With his strong urge to obtain Texas and California, President James Polk unknowingly ignited the fire that would eventually divide a nation. Desiring to bargain an agreement to change the definition of the Mexican border and to annex Texas to the United States, President Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico City. Slidell was to ask Mexico to recognize its northern border as the Rio Grande and not the Nueces River. Unfortunately for Polk, Slidell was not successful in negotiating with the Mexican government. Unfazed by the rejection of the Mexican authorities to his offer, President Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and over three thousand troops to the Rio Grande. On April 25, 1846, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande River and attacked American troops.
President Polk was outraged and demanded war for the loss of American blood on American soil. However, Abraham Lincoln, at the time a member of the House of Representatives, demanded to see the exact spot where American blood was spilt. Because of the sectional interest of New Englanders, southerners, and westerners, debate on the Mexican War and its aftermath was very crucial to the future of the young nation. Although Southerners were clearly for the war for the possibility of gaining land where slaves could be used for agriculture, New England was completely against it because its region wanted more free states, while the western states truly did not have a definite opinion.
First and foremost, southerners believed that both abolitionists and Free-Soilers, those who were for free states, were the ultimate destroyers of slavery. Under this notion, southerners feared that the free states only wanted to end their way of generating capital by removing the south’s workers. Southerners also viewed any attempt to limit the expansion of slavery as a threat to their constitutional right to do as they pleased with their property. Some southerners proposed amending the 36 degree 30 minute rule implied by the Missouri Compromise westward to accommodate any new territories gained from the Mexican war. In the meantime California began to swell in population due to the 1849 gold rush. Law and order needed to be established in the west, so in 1849 California drafted a constitution to be considered a state. In a major defeat for the sectional south, this constitution banned slavery. Although Zachary Taylor, the President at the time, was a southern slaveholder, he supported the immediate admission of both California and New Mexico as free states. This caused the southerners to feel alienated by their own president causing talks of secession throughout the South. Some extremist, also known as fire-eaters, met in Nashville, Tennessee in 1850 to discuss the idea of secession. However, Henry Clay came to the rescue with the final compromise of his life. Clay suggested the Compromise of 1850 that admitted California to the Union as a free state, defined the rest of the Mexican session into two territories, Utah and New Mexico, and allowed for them to decide by popular sovereignty whether or not they wanted to allow or forbid slavery. The Compromise of 1850 also provided other perks for the New England sectionalists; however, there was a huge perk for the southerners. The Compromise of 1850 set up the Fugitive Slave Law that would be enforced rigorously.
This allowed southerners to go and get runaway slaves that once belonged to them. Many southerners liked this part of the compromise. John C. Calhoun, however, did not like it. He thought that the southern states should be allowed equal rights in the acquired territories. It appeared as if the Compromise of 1850 would help neither party until the sudden death of President Taylor due to an acute case of gastroenteritis causing Vice President Millard Fillmore to become President of the United States. President Fillmore was a strong supporter of the compromise and it took him no time at all to accept it. The compromise added to the North’s political power; however, the Fugitive Slave Law was the ticket that would allow southerners to take more control over the already oppressed slaves.
With the sectionalism in the United States growing, so was the power of the North. The Compromise of 1850 gave more political power to the New Englanders by accepting California as a free state and by unifying the North’s goal to save the Union from secession. However, the northern sectionalists were outraged by the Fugitive Slave Laws and power sovereignty. The Fugitive Slave Laws were bitterly and spitefully resisted by anti-slavery New Englanders. Northerners were outraged by the fact that any person who claimed to be a free black and not a runaway slave was still put on trial without a right to a trial by jury. The New Englanders had many failed attempts to receive complete control of the senate. The most known attempt being the Wilmot Proviso that failed to be passed in 1846 before the Mexican War. The Wilmot Proviso, proposed by David Wilmot, asked that slavery be forbidden in any of the new territories acquired from Mexico. Unfortunately for the New Englanders, the bill was passed twice by the House of Representatives but defeated each time in the senate where at the time there was still a 15-15 split between free-states and slave-states. Furthermore, the New Englanders often criticized the Pierce Administration for its Ostend Manifesto. After a failed attempt by President Polk to purchase Cuba from Spain because of Spain wanting to hold onto its last major reminder of its once glorious empire. In 1852, Franklin Pierce adopted the pro-southern policies and sent diplomats to Ostend, Belgium where they were told to secretly negotiate to buy Cuba from Spain. Unfortunately for President Pierce, the Ostend Manifesto that the diplomats created was leaked to the press and provoked a very angry reaction from the antislavery members of Congress. Pierce was forced to drop the idea of purchasing Cuba secretly, another win for the section of New England.
Unlike the New Englanders and southerners, the westerners did not have much to add to history following the Mexican War. The only people in the west wanting to own slaves were Southern Californians. Although the West gained the territories of California, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas, it did not make the decisions for its states. All the decisions seemed to be made by the sectionalists of New England and the South. It appears that the westerners did not support sectionalism and remained neutral throughout all the unfolding events of the mid-1800s.
All in all, the situation between the sectional tensions of the North and South did not help the state of the Union. Eventually the tension led to a civil war with the South seceding from the Union. The ironic thing about the debates leading to the massive sectionalism in the United States is that while the Northerners and Southerners fought for the territory that Mexico ceded, they had no idea that one of them would soon be seceding from the Union.