In protest over a tariff policy they felt discriminated the southern minority of the country, South Carolina initiated the nullification policy. Broadly speaking this allowed an individual state to declare a national law null and void if it decided that the act was unconstitutional. Talk of nullification spread to talk of secession if the Union did not respect South Carolina’s views. Jackson, although an ardent supporter of states’ rights, was not prepared to see the physical entity of the United States being put at risk. He threatened military force if South Carolina did not fall in line. Eventually a compromise was reached and the tariffs in question were reduced. But many in the South were pessimistic about the future. The country was divided into slaveholding and non-slaveholding States, and as Chancellor Harper of South Carolina wrote, &ldquothis is the broad and marked distinction that must separate us [North and South] at last.”7
The Second Two-Party System: Democrats v. Whigs, 1836-1850
The Whig party was formed in the 1830’s. It consisted of opponents of the Democrats and included remnants of the National Republican party. Throughout the 1830’s and the 1840’s the Democrats and the Whigs competed with each other at elections on every level, as politics in the United States entered its second two-party system. Although the two parties had differing economic policies, the Whigs favouring economic expansion through an activist government and the Democrats clinging to the Jeffersonian principle of limited central government, it was religion and ethnicity, which decided their voters. Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists, mainly in the north east, were overwhelmingly Whigs, as were the small number of free black voters. Democrats tended to be foreign-born Catholics and nonevangelical Protestants, both of whom preferred to keep religious and secular affairs separate. As vigorous two-party politics developed in all sections of the country- it had never before existed in the South and West- a growing number of voters turned out in national elections, and control of public affairs became less exclusively the business of prudent gentlemen from old and distinguished families.
A Democrat won the 1836 presidential election but the Whig candidate, General William Henry Harrison, won the 1840 election. However, he died of pneumonia and his replacement, John Tyler, was a former Democrat who had only recently converted to the Whigs after clashing with Jackson. In office Tyler acted more like a Democrat than a Whig. The Democrats went on to win the 1844 election, and continued their policies of minimal government interference. Around this time the question of Texas emerged. By 1835, 35,000 Americans, including many slaveholders, lived in Texas. The Mexican government had won its independence from Spain in 1821, and had invited in settlers to their northern lands of Texas. Eventually the settlers in Texas rebelled against Mexico and won independence in 1836, much to the delight of most Americans. Texas established an independent Lone Star republic but soon sought annexation to the United States. Many southerners favoured annexing proslavery Texas, but many northerners, abolitionists and Whigs were against it. The two political parties clashed over the issue. The Democratic candidate for the 1844 presidential election was a slaveholding cotton planter from Tennessee, James K. Polk. He called for occupation of the entire Oregon Territory (which at the time was shared with Great Britain), and the annexation of Texas. The Whigs candidate, Henry Clay, opposed annexation and favoured expansion through negotiation, arguing that the Democrats’ strategy would lead to war with Great Britain or Mexico. Polk and the Democrats, having run a well-organised campaign, won the election. Texas was admitted into the Union in December 1845. Mexico immediately broke relations with the United States; war was inevitable.
Reaction to the Mexican War was mixed. Southerners and Democrats were generally in favour of it. New Englanders and Whigs opposed it, questioning its justification, and some seeing it as no less than a plot to extend slavery. The North had longed feared of the so-called Slave Power- a slaveholding oligarchy that controlled the South and intended to dominate the country. Whilst part of Oregon was abandoned with the Oregon Treaty of 1846 with Great Britain, the United States was prepared to fight a war to annex proslavery Texas. Was this not a plot to further increase the power of the slaveholding South? The United States had defeated the Mexicans by 1848, having invaded Mexico and capturing the capital. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave California and Texas (including present-day Nevada, Utah and Arizona) to the United States.
Although the war had been a success as the country further expanded, its effect on the political system was disastrous. The slavery question that the war brought into the open divided the country. Southern Whigs and antislavery northern Whigs diverged. Southern and northern Democrats diverged. In the 1848 election, Democrats sought to unite their party by nominating a northerner, Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, for president, and a southerner, General William Butler of Kentucky, for vice president. But many southern Democrats distrusted Cass and voted for the Whigs’ candidate, General Zachary Taylor, who was a southern slaveholder. With this additional support Taylor won the election. But the clearest thing that emerged from the election was the growing sectional divide between North and South. The question of slavery in the territories would deepen the rift and eventually destroy the second two-party system as the 1850’s unravelled.
The Compromise of 1850 saw California accepted into the Union as a free state, but only after much debate. Southern states had wanted it to be annexed as a slaveholding state. Representatives from nine southern states had met in Nashville, Tennessee, and asserted the South’s claim to part of the state. The South was beginning to act as if it was a separate country to the rest of the Union. The Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, won the 1852 presidential election. Pierce believed that each state’s individual rights were paramount and essential to the nation’s security. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise’s limitation on slavery. It essentially re-opened two states, Kansas and Nebraska, to slavery, where before it had been abolished in these areas. The Whig party split and burst into northern and southern wings that could no longer act as one. One of the two foundation parties of the second party system was now gone. The Act pushed the Democrats away from northern voters and they became more and more seen as the party of the South. During the summer and autumn of 1854, antislavery Whigs and Democrats, Free-Soilers (a party that briefly existed during this period), and other reformers throughout the Northwest met to form the new Republican party, dedicated to keeping slavery out of the territories. The Republicans’ strength grew rapidly in the northeast, and for the first time a sectional party had gained significant power in the political system. With the United States now so polarised that its northern part voted for one party only and its southern party for another, the actual Union itself would soon be under threat.
The Road to Civil War
I have, Senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion
– James C. Calhoun addressing the U.S. Senate on the Slavery Question, 18508
If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself
– John Quincy Adams9
Events in Kansas only worsened the divide. Abolitionists and religious groups sent armed settlers into the area; southerners sent their own men to establish slavery and prevent northerners ‘stealing’ Kansas away. The two groups clashed violently, and soon the whole nation was talking about &ldquoBleeding Kansas.” In May 1856 a South Carolina Representative physically attacked a Massachusetts Representative in the Senate. North and South were politically at war.