This Fourth Installment of my Indiana Bicentennial Series will start where the third installment left off at the end of Gov. Whitcomb’s term in 1848, discuss Indiana’s 1851 Constitution, and then head through the Civil War and Governor Oliver Morton’s terms of office.
The U.S. Presidents through this period were Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), Franklin Pierce (1853 – 1857), James Buchanan (1857 – 1861), and Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865).
The Indiana Governors were Paris Dunning (1848-1849), Joseph Wright (1849-1857), Ashbel Willard (1857-1860), Abram Hammond (1860-1861), Henry Lane (for two days in 1861), and Oliver P. Morton (1861-1867).
The National Scene
These first few Presidents are, as the Simpsons put it, “the adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable caretaker Presidents of the U.S.A.!”
The people of the U.S. love a general and, after a good war, can typically be trusted to elect one. (See, e.g., Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower). Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough & Ready”) was elected on the strength of his victories in the Mexican-American War. Taylor did not actually have well-defined political positions. He was a slave owner but was not pushing for its expansion. Acquisition of the Mexican territory helped to exacerbate sectional tensions. Southerners were deeply concerned about their ability to own other people and perfectly willing to destroy the U.S. in order to preserve that prerogative. By and large, Taylor supported the Northern position and was apparently willing to sign a provision that would have barred slaves in the new territory if it ever reached the President’s desk. He supported the notion of California skipping the territory phase altogether and proceeding directly to statehood — this would leave the slavery question out of Congress’ hands. With the gold rush on, California’s population was exploding, so the timing worked. In 1846, after Joseph Smith had been murdered by non-Mormon neighbors in Illinois (Smith seems to have had this effect on his neighbors), Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah. After initially applying for recognition as a state, Utah was organized as a territory in 1850. The slavery issue in Utah was muted somewhat by the territory’s general inhospitability for raising crops. The Compromise of 1850 was underway but not completed by the time of Taylor’s death on July 9, 1850 of a stomach ailment.
Vice-President Millard Fillmore, who we have come to know as a not very funny comic strip duck stepped into the Presidency upon Taylor’s death. He was an early member of the Whig Party and, before the Vice-Presidency, had held various political offices in New York state. As an anti-slavery moderate from New York, he was put on the ticket with the slave holding Taylor who was at least nominally from Virginia. Fillmore helped finish the work on the Compromise of 1850. Ultimately, that Compromise resulted in five pieces of legislation: California was admitted as a free state. The Texas boundary was settled in a way that compromised some of its claims on New Mexico, but the U.S. paid the state’s debts. A New Mexico territory was created which was open to slavery. The slave trade (but not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia. And, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Fugitive Slave Act was a federal law that required Northern States and their officials to arrest black people on as little as an affidavit from Southern slave owners who claimed the person was a runaway. (The failure of northern states to comply with this piece of federal law appears in Southern declarations of secession and, as such, severely undermines the revisionist history claiming that Southern secession was a principled matter of states’ rights and tariffs as opposed to a strong desire to own other people and extract their labor for free.)
The Compromise of 1850 put a thin scab over the sectional division and delayed the Civil War by another few years. Fillmore was also active in the Pacific. He dispatched Commodore Perry to “open Japan” to trade — the opening was accomplished with cannons. Fillmore also rattled some sabers when France came sniffing around the Hawaiian islands. He was very much opposed to European powers acquiring a foothold in Hawaii. Fillmore attempted to run for the Presidency in his own right, but he had alienated northern Whigs with the Fugitive Slave Act. The Whigs appointed General Winfield Scott (another war hero), but he was defeated by the Democrats’ candidate, Franklin Pierce.
Pierce took office in 1853 and helped exacerbate sectional conflict during his term by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and by signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was a New Hampshire Democrat who took advice from his Southern advisers. Transportation and communication infrastructure played a role in the challenges he faced in his administration. Jefferson Davis, who would later lead Southerners in their rebellion against the United States, was Secretary of War during the Pierce administration. In 1853, Congress appropriated money to find a railroad route from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Telegraphy had been on the rise since Morse came up with a commercial system that began linking the major urban centers in the east during the 1840s. The need for a cross-country telegraph system was recognized along with the need for a cross-country railroad system. Secretary of War Davis was tasked with the job of organizing the search for a route and he initiated the Pacific Railroad Surveys. One potential route was in the south, through land still owned by Mexico. This led to the Gadsden Purchase.
Southerners were lukewarm on internal improvements generally, finding that they received more immediate profit from more slaves and more cotton production, sold internationally. Davis, however, was a railroad enthusiast and a supporter of the Southern route. Pierce was amenable to the idea of expanding in the South and authorized the purchase of land from Mexico which would expand the United States’ southwestern holdings. Santa Anna, who had been returned to power in Mexico, needed money and was willing to deal. To him, this territory was more or less just a stretch of desert and, to him, $15 million (more than $400 million today) was a worthwhile trade. The treaty was eventually ratified, but it exacerbated sectional conflict in the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that was being debated. Northern Senators wanted their own railroad and opposed what might be the organization of more slave territory.
Senator Stephen Douglas (“the Little Giant”) from Illinois wanted a railroad from Chicago to the west. Organizing the Nebraska territory was a first step in the process. Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, slavery would not be permitted in Nebraska; but southerners wouldn’t permit organization of Nebraska unless slaveholders were permitted there. Repeal of the prohibition of slavery in the northern territories sparked a vitriolic debate in Congress, and bloody conflict in the territories. The notion of “popular sovereignty” where the residents of the territory got to determine whether the territory would be a slave state or slave free prompted “a rush into Kansas, as southerners and northerners vied for control of the territory. Shooting broke out, and “bleeding Kansas” became a prelude to the Civil War.” The midterm elections of 1854-1855 were bad for Northern Democrats and Whigs. There was considerable agitation over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act for the benefit of Southern slave owners. A loose coalition of various political parties — Know-Nothing, Independent, Anti-know-nothing, Fusion, Anti-Nebraska, Anti-Administration, Whig, Free Soil, People’s Party of Indiana, and Unionist — would take control of the House. These anti-Democrats would soon form into the basis of the Republican Party. Pierce, the sitting President, was so unpopular by the time of the 1856 election that he could not even get the nomination to run for re-election. James Buchanan got the nod.
Buchanan had the advantage of having been minister to the United Kingdom during the Pierce administration and was able to avoid getting caught up in the growing sectional unpleasantness prior to the election of 1856. The relatively new Republicans fielded John C. Fremont as a candidate, running with the slogan “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!” However, the anti-Democratic forces had not consolidated and Fremont’s campaign was undermined by the Know-Nothings (officially the “American” Party) — so named because of their secretive origins. The Know-Nothings nominated former President Millard (not Mallard) Fillmore and attempted to ignore the slavery question; instead focusing on an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform (sounds vaguely familiar). They preferred “native” Americans, by which they did not mean American Indians. They meant the white Protestants who had been here for at least a few decades.
With the anti-Democratic vote split, Buchanan won the election. His administration was dominated by the tension leading up to the Civil War about which countless books and novels can and have been written. I can’t do them justice. So, I’ll just mention that the Dred Scott case was decided, John Brown gained notoriety as Kansas continued to bleed, Stephen Douglas debated Abraham Lincoln, rampant land speculation, currency policy, and a decline in international trade caused the Panic of 1857, and there was conflict between Mormons and the federal government in Utah. In 1858, the Republicans gained a plurality in the House of Representatives and began investigating the Buchanan administration for corruption. This was an interesting time in American politics. The Republicans were still in the midst of becoming the country’s second party, the Whigs had collapsed, the Democrats were deeply divided between North and South, and the Know-Nothings’ brief moment in the sun was fading as anti-immigrant fervor abated somewhat and they were hurt by their vague stance on slavery.
In 1860, all hell was breaking loose. The Democratic convention was a disaster with the Democrats ultimately producing three nominees: Southern Democrats nominating vice-president John Breckenridge; Northern Democrats nominating Stephen Douglas; and some took up with the Constitutional Union candidacy of John Bell, a Tennessee candidate who wanted to preserve the union without taking a position on slavery. The Republicans, of course, nominated Abraham Lincoln and, when he won, the Southerners were determined to take their ball and go home. As the white Southerners began agitating for secession, Buchanan essentially sat on his hands while the Southerners stole federal property. On January 9, 1861, South Carolinians opened fire on the American soldiers at Fort Sumter.
Anyone likely to have made it this far through a post on Indiana history already likely knows far more about Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War than I can even begin to cover here. So, for Lincoln’s Presidency, I’ll just borrow a line from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”