1854: The United States at a Crossroads

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In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s the United States faced two sets of choices.

The first set, and the one public opinion most focused on, was ideological: slavery versus abolition. The northern abolitionists demanded an immediate end of slavery, and they would not soften their position because they were morally right. The Southern planters on the other hand, would not give up cotton production, which was their source of wealth. At the time American had a de facto monopoly on cotton, which was needed in ever increasing quantities by the newly industrialized textile industry in England. Given this very favorable economic situation the South would not budge on slave labor.

Since neither side would retreat, the country was headed towards a confrontation which meant splitting the nation, or war.

The other set of alternatives was economic. Because of the apparently inexhaustible supply of new land on the frontier America had focused on agriculture – as well as the extractive industries like mining and lumber. It was a source of raw materials exported to others who would process them. It had a choice between becoming an “economic colony” (particularly in regard to industrialized England) and developing its own industry.

The first alternative (slavery or abolition) was dominated by small minority elites holding sway over public opinion. The second (industrialize or remain a raw materials supplier) affected the lives of the vast majority, yet had no focus in what we today would call the media.

Of the two political parties of the time one (Democrats) was fully committed to slavery. The other (Whigs) vacillated between going full bore for abolition, or opting for economic reform. The result was drift, with secession and/or war becoming likelier by the day.

Enter the Republicans.

The birth of the Republican Party in March 1854 was a direct reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened a back door to the spread of slavery to the new Territories. As such it would appear logical that its platform would center on abolition. But two such parties – the Free Soil and Freedom parties – had been flops. The Republicans needed something else to succeed politically. They chose the economy as their political battle ground.

At the time the U.S. was still recovering from the Panic of 1846/47. The economy was in shambles. The average life span of a bank was five years; there was no uniform national currency; American industrialists were being driven out of business by the British; land speculation was rife, resulting in unaffordable prices, while immigrants piled up in East Coast slums; farmers lacked transportation to get their crops to market; and the West – today’s Midwest – was short of technical infrastructure. A political party able to address these woes would gain a huge electoral base.

The Republicans did.

Their platform, elaborated between 1854 and 1860, had five major planks:

– Financing and construction of the intercontinental (and other) railroads

– Founding of land grant colleges ( the “Agricultural and Mechanical”) to provide technical personnel for the expanding nation

– Financial and banking reform (including the creation of the “greenback” dollar)

– Free distribution of land in the territories (Homestead Act)

– A 50% tariff on imports to protect American industries and provide sufficient profit margins for domestic investment

On slavery their platform did not mention abolition. They proposed a return to the 1820 Missouri Compromise as a start for further negotiations.

The platform was hugely successful, particularly in the North and West. Wisely the Republicans invited any politician who agreed with the platform to join them, regardless of his prior affiliation. Many did, providing the party with experienced operatives and candidates who supported and managed its rapid growth. Abraham Lincoln was one.

When Lincoln won the 1860 election the South seceded, precipitating the Civil War. But secession also gave the Republicans absolute majorities in Congress. As a result the entire platform was voted into law by 1865.

That legislation was the basis of America’s extraordinary economic growth over the next half century. By 1913 the United States was the world’s foremost economic power, the source of many key inventions, and the creator of entirely new industries. It had welcomed and over thirty million immigrants, providing them with land, jobs and education.

The Republicans succeeded because they focused on practical achievements rather than minority ideologies, and on the interests of the general population regardless of party affiliation. They were, in that respect, a truly representative government at a critical time for the nation.

How does this relate to today?  Stay tuned.

Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.

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