The First Civil War, 1830-1842

Levi Woodbury

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Outcomes, and Vision
Sinbad the Sailor. 

Maybe that was it:  one of the first signs to Levi Woodbury that he could combine the life of the mind with ventures into a wide and open world.  It was one of the first stories he read as a boy, before going on to a lifetime of education and prudence -- a life of speaking for those people, in his family and his party and his country, who took greater risks than he did. 

Like most liberals, he worried little about people outside his own kind.  But his own he did defend, against old authority as well as against outside resistance. 

His life took him through a series of measured stages: 

  • lawyer and politician in New Hampshire, during the 1820s
  • U.S. senator, 1825-31 -- when he lent other senators the reading matter he received from abroad, and provided the Jacksonian frontier policy with an intellectual, "liberal" defense
  • secretary of the navy, 1831-34 -- appointed in the cabinet turnover by which Jackson ejected his more prudish eastern secretaries, though even then Woodbury was not Jackson's first choice
  • secretary of the treasury, 1834-41 -- succeeding Roger B. Taney  (whom Jackson appointed Chief Justice), and introducing a more sophisticated management of financial affairs
  • associate justice on the Supreme Court, 1845-51 -- where his disagreement with Taney hinted at a "liberal" break in the great liberal/conservative compromise of the day.
Always the Northern Democrat, always the New Englander, he was often suggested as a presidential candidate -- and never nominated.  The choices he confronted corresponded to a choice that divided intellectual liberals in Mexico, between those who supported the hacienda regime without qualms, and those who could accept popular resistance.

The Expansionist as Liberal

In the U.S. Northeast, conservative social and religious groups feared that the outpouring of poor white farmers onto western lands would undermine eastern populations. In their view, too, the westerners could carry out these disorganizing impulses because they used violence and fraud to dispossess Indians of their lands.  Conservatives resisted the Indian Removal Bill that Jacksonians introduced in 1830, and Senator Foot of Connecticut pushed a resolution to restrict the sale of western lands.

While the Senate debate touched off some turgid speeches on constitutional questions, it presented to Woodbury a personal challenge that was both intellectual and political.  A New England Democrat, he needed to justify himself as a loyal Jacksonian, yet do this in terms that would be acceptable to the commercial, even Puritanical outlook of his own region.  He did this by drawing on his  information about developments in other parts of the world.

Woodbury urged easy land sales as a "liberal" measure.  Countries as far as Mexico and Persia, Canada and South Africa and Australia, were offering land on "liberal" terms to settlers, and adopting more "liberal" legal systems in order to encourage settlement.  Liberal terms in Texas might divert population in that direction.   Since the United States was part of the same network of nations, it would have to meet the competition in order to keep up its own social development.  Woodbury himself was part of an international market-place of ideas, and one of those ideas was a consciousness of this world-wide land market.

In both Mexico and the United States, the attraction of land encouraged some people to form new constituencies that were loyal, less to either nation, than to the land-grant process itself, and thus to liberal "class" ideology across national lines.  Woodbury, that spokesman for liberalism in the U.S Senate, was a disciplined, successful lawyer, working strictly within the political system.  But he had younger cousins who were less successful, and who could pester him for help.  They were part of the larger population that was being extruded from rural New England, some going to cities or into political machines, some going west.  Two of Woodbury's poor relations, separately, went off adventuring in Texas land.  One had become a Mexican citizen in the 1820s, offering himself as a surgeon in the Mexican Army, wangling enormous land-grants in Texas, and even rights to explore for coal mines.  Never carrying through on his grandiose claims, he may have been more important to the world as Sinbad the Surgeon in the thinking of his senator cousin.

Reconciling Accounts

Jackson's anti-conservative campaign of 1832 left a gap in Democratic policy, which was then mended by party sophisticates like Woodbury.  The veto of the recharter of the Bank of the United States left this institution with four years to run, before the charter would actually expire.  To this Jackson responded by ordering the Treasury to withdraw federal funds from the BUS, depositing them instead in selected state-chartered banks. The secretary who carried out the withdrawal was Roger B. Taney, a Maryland slaveholder and loyal Jacksonian.  The President rewarded him by naming him Chief Justice.  Since money affairs needed less a political aggressor than a loyal administrator, Jackson moved Woodbury up from Navy to Treasury.

In his new position, Woodbury proceeded to lay out systematic regulations to govern the relations between Treasury and the deposit banks -- technical matters, mostly, designed to carry out some of the same coordinating functions that the BUS had once fulfilled.  With some variation from administration to administration, this approach became the basis for relations between government and banking for over twenty years:  more regulation than envisioned in liberal theory, but less control than conservatives would have accepted.

Woodbury was implementing the moderate idea that responsible administration could create a liberal/conservative consensus for the whole society. In one way, though, even this quiet administration affected non-criollo society.  As secretary, and as the kind of public servant who informed himself carefully about conditions that affected his charge, he made one great voyage through an area that made a great difference to the position of the United States in international money flows:  not any foreign country, but simply and extensively the cotton South.  As a good administrator, he provided an informative report on the cotton economy.  As a good Jacksonian, he said nothing about the moral questions of slavery.

Allowing for Rebellion

In 1845, a new Democratic President named Woodbury to the Supreme Court, to serve alongside Taney.

Shortly after the closing-down of the 2nd Seminole War, the suppression of two popular movements brought out the unity of conflict over the whole area around North America.  It also forced Woodbury to make one final decision about where he stood on the question of imposed consensus versus honest social conflict.

1844 was the year of La Escalera:  the uncovering of a wide conspiracy among slaves and free blacks in Cuba, supposedly encouraged by the rogue abolitionist who was Britain's consul in Havana.  Whether or not the conspirators had plans for armed action in that particular year, Spanish authorities rooted them out by relentless interrogations, tortures, and executions.  Among the people on the scene who spread the accusation were U.S. agents, whose reports fed into the further accusation that John C. Calhoun, then secretary of state, made against the British: their meddling in places like Texas would threaten the security of slavery in the United States itself.

1844 was also the year that Thomas Dorr was jailed in Rhode Island, for having led a rebellion two years earlier.  Urban and poor whites, disfranchised by property requirements in the state's old colonial government, had created their own militia and constitution, which would give the vote to all white men.  Conservatives reacted, suppressed the rival government, and imprisoned Dorr.  They also asked President John Tyler to provide federal force.  Tyler backed out of actually sending troops, but said that he would if needed.  In the aftermath, people sympathetic to the rebels went all the way to the Supreme Court with this question of the conservative use of force.

In public opinion, there was no way to keep separate the use of force against northern whites from the possibility that slaveowners might call for force against slaves.

The Court, in a majority decision written by Chief Justice Taney, upheld the conservatives.

The minority dissent, by Woodbury, supported the pro-rebel complaint.

The liberal/conservative compromise was shaky, even in the decisions made by some of its most faithful servants.


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