James Buchanan - Recession and "cold war"

Meanwhile, the country had slipped into a brief economic recession in 1857–1858, and in the North new demands for tariffs, homesteads, a more effective banking system, and internal improvements at federal expense had been renewed. Most of these efforts were defeated in Congress, and Buchanan vetoed those that escaped. His solution to the recession was to deliver lectures on the virtues of thrift and the sinfulness of speculation. Thus, the midterm elections of 1858, which produced Republican landslide victories throughout the North, were probably a referendum on the economy and on James Buchanan as much as a vote against slavery, but many southerners thought otherwise. Also, Senator William H. Seward of New York, in response to northern Democratic efforts to minimize the party differences on slavery, cited an "irrepressible conflict" between freedom and slavery in which only the Republicans supported freedom. Seward, a moderate prone to indulge in reckless language just for effect, promptly denied the implications of his words, but the South was not mollified.

In the background throughout the Buchanan administration a "cold war" of symbolic situations and events also developed. The actual number of runaway slaves was slight, and most were returned without incident; but many northern states still maintained laws in opposition to federal fugitive-slave laws. Several runaways were helped to escape under dramatic and well-publicized circumstances, and the Wisconsin legislature actually passed an ordinance of nullification against the federal law of 1850. The border states, from which most runaways escaped, were relatively quiet, but the Deep South, which rarely lost a slave, was in constant turmoil.

The corollary northern grievance was the refusal of southern federal juries to convict slave traders caught importing slaves in violation of federal law. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) continued to circulate widely, and Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina published The Impending Crisis (1857), a devastating attack on slavery for its crushing effects on nonslaveholding southern whites and a call for violent revolution. Frederick Law Olmsted proposed no action, but his essentially friendly volumes describing his southern travels were an equally severe indictment of the overall effects of slavery. On the southern side, George Fitzhugh offered two books on the humane and paternalistic characteristics of slavery as opposed to the vicious cruelties of northern capitalistic free labor. Fitzhugh was certain the North would ultimately see the light and adopt a modified version of southern slavery for its own white labor. In other books and newspapers, southerners were told that the North was siphoning off a major portion of the wealth produced by their work and talent. Northerners wrote of southern backwardness. Southerners denounced northern industrialism and its accompanying reform movements as fountains of socialism and atheism. Most of the Protestant churches painfully split into northern and southern divisions.

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