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Slavery divided Americans from the beginning, but Americans demonstrated a shrewd ability to maintain unity in spite of division. In the 1770s, all of England’s North American colonies employed slave labor. Enslaved workers grew food, cultivated cash crops, worked in ports, and manufactured goods. Within a couple decades, however, slavery disappeared from half of the nation and an antislavery movement began to challenge the ancient institution. Battles emerged over the institution’s westward expansion. Enslaved laborers meanwhile remained vitally important to the nation’s economy, fueling not only the southern plantation economy but also providing raw materials for the industrial North.
As the antislavery movement grew, slaveholders managed to survive a range of challenges to their legitimacy in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. But differences over the fate of slavery remained at the heart of American politics, especially as the United States expanded. After decades of conflict, Americans north and south began to fear that the opposite section of the country had seized control of the government. By November 1860, an opponent of slavery’s expansion arose from within the Republican Party. During the secession crisis that followed in 1860-1861, fears, nearly a century in the making, at last devolved into bloody war. (3)
Sectionalism in the Early Republic
Slavery’s history stretched back to antiquity. Prior to the American Revolution, nearly everyone in the world accepted it as a natural part of life. English colonies north and south relied on enslaved workers who grew tobacco, harvested indigo and sugar, and worked in ports. They generated tremendous wealth for the British crown. That wealth and luxury fostered seemingly limitless opportunities, and inspired seemingly boundless imaginations. Enslaved workers also helped give rise to revolutionary new ideals, ideals that in time became the ideological foundations of the sectional crisis. English political theorists, in particular, began to re-think natural law justifications for slavery. They rejected the longstanding idea that slavery was a condition that naturally suited some people. A new transatlantic antislavery movement began to argue that freedom was the natural condition of man.
Revolutionaries seized onto these ideas to stunning effect in the late eighteenth century. In the United States, France, and Haiti, revolutionaries began the work of splintering the old order. Each revolution seemed to radicalize the next. Bolder and more expansive declarations of equality and freedom followed one after the other. Revolutionaries in the United States declared, “All men are created equal,” in the 1770s. French visionaries issued the “Declaration of Rights and Man and Citizen” by 1789. But the most startling development came in 1803. A revolution led by the island’s rebellious slaves turned France’s most valuable sugar colony into an independent country administered by the formerly enslaved.
The Haitian Revolution marked an early origin of the sectional crisis. It helped splinter the Atlantic basin into clear zones of freedom and un-freedom, while in the process shattering the longstanding assumption that African slaves could not also be rulers. Despite the clear limitations of the American Revolution in attacking slavery, the era marked a powerful break in slavery’s history. Military service on behalf of both the English and the American army freed thousands of slaves. Many others simply used the turmoil of war to make their escape. As a result, free black communities emerged — communities that would continually reignite the antislavery struggle. For nearly a century, most white Americans were content to compromise over the issue of slavery, but the constant agitation of black Americans, both enslaved and free, kept the issue alive.
The national breakdown over slavery occurred over a long timeline and across a broad geography. Debates over slavery in the American West proved especially important. As the United States pressed westward in its search for new land and resources after its victory in the Revolution, new questions arose as to whether those lands ought to be slave or free. The framers of the Constitution did a little, but not much, to help resolve these early questions. Article VI of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance banned slavery north and west of the Ohio River. Many whites took it to mean that the founders intended for slavery to die out, as why else would they prohibit its spread across such a huge swath of territory?
Debates over the framer’s intentions often led to confusion and bitter debate, but the actions of the new government left better clues as to what the new nation intended for slavery. Congress authorized the admission of Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792), with Vermont coming into the Union as a free state, and Kentucky coming in as a slave state. Though Americans at the time made relatively little of the balancing act suggested by the admission of a slave state and a free state, the pattern became increasingly important. By 1820, preserving the balance of free states and slave states would be seen as an issue of national security.
New pressures challenging the delicate balance again arose in the West. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 more than doubled the size of the United States. Questions immediately arose as to whether these lands would be made slave or free. Complicating matters further was the rapid expansion of plantation slavery fueled by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Yet even with the booming cotton economy, many Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that slavery was a temporary institution and would soon die out. The Louisiana Purchase signaled the beginning of rising sectional feelings, but a truly sectional national debate did not yet emerge.
That debate, however, came quickly. Sectional differences tied to the expansion of plantation slavery in the West were especially important after 1803. The Ohio Valley became an early fault line in the coming sectional struggle. Kentucky and Tennessee emerged as slave states, while free states Ohio, Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818) gained admission along the river’s northern banks. Borderland negotiations and accommodations along the Ohio River fostered a distinctive kind of white supremacy, as laws tried to keep blacks out of the West entirely. Ohio’s so-called “Black Laws,” of 1803 foreshadowed the exclusionary cultures of Indiana, Illinois, and several subsequent states of the Old Northwest and later, the Far West. These laws often banned African American voting, denied black Americans access to public schools, and made it impossible for non-whites to serve on juries and in local militias, among a host of other restrictions and obstacles.
The Missouri Territory, by far the largest section of the Louisiana Territory, marked a turning point in the sectional crisis. Saint Louis, a bustling Mississippi River town filled with powerful slave owners, loomed large as an important trade headquarters for networks in the northern Mississippi Valley and the Greater West. In 1817, eager to put questions of whether this territory would be slave or free to rest, Congress opened its debate over Missouri’s admission to the Union. Congressman James Tallmadge of New York stirred up the trouble by proposing laws that would gradually abolish slavery in the new state. Southern states responded with unanimous outrage, and the nation shuddered at an undeniable sectional controversy.
Congress reached a “compromise” on Missouri’s admission, largely through the work of Kentuckian Henry Clay (Figure 1). Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state. In exchange, Missouri would come into the Union as a slave state. Legislators sought to prevent future conflicts by making Missouri’s southern border at 36°30′ the new dividing line between slavery and freedom in the Louisiana Purchase lands. South of that line, running east from Missouri to the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase lands (near the present-day Texas panhandle) slavery could expand. North of it, encompassing what in 1820 was still “unorganized territory,” there would be no slavery.
The Missouri Compromise marked a major turning point in America’s sectional crisis because it exposed to the public just how divisive the slavery issue had grown. The debate filled newspapers, speeches, and Congressional records. Anti-slavery and pro-slavery positions from that point forward repeatedly returned to points made during the Missouri debates. Legislators battled for weeks over whether the Constitutional framers intended slavery’s expansion or not, and these contests left deep scars. Even seemingly simple and straightforward phrases like “All Men Are Created Equal” were hotly contested all over again. Questions over the expansion of slavery remained open, but nearly all Americans concluded that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed.
Southerners were not yet advancing arguments that said slavery was a positive good, but they did insist during the Missouri Debate that the framers supported slavery and wanted to see it expand. In Article 1, Section 2, for example, the Constitution enabled representation in the South to be based on rules defining enslaved people as 3/5 of a voter, meaning southern white men would be overrepresented in Congress. The Constitution also stipulated that Congress could not interfere with the slave trade before 1808, and enabled Congress to draft fugitive slave laws.
Antislavery participants in the Missouri debate argued that the framers never intended slavery to survive the Revolution and in fact hoped it would disappear through peaceful means. The framers of the Constitution never used the word “slave.” Slaves were referred to as “persons held in service,” perhaps referring to English common law precedents that questioned the legitimacy of “property in man.” Anti-slavery arguers also pointed out that while the Congress could not pass a law limiting the slave trade by 1808, the framers had also recognized the flip side of the debate and had thus opened the door to legislating the slave trade’s end once the deadline arrived. Language in the Tenth Amendment, they claimed, also said slavery could be banned in the territories. Finally, they pointed to the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which said that property could be seized through appropriate legislation. The bruising Missouri debates ultimately transcended arguments about the Constitution. They became an all-encompassing referendum on the American past, present, and future.
Despite the furor, debates over slavery unleashed during the Missouri Compromise did not yet develop into hardened defenses of either slave or free labor as positive good. Those would come in the coming decades, but in the meantime the uneasy consensus forged by the Missouri Debate managed to bring a measure of calm.
The Missouri debate had also deeply troubled the nation’s African Americans and Native Americans. By the time of the Missouri compromise debate, both groups saw that whites never intended them to be citizens of the United States. In fact, the debates over Missouri’s admission had offered the first sustained debate on the question of black citizenship, as Missouri’s State Constitution wanted to impose a hard ban on any future black migrants. Legislators ultimately agreed that this hard ban violated the Constitution, but reaffirmed Missouri’s ability to deny citizenship to African Americans. Americans by 1820 had endured a broad challenge, not only to their cherished ideals but also more fundamentally to their conceptions of self. (3)
The Crisis Joined
Missouri’s admission to the Union in 1821 exposed deep fault lines in American society. But the Compromise created a new sectional consensus that most white Americans, at least, hoped would ensure a lasting peace. Through sustained debates and arguments, white Americans agreed that the Constitution could do little about slavery wherever it already existed and that slavery, with the State of Missouri as the key exception, would never expand north of the 36°30′ line.
Once again westward expansion challenged this consensus, and this time the results proved even more damaging. Tellingly, enslaved southerners were among the first to signal their discontent. A rebellion led by Denmark Vesey in 1822 threatened lives and property throughout the Carolinas. The nation’s religious leaders also expressed a rising discontent with the new status quo. The Second Great Awakening further sharpened political differences by promoting schisms within the major Protestant churches, schisms that also became increasingly sectional in nature. Between 1820 and 1846, sectionalism drew on new political parties, new religious organizations, and new reform movements.
As politics grew more democratic, leaders attacked old inequalities of wealth and power, but in doing so many pandered to a unity under white supremacy. Slavery briefly receded from the nation’s attention in the early 1820s, but that would change quickly. By the last half of the decade, slavery was back, and this time it appeared even more threatening.
Inspired by the social change of Jacksonian democracy, white men regardless of status would gain not only land and jobs, but also the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to attend public schools, and the right to serve in the militia and armed forces. In this post-Missouri context, leaders arose to push the country’s new expansionist desires in aggressive new directions. As they did so, however, the sectional crisis again deepened.
The Democratic Party initially seemed to offer a compelling answer to the problems of sectionalism by promising benefits to white working men of the North, South, and West, while also uniting rural, small town, and urban residents. Indeed, huge numbers of western, southern, and northern workingmen rallied during the 1828 Presidential election behind Andrew Jackson. Slavery’s aristocratic culture was a prickly issue of potential contradiction for the workingman’s party, but Democrats nonetheless had broad appeal in the South, where most men did not own slaves. The Democratic Party tried to avoid the issue of slavery and instead sought to unite Americans around shared racial anxieties and desires to expand the nation.
Democrats were not without their critics during their decade of dominance in the 1830s. In time, the slavery issue again gained energy over ongoing dilemmas about what to do with western lands. Northerners seen as especially friendly to the South had become known as “Doughfaces” during the Missouri debates, and as the 1830s wore on, more and more Doughfaced Democrats became vulnerable to the charge that they served the Southern slave oligarchs better than they served their own northern communities. Whites discontented with the direction of the country used the slur and other critiques to help chip away at Democratic Party majorities. The accusation that northern Democrats were lap-dogs for southern slaveholders had tremendous power.
The major party challenge to the Democrats arose with the Whigs. Whig strongholds often mirrored the patterns of westward migrations out of New England. With an odd coalition of wealthy merchants, middle and upper class farmers, planters in the Upland South, and settlers in the Great Lakes, Whigs struggled to bring a cohesive message to voters during the 1830s. Their strongest support came from places like Ohio’s Western Reserve, the rural and Protestant-dominated areas of Michigan, and similar parts of Protestant and small-town Illinois, particularly the fast-growing towns and cities of the state’s northern half.
Whig leaders stressed Protestant culture, federal-sponsored internal improvements, and courted the support of a variety of reform movements, including of course temperance, Nativism, and even anti-slavery, though few Whigs believed in racial equality. These positions attracted a wide range of figures, including a young convert to politics named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln admired Whig leader Henry Clay of Kentucky, and by the early 1830s, Lincoln certainly fit the image of developing Whig. A veteran of the Black Hawk War, Lincoln had re-located to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, living a life of thrift, self-discipline, and sobriety as he educated himself in preparation for a professional life in law and politics.
The Whig Party blamed Democrats for defending slavery at the expense of the American people, but antislavery was never a core component of the Whig platform. Several abolitionists grew so disgusted with the Whigs that they formed their own party, a true antislavery party. Activists in Warsaw, New York, a small town located outside of Buffalo, went to work and organized the anti-slavery Liberty Party in 1839. Liberty leaders demanded the end of slavery in the District of Columbia, the ending the interstate slave trade, and the prohibition of slavery’s further expansion into the West. But the Liberty Party also shunned women’s participation in the movement, and distanced themselves from visions of true racial egalitarianism. Few Americans voted for the party, however, and the Democrats and Whigs continued to dominate American politics.
Democrats and Whigs fostered a moment of relative calm on the slavery debate, partially aided by gag rules prohibiting discussion of antislavery petitions. Arkansas (1836) and Michigan (1837) became the newest states admitted to the Union, with Arkansas coming in as a slave state, and Michigan coming in as a free state. Michigan gained admission through provisions established in the Northwest Ordinance, while Arkansas came in under the Missouri Compromise. Since its lands were below the line at 36° 30′ the admission of Arkansas did not threaten the Missouri consensus. The balancing act between slavery and freedom continued.
Events in Texas would shatter the balance. Independent Texas soon gained recognition from a supportive Andrew Jackson administration in 1837. But Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, also a Democrat, soon had reasons to worry about the Republic of Texas. Texas struggled with ongoing conflicts with Mexico and Indian raids from the powerful Comanche. The 1844 democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk sought to bridge the sectional divide by promising new lands to whites north and south. Polk cited the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory as campaign cornerstones. Yet as Polk championed the acquisition of these vast new lands, northern Democrats grew annoyed by their southern colleagues, especially when it came to Texas.
For many observers, the debates over Texas statehood illustrated that the federal government had at last moved in a clear pro-slavery direction. Texas President Sam Houston managed to secure a deal with Polk, and gained admission to the Union for Texas in 1845. Anti-slavery northerners were also worried about the admission of Florida, which also entered the Union as slave state in 1845. The year 1845 became a pivotal year in the memory of anti-slavery leaders. As Americans embraced calls to pursue their “Manifest Destiny,” anti-slavery voices looked at developments in Florida and Texas as signs that the sectional crisis had taken an ominous and perhaps irredeemable turn.
The 1840s opened with a number of disturbing developments for anti-slavery leaders. The 1842 Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania ruled that the federal government’s Fugitive Slave Act trumped Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law. Antislavery activists believed that the federal government only served southern slaveholders and were trouncing the states’ rights of the North. A number of northern states reacted by passing new personal liberty laws in protest in 1843.
The rising controversy over the status of fugitive slaves swelled partly through the influence of escaped former slaves, including Frederick Douglass (Figure 2). Douglass’s entrance into northern politics marked an important new development in the nation’s coming sectional crisis, as the nation’s beleaguered community of freed black northerners gained perhaps its most powerful voice. Born into slavery in 1818 at Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass grew up, like many enslaved people, barely having known his own mother or date of birth. And yet because of a range of unique privileges afforded him by the circumstances of his upbringing, as well as his own pluck and determination, Douglass managed to learn how to read and write. He used these skills to escape from slavery in 1837, when he was just nineteen. By 1845, Douglass put the finishing touches on his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book launched his life-long career as an advocate for the enslaved and the oppressed and helped further raise the visibility of black politics nationally. Other former slaves, including Sojourner Truth (Figure 3) joined Douglass in rousing support for antislavery, as did free blacks like Maria Stewart, James McCune Smith, Martin Delaney and numerous others. But black activists did more than deliver speeches. They also attacked fugitive slave laws by helping thousands to escape. The incredible career of Harriet Tubman (Figure 4) is one of the more dramatic examples. But the forces of slavery had powerful allies at every level of government.
The year 1846 signaled new reversals to the anti-slavery cause, and the beginnings of a dark new era in American politics. President Polk and his Democratic allies were eager to see western lands brought into the Union, and were especially anxious to see the borders of the nation extended to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Critics of the administration blasted these efforts as little more than land-grabs on behalf of the slaveholders. Events in early 1846 seemed to justify anti-slavery complaints. Since Mexico had never recognized independent Texas, it continued to lay claim to its lands, even after the United States admitted it to the Union. In January 1846, Polk ordered troops to Texas to enforce claims stemming from its border dispute along the Rio Grande. Polk asked for war on May 11, 1846, and by September 1847, after campaigns conquering all or most of present-day California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming and Arizona (lands west of the Louisiana Purchase excepting for Pacific Northwest) United States forces entered Mexico City. Whigs, like Abraham Lincoln, found their protests sidelined, but anti-slavery voices were becoming more vocal and more powerful.
After 1846, the sectional crisis raged throughout North America. Debates swirled over whether the new lands would be slave or free. The South began defending slavery as a positive good. At the same time, Congressman David Wilmot submitted his “Wilmot Proviso” late in 1846, banning the expansion of slavery into the territories won from Mexico. The Proviso gained widespread northern support and even passed the House with bipartisan support, but in the Senate it failed. (3)