Liberty and Union

Liberty and Union

by David Herbert Donald

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Little, Brown & Company
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Liberty and Union

By David Herbert Donald


Copyright © 1978 Magnus Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3403-6


E Pluribus Unum

The United States was a historical impossibility. From Aristotle to Montesquieu, political theorists agreed that democracy was an unstable form of government, tending to disintegrate into anarchy, which in turn led to despotism. Only in small, compact, homogeneous areas, like the city states of Greece or the cantons of Switzerland, could democracy serve as a permanent form of government. For anyone unpersuaded by theory, the experience of the French Revolution demonstrated what was bound to happen when a large, diverse country fell under popular rule; democracy brought on the Reign of Terror, which produced the Thermidorean reaction and the dictatorship of Napoleon. But the United States in the 1840s broke all the rules of theory and experience. Half a century after its creation, this huge, dynamic, and infinitely varied republic continued to flourish. So astonishing was its success that European travelers visited America every year to view this social pyramid, perilously balanced on its apex, as it defied the laws of political gravity. Eagerly they sought to discover how Americans were able to reconcile democracy and order, equality and stability, the interests of the whole country with the rights of its constituent minorities.


By the 1840s, however, observers had good reason to wonder whether the United States could much longer keep up this balancing act, whether it would remain a single nation. With the annexation of Texas in 1845, the country included 2 million square miles of land — an area twice the combined size of Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, all the German states, and Austria. After the division of the Oregon region with Great Britain in 1846 and the acquisition of California and the Southwestern territories at the end of the Mexican War, the area of the United States was larger than that of Russia in Europe — which everybody knew was so vast as to require despotic rule. The compiler of the 1850 United States census intended to be exulting, but he might unconsciously have been predicting, when he boasted that his country now was "of equal extent with the Roman empire, or that of Alexander."

Distances within this American empire were vast. New York was farther from New Orleans than London was from Constantinople, or Paris from St. Petersburg. If a traveler took the almost impassable land route from New York to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, he covered a distance nearly as great as that from Bremen to New York. If he went by water around Cape Horn to Oregon, his route was nearly as long as that from London to Canton, via the Cape of Good Hope. In such a huge, distended country, communications were slow and difficult. Before the railroads were built, it required at least two weeks for a newspaper printed in New York to reach Detroit or New Orleans, and an additional week to go on to St. Louis. As late as 1857, after the major intersectional rail lines had been completed, New Orleans was still a six-day trip from New York. It took four weeks for the news of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 to spread from the Eastern seaboard to San Francisco.

Heterogeneous was the only adjective that could describe the American people. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the authors of the Federalist papers had — with some exaggeration, to be sure — spoken of the inhabitants of the United States as "one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs." But by 1850 the American population included representatives of almost every race and language in the world. Most of the 23 million inhabitants were of Western European origins, but they came from enormously varied ethnic backgrounds. Settlers of British origins still predominated, but after 1845 at least 150,000 immigrants, mostly from Ireland and the German principalities, came in every year. By 1850 43 percent of the foreign-born living in the United States had come from Ireland, and 26 percent from Germany. Quite apart from this majority composed of Western European stock was the minority of 3 million Afro-Americans, six out of seven of whom were slaves. In nearly every part of the United States all blacks were thought to belong to an inferior, or at least retarded, race, not eligible for full membership in civil society. Even more alien seemed the half million Native Americans (or Indians), whom most whites considered incapable of civilization and hence unassimilable.

These racial and ethnic groups were distributed unevenly throughout the United States. By 1850 most of the Native Americans lived west of the Mississippi. Here the great Western tribes, such as the Apache and the Sioux, had their hunting grounds, but here, too, the remnants of the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, who had originally lived in the East, now had reservations. Blacks were heavily concentrated in the South, where they constituted over half the population of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana and made up more than 40 percent of the population of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. In most states of the North and West, blacks were almost unknown; they formed less than 1 percent of the population of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and California. Recent European immigrants tended to settle in the North and the West. By 1850 one out of every eight inhabitants of Massachusetts had been born in Ireland. One out of every nine New Yorkers was of Irish birth, as was one out of every fourteen Pennsylvanians. But in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida the Irish comprised less than 1 percent of the population. Huge numbers of Germans resided in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Wisconsin; but in all likelihood most residents of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and North Carolina never laid eyes on anyone born in Germany.

The United States was as diverse economically as ethnically. To be sure, a large majority of all Americans in 1850 still made their living from agriculture, and it is well to remember that as late as 1845 the hay crop in a relatively urban, industrial state like Connecticut was more valuable than the total output of its factories. But agriculture differed greatly from one section of the country to another. Except for corn, which was grown nearly everywhere, the major staples flourished in relatively limited areas. Louisiana alone produced 91 percent of the total United States sugar output; South Carolina and Georgia accounted for 92 percent of the rice; Kentucky and Tennessee grew 97 percent of the hemp, used in making rope. Four-fifths of all tobacco was grown in five states: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois produced 70 percent of the wheat. Though cultivation of cotton was widespread, four states in the Deep South — South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi — accounted for nearly three-fourths of the country's most valuable export.

Manufacturing was also geographically specialized. There were few factories in the staple-producing South. Textile manufacturing flourished in the Northeast. The mills in the New England states and New York represented three-fourths of all capital invested in cotton textile manufacturing; factories in the same states, plus Pennsylvania, attracted 85 percent of all capital invested in the manufacture of woolens. Iron production was concentrated in Pennsylvania, which alone in 1849 accounted for more than half of the country's pig iron.

Cities grew where there was immigration, industrial production, and commercial development. In consequence, in 1850 nearly two-thirds of the cities listed in the United States census were in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. New York, which did not yet include Brooklyn, led the way with over half a million inhabitants, followed, at a respectful distance, by Philadelphia and Boston. The only large Southern cities were on the periphery of that section: Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans. By 1850 Massachusetts and Rhode Island had more urban than rural inhabitants, but even small cities were unknown in states like Iowa, Alabama, and Georgia.


Inevitably these immense differences in economic organization, social structure, and ethnic composition led to disagreements and quarrels over public policy, but fortunately during the first half century under the federal Constitution these controversies rarely reached the level of the national government. After the Federalists failed in their attempt to create a strong central administration, that government had minimal functions. It was in charge of foreign relations, but during the generation after the War of 1812 there were few diplomatic crises. It collected customs duties. It surveyed and sold the public lands in the West. And it distributed the mails. So insignificant was the work of the government in Washington that numerous congressmen resigned their offices or refused to stand for reelection, preferring instead to serve in the state legislatures, where the real issues before the country were being resolved.

It was in the state and local governments, during the first half of the nineteenth century, that fundamental decisions about the operation of democratic government were made. Again and again these governments had to deal with the perennial problem of any democracy: majority rule and minority rights. Was there any limit to the power of the majority, whose wishes, now that the suffrage was so widely extended as to include most white adult males, could easily be registered in the frequent elections? Or did minorities have rights that must be respected, regardless of the outcome of popular elections?

On the whole, local and state governments responded to the will of the majority of articulate voters, with little regard to the concerns of dissenting minorities. Indeed, the views of some minorities were not sought at all. When the Virginia legislature of 1831–1832 considered plans for ending slavery and colonizing free blacks abroad, nobody even thought of consulting the Virginia Negroes, slave or free. On other occasions minority voices were heard and then disregarded. The majority of the voters in Iowa, Arkansas, and Texas, believing that nothing else "ever devised by mortal man was so successful to swindle people" as the banks that issued paper money, overruled the wishes of commercial and financial interests and prohibited the establishment of any bank in those states. In 1833, a majority of Alabama whites, in an action followed by other Southern states, required any of the minority of slaveholders who wanted to free their slaves to send them out of the state. In New York City, despite the eloquent protests of Catholic Bishop John Hughes, the Protestant majority refused to share public revenues with the Catholic schools, attended mainly by the children of the immigrant minority.

On the national level the problem of majority rule and minority rights was more troublesome. States and regions that had special interests were not powerful enough to impose their will on the country as a whole. But majorities did not have a free hand either, since the Constitution left sovereignty divided between the nation and the states. Consequently local government had rights that no central authority could abridge (even when those same local governments were vigorously trampling on the rights of minorities within their own borders). Whenever, then, there arose in Washington a conflict between the desires of the majority of the American people and the objections of a minority — usually, in these years, a sectional minority — a crisis of popular government ensued. Three principal kinds of issues gave rise to these conflicts.

The least disruptive category of such issues related to economic questions. The controversy over the tariff during Jackson's presidency showed how, with careful management, it was possible to reconcile national and sectional interests. At this time Northeastern manufacturers, whose products were in competition with more cheaply produced European imports, mostly wanted high protective duties. Southerners, who needed cheap, imported textiles for slave clothing and who feared that any restriction on imports would result in a reduction of the United States export trade, chiefly consisting of their own tobacco and cotton, vigorously opposed protection. In 1828, partly as a result of political manipulation, partly as a consequence of mistaken calculation of economic interests, a coalition of congressmen from Northern and Western states succeeded in passing, over vigorous Southern opposition, the "Tariff of Abominations," which gave strong protection to New England textiles, Pennsylvania iron, and other commodities produced in the Northern and Western states.

To the Southern minority, adversely affected by this legislation, several courses were open. Southerners could accept the decision of Congress and try to live with it. They could try to reverse that decision in the next Congress. Or they could follow the advice of President Thomas Cooper of South Carolina College and begin to "calculate the value of the union." Southerners not directly affected by tariff legislation followed the first course. More of them adopted the second, anticipating that a fellow southerner, Andrew Jackson, would be elected President in 1828 and that John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, would again become Vice-President.

But many South Carolinians were not so optimistic and began exploring the third course open to them. Proud, imperious, and high-tempered, South Carolina leaders were always suspicious of any extension of the power of the national government. They feared that one day the federal government might fall under hostile control and interfere with the condition of the slaves, who outnumbered whites in South Carolina. Already feeling the competition from richer, fresher lands in the West, South Carolina was entering a prolonged period of economic depression, and its leaders blamed their misfortune on the tariff policies of the federal government. Many were ready to resist a law that they considered both ruinous and unconstitutional.

In this crisis the position of Calhoun, the most conspicuous political leader in South Carolina, was difficult and ambiguous. He was torn between a genuine devotion to the Union and a deep commitment to the rights of his state and section. He was also pulled in opposite directions by conflicting political considerations. Since there were no rival candidates, he was assured of reelection as Vice-President in 1828, and he expected to succeed Jackson four years later. He could not afford openly to support defiance of an act of Congress, however hurtful to his state. At the same time, Calhoun could not well flout the strong sentiment in South Carolina that the national majority was trampling upon its rights.

Calhoun resolved his dilemma by drafting the South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828) — which was then published anonymously. In it he developed the theory of nullification, a theory that, on the one hand, estopped those who wanted to take South Carolina out of the Union and, on the other, offered a means for checking majority rule through safeguarding minority rights. As Calhoun expounded the doctrine, when the federal government exceeded the powers granted to it in the Constitution, a state could solemnly declare this action void and refuse to permit the unconstitutional piece of legislation to be enforced within its borders. Two resolutions of this standoff were too dreadful to be contemplated: the invocation of force by the federal government, and secession from the Union by the aggrieved minority. Instead, there would have to be a new national constitutional convention, which would decide whether to grant to the central government the authority it claimed — in this case, the right to enact tariff legislation that benefited one section at the expense of another. Presumably the voters in the majority sections, when they selected delegates to this convention, would soberly consider that injudicious action might precipitate a breakup of the Union; presumably the voters in the minority region would carefully weigh the importance of this one disputed power against all the rights and benefits that derived from belonging to the Union. Compromise would be almost inevitable. As a result of that compromise, majority and minority would achieve a better understanding of each other, and the ties of emotion, sentiment, and history that bound the Union together would be strengthened.


Excerpted from Liberty and Union by David Herbert Donald. Copyright © 1978 Magnus Limited. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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