CONVERSATION / Legacy / Deep Dive

The Concrete Confederate Crisis
Part 5: From Compromise to Crisis

The decade preceding the Civil War began positively with a compromise that seemed to settle the several outstanding issues of the Mexican Cession. Despite lawmakers' efforts, however, slavery remained a burning national question; new political alignments were formed that reflected the division of the country between North and South, and the creation of new territories raised anew the problem of the extension of slavery. Court decisions and popular literature hardened the feelings of both proslavery and antislavery individuals. In the end, the nation could not overcome the fundamental divisions over slavery and states' rights, and the Union was dissolved.


With California ready for statehood in 1850, a solution to the problem of the extension of slavery raised by the Mexican Cession could no longer be delayed. Although President Taylor was the titular head of the Whigs, he had little political clout. The Whigs turned to Henry Clay, who was responsible for the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the settlement of the nullification controversy in the 1830s, to devise yet another compromise that would satisfy all factions.


Clay knew that the issues dividing the country went beyond the lands acquired from the war with Mexico. Many northerners were concerned about slaves still being bought and sold in the nation's capital, while southerners wanted a more effective means than the 1793 fugitive slave law for recapturing their runaway slaves. In January 1850, Clay presented a series of resolutions known as the omnibus bill, which addressed all the outstanding questions.

According to the bill, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state; New Mexico and Utah would be organized as territories with the status of slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty; the slave trade, but not slavery itself, would be terminated in the District of Columbia; the fugitive slave law would be strengthened; Congress would declare that it had no right to interfere in the interstate slave trade; the disputed boundary between Texas and New Mexico would be adjusted; and the United States would assume the pre‐annexation debt of Texas.


The debate in the Senate on the omnibus bill stretched out for six months amid talk of the southern states' seceding from the Union. Clay made an eloquent defense of his proposed settlement on the Senate floor, strongly emphasizing that secession would lead only to war. Calhoun, too ill to deliver his response to Clay's speech, listened as a colleague read it for him. He called for equal rights for the South in the territories, an end to attacks against slavery, and a constitutional amendment that would, in some vaguely described manner, restore power to the southern states.

Daniel Webster spoke in support of the compromise and criticized extremists on both sides of the issues—abolitionists as well as the vocal defenders of slavery. He argued that the climate and soil of the territories precluded the extension of slavery there. Senator William H. Seward of New York condemned Clay's resolutions on the grounds that any compromise with slavery was wrong.

The omnibus bill failed because all of the measures had to be voted on as a package. Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, rescued the compromise by pushing through five separate bills, each of which independently drew enough support to pass. In addition to admitting California as a free state, the Compromise of 1850 included the following four pieces of legislation: the Texas and New Mexico Act, under which New Mexico became a territory without restrictions on slavery (that is, the matter was to be settled by popular sovereignty) and the boundary between Texas and New Mexico was settled, with the United States paying Texas $10 million to relinquish all its territorial claims; the Utah Act, which established Utah as a territory under the same terms as New Mexico regarding slavery; an amendment to the Fugitive Slave Act, which put all cases involving runaway slaves under federal jurisdiction in a manner that clearly favored slave owners; and the Act Abolishing the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia, which did exactly what its title indicates—it abolished commerce in slaves in the capital city, effective January 1, 1851, with the further provision that the District of Columbia could not be used as a shipping point for the purpose of sale. 


Although the running away of slaves was never a serious problem, the new fugitive slave law was the one major victory the South won from the Compromise of 1850; it was also the most controversial. Special commissioners were appointed to hear cases regarding fugitives and could issue warrants for the arrest of runaway slaves; the commissioners received ten dollars for every alleged runaway returned to his or her owner but only five dollars if it was determined that the slave should not be returned. Slaves who claimed to be free were not permitted to testify in their own defense and did not have recourse to a jury trial.

Anyone who interfered with the capture of fugitive slaves faced heavy fines, and obstructing the return of a slave was punishable by fines, imprisonment, and civil liabilities. Despite the law's enforcement provisions, several northern states enacted personal liberty laws, which prohibited officials from aiding in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Occasionally, violence broke out when a crowd of abolitionists tried to “rescue” slaves who were about to be brought before commissioners. The refusal of many northerners to cooperate with agents exercising their rights under the law made the Fugitive Slave Act a dead letter as soon as it was enacted.


Northern views of slavery hardened after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which she wrote about the injustice of the institution in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The daughter of the noted preacher Lyman Beecher and sister of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Stowe first serialized Uncle Tom's Cabin in an abolitionist magazine in 1851. The story appeared as a book the following year.

The novel dramatically portrays the terror of the slave Eliza as she runs across ice floes on the Ohio River, clutching her tiny baby, and the nobility of Uncle Tom as he is whipped to death by Simon Legree. The book makes it clear that the concept of slavery is inherently evil; although Tom had been owned by a “kindly master” before he was sold to Legree, it was the institution itself that led to families being torn apart.

Stowe's novel was an immediate success, selling two million copies by the end of 1852 and waking a mass audience to the harshness of slavery. The impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin is difficult to overestimate. According to Stowe's son, when President Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe at a White House affair, he is alleged to have remarked, “So this is the little lady who started the Civil War.” The story is probably apocryphal, but it makes the point that northern views on slavery indeed changed after the publication of her novel.

Part 6: Political Realignment in the 1850s

The presidential election of 1852 marked the beginning of the end of the Whig party. With its northern and southern wings divided over the Fugitive Slave Law, the best the party could do was nominate another hero of the Mexican War, General Winfield Scott. The Democrats turned away from Millard Fillmore, Taylor's vice president, who had succeeded to the presidency upon Taylor's death in 1850, and chose Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire as their candidate. Although both parties supported the Compromise of 1850, the Democrats were able to better overcome their internal differences, and Pierce won a landslide victory in the Electoral College, 254 to 42. The Whigs never recovered from the defeat.


The election of 1852 was an important watershed. As the Whig party fell apart, Americans formed new political alignments. Southern Whigs moved into the Democratic party, while northern Whigs joined the new Republican party, formed in 1855. In addition, another party—the American party (also known as the Know‐Nothings)—attracted anti‐immigration nativists, opponents of the extension of slavery, and voters disillusioned with the performance of both the Whigs and Democrats. The year 1852 also marked the last election for eighty years in which candidates from both parties collected popular and electoral votes from throughout the country; party affiliation and voter support remained largely sectional until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.


The Compromise of 1850 did not address the issue of slavery in the large unorganized territory in the Great Plains, but with California clamoring for the construction of a transcontinental railroad link to the East, the issue had to be addressed. Senator Douglas, who favored a northern rail route to California that would benefit Chicago, was the author of the Kansas‐Nebraska Act. It created two territories—Kansas and Nebraska—and declared the Missouri Compromise null and void; the matter of slavery in the new territories would be decided by popular sovereignty. Personally, Douglas assumed that Nebraska would become a free state and that Kansas would allow slavery.

The Kansas‐Nebraska Act created far more problems than it purported to solve. Antislavery northerners, who held the Missouri Compromise sacrosanct, thought the legislation sold Kansas into slavery, and they condemned Douglas for being a dupe of southern interests. Their suspicions gained credibility with the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase at the end of 1853. President Pierce had sent James Gadsden, a railroad expert who happened to be a southerner, to Mexico to negotiate the purchase of the Mesilla Valley, the area south of the Gila River in present‐day Arizona.

An army survey had indicated this region to be a feasible route for a southerly transcontinental railroad, which had considerable support in the South. The treaty originally included Baja California, but opposition from free‐soilers limited the purchase to the land that makes up the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico today. The purchase completed the continental expansion of the United States.


Senator Douglas did not anticipate the violence that would accompany the creation of the Kansas Territory, as both pro slavery and antislavery settlers rushed in to gain control of the government. Competing territorial legislatures were established in 1855, and the free‐state force drafted a constitution prohibiting not only slavery but also the settling of free blacks in Kansas. On May 21, 1856, a pro slavery mob attacked the free‐state stronghold at Lawrence, burning buildings and destroying property. John Brown, a militant abolitionist, and a small band of supporters retaliated by killing five men at Pottawatomie Creek a few days later.

Violence erupted in the U.S. Senate over Kansas as well. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts condemned southerners for their actions in Kansas in extremely strong language. Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, decided to punish Sumner for his insults and beat him with his cane in a confrontation in the Senate chamber. Onlookers from the South did nothing to help Sumner.


The new Republican party chose Californian John C. Fremont, explorer and military leader, as its presidential candidate in 1856. The party's platform, which condemned the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and called for free soil, was more important than the nominee; the Republicans were the first major political party to fake a position on slavery. James Buchanan, an experienced politician and diplomat who had served in both the House and Senate and had been secretary of state in the Polk administration, was the Democratic candidate. He ran on a platform that endorsed the Kansas‐Nebraska Act and congressional noninterference in slavery. The American party turned to former president Millard Fillmore.

The Republicans recognized that they had no chance of winning in the slave states, so there were in effect two sectional campaigns: Frémont against Buchanan in the North and Buchanan against Fillmore in the South. The American party's anti‐Catholic and anti‐immigrant stand cost it dearly. The Democrats swept the South with the exception of the border states of Maryland and Delaware and also showed strength in key northern states, where their attacks against nativism and calls for religious freedom gained the party support from ethnic voters. Fremont won eleven of the sixteen free states and came close to winning the election without any backing at all in the South, which was significant because it showed that a party with an antislavery platform and an exclusively northern base could win the presidency.

Part 7: Union in Crisis

Buchanan won, but his term in office began inauspiciously. Two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down its long‐awaited decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a key case that addressed the status of African Americans in American society. The ruling of Chief Justice Roger Taney was hailed in the South but blasted by infuriated antislavery forces in the North. The decision further heightened the sectional tensions in the country.

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As a slave, Dred Scott had been taken by his master from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin, where they lived during the 1830s. After his master died, Scott tried to buy his freedom; when that failed, he sought relief in the courts. He claimed that although he had been brought back to Missouri, his past residence in a free state and territory had made him a free person.

Taney's decision effectively rejected Scott's claim from the outset. He stated that Scott was a slave, not a citizen of either the United States or Missouri, and therefore had no right to bring suit in the federal courts. Taney put forward a racial justification for denying blacks, free or slave, the rights of citizenship. From the time the Constitution was ratified, African Americans were “regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations.” Further, Taney declared that the Missouri Compromise, which had created the concept of free and slave states based on geography, had been unconstitutional from its inception because it violated the Fifth Amendment's protection of property. In his view, slaves were nothing more than property, as southerners had always asserted they were.

The Dred Scott decision astonished antislavery northerners, who took their wrath out on Buchanan. Even though the president had not appointed the Taney Court and had no influence on its decision, he was seen as another puppet of the slaveowners. The fact that Buchanan was one of the signatories of the Ostend Manifesto (1854), which threatened an American takeover of Cuba after Spain had spurned an offer from the United States to buy the colony, seemed to give additional credence to this view. It was widely believed that the South was interested in acquiring Cuba to make it a slave state.


Despite his political troubles, Buchanan hoped to bring about a solution to the tensions in Kansas between the rival territorial governments. He suggested that an elected territorial convention create a constitution either permitting or prohibiting slavery and that Congress, after reviewing the document, vote on admitting Kansas as a state. The president failed to take into account the numerous instances of voting fraud in the territory's brief history. Although in the majority, free‐staters boycotted the election for the convention, and the proslavery delegates left in control drafted a constitution that permitted slavery. Through a territorial referendum limited to just the constitution's slavery provisions, also boycotted by the antislavery forces, the Lecompton Constitution was approved. The free‐state legislature called for another vote on the constitution, and the result was overwhelmingly negative. Although a proponent of popular sovereignty, Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution anyway as a way of paying back his southern supporters and tried to get Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state. Congress, however, ordered yet another closely supervised election, and the voters rejected the Lecompton Constitution for a second time. With that vote, Kansas was no longer a burning issue in national politics. Buchanan's inept handling of the Kansas constitution succeeded only in alienating northern Democrats. 


An economic downturn in late 1857 hurt business conditions. California gold had inflated the nation's currency, and speculators had overly promoted railroads and real estate. Unemployment rose, and grain prices fell because of oversupply, but cotton prices dipped and then quickly recovered. The fact that the South weathered the depression much better than the North was taken by southerners as an important sign of the strength of the southern economy. The more radical individuals in the region, who were seriously considering secession, believed that the South could function independently of the North on cotton exports alone. Northern business interests blamed their problems squarely on Democratic policies, particularly the Tariff of 1857, which had lowered rates significantly. The panic gave the Republicans powerful ammunition for the upcoming presidential election: protective tariffs for business and liberal land laws for encouraging the creation of family farms.


Senator Douglas had broken with Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution and was a likely challenge to him for the Democratic nomination in 1860. In Douglas's crucial 1858 Senate reelection campaign, his Republican opponent was Abraham Lincoln, who had been long involved in first Whig and men Republican party politics but had little personal national experience. The debates between the two candidates revolved around their position on slavery. Although Lincoln favored limiting slavery to the states where it already existed and accepted that race made social and political equality for blacks impossible, Douglas was able to portray him as an abolitionist for all intents and purposes. When Douglas was asked how he could reconcile popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision, the best he could come up with was a weak argument that voters in a territory could reject laws that protected slaves as property. This concept became known as the Freeport Doctrine, after the town where the particular debate took place. Although Lincoln lost the election, he did become a national figure, popular in the North but hated in the South.


As the decade drew to a close, the North and South grew increasingly polarized. It became difficult to distinguish among those who wanted to abolish slavery immediately, those who simply opposed slavery, and those who were just against the extension of slavery. To southerners, particularly the more radical, anything less than unconditional acceptance of slavery was intolerable. The time for reasoned debate was quickly passing, and critical events escalated the tension.

In October 1859, the fiery John Brown, who had already gained national notoriety for his actions in Kansas, raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the apparent objective of fomenting a slave revolt. Federal troops captured Brown and his small band; tried for and convicted of treason, he was hanged on December 2. Southerners soon learned that Brown had connections with prominent abolitionists. While many northerners hailed him as a martyr to the cause of freedom, southerners concluded that the raid on Harpers Ferry was not an isolated incident but part of a conspiracy to mobilize slaves in a mass insurrection. Feeling that their entire way of life was under imminent attack, some southerners looked to secession—leaving the Union—as the only solution. The outcome of the upcoming presidential election would be crucial.


To counteract the image of the Republican party as the party of the abolitionists, the Republicans broadened their program to include a protective tariff, free 160‐acre homesteads from the public domain, and a more moderate stand on slavery. New York's William Seward, long known for his abolitionist views, was too radical a candidate; therefore, the Republicans nominated Lincoln.

The Democratic party, faced with the challenge of choosing someone who could appeal to all their factions, split in two. The Democrats' convention was in Charleston, South Carolina, the home of the late Calhoun and a hot bed of radical southern sentiment since the 1820s. A platform plank endorsing popular sovereignty was adopted, which prompted the delegates from the Deep South to bolt the convention; the remaining delegates could not agree on a nominee. The Democrats then moved to Baltimore and eventually selected Stephen Douglas for their candidate—the decision that split the party. Southern Democrats, who wanted federal protection of slavery in the territories, opted to run their own candidate, Buchanan's vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Meanwhile, a group of southern moderates joined with former northern Whigs to form the Constitutional Union party, and they chose John Bell, a Tennessee slaveowner who had opposed the Lecompton Constitution, for their candidate.

With the Democratic party divided, Lincoln's election was effectively guaranteed. Although Douglas did relatively well in the popular vote, Lincoln won every state north of the Mason‐Dixon Line, along with California and Oregon. The Deep South, from North Carolina to Texas, went to Breckinridge, while Bell took Virginia, Kentucky, and his home state of Tennessee.


Lincoln's election was the signal for secession. Not surprising, South Carolina left first (December 20, 1860), followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Representatives of the seven states met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861 to form the Confederate States of America, draft a new constitution, and elect Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their first president. Last‐minute efforts to compromise failed. Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky tried to work out an arrangement whereby owners of runaway slaves would be compensated for their loss and to amend the Constitution to bar the federal government from interfering with slavery in the South, but events had moved beyond compromise, and the Republicans rejected Crittenden's proposals in any event.

The crucial issue was no longer slavery but whether the southern states would be allowed to secede. By the time Lincoln took office in March, the Confederacy had already commandeered federal arsenals, post offices, government buildings and offices, and most military installations within its territory. Fort Sumter, located on an island in Charleston Harbor, was still in the hands of the United States. Buchanan had tried to send reinforcements and supplies to the fort but backed off when the relief ship was fired upon from the mainland shore. Lincoln tried another approach, announcing that he was sending in just food and medical supplies, not additional troops or ammunition. The South could not abide a continued Union presence in Charleston, and early on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. The U.S. forces surrendered the next day. The South had fired the first shot, and Lincoln called for seventy‐five thousand volunteers to suppress the insurrection. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee joined the Confederacy during the next month. The Civil War had begun.