On January 21, 1850, Henry Clay, now a senator from Kentucky, trudged through a Washington snowstorm to pay an unexpected call on Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Clay, the creator of the Missouri Compromise, had come up with a plan to end the deadlock over California. But to get his plan through Congress, he needed Webster’s support.
Something for Everyone Clay’s new compromise had something to please just about everyone. It began by admitting California to the Union as a free state. That would please the North. Meanwhile, it allowed the New Mexico and Utah territories to decide whether to allow slavery, which would please the South. In addition, Clay’s plan ended the slave trade in Washington, D.C. Although slaveholders in Washington would be able to keep their slaves, human beings would no longer be bought and sold in the nation’s capital. Clay and Webster agreed that this compromise would win support from abolitionists without threatening the rights of slaveholders. Finally, Clay’s plan called for passage of a strong fugitive slave law. Slaveholders had long wanted such a law, which would make it easier to find and reclaim runaway slaves. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state and allowed the southwestern territories to be set up without restriction on slavery.
The Compromise Is Accepted Hoping that Clay’s compromise would end the crisis, Webster agreed to help it get passed in Congress. But despite Webster’s support, Congress debated the Compromise of 1850 [Compromise of 1850: the agreements made in order to admit California into the Union as a free state. These agreements included allowing the New Mexico and Utah territories to decide whether to allow slavery, outlawing the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and creating a stronger fugitive slave law.] for nine frustrating months. As tempers frayed, Southerners talked of simply leaving the Union peacefully. Webster dismissed such talk as foolish. “Peaceable secession!” he exclaimed. “Your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle . . . I see it as plainly as I see the sun in heaven—I see that [secession] must produce such a war as I will not describe.”A war over slavery was something few Americans wanted to face. In September 1850, Congress finally adopted Clay’s plan. Most Americans were happy to see the crisis end. Some Southerners, however, remained wary of the compromise.
Section 6 - The Compromise of 1850 Fails
Henry Clay and Daniel Webster hoped the Compromise of 1850 would quiet the slavery controversy for years to come. In fact, it satisfied almost no one—and the debate grew louder each year.
The Fugitive Slave Act People in the North and the South were unhappy with the Fugitive Slave Act, though for different reasons. Northerners did not want to enforce the act. Southerners felt the act did not do enough to ensure [ensure: to make sure or certain] the return of their escaped property.
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. This 1861 poster warned free African Americans in Boston to watch out for slave catchers looking for escaped slaves. Even people who helped escaped slaves could be jailed. Library of Congress
Under the Fugitive Slave Act, a person arrested as a runaway slave had almost no legal rights. Many runaways fled all the way to Canada rather than risk being caught and sent back to their owners. Others decided to stand and fight. Reverend Jarmain Loguen, a former slave living in New York, said boldly, “I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it . . . I will not live as a slave, and if force is employed to re-enslave me, I shall make preparations to meet the crisis as becomes a man.”The Fugitive Slave Act also said that any person who helped a slave escape, or even refused to aid slave catchers, could be jailed. This provision, complained New England poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, made “slave catchers of us all.”
Opposition to the act was widespread in the North. When slave catchers came to Boston, they were hounded by crowds of angry citizens shouting, “Slave hunters—there go the slave hunters.” After a few days of this treatment, most slave catchers decided to leave. Northerners’ refusal to support the act infuriated slaveholders. It also made enforcement of the act almost impossible. Of the tens of thousands of fugitives living in the North during the 1850s, only 299 were captured and returned to their owners during this time.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Nothing brought the horrors of slavery home to Northerners more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel grew out of a vision Stowe had while sitting in church on a wintry Sunday morning in 1851. The vision began with a saintly slave, known as Uncle Tom, and his cruel master. In a furious rage, the master, Simon Legree, had the old slave whipped to death. Just before Uncle Tom’s soul slipped out of his body, he opened his eyes and whispered to Legree, “Ye poor miserable critter! There ain’t no more ye can do. I forgive ye, with all my soul!”
Racing home, Stowe scribbled down what she had imagined. Her vision of Uncle Tom’s death became part of a much longer story that was first published in installments in an abolitionist newspaper. In one issue, readers held their breath as the slave Eliza chose to risk death rather than be sold away from her young son. Chased by slave hunters and their dogs, Eliza dashed to freedom across the ice-choked Ohio River, clutching her child in her arms. In a later issue, Stowe’s readers wept as they read her account of how the character of Uncle Tom died at the hands of Simon Legree.
Few other novels in American history have had the political impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852, the novel helped fuel the antislavery movement. Library of Congress
In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published as a novel. Plays based on the book toured the country, thrilling audiences with Eliza’s dramatic escape to freedom. No other work had ever aroused such powerful emotions about slavery. In the South, the novel and its author were scorned and cursed. In the North, Uncle Tom’s Cabin made millions of people even more angry about the cruelties of slavery.
The Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas- Nebraska Act Northerners who were already horrified by slavery were roused to fury by two events in 1854: the publication of the so-called Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.The document known as the Ostend Manifesto was a message sent to the secretary of state by three American diplomats who were meeting in Ostend, Belgium. President Franklin Pierce, who had taken office in 1853, had been trying to purchase the island of Cuba from Spain, but Spain had refused the offer. The message from the diplomats urged the U.S. government to seize Cuba by force if Spain continued to refuse to sell the island. When the message was leaked to the public, angry Northerners charged that Pierce’s administration wanted to buy Cuba in order to add another slave state to the Union.
Early that same year, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill in Congress that aroused an uproar. Douglas wanted to get a railroad built to California. He thought the project was more likely to happen if Congress organized the Great Plains into the Nebraska Territory and opened the region to settlers. This territory lay north of the Missouri Compromise, and Douglas’s bill said nothing about slavery. But Southerners in Congress agreed to support the bill only if Douglas made a few changes—and those changes had far-reaching consequences. The Kansas-Nebraska Act outraged Northerners because it abolished the Missouri Compromise. Under the terms of the act, the question of slavery would be decided by settlers in the newly organized territories of Kansas and Nebraska.
Douglas’s final version of the bill, known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act [Kansas-Nebraska Act: an act passed in 1854 that created the Kansas and Nebraska territories and abolished the Missouri Compromise by allowing settlers to determine whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories], created two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska. It also abolished the Missouri Compromise by leaving it up to the settlers themselves to vote on whether to permit slavery in the two territories. Douglas called this policy popular sovereignty, or rule by the people. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act hit the North like a thunderbolt. Once again, Northerners were haunted by visions of slavery marching across the plains. Douglas tried to calm their fears by saying that the climates of Kansas and Nebraska were not suited to slave labor. But when Northerners studied maps, they were not so sure. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley charged in the New York Tribune,
The pretense of Douglas & Co. that not even Kansas is to bemade a slave state by his bill is a gag [joke]. Ask any Missourianwhat he thinks about it. The Kansas Territory . . . is bounded inits entire length by Missouri, with a whole tier of slave counties leaning against it. Won’t be a slave state! . . . Gentlemen! Don’tlie any more!
Nebraska was so far north that its future as a free state was never in question. But Kansas was next to the slave state of Missouri. In an era that would come to be known as "Bleeding Kansas," the territory would become a battleground over the slavery question
Bloodshed in Kansas After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, settlers poured into Kansas. Most were peaceful farmers looking for good farmland. Some settlers, however, moved to Kansas either to support or to oppose slavery. In the South, towns took up collections to send their young men to Kansas. In the North, abolitionists raised money to send weapons to antislavery settlers. Before long, Kansas had two competing governments in the territory, one for slavery and one against it.
The struggle over slavery soon turned violent. On May 21, 1856, proslavery settlers and so-called “border ruffians” from Missouri invaded Lawrence, Kansas, the home of the antislavery government. Armed invaders burned a hotel, looted several homes, and tossed the printing presses of two abolitionist newspapers into the Kaw River. As the invaders left Lawrence, one of them boasted, “Gentlemen, this is the happiest day of my life.” The raid on Lawrence provoked a wave of outrage in the North. People raised money to replace the destroyed presses. And more “Free- Soilers,” as antislavery settlers were called, prepared to move to Kansas. Meanwhile, a fiery abolitionist named John Brown plotted his own revenge. Two days after the Lawrence raid, Brown and seven followers, including four of Brown’s sons and his son-in-law, invaded the proslavery town of Pottawatomie, Kansas. There, they dragged five men they suspected of supporting slavery from their homes and hacked them to death with swords.
Violence in Congress The violence in Kansas greatly disturbed Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. To Sumner, it was proof of what he had long suspected—that Senator Stephen Douglas had plotted with Southerners to make Kansas a slave state.
Preston Brooks savagely beat Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in retaliation for Sumner’s speech against the raid on Lawrence, Kansas. It took Sumner over three years to recover.
The Granger Collection, New York
In 1856, Sumner voiced his suspicions in a passionate speech called “The Crime Against Kansas.” In harsh, shocking language, Sumner described the “crime against Kansas” as a violent assault on an innocent territory, “compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery.” He dismissed Douglas as “a noisome [offensive], squat, and nameless animal.” Sumner also heaped abuse on many Southerners, including Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina.
Just what Sumner hoped to accomplish was not clear. However, copies of his speech were quickly printed up for distribution in the North. After reading it, New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow congratulated Sumner on the “brave and noble speech you made, never to die out in the memories of men.” Certainly, it was not about to die out in the memories of enraged Southerners. Two days after the speech, Senator Butler’s nephew, South Carolina representative Preston Brooks, attacked Sumner in the Senate, beating him with his metal-tipped cane until it broke in half. By the time other senators could pull Brooks away, Sumner had collapsed, bloody and unconscious.
Reactions to the attack on Sumner showed how divided the country had become. Many Southerners applauded Brooks for defending the honor of his family and the South. From across the South, supporters sent Brooks new canes to replace the one he had broken on Sumner’s head. Most Northerners viewed the beating as another example of Southern brutality. In their eyes, Brooks was no better than the proslavery bullies who had attacked the people of Lawrence. One Connecticut student was so upset that she wrote to Sumner about going to war. “I don’t think it is of very much use to stay any longer in the high school,” she wrote. “The boys would be better learning to hold muskets, and the girls to make bullets.”
Section 7 - The Dred Scott Decision
In 1857, the slavery controversy shifted from Congress to the Supreme Court. The Court was about to decide a case concerning a Missouri slave named Dred Scott. Years earlier, Scott had traveled with his owner to Wisconsin, where slavery was banned by the Missouri Compromise. When he returned to Missouri, Scott went to court to win his freedom. He argued that his stay in Wisconsin had made him a free man.
Questions of the Case There were nine justices on the Supreme Court in 1857. Five, including Chief Justice Roger Taney, were from the South. Four were from the North. The justices had two key questions to decide. First, as a slave, was Dred Scott a citizen who had the right to bring a case before a federal court? Second, did his time in Wisconsin make him a free man? Chief Justice Taney hoped to use the Scott case to settle the slavery controversy once and for all. So he asked the Court to consider two more questions: Did Congress have the power to make any laws at all concerning slavery in the territories? And, if so, was the Missouri Compromise a constitutional use of that power?
Nearly 80 years old, Taney had long been opposed to slavery. As a young Maryland lawyer, he had publicly declared that “slavery is a blot upon our national character and every lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be . . . wiped away.” Taney had gone on to free his own slaves. Many observers wondered whether he and his fellow justices would now free Dred Scott as well. As a result of the Dred Scott decision, slavery was allowed in all territories.
Two Judicial Bombshells On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision [Dred Scott decision: a Supreme Court decision in 1857 that held that African Americans could never be citizens of the United States and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional]. The chief justice began by reviewing the facts of Dred Scott’s case. Then he dropped the first of two judicial bombshells. By a vote of five to four, the Court had decided that Scott could not sue for his freedom in a federal court because he was not a citizen. Nor, said Taney, could Scott become a citizen. No African American, whether slave or free, was an American citizen—or could ever become one. Second, Taney declared that the Court had rejected Scott’s argument that his stay in Wisconsin had made him a free man. The reason was simple. The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.
Taney’s argument went something like this. Slaves are property. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says that property cannot be taken from people without due process of law—that is, a proper court hearing. Taney reasoned that banning slavery in a territory is the same as taking property from slaveholders who would like to bring their slaves into that territory. And that is unconstitutional. Rather than banning slavery, he said, Congress has a constitutional responsibility to protect the property rights of slaveholders in a territory.
The Dred Scott decision delighted slaveholders. They hoped that, at long last, the issue of slavery in the territories had been settled—and in their favor.Many Northerners, however, were stunned and enraged by the Court’s ruling. The New York Tribune called the decision a “wicked and false judgment.” The New York Independent expressed outrage in a bold headline:
The Decision of the Supreme Court Is the Moral Assassination of a Race and Cannot be Obeyed!
Section 8 - From Compromise to Crisis
During the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, antislavery activists formed a new political organization, the Republican Party. The Republicans were united by their beliefs that “no man can own another man . . . That slavery must be prohibited in the territories . . . That all new States must be Free States . . . That the rights of our colored citizen . . . must be protected.” In 1858, Republicans in Illinois nominated Abraham Lincoln to run for the Senate. In his acceptance speech, Lincoln pointed out that all attempts to reach compromise on the slavery issue had failed. Quoting from the Bible, he warned, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln went on: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Lincoln’s opponent in the Senate race was Senator Stephen Douglas. The Illinois senator saw no reason why the nation could not go on half-slave and half-free. When Lincoln challenged him to debate the slavery issue, Douglas agreed.
Abraham Lincoln addresses an audience during one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Stephen Douglas is directly behind Lincoln on the platform.
The Granger Collection, New York
During the Lincoln-Douglas debates [Lincoln-Douglas debates: a series of political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who were candidates in the Illinois race for U.S. senator, in which slavery was the main issue], Douglas argued that the Dred Scott decision had put the slavery issue to rest. Lincoln disagreed. In his eyes, slavery was a moral, not a legal, issue. He declared, “The real issue in this controversy . . . is the sentiment of one class [group] that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong.”
Lincoln lost the election. But the debates were widely reported, and they helped make him a national figure. His argument with Douglas also brought the moral issue of slavery into sharp focus. Compromises over slavery were becoming impossible.
John Brown’s Raid While Lincoln fought to stop the spread of slavery through politics, abolitionist John Brown adopted a more extreme approach. Rather than wait for Congress to act, Brown planned to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. An arsenal is a place where weapons and ammunition are stored. Brown wanted to use the weapons to arm slaves for a rebellion that would end slavery.
In this eyewitness drawing, U.S. marines are shown storming the arsenal at Harpers Ferry that was raided by John Brown and his men. Brown was charged with treason, convicted, and then executed by hanging.
Library of Congress
Brown launched his raid in 1859. It was an insane scheme. All of Brown’s men were killed or captured during the raid. Brown himself was convicted of treason and sentenced to die. On the day of his hanging, he left a note that read, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.” Such words filled white Southerners with fear. If a slave rebellion did begin, it was Southern blood that would be spilled. The fact that many Northerners viewed Brown as a hero also left white Southerners uneasy.
Section 9 - The Election of 1860 and Secession
The 1860 presidential race showed just how divided the nation had become. The Republicans were united behind Lincoln. The Democrats, however, had split between Northern and Southern factions [faction: a group of people within a larger group who have different ideas from the main group]. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas for president. Southern Democrats supported John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The election became even more confusing when a group called the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
Abraham Lincoln Is Elected President With his opposition divided three ways, Lincoln sailed to victory. But it was an odd victory. Lincoln won the presidential election with just 40 percent of the votes, all of them cast in the North. In ten Southern states, he was not even on the ballot. For white Southerners, the election of 1860 delivered an unmistakable message. The South was now in the minority. It no longer had the power to shape national events or policies. Sooner or later, Southerners feared, Congress would try to abolish slavery. And that, wrote a South Carolina newspaper, would mean “the loss of liberty, property, home, country—everything that makes life worth living.”
In December 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden (1787-1863) introduced legislation aimed at resolving the looming secession crisis in the Deep South. The "Crittenden Compromise," as it became known, included six proposed constitutional amendments and four proposed Congressional resolutions that Crittenden hoped would appease Southern states and help the nation avoid civil war. The compromise would have guaranteed the permanent existence of slavery in the slave states by reestablishing the free-slave demarcation line drawn by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Though Crittenden's plan drew support from Southern leaders, its rejection by many Northern Republicans, including President-elect Abraham Lincoln, led to its ultimate failure.
The South Secedes from the Union In the weeks following the election, talk of secession filled the air. Alarmed senators formed a committee to search for yet another compromise that might hold the nation together. They knew that finding one would not be easy. Still, they had to do something to stop the rush toward disunion and disaster.
This broadside, printed in December 1860, boldly announces the secession of South Carolina from the Union.
The Granger Collection, New York
The Senate committee held its first meeting on December 20, 1860. Just as the senators began their work, events in two distant cities dashed their hopes for a settlement.In Springfield, Illinois, a reporter called on President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. When asked whether he could support a compromise on slavery, Lincoln’s answer was clear. He would not interfere with slavery in the South. And he would support enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. But Lincoln drew the line at letting slavery extend into the territories. On this question, he declared, “Let there be no compromise.”
Meanwhile, in Charleston, South Carolina, delegates attending a state convention voted that same day—December 20, 1860—to leave the Union. The city went wild. Church bells rang. Crowds filled the streets, roaring their approval. A South Carolina newspaper boldly proclaimed, “The Union Is Dissolved!” Six more states soon followed South Carolina’s lead. In February 1861, those states joined together as the Confederate States of America.
The Civil War Begins On March 4, 1861, Lincoln became president of the not-so-united United States. In his inaugural address, Lincoln stated his belief that secession was both wrong and unconstitutional. He then appealed to the rebellious states to return in peace. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine,” he said, “is the momentous issue of civil war.”
A month later, Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina, forced the issue. On April 12, 1861, they opened fire on Fort Sumter, a federal fort in Charleston Harbor. After 33 hours of heavy shelling, the defenders of the fort hauled down the Stars and Stripes and replaced it with the white flag of surrender. The news that the Confederates had fired on the American flag unleashed a wave of patriotic fury in the North. All the doubts that people had about using force to save the Union vanished. A New York newspaper reported excitedly, “There is no more thought of bribing or coaxing the traitors who have dared to aim their cannon balls at the flag of the Union . . . Fort Sumter is temporarily lost, but the country is saved.”
The time for compromise was over. The issues that had divided the nation for so many years would now be decided by a civil war.