I. The End of Compromise
A. The Compromise of 1850 – a series of laws passed that had originally been part of Henry Clay’s compromise to maintain national unity, opposed by John C. Calhoun; the various bills, shepherded through Congress by Seward, Davis, and Douglas, were passed by competing coalitions, with just enough party loyalists crossing party lines to eventually pass the entire package.
1. Admission of California as a free state
2. Abolition of the slave trade within the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.)
3. New Fugitive Slave Law – denied jury trials to accused runaway slaves and empowered any marshal pursuing these slaves to force local citizens to join the hunt—to become slave catchers, whether they wanted to or not.
4. Death of President Zachary Taylor – Taylor had promised to veto the bills making up the compromise; his death meant that his vice-president, Millard Fillmore, supported the compromise and used his powers as president to convince northern Whigs to support the bills as well.
B. Northern opposition to the Compromise of 1850 – the compromise split the Whig party, and led to the creation of new political parties.
1. Demise of the Whig Party – as a result of the acquiescence of some members of the Whig Party to the compromise, and the adamant opposition of other members, the Whig Party eventually ceased to be, as members fled to other parties more closely aligned with their ideology.
a. Free Soil Party – actually precedes the break-up of the Whig Party; this was the political party of northern western expansion; largely made up of former northern Democrats who were tired of the demands of southern Democrats, and the obstructionism of the southerners over such issues as the Homestead Act. Free Soilers made up a large portion of the new Republican Party.
b. Know-Nothing Party – the better known handle of the American party; allegedly got their name from saying that they knew nothing about this new party if they were asked about it. This party was extremely nativist oriented, and anti-Catholic (members of the party in Baltimore led an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic demonstration in which several immigrant Catholics were killed, and several more were injured). Members of this party also found their way into the new Republican Party, although few Know-Nothings moved into any kind of leadership role within the Republican Party.
c. Republican Party – made up of Free Soil partisans, Conscience Whigs (so-called because the voted their conscience during the legislation that made up the Compromise of 1850) and members of the Know Nothing Party (who really had no where else to turn if they hoped to influence government policy)
2. Northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law – the most reprehensible part of the Compromise of 1850; the Fugitive Slave Law played into the hands of northern abolitionists, who had been insisting all along that the southern “slavocracy” would insist on eventually domineering the lives of northerners as well as their slaves; the clause in the law which required northerners to act in consort with any marshal to catch escaped slaves certainly promised to be such a law.
a. Requirement of northern assistance in catching runaway slaves – northerners saw this law as an infringement upon their rights, as well.
b. No jury trial – played upon northern sensibilities of fair play, since any African American could in theory be accused of being a runaway slave.
c. Law became largely unenforceable in the North.
3. Southern disenchantment with the Compromise – the failure of the North to live up to their end of the bargain led to greater disenchantment with giving up claims to make territories in the West slave-holding areas; southerners begin to agitate northern Democrats to pass laws which would allow slave ownership in these new territories.
C. Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) – Douglas effectively kills the compromise he worked so had for only four years before, and also makes armed conflict between the North and South more likely.
1. What was the Kansas-Nebraska Act? – The act introduced by Stephen A. Douglas proposed to allow slavery in those territories whose citizens voted for it, a concept he called “popular sovereignty.” This act not only set aside the agreement that had been central to the Compromise of 1850, but it also set aside the agreement that had been brokered when Missouri was admitted as a slave state, which had decreed that slavery would not be allowed above 36 30—so Douglas’ act not only ended his own compromise, but also the great Missouri Compromise.
2. Douglas’ political ambitions – Douglas hoped to be his party’s nominee for President in 1856, and to accomplish this he needed southern support; that support he hoped to buy with the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
3. Douglas’ economic ambitions – Douglas had invested large sums of money in land in Kansas, which he hoped to be able to persuade others in Congress would make an excellent route for a transcontinental railroad; again, to get the votes needed for this, Douglas needed support from southern representatives.
D. 1856 Presidential election – the presidential election of 1856 was the first national election that the newly constituted political party called the Republican Party contested in.
1. Democratic Party – ran James Buchanon, a long-time politician from Pennsylvania; although Buchanon was a northerner, who was a slavery sympathizer, which is probably why he remained within the Party. Buchanon ran a reasonably good campaign, especially considering that this party was splintering along sectional lines. Buchanan won 45% of the popular vote, and had 174 electoral votes (which was almost 60% of the total of electoral votes).
2. American Party – this was the most successful nativist party, known popularly as “The Know-Nothing Party” because its members were allegedly sworn to secrecy, and would answer when asked about the party that “I know nothing”; ran former President Millard Fillmore. Although Fillmore appeared to do less well than was expected, garnering only 22% of the popular vote, and only winning the electoral votes of Maryland and Delaware, he strongly challenged Buchanan in the Southern slave states, where in several he garnered almost 40% of the popular vote.
3. Republican Party – in the party’s first national campaign, exceptional strength was shown, but also the growing sectional nature of the political climate was starkly revealed. Well-known explorer John C. Fremont was nominated by the party to run as its presidential candidate, and he won 33% of the popular vote, and nearly 40% of the electoral college vote (a total of 114 votes). Those states voting for Fremont, however, were located only in the northeast and northwest. In fact, the winner of the election Buchanan won only five non-slave states (his home state of Pennsylvania, neighboring New Jersey—which had only abolished slavery in the 1840s—Indiana, Illinois, and California—which itself was having racial controversies over the importation of Chinese workers.
E. Dred Scott decision (1858) – Dred Scott was a slave who lived most of his life in St. Louis, Missouri; his lawsuit trying to gain his freedom was another factor in the growing rift between the North and the South.
1. Dred Scott – slave in St. Louis, but he traveled with his master, who was employed as a doctor in the United States Army, to Illinois, and then lived for several years with his master at Fort Snelling, located at the falls of the Mississippi River (present-day Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota)—parts of the Northwest Territory that by law slavery had been abolished.
2. The Argument – it is unclear where Scott got enough money to fight this case in court, at both the state and federal levels (from a former master, contending for his return to service? Abolitionists?) However, the main argument for Scott’s freedom revolved around the issue of his illegally being enslaved in a free state, and in a free territory.
3. The Supreme Court – Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a former slave owner from Maryland (he had, in fact, manumitted his slaves a number of years before), had been appointed chief justice by Andrew Jackson, after serving Jackson as U.S. Treasurer, and assisting Jackson in that position in the dismantling of the Second National Bank. By the time of the Dred Scott decision, Taney was an aged man, and not in the best of health.
4. The Decision – not surprisingly, since a majority of the justices of the Court were slaveholders (do not fall for the fallacy that there is anything like an “impartial panel” on the Supreme Court—as recent events have emphasized for us), the Court rejected the arguments presented by Scott’s attorneys that he should be freed because he was forced to serve as a slave in free territory.
a. Rejection of limits on slavery – for many whites, particularly those who subscribed to the free soil ideology, the most devastating part of the decision was the rejection of the policy of placing limits on the spread of slavery; this decision invalidated the ideas of popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, even the hallowed Missouri Compromise of 1820. One could even argue that it removed the sacronsanct doctrine of states rights—states no longer, according to Taney, had the right to limit slavery within their borders.
b. Even more chilling (for African Americans) “The Negro has no rights that the white man is bound to respect.”
F. John Brown and Bloody Kansas
1. Popular sovereignty on the ground – meant that whichever side got there with the most people—or at least, the most people with guns—would be able to exercise the most power
a. Sacking of Lawrence – in retaliation for an atrocity on pro-slavery forces by anti-slavery forces, pro-slavery forces called ??? and led by Missouri slaver owner Quantrill, attacked the town of Lawrence, which was a bastion of anti-slavery proponents, and burned the town to the ground, killing innocent women and children in the process.
b. Pottawatamie Massacre – John Brown, accompanied by four of his sons and two other antislavery supporters, attacked a small proslavery settlement along the Pottawatamie Creek, and replicated the damage done to Lawrence.
2. John Brown – Fanatic or Saint? —Or both? Brown was born and grew up in New England; valued his roots in the Revolution, and expected that the nation should live up to its promise of liberty and equality for all.
a. Disturbed by growing threat of commercialization –“To get a little property together is really a low mark to be firing at through life” advice he wrote to one of his sons.
b. Uncompromising hostility to racism in any form – Brown’s antislavery sentiment based upon unbending principal, and he despised those who he thought opposed slavery as an expediency almost as much as he despised slave owners.
3. Rejection of the Lecompton Constitution – the Lecompton Constitution was a proslavery constitution for Kansas, passed by proslavery delegates while antislavery delegates were boycotting the election to hold an election of their own. President Buchanan and allies in Congress attempted to rush the Lecompton Constitution through Congress, but the competing antislavery constitution, passed by a much larger majority, arrived just a month later.
G. The Raid on Harper’s Ferry (1859) – John Brown, three of his sons, and nineteen other associates, black and white, raided the federal government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia, to steal arms which they planned to distribute among slaves in the South and help foment insurrection against the slave owners in the region.
1. Suicide mission – as many people recognized whom Brown tried to recruit for this mission (including Frederick Douglass), this raid would be impossible to pull off in the South, with few sympathizers to aid the escape should they be able to capture the arsenal.
a. Failure of the raid – the alarm is sounded by a slave in town, who the party then immediately killed—Union of Confederate Daughter erected a monument—long the only monument to an African American in the South—to the memory of the “loyal darkey.”
b. Capture and trial – Brown and fifteen men who survived the shoot-out with a detachment of U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee were quickly brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to hang.
c. Execution of John Brown – in December of 1859, again emphasized the differences between the North and the South; the execution was celebrated in the South, while church bells throughout the North mourned for his immortal soul. This was a result, largely, of Brown’s comportment during his trial; he was brought into the courthouse on a large piece of wood (he was severely wounded during the Raid, and unable to walk on his own), but he displayed a great deal of dignity and courage—a fact that even southerners recognized.
H. 1860 Presidential Election
1. Abraham Lincoln – the Republican candidate still did not win any slave states, but the division of the Democratic Party meant that Lincoln was able to garner enough electoral votes to win the election.
2. John Bell – the candidate of the Constitutional Party only was able to get the electoral votes of the most northern of the slave states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
3. John C. Breckinridge – the candidate of the Southern Democratic party, won all of the states of the deep South.
4. Stephen A. Douglas – the candidate of the Northern Democratic party, won only the border state of Missouri.
III. Conclusion – Sectional differences continue to predominate political debates, and after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, more and more northerners begin to feel that slaveholders in the South are unjustly predominating American political life; while few northerners would have accompanied John Brown to Harper’s Ferry, they empathized with his reasons for doing what he did.