I) Growth of Sectional Politics
A) Pre-1850 – before 1850, the sectional division along slavery, North and South, meant little in national politics; slaveholders from both the Whig and Democratic parties agreed with non-slaveholders in the Whig and Democratic parties that it was an issue best left to the states to determine—especially with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 still in effect, when members of both parties agreed that there would be no slavery north of 36 30 (the southern border of Missouri). This agreement went by the wayside with the acquisition of so much new land as a result of the War with Mexico.
1) Land Question – with the victory of the US over Mexico, most of the (now) American Southwest came into possession of the United States. This huge acquistion of land (even larger than the Louisiana Purchase), coupled with the desire of slaveholders in the South to expand yet again into this new territory—coupled with a new determination on the part of most Northerners to prevent this from happening, would lead to increasing political conflict over this question.
2) 1850 Whig Party – the first party of Lincoln. Whigs believed generally that the federal government should use tax dollars to make internal improvements—things like canals and railroads. In order to become a national party, and to capture a larger popular base, Whigs also appealed to nativists and temperance advocates, who advocated restricting immigration, alcohol, and suffrage rights (of immigrants).
3) 1850 Democratic Party – opposed Whig plans for tax and spend programs, which they believed would merely line the pockets of the rich (or take money out of their pockets, if they were already rich planters). The Democratic Party was made up of an amalgamation of southern planters and urban immigrants (largely Germans and Irish), who united with the party largely because the Whigs tended to have a lot of “nativist” in their party.
4) Free Soil Party – initially formed by disaffected New York Democrats. The Democratic Party in New York state was split into two factions, the Hunkers (who were ambivalent about or supported slavery—many NYC merchants, whose largest customers tended to be large slave owners in the South), and the “Barnburners,” who opposed slavery. This factionalism reached the national party in 1844, when southern Democrats were able to nominate James Polk. In that year, a third-party candidate, James Birney of the Liberty Party, who pulled enough anti-slavery votes in New York to throw the state to Polk, which ensured his victory over Henry Clay. In 1848, when Van Buren was again denied the Democratic nomination, many former members of the Liberty Party joined with anti-slavery members of the Whig and Democratic Party. Van Buren was the party’s candidate in 1848, and abolitionist John P. Hale in 1852. The party, or course, lost both elections, but from the ashes of the Free Soil Party sprang the Republican Party in 1854.
B) Growing Hostility to “Slave Power” – many politicians, and ordinary people, in the north were growing weary of being dictated to by the “slavocracy” of the South.
1) Wilmot Proviso – named for Pennsylvania representative David Wilmot, who wanted to limit the influence of slavery in the territory to be won from Mexico, which his “Proviso” promised to do. The Wilmot Proviso was an amendment to the 1846 appropriation for negotiating the treaty with Mexico. This amendment was defeated and removed in the Senate; it was the opening salvo in the growing legislative opposition to the expansion of slavery. In the debate over the inclusion of this proviso, Wilmot made clear that his sole concern was that the land be reserved for free whites, and that he cared little for the condition of slaves—as long as they were not present in the new “free soil.”
2) “Free Soil” movement – the drive by white northerners to limit the acquisition of property in the opening West to people like themselves, and prevent competition from slaveholders from the South.
C) Growing sensitivity to attacks on slavery – as attacks by Northerners on the institution of slavery intensified, Southern slaveholders grew more defensive about their “peculiar institution,” and more adamant that any attack on slavery was in fact an attack on “the Southern Way of Life.”
1) Secession threats – led by John C. Calhoun (who had been threatening secession by South Carolina since the first Jackson administration), Southern politicians began to threaten secession of the institution of slavery was not given further protections.
D) Compromise of 1850 – compromise put together by Henry Clay, which consisted of five part: statehood for California; the creation of the territories of Utah and New Mexico, in which the slavery question would be settled by “popular sovereignty” (voted on by the white male citizens, that is); the dispute of the border between New Mexico and Texas; the end of slave trading in Washington, D.C. (although the individual right to own slaves would continue to be upheld there); and a more stringent, and stringently enforced, fugitive slave law. John C. Calhoun led southern opposition to this, and it was defeated as an omnibus bill as Henry Clay had introduced it. A young senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas, decided to break apart each of the five sections of the omnibus bill, and allow votes on each section, which eventually got the bill passed. The bills were then signed into law by Millard Fillmore; Fillmore was pro-compromise and had replaced his running mate, Zachary Taylor, who had been anti-compromise, when Taylor died in office.
1) Passing of the Giants – Taylor was not the only politician to die while the Compromise of 1850 was debated; John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay all died within a year of its passage, as well. Each had had a long, distinguished career in the Senate, yet each also probably had outlived their time in relation to the way that politics was developing in what promised to be a new era.
E) Kansas-Nebraska Act – large numbers of northern legislatures wanted a transcontinental railroad, including Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas favored a northern route, through the territory of Kansas; to expedite this, he wanted to get statehood for the territory as soon as possible. To appease Southern opposition, and not to upset his Northern supporters he came up with—
1) “Popular sovereignty” – Douglas believed (quite wrongly) that the dilemma over whether the Kansas Territory should be slave or free would be best solved by letting the people in the Territory decide for themselves. This “solution” resulted in a full-scale civil war between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces in the Territory.
(a) Popular sovereignty precedent – one of the major elements of the Compromise of 1850 called for popular sovereignty to determine the slave or free status of the New Mexico and Utah territories that had been formed, and which had apparently appeased Southerners while not causing conflict over actually introducing slavery into the territories. What Douglas apparently failed to realize, however, was that the proximity of the Kansas Territory to the slave-holding state of Missouri, and the determination of slave holder there to expand their property rights into the new territory, would come into violent conflict with forces just as determined to prevent the expansion of slavery into the territory.
2) Massachusetts Immigrant Aid Society – from the abolitionist hotbed of Massachusetts, this society put up money to help anyone who proclaimed themselves an enemy of slavery and slaveholders to move to and buy land in the territory of Kansas. Slaveholders in western Missouri, threatened by this action, began to move into the territory, as well.
3) Bloody Kansas – the two competing sides engaged in open warfare, engaging in what today we would regard as “terrorist” tactics: burning towns, slaughtering innocents, mutilation of corpses, etc.
(a) Jayhawkers – term used to describe anti-slavery forces, who often raided and killed settlements of pro-slavery forces, both in Kansas and in western Missouri.
(b) Bushwhackers – term used to describe pro-slavery forces, who often raided and killed at settlements of anti-slavery forces, almost exclusively in Kansas
(c) Both forces were filled with people who felt that they were merely protecting their own interests, and were in fact protecting their rights. A smattering of people we would today probably considers psychopaths, or at least sociopaths, committed a host of atrocities, which included the slaughter of innocents, on both sides.
II) Conclusion – Both northern and southern societies saw the growing rift between them both, and saw each other as the growing evil antithesis of themselves. Combined with their diverging economic interests, it made the likelihood of war greater with each passing year.