(December 6, 2019) Most modern historians argue that Southerners dominated the federal government until Abraham Lincoln became President in 1861and that they selfishly used the power to promote Southern interests at the expense of national interests. A good way to evaluate the merits of the assertion is to examine the three branches of the federal government separately.
Presidency. Of the fifteen Presidents elected before Abraham Lincoln, eight were from slave states and seven were from free states. Admittedly, Southerners were Presidents for forty-nine of the years from from Washington to Buchanan (inclusive) whereas Northerners were Presidents for just over twenty-three years. Nonetheless, on the most crucial matters Southern Presidents Washington, Madison, Jackson and Taylor put national interests ahead of Southern interests.
First, Washington signed the 1789 Tonnage Act sponsored by James Madison that levied a 50¢ per ton duty on goods imported by foreign ships whereas American-owned vessels were charged only 6¢. At the time, America’s maritime and shipbuilding industries were dominated by New England.
Madison further explained that articles subject to high tariffs “were pretty generally taxed for the benefit of the manufacturing part of the northern community.” He also conceded that the South, then the main wealth-producing part of the nation, would inevitably “shoulder a disproportionate share of the financial burden involved in the transforming the United States into a commercial, manufacturing, and maritime power.”
Second, when Madison was President in 1817 he signed an act that restricted domestic coastal trade to America’s merchant marine. This again was at a time when New England controlled the maritime and shipbuilding industries. The Act enable New York to become America’s dominant international port as a result of the “cotton triangle trade” whereby imports arrived in New York (in American hulls), distributed to Southern ports in monopoly coastal trade where cotton was loaded for shipment to New York and thence to Europe.
Third, when Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson was President in 1832 South Carolina “nullified” the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 thereby announcing that it would refuse to collect duties at its ports starting early in 1833. Jackson responded by obtaining congressional authority to use the United States military to force South Carolina to collect the duties.
He also encouraged Congress to adopt a compromise tariff that would gradually reduce rates to 20% by 1842, but Northerners reneged. Instead, in 1842 they passed the Black Tariff which increased rates to an average of 40%. President John Tyler of Virginia reluctantly signed the act as a show of national unity. The Black tariff caused a sharp drop in international trade in 1843. Imports into the United States nearly halved from their 1842 and exports, which are affected by overall trade patterns, dropped by about 20%.
Fourth, in 1849 when the balance of power in the Senate between the slave and free states was evenly matched at fifteen states each, President Zachary Taylor of Louisiana favored admission of California as at free state over the objections of fellow Southerners. Once California was admitted as a free state Northerners had control of both houses of Congress.
Congress. Antebellum Southerners never controlled Congress.
Free states controlled the House of Representatives from 1804 to 1861, a period of fifty-seven years. Southerners controlled the House only fourteen years from 1789 to 1804. Significantly, revenue bills such as tariffs could only originate in the House where Northern protectionist tariff members held the majority for nearly sixty years before the Civil War.
Additionally, antebellum Southerners never had a majority of the Senate. For thirty-eight years from 1812 to 1850 the Senate was evenly balanced between free and slave states. With the admission of California in 1850, however, the power in the Senate increasingly shifted toward the free states. By Lincoln’s 1860 election, free states had 18-to-15 edge in the Senate.
Supreme Court. The antebellum Supreme Court was involved in only two important cases applicable to North-South sectional differences.
Most famous was the 1857 Dred Scott ruling, declaring that a black man could not become a U. S. citizen and that a slave could not obtain freedom merely because his owner took him into residence temporarily in a free state. Of the nine justices, five were from slave states and four from free states. Two of the Northerners voted with the majority in the seven-to-two decision against Scott while the other two were the only dissenting votes.
The other case pertinent to the North-South axis was Prigg versus Pennsylvania. In 1842 the court ruled that states cannot be required to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The decision enabled a number of Northern states to adopt “personal liberty laws” that freed state enforcement officers from any obligation to help capture or return runaway slaves. The ruling was undeniably contrary to the interests of slaveowners. The decision forced the adoption of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act as a component of the 1850 Compromise. Since California’s admission as a free state tipped the Senate balance of power toward the free states, a number of Northern states reneged on promises to honor the new Fugitive Slave Act with impunity.
The Prigg court was composed of nine justices, five from slaves states and four from free states. The majority in the 6-to-3 ruling was composed equally of Southerners and Northerners.
Conclusion: The oft-cited argument that antebellum Southerners dominated the federal government and used that control to put the interests of the “slaveocracy” ahead of the county at large is false.
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