Questions and Answers
Q: Did the annexation of Texas lead to the Civil War?
A: The true significance of the events of the spring of 1844 became clearer with the passage of time. Ever since the founding of the United States, political leaders had been reluctant to grapple openly with the issue of slavery. As the U.S. expanded across the continent, men like Henry Clay had created compromises that kept the issue at bay. With the rejection of Texas, the slavocracy and expansionism were both dealt a stinging defeat.
Yet it was the Northerners who ended up feeling cheated. Their man, Van Buren, was sent packing and replaced by James K. Polk, a Southern slaveholder and expansionist. The abolition movement was still small in 1844. But what happened at the Democratic convention may have marked the turning point at which moderate Northerners began to feel that slavery was not just an issue on which they had a difference of opinion with the South: it was an active evil that had to be destroyed.
Historians have called Texas the Trojan horse that split the Democratic Party into sectional wings. At the time, Van Buren’s supporters told themselves that the defeat was just politics. To win the election, they made common cause not only with Jacksonians like Polk who supported compromise and the Union but also radical Southerners like Calhoun. But the nomination of Polk and the concessions on the Texas plank only temporarily masked the fragmentation of the Democrats into sectional factions. The days of compromise were ebbing away, to be replaced by deep and irreparable ideological fissures.
As events spun themselves out over the next fifteen years, the nation found itself no longer able to resolve its difference by political means. The result was the horror of the Civil War. Once and for all the slavery question would be settled—at the cost of 620,000 American lives, an entire region of the nation in ruins, and social consequences that have yet to play themselves out.
None of the political actors in the Texas drama could have known that the Civil War was inevitable. Like all human beings, they made their decisions without the benefit of knowing their long-range consequences. Perhaps even Calhoun might have acted differently if he had known. But such speculation is beside the point. To place Texas annexation in its proper historical context, it is necessary to acknowledge that the annexation battle was a critical milestone on the road to disunion.