Section #13 - The 1850 Compromise has Democrats backing “popular sovereignty” voting instead of a ban

Chapter 147: Moderate Southern Whigs Stage A Rebellion In The House

December 1849

The South’s Political Power In Washington Is Steadily Declining

As John C. Calhoun has pointing out for years, the South is losing its grip on power in Washington. 

In the U.S. House, the number of seats held by the “Slave States” has fallen below the 40% mark. 

Membership In The House Of Representatives 
Year From Slave  StatesFrom Free  StateTotal % Slave State
182090123213 42

And in the Senate, the simple admission of California would result in 16 Free States vs. 15 Slave States, thus ending the effective power to stop any legislation coming from the House.  

Balance Of Free Vs. Slave States As Of 1849 When California Applies
South – Slave (11) Border – Slave  (4)North – Free (9) West – Free (6)
1788 South Carolina 1787 Delaware 1787 Pennsylvania 1803 Ohio
1788 Georgia 1788 Maryland 1787 New Jersey 1816 Indiana
1788 Virginia 1792 Kentucky 1788 Connecticut 1818 Illinois
1789 North Carolina 1821Missouri-23 1788 Massachusetts 1837 Michigan 26
1796 Tennessee 1788 New Hampshire 1846 Iowa-29
1812 Louisiana 1788 New York 1848 Wisconsin 30
1817 Mississippi 1790 Rhode Island
1819 Alabama 1791Vermont
1836 Arkansas-25 1821 Maine -24
1845 Florida-27
1845 Texas-28

Were California admitted as a Free State, it would be the first time for the South to “go first” – reversing the prior pattern whereby any Senate imbalances initially favors the South. Thus Slave Missouri in 1820 precedes Free Maine in 1821; Slave Arkansas in 1836 leads Free Michigan in  1837, and the two Slave States of Florida and Texas join before Free Iowa and Wisconsin. 

Even more troubling is the absence of any clear Slave State addition to offset Free State California. 

At the Executive level, victories by Harrison (1840) and Taylor (1848) also show that the Democrats can no longer guarantee a President who is reliably pro-South and pro-slavery.  

Beyond Washington, two other threats to Southern slavery are looming larger.  

The first is the “Free Soil” movement, spawned by Wilmot, and standing in opposition to the presence of all blacks in the new territories. 

Second is the American Anti-Slavery Society, now some 2,000 chapters and 150,000 members strong since its 1833 inception, and flooding the North and West with its traveling lecturers, pamphlets, newspapers, and petition drives.  

Taken together, even the strongly pro-Union Southern Whigs are sufficiently alarmed to signal their resistance..

December 1849

Moderate Southern Whigs Block The Election Of A House Speaker To Flex Their Muscles

LEFT TO RIGHT: Robert Toombs (1810-1885) and Howell Cobb (1815-1868)

The leader of this new Southern resistance within the Whig Party is Robert Toombs of Georgia, who has long opposed Calhoun’s inflammatory warnings, and, together with Alexander  Stephens, has been a voice of moderation in the House.  

Earlier in 1849, Toombs becomes aware of Taylor’s comments about prohibiting slavery in the west, but chooses to downplay them as a momentary error soon to be corrected.  

General Taylor is in a new position, His duties and responsibilities are vast and complicated, and besides he is among strangers whose aims and objects are not known to him. Therefore, that he should commit mistakes, even grave errors, must be expected. But  I have an abiding confidence that he is honest and sincere, and will repair them when seen.  

But Taylor’s position on the admission of California pushes Toombs over the edge. 

To dramatize his outrage, he decides to interfere in the election of the House Speaker. The incumbent is his fellow Whig, Robert Winthrop of Massachusetts, who stands a good chance of repeating given that the Democrats, now back in the majority, already face regional divisions.  

Toombs begins by making his demands on slavery clear: 

Congress ought not to put any restrictions upon any state institutions in the territories and ought not to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  

In a fiery speech on December 1, 1848 he goes further, threatening Disunion if slavery is banned in the new territories “purchased by common blood.”  

I have as much attachment to the Union of these States, under the Constitution of our fathers, as any freeman ought to have. I am ready to concede and sacrifice for it whatever a just and honorable man ought to sacrifice….I do not then hesitate to avow before this House and the country, and in the presence of the living God, that if by your legislation you seek to drive us from the Territories purchased by the common blood and treasure of the people, and to abolish slavery in the District, thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the States of this confederacy, I am for Disunion, and if my physical courage be equal to the maintenance of my convictions of right and duty I will devote all I am and all I have on earth to its consummation.  

This speech signals an important sea change among the moderates.  

Toombs in particular is noted for his genial manner and long-standing opposition to all inflammatory rhetoric. He has also opposed Polk’s initial advance to the Rio Grande and, like Stephens and Crittenden, enjoys a reputation as a fierce supporter of the Union. 

But on this issue, Toombs exhibits the unbending determination that will later make him a founder of the Confederacy, its first Secretary of State, and later a field general in its army.  

Ballot after ballot, his coalition blocks resolution on the speakership, even for a host of compromise candidates – from Whig Edward Stanly to Democrats W.J. Brown and Linn Boyd.  

Finally a frustrated bipartisan group proposes a change in the House rules whereby a Speaker could be elected with a plurality of the votes rather than a majority. On December 22, the 63rd ballot hands the Speakership to a Democrat, Howell Cobb, with a 46% plurality.  

The choice is actually a victory for Toombs since Cobb is a close friend, a fellow Georgian, and a supporter of expanding slavery into the West. 

Ballots For Speaker Of The House: December 1849 

Candidates #1 #30 #38 #47 #59 #60 #63
Howell Cobb Georgia Dem 10395 102
Robert Winthrop Mass Whig96 102 100 10 13 90 99
Linn Boyd Ky Dem 486 28 1
W.J. Brown Indiana Dem109
Emery Potter Ohio Dem77 18 1
Edward Stanly N.C. Whig 66 75
John McClernand IL Dem 50
David Wilmot PA FS868
All-Others142844 40 17 10
Total221224 225 225 217 221

The voting in the House does not go unnoticed by Henry Clay – an ex-Speaker himself and still patriarch of the Whig Party he founded two decades ago.  

It convinces him that Southern moderate Whigs like Toombs and Stephens are on the verge of joining their more radical Democratic colleagues like Calhoun and Yancey in fighting for the expansion of slavery.