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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Slavery in National Politics

National Aspects of Slavery.—It may be asked why it was that slavery, founded originally on state law and subject to state government, was drawn into the current of national affairs. The answer is simple. There were, in the first place, constitutional reasons. The Congress of the United States had to make all needful rules for the government of the territories, the District of Columbia, the forts and other property under national authority; so it was compelled to determine whether slavery should exist in the places subject to its jurisdiction. Upon Congress was also conferred the power of admitting new states; whenever a territory asked for admission, the issue could be raised as to whether slavery should be sanctioned or excluded. Under the Constitution, provision was made for the return of runaway slaves; Congress had the power to enforce this clause by appropriate legislation. Since the control of the post office was vested in the federal government, it had to face the problem raised by the transmission of abolition literature through the mails. Finally citizens had the right of petition; it inheres in all free government and it is expressly guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution. It was therefore legal for abolitionists to present to Congress their petitions, even if they asked for something which it had no right to grant. It was thus impossible, constitutionally, to draw a cordon around the slavery issue and confine the discussion of it to state politics.

There were, in the second place, economic reasons why slavery was inevitably drawn into the national sphere. It was the basis of the planting system which had direct commercial relations with the North and European countries; it was affected by federal laws respecting tariffs, bounties, ship subsidies, banking, and kindred matters. The planters of the South, almost without exception, looked upon the protective tariff as a tribute laid upon them for the benefit of Northern industries. As heavy borrowers of money in the North, they were generally in favor of “easy money,” if not paper currency, as an aid in the repayment of their debts. This threw most of them into opposition to the Whig program for a United States Bank. All financial aids to American shipping they stoutly resisted, preferring to rely upon the cheaper service rendered by English shippers. Internal improvements, those substantial ties that were binding the West to the East and turning the traffic from New Orleans to Philadelphia and New York, they viewed with alarm. Free homesteads from the public lands, which tended to overbalance the South by building free states, became to them a measure dangerous to their interests. Thus national economic policies, which could not by any twist or turn be confined to state control, drew the slave system and its defenders into the political conflict that centered at Washington.

Slavery and the Territories—the Missouri Compromise (1820).—Though men continually talked about “taking slavery out of politics,” it could not be done. By 1818 slavery had become so entrenched and the anti-slavery sentiment so strong, that Missouri’s quest for admission brought both houses of Congress into a deadlock that was broken only by compromise. The South, having half the Senators, could prevent the admission of Missouri stripped of slavery; and the North, powerful in the House of Representatives, could keep Missouri with slavery out of the union indefinitely. An adjustment of pretensions was the last resort. Maine, separated from the parent state of Massachusetts, was brought into the union with freedom and Missouri with bondage. At the same time it was agreed that the remainder of the vast Louisiana territory north of the parallel of 36° 30' should be, like the old Northwest, forever free; while the southern portion was left to slavery. In reality this was an immense gain for liberty. The area dedicated to free farmers was many times greater than that left to the planters. The principle was once more asserted that Congress had full power to prevent slavery in the territories.

The Missouri Compromise

The Territorial Question Reopened by the Wilmot Proviso.—To the Southern leaders, the annexation of Texas and the conquest of Mexico meant renewed security to the planting interest against the increasing wealth and population of the North. Texas, it was said, could be divided into four slave states. The new territories secured by the treaty of peace with Mexico contained the promise of at least three more. Thus, as each new free soil state knocked for admission into the union, the South could demand as the price of its consent a new slave state. No wonder Southern statesmen saw, in the annexation of Texas and the conquest of Mexico, slavery and King Cotton triumphant—secure for all time against adverse legislation. Northern leaders were equally convinced that the Southern prophecy was true. Abolitionists and moderate opponents of slavery alike were in despair. Texas, they lamented, would fasten slavery upon the country forevermore. “No living man,” cried one, “will see the end of slavery in the United States!”

It so happened, however, that the events which, it was thought, would secure slavery let loose a storm against it. A sign appeared first on August 6, 1846, only a few months after war was declared on Mexico. On that day, David Wilmot, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced into the House of Representatives a resolution to the effect that, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the republic of Mexico, slavery should be forever excluded from every part of it. “The Wilmot Proviso,” as the resolution was popularly called, though defeated on that occasion, was a challenge to the South.

The South answered the challenge. Speaking in the House of Representatives, Robert Toombs of Georgia boldly declared: “In the presence of the living God, if by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico … I am for disunion.” South Carolina announced that the day for talk had passed and the time had come to join her sister states “in resisting the application of the Wilmot Proviso at any and all hazards.” A conference, assembled at Jackson, Mississippi, in the autumn of 1849, called a general convention of Southern states to meet at Nashville the following summer. The avowed purpose was to arrest “the course of aggression” and, if that was not possible, to provide “in the last resort for their separate welfare by the formation of a compact and union that will afford protection to their liberties and rights.” States that had spurned South Carolina’s plea for nullification in 1832 responded to this new appeal with alacrity—an augury of the secession to come.

Henry Clay
From an old print
Henry Clay

The Great Debate of 1850.—The temper of the country was white hot when Congress convened in December, 1849. It was a memorable session, memorable for the great men who took part in the debates and memorable for the grand Compromise of 1850 which it produced. In the Senate sat for the last time three heroic figures: Webster from the North, Calhoun from the South, and Clay from a border state. For nearly forty years these three had been leaders of men. All had grown old and gray in service. Calhoun was already broken in health and in a few months was to be borne from the political arena forever. Clay and Webster had but two more years in their allotted span.

Experience, learning, statecraft—all these things they now marshaled in a mighty effort to solve the slavery problem. On January 29, 1850, Clay offered to the Senate a compromise granting concessions to both sides; and a few days later, in a powerful oration, he made a passionate appeal for a union of hearts through mutual sacrifices. Calhoun relentlessly demanded the full measure of justice for the South: equal rights in the territories bought by common blood; the return of runaway slaves as required by the Constitution; the suppression of the abolitionists; and the restoration of the balance of power between the North and the South. Webster, in his notable “Seventh of March speech,” condemned the Wilmot Proviso, advocated a strict enforcement of the fugitive slave law, denounced the abolitionists, and made a final plea for the Constitution, union, and liberty. This was the address which called forth from Whittier the poem, “Ichabod,” deploring the fall of the mighty one whom he thought lost to all sense of faith and honor.

The Terms of the Compromise of 1850.—When the debates were closed, the results were totaled in a series of compromise measures, all of which were signed in September, 1850, by the new President, Millard Fillmore, who had taken office two months before on the death of Zachary Taylor. By these acts the boundaries of Texas were adjusted and the territory of New Mexico created, subject to the provision that all or any part of it might be admitted to the union “with or without slavery as their constitution may provide at the time of their admission.” The Territory of Utah was similarly organized with the same conditions as to slavery, thus repudiating the Wilmot Proviso without guaranteeing slavery to the planters. California was admitted as a free state under a constitution in which the people of the territory had themselves prohibited slavery.

The slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia, but slavery itself existed as before at the capital of the nation. This concession to anti-slavery sentiment was more than offset by a fugitive slave law, drastic in spirit and in letter. It placed the enforcement of its terms in the hands of federal officers appointed from Washington and so removed it from the control of authorities locally elected. It provided that masters or their agents, on filing claims in due form, might summarily remove their escaped slaves without affording their “alleged fugitives” the right of trial by jury, the right to witness, the right to offer any testimony in evidence. Finally, to “put teeth” into the act, heavy penalties were prescribed for all who obstructed or assisted in obstructing the enforcement of the law. Such was the Great Compromise of 1850.

An Old Cartoon Representing Webster “Stealing Clay’s Thunder”

The Pro-slavery Triumph in the Election of 1852.—The results of the election of 1852 seemed to show conclusively that the nation was weary of slavery agitation and wanted peace. Both parties, Whigs and Democrats, endorsed the fugitive slave law and approved the Great Compromise. The Democrats, with Franklin Pierce as their leader, swept the country against the war hero, General Winfield Scott, on whom the Whigs had staked their hopes. Even Webster, broken with grief at his failure to receive the nomination, advised his friends to vote for Pierce and turned away from politics to meditate upon approaching death. The verdict of the voters would seem to indicate that for the time everybody, save a handful of disgruntled agitators, looked upon Clay’s settlement as the last word. “The people, especially the business men of the country,” says Elson, “were utterly weary of the agitation and they gave their suffrages to the party that promised them rest.” The Free Soil party, condemning slavery as “a sin against God and a crime against man,” and advocating freedom for the territories, failed to carry a single state. In fact it polled fewer votes than it had four years earlier—156,000 as against nearly 3,000,000, the combined vote of the Whigs and Democrats. It is not surprising, therefore, that President Pierce, surrounded in his cabinet by strong Southern sympathizers, could promise to put an end to slavery agitation and to crush the abolition movement in the bud.

Anti-slavery Agitation Continued.—The promise was more difficult to fulfill than to utter. In fact, the vigorous execution of one measure included in the Compromise—the fugitive slave law—only made matters worse. Designed as security for the planters, it proved a powerful instrument in their undoing. Slavery five hundred miles away on a Louisiana plantation was so remote from the North that only the strongest imagination could maintain a constant rage against it. “Slave catching,” “man hunting” by federal officers on the streets of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, or Milwaukee and in the hamlets and villages of the wide-stretching farm lands of the North was another matter. It brought the most odious aspects of slavery home to thousands of men and women who would otherwise have been indifferent to the system. Law-abiding business men, mechanics, farmers, and women, when they saw peaceful negroes, who had resided in their neighborhoods perhaps for years, torn away by federal officers and carried back to bondage, were transformed into enemies of the law. They helped slaves to escape; they snatched them away from officers who had captured them; they broke open jails and carried fugitives off to Canada.

Assistance to runaway slaves, always more or less common in the North, was by this time organized into a system. Regular routes, known as “underground railways,” were laid out across the free states into Canada, and trusted friends of freedom maintained “underground stations” where fugitives were concealed in the daytime between their long night journeys. Funds were raised and secret agents sent into the South to help negroes to flee. One negro woman, Harriet Tubman, “the Moses of her people,” with headquarters at Philadelphia, is accredited with nineteen invasions into slave territory and the emancipation of three hundred negroes. Those who worked at this business were in constant peril. One underground operator, Calvin Fairbank, spent nearly twenty years in prison for aiding fugitives from justice. Yet perils and prisons did not stay those determined men and women who, in obedience to their consciences, set themselves to this lawless work.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe

From thrilling stories of adventure along the underground railways came some of the scenes and themes of the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published two years after the Compromise of 1850. Her stirring tale set forth the worst features of slavery in vivid word pictures that caught and held the attention of millions of readers. Though the book was unfair to the South and was denounced as a hideous distortion of the truth, it was quickly dramatized and played in every city and town throughout the North. Topsy, Little Eva, Uncle Tom, the fleeing slave, Eliza Harris, and the cruel slave driver, Simon Legree, with his baying blood hounds, became living specters in many a home that sought to bar the door to the “unpleasant and irritating business of slavery agitation.”

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