Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Storm over Texas

In my most optimistic mood, I would like our presidential campaigns to be an
intellectual tour de force of opposing ideas and counterpoints. Let the nation chose between rival plans for the future. In someways this is how the father of our two party system envisioned elections. Martin Van Buren understood that if he created a political party on Jefferson's earlier model, an opposition party would naturally form. Van Buren constructed his party on powerful alliance between the small farmers of his native New York and the influential planters of Virginia. Although the opposition Whig Party had many disparate elements, a core ideology of economic nationalism came to define and unite them. Dubbed the Second Party System by historians, this division between Democrats and Whigs lasted two decades before the question of slavery in the territories wrecked it. In Storm over Texas, Joel Silbey locates the ground zero of this transformation in discussion of Texas annexation. Both Presidents Jackson and Van Buren considered Texas annexation a distraction from their more important economic agenda. It took a man without a party, John Tyler, to see Texas as a political life line. Not only did Tyler push the issue, his secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, turned it from a question of national expansion into one of sectional (read slavery) security. Tyler's 1844 re-election bid, such as it was, lasted only a few short, and early, months, but he had already poisioned the well. In 1844 James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay in one of the most important presidential contests in our history. It might have been a close race, hinging on a few thousand votes in New York, but it unleashed a sequence of events that led to Civil War. Had Clay taken occupancy of the White House, the future (our past) could have been very different. It is doubtful Clay would have sought territory from or war with Mexico. Who knows what would have have happened after that. On the other hand,as Silbey reminds us, Calhoun already released the sectional/slavery genie from the bottle. Silbey is a less critical of Calhoun for advancing something so obviously in his own political interests, than he is of Van Buren and his northern Democrat"Barn Burner" allies who got right down in the mud with the South Carolinian. Moreover, the patronage obsessed Barn Burners used the slavery issue to attack the president, thus further exacerbating the situation. The frame for future discussions and arguments had been built.

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