"The Slavery Excitement Seems Likely to Obliterate Party Lines"
"THERE IS A GREAT AND BITTER COMPLAINT against the Administration from all the Whigs, or nearly all," Henry Clay reported upon his return to Washington for the first session of the Thirty-First Congress. Because "the Whigs are so divided & the administration so feeble," even a job hunter recognized that "our party will have an uphill business in sustaining the Appointments of the President." Since Senate Democrats, who outnumbered Whigs thirty-three to twentyfive, with the Free Soilers Salmon Chase and John Hale holding the other two seats, had rejected some of Taylor's first nominations in March on party-line votes, Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers all predicted "a great deal of 'cutting and slashing work'" when "the new appointments" came up for confirmation. 1
Whig anger and Democratic vindictiveness also clouded prospects for congressional enactment of the administration's policy recommendations. But the intensification of sectional squabbling over slavery extension proved an even more formidable obstacle to Taylor's hope of winning immediate statehood for California and New Mexico and thereby finessing the explosive Wilmot Proviso. "Sectional feeling is stronger than I ever saw it before," Georgia's Stephens warned Crittenden in mid-December. "The excitement in the South upon the Slave question is much greater . . . than those who are at the head of affairs here have any idea of," At the same time, he found northern Whigs "insolent and unyielding," totally unwilling "to calm and quiet" the South's "feelings." Sobered by the power of Democratic-Free Soil coalitions in 1849, northern Whigs, indeed, came to Washington convinced that "a compromise by which slavery would be extended would be death to the Whig party." Therefore they vowed "to stand firm on the rights of California and New Mexico to be free." Shocked by the rancorous sectional chasm in both major parties, an Illinois Democrat forecast that "the slavery excitement seems likely nearly to obliterate party lines temporarily." 2
This situation -- a crippled president, a fractious and angry congressional party, a grave sectional crisis over the territories -- thus presented an opportunity for Henry Clay to pursue a course that many had predicted from the day of his election to the Senate. "Mr. Clay," chorused forecasters, "will probably put