The beginning of the end was the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. The area north-west of the Ohio River was primarily unsettled. In order for the Federal government to set terms for creating states in the territory, individual states relinquished any claims they held in the territory. The intention was to establish a procedure for conveying land into the public domain. The resulting legislation was the Northwest Ordinance, and it included a ban on slavery within the territory.
An engraving of Eli Whitney by William Hoogland, based on a painting by Charles Bird King
Slavery did encounter a decline shortly after the end of the American Revolution, and perhaps might have eventually died out from lack of necessity. But at this crucial time, a young man from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney (pictured above) was on his way to South Carolina to accept a position as a tutor. Instead, he accepted an invitation from Catherine Greene to visit her Georgia plantation. While there, Whitney invented the cotton gin, a device that greatly reduced the amount of labour required to separate cotton fibre from the seed. The year was 1793, and the cotton gin was a key invention in the industrial revolution. It made the production of short-staple cotton profitable and invigorated the need for slave labour to produce it.
As the new nation spread westwards, the balance of power between slave state and free state became of major concern. The industrialized North had different needs than the agrarian South, which meant that legislation intended to benefit one side was sometimes detrimental to the other. Both sides were acutely aware of how important it was to have as much or more power in government than the other in order to safeguard their interests, and when the Louisiana Territory was purchased, concern as to whether territories applying for admission to the United States were slave or free grew. The western territory stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to beyond the Canadian border. It included all or part of what would become fourteen states as well as a small portion of Canada, with the Mississippi River as its eastern boundary. Both sides of the slavery issue knew that dividing the territory into states, and determining whether each of those states was free or slave was crucial to the balance of political power.
In 1820, in an attempt to avoid conflict and maintain the balance of power in the fledgling United States government, a senator from Kentucky named Henry Clay proposed the Missouri Compromise. In exchange for admitting Missouri to the United States as a slave state, the territory of Maine would be allowed to enter as a free state. To further help maintain the balance of power as states were admitted to the United States, the Missouri Compromise stipulated also that no slavery would be allowed in the Louisiana Territory north of a boundary set at 36 degrees 30 minutes, with the exception of the State of Missouri. The 36 degrees 30 minutes line of demarcation forms Missouri’s southern border.
In 1828, and again in 1832, Congress set tariffs intended to protect manufacturers in the North from foreign competition. The tariffs created an increase on the cost of domestic goods in the South and stifled trade with the North. Outraged, the South Carolina legislature declared the Ordinance of Nullification which declared such tariffs null and void within their state. The Ordinance was a direct violation of the Federal government’s authority to impose tariffs. President Andrew Jackson responded with a proclamation that the tariffs would be paid and that no state had the right to defy the Federal government. South Carolina refused to pay until a compromise was reached in 1833.
Capture of Nat Turner, by William Henry Shelton
Meanwhile, relations between the North and South were suffering an increasing strain. In 1831, a slave minister from Virginia named Nat Turner decided that he was receiving messages from God instructing him to rise up against the white slaveholders of the South. Turner started out with five men and soon attracted more than seventy-five followers. More than sixty whites were killed before Turner and his followers were captured (pictured above) and executed. The Nat Turner revolt intensified the fear of revolt among Southerners and controls over slaves were tightened.