Modern history

Sectional Crises Intensify

The political crises that divided Americans in the 1850s infused cultural as well as political life, leading to a lively trade in antislavery literature. This cultural turmoil, combined with the weakness and fragmentation of the existing political parties, helped give rise to the Republican Party in 1854. Although it spoke almost solely for Northerners who opposed the continued expansion of slavery, the Republican Party soon absorbed enough Free-Soilers, Whigs, and northern Democrats to become a major political force. The events that drove these cultural and political developments included continued challenges to the Fugitive Slave Act, a battle over the admission of Kansas to the Union, and a Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott case.

Popularizing Antislavery Sentiment

The Fugitive Slave Act had forced Northerners to reconsider their role in sustaining the institution of slavery. In 1852, just months before Franklin Pierce was elected president, their concerns were heightened by the publication of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, and brother Henry were among the nation’s leading evangelical clergy, and her sister Catharine had opposed Cherokee removal and promoted women’s education. Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Toms Cabin by passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, and the story originally ran as a forty-installment serial in an abolitionist periodical, the National Era. Once published in book form, the novel sold more than 350,000 copies in a matter of months.

Uncle Toms Cabin built on accounts by former slaves as well as tales gathered by abolitionist lecturers and writers. During the 1850s, tales of life in bondage received growing attention in the North in both abolitionist circles and the mainstream press. The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass (1845), Josiah Henson (1849), and Henry Bibb (1849) set the stage for Stowe’s novel. So, too, did the expansion of the antislavery press, which by the 1850s included dozens of newspapers across the North, the Midwest, and eastern Canada. Antislavery poems and songs also circulated widely and were performed at abolitionist conventions and fund-raising fairs.

Still, nothing captured the public’s attention as did Uncle Toms Cabin. Read by millions in the United States and England and translated into French and German, the book reached a mass audience, far exceeding the reach of other abolitionist literature. Its sentimental portrait of saintly slaves and its vivid depiction of cruel masters and overseers offered white Northerners a way to identify with enslaved blacks. Although some African Americans were frustrated by its demeaning portraits of northern free blacks, they recognized that it helped to fuel anger at the Fugitive Slave Act and at efforts to expand slavery into new territories. Its success and its limitations also convinced other fugitives, including Harriet Jacobs, to publish their real-life stories.

In some cases, the real-life stories of fugitive slaves surpassed their fictional counterparts for emotional impact. In May 1854, abolitionists sought to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns from a Boston courthouse, where his master was attempting to reclaim him. They failed to secure his release, and Burns was soon marched to the docks to be shipped south. Twenty-two companies of state militia held back tens of thousands of Bostonians who lined the streets, hissing and shouting “Kidnappers!” at the soldiers and police. A year later, supporters purchased Burns’s freedom from his master, but the incident raised anguished questions among local residents. In a city that was home to intellectual, religious, and antislavery leaders such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Reverend Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison, Bostonians wondered how they had come so far in aiding and abetting slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act Stirs Dissent

Kansas provided the first test of the effects of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on northern sentiments toward slavery’s expansion. As white Americans slowly displaced Indian nations from their homelands, large and diverse groups of Indians settled in the northern half of the Louisiana Territory. This unorganized region had once been considered beyond the reach of white settlement, but Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois was eager to have a transcontinental railroad run through his home state. He needed the federal government to gain control of land along the route he proposed, and therefore he argued for the establishment of a vast Nebraska Territory. But to support his plan, Douglas also needed to convince southern congressmen, who sought a route through their own region. Much of the unorganized territory lay too far north to support plantation slavery, but a small portion lay directly west of Missouri, the northernmost slave state. According to the Missouri Compromise, states lying above the southern border of Missouri were automatically free. To gain southern support, Douglas sought to reopen the question of slavery in the territories. Pointing to the Compromise of 1850, by which territories acquired from Mexico would decide the fate of slavery by popular sovereignty, he argued that the same standard should apply to all new territories.

In January 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Congress. The act extinguished Indians’ long-held treaty rights in the region and repealed the Missouri Compromise. Two new territories—Kansas and Nebraska—would be carved out of the unorganized lands, and each would determine whether to enter the nation as a slave or a free state by a referendum of eligible voters (Map 12.2). The act spurred intense opposition from most Whigs and some northern Democrats who wanted to retain the Missouri Compromise line. Months of fierce debate followed. Finally, on May 25, Douglas’s proposed act passed by a comfortable majority when most Democrats followed the party line to vote yes. President Pierce quickly signed the bill into law.

MAP 12.2

Kansas-Nebraska Territory From 1820 on, Congress attempted to limit sectional conflict. But the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850 failed to resolve disagreements over slavery's expansion. The creation of the Kansas and Nebraska territories in 1854 also heightened sectional conflict and ensured increased hostilities with Indians in the region.

Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act enraged many Northerners, who considered the dismantling of the Missouri Compromise a sign of the rising power of the South. They were infuriated that the South—or what some now called the Slave Power Conspiracy—had once again benefited from northern politicians’ willingness to compromise. Although few of these opponents considered the impact of the law on Indians, the act also shattered treaty provisions that had protected the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ponco, Pawnee, and Sioux nations. These Plains Indians lost half the land they had held by treaty as thousands of settlers swarmed into the newly organized territories. In the fall of 1855, conflicts between white settlers and Indians erupted across the southern and central plains. The U.S. army then sent six hundred troops to retaliate against a Sioux village, killing eighty-five residents of Blue Water in the Nebraska Territory and triggering continued violence throughout the region.

As tensions escalated across the nation, Americans faced the 1854 congressional elections. The Democrats, increasingly viewed as supporting the priorities of slaveholders, lost badly in the North. But the Whig Party also proved weak, having failed to stop the Slave Power from extending its leverage over federal policies. A third party, the American Party, was founded in the early 1850s and attracted native-born workers and Protestant farmers who were drawn to its anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic message (see chapter 11). Responding to these political realignments, another new party—the Republicans—was founded in the spring of 1854. Led by antislavery Whigs, the Republican Party slowly attracted former Free-Soilers to its ranks. Among its early members was a Whig politician from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

Born in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln moved north to Illinois with his family and worked as a farmhand and surveyor. He also taught himself the rudiments of the law and was elected to the state legislature in 1834. In 1842 he married Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy banker, and established a lucrative law practice. Four years later, Lincoln was elected as a Whig to the House of Representatives. Serving his two-year term during the crisis over war with Mexico, he challenged Polk’s claim that the first blood had been shed on U.S. soil (see chapter 11). After resuming his Springfield law practice, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party in 1856.

Although established only months before the fall 1854 elections, the Republican Party gained significant support in the Midwest, particularly in state and local campaigns. Meanwhile the American Party gained control of the Massachusetts legislature and nearly captured New York as well. These victories marked the demise of the Whigs as a national party. Although the American Party dissolved as a political force by 1856, the Republicans continued to gain strength. They replaced the Whig Party—which was built on a national constituency—with a party rooted solely in the North.

Like Free-Soilers, the Republicans argued that slavery should not be extended into new territories. But the Republicans also advocated a program of commercial and industrial development and internal improvements. With this platform, the party attracted a broader base than did earlier antislavery political coalitions. The Republican Party included both ardent abolitionists and men whose only concern was keeping western territories open to free white men. This latter group was more than willing to accept slavery where it already existed and to exclude black migrants, who might compete for jobs and land, from western states and territories.

Bleeding Kansas and the Election of 1856

The 1854 congressional elections exacerbated sectional tensions by bringing representatives from a strictly northern party—the Republicans—into Congress, where Democrats and Southerners, by virtue of their seniority, controlled most of the powerful committee assignments. But the conflicts over slavery reached far beyond the nation’s capital. After passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, advocates and opponents of slavery poured into Kansas in anticipation of a vote on whether the state would enter the Union slave or free. Southerners flooded in from Missouri, while emigrant aid societies in the North funded antislavery settlers willing to relocate to Kansas.

As Kansas prepared to hold its referendum, settlers continued to arrive daily, making it difficult to determine who was eligible to vote. In 1855 Southerners installed a proslavery government at Shawnee Mission, while abolitionists established a stronghold in Lawrence. Violence erupted when proslavery settlers invaded Lawrence, killing one resident, demolishing newspaper offices, and plundering shops and homes. Fearing that the southern settlers who had come to Kansas were better armed than the antislavery Northerners in the territory, eastern abolitionists raised funds to ship rifles to Kansas. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, a popular preacher and leading abolitionist, advocated armed self-defense. As cases of Sharps rifles arrived in Kansas, they came to be known as Beecher’s Bibles.

Longtime abolitionist John Brown took more direct action. He joined four of his sons already living in Kansas and, with two friends, kidnapped five proslavery advocates from their homes along Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death. The so-called Pottawatomie Massacre infuriated southern settlers; in response, they drew up the Lecompton Constitution, which declared Kansas a slave state. President Pierce made his support of the proslavery government clear, but Congress remained divided. While Congress deliberated, armed battles continued. In the first six months of 1856, another two hundred settlers were killed in what became known as Bleeding Kansas.

Fighting also broke out on the floor of Congress. Republican senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered an impassioned speech against the continued expansion of what he termed the Slave Power. He launched scathing verbal attacks on planter politicians like South Carolina senator Andrew Butler, who supported the admission of Kansas as a slave state. Butler’s nephew, Preston Brooks, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, felt compelled to redress his family’s honor. He assaulted Sumner in the Senate chamber, beating him senseless with a cane. Sumner, who never fully recovered from his injuries, was considered a martyr in the North. Meanwhile Brooks was feted across the state of South Carolina.

The presidential election of 1856 began amid an atmosphere poisoned by violence and recrimination. The Democratic Party nominated James Buchanan, a proslavery advocate and longtime party stalwart from Pennsylvania. The young Republican Party ticket was headed by John C. Fremont. The American Party, in its final presidential contest, selected former president Millard Fillmore as its candidate. The strength of nativism in politics was waning, however, and Fillmore won only the state of Maryland. Fremont attracted cheering throngs as he traveled across the nation. Large numbers of women turned out to see Jessie Fremont, the first national candidate’s wife to play a significant role in a campaign. Fremont carried most of the North and the West, establishing the Republican Party’s dominance in those regions. Buchanan, claiming that he alone could preserve the Union, captured the South along with Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Although Buchanan won only 45.2 percent of the popular vote, he received a comfortable majority in the electoral college, securing his victory. But even as the nation was becoming increasingly divided along sectional lines, President Buchanan did little to resolve these differences.

The Dred Scott Decision

Just two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, the Supreme Court finally announced its decision in the Dred Scott case. Led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a proslavery Southerner, the majority ruled that a slave was not a citizen and therefore could not sue in court. Indeed, Taney claimed that black men had no rights that a white man was bound to respect. The ruling annulled Scott’s suit and meant that he and his wife remained enslaved. But the ruling went further. The Dred Scott decision declared that Congress had no constitutional authority to exclude slavery from any territory, thereby nullifying the Missouri Compromise and any future effort to restrict slavery’s expansion. Buchanan was happy to have the fate of slavery taken out of the hands of Congress, hoping it would alleviate sectional tensions. His hopes proved unfounded. Instead of quieting the debate over slavery, the ruling further outraged many Northerners, who were now convinced that a Slave Power conspiracy had taken hold of the federal government.

Dred and Harriet Scott This illustration of Dred Scott and his wife Harriet appeared in the June 27, 1857, issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, four months after the Supreme Court ruled that the Scotts were not legally entitled to their freedom. In the 1830s, Dred and Harriet had received permission from their owners to marry, and they had two children. Library of Congress

In 1858, when Stephen Douglas faced reelection to the U.S. Senate, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln to oppose him. The candidates participated in seven debates in which they explained their positions on slavery in the wake of the Dred Scott decision. Pointing to the landmark ruling, Lincoln asked Douglas how he could favor popular sovereignty, which allowed residents to keep slavery out of a territory, and yet support the Dred Scott decision, which protected slavery in all territories. Douglas devised a clever response, known as the Freeport Doctrine. He claimed that if residents did not adopt local legislation to protect slaveholders’ property, they could thereby exclude slavery for all practical purposes. At the same time, he accused Lincoln of advocating “negro equality,” a position that went well beyond his opponent’s views. Lincoln did support economic opportunity for free blacks, but not political or social equality. Still, the Republican candidate did declare that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. . . . It will become all one thing or all the other.”

The Lincoln-Douglas debates attracted national attention, but the Illinois legislature selected the state’s senator. Narrowly controlled by Democrats, it returned Douglas to Washington. Although the senator retained his seat, he was chastened by how far the Democratic Party had tilted toward the South. So when President Buchanan tried to push the Lecompton Constitution through Congress, legitimating the proslavery government in Kansas, Douglas opposed him. The two struggled over control of the party, with Douglas winning a symbolic victory in January 1861 when Kansas was admitted as a free state. By then, however, the Democratic Party had split into southern and northern wings, and the nation was on the verge of civil war.


• What factors contributed to the spread of antislavery sentiment in the North beyond committed abolitionists?

• How did the violence in Kansas in the mid-1850s reflect and intensify the growing sectional divide within the nation?

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