The Slavery Debate in Antebellum America: Cognitive Style, Value Conflict, and the Limits of Compromise

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This article explores the relations among value conflict, cognitive style, and policy preferences in pre-Civil War America. Drawing on major historical works, prominent political figures were classified into 1 of 4 political positions: abolitionists, free-soil Republicans who would tolerate slavery in the South but prevent further spread, Buchanan Democrats who would permit slavery in new territories, and advocates of slavery. Results revealed (a) greatest integrative complexity among free-soil Republicans and Buchanan Democrats, with declines in complexity moving either leftward toward abolitionists or rightward toward slavery supporters; (b) integrative complexity was a positive function of endorsing values widely regarded as in conflict in that historical period (property rights, states' rights, and domestic peace vs. the threat of “Southern slave power” to free labor and democracy). The results are consistent with the value pluralism model and raise warnings against the tendency to view integratively simple reasoning as both cognitively and morally inferior to complex reasoning.

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