Zachary Taylor: California (1849-1850) In 1849, Prospectors discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill unleashing a torrent of immigrants to California. In short order, the territory had the requisite population for statehood. President Taylor agreed to allow California into the Union as a free state. The South vociferously protested and threatened secession. Taylor promised to hang any “traitor” that left the Union and opposed Henry Clay’s compromise legislation. Taylor demanded California be admitted without any preconditions. Had he survived, the Civil War might have occurred a decade earlier. However, Taylor passed away in the midst of the crisis. California did enter the Union as part of a compromise and the Civil War delayed until 1861.
Millard Fillmore: The Compromise of 1850 (1850-1853) Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency upon Zachary Taylor’s death. Rather than confront the South, he agreed to Clay’s compromise. Although Clay failed to achieve passage, Stephen Douglas assumed command of the procedure and ushered the Compromise of 1850 through Congress and Fillmore signed it into law. California entered the Union as a free state. New Mexico and Utah territories organized without restrictions on slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act required citizens to aid in the capture of runaways and provided inducements for cooperation. Congress banned the slave trade in Washington D.C. The politicians hoped they ended the slavery debate once and for all. However, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act reignited sectional bickering.
Franklin Pierce: Bleeding Kansas (1853-1857) Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas wanted the transcontinental railroad to pass through Chicago. However, he needed to placate southerners who wanted the rail to go through their region. Douglas suggested negating the Missouri Compromise, which kept the peace for over 30 years and had become sacred. Rather than a geographic boundary to limit slavery, residents would vote on whether to allow slavery on their soil. He passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress and threatened to destroy President Pierce if he did not sign it into law. Pierce acquiesced and Kansas and Nebraska became separate territories. A bloody border war broke out in Kansas over slavery as people rushed from the North and South to stake claim. Kansas territory suffered bloodshed, feuding, voting irregularities, and other atrocities. Presidents Pierce and Buchanan supported the southern cause regardless of the outrage. Pierce’s lack of backbone helped lead to the Civil War as Kansas captured the nation’s attention.
James Buchanan: The Worst President in History (1857-1861) One historian accused James Buchanan of treason. Throughout his presidency, he consistently sided with southern slave power over northern free labor concerns. He even considered waging war on the Mormons to reunite the splintering nation. Following Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, southern states began seceding from the Union. Buchanan believed secession illegal, but also felt the federal government lacked the power to prevent it. As a result, he allowed the South to leave the Union and form the Confederacy.
Abraham Lincoln: Emancipation and Union (1861-1865) Originally, Lincoln did not plan to free the slaves. He wanted to preserve the Union at all costs. Eventually, he realized he could not reunite the nation without ending slavery. In 1863, the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which set the stage for the 13th Amendment banning slavery in America. Meanwhile, he needed to defeat the South militarily for emancipation to occur. In 1864, he appointed Ulysses S. Grant to head the Union armies. Grant and Lincoln agreed to wage total war to force the South’s surrender. A year later, the Union armies destroyed the Confederacy saving the Union. Lincoln’s vision made Union victory possible and the end of slavery inevitable.
Andrew Johnson: Impeachment (1865-1869) Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency upon Lincoln’s death. At first, northerners believed the new president would punish the South. They were sorely disappointed. Johnson attempted to undercut Reconstruction, undermine civil rights, and work the Confederate states back into the Union immediately. This led to conflict with Congress. Eventually, Republicans had enough of Johnson’s interference and impeached him. Johnson escaped conviction in the Senate and quietly served out the remainder of his term. Although Johnson did undermine Reconstruction, the charges against him did not warrant impeachment. Regardless, Johnson’s intransigence cost the nation a century in race relations.
Ulysses S. Grant: Reconstruction’s collapse (1869-1877) U.S. Grant parlayed Civil War success into the presidency. Unfortunately for Grant, scandal, southern violence, and economic ruin besieged his presidency leading to the collapse of Reconstruction. Several high profile scandals distracted the Grant White House. Although personally honest, nepotism, incompetence, and availability of federal funds led to 11 major scandals. As Grant dealt with scandal, the South decided to fight the “occupation” through violence and intimidation. At first, Grant and the army countered the violence. Over time, northerners tired of the South and revoked Grant’s political capital. Although commander-in-chief, and a war hero, Grant did not have voter approval to crush white supremacist organizations. The Panic of 1873 further hampered the president. The economy boomed in Grant’s first term, but collapsed in his second. The economic collapse evaporated the president’s ability to deal with the South. By 1876, the southern Republican coalition collapsed as whites fled the G.O.P. for the Democrats out of disgust over the economy, white solidarity with other southerners, or fear.
Rutherford B. Hayes: Reconstruction’s end (1877-1881) In 1876, both parties nominated honest reformers as a contrast to the Grant Administration. Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and appeared to win the Electoral College. However, Republicans complained of vote fraud in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. The two parties set up a commission to determine the winner. At the same time, they cut a backroom deal. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the three contested states and the required electoral votes to capture the White House. In return, the Union army left the South ending Reconstruction. As a result of the Compromise of 1877, the politicians and northern electorate left millions of African Americans to the mercy of white supremacy. Although Hayes attempted to assist them whenever possible, the South would not fully reconstruct for another century.