All the Powers of Earth
CHAPTER ONE THINGS FALL APART
In 1850, the Union was proclaimed to have been saved again in a great compromise that removed slavery as a controversy from national politics. President Millard Fillmore declared it nothing less than “the final settlement.” The issue tearing the country apart, whether the vast territory conquered in the Mexican War would be slave or free, was no longer to be a matter of debate. “We have been carried in safety through a perilous crisis,” Franklin Pierce announced at his inauguration on March 4, 1853.
The Compromise of 1850 settled the borders of Texas and admitted California as a free state, and avoided determining the status of New Mexico until far into the future. Only a few agitators trying to shield fugitive slaves from being returned to their masters under the new federal law continued to be nuisances. Slavery as a question that would divide the country was now safely consigned to the past as it had once before.
Most importantly, this new compromise left sacrosanct the Compromise of 1820, the Missouri Compromise, the
original “final settlement.” The Missouri crisis had aroused all the issues and arguments revived in the crisis in the aftermath of the Mexican War. The admission of Missouri as a slave state would upset the balance of eleven free and eleven slave states. Its admittance would also establish a precedent for admitting further Western states as slave states. The Northern objection was mirrored in Southern fears that the entire West would be denied to slavery and the balance of power inevitably shifted. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that the Missouri problem was “a flaming sword . . . a mere preamble—a title page to a great tragic volume.” He believed it was based in the Constitution’s “dishonorable compromise with slavery,” a “bargain between freedom and slavery” that was “morally vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our revolution can be justified.” He prophesied that “the seeds of the Declaration are yet maturing” and that its promise of equality would become “the precipice into which the slave-holding planters of his country sooner or later much fall.” In the Senate, the Southerners’ anxiety that slavery might be prohibited in the territories assumed a hostility congealed into ideology against the egalitarian premise of the Declaration of Independence. Senator Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, the former Speaker of the House, posed the question, “A clause in the Declaration of Independence has been read declaring that ‘all men are created equal’; follow that sentiment and does it not lead to universal emancipation?” The Declaration, Macon stated, “is not part of the Constitution or of any other book” and there was “no place for the free blacks in the United States.” Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky managed to hammer together a narrow majority for a compromise that brought in Maine as a free state to balance the slave state of Missouri and established a line restricting slavery north of 36°31’ latitude excepting Missouri. The debate inspired a sense of panic in Thomas Jefferson retired at Monticello. “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”
Jefferson’s nightmare hung over the Senate debate of the Compromise of 1850, filled with frightful images of death, premonitions of catastrophe, and curses of doom if slavery were allowed to persist as a vital issue. The Great Triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, the representative political men of their age, hurled lightning bolts from their Olympian heights. Henry Clay, young Abraham Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman,” who invented the power of the Speaker of the House, who as a senator crafted the Compromise of 1820, who served as secretary of state,
and who was nearly elected president, warned that the nation stood “at the edge of the precipice before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken in the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.” Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the Godlike Daniel, the voice of “liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever,” whose framed picture hung in Lincoln’s law office, cautioned, “Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! . . . Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common center, can expect to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space without producing a crash of the universe.” John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, whose stunning career included every office—congressman, senator, secretary of war, vice president, secretary of state—but the one he coveted most—president of the United States—sat wrapped wraithlike in a black cape on the Senate floor. The great nullifier, who insisted the states had preeminent authority over the federal government, objected to any compromise that would thwart the extension of slavery anywhere in the country, an “injustice” which he called the “oppression” of the South. “No, sir,” he prophesied, “the Union can be broken.” Calhoun’s acolyte, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, in opposing the admission of California as a free state, threatened, “If sir, this spirit of sectional aggrandizement, or if gentlemen prefer, this love they bear for the African race, shall cause the disruption of these states, the last chapter of our history will be a sad commentary upon the justice and the wisdom of our people.” Calhoun died less than a month after his final appearance in the Senate. Clay and Webster were dead within two years. The old order passed. By then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was the power behind the president.
Two years earlier, in 1848, a different sort of warning was delivered in the House of Representatives from a backbench congressman, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, in a bloodcurdling speech that attempted to get to the root of the crisis created by the Mexican War. Lincoln called himself “a Proviso man,” after the Wilmot Proviso, an act that would prohibit slavery in all the seized territory, which he voted for numerous times but that never passed the Congress. Opening the West to slavery had roiled politics for a decade. In 1844, Lincoln had supported Henry Clay’s presidential campaign against the annexation of Texas, which Clay called “wicked.” Clay lost to James K. Polk of Tennessee, who launched the Mexican War that gained territory that would
become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The balance of political power between North and South, slave states and free, hung on whether slavery would be extended into what was called the Mexican Cession or halted in its tracks.
Lincoln the “Proviso Man” rose to challenge the narrative of the war in order to undermine the legitimacy of slavery extension. He insisted that the origin of the war was fraudulent and demanded the evidence for the “spot” where it began. Lincoln the devotee of Shakespeare described President Polk as a Macbeth-like despot, “deeply conscious” of his guilt and stained by blood he could not wipe away—“he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him . . . and trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.” Polk’s message on the war that had opening the issue of the extension of slavery, said Lincoln, was “the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream.”
For Lincoln’s criticism of the war the newspaper owned by his longtime rival, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, dubbed him “Ranchero Spotty”—“ranchero” being the word for Mexican guerrilla fighters—tainting his patriotism. Lincoln served only one term. He had run for office continually since the age of twenty-three, risen to become the Whig Party floor leader in the state legislature, the leading Whig of his state, but he was thrust out of politics. Isolated in his two-man law office in Springfield, he gloomily stared for hours as he contemplated a life he considered would be insignificant. “How hard, oh! How hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better than if one had never lived for it!” he despaired to his law partner, William Henry Herndon. Lincoln could not anticipate that after he sank from public view to the county courthouses of central Illinois he would be “thunderstruck and stunned” by Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that unhinged the basic structure of politics and “striking in the direction of the sound” would launch on a journey that would miraculously carry him to the presidency.
Lincoln’s reinvention required that he invent a whole new politics. He would temper his melancholy and disappointment into the base metal of his determination. He had to break free from past political bonds, focus his concentrated intellectual powers entirely self-taught to reframe political argument, forge a completely new party from the wreckage, draw together in a common enterprise men who hated and distrusted each other, from abolitionists to Old Whigs, from Democrats to Know Nothings, overcome after
suffering defeat after defeat and one famous and powerful opponent after another, and through his mastery in the whirlwind create new “powers of earth” to struggle against the greatest power in the country, the Slave Power, “all the powers of earth.”
Lincoln would have to begin by rising from the ashes of the Whigs. The Compromise of 1850 split the Whigs between its Northern and Southern wings, and by 1852 it was no longer a viable national party. Its candidate, General Winfield Scott, nominated in the Whig tradition of forwarding military heroes to compensate for its incoherence, stumbled to the worst showing in presidential elections. The Whig Party never recovered from its defeat in the 1852 election. It cracked beneath Lincoln’s feet. But the realignment of politics was not yet apparent.
On March 1, 1853, during the week that Washington put on its finery for the inauguration of a new president, Lincoln deposited $310 in fees gained from his law practice into an account at the Springfield Marine and Fire Insurance Company. The day before the inauguration he bought a wheelbarrow for work around his house on the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets. On March 8, his mind was on “a little Ejectment case” coming up in the Edgar County Circuit Court. He could not attend and asked a colleague whether he could handle the matter. “I have been paid a little fee. Now I dislike to keep their money without doing the service; and I also hate to disgorge.”
In a time of peace and prosperity, after more than a decade of war and panic, Franklin Pierce swept into the presidency in the greatest landslide in the country’s history—greater than Thomas Jefferson’s, greater than Andrew Jackson’s. Handsome and charming, well-educated and well-spoken, Pierce at forty-eight years old was the youngest man ever to attain the highest office. He had a “fascination of manner that has since proved so magical in winning him an unbounded personal popularity,” wrote the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, his classmate at Bowdoin College and biographer. “Few men possess anything like it; so irresistible as it is, so sure to draw forth an undoubting confidence, and so true to the promise which it gives.”
Pierce recited his inaugural address from memory to universal admiration. Few of those warmed by the sun in the crisp air at the dawn of the new era on March 4, 1853, felt the barest shiver of convulsions to come. The fortunate president did not have the slightest hint that the members of the Congress
cheering him on that cloudless day would unravel the peace and bring about his downfall, or that he would fecklessly cooperate in his own undoing to precipitate the crisis before the war. Four years after assuming office, on his way out, Pierce simply remarked to his private secretary, Sidney Webster, “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.”
“So amiable, so friendly in his manner, so affectionate,” a friend observed about the new president. It was a warm description of a nice boy. He had no log cabin. Pierce was the product of a privileged upbringing with a powerful, alcoholic father and provocative, unstable mother. Good things happened for him effortlessly. The hidden hand of his early success was Benjamin Pierce, a gruff Revolutionary War hero, “the General,” and governor of New Hampshire, who stage-managed his son’s anointment as Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives at the age of twenty-seven and glided him into seats in the Congress and the Senate.
Southern senators welcomed Franklin Pierce into their club in 1837 as a pluperfect and pliable Northern man of Southern sympathy. He could have retained his place forever as an unmemorable fixture like a flickering sconce in the Senate chamber. Then, abruptly, he quit. His stern wife was determined to rescue him from a life of depravity.
Jane Appleton Pierce, the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College and the niece of Amos Lawrence, the wealthy Massachusetts mill owner, had a visceral distaste for politicians, whom she regarded as common and grimy, and blamed her husband’s chronic drunkenness on his association with the riffraff. Once, attending a Washington theater, the pleasant Pierce recklessly threw himself into a brawl. He sometimes discovered himself waking up in a daze of blinding hangovers, inevitably followed by bouts of self-reproach and apologies until he would repeat the cycle. Mrs. Pierce demanded that he leave the Senate, believing she was saving his soul and protecting her family reputation.
Death opened another door. On the eve of the 1852 presidential contest, one of Pierce’s mentors and the favorite son of the New Hampshire Democrats, Supreme Court justice Levi Woodbury, who had run unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination in 1848, suddenly expired. The Concord Cabal, the political directorate of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party, acting almost in loco parentis, brought Pierce forward to the starting gate as a dark horse candidate. He easily raced past a stable of stumbling “old fogies” without giving the slightest offense to those left in the dust. None resented the upstart because he fulfilled each one’s desire to deprive the prize to the
others, especially to the most dangerous rival of all—that dynamo of raw ambition, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, thirty-nine years old, nine years younger than the youthful Pierce.
Pierce’s levitation was a marvel of political preferment that allowed him to transcend his vagueness without the slightest mental focus. His wife, above all, understood him. When a breathless messenger reached the Pierces with news of his nomination as they were placidly touring the landscaped tombs of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she fainted.
Even before Pierce arrived in Washington, his natural optimism was knocked off-kilter. During the transition the tragic death of his only surviving son, slipping just out of his grasp in a bizarre railroad accident in New Hampshire, sent his emotionally fragile wife into reclusive mourning and him back to the brandy bottle. She wore black to the inauguration and the ball was canceled.
Pierce’s effortless ascent lifted him into the presidency, but poorly prepared him for its rigors. While he promised almost everyone whatever they asked of him and wished to satisfy all sides, he often failed to deliver the goods and seemed genuinely hurt when people expressed disappointment. There was little political rhyme or reason to his frequently broken personal pledges. “He was so absurdly false to his promises, that, where it did not cut too hard, it was positively ludicrous,” wrote one influential Democrat. Pierce’s boyish impulse for ingratiation heightened his wishful thinking, his predominant mode of thought. Upsetting anyone or anything was the last thing he ever sought, and so he upset nearly everyone and everything. Whenever there was not a happy ending, he was baffled. Paradox and complication perplexed him. He was confounded not only when he failed to deliver but also when he did.
While the others clawed at each other during the struggle for the nomination, Pierce’s passivity had allowed him to escape unscathed. But once he became president his well-intentioned gestures to smooth over his party’s fissures perversely pried them open. With the bounty of patronage spread before the Democrats their hatreds reemerged with a vengeance.
The crack-up appeared first within the New York party, whose endless fractious hostilities went back at least to the beginning of the Republic, to Aaron Burr’s founding of Tammany Hall, which he had used to undermine Alexander Hamilton. In 1848, antislavery Democrats joined with political abolitionists to create the Free Soil Party, which was organized to oppose the extension of slavery in the Mexican Cession. The New York Democratic
faction, known as the Barnburners or the Softs, was instrumental in nominating former president Martin Van Buren of New York, who had been denied the Democratic nomination, as the Free Soil candidate. He was an unlikely standard-bearer of the cause. As president, Van Buren had been resolutely pro-Southern and proslavery in sympathy. After the election Van Buren returned to his usual position and the Free Soil Party disintegrated. Pierce’s patronage to the Softs was his effort to let bygones be bygones. He wished to reunite the party around him and the new consensus. But his goodwill enraged the proslavery Hards.
Nothing was forgotten and nothing forgiven. The Hards retaliated by torpedoing Pierce’s nomination of former senator John A. Dix, a leading Soft, as secretary of state. Then the Hards launched into pitched battle against the Softs for control of the patronage-rich New York Custom House, assailing Pierce as a betrayer for failing to hand them every job. The Hards, meanwhile, attempted to wreck Pierce’s next appointment to be secretary of state—William L. Marcy, the New York party warhorse, former governor, senator, and secretary of war—the old Jacksonian who had coined the phrase: “To the victor belong the spoils.” Marcy’s crime had been to call for party unity. To the spoils belonged the victor.
From the beginning, Pierce was dependent for emotional support and political guidance on his Mexican War comrade, who, completing the sympathetic bond, would also lose a beloved son. “How I shall be able to summon my manhood and gather up my energies for all the duties before me, it is hard for me to see,” Pierce confided to Jefferson Davis on the eve of his inauguration. The former senator from Mississippi, scion of plantation wealth, was an imperious aristocrat with the streak of a martinet, who instinctively reacted to differences of opinion as though they were mortal attacks on his sacred honor and occasionally threatened duels. Suffering from an incurable venereal disease, herpes simplex 2, which rendered him periodically blind for weeks at a time, his rigidity redoubled. Davis, however, was a man of vision—of a vast slave empire encompassing Cuba, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and a transcontinental railroad linking the South to the West, which would be drawn into slavery. For all intents and purposes, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was the acting president of the United States.
Within a year of Pierce’s overwhelming election his popularity unraveled in a downward spiral of factional fighting over the patronage that he mishandled through political ineptitude to alienate all sides. His advent had been hailed by “cheering events” and “unparalleled unanimity,” when “not a
voice was heard to disparage the President-elect,” according to the proslavery New York Herald. “Twelve months have elapsed, and now not a voice, save those of hirelings, utters a syllable in his praise. He has forfeited the esteem of a whole people, broken every pledge he gave, violated each separate promise of his inaugural, trampled on the sentiment which elected him, plunged the country into disorders whose issue appalls the most stout-hearted, and for all this has earned the indignant reproaches of an injured Nation. His government has fallen lower after ten months of office than any of its predecessors ever fell in four years.”
Pierce was discredited even though his party controlled every branch of government and the opposition was smashed into pieces. It was not the opposition party that ripped apart Pierce’s presidency; it was broken from within.
Yet only minor tremors were enough to cause his fall from grace. The volcanic eruption was yet to come. Soon the fissures of the political earth would crack open. The molten elements of politics—ambition, influence, and reputation—would pour onto the landscape. Those raw elements were personified in the single most disruptive character in American politics, the perpetual rival to one and all—the once and future rival of Abraham Lincoln.
Pierce pointedly excluded one man from the patronage—Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the wild child banished to the dark forest. But Douglas would not be denied. The attempt to isolate him only made him free-ranging and menacing. He took every sign of Pierce’s weakness as an incentive, every deprivation of patronage as an insult. Douglas had no motive to play for anyone but himself, which was his natural instinct. With almost every speech and gesture, he battered down the limits and conventions of politics. Douglas had been the chief floor manager of the Compromise of 1850, but he could not help himself from undoing it, reopening the issue of slavery and unhinging his party.