“Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation? The Coming of the Civil War” Exhibit

“Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation? The Coming of the Civil War” Exhibit
Virginia Lawyers
Image by Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library
Shown here are images from the exhibit "Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation? The Coming of the Civil War," on display in the Marshall Gallery (first floor rotunda) and the Special Collections Research Center Lobby in Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. The exhibit will be on display from April -September 2011.

The following is taken from the label text presented in this case:

Blundering Generation, 1830s-1850:

The Blundering Generation school believes that the Civil War resulted from a series of mistakes by politicians, whose failure to act as statesmen allowed extremists on each side to push the nation into war. J.G. Randall coined the phrase “blundering generation,” which was the title of his 1940 presidential address to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. Other historians who led this school included Charles Ramsdell and Avery Craven. It was especially popular during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, when people did not want to believe that two radically different civilizations (such as the United States and the Soviet Union) would inevitably end up at war with each other.

Rise of Abolitionism:

The 1830s saw the rise of radical abolitionism. Although many people had opposed slavery earlier, the focus had been on ending it gradually. The radical abolitionists demanded an immediate end to slavery. In 1835-1836, they sent thousands of petitions to Congress calling for a ban on slavery in Washington, D.C. Southerners persuaded Congress to adopt the “gag rule” to leave abolitionist petitions unread. In the diary included here, an unidentified Vermonter records the speech of Senator Felix Grundy, a Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee, opposing the abolitionists. The abolitionists also flooded the South with “incendiary publications” sent through the mail. Southern whites reacted by trying to ban the use of the mails for that purpose. Many Northerners joined Southern whites in viewing the abolitionists as dangerous fanatics, and a Northern mob even killed an abolitionist publisher.

The Oregon Question and the Mexican War:

Some historians believe President James Polk blundered in the mid-1840s by treating expansion into free territory in the Northwest differently than expansion into slave territory in the Southwest. Despite rhetoric suggesting he would go to war to win more land for Oregon, Polk reached a peaceful settlement with Britain, accepting a much smaller territory than Northern expansionists desired. But when it came to Texas, Polk seemed to go out of his way to provoke a fight, and the U.S. ended up at war with Mexico.

Southerners, including the Shockoe Hill Democratic Association, supported the annexation of Texas, and far more Southerners than Northerners volunteered for military service. Included here is a muster roll for a Virginia company, as well as an equipment list for a Mexican battalion that seemed to have more musical instruments than weapons. The U.S. commander, Winfield Scott (W&M 1804/1805), led an invasion that succeeded in capturing Mexico’s capital. In the documents shown here, he tried to make his troops treat civilians respectfully and reassured the Mexican people that the U.S. had issues with their leaders, not with the people.

The United States gained a huge amount of territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Northern antislavery politicians tried to impose the Wilmot Proviso, declaring all of the lands acquired in the War to be free territory, but outraged Southerners were able to block its passage in the Senate.

California and the Compromise of 1850:

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 set off a gold rush, drawing thousands of people such as Philip Hines, whose diary and Bible are included on the top shelf. With a booming population and a desperate need for government, California applied for admission as a free state, setting off a crisis. Adding another free state with no slave state to balance it would give the North control of the Senate, alarming Southern whites, especially in view of the Wilmot Proviso. More extreme Southerners talked of secession.

Henry Clay of Kentucky, nicknamed the Great Compromiser, proposed a series of measures to settle all the disputes between North and South. For more than thirty years, Clay (who had trained to be a lawyer under William and Mary law professor St. George Tucker), antislavery Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and pro-slavery John Calhoun of South Carolina had dominated Congress. This crisis would be the last hurrah for all three, who gave the last great speeches of their careers on this issue (a colleague read the dying Calhoun’s speech for him). Clay and Webster pled with both sides to support compromise and save the Union. Calhoun defiantly insisted that the North needed to back down and refused to compromise. Despite Calhoun, the Compromise of 1850 passed.

As the letters included here show, many Americans hailed Clay and the compromisers for saving the country. Northern extremists denounced the Compromise as a pact with the devil due to the Fugitive Slave Act. Southern extremists argued that the South got precious little out of it except the Fugitive Slave Act and that by conceding a majority in the Senate to the North, it sealed the South’s fate.

Fugitive Slaves:

The Fugitive Slave Act further inflamed tensions between North and South. Northerners were appalled as slave-catchers claimed runaway slaves, some of whom had lived in freedom for years. Northern states passed laws to hinder the enforcement of the Act, infuriating Southerners. Adding fuel to the fire was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. A huge bestseller, it portrayed the cruelties of slavery and the efforts of slaves to escape to freedom, winning many fans in the North and many enemies in the South. Swem’s collections include a letter from Quashy, a runaway slave, to William Seward, the Northern abolitionist, in 1850. Quashy told Seward he intended to live in a house Seward owned in Albany, New York.

From the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. See swem.wm.edu/scrc/ for further information and assistance.

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