Q: You’ve introduced a comparative dimension to the discussion of the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s. What important parallels do you see between that event and the simultaneous discovery of gold in Australia?
A: Of course it was a coincidence that gold was discovered in both places at the same time; it was not some global phenomenon. But in fact, these two gold rushes in the 1840s and the 1950s did play out in interestingly similar ways. The discovery of gold in California and part of southern Australia, first of all, led to an immense influx of population into both places of people seeking to get rich through gold. From all over the world, from Europe, from Latin America, from Asia, people streamed into these countries and in both places you developed this extraordinarily diverse population. San Francisco was probably the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the world in 1850, because everyone in the world had poured in there, and similarly Melbourne, Australia, had an incredibly diverse population for the same reason. On the other hand, in both places you got immediate racial tensions, and in the 1850s, efforts to push Asians, particularly the Chinese, out of the gold fields. California became very well-known for its anti-Chinese, anti-Asian policies, banning what they called foreign miners and things like that. Similarly in Australia you had efforts to push Chinese miners out of the gold fields. So I think the experience of Australia can reflect something back on our understanding of what happened in the United States to show how similar tensions and developments take place in this very hothouse atmosphere of everybody seeking to enrich themselves through gold.
Q: What were the views of both southerners and northerners on the expansion of slavery into the new territories?
A: Southerners felt that slavery had the same right to expand in the new territory as any other form of property. Nobody was telling people they couldn't bring their livestock, their bank notes, their equipment, whatever it was. Any kind of property could be brought if somebody wanted. They said, Slaves are property, they aren't any different. The government doesn't have any rights to distinguish between forms of property. Moreover, southerners had fought in the American army in Mexico. They had died to gain this new territory; what right did the government have to tell them or their relatives that they could not bring slaves there? Northerners of course said, No, slavery is different; it's not just another form of property. Many of them thought slavery was immoral. Many who didn't care about morality said, Slavery retards economic growth. It restricts wide immigration. It creates a hierarchical society that is undemocratic. It stifles education. We don't want this kind of society spreading out into the new western territories. So over this question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand, there was what William Seward, the governor of New York, would later call an "irrepressible conflict" between the North and the South.
Q: How did economic development in the period solidify the ties between the Northeast and the old Northwest, and with what political effect?
A: Until the 1840s, the old Northwest (and here we are talking about Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and states like that) was considerably tied to the South economically. They shipped their agricultural produce down the Ohio River, down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and from there to other markets. Many of the early settlers in the old Northwest came from southern states, from Virginia, from Kentucky, etc., like Lincoln himself, who came from Kentucky and then went to Indiana and then to Illinois. But in the 1850s this was all reoriented; the railroads were now built connecting large eastern cities like New York with centers in the West. The railroads pulled the trade of the Northwest toward the East. No longer were goods being sent down the Mississippi River; they were being shipped much more quickly eastward along the great railroads. Moreover, the population of the old Northwest was changing. Far more northerners were moving there. New Englanders, people from New York, and people from Pennsylvania were now moving in, and fewer southerners. So the complexion of the population and the political complexion of the Northwest was changing radically and becoming much more like the East and much less like the South.
Q: How would you characterize Lincoln's views on slavery and race at the time he took office as president?
A: Abraham Lincoln once said, "I think I have hated slavery as much as any abolitionist." Lincoln despised slavery, there's no question about that, but Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Abolitionists were willing to see the country broken up, the Constitution violated in order to attack slavery. Lincoln had too much reverence for the law, reverence for the Constitution. He was willing to compromise with the South. He said we must respect the constitutional arrangements. He said if the Constitution says they must get their fugitive slaves back, we must do that. Lincoln identified the westward expansion of slavery as the key issue. Abolitionists said, No, abolition is the issue. Lincoln said, No, the issue is whether slavery is allowed to expand to the West. Lincoln's racial views were typical of the time. He did not favor equal rights for the blacks in Illinois, he did not favor black suffrage, and he did not favor black and white intermarriage. On the other hand, he always said, blacks may not be equal of rights but they are entitled to the unalienable rights identified by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty (which is why slavery was wrong), and the pursuit of happiness. They have to have the right to compete in the marketplace, enjoy the fruits of their labor just like anyone else. So Lincoln was a creature of his time; he shared many of its prejudices, but what's interesting about Lincoln is, he wasn't an abolitionist. His views on slavery and race were such that it was his election that led the South to fear that slavery was in danger and leave the Union.