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Politics, New Mexico and the Coming of the Civil War

By Dwight T. Pitcaithley

In 2011, this nation began a four-year-long commemoration of the American Civil War.  Few who participate in the activities of that event will pause to consider the importance of New Mexico’s central role in the coming of the war.  Few will be aware that the New Mexico Territory was at the center of the Republican Party’s platform, and that intra-party differences regarding the management of the territory split the Democratic Party in 1860.  Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio spoke for the political leaders in Congress when he observed in January after Lincoln’s election that New Mexico was “the great battlefield on which the South and North meet in wicked, foolish, fratricidal strife.”

 The United States acquired much of the present-day Southwest from Mexico in 1848 through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.   As a result of the famous Compromise of 1850, Congress admitted California as a free state and organized the New Mexico Territory which then included present-day Arizona and a piece of southeast Colorado.  The remaining portion of the Mexican Cession north of New Mexico was organized as the Utah Territory.  In both the New Mexico and Utah territories Congress left the critical issue of slavery up to the territorial legislatures.  In spite of the compromise, however, the status of slavery in the western territories became the “hot potato” of American politics throughout the 1850s. 

Although William Lloyd Garrison and others had advocated the elimination of the institution of slavery for three decades, they had little political clout.  It was well understood by all (with the possible exception of Garrison), that ridding the country of slavery would require amending the United States Constitution. Anyone who knew rudimentary math understood that with fifteen slave states versus eighteen free states, voting such a bill out of Congress and getting it ratified by three-fourths of the states, would be manifestly impossible.  But opposing the extension of slavery to the West was another matter.  It was this issue, rather than the abolition of slavery in the states, that sparked the major political debates of the decade.  

Representing the southern half of the Mexican Cession and with agricultural lands seemingly more likely to support slavery than Utah to the north, the New Mexico Territory became the eye of the storm.  With its neighbor to the east (Texas) being a slave state, and after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 which elevated the prospects of a southern-based railroad to the California coast, Southerners focused on the New Mexico Territory as having the greatest potential for an additional slave state, or two.  The railroad surveys of the early 1850s commissioned by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had revealed the agricultural potential of portions of New Mexico.  Former president John Tyler, spoke from knowledge when he urged the Virginia Secession Convention not to tolerate any political obstacles to southern access to the “beautiful Mesilla valley.”

In spite of the Compromise of 1850, the central political question of the election of 1860 was whether the land acquired from Mexico would be slave or free.  The Republican Party believed that the “normal condition” of the western lands was “that of freedom.”  The Democratic Party, on the other hand assumed a pro-slavery stance, but could not agree on when the people of New Mexico could determine the fate of slavery.  By 1860, the Utah Territory was of much less concern to the pro-slavery South because few believed slavery was economically viable there.  The northern faction of the Democratic Party believed that the Compromise of 1850 allowed the territorial legislature to decide for or against slavery during the territorial period.  The southern faction, echoing Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case, believed that slavery must be protected during the territorial phase and only the state constitution could determine whether a state would be slave or free.  While these distinctions seem negligible to the twentieth-century ear, a failure to agree on a unified platform led to the fracture of the Democratic Party essentially assuring a Republican victory.

Because of these varied positions on the status of slavery in the territories, the nation’s political leaders argued over possible solutions to the problem during the months between Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 and his inauguration on March 4th, 1861.  Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed an amendment to the Constitution that received much public support North and South.  While all of his five resolutions aimed at protecting the institution of slavery, the first one proposed extending the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30' through the territory to the eastern border of California (near present day Death Valley National Park); slavery would be prohibited north of the line and protected south of it during the territorial period. 

The issue of slavery in the Western territory was of such import that of the sixty proposals to amend the United States Constitution and avert war, forty-nine dealt with the territories.  While Republicans stuck to their party’s platform opposing the extension of slavery into the territories, Democrats proclaimed their Fifth Amendment right to immigrate with their slaves into New Mexico and suggested numerous resolutions to ensure that the Constitution would allow them to do just that.  It is of more than passing interest that Miguel Otero, New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress, supported pro-slavery interests and was the force behind the territorial legislature’s passage of a slave code in 1859 supporting slave owning rights in the territory.

Throughout the debates in Congress over the winter of 1860-1861, Republicans and Democrats alike proclaimed that the land south of 36°30' was the only major obstacle to settling the sectional problems facing the nation.  Representative James Campbell of Pennsylvania proclaimed New Mexico the “sole bone of contention–the only subject of difficulty among the people of the country.”  Senator John Sherman, of Ohio and brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, stated the issue most clearly: “The question is, whether New Mexico, with its peons, with its wild lands, with its half-breeds and Mexicans, its mixed population, shall be free or slaveholding Territory.” 

Of all the issues leading up to the secession of seven states prior to Lincoln’s inauguration none loomed larger than the subject of slavery in the New Mexico Territory.  It was the one concern the pro-slavery South believed it must resolve in its favor; it was the only concession the Republican Party could not make because opposition to the extension of slavery defined the party.  As Lincoln famously wrote to Alexander Stephens, soon to become Vice- President of the Confederacy, “you think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” Lincoln possibly would have compromised on most of the other issues involving slavery, but backing away from the main plank in his party’s platform was not philosophically or politically or practically possible.  “The tug has to come,” he observed in December of 1860, “and better now, than any time hereafter.”   The status of slavery in the New Mexico Territory was not the only issue upon which North and South failed to agree, but it was the most significant, and debates on the problem dominated deliberations in Congress – and in the eleven state secession conventions – in the months leading up to the war.