Episode 11: A Restless South Expansion and Conflict
A New History of the American South
Dr Edward Ayers (2018)
Ayers uses this lecture to explain the development of the US two-party system in the 1820s and how pressure to expand slavery led to the US War on Mexico. The founding fathers had warned against political parties, worried scheming opportunists would seize control of them.
The election of America’s first populist president Andrew Jackson (1828) would play a major role in the formation of the two party system. Also important was the decision by many legislatures to eliminate property qualifications for voting. In 1828 the popular vote for president was double that of 1820.
Identifying himself as a man of the people, Jackson claimed to have wrested control of the country from the wealthy elite. In doing so, he also increased the powers of the presidency beyond those described in the Constitution. Although his forced march of Native Americans to Oklahoma supported southern interests, he sided against the South when he shut down the South Carolina nullification movement in 1933.*
Jackson’s opponents (men with business and trade interests) saw themselves as a counterbalance to the “monarchical” powers of the Jackson presidency and began calling themselves Whigs.** His supporters (small farmers and urban immigrants) became known as Democrats.
In 1845 a 3rd party candidate split the Whig vote and Jackson protege and expansionist*** James K Polk narrowly won the presidency. In 1846, Polk seized on a border skirmish north of the Rio Grande as an excuse to invade Mexico. After a two year war (1846-48), Mexico and the US signed a peace treaty that gave the US undisputed control of Texas,**** established the U.S.-Mexican border along the Rio Grande, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California,
Although the Whigs (and most northerners) had opposed the war, they sought to capitalize on General Zachary Taylor’s military prestige by offering him the 1848 nomination. Following his election, growing congressional conflict over slavery led to a law declaring California a slave free territory and the Fugitive Slave Act (requiring northern states to return escaped slaves to their masters)
The Whigs split in 1854, following enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act proclaiming new states could decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery (effectively repealing the Missouri Comprise banning slavery north of the 33rd parallel). Most northern Whigs joined the anti-slavery Republican Party (formed in Wisconsin in 1854) and most southern Whigs joined the American Party and later the Constitutional Union Party.
*The Nullification Crisis was a confrontation between South Carolina and the federal government in 1832–33 over the former’s attempt to declare null and void the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. The resolution of the crisis in favor of the federal government helped to undermine nullification doctrine, the constitutional theory that upheld the right of states to nullify federal acts within their boundaries.
**The Whigs were a British political party between the 1680s and 1850s.
***The southern states favored westward expansion of the US as acquisition of new plantation land was essential to the health of the southern economy.
****The major fighting in the Texas war of independence (with several hundred state militiamen fighting the 3,000-strong Mexican army) ended on April 21, 1836. However the Mexican Congress refused to recognize the independence of the Republic of Texas, as the treaty was signed by Mexican President General Antonio López de Santa Anna under duress as prisoner of state militias. The United States recognized the Republic of Texas in March 1837 but declined to annex the territory as a state until its economy, based entirely on slaves and cotton, collapsed follow the panic of 1837. Texas formally became a state in 1845
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