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

«·Slavery in National Politics · CHAPTER XIV·»

The Drift of Events toward the Irrepressible Conflict

Repeal of the Missouri Compromise.—To practical men, after all, the “rub-a-dub” agitation of a few abolitionists, an occasional riot over fugitive slaves, and the vogue of a popular novel seemed of slight or transient importance. They could point with satisfaction to the election returns of 1852; but their very security was founded upon shifting sands. The magnificent triumph of the pro-slavery Democrats in 1852 brought a turn in affairs that destroyed the foundations under their feet. Emboldened by their own strength and the weakness of their opponents, they now dared to repeal the Missouri Compromise. The leader in this fateful enterprise was Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, and the occasion for the deed was the demand for the organization of territorial government in the regions west of Iowa and Missouri.

Douglas, like Clay and Webster before him, was consumed by a strong passion for the presidency, and, to reach his goal, it was necessary to win the support of the South. This he undoubtedly sought to do when he introduced on January 4, 1854, a bill organizing the Nebraska territory on the principle of the Compromise of 1850; namely, that the people in the territory might themselves decide whether they would have slavery or not. Unwittingly the avalanche was started.

After a stormy debate, in which important amendments were forced on Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill became a law on May 30, 1854. The measure created two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and provided that they, or territories organized out of them, could come into the union as states “with or without slavery as their constitutions may prescribe at the time of their admission.” Not content with this, the law went on to declare the Missouri Compromise null and void as being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the states and territories. Thus by a single blow the very heart of the continent, dedicated to freedom by solemn agreement, was thrown open to slavery. A desperate struggle between slave owners and the advocates of freedom was the outcome in Kansas.

If Douglas fancied that the North would receive the overthrow of the Missouri Compromise in the same temper that it greeted Clay’s settlement, he was rapidly disillusioned. A blast of rage, terrific in its fury, swept from Maine to Iowa. Staid old Boston hanged him in effigy with an inscription—”Stephen A. Douglas, author of the infamous Nebraska bill: the Benedict Arnold of 1854.” City after city burned him in effigy until, as he himself said, he could travel from the Atlantic coast to Chicago in the light of the fires. Thousands of Whigs and Free-soil Democrats deserted their parties which had sanctioned or at least tolerated the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, declaring that the startling measure showed an evident resolve on the part of the planters to rule the whole country. A gage of defiance was thrown down to the abolitionists. An issue was set even for the moderate and timid who had been unmoved by the agitation over slavery in the Far South. That issue was whether slavery was to be confined within its existing boundaries or be allowed to spread without interference, thereby placing the free states in the minority and surrendering the federal government wholly to the slave power.

The Rise of the Republican Party.—Events of terrible significance, swiftly following, drove the country like a ship before a gale straight into civil war. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill rent the old parties asunder and called into being the Republican party. While that bill was pending in Congress, many Northern Whigs and Democrats had come to the conclusion that a new party dedicated to freedom in the territories must follow the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Several places claim to be the original home of the Republican party; but historians generally yield it to Wisconsin. At Ripon in that state, a mass meeting of Whigs and Democrats assembled in February, 1854, and resolved to form a new party if the Kansas-Nebraska Bill should pass. At a second meeting a fusion committee representing Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats was formed and the name Republican—the name of Jefferson’s old party—was selected. All over the country similar meetings were held and political committees were organized.

When the presidential campaign of 1856 began the Republicans entered the contest. After a preliminary conference in Pittsburgh in February, they held a convention in Philadelphia at which was drawn up a platform opposing the extension of slavery to the territories. John C. Frémont, the distinguished explorer, was named for the presidency. The results of the election were astounding as compared with the Free-soil failure of the preceding election. Prominent men like Longfellow, Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and George William Curtis went over to the new party and 1,341,264 votes were rolled up for “free labor, free speech, free men, free Kansas, and Frémont.” Nevertheless the victory of the Democrats was decisive. Their candidate, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, was elected by a majority of 174 to 114 electoral votes.

Slave and Free Soil on Eve of Civil War

The Dred Scott Decision (1857).—In his inaugural, Buchanan vaguely hinted that in a forthcoming decision the Supreme Court would settle one of the vital questions of the day. This was a reference to the Dred Scott case then pending. Scott was a slave who had been taken by his master into the upper Louisiana territory, where freedom had been established by the Missouri Compromise, and then carried back into his old state of Missouri. He brought suit for his liberty on the ground that his residence in the free territory made him free. This raised the question whether the law of Congress prohibiting slavery north of 36° 30' was authorized by the federal Constitution or not. The Court might have avoided answering it by saying that even though Scott was free in the territory, he became a slave again in Missouri by virtue of the law of that state. The Court, however, faced the issue squarely. It held that Scott had not been free anywhere and that, besides, the Missouri Compromise violated the Constitution and was null and void.

The decision was a triumph for the South. It meant that Congress after all had no power to abolish slavery in the territories. Under the decree of the highest court in the land, that could be done only by an amendment to the Constitution which required a two-thirds vote in Congress and the approval of three-fourths of the states. Such an amendment was obviously impossible—the Southern states were too numerous; but the Republicans were not daunted. “We know,” said Lincoln, “the Court that made it has often overruled its own decisions and we shall do what we can to have it overrule this.” Legislatures of Northern states passed resolutions condemning the decision and the Republican platform of 1860 characterized the dogma that the Constitution carried slavery into the territories as “a dangerous political heresy at variance with the explicit provisions of that instrument itself … with legislative and judicial precedent … revolutionary in tendency and subversive of the peace and harmony of the country.”

The Panic of 1857.—In the midst of the acrimonious dispute over the Dred Scott decision, came one of the worst business panics which ever afflicted the country. In the spring and summer of 1857, fourteen railroad corporations, including the Erie, Michigan Central, and the Illinois Central, failed to meet their obligations; banks and insurance companies, some of them the largest and strongest institutions in the North, closed their doors; stocks and bonds came down in a crash on the markets; manufacturing was paralyzed; tens of thousands of working people were thrown out of employment; “hunger meetings” of idle men were held in the cities and banners bearing the inscription, “We want bread,” were flung out. In New York, working men threatened to invade the Council Chamber to demand “work or bread,” and the frightened mayor called for the police and soldiers. For this distressing state of affairs many remedies were offered; none with more zeal and persistence than the proposal for a higher tariff to take the place of the law of March, 1857, a Democratic measure making drastic reductions in the rates of duty. In the manufacturing districts of the North, the panic was ascribed to the “Democratic assault on business.” So an old issue was again vigorously advanced, preparatory to the next presidential campaign.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates.—The following year the interest of the whole country was drawn to a series of debates held in Illinois by Lincoln and Douglas, both candidates for the United States Senate. In the course of his campaign Lincoln had uttered his trenchant saying that “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” At the same time he had accused Douglas, Buchanan, and the Supreme Court of acting in concert to make slavery national. This daring statement arrested the attention of Douglas, who was making his campaign on the doctrine of “squatter sovereignty;” that is, the right of the people of each territory “to vote slavery up or down.” After a few long-distance shots at each other, the candidates agreed to meet face to face and discuss the issues of the day. Never had such crowds been seen at political meetings in Illinois. Farmers deserted their plows, smiths their forges, and housewives their baking to hear “Honest Abe” and “the Little Giant.”

The results of the series of debates were momentous. Lincoln clearly defined his position. The South, he admitted, was entitled under the Constitution to a fair, fugitive slave law. He hoped that there might be no new slave states; but he did not see how Congress could exclude the people of a territory from admission as a state if they saw fit to adopt a constitution legalizing the ownership of slaves. He favored the gradual abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the total exclusion of it from the territories of the United States by act of Congress.

Moreover, he drove Douglas into a hole by asking how he squared “squatter sovereignty” with the Dred Scott decision; how, in other words, the people of a territory could abolish slavery when the Court had declared that Congress, the superior power, could not do it under the Constitution? To this baffling question Douglas lamely replied that the inhabitants of a territory, by “unfriendly legislation,” might make property in slaves insecure and thus destroy the institution. This answer to Lincoln’s query alienated many Southern Democrats who believed that the Dred Scott decision settled the question of slavery in the territories for all time. Douglas won the election to the Senate; but Lincoln, lifted into national fame by the debates, beat him in the campaign for President two years later.

John Brown’s Raid.—To the abolitionists the line of argument pursued by Lincoln, including his proposal to leave slavery untouched in the states where it existed, was wholly unsatisfactory. One of them, a grim and resolute man, inflamed by a hatred for slavery in itself, turned from agitation to violence. “These men are all talk; what is needed is action—action!” So spoke John Brown of New York. During the sanguinary struggle in Kansas he hurried to the frontier, gun and dagger in hand, to help drive slave owners from the free soil of the West. There he committed deeds of such daring and cruelty that he was outlawed and a price put upon his head. Still he kept on the path of “action.” Aided by funds from Northern friends, he gathered a small band of his followers around him, saying to them: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” He went into Virginia in the autumn of 1859, hoping, as he explained, “to effect a mighty conquest even though it be like the last victory of Samson.” He seized the government armory at Harper’s Ferry, declared free the slaves whom he found, and called upon them to take up arms in defense of their liberty. His was a hope as forlorn as it was desperate. Armed forces came down upon him and, after a hard battle, captured him. Tried for treason, Brown was condemned to death. The governor of Virginia turned a deaf ear to pleas for clemency based on the ground that the prisoner was simply a lunatic. “This is a beautiful country,” said the stern old Brown glancing upward to the eternal hills on his way to the gallows, as calmly as if he were returning home from a long journey. “So perish all such enemies of Virginia. All such enemies of the Union. All such foes of the human race,” solemnly announced the executioner as he fulfilled the judgment of the law.

The raid and its grim ending deeply moved the country. Abolitionists looked upon Brown as a martyr and tolled funeral bells on the day of his execution. Longfellow wrote in his diary: “This will be a great day in our history; the date of a new revolution as much needed as the old one.” Jefferson Davis saw in the affair “the invasion of a state by a murderous gang of abolitionists bent on inciting slaves to murder helpless women and children”—a crime for which the leader had met a felon’s death. Lincoln spoke of the raid as absurd, the deed of an enthusiast who had brooded over the oppression of a people until he fancied himself commissioned by heaven to liberate them—an attempt which ended in “little else than his own execution.” To Republican leaders as a whole, the event was very embarrassing. They were taunted by the Democrats with responsibility for the deed. Douglas declared his “firm and deliberate conviction that the Harper’s Ferry crime was the natural, logical, inevitable result of the doctrines and teachings of the Republican party.” So persistent were such attacks that the Republicans felt called upon in 1860 to denounce Brown’s raid “as among the gravest of crimes.”

The Democrats Divided.—When the Democratic convention met at Charleston in the spring of 1860, a few months after Brown’s execution, it soon became clear that there was danger ahead. Between the extreme slavery advocates of the Far South and the so-called pro-slavery Democrats of the Douglas type, there was a chasm which no appeals to party loyalty could bridge. As the spokesman of the West, Douglas knew that, while the North was not abolitionist, it was passionately set against an extension of slavery into the territories by act of Congress; that squatter sovereignty was the mildest kind of compromise acceptable to the farmers whose votes would determine the fate of the election. Southern leaders would not accept his opinion. Yancey, speaking for Alabama, refused to palter with any plan not built on the proposition that slavery was in itself right. He taunted the Northern Democrats with taking the view that slavery was wrong, but that they could not do anything about it. That, he said, was the fatal error—the cause of all discord, the source of “Black Republicanism,” as well as squatter sovereignty. The gauntlet was thus thrown down at the feet of the Northern delegates: “You must not apologize for slavery; you must declare it right; you must advocate its extension.” The challenge, so bluntly put, was as bluntly answered. “Gentlemen of the South,” responded a delegate from Ohio, “you mistake us. You mistake us. We will not do it.”

For ten days the Charleston convention wrangled over the platform and balloted for the nomination of a candidate. Douglas, though in the lead, could not get the two-thirds vote required for victory. For more than fifty times the roll of the convention was called without a decision. Then in sheer desperation the convention adjourned to meet later at Baltimore. When the delegates again assembled, their passions ran as high as ever. The division into two irreconcilable factions was unchanged. Uncompromising delegates from the South withdrew to Richmond, nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for President, and put forth a platform asserting the rights of slave owners in the territories and the duty of the federal government to protect them. The delegates who remained at Baltimore nominated Douglas and endorsed his doctrine of squatter sovereignty.

The Constitutional Union Party.—While the Democratic party was being disrupted, a fragment of the former Whig party, known as the Constitutional Unionists, held a convention at Baltimore and selected national candidates: John Bell from Tennessee and Edward Everett from Massachusetts. A melancholy interest attached to this assembly. It was mainly composed of old men whose political views were those of Clay and Webster, cherished leaders now dead and gone. In their platform they sought to exorcise the evil spirit of partisanship by inviting their fellow citizens to “support the Constitution of the country, the union of the states, and the enforcement of the laws.” The party that campaigned on this grand sentiment only drew laughter from the Democrats and derision from the Republicans and polled less than one-fourth the votes.

The Republican Convention.—With the Whigs definitely forced into a separate group, the Republican convention at Chicago was fated to be sectional in character, although five slave states did send delegates. As the Democrats were split, the party that had led a forlorn hope four years before was on the high road to success at last. New and powerful recruits were found. The advocates of a high protective tariff and the friends of free homesteads for farmers and workingmen mingled with enthusiastic foes of slavery. While still firm in their opposition to slavery in the territories, the Republicans went on record in favor of a homestead law granting free lands to settlers and approved customs duties designed “to encourage the development of the industrial interests of the whole country.” The platform was greeted with cheers which, according to the stenographic report of the convention, became loud and prolonged as the protective tariff and homestead planks were read.

Having skillfully drawn a platform to unite the North in opposition to slavery and the planting system, the Republicans were also adroit in their selection of a candidate. The tariff plank might carry Pennsylvania, a Democratic state; but Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were equally essential to success at the polls. The southern counties of these states were filled with settlers from Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky who, even if they had no love for slavery, were no friends of abolition. Moreover, remembering the old fight on the United States Bank in Andrew Jackson’s day, they were suspicious of men from the East. Accordingly, they did not favor the candidacy of Seward, the leading Republican statesman and “favorite son” of New York.

After much trading and discussing, the convention came to the conclusion that Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was the most “available” candidate. He was of Southern origin, born in Kentucky in 1809, a fact that told heavily in the campaign in the Ohio Valley. He was a man of the soil, the son of poor frontier parents, a pioneer who in his youth had labored in the fields and forests, celebrated far and wide as “honest Abe, the rail-splitter.” It was well-known that he disliked slavery, but was no abolitionist. He had come dangerously near to Seward’s radicalism in his “house-divided-against-itself” speech but he had never committed himself to the reckless doctrine that there was a “higher law” than the Constitution. Slavery in the South he tolerated as a bitter fact; slavery in the territories he opposed with all his strength. Of his sincerity there could be no doubt. He was a speaker and writer of singular power, commanding, by the use of simple and homely language, the hearts and minds of those who heard him speak or read his printed words. He had gone far enough in his opposition to slavery; but not too far. He was the man of the hour! Amid lusty cheers from ten thousand throats, Lincoln was nominated for the presidency by the Republicans. In the ensuing election, he carried all the free states except New Jersey.


P.E. Chadwick, Causes of the Civil War (American Nation Series).

W.E. Dodd, Statesmen of the Old South.

E. Engle, Southern Sidelights (Sympathetic account of the Old South).

A.B. Hart, Slavery and Abolition (American Nation Series).

J.F. Rhodes, History of the United States, Vols. I and II.

T.C. Smith, Parties and Slavery (American Nation Series).


1. Trace the decline of slavery in the North and explain it.

2. Describe the character of early opposition to slavery.

3. What was the effect of abolition agitation?

4. Why did anti-slavery sentiment practically disappear in the South?

5. On what grounds did Calhoun defend slavery?

6. Explain how slave owners became powerful in politics.

7. Why was it impossible to keep the slavery issue out of national politics?

8. Give the leading steps in the long controversy over slavery in the territories.

9. State the terms of the Compromise of 1850 and explain its failure.

10. What were the startling events between 1850 and 1860?

11. Account for the rise of the Republican party. What party had used the title before?

12. How did the Dred Scott decision become a political issue?

13. What were some of the points brought out in the Lincoln-Douglas debates?

14. Describe the party division in 1860.

15. What were the main planks in the Republican platform?

Research Topics

The Extension of Cotton Planting.—Callender, Economic History of the United States, pp. 760-768.

Abolition Agitation.—McMaster, History of the People of the United States, Vol. VI, pp. 271-298.

Calhoun’s Defense of Slavery.—Harding, Select Orations Illustrating American History, pp. 247-257.

The Compromise of 1850.—Clay’s speech in Harding, Select Orations, pp. 267-289. The compromise laws in Macdonald, Documentary Source Book of American History, pp. 383-394. Narrative account in McMaster, Vol. VIII, pp. 1-55; Elson, History of the United States, pp. 540-548.

The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise.—McMaster, Vol. VIII, pp. 192-231; Elson, pp. 571-582.

The Dred Scott Case.—McMaster, Vol. VIII, pp. 278-282. Compare the opinion of Taney and the dissent of Curtis in Macdonald, Documentary Source Book, pp. 405-420; Elson, pp. 595-598.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates.—Analysis of original speeches in Harding, Select Orations pp. 309-341; Elson, pp. 598-604.

Biographical Studies.—Calhoun, Clay, Webster, A.H. Stephens, Douglas, W.H. Seward, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

«·Slavery in National Politics · CHAPTER XIV·»