Print this page
Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2013
Printer friendly version of: http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=670
The 1840s saw the rise of American Romanticism and social movements. One of the strongest of these efforts to make society better was abolitionism.
Before 1830, abolitionism was a very small movement in which Quakers predominated. There were a few manumission societies. The American Colonization Society sent freed slaves to the new African country which it had founded. It was the British Parliamentary debates over emancipation, prompted by British liberals including Methodists, that created interest in the US. In 1930, Arthur and Lewis Tappan of NY helped organize the Anti-Slavery Society.
William Lloyd Garrison created the newspaper The Liberator in Boston in 1831.Garrison and his followers were militants. Theodore Dwight Weld, who had been converted by Finney. Weld, the young convert, enrolled in Lane Seminary (founded by the Tappans) in 1833. He talked against slavery. Provoked a debate which lasted for 18 days and nights. Almost all the students were converted. They withdrew, went to northern Ohio, and created Oberlin College. Oberlin was the first institution to admit both blacks and whites and both women and men. It had a strong social reform impulse. The American Anti-Slavery Society employed Weld and these converts to speak against slavery in the East and old Northwest.
Weld and his group took the position that slavery was immoral and that moral men must work to abolish it immediately. By defining abolitionism as a moral question, it could not be compromised. Sin was something one was for or against. And they bombarded the South and Congress with tons of anti-slavery propaganda. Congress.
As far as we can tell, most adults in the US were against abolitionism; they wanted not to be bothered with such issues. If anything, they would physically attack abolitionists. Undaunted the abolitionists petitioned Congress to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. In 1836, Congress adopted a gag rule to stop the constant petitions. In 1837, Elijah Lovejoy, an anti-slavery editor was murdered. Ex-president John Quincy Adams, angered by the anti-democratic position that Congress had taken lobbied for years to abolish the gag rule. It did in 1844.
Abolitionism forced Southerners to examine their attitudes toward slavery, which existed almost entirely in the South. They professed Christianity, for the most part, and had to reconcile slavery with the Golden Rule. They were part of the liberal tradition which had produced the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. The liberal leadership of the early republic was Southern, men such as Thomas Jefferson. Liberal Southerners had hoped that the institution would die out. In fact, as late as the 1820s, few Southern thinkers would defend slavery in the abstract. They argued that it had been around almost since the beginning of the colonies and, therefore, was difficult to end because it was so much a part of life in much of the South.
The rise of commercial agricultural—raising crops to be sold in national and international markets—changed the role of slavery in the US economy. This market revolution whereby goods, be they agricultural or industrial, were produced for markets and the markets, in term, greatly influenced production and the means of production. It was not that the South had no commercial farms before the market revolution, for it did, but the new commercial farming resembled factories instead of the family farm. They employed large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. This factory system was used to grow cotton, a crop which was in high demand in national and international markets. Because of the difficulty of separating the seeds from the blossom (boll) by hand, cotton had been a relatively expensive fiber but the invention of the cotton gin allowed machines to do the work, thus making it a mass consumption fiber. The demand for cotton grew exponentially as factories in the US, great Britain, and France demanded more and more of it. Now, earning money from cotton was a matter of how much cotton land one and how many workers one could acquire.
Slavery and the expansion of slavery into new territory became important. Although states like Virginia suffered soil exhaustion, they could participate by selling slaves to the cotton-producing states. Most white southerners worked small farms and had no slaves. Those white Southerners who owned 50 or more slaves, the large planter class, numbered less that 11,000 people or .0075% of whites. Those who owned 19-49 slaves numbered 100,00. Those who owned less than 10 numbered about 270,000. Only 25% of white Southerners belonged to a salve-owning family. In fact, having to compete against slave labor hurt the vast majority of Southern whites. Nevertheless, they supported it.
Their attitudes prevented them from recognizing their reality. There was a growing conviction that free whites and free blacks could not live together. The black rebellion in Haiti which began in 1791 (and resulted in independence in 1801) scared whites, in general, and slave owners, in particular. The Denmark Vesey Rebellion in South Carolina in 1822 and the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 brought the possibility of slave uprisings, which seemed to mean the killing of whites, closer to home. Whites tended to close ranks against blacks.
For Southerners, however, the defense of slavery caused problems for it was counter to the political trends of the time which were emphasizing democracy and egalitarianism. Although the Jeffersonians (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe as presidents) were liberals in their epoch, the political spectrum had shifted further left to emphasize the common man. Jeffersonianism was tinged by elitism and many of them were unhappy with the new emphasis on egalitarianism, the every man was as good as any man. For the pro-slavery faction in US life this view was particularly dangerous. They had to argue that blacks were not the equal of whites, that they were subhuman, or else the pro-slavery argument would mean that some whites should also be enslaved. The John C. Calhoun school argued that slavery was a positive good drawing upon Aristotle and anticipating the class struggle doctrine of Karl Marx (some call Calhoun the Marx of the master class. Their anti-democratic views were seen in their abridgment of freedom of speech and of the press in an effort to present anyone from reading or hearing anti-slavery views. In some states, they made it a felony, with the death penalty possible, to teach black people how to read and write.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820-21 had ended the question of where slavery could exist but the acquisition of territory from Mexico and the annexation of Texas renewed the battle, now which was sectional because slavery existed almost exclusively in the South. Elsewhere, I have discussed sectional conflict . The economic boom from 1843-1857 exacerbated this conflict because it encouraged each section (North and South) to think it was indispensable. As some historians have expressed it, it was the case of two imperial visions. The South wanted an empire based on cotton and slavery and demanded that it could be allowed to expand slavery to any part of the United States. That the South was the more prosperous region gave impetus to this belief. The rest of the United States, loosely called the North1, wanted a free soil empire. The reasons varied but included the belief that enslaving humans was immoral, not wishing to compete against slave labor, and dislike of Americans whose ancestry included Africa. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which stipulated that no slavery would be allowed in any territory acquired from Mexico as the result of the Mexican-American War, created a furor and, although it was defeated, it struck fear in the slavers' heart because they always feared that the free soil people were really abolitionists. To their minds, abolitionism would mean the destruction of Southern prosperity and the dream of average white men of getting rich.
When Congress assembled in December, 1849, many members carried revolvers and Bowie knives onto the floors of Congress and observers worried if murder was imminent. The House finally elected a speaker after sixty-three ballots on three weeks.
Henry Clay found a way. He proposed that California, as it wished, would become a free state. New Mexico and Utah territories were formed from the rest of the cession and their residents would decide the slavery issue at a future date. Texas would give up claims to New Mexico in exchange for the United States government paying the Texas national debt. The slave trade was abolished in the District of Colombia but the Fugitive Slave law was strengthened. The South was unhappy and the Whigs were unhappy. President Millard Fillmore (Taylor had died) was pro-compromise but did not have the political skill to get it passed. It was Stephen A. Douglas who split the measures into separate bills and got a different majority coalition to vote for each; to make the majority, he sometimes had to get people to stay out of their respective chamber. It was necessary for Whigs and moderate Democrats to join forces to beat the advocates of secession in the lower South.The Compromise of 1850 promised the resolve the slavery issue as the Missouri Compromise had done. It called for Texas to give up its claim to New Mexico and receive $10 million dollars in compensation, money to pay off its debt to Mexico. The territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah would be organized but whether slavery would exist in them was left for the territorials to decide. The slave trade, but not slavery, would be abolished in the District of Columbia. California would be admitted as a free state but a Fugitive Slave law would be passed.
Everyone thought the slavery controversy had been laid to rest. In the 1852 presidential election, Franklin Pierce, A New Hampshire Democrat beat General Winfield Scott because he supported the compromise. The ominous development, however, was that the pro-slavery Whigs had joined the Southern Democrats, solidifying the forces who wanted to enslave humans.
By 1850, the North's population was growing faster than the South's which meant that the free states would have more representation in the House and in the election of the President. People in free states were increasingly blocking the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave law, for they found it disasteful to be forced the be slave catchers or aid and abet slavery. They were willing to tolerate slavery where it existed but they did not want to confront it in their lives. Relatively good feelings existed because the country was undergoing an economic boom.
The next crisis came in 1854. Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) wanted territorial governments for Kansas and Nebraska party to facilitate the start of a transcontinental railroad with its eastern terminus in Chicago. Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri promised his constituents that they would be able to take their slaves into the new territory. He joined Southerners in the demand for the repeal of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise on slavery. Douglas went along. President Pierce was persuaded to use his administration's power to get enough votes to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
Douglas said the Act was only an extension of popular sovereignty. He must have been surprised at the anger in the North at the abrogation of the Compromise which had kept the sectional peace for decades. They believed that servile Northern Democrats were obeying an aggressive slavocracy. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Cotton slavery imperialism was provocatively challenged free soil imperialism. One result was the organization of the Republican Party in 1854, a party opposed to the extension of slavery.
Violence erupted in Kansas as the forces of freedom and the forces of slavery tried to control the writing of the territorial government and its constitution. New England abolitionists supplied money and guns to free soil immigrants. Missouri "border ruffians" crossed the border casting illegal ballots and giving armed support to the slavers. Pierce yielded to Southern pressure and recognizes the pro-slavery legislature largely elected by illegal Missouri votes. The free soilers set up their own government. The pro-slavery forces raided the Free Soil capital of Lawrence in 1856. In the US Senate, Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts so severely that he could not sit in the Senate for three years. Many Southerners applauded. John Brown and his band slaughtered five pro-slavery people at Pottawatomie Creek. In the ensuing violence, about 200 persons were killed.
It is hard to understand why the South insisted on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Slavery was very unlikely to exist on the Great Plains or in arid regions. To get the repeal, they put their Northern allies in an untenable position and called into existence a formidable anti-slavery party, the Republican Party, which grew very rapidly in the North.
Another political party, the American Party, rose and died in the 1850s. It was anti-foreign, anti-Catholic secret society, more popularly known as the Know-Nothing movement. It was organized to oppose the great wave of immigrants who entered the United States after 1846. Originally, nativist party members had worked through a number of secret societies, clandestinely throwing their support on election day with powerful effect to sympathetic candidates. Saying that they knew nothing about such activities, the nativists wreaked havoc with their votes in 1854 in the existing party system. They won sweeping victories at the state and congressional levels. They attracted many Northern Whigs to their point of view along with an important number of Democrats. Southern Whigs also joined because of growing sectional tensions caused by the reintroduction of the slavery issue into national politics in 1854. For a time it seemed as if the American Party would be the main opposition party in the United States. It ran Millard Fillmore as a presidential candidate in 1856, they won more than 21% of the popular vote and eight Electoral College votes.
The Know-Nothings wanted to use government power to preserve their vision of a particular kind of Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. Their state and national platforms demanded that immigration be limited, that politics be "purified" by limiting office holding to native-born Americans, and that a 21-year wait be imposed before an immigrant could become a citizen and vote. They also sought to limit the sale of liquor, to restrict public-school teaching to Protestants, and to have the Protestant version of the Bible read daily in classrooms. Despite their strength and appeal, the Know-Nothings were already in decline as a national party by 1856. Beset by differences over the slavery issue, many members joined the Republican Party, which seemed sympathetic to much of their nativism and offered additional appeals on other important issues. Know-Nothing parties remained strong in a number of Northern states in the late 1850's, but the party was spent as a national force before the election of 1860.
The next bombshell came in 1857 when the Supreme Court decided the Scott vs Sanford case. Scott was born in Virginia about 1799 as a slave. His masters moved him to St Louis in 1830. He was purchased by Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon. Emerson took him to Illinois and the Wisconsin territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Northwest Ordinance. They returned to Missouri and, after Emerson died, Scott and his wife sued Emerson's widow for their freedom. With the help of friends, they were able to stay in the courts for eleven years.
They lost the first trial but won the second in 1850. The jury ruled that they should be free. Ms Emerson, however, appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and won in 1852. Scott then sued in St. Louis Federal Court in 1854 against John F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and executor of the Emerson estate. Sanford resided in New York , so, because the case involved two states, it went to a Federal court. Sanford won but Scott appealed to the US Supreme Court. On March 6th, 1857 , Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Scott case; only two of the nine Justices dissented. The majority argued Scott should remain a slave, for he was personal property and states could not deny people their property without cause. Living in free territory did not make a slave free. In fact, by implication, the Missouri Compromise was ruled unconstitutional. Taney and the others argued that slavers were not citizens of the US and could not sue in federal courts. With Taney's decision, the slave forces won everything but the antislavery groups began working harder to gain control of the government. See the Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond Web site for documents and excellent coverage of this case.
In 1856, the Democrats dumped Pierce and nominated the cautious, conservative, pro-slavery James Buchanan of Pennsylvania who had been out of the country when the controversy over the Compromise of 1850 occurred. His pro-slavery sympathies were known for he had been one of the three US ambassadors to write and sign the Ostend Manifesto in 1854. The US had tried to buy Cuba from Spain in order to make one or more slave states from it. The Manifesto said that, if Spain refused to sell, the US should steal it. Efforts by various freebooters from The American or Know-Nothing Party nominated ex-President Millard Fillmore of New York. The Republicans nominated the famous explorer, John C. Frémont who won all but five of the free states. Buchanan won the presidency.
Once in office, Buchanan pushed Kansas statehood and endorsed the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution. Douglas and many Northern Democrats revolted against Buchanan and voted against accepting the territorial government with the Lecompton constitution. His vote against the Lecompton constitution would cost him the support of Southern Democrats when he ran for the presidency in 1860.
The Panic of 1857 worsened matters as it threw the country into a depression. Cooperation among sections was difficult when they adopted an "every man for himself" philosophy. Each section . The Republicans blamed this depression on the low tariff of 1857. They agitated for a protective tariff and a government handout of a free 160 acres for homesteaders in the MidWest.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 illustrate the difficulties in the anti-slavery camp. Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig, ran as a Republican for the Senate seat held by Douglas. State legislatures, not the people, elected US Senators so the key to victory was for enough pro-Lincoln candidates to the state legislature to win and then select him as Senator. Lincoln, who hated slavery but argued that blacks should be protected by the Constitution sought to point out hypocrisy in Douglas' position on slavery. Douglas argued for popular sovereignty, that the people of a territory or state should decide whether slavery should exist or not. Lincoln questioned how he could say this in light of the Dred Scott decision. Was he advocating breaking the law? Douglas enunciated the Freeport Doctrine, that, regardless of what the national government said, slavery could not exist without positive acts at the state of territorial level. Although personally a worse racist than Lincoln, Douglas was clearly trying to straddle the fence on the issue. Douglas won the Senate seat but the debates established Lincoln's leadership of the Republican Party and paved the path to his presidential nomination in 1860.
The most radical white Southerners demanded that Congress pass a national slave code for it would insure that slavers could operate anywhere in the US regardless of state law. Few white Southerners seems to want such a code and few slave owners planned to take their slaves into free territories. Cotton was not a Midwestern crop. But the radicals, or fire eaters, began to take control of state governments.
John Brown's raid on the national arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia on October 16, 1859 created great fear and panic in parts of the South. Brown's intention was to get arms so that slaves could rise up against their masters. Although half his raiding party was killed and Brown himself was caught, tried, and executed, the incident inspired anti-slavery forces and frightened the pro-slavery people. They were never sure that Brown had acted alone.
By 1860, the sides were frozen into place. At the Democratic national convention in Charleston, South Carolina in April, 1860, radical Southerners demanded that the party adopt a plank in its platform demanding a congressional slave code. The pro-Douglas majority refused and delegates from 8 slave left. The convention was adjourned. When it met again in Baltimore, Douglas was nominated. He had failed to pacify Southerners who did not like his opposition to the Lecompton constitution. The Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The Constitutional Union Party (border state Whigs and remnants of the American Party) nominated John Bell, a Tennessee slaveholder who favored compromise. The Republicans, meeting in Chicago, nominated Abraham Lincoln over William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania. Lincoln maneuvered the convention to get the nomination; he was adept at politics.
The Republicans under Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery but promised not to interfere with it where it existed. It also wanted a higher tariff so as to subsidize industry. It promised free land to those who would move to the West. It was not an anti-slavery party.
The South saw it as such and Lincoln got no support there. His name was rarely, if ever, on the ballot. Lincoln only got 39% of the popular vote but he carried 18 free states and won 180 electoral votes, enough to win the presidency. Douglas came in second in the popular votes but won only the 12 electoral votes from Missouri and half of New Jersey. Bell won Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, the more moderate slave states and Breckinridge won the rest of the South except Missouri.
South Carolina, where the radical fire-eaters, had been waiting for an excuse to secede. A special convention passed an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860. They had waited only until the Electoral College had elected Lincoln President of the United States. The election result was clear. Until 1860, the South had controlled the nation. Most Presidents since 1789 were either Southerners or pro-Southern. Southerners controlled the Supreme Court. Southern states enjoyed an even split in the Senate until 1851 and could block legislation after that. In the House, the slave states had become a minority but still could have enormous influence. The presidential election of 1860 was the death knell of Southern power and its leaders knew it.
By February 1, 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had seceded. In other words, the states were cotton production and slavery were important left. These seven states sent delegates to Montgomery, Alabama where they met in February to create the Confederates States of America with a constitution much like that of the United States of America. The notable differences were that the Confederate constitution protected slavery and gave each state the right to disavow any national law. The slaves states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, that is the majority, did not secede.
Even in the hard core seven, support for secession was not a foregone conclusion. The Constitutionalist Unionists and Douglas Democrats, both opposed the secession, had received more votes than the secessionists, the Breckinridge Democrats. Georgia sent Alexander Stephens, who opposed secession, to the Confederate convention in Montgomery. The wealthy Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had opposed secession in 1860 and did not attend the Montgomery convention. The Breckinridge Democrats selected Davis as President and Stephens as Vice President of the Confederacy in an effort to place the anti-secessionists. Whether one supported secession depended upon in which part of a state a person lived or social class. Where slavery and cotton were not economically important in mountainous regions or where the soil was poor, people opposed secession. Large planters did as well. It was the small planter class, men who had the dream of becoming large planters, who most advocated secession. They wanted slavery to grow for they hoped to acquire many slaves and much land and get rich.
There was hope that secession could be reversed if a good compromise solution could be found. President Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln exercised no leadership before Lincoln's inauguration. Why is not clear. Buchanan was a poor president guilty of poor leadership and indecisiveness. Lincoln was seen as many to be the same. He certainly did not reveal his cards before his inauguration. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed that the Missouri Compromise line of 36 30' be extended to the Pacific. He also proposed that Congress guarantee forever slavery where it existed and in the District of Colombia and that the national government compensate slave owners for runaway slaves. Lincoln agreed with all but the extension of slavery. Congress then approved a constitutional amendment which would meet Lincoln's objections and sent it to the states for ratification.
When Lincoln became president on March 4, 1861, he faced the twin problems of trying to entice the seceded seven back into the US and keeping the other eight slave states from seceding. In his inaugural address , he argued that secession was unconstitutional and that he would enforce US laws in all the states and keep US property in the rebellious states. He promised that his administration would not try to eliminate slavery where it existed but would vigorously oppose any efforts to extend it into the territories.
Opinion about what to do was varied for it was unprecedented. Some wanted the slave states to depart in peace. Abolitionists wanted to wage a holy war against slavery. Probably a majority of men in the North wanted the United States kept intact but did not want war to accomplish it. Even in the seceded states, the opinions of white men was mixed. In the eight slave states still in the Union, the states that Lincoln had to keep in the Union if he was to succeed, there was not as much sympathy for slavery but there were strong regional feelings, an animosity against the North and Midwest.
The seceded seven had taken control of all US property except Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in South Carolina. Lincoln knew that sending more troops to Fort Sumter might trigger a war but to do nothing was to give control of the situation to South Carolina. So he decided to supply the fort with food and tell everyone that was what he was doing. The Confederates attacked the United States on April 12, 1861. Taking the fort within two days. When Lincoln issue a call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion in South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded. Lincoln moved quickly to keep Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware and supported the desires of western Virginians to disassociate themselves from their more easterly brethren.
The motives for secession were complicated. In some of the ordinances of secession, state leaders made it clear that they were defending slavery. In other states, the motives were very complex and one has to read thousands of pages of documents to hope to understand why. Fortunately, the topic has been a favorite of professional historians and one can read their work. One major reason seems to be the dislike of the national government coercing a state. Although Andrew Jackson had coerced South Carolina when it tried to nullify tariffs in the 1830s and the other southern states had supported Jackson, decades of sectional tensions since then had changed attitudes. Clearly the belief that the South could survive without the rest of the country played a role. However, without the existence of slavery, the Civil War would never have occurred.__________
1The "North" is a misnomer, of course. It included the Northeast, the Middle Atlantic, the Midwest, and California. However, it is used here because it is traditional.
Donald J. Mabry