Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eighteen-Fifty or Fight

You know, our timing here at Hail to the Chief... to the DEATH is a little fortuitous. "Why," you ask? Well, you may have noticed a little bit of a political kerfuffle brewing over the past few weeks, and that kerfuffle has revolved largely around one word: compromise. This particular compromise seems to look a little like this:
  • Democrats: So, we can live with some spending cuts, as long as we maybe close some tax loopholes or raise taxes on the rich.
  • Republicans: We can live with some modest tax gains, as long as we take a look at current and future spending.
  • Tea Partiers: *unintelligible gibberish*
We'd say that no matter which side of this tri-cornered hat of fail you are on, you're probably a bit disappointed at the way things have worked out. Which, to be fair, probably means it was a good compromise.

But man, this compromise has nothing to do with the way American politics worked in the middle of the 19th century. It seems like if you rifle through a textbook, you can't go two paragraphs without reading about some new Compromise brokered as America rushed full speed towards the ultimate "no, we're done compromising" moment, the Civil War.
The Civil War looked exactly like this. It was four years of a guy and blue and a guy in gray butting muskets,
looking menacingly into each others' eyes.
Some of these compromises are more famous than others. We're here to talk about one of the more obscure ones, one that was spearheaded by one half of this week's Arena matchup: Zachary Taylor. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's time to learn about...

The Compromise of 1850
So, all of these compromises have one thing in common: they were all about either preventing or expanding the practice of slavery in all the bright, shiny new states that were being added to the Union. The slavery question had been incredibly contentious as the middle part of the country was filled out by states and territories, and had resulted in something called (natch) the Missouri Compromise. This Compromise basically drew a line in the sand at the 36° 30´ parallel, and said that any new states added to the Union north of the line would be free states, and states added south of the line would be slave states. In the true spirit of the affair, Maine and Missouri entered the Union as free and slave states, respectively (even though about 99% of Missouri lies above the line).
The bootheel exists because of an earthquake, and a landowner who
didn't want to be part of the Arkansas Territory. No, really.
So, everything was all fine and good until the United States grabbed a hold of a big ol' chunk of land via the Mexican-American war. Once the dust from that particular fracas settled, all of that land needed to be organized. And how much land are we talking about? Let's look at a map!
So, everything in white in that map? Was what Mexico lost to the U.S. Okay, the map includes Texas for some reason, even though it had already broken free from Mexico and joined the U.S. prior to the war. Still, that was a shit ton of land for the United States to acquire in one big lump. What the hell were they going to do with it? Well, plenty of people had opinions:
  • Texas immediately claimed a ton of land to the west, stretching all the way to the Rio Grande.
  • California, fueled by a little thing called the Gold Rush, applied to be a free state.
  • Slavery enthusiasts noticed that California happened to straddle the 36° 30´ parallel, and thus said California should be broken in twain.
  • The Mormons decided they wanted a BIG OL chunk of the American southwest for their own state. Like, a ridiculously large amount of land. About zero non-Mormons took any of it seriously.
Into the fray stepped the newly-inaugurated president, Zachary Taylor. Taylor was trusted by neither side in the slavery debate. Why? Well, for one, he owned slaves. In fact he was the last President to do so! However, Taylor was publicly opposed to allowing slavery to expand into the territory he had helped win during the war. Unfortunately, abolitionists focused too much on the "he has slaves" part of the equation, while slave-proponents focused too much on the "he wants to halt the spread of slavery" part of the equation. Taylor went ahead anyway and proposed the following: that California and New Mexico each apply for statehood immediately, and draw up their state constitutions accordingly.

Taylor's plan involved a little something called "popular sovereignty," which basically translates to "everyone figures their own shit out." The idea was that both California and New Mexico be given free will to choose which side of the fence they would come down on, and if their decisions upset anyone, well, the offended parties could suck it. Basically, Taylor was banking that both provisional states would draw up constitutions banning slavery. This is exactly what happened.

(Quick aside: you'll notice I'm only mentioning two states in an area of the country that ultimately yielded many states. Well, the boundaries of these states were pretty simple: California would look like it does today, while New Mexico would take all the rest of the land conquered from Mexico. Yes, all of it. Including that chunk east of the Rio Grande that Texas was trying to make off with. The new state would have been bigger than Texas, in fact. As a New Mexico native, I'm getting a green chile boner just thinking about this. Let's move on.)
As you might imagine, this whole idea went over... not well. Senators drew firearms on one another on the Senate floor, while representatives from the future Confederacy met in Nashville to determine what they were going to do if anything passed that they didn't like. While a good deal of the delegates in this convention leaned towards succession, moderates won out. and the convention ended up calling for the extension of the 36° 30´ parallel to the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the Senate was being its usual, cantankerous self. Senate leaders, spearheaded by Henry Clay, had tied all their proposals into one big ol' bill, which they were trying to steer through the Senate itself. The ΓΌber-bill failed, with Clay expending so much energy in its defense, that he started to succumb to tuberculosis. This tuberculosis would eventually kill him. Yes, serving in Congress in the mid-19th century sometimes meant killing yourself to get legislation passed. That's some extreme legislating, right there.
Um, yeah. Just like this.
The process got more complicated when Zachary Taylor died in the middle of 1850. However, his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, had been very active in the Senate (as Vice Presidents are supposed to be) while the mega-bill had been debated on. Fillmore, working with Clay's followers, managed to break out a series of acceptable compromises:
  • California would be admitted, whole, as a free state
  • Non-California territory (Taylor's State of New Mexico) would get turned into two large territories: New Mexico, and Utah, with their border sitting at? That's right, the 36° 30´ parallel.
  • Texas would get help paying off some debts it had accumulated when back during its experimental phase as the Republic of Texas, in exchange for giving up all the land it had tried to grab, and settling into its current borders
  • The Fugitive Slave Act was passed (essentially calling on all U.S. citizens to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves)
See? Something for everyone! Well, except for New Mexico, which had come thiiiiis close to statehood, and would subsequently have to wait until 1912. On the plus side, I am currently writing this on the eastern side of the Rio Grande, meaning that where I sit almost became a part of Texas.
Time to count my blessings, I suppose.

If you want to count your blessings by voting for either Abraham Lincoln or Zachary Taylor, be our guest! The polls are open until Friday, 9 A.M., MDT. We'll be back on Friday to declare a winner!

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