SUMMARY. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina troops fired on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston. That momentous event, however, was but one important milestone in the conflict over slavery in America. It is probably safe to say that the struggle began in 1619 when the first slaves were offloaded from a Spanish ship in the Jamestown, Virginia colony. The fate of those early slaves remains obscure, but we do know that within 50 years, permanent lifetime slavery for African-Americans brought to America was established. Protests against slavery began in the late 1600s when the Quaker church condemned slavery, yet the practice continued through the American Revolution. After 1776, as many of the states considered the meaning of Jefferson's words that “all men are created equal,” however, the elimination of slavery began in the North. Slavery was also prohibited in territories belonging to the new nation under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

After 1800 the cotton economy in the South gave new life to the institution of slavery as slave labor became ever more valuable. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 up held the balance between slave states and free states while prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30' parallel. That compromise limited debate at the national level for 30 years. By 1830, however, the growing abolitionist movement gave pause to defenders of slavery in the southern states, and they sought ways to inhibit the federal power to outlaw the practice. The nullification crisis of 1832, ostensibly over tariffs, had a hidden agenda, namely, the ability of states to nullify federal laws that might be applied to slavery. When the tariff effort failed, it became apparent that the next logical defensive measure would be secession.

While discussion of the slavery issue in the United States Congress was muted by various gag laws, the conflict simply would not disappear. The accession of Texas prompted more debate over slavery, and when the annexation of Texas triggered war with Mexico, the resulting addition of a huge new block of territory in the Southwest opened the issue yet again. In anticipation of attempts to block slavery in the new Territories, delegates of southern states met in Nashville in 1850 to discuss secession. Although moderate voices prevailed, the idea of secession was now a distinct possibility, openly discussed. When the California gold rush made that territory ready for admission as a state, Congress was required to formally address the issue of slavery, thus instituting one of the great debates in American history, debate over the Compromise of 1850.

States' Rights, Popular Sovereignty and Slavery

Causes of the Civil War: Myth and Reality

Although the causes of the Civil War are still debated, it is difficult to imagine the Civil War occurring without recognizing the impact slavery had on the difficulties between the North and the South. For a time the tariff and other issues divided North and South, but there is practically no mention of any of them in the secession documents or in the great debates of the 1850s. Some argue that it was an issue of states’ rights, but none of the secession documents argue their case on those grounds. Indeed, in the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, the first to be adopted and a model for later ones, part of South Carolina's justification for secession is that Northern states had attempted to annul the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Those northern states were, in effect, exercising their states’ rights, but South Carolina did not approve.

Many Americans nevertheless believe that the Civil War was only incidentally connected with slavery. That view is difficult to reconcile with the known facts based upon existing documents from the Civil War era. Virtually every major political issue of a controversial nature between 1850 and 1860 deals with the issue of slavery. Furthermore, the issue had been contentious since before the American Revolution. 

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was much discussion of slavery that resulted in the so-called 3/5 Compromise. Since the institution of slavery was dying out in parts of the country during the Revolutionary era, it is understandable that the framers of the Constitution hoped that slavery would die a natural death. Slave owners such as a Washington, Jefferson and George Mason all understood masonthe dangers involved in the continuation of slavery in the nation. Indeed, during the Constitutional Convention, on August 22, 1787, George Mason made a speech in which he, in effect, predicted the Civil War because of slavery. As James Madison's notes recorded, Mason argued as follows during the debate on the slave trade:

“The present question concerns not the importing States alone but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the Enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. … Maryland and Virginia he said had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands, and will fill that Country with slaves if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich and strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had from a lust of gain embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the Right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential in every point of view that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery. [Emphasis added]”

Because the creation of the Constitution was a supreme challenge, the founding fathers were not prepared to deal with the slavery issue more directly. The invention of the cotton gin and the booming Southern cotton industry which followed, further negated hopes for a gradual diminution of slavery in America. The Constitution did, however, permit Congress to ban the importation of slaves 20 years after adoption of the Constitution. That measure was carried out in 1808. 

Although the Constitution gave the federal government the right to abolish the international slave trade, the government had no power to regulate or destroy the institution of slavery where it already existed. Nonetheless, Congress prevented the extension of slavery to certain territories in the Northwest Ordinance (which carried over to the period after the Constitution) and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. So long as both North and South had opportunities for expansion, compromise had been possible. Traditionally, slavery, where it existed, had been kept out of American politics. The result was that no practical program could be devised for its elimination in the Southern states. Until the 1850s, however, Congress was understood to have the power to set conditions under which territories could become states and to forbid slavery in new states.

The issue of the admission of Missouri to the Union in 1820 drew the attention of Congress to slavery again. Although attempts to eliminate slavery in the state failed, the Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri to come in as a slave state, with Maine entering as a free state at the same time, thus maintaining the balance between free states and slave states in the Senate. Slavery was prohibited north of the southern boundary of Missouri from that time forward. The restriction was agreeable to the South in part because the area north of Missouri was still known as the “great American desert.”

The abolition movement brought new attention to slavery beginning about 1830. When the moral issue of slavery was raised by men like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, further compromise became more difficult. Documents began to appear describing the brutal conditions of slavery. Nevertheless, abolitionism never achieved majority political status in the non-slave states. Since most Americans accepted the existence of slavery where it was legal (and constitutionally protected), the controversy between North and South focused on the issue of slavery in the territories.

The issue might have been resolved by extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific Ocean to cover the new territory added in the Mexican Cession. However, since the movement to prohibit slavery in the territories was stronger in 1850 than it had been in 1820, the political forces were unable to handle it as smoothly as in 1820. Thus another sort of compromise was needed, one that shifted responsibility from the national government to the territories themselves. That novel concept was known as “popular sovereignty”—letting the people in the new territories decide for themselves whether to have slavery.

The idea of popular sovereignty had two things going for it. First, it seemed democratic. Why not let the people decide for themselves whether or not they want slavery? (Of course participation in that decision was never extended to the slave population.) Second, it was compatible with the notion of “states’ rights.” The doctrine contained a major flaw, however; it ignored the concerns of those who tolerated slavery only on the assumption, as Lincoln and others put it, that slavery “was in the course of ultimate extinction.” As the abolition and free soil advocates saw it, allowing slavery to go into the territories was certain to postpone that day.

The net result of the popular sovereignty approach was that the federal government, in attempting to evade responsibility by shifting it to the people of the territories themselves, merely heightened the crisis. By 1850 slavery had become a “federal case,” and despite the best efforts of compromisers like Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, the tactic of popular sovereignty backfired. The country drifted closer to war.

The Constitution gave the federal government the right to abolish the international slave trade, but no power to regulate or destroy the institution of slavery where it already existed. Nonetheless, Congress had prevented the extension of slavery to certain territories in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. So long as both the free North and the slave South had some opportunities for expansion, compromise had been possible. Traditionally, existing slavery had been kept out of American politics, with the result that no practical program could be devised for its elimination in the southern states. Congress, however, had the power to set the conditions under which territories became states and to forbid slavery in new states.

In the 1840s, as the result of expansion, Congress faced the problem of determining the status of slavery in the territories taken from Mexico. While prosperity came from territorial expansion, sectional harmony did not. When the United States gained 500,000 square miles of new land in 1848 (over 1,000,000 counting Texas), the nation again had to decide whether slavery was to be allowed in the territories of the United States. The Constitution prevented federal control of slavery in states where it existed, but gave Congress control over the territories. That was where slavery’s opponents could combat the institution they deplored.

Beginning with the Great Land Ordinances of the 1780s the United States had tried to govern its territories in a way which would be consistent with American practice (which unfortunately included neglect of the rights of the indigenous populations of Indians and others.) The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which covered five future states, established federal territorial policy. As was discussed earlier, had that policy been extended to future territories, a great deal of grief might have been spared, for the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Old Northwest.

The acquisition of new territory from France, the Louisiana Purchase, precipitated a crisis when the subject of slavery in that territory came to a head over the issue of the admission of Missouri. The Missouri Compromise in 1820 resolved the issue for the time, but only postponed the crisis—as Jefferson and many others recognized at the time. The issue reemerged in 1848 after the Mexican-American War, and another crisis over the handling of slavery in the territories developed. To begin with, absent laws (such as the Northwest Ordinance) prohibiting slavery, nothing prevented slave owners from taking their "property" into the territories. Thus when the population became large enough for the territory to begin thinking of statehood, slavery had to be considered when the people in the territories wrote their constitutions and applied to Congress for admission. Since those state constitutions were an essential step on the road to statehood, Congress had some control over the process through approval of the proposed constitutions. Thus the issue became a national one and not one of states’ (or territorial) rights.

Since abolitionism never reached majority status in the non-slave states, and since most Americans accepted the existence of slavery where it was legal (and constitutionally protected), the chief controversy between North and South became the issue of slavery in the territories. The issue might have been resolved by extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific to cover the new territory, but since the movement to prohibit slavery in the territories was much stronger in 1850 than it had been in 1820, the political forces were unable handle it as smoothly as in 1820. Thus another sort of compromise was needed, one that shifted responsibility from the national government to the territories themselves. That novel concept was known as "popular sovereignty."

The idea of popular sovereignty had two things going for it. First, it seemed democratic. Why not let the people decide for themselves whether or not they want slavery? (Of course participation in that decision was never extended to the slave population.) Second, it seemed acceptable to Americans for whom "states’ rights" was the condition on which they continued to tolerate federal government control over local issues. The doctrine contained a major flaw, however, in that it ignored the concerns of Americans who continued to accept slavery only on the assumption, as Lincoln and others put it, that it "was in the course of ultimate extinction." Allowing slavery to go into the territories was certain, as the abolition and free soil advocates saw it, to postpone that day.

The net result of popular sovereignty was that the federal government, in attempting to evade responsibility by shifting it to the people of the territories themselves, merely heightened the crisis. For a time some politicians comforted themselves with the notion that slavery could not exist in any territory absent legislation to support it. (Douglas’s "Freeport Doctrine," for example.) Such claims satisfied neither supporters nor opponents of slavery. By 1850 slavery had become a "federal case," and despite the best efforts of compromisers like Clay and Douglas, the tactic of popular sovereignty backfired, and the country drifted closer to war.

The Wilmot Proviso

Following the annexation of Texas as a slave state, the United States declared war against Mexico in 1846. Realizing that the war might bring additional new territory to the United States, antislavery groups wanted to make sure that slavery would not expand because of American victory. Congressman David Wilmot opened the debate by introducing a bill in Congress that would have banned all African-Americans, slave or free, from whatever land the United States took from Mexico, thus preserving the area for white small farmers.

The so-called “Wilmot Proviso” passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate, where John C. Calhoun argued that Congress had no right to bar slavery from any territory. Others tried to find compromise ground between Wilmot and Calhoun. Polk suggested extending the 36-30 line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific coast. In 1848 Lewis Cass proposed to settle the issue by "popular sovereignty"—organizing the territories without mention of slavery and letting local settlers decide whether theirs would be a free or slave territory. It seemed a democratic way to solve the problem and it got Congress off the hook. This blend of racism and antislavery won great support in the North; though it was debated frequently, however, it never passed. The battle over the Proviso foreshadowed an even more urgent controversy once the peace treaty with Mexico was signed.

Popular Sovereignty and the Election of 1848

The North rejected the extension of the Missouri Compromise line as too beneficial to southern interests, but many supported popular sovereignty. The Democrats, who almost split North and South over slavery, nominated Lewis Cass, who urged "popular sovereignty." Webster was the natural choice of Whigs, but the war hero was too appealing. Zachary Taylor avoided taking a stand but promised no executive interference with congressional legislation. Discontented Democrats (called "barnburners") walked out and joined with old members of the Liberty Party to form the Free-Soil Party, which nominated Martin Van Buren—who favored the Wilmot Proviso,—and Charles Francis Adams. Popular sovereignty found support among antislavery forces, who assumed that the territorial settlers would have a chance to prohibit slavery before it could get established, but it was unacceptable to those who wanted a definite limit placed on the expansion of slavery. President Polk’s fears were realized when Taylor won with a minority of the popular vote.

The California Gold Rush

When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, thousands of Americans began flocking to California’s gold fields in 1848-1849, creating demands for a territorial government. There were few slaves in California, though more than in New Mexico and Utah combined. But slavery was not an admission issue, though California passed "sojourner" laws that allow slaveholders to bring slaves and keep them for a time. Still, the question of slavery in the territories had to be faced; California merely precipitated the crisis. Taylor proposed to settle the controversy by admitting California and New Mexico as states without the prior organization of a territorial government, even though New Mexico had too few people to be a state. The white South reacted angrily. Planters objected that they had not yet had time to settle the new territories, which would certainly ban slavery if they immediately became states. A convention of the Southern states was called to meet at Nashville, perhaps to declare secession. Only nine states sent representatives, and although nothing was formally decided, the Nashville Convention forebode greater problems.

No one questioned the right of a state to be free or slave. Californians submitted an antislavery constitution with their request to admission. Southerners were outraged because the admission of California would give the free states a majority and control of the Senate. Once again, Henry Clay rose to offer a compromise. He proposed the admission of California as a free state; the remainder of the cession territory be organized without mention of slavery; a Texas-New Mexico boundary controversy be settled in New Mexico’s favor, but Texas be compensated with a federal assumption of its state debt; the slave trade (but not slavery) be abolished in Washington, D.C.; and a more stringent fugitive slave law be enacted and vigorously enforced. Although Taylor resisted the compromise until his death, his successor Millard Fillmore supported what became known as the Compromise of 1850.

THE COMPROMISE OF 1850 -- The Last Best Hope

After the death of Calhoun and departure of Webster and Clay, young Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois took over. Breaking the compromise down into separate measures, which allowed members to vote against what they didn’t like and for the rest, Douglas brought the seven-month-long debate to a successful conclusion. Congress adopted each of Clay's proposals as a separate measure and changed them slightly—for example, the Democrats extended popular sovereignty to the Utah territory. The Compromise admitted California as a free state, organized the territories of New Mexico and Utah on the basis of popular sovereignty, retracted the borders of Texas in return for assumption of the state's debt, and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The most controversial provision created a strong Fugitive Slave Law, denying suspected runaways any rights of self-defense, and requiring Northerners to help enforce slavery. The South accepted the Compromise of 1850 as conclusive and backed away from threats of secession. In the North, the Democratic party gained popularity by taking credit for the compromise, and the Whigs found it necessary to cease their criticism of it.

1850 Compromise: The History

The debate over the compromise of 1850 has been called the last great Clay, Calhoun and Webster performance. Henry Clay was back in the Senate with his two fellow members of the "Great Triumvirate" and he began a debate by introducing various resolutions designed to achieve a compromise. Issue the three men made passionate, memorable speeches in defense of their positions. John C Calhoun was the spokesman for southern, proslavery advocates. Aging like his two colleagues, Calhoun was ill during the debates, and his speeches were delivered by Senator Mason of Virginia a grandson of George Mason. Calhoun's major point was an argument for federal guarantees for slavery in the territories.

Henry Clay, although a slaveholder, was from Kentucky, a border state where the defense of slavery was a far less vital matter than in the deeper South. Daniel Webster from New England was opposed to slavery, but was even more strongly opposed to the idea of secession, declaring that the notion of a "peaceable secession" was impossible. The three Berry and orators also heard powerful rhetoric from abolitionist Senator William Seward of New York who declared that there was a "higher law" than the Constitution that bound him to oppose the expansion of slavery. The idea of the higher law was meant as a moral argument that overrode the constitutional issue. Because there were portions of the proposed law that were unacceptable to significant blocs of voters, after months of debate tea law had not passed.

The deaths of President Zachary Taylor led to the breaking of the deadlock over the issue of slavery in the new territory that including California. President Fillmore asked Daniel Webster to return his former position as Secretary of State. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, later known as the "Little giant," assume leadership of the debate and, realizing that the measure could not pass as designed, broke it into five separate bills and guided each one through Congress separately. In that matter to people who were bitterly opposed to certain portions of the proposed compromise could vote against them, but the combined negatives were not sufficient to block the five separate bills. After seven months of debate the five laws that made up the Compromise of 1850 provided for the following:

1. California enters as free state; few of those participating in the gold rush were anxious to share their find with slaves, so there were few in the territory.

2. The Texas-New Mexico boundary was adjusted adjusted; New Mexico Territory was allowed to settle the slavery issue on the basis of popular sovereignty. Texas gave up its claims to New Mexico for $10 million.

3. The Utah territory was also organized on the basis of popular sovereignty.

4. The fugitive slave act of 1793 was superseded by a new, much tougher act. It gave federal jurisdiction to the return of runaway slaves. The affidavit of a claim slave owner was sufficient for the issue of a warrant. Free blacks had no voice in court decisions regarding the return of slaves. Stiff penalties were adjudged for interference with the law, and the fees judges received were higher if the slaves weredeemed returnable.

5. As a concession to antislavery interests, the slave trade was abolished and the District of Columbia, though slavery itself was still permitted in the nation's capital.

The immediate result of the 1850 compromise was euphoric acceptance. Many Americans considered the legislation a "final solution" to the slavery issue. Radical northern abolitionists, however, were not satisfied that slavery might still continue under the compromise laws. In the end the compromise was bound not to be a permanent solution as both sides rejected some of the other's conditions; everybody was opposed to at least part of it. Yet the end of the bitter debate did result in the reconciliation of some politicians would become estranged over the issue. A relative period of peace and harmony reigned in the United States Congress, though it was not to last very long.

The new 1850 fugitive slave law struck fear in the hearts of northern blacks and encouraged more southerners to try to recover escaped slaves. Once the law went into effect slaves who had lived in the North as free men for long periods of time suddenly found themselves liable to being returned to their former owners. Abolitionists often interfered with the enforcement of the law, and such efforts exacerbated sectional feelings. The sight of blacks being carried off to slavery outraged northerners, and southerners resented the northerners' refusal to obey the law. Some of the northern states passed personal liberty lowers to protect free blacks, but the Fugitive Slave Law forced many northerners to experience the heartlessness of slavery.

One example of the trouble caused by the Fugitive Slave Act took place in Christiana, Pennsylvania in 1851. Fugitive slaves from nearby Maryland escaped to a farm where a Freeman protected runaways. The slave owner pursued the fugitives and was killed in a gun battle. The case was tried in a federal court and no one was convicted, but the Christiana incident, sometimes referred to as the "first shots fired in the Civil War," cause further bitterness, both sides.

Although some southerners objected to certain provisions of 1850 compromise, because the law had been duly passed by Congress they were obliged to obey it or look toward the radical action of secession. The South then divided into two camps, those opposed to and those favoring secession. Those two sides would carry their arguments forward throughout the 1850s.


In the weeks of Senatorial debate which preceded the enactment of the Compromise of 1850 a range of attitudes was expressed. Clay took the lead early in speaking for the resolutions he had introduced The Great Compromiser advised the North against insisting on the terms of the Wilmot Proviso and the South against thinking seriously of disunion. Calhoun, who was dying, asked Senator James M. Mason of Virginia to read his gloomy speech for him. After explaining why the bonds of sentiment between North and South had been progressively weakened, Calhoun goes on, in the section printed here, to say how he thought the Union could be saved. Three days later, he was followed by Daniel Webster, who agreed with Clay that there could be no peaceable secession. Webster’s attempt to restrain Northern extremists brought him abuse from anti-slavery men in his own section where formerly he had been so admired. Extreme views were expressed on both sides, but the passage of the compromise measures showed that the moderate spirit of Clay and Webster was still dominant

HENRY CLAY, Feb. 5 and 6, 1850.

… Sir, I must take occasion here to say that in my opinion there is no right on the part of any one or more of the States to secede from the Union. War and dissolution of the Union are identical and inevitable, in my opinion. There can be a dissolution of the Union only by consent or by war. Consent no one can anticipate, from any existing state of things, is likely to be given; and war is the only alternative by which a dissolution could be accomplished. If consent were given—if it were possible that we were to be separated by one great line—in less than sixty days after such consent was given war would break out between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding portions of this Union—between the two independent parts into which it would be erected in virtue of the act of separation. In less than sixty days, I believe, our slaves from Kentucky, flocking over in numbers to the other side of the river, would be pursued by their owners. Our hot and ardent spirits would be restrained by no sense of the right which appertains to the independence of the other side of the river, should that be the line of separation. They would pursue their slaves into the adjacent free States; they would be repelled; and the consequence would be that, in less than sixty days, war would, be blazing in every part of this now happy and peaceful land.

And, sir, how are you going to separate the states of this confederacy? In my humble opinion, Mr. President, we should begin with at least three separate confederacies. There would be a confederacy of the North, a confederacy of the Southern Atlantic slave-holding States, and a confederacy of the valley of the Mississippi. … Such, I believe, would be the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, immediately ensuing; but other confederacies would spring up from time to time, as dissatisfaction and discontent were disseminated throughout the country—the confederacy of the lakes, perhaps the confederacy of New England, or of the middle States. Ah, sir, the veil which covers these sad and disastrous events that lie beyond it, is too thick to be penetrated or lifted by any mortal eye or hand. . . .

Mr. President, I have said, what I solemnly believe, that dissolution of the Union and war are identical and inevitable; and they are convertible terms; and such a war as it would be, following a dissolution of the Union! Sir, we may search the pages of history, and none so ferocious, so bloody, so implacable, so exterminating—not even the wars of Greece, including those of the Commoners of England and the revolutions of France—none, none of them all would rage with such violence, or be characterized with such bloodshed and enormities as would the war which must succeed, if that ever happens, the dissolution of the Union.


The first question is: What is it that has endangered the Union? . . .

One of the causes is, undoubtedly, to be traced to the long continued agitation of the slave question on the part of the North and the many aggressions which they have made on the rights of the South . . .

There is another lying back of it, with which this is intimately connected, that may be regarded as the great and primary cause. That is to be found in the fact that the equilibrium between the two sections in the government, as it stood when the Constitution was ratified and the government put into action, has been destroyed. … I propose … that it is owing to the action of this government that the equilibrium between the two sections has been destroyed and the whole powers of the system centered in a sectional majority.

The next [cause] is the system of revenue and disbursements which his been adopted by the government. It is well known that the government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting states, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due proportion of the revenue because . . . the subject has on so many occasions been fully discussed. …

It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected by a single blow. …Disunion must be the work of time. It is only through a long process, and successively, that the cords can be snapped, until the whole fabric falls asunder. Already the agitation of the slavery question has snapped some of the most important and has greatly weakened all the others. . . .

Having now, senators, explained what it is that endangers the Union, and traced it to its cause, and explained its nature and character, the question again recurs: How can the Union be saved? To this I answer there is but one way by which it can be; and that is by adopting such measures as will satisfy the states belonging to the Southern section that they can remain in the Union consistently with their honor and their safety. … But, before I undertake to answer this question, I propose to show by what the Union cannot be saved.

It cannot, then be saved by eulogies on the Union, however splendid or numerous. The cry of "Union, union, the glorious Union!" can no more prevent disunion than the cry of "Health, health, glorious health!" on the part of the physician can save a patient lying dangerously ill. So long as the Union, instead of being regarded as a protector, is regarded in the opposite character, by not much more than a majority of the States, it will be in vain to attempt to conciliate them by pronouncing eulogies upon it.

The plan of the administration cannot save the Union, because it can have no effect whatever toward satisfying the states composing the Southern section of the Union that they can, consistently with safety and honor, remain in the Union. …

Having now shown what cannot save the Union, I return to the question with which I commenced: How can the Union be saved? There is but one way by which it can with any certainty, and that is by a full and final settlement on the principle of justice of all the questions at issue between the two sections. The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take. She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left to surrender. Such a settlement would go to the root of the evil and remove all cause of discontent by satisfying the South that she could remain honorably and safely in the Union; and thereby restore the harmony and fraternal feelings between the sections which existed anterior to the Missouri agitation. Nothing else can, with any certainty, finally and forever settle the questions at issue, terminate agitation, and save the Union.


MR. PRESIDENT, I WISH TO SPEAK TODAY, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . . I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole and the preservation of the whole; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause." I speak today out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all. . . .

I put it to all the sober and sound minds at the North as a question of morals and a question of conscience: What right have they, in all their legislative capacity, or any other, to endeavor to get round this Constitution, to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution, to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all—none at all. Neither in the forum of conscience nor before the face of the Constitution are they justified in any opinion. Of course, it is a matter for their consideration. They probably, in the turmoil of the times, have not stopped to consider of this; they have followed what seemed to be the current of thought and of motives as the occasion arose, and neglected to investigate fully the real question, and to consider their constitutional obligations, as I am sure, if they did consider, they would fulfill them with alacrity.

Therefore, I repeat, sir, that here is a ground of complaint against the North, well founded, which ought to be removed;…

… Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish—I beg everybody's pardon—as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common center, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space without producing the crush of the universe. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.

Is the great Constitution under which we live here—covering this whole country—is it to be thawed and melted away by secession as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun—disappear almost unobserved and die off? No, sir! No, sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the states; but, sir, I see it as plainly as I see the sun in heaven—I see that disruption must produce such a war as I will not describe, in its twofold characters.

Peaceable secession! Peaceable secession! The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great republic to separate! A voluntary separation, with alimony on one side and on the other. Why, what would be the result? Where is the line to be drawn? What states are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be? An American no longer? Where is the flag of the republic to remain? Where is the eagle still to tower? Or is he to cower, and shrink, and fall to the ground? Why, sit, our ancestors—our fathers, and our grandfathers, those of them that are yet living among us with prolonged lives—would rebuke and reproach us; and our children and our grandchildren would cry out, Shame upon us! if we of this generation should dishonor these ensigns of the power of the government and the harmony of the Union, which is every day felt among us with so much joy and gratitude. … And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in these caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union…

WILLIAM H. SEWARD: A Higher Law than the Constitution

…It is insisted that the admission of California shall be attended by a compromise of questions which have arisen out of slavery. I AM OPPOSED TO ANY SUCH COMPROMISE, IN ANY AND ALL THE FORMS IN WHICH IT HAS BEEN PROPOSED, because, while admitting the purity and the patriotism of all from whom it is my misfortune to differ, I think all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious. They involve the surrender of the exercise of judgment and conscience on distinct and separate questions, at distinct, and separate times, with the indispensable advantages it affords for ascertaining truth. They involve a relinquishment of the right to reconsider in future the decisions of the present on questions prematurely anticipated; and they are a usurpation as to future questions of the province of future legislators. …

… There is another aspect of the principle of compromise which deserves consideration. It assumes that slavery, if not the only institution in a slave state, is at least a ruling institution, and that this characteristic is recognized by the Constitution. But slavery is only one of many institutions there - freedom is equally an institution there. Slavery is only a temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one; freedom, on the contrary, is a perpetual, organic, universal one, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States. The slaveholder himself stands under the protection of the latter, in common with all the free citizens of the state; but it is, moreover, an indispensable institution. You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain; but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist.

But there is yet another aspect in which this principle must be examined. It regards the domain only as a possession, to be enjoyed either in common or by partition by the citizens of the old states. It is true, in. deed, that the national domain is ours; it is true, it was acquired by the valor and with the wealth of the whole nation; but we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty.

But there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are His stewards and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness. . . .

… And now the simple, bold, and even awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions—shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and unjust shall we establish human bondage, or permit it, by our sufferance, to be established? Sir, our forefathers would not have hesitated an hour. They found slavery existing here, and they left it only because they could not remove it. There is not only no free state which would now establish it but there is no slave state which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. … I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question.

Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery. I speak on due consideration, because Britain, France, and Mexico have abolished slavery, and all other European states are preparing to abolish it as speedily as they can. We cannot establish slavery, because there are certain elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations, which we all admit, or ought to admit, and recognize as essential; and these are the security of natural rights, the diffusion of knowledge, and the freedom of industry. Slavery is incompatible with all of these, and just in proportion to the extent that it prevails and controls in any republican state, just to that extent it subverts the principle of democracy and converts the state into an aristocracy or a despotism. . . .

More on 1850 Compromise


The Compromise of 1850 robbed the political parties of distinctive appeals and contributed to voter apathy and disenchantment. Although a colorless candidate, Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election of 1852 over Winfield Scott, the candidate of a Whig party which was on the verge of collapse from internal divisions. Once the Compromise of 1850 seemed to have settled the territorial controversy, Whigs and Democrats looked for new issues. The Democrats claimed credit for the nation's prosperity and promised to defend the compromise. Whigs, however, could find no popular issue and began to fight among themselves. Their candidate in 1852, Winfield Scott, lost in a landslide to Democrat Franklin Pierce, a colorless nonentity.

Pierce was known as a “doughface,” a northerner with souther sympathies, friendly to slavery. The Whigs were divided among those willing to compromiose on territorial issues and the free soilers who opposed the extension of slavery by any means.The Republican Party, which came into existence during the Pierce administration, capitalized on the decline of the Whig Party, which was divided over slavery. In 1852 the tradition of small third parties continued with the Free Soil Party, who nominated John Hale, but their minimal support did not affect the election.

Free Soilers and Free Blacks. Personal liberty laws in North and Black laws in North and South create all kinds of restrictions on free Blacks in lower northern states: marriage, property, voting military service all restricted. Still, Fugitive Slave searches anger many northerners; interference angers Southerners. Movement for freedom was rarely a movement for equality for Blacks (see Lincoln); some political parties went farther than others: Free Soilers not as liberal as Liberty Party; Anti-slavery Whigs; few parties clean on objectives; most Free Soilers, Republicans were ambivalent on black rights.

cabinUncle Tom's Cabin. The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" also heightened sectional tensions. Like other northerners, the Fugitive Slave Law stirred Stowe's conscience, and her novel drove home the evils of slavery. While Stowe knew little about slavery and her picture of plantation life was distorted, her story had sympathetic characters and it was told with sensitivity. She was the first white American writer to look at slaves as people.

The characters in the book include Tom, an intelligent, pious and courageous slave; the evil slave-owner Simon Legree; Augustine St. Claire, a kind owner; his sensitive daughter Eva who admires Tom; the runaway slave Eliza and her husband George and other provide a melodramatic but moving picture of “Life Among the Lowly”—which is the subtitle.

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he is said to have remarked: "So you're the little lady who wrote the book that started this big war." Apocryphal or not, the book had a big impact on attitudes both North and South.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Excerpt

Franklin Pierce as President: The Distraction of Foreign Affairs

The “Young America Movement.” Foreign affairs offered a distraction from the growing sectional hostility. Sympathies were extended to European revolutionaries in revolt against autocratic governments. Some Americans dreamed of territorial acquisitions in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean as a means of spreading democracy. Young America was a volatile combination of altruistic motives and nationalist ideas, related to the concept of Manifest Destiny. Although the ideas bore little fruit in the 1850s, they did provide a diversion.

The need for better communication with California produced the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. It gave the United States and Britain joint control of any canal built through the isthmus. The appeal of an Isthmian Canal was strong, but the engineering required for such a feat was still several decades away.

In response to growing pressure from various southern quarters for the annexation of Cuba to offset the addition of California, American ministers to Great Britian, France and Spain met in Ostend, Belgium, and drafted a proposal outlining the purchase of Cuba from Spain. It proposed to purchase the island for $120 million suggested taking it by force if Spain refused. The Ostend Manifesto  was published and drew immediate criticism on northerners, who saw it as a way to expand slavery.

One initiative that did bear fruit was the visit of Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan. In 1852 Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor with four American warships, presented Japanese officials a letter from President Fillmore proposing the initiation of formal relations between the United States and Japan. Perry returned to Japan two years later, and a formal trade and friendship agreement between the two nations was signed, thus beginning a long and sometimes troubled relationship between the two countries.

One other foreign affairs matter was settled in 1853. As plans were being drawn up for a transcontinental railroad, one possible route included territory to the south of the states of Arizona and New Mexico. Ambassador to Mexico James Gadsden negotiated the deal, and a swath of land from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Yuma, Arizona, that inlcuded what would become the city of Tucson, was purchased from Mexico. The purchase completed the territory that would become known as the "lower 48 states."

The Rise of Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant.”

Senator Stephen Douglas saw the needs of the nation in a broad perspective. He advocated territorial expansion and popular sovereignty. He opposed slavery, but did not find it morally repugnant. Generally, he did not think it was necessary for the nation to expend its energy on the slave issue. Both parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850 in the 1852 campaign, but the Whig party was disintegrating and proslavery southerners were coming to dominate the Democratic party.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act Raises a Storm

In 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, anxious to expand American settlement and commerce across the northern plains while promoting his own presidential ambitions, pushed an act through Congress organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on the basis of popular sovereignty. This repeal of the long-standing Missouri Compromise, along with publication of the "Ostend Manifesto" urging the United States acquisition of Cuba, convinced an increasing number of Northerners that Pierce's Democratic administration was dominated by pro-southern sympathizers, if not conspirators.

In 1854, Stephen Douglas introduced a bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The area had a growing population and Douglas hoped to speed construction of a transcontinental railroad through the territory. Southerners balked because they wanted the railroad farther south and they feared Nebraska would become a free state. These areas were north of the Missouri Compromise line and had been off-limits to slavery since 1820, but Douglas proposed to apply popular sovereignty to them in an effort to get southern votes and avoid another controversy over territories. Douglas expected to revive the spirit of Manifest Destiny for the benefit of the Democratic party and for his own benefit when he ran for president in 1860. The South insisted, and Douglas agreed to add an explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thus provoking a storm of protest in the North, where it was felt that the South had broken a long-established agreement. The Whig party, unable to decide what position to take on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, disintegrated. The Democratic party suffered mass defections in the North. In the congressional elections of 1854, coalitions of "anti-Nebraska" candidates swept the North, and the Democrats became virtually the only political party in the South.

In the midst of this uproar, President Pierce made an effort to buy, or seize, Cuba from Spain, but northern anger at any further extension of slavery forced the president to drop the idea.

Nevertheless, the bill passed and the nation took a giant step toward disunion. Douglas introduces bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories based on "popular sovereignty" or squatter principle. As it allowed for slavery in all new territories, it implicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise. Douglas not especially against slavery.

Douglas's rationale:

  • Believed in principle of self-government;
  • Southern support for 1856 Presidential election;
  • Geography would limit slavery by natural means;
  • open settlement to facilitate transcontinental Railroad with eastern terminus in Illinois.
  • Bottom line: Douglas's position was probably Manifest Destiny.
  • Final Act repeals Missouri Compromise; Supreme Court has last say
  • "Appeal of the Independent Democrats"--Act a "gross violation of a sacred pledge" (Missouri Compromise).
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act is a significant southern victory. Greeley: Created more abolitionists than Garrison et. al. in 30 years
  • 1854 Burns affair, which leads (1859) to Abelman v. Booth Burns captured in Boston; mob attacks, federal troops arrive; Supreme Court says Fugitive Slave Law constitutional; state personal freedom laws no;
  • IRONY--States' Rights issue shifts to Northern states
  • 1854 Elections: Democrats get beat up over K-N Act--"disaster."
  • Democrats lose most of North, become a southern party.
  • 1854-55 Know-Nothing (American) Party opposes Catholics; nativist. Anti-slavery members defect to Republicans. Anti-black feelings in North
  • 1855 Lincoln condemns K-N Act in speech. He's unknown outside Illinois.
  • 1855 The Kansas question grows. Dual government; 1500 Missouri "Border Ruffians" invade state to participate in elections: "Wakarusa War." Leads to ...

An Appeal to Nativism: The Know-Nothing Episode

Appearing after the demise of the Whig Party, the American, or Know-Nothing, party appealed to the anti-immigrant sentiments of American citizens who feared and resented the heavy influx of European immigrants. Although enjoying temporary success, the Know-Nothing party soon lost influence and numbers because of inexperienced leaders, a lack of cohesion, and a failure to address the nation's major problems.

As the Whigs collapsed, a new party, the Know-Nothings, or American Party, gained in popularity. The Know-Nothing party especially appealed to evangelical Protestants, who objected to the millions of Catholics immigrating to America. By the 1850s, the Know-Nothings also picked up support from former Whigs and Democrats disgusted with politics as usual. In 1854, the American party suddenly took political control of Massachusetts and spread rapidly across the nation. In less than two years, the Know-Nothings collapsed for reasons that are still obscure. Most probably, Northerners worried less about immigration as it slowed down, and turned their attention to the slavery issue.

Kansas and the Rise of the Republicans

Formed in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Republican party adopted a firm position opposing any further extension of slavery. Election fraud and violence in Kansas discredited the principle of popular sovereignty and strengthened Republican appeal in the North.

The Republican party emerged as a coalition of former Whigs, Know-Nothings, Free-Soilers, and Democrats by emphasizing the sectional struggle and by appealing strictly to northern voters. Republicans promised to save the West as a preserve for white, small farmers.

Events in Kansas helped the Republicans. Abolitionists and proslavery forces raced into the territory to gain control of the territorial legislature. Proslavery forces won and passed laws that made it illegal even to criticize the institution of slavery. Very soon, however, those who favored free soil became the majority and set up a rival government. President Pierce recognized the proslavery legislature, while the Republicans attacked it as the tyrannical instrument of a minority. In Kansas, fighting broke out, and the Republicans used "Bleeding Kansas" to win more Northern voters.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act compelled former Whigs and antislavery northern Democrats to join new parties. The Know Nothing party was founded by nativists who blamed the recent flood of Catholic immigrants for rising crime, drunkenness, and poverty. The party enjoyed support in both the North and South because it was flexible on the slavery issue. More significant was the Republican party, a party dedicated to opposing the expansion of slavery. It was a sectional party that appealed to growing antislavery sentiments in the North.

Brought about by opposition to Kansas-Nebraska Act (Outrage"), which realigned political forces in North and West. Whigs, Free-Soilers, & antislavery Democrats.

Common platform: stopping extension of slavery into territories. Jackson meeting called for repeal of K-N Act and Fugitive Slave Law and abolition in D.C. Many well-known Whigs, Free-Soilers, Nativists joined as movement spread.

Issues: Reform; Anti-slavery; Protestantism; support for dynamic capitalism and modernization; pro-school, temperance, black suffrage, etc. Opponents: "Black Republicans," "Puritans", etc. Believed them acquisitive, given to sharp practice, hypocrisy, bigotry; interfering meddlers


Kansas became a testing ground over slavery and it eventually exposed a fatal flaw in the idea of popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had been ambiguous about when a vote on slavery would be held and who would be allowed to vote. Both sections sought to influence the situation in Kansas: New England sent organized groups of antislavery settlers to Kansas, and proslavery Missourians crossed the border to vote in key Kansas elections. The result was a virtual civil war in Kansas. The Pierce administration refused to insist on order and honesty; instead it backed the proslavery element in Kansas, but warned the border ruffians to disperse. Civil War breaks out in Kansas, where two governments exist. John Brown's Pottawatomie Massacre occurs 24-25 May. Both sides mobilize, Governor Geary gets aid of federal troops, disperses Border Ruffians; 200 killed, millions in property destroyed.

Reaction on Congress:

Douglas joins Pierce, arouse opposition. Sumner's "Crime Against Kansas" (Crude, offensive) speech leads to brawl. Sumner caned by Preston Brooks, absent from Senate for several years. His vacant chair becomes a symbol.

Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, relentlessly demeaned slavery and southerners. His insistence on the admission of Kansas as a free state and his personal attack on a southern senator resulted in his being assaulted by a South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks. Northerners viewed the incident as an illustration of the brutalizing effects of slavery on southern whites.


In the 1856 election the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, won by portraying the Republican party as a sectional party that threatened the Union. Republicans labeled Buchanan a "doughface"--a northerner with southern principles.

  • Democrats nominate Buchanan; platform supports K-N Act, affirms 1850 Compromise. Breckinridge for VP.
  • Republicans nominate Fremont.
  • American Party--Fillmore, compromisers split vote.
  • Chief Issues in election: K-N Act and "Bleeding Kansas"
  • Buchanan nominated (had been out of country) because no stand on Kansas; Buchanan primarily an ardent Democrat, sympathetic to South; later more Unionist; Many northerners supported Buchanan out of fear of disunion
  • A southern sympathizer, Buchanan became more and more a unionist as the crisis developed.

Sectional Division in the Election of 1856

In 1856, Democrat James Buchanan won the presidency over Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore. National unity was temporarily maintained, but the overwhelmingly sectional Republican party showed surprising strength for a fledgling organization in sweeping the upper North. The Republicans, who sought votes only in the free states, nominated John C. Fremont for President. The Know-Nothings ran ex-President Millard Fillmore as a champion of sectional compromise. The Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, defended the Compromise of 1850 and carried the election, despite clear gains for the Republicans.


The long sectional quarrel convinced North and South that they were so different in culture that they could no longer coexist in the same nation.

Cultural Sectionalism

Before the actual political division of the nation occurred, American religious and literary leaders split into opposing camps. Southern intellectuals reacted defensively to outside criticism and rallied to the idea of southern nationalism.

Cultural and intellectual cleavages surfaced in the 1840s. Even religion divided North and South. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians split into northern and southern denominations because of their attitudes toward slave-holding. Southern literature romanticized life on the plantation, and the South attempted to become intellectually and economically independent in preparation for nationhood. At the same time, northern intellectuals condemned slavery in prose and poem. Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, was an immense success in the North.


In a controversial case, the Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott was a slave and that African Americans (whether slave or free) had no rights as citizens. Further, the Court declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, denying that Congress had any power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Rather than resolve disputes over the slavery question, the decision intensified sectional discord.

The Supreme Court had a chance to decide the issue of slavery in the territories when it agreed to consider the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. Instead of limiting itself to a narrow determination of the case, the Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional because Congress could not restrict the right of a slave-owner to take his slaves into a territory. The ruling outraged the North and strengthened the Republicans.

The Dred Scott decision drove another wedge between the North and South. Scott was a Missouri slave whose master had taken him into Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, then returned to Missouri. Scott sued for his freedom based on his temporary residence on free soil. The real issue was the question of Congress's authority to ban slavery from the territories. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that blacks were not citizens, so Scott could not sue in federal court. Further, the Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise (which had banned slavery from Wisconsin Territory) was unconstitutional because it violated the slave owners' Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process. The decision also threatened the concept of popular sovereignty, and it undercut the foundation of the Republican party. (400-401)

The Case Posed Three Questions:

  1. Was Scott free by virtue having lived in free areas? (No)
  2. Was Scott citizen who could sue in Federal courts? (No)
  3. Was the Missouri Compromise constitutional (No!)

Scott as a former slave held "not a citizen," therefore not able to sue in federal court; Scott's stay on free soil did not make him a free man; the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional under 5th Amendment (depriving property without due process.)

Each justice handed down a separate decision; (Taney wrote decision for 6-3 majority); Property clearly supersedes liberty. Two justices stated Congress could regulate slavery under Art. IV, sec. 3.

Decision a clear southern victory; northern abolitionists charge slavery conspiracy; further rouses abolitionists. Lowered prestige of court in North and fanned sectional fires.

BUT . . . Republican fall-back position: Since Scott not a citizen, no case is legally before the court! Therefore, all but that part of the decision irrelevant and has no force. Accomplished nothing . . .

Great dilemma of Democracy: What do you do when it comes out wrong?

Dred Scott v. Sanford

The question is simply this: Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, privileges and immunities guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States....

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument ...

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit....

It cannot be supposed that they (the states that ratified the Constitution] intended to secure to them [African-Americans] rights and privileges and rank in the new political body throughout the Union, which ever-y one of them denied within the limits of its own dominion. More especially, it cannot be believed that the large slave-holding States regarded them as included in the word citizens, or would have consented to a constitution which might compel them to receive them in that character from another State ...

And upon a full and careful consideration of the subject, the court is of the opinion that, upon the facts stated in the plea in abatement, Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts....

The Act of Congress upon which the plaintiff relies declares that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited.. . north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, and not included within the limits of Missouri....

But the power of Congress over the person or property of a citizen can never be a mere discretionary power under our Constitution and form of Government. The powers of the Government and the rights and privileges of the citizen are regulated and plainly defined by the Constitution itself ...

The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. The right to traffic in it, like an ordinary article of merchandise and property, was guaranteed to the citizens of the United States in every state that might desire it, for twenty years. And the Government, in express terms, is pledged to protect it in all future time, if the slave escapes from his owner. This is done in plain words-too plain to be misunderstood. And no word can be found in the Constitution which gives Congress a greater power over slave property, or which entitles property of that kind to less protection than property of any other description....

Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding or owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made free by being carried into this territory; even if they had been carried there by the owner with the intention of becoming a permanent resident.


President Buchanan tried to get Congress to accept Kansas's proslavery Lecompton Constitution and admit Kansas as a slave state. But Douglas opposed the fraudulently drawn constitution and the Buchanan-Douglas split shattered the Democratic party. Ultimately, both Congress and the majority of Kansas voters rejected the Lecompton Constitution. Proslavery forces in Kansas resorted to electoral fraud to secure a convention to draft a slave state constitution. When finally submitted to a fair vote by the residents of Kansas in 1858, the Lecompton constitution was overwhelmingly rejected.

Once again events in Kansas created sectional conflict. The proslavery faction met in a rigged convention at Lecompton to write a constitution and apply for admission as a state. Free-Soilers in Kansas overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton constitution, but President Buchanan and the Southerners in Congress accepted it and tried to admit Kansas as a state. The House defeated this attempt. The Lecompton constitution was referred back to the people of Kansas, who repudiated it. The Lecompton controversy split the Democrats when Douglas broke with Buchanan over the issue, but Douglas made himself unpopular in the South by doing so.

Kansas has two governments, one legal but fraudulent; one representative but illegal. Gov. Geary tried to steer nonpartisan course; succeeded by Buchanan appointee, Robert J. Walker, Mississippi.

Proslavery convention meets to write constitution; unrepresentative; constitution submitted to people "with or without slavery"--no option to reject in toto; "with" wins; then whole rejected; Much Manipulation; Kansans later overwhelmingly reject Lecompton Constitution

In 1858 Buchanan submits LeCompton Constitution to Congress, recommends Kansas come in as slave state. Douglas revolts: violation of popular sovereignty. Senate voted to admit under Lecompton Const.

August 2, 1858: Kansas voters reject Lecompton Constitution by wide margin, remain territory. Kansas enters free under the Wyandotte Constitution in 1861 as the "most Republican state in the Union."

1857 "The Impending Crisis" by Hinton Helper published. [read excerpt] Showed whites being impoverished by slavery; banned in South as insurrectionary.

LINCOLN AND DOUGLAS: Debating the Morality of Slavery

On June 16, 1858, a Lincoln speech accepts the Republican nomination for Senate from Illinois: "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other." Lincoln was a logical choice to oppose Douglas in 1858. Their campaign debates were pitched at a high intellectual level, but the differences between the two were exaggerated. Both men opposed the expansion of slavery, and neither was an abolitionist. Both believed slavery was a wasteful labor system, and both believed blacks were inferior to whites.

In the debates preceding the 1858 Illinois Senate race, Abraham Lincoln claimed that there was a southern plot to extend slavery throughout the nation. He promised to take measures that would ensure the eventual extinction of the institution. Above all, Lincoln made the point that he considered slavery a moral problem, while Douglas did not. Lincoln asked Douglas how he could reconcile the idea of popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision. Douglas offered the "Freeport doctrine," a suggestion that territories could dissuade slaveholders from moving in by providing no supportive legislation for slavery. Coupled with his stand against the Lecompton constitution, Douglas's Freeport doctrine guaranteed loss of southern support for his presidential bid.

Northerners blamed southerners for the Panic of 1857 since southern Democrats had pushed through Congress a bill to lower tariffs. Lincoln had served a single term in the House during the Mexican War, and he was admired in Illinois for his wit and integrity. He was not an abolitionist and he did not condemn southern slave owners, but he condemned slavery as morally wrong. Although he had no immediate solution to the slavery problem, Lincoln insisted the nation could not much longer remain divided over slavery.

Douglas tried to portray Lincoln as an abolitionist and racial egalitarian, and he painted himself as the champion of democracy. Lincoln countered by pointing to his own opposition to black suffrage and black citizenship, and his endorsement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Lincoln tried to picture Douglas as proslavery and an unconscionable defender of the Dred Scott decision. Douglas slid around this charge when he argued in the Freeport Doctrine that slavery could still be "banned" in a territory by passing local laws that were hostile to slavery. The Doctrine probably won Douglas reelection, but it cost him southern support when he ran for president in 1860. The debates revitalized Lincoln's political career.

  • Debates take place August 21-October 15. [Elections to state legislature will determine who gets Senate seat; it's the "only" issue in the campaign.]
  • Douglas's "care not" position assailed; Lincoln places Douglas in extreme position; says nation cannot survive half slave, half free.
  • Douglas: nation can survive half and half; Lincoln sees ultimate extinction of slavery
  • Douglas's "Freeport Doctrine": Territories can prohibit slavery by not passing necessary laws. -- leads to demand for federal slave codes

Elsewhere in 1858, the Republicans fared well. Still, a southern-dominated Congress refused to enact any of the Republicans' pro-business programs. Southerners were growing increasingly uneasy in their relationship with the North; radical "fire-eaters" demanded a federal slave code, the annexation of Cuba, and the reopening of the slave trade.

1858 Southern states move to reopen slave trade overseas; if slavery is O.K., then why not? Would widen ownership by lowering prices, increase political support for slavery in South, where many oppose slavery as destructive.

1859 Abelman v. Booth upholds constitutionality of Fugitive Slave Law.

1859 JOHN BROWN'S HARPER'S FERRY RAID. John Brown, a mentally unbalanced abolitionist who had led a massacre of proslavery settlers in Kansas, organized a raid on the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. He intended to foment a slave uprising and create a black republic. This threat to their lives and property outraged southerners. Brown was captured and executed for treason. Republican leaders denounced Brown's use of violence, but he conducted himself with such dignity during his trial that he was martyred by many in the North. To southerners John Brown was a ruthless symbol of all they feared from abolitionists.

Captured by Col. R.E. Lee, Lt. Jeb Stuart and Marines; Brown makes eloquent final statement: "So let it be done"

The South's Crisis of Fear

Two events of 1859-1860 intensified southern fears of Republican intentions: northern expressions of sympathy at the execution of crazed abolitionist John Brown; and public endorsement by a prominent Republican politician of Hinton Rowan Helper's Impending Crisis of the South. The objective of John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, had been to equip a slave army and Helper's book condemned slavery on economic grounds, urging lower-class whites of the South to unite against planter domination and abolish slavery.

A series of events in 1859 and 1860 convinced Southerners that Republicans intended to foment rebellion among African-Americans and white small farmers. John Brown tried to capture an arsenal at Harpers Ferry in order to arm slaves. When Brown was executed for treason, the North mourned him as a martyr. The white South was disgusted and became convinced that the Republican party would use armed force to abolish slavery. The only solution, it seemed, was to secede if the next president was a Republican.

The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis

Unable to agree on a platform or candidate in 1860, the Democrats split: a northern wing nominated Stephen Douglas and endorsed popular sovereignty, and a southern wing nominated John C. Breckenridge and demanded federal protection of slavery in the territories. Border state conservatives formed the Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee. Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln on a free-soil position and a broad economic platform. Although he won only 40 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln swept the North for a majority of the electoral votes and election as president. Political leaders of the lower South immediately launched the movement for secession.

Republicans nominated Lincoln in 1860 because he was from Illinois and because he was not as controversial as other Republican leaders. In order to widen the party's appeal, the Republicans promised high tariffs for industry, free homesteads for small farmers, and government aid for internal improvements.

Democrats could not agree on a candidate. The northern wing nominated Stephen Douglas; the southern Democrats nominated John Breckenridge. The Constitutional Union party ran John Bell, who promised to compromise the differences between North and South.

Lincoln received less than forty percent of the popular vote, but won virtually every northern electoral vote, giving him the victory.

The 1860 ELECTION:

The election of 1860 took place in a nation divided over the issue of slavery and was the last major event that triggered secession and the virtually inevitable civil war that followed. Radicals on both sides of the slavery issue in the North and South were heedlessly provoking each other. Extremists were more evident in the South, yet southerners sincerely felt they were merely defending themselves against the hostility and growing power of the North. Secession was openly talked about as a way to relieve the sectional tensions.

1860 electionDemocrats. The Democratic Party divided into northern and southern wings over the slavery issue. Southern Democrats refused to nominate Douglas as the party's presidential candidate in 1860 when his supporters refused to guarantee slavery in the territories and accept the moral rightness of slavery. The party split in two. Northern Democrats nominated Douglas on a platform upholding the Freeport Doctrine—the idea that territories could prevent slavery by refusing to pas the laws necessary for its existence. Southern Democrats nominated John Breckenridge and insisted on the enforcement of the Dred Scott decision.

The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. The Republican platform opposed slavery in the territories and advocated a high tariff, a homestead law, and building the transcontinental railroad. With the moderate Lincoln, Republicans hoped to capture the key states just north of the Ohio River. Remnants of the Know Nothing and Whig parties formed a Constitutional Union party, nominated John Bell, and endorsed the Constitution. Lincoln won the election with only about 40 percent of the popular vote, but he swept the North and West and amassed a comfortable Electoral College majority.

The Union Party nominated John Bell In a desperate attempt to save the nation, but had little chance of attracting any electoral votes.

Realizing that he could not win, Stephen Douglas campaigned in the South, urging the states not to secede. The Republican Party platform stated that “the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom,” and opposed any extension of slavery. Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election with less than 40% of the popular vote. The vast majority of Lincoln's votes came in the North; in some southern districts he did not receive a single vote.

As predicted, Lincoln'c election and the Republican platform create a crisis and led immediately to moves for secession.

Secession: The Last resort. When all else had failed in terms of ways of protecting the institution of slavery and allowing its extension into new territory, the Southern states turned to secession as a last resort. Secession was first discussed in the northern states in the periord leading up to the wayr os 1812 when New Eng;anders were beginning to resent what they were calling the “Virginia dynasty.” Following the Mexican-American War Southern representatives met in Nashville to discuss the issue. Secession was vigorously debated during passage of the Compromise of 1850. Henry Clay of Kentucky, a slave owner, had argued “that in my opinion there is no right on the part of any one or more of the States to secede from the Union.” Daniel Webster thought secession a “moral impossibility.” but going back as far as the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798 the issue of states rights had hovered over the union as a threat. Before and during the war of 1812, there was serious talk of secession in New England. when South Carolina challenged federal law with its nullification ordinance of 1832, the relationship between federal and state power was once again tested. The last step remaining, however, for those who wished to assert the right of states to full autonomy if they so chose was not tested until the Civil War. In a sense the case of Texas v White was moot, in that the blood of 600,000 Americans had been spilled to resolve the issue by force.

A careful reading of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession passed in December 1860 reveals that even that state acknowledged the existence of a contract between the state of South Carolina and United States, or as they put it, with the other states in the union. In that document South Carolina argued that because many Northern states had passed laws in effect nullifying or overriding the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, thus exercising in their states' rights, they had thus broken the contract that bound the union together. In so doing, South Carolina argued, “The constitutional compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the nonslaveholding states; and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”

Looking at the issue from it extralegal standpoint, it makes little sense to claim that a document creating a nation would somehow within it sow the seeds of its own destruction. But the issue of slavery had been debated back as far as the time of the writing of the Constitution and even before. The issue of slavery was not resolved when the Constitution was written, primarily for two reasons. First, a Constitution that provided for even the gradual abolition of slavery would never have been ratified by the Southern states, and six of the 13 original states were slaveholding states. In fact slaves existed in most northern states at the time of the writing of the Constitution, although slavery was clearly on its way out through much of the North. The second reason why the Constitution did not address slavery was that in 1787 there was reason to believe that slavery was losing its grip everywhere. It was the emergence of the cotton economy beginning in the 1790s and early 1800s that transformed slavery into an absolute economic necessity for the South.

The issue of slavery, as one historian has said, was old when Moses was young. In America it had existed for well over 200 years, and many Americans had a nagging feeling that the presence of this "peculiar institution" was somehow going to disturb the peace and tranquility of the nation. The issue had arisen during the American Revolution and had surfaced again at the Constitutional convention. At the time of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." As agitation over slavery continued through the time of the late war, it seemed that God's patience was indeed wearing thin.

In 1868 the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Texas v. White. The case arose out of the issue of United States bonds that had been issued to the government of Texas in 1851. During the civil war the secession government of Texas saw again the bond and it was out of that request that the case originally came about. the issue of the bonds is secondary; the real issue was whether the Confederate government of Texas was illegal government under the United States Constitution. The court ruled that, “The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States...,” and thus it formally declared that secession was incompatible with the Constitution designed to create “a more perfect union.” The articles of Confederation had explicitly stated that the union of United States formed thereunder was to be permanent, and the court concluded that if the union under the Constitution was to be more perfect, it was certainly meant to be permanent. Therefore secession was unconstitutional.

Could secession have been avoided? It is difficult to see how, once slavery had been protected within the Constitution, that there was any way to abolish it except by agreement of the state's where it existed. If the principles of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had been brought into the Constitution, thus limiting the further spread of slavery, it probably would have died out without a civil war. If the state of Virginia had abolished slavery when they rewrote their constitution in 1830, that might have made a difference. But Virginia was dominated by the Tidewater, eastern section of the state, and the 50 counties that have became West Virginia, where there were few slaves, were underrepresented.

Abraham Lincoln, an able historian as well as skilled lawyer, stated his position on secession in his first inaugural address, as follows: “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” The entire address is, in fact, a lengthy dissertation on the issue.

In the end, the fact is that by 1860 the divisions in the country over slavery had become so heated that it is unlikely that anything could have prevented war. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had both seen that in 1850, and others had made the same assertions. Once the session began to unfold, however, there were those who doubted that it would lead to war. That could not have been much more than wishful thinking. As Lincoln saw it, he had no choice but to execute the laws under the Constitution which he had sworn to defend. The only question was, who would fire the first shot?

Following his debates with Stephen Douglas in the Illinois senate race in 1858, Abraham Lincoln became the spokesperson for all those opposed to the further extension of slavery into the territories.  His famous debates with Douglas were published widely in newspapers and although he had never traveled widely outside Illinois, he had suddenly become a national figure.  Although an extremely humble and modest man, Lincoln was nevertheless a clever and ambitious politician. 

The Republican Party, meeting in Chicago, nominated Abraham Lincoln on a free-soil position and a broad economic platform. The nominating process centered around several strong candidates. New York Governor William Seward, the pre-convention favorite, was too radical—too close to being an out-and-out abolitionist. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio was also considered too radical. Edward Bates of Missouri was too weak on the slavery issue. Lincoln men worked to get him in the position of being “everybody’s second choice.” He won the nomination on the third ballot. They nominated Lincoln because he was from Illinois and because he was not as controversial as other Republican leaders. Lincoln’s rivals, Seward, Chase, Bates and Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, all eventually became members of Lincoln’s cabinet. (See the 1860 Republican Platform, Appendix.)

(For a fascinating account of the Republican Convention and the workings of Lincoln’s administration, see Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, New York, 2006.)

Although Lincoln won only 40 percent of the popular vote, he swept the North for a majority of the electoral votes and election as president. He received no southern votes in the electoral college, and in some southern counties he did not receive a single vote. As predicted, Lincoln's election created a crisis, despite the courageous efforts of Stephen Douglas, who, realizing he could not win, campaigned in the South arguing against secession—to no avail, as it turned out.

Immediately upon learning the election results, the state of South Carolina, which had been in the forefront of the agitation on the slavery question, called a special convention to consider the issue of secession. The secessionists staked their case on fears that the institution of slavery would be attacked by the “Black Republicans,” and that their wives and daughters would not be safe if the slaves were freed.  The convention unanimously adopted an ordinance which, having reviewed the issues confronting the slave states, and claiming that the free states had not upheld their contractual obligations under the Constitution, declared:

We, therefore, the people of South Carolina, by our delegates in convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this state and the other states of North America is dissolved; and that the state of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world.

Thus on December 20, 1860, South Carolina left the Union. By February, 1861, the six other states around the edge of the South—Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas—had also seceded. President Buchanan, feeling with some justification that he had not created the situation, saw no immediate way to resolve it. Congress attempted to find possibilities for compromise, including the introduction of the 13th amendment to the Constitution which would have guaranteed permanent existence of slavery in states where it already existed. Given the decades of angry confrontation between the North and South, it was very unlikely that a compromise had any real possibility of being accepted by either side.

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president. In his inaugural address, he reiterated his position that, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He asserted his belief that the Constitution was perpetual and that secession was therefore illegal. Declaring that as far as he was concerned the Union would continue and all federal services would continue to operate, he claimed that he offered no threat to the southern, seceded states.  His address was, however, seen by many in the South as a direct threat to their sovereignty, as they saw it.

In his closing words, Lincoln appealed to his countrymen to be patient:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.” I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Sadly, it was too late for reconciliation.

Decision to Secede. Ample evidence exists of the centrality of the slavery issue in other documents, such as the speeches and communications made by the secession commissioners from the first seven seceded states to the other slave states which had not yet followed them. One such letter addressed from an Alabama legislator to the North Carolina legislature claims that the federal government “proposes to impair the value of slave property in the States by unfriendly legislation [and] to prevent the further spread of slavery by surrounding us with free States.” In a speech to the Virginia Secession Convention a Georgia representative expressed his fear that soon “the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” (See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.)

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States, said this to the Virginia Convention on April 23, 1861:

As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things. Hence, its harmonious working for the benefit and advantage of both. … The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal; that the negro is equal to the white man.

If slavery was not the root cause of the Civil War, a study of documents from the period before 1861 provides little evidence of any other cause. As to claims that secession may have been caused by slavery but the Civil War was not, it is difficult to separate the two.

That is not to say that all the brave men who went off to fight for the Confederacy were fighting for slavery. Nor did Union soldiers enlist in order to end slavery, though some on both sides were no doubt motivated by the slavery issue. As we shall see, however, as the war progressed, the slavery issue rose to the fore over and over. Indeed, after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, some Northerners were heartened that the Union was to be preserved without slavery. Others were angered and refused to fight “to free the slaves.” Ironically, by the end of the war, the Southern position had less to do with slavery than with gaining independence. In March, 1865, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin proclaimed that slaves who would fight for the South would be freed. By then, however, the war was all but over.

Points to review as we enter the Civil War:

  • The issue of slavery was emotionally charged and thus difficult to resolve.
  • Many people in the North did not understand what slavery was really like.
  • Many in the South saw slavery as a positive good.
  • Slavery was the main issue that had to be resolved during debate over the Compromise of 1850.
  • The controversy over slavery was political, economic, moral and religious.
  • Once it was recognized and protected by the Constitution, slavery would be hard to eliminate.
Civil War Home Civil War Introduction Background 1850s Civil War 1860-1862
Decisive Year 1863 Civil War 1864-1865 Turning Points Updated December 14, 2016