intentions. so we are dealing with an element in the present day that is -- that didn't exist in 1850. but the challenge of compromise was the same then and now. to somehow or other find some meeting ground between people who are violently opposed to each other's views that's nothing new in this country. that's nothing new at all now and the challenge of finding
that meeting ground with people you basically abhor in the name of a larger -- a greater public intere interest. i think there are people who are chiseling on the other side of the fence -- the anti-government side of the fence -- who are chiseling away at the hostility to compromise because they see the consequences for the united states as potentially dire. why did that compromise happen in 1850? because people were afraid of civil war. they were afraid. it wasn't -- compromise isn't pretty, it's a mess. it makes everybody unhappy. there's a rather naive notion abroad about compromises at people getting together and being nice to each other. nobody is nice in the political compromise. they're beating up on each other and getting tired of it. >> well 1860 the compromise fail
ed and the country split apart. is there something similar at this fork in the road with this selection with a santorum that expresses views that john c. calhoun said, boy, i want to copy those down. the tea partiers who are very much like some of the extreme southern nationalists. and if it was race finally that made compromise impossible, is it now -- is it now -- what would it be? it would be i suppose class? and it would be the fact that the citizenry is angry because it draws a valid impression that the levers of power are beyond its reach, whether middle-class or poor and there's some dubiety
about about one what is to do about that and that's why you have something like occupy wall street which is epiphenomenon. it doesn't have anything to say except something is wrong. but this election is going to fuse the something is wrongness to a point that the next chapter may be one in which we really do have a center that cannot hold and indeed the centrifugal forces will be disastrous. . i agree wi . >> i agree with you. i agree with that overall and it -- perhaps i think we have every reason to fear that that if the political class can't
find some rational meeting place that the crisis will not be a war this time, it won't be secession, it will be an economic catastrophe that will make the near miss of a few years ago look like sandbox time in kindergarten and i think that's certainly a real danger and there are some people -- tea party influenced people and people who are likely to add to their numbers in congress in this coming election regardless of whether obama can be reelected who are so profoundly ignorant of the founding documents that they claim to adore. so profoundly ignorant of that, so profoundly ignorant of political process and so profoundly ignorant of how democracy actually works that they will lead us over the cliff if they have the ability to do
so. i think that's an absolutely valid concern. and they were vetted by the leadership of the republican party, at the top of the republican party, frankly, although as i said, there's some hope that some people in that party are going to break ranks sufficiently to prevent that have from happening. although i know too much history to be a pollyanna about these thing things and we've often had leaders who have made catastrophic mistakes on our behalf and i don't think we're necessarily out of the woods. much depends on how the election goes, clearly. >> final question, perhaps. i think we are close to --
>> i just wanted to return to the topic that this lady brought up. i always thought that slavery, if left alone -- i always thought if slavery was left alone, no civil war, would ultimately implode. i always -- i always thought that the south was not heading towards the 20th century. nobody was thinking about manufacturing. i really found it funny that the cotton gin, although invented in the south, was invented by somebody from massachusetts. i mean, the southerners were the experts on cotton and if you look at the cotton gin that was invented, it's not that complicated yet they themselves couldn't create that. eli whitney was a teacher from massachusetts and tutoring somebody in the south and he saw the problem and invented the
cotton gin. so i thought the south was not heading towards the 20th century and eventually they would have been surrounded by freedom. i mean, mexico got rid of slavery in 1820 or approximate ly. so, anyway, that's -- >> well, i -- a couple of generations of americans were educated, certainly, with the rather pleasant notion fostered by a school of southern historians and those who were friendly to them that slavery would have just faded away and everything would have been hunky-dory and -- but there's really not much basis, in my opinion, for believing that any more. there is no real reason to assume either that slavery would not have perhaps adapted in ways that were not necessarily foreseen in 1861 to new economic
realities although the agrarian leadership of the south in 1860 certainly saw slavery's future as ago rarn. and sugar in in cuba, other plant -- other agricultural work, large-scale farming in more of mexico and and so on. the great central valley of california, imagine it tilled by slaves. that was a mission of pro-slavery southerners. >> well, we had a movement, didn't we, cesar chavez, i think, dealing with a labor problem that approximated in every way slavery. certainly servitude. well, i think it is 8:30. i don't want to be arbitrary but -- yes? >> if i can if i can just one last question. i want to say thank you for illuminating all of those interesting figures of the 1850s
and american history. i was just really struck by your notion of the radicalization of northern whites through the whole '50s in terms of them -- the groundswell creating of the abolitionist movement and saying that this has to end and this has to become a war, this is hour struggle. one thing that i find interesting now, a parallel that may be something that will come in the future but isn't being spoken specifically, president obama actually kind of did an executive order to kind of address it but i don't know if it's going to come back up in this political cycle which is also interestingly related to the contested areas in the 1850s is immigration, the whole notion of immigration and how that possibly can happen in terms of the radicalization of americans to say, you know what, maybe this is an issue that we need to addre
address and i wonder if you think our current politicians can come to that moment and say, okay, this is an issue that maybe we should address and one that is worthy of a larger debate? >> well, it seernsly been a debate but when you say "address" i think you mean with the kind of co-generalsy and enlightenment that would lead us towards some sort of mitigation or solution and one would hope that since it is obviously a -- an element that so significantly is changing the dna of the american structure, the country will become increasingly hispanic and that poses all sorts of issues and so therefore
it should be a front burn er bus also susceptible to exploitation that it can be at the end of the day something that precludes any kind of prudent address and i don't think we know yet where we'll be there. >> i think it's worth remembering that it took almost 80 years for the united states to really come to grips with a deep distortion of the american political system caused by the concessions made to slave owners back at the constitutional convention. it took until 1861 for the
country to face up to the consequences of it and as many of us doubtless would still agree the country is still dealing with the consequences of it. these are not -- these are deep issues, divisions of this type aren't solved quickly or neatly and i think the route to finding a political solution to what you're talking about is going to be hard and circuitous and i don't think there's a magic formula there that people are going to happily embrace it's going to continue to be a brutal political process. >> i want to thank fergus boredwich for coming. thank you. tonight on c-span 3's american history tv in prime
time, the start of two weeks of our series "the contenders." they ran and lost but changed political history. programs about henry clay lead off the series. we will show you a profile of the former house speaker from kentucky known as the great compromiser in the early 19th century. we'll also tour his ashland estate in lexington. also senator mitch mcconnell talks about the legacy of henry clay. as a member of the house and senate for over four decades. then a look at the compromise of 1850 and the impact of slavery on the compromise that preserved the union. all of this coming up on c-span 3 beginning at 8:00 p.m. eastern time. now the contenders. c-span's series on key political figures who ran for president and loss but nevertheless changed political history. tonight we feature fme