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Opinion | Why 1850 Doesn’t Feel So Far Away

Southerners had long dominated the national government, and they felt entitled to that power. They were also worried about losing it, a product of the rise of abolitionism and potentially free states forming in the West. Viewing their violence as defensive and justifiable, they fended off attacks on slavery with force when necessary, demanding compliance or silence from their foes, and sometimes getting it. Men resigned from committees in the face of Southern threats. During debate, some men held back rather than confront fighting men.

For some Southerners, this brand of politics wasn’t much of a stretch; their slave regime was grounded in violence, and mastery was their way of life. Between 1830 and 1860, there were at least 70 violent incidents on the House and Senate floors, most of them prompted by Southerners.

This Southern strategy of force was no happenstance, no mere matter of custom. Representative Richard Kidder Meade, Democrat of Virginia, declared as much in 1849 on the House floor, bragging that the best way to manage antislavery congressmen was to keep them afraid for their lives. And it worked. Joshua Giddings, a freshman Whig representative from Ohio, was stunned at the sight of it. During his first weeks in Congress in 1838, he saw that Northerners were too “backward and delicate” to confront Southern insolence. “We have no Northern man who dares boldly and fearlessly declare his abhorrence of slavery.”

Not surprisingly, as the slavery debate intensified in the 1850s, so did Southern threats. Representative Thomas Clingman, a Whig from North Carolina, reached new heights during the debate over what came to be known as the Compromise of 1850. If Southern interests weren’t protected, he warned on Jan. 22, Southerners would fight. Their plan of attack was simple, he explained. If fighting with parliamentary gamesmanship like “Northern gentlemen” didn’t get them what they wanted, then they would fight like Southern men — with force. The end result would be a “collision” as electric as the Battle of Lexington, followed by the collapse of Congress.

A few weeks later, Senator Henry Foote, Democrat of Mississippi, made the same threat more subtly, Senate-style. If a South-friendly compromise wasn’t hammered out in the next three days, he declared, the matter would “leave our jurisdiction, and leave it forever.” What did he mean? Newspapers filled the gap. He was threatening armed warfare in Congress.

Would Southerners have opened fire in Congress? Probably not. But could they have? Their track record suggested that they could have, so their threat carried. Concerned congressmen considered outcomes. How many representatives were armed, some wondered. Representative Willie Mangum, another Whig from North Carolina, thought 70 or 80; his fellow North Carolina Whig and friend David Outlaw thought fewer. These men were envisioning warfare in the House, however unlikely it might be.

Some people, however, thought it quite likely, and gathered at the Capitol to witness it. Outlaw reported to his wife that “great crowds” had assembled “to see the Union dissolved by a general battle in the House of Reps.” Only when the chance of a congressional doomsday had passed did they drift away.

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