When many people are taught about events that lead to the Civil War in the United States, these events are generally presented through a narrow lens of a very limited interpretation of accepted causes, leaving students with a context that is rather detached from the dynamic reality political economic problems, as well as a breakdown in societal cohesion.
The breakdown in societal cohesion began as early as 1836 when Andrew Jackson issued an executive order to ban abolitionist materials from being sent through the mail in order to convince voters in the south that both his party and Martin VanBuren, the Democrat candidate for President that year who was from New York, were serious about protecting the rights of slave holders. Of course the definition of “abolitionist materials” was left rather fluid, and could mean anything representing a point of view that was not accommodative to the institution of slavery. This order basically gave the US Post Office, specifically southern Post Masters, the right to read and censor mail, leaving the population in the south very little idea of the true sentiments of those in the north.
It wasn’t just Democrats stirring up the pot back then either. Our society was one where political leaders were counted on as decision makers and these leaders were generally trusted over other sources of news and information. During the campaign of 1836, the Whig Party was trying to build itself up to becoming a national party, but because it was mostly focused on opposition to Jackson’s policies, what they viewed as executive tyranny, there was no ideological cohesion among the various factions that included the Anti-masons and Old Republicans in the north, state’s rights parties and John Calhoun’s nullifiers in the south. They ran three candidates for president that year because they could not all agree on just one, two of them were from the north and one was from the south. White, the candidate chosen by the state’s rights and the nullifier factions in the south, played up imaginary weakness of Martin VanBuren by accusing him of being a northern abolitionist and insisted that as president he would erode the rights of the south to hold slaves. Although unsuccessful at defeating VanBuren, it set the habit of politicians to play up political divisions involving slavery for decades to come, probably the worst possible state of political affairs imaginable.
By 1836, the economic picture in the US was unsettled due to political oscillations around extremes regarding banking and currency that lasted for two decades. The Democrats were very much anti-banking and were for hard currency, thinking it more fitting to a prudent agrarian society not wishing to be controlled by aristocrats, while the Whigs favored a national bank that could issue currency based on economic needs. The Second Bank of the United States was diminished by the Jackson administration, and was not replaced until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1914; its demise resulted in a contraction of the money supply and the deflationary pressures and political discontent that come with it. Whigs, whenever they got the political upper hand in state legislatures by campaigning on the effects of the various bouts of deflation, attempted to undo all the Democrats had done by going around Federal monetary policies, using state police power to allow banks the right to issue bank notes. They were basically the champions of free banking. Once the economy would start to recover, Democrats would get the upperhand by campaigning on the tyranny of bankers and would go about undoing all Whigs had done.
The economic picture is important here because politicians never really talk about the factual things that are wrong with the economy, but instead use anything they can to win an election, even things that are irrelevant. A pretty good example is a desperate Obama administration cooking up a Republican war on women and playing up class divisions within society to try to salvage its existence after a miserable failure to deal with the true economic pain we have been experiencing. From 1836-1860, the top hot button issue for demagogy in the south was slavery. If the politicians couldn’t win on their record, they could win on the slavery question by causing fear in the minds of those in the south that the opponent would take away what they viewed to be as their rights and property, leaving them destitute.
Looking at most of the information I have about things that anti-slavery politicians did during that time period, it does not seem to me that they had any intention to disturb the institution where it already was. By the time the fervor over the slavery question came to head in 1860, nearly all of the major political actions regarding slavery resulted in accommodation and creeping expansion. Nearly all of the secession crisis revolved around whether or not the north was willing to accept terms of expansion of the institution, not any overt action to on their part to dismantle it.
I will make a post later about some specific political events that I think are important to understanding the political dynamics of the Civil War and expand on these thoughts about the voluntary inability of the political system to even really care about political cohesion of the nation.