During the 1850s, Americans witnessed a decade of sectional crises that threatened the very existence of the Union. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right in predicting that the Mexican Cession would reignite the explosive issue of slavery expansion. The newly acquired territory lay beyond the Louisiana Purchase and therefore was not part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Californians were clamoring for statehood, the residents of Utah and New Mexico deserved territorial governments, abolitionists wanted to prohibit slavery in Washington, and Southerners demanded a more effective fugitive slave law. The sectional battle lines were forming. Southerners took an increasingly aggressive stance in defending their “peculiar institution,” while criticism of slavery intensified in the north. The debate was sharpened by the refusal of African-Americans to passively accept their bondage.
Most slaves led harsh and brutal lives. They were frequently whipped and sometimes branded or mutilated. On the larger plantations the majority of slaves worked in the fields, generally from daybreak until sundown, under the supervision of an overseer and his drivers. Domestic slaves might wear fine clothes and be trusted with the raising of their master’s children, but they were under constant white supervision and subject to the whims of their owners. Slave families could be heartlessly separated, and free blacks—in the north and south—were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Black resistance to enslavement took many forms, and played an important role in fashioning a compromise to the sectional controversy in 1850. Armed rebellion by the slaves was extremely rare, but a few potentially violent plots were uncovered during the early nineteenth century. The first was organized in 1800 by Gabriel Prosser, and involved about 50 slaves living near Richmond, Virginia. Hundreds of slaves learned about the planned uprising, and two of them informed the white authorities. Governor James Monroe called out the militia and Prosser and 25 of his followers were executed, although their owners received compensation. Denmark Vesey, a literate carpenter who purchased his freedom from lottery winnings, spent five years devising an elaborate scheme to seize control of Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey also was betrayed by slaves and hanged along with 35 fellow conspirators, in the summer of 1822.
The only significant slave insurrection during the antebellum period was Nat Turner’s Rebellion. A literate slave, Turner believed that it was his divine mission to “slay my enemies with their own weapons.” In 1831, he led about 30 slaves on a murderous rampage through tidewater Virginia, killing close to 60 men, women, and children. A wholesale slaughter of blacks took place before the uprising was put down. Turner eluded his pursuers for two months before being captured, tried, and executed. In response to the revolt, southern states strictly enforced laws prohibiting the education of slaves, and increased surveillance of free African-Americans. Northern black sailors were sometimes incarcerated while their ships were anchored in southern ports, and throughout the countryside mounted “slave patrols” were increased to prevent blacks from meeting without whites present and to catch runaway slaves.
African-Americans usually took less desperate measures than armed rebellion in their struggle against the “peculiar institution.” White Southerners frequently complained of slaves refusing to work hard, breaking their tools, stealing food, and committing petty acts of sabotage or arson. Many slaves ran away, sometimes in an effort to avoid punishment or to visit nearby family members. Most were soon caught or returned voluntarily after a few days. On average, about 1,000 slaves succeeded in fleeing to free states each year, using their skills and cunning to outwit their owners and pursuers. Henry “Box” Brown managed to be shipped in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia. Ellen Craft disguised herself as a sickly male slaveholder and escaped to the North with her husband, who posed as her slave.
Some fugitive slaves were aided by the Underground Railroad once they reached the free states. Although its effectiveness and scope were exaggerated after the Civil War, the “railroad” was a loosely organized group of abolitionist “conductors” who operated safe-house “stations” in northern states and transported their “passengers” to freedom in Canada, beyond the reach of slave catchers. Harriett Tubman, dubbed “the Moses of her people,” was the most famous Underground Railroad conductor. She escaped from Maryland in 1849, and risked her freedom by returning from Canada 19 times to rescue some 300 slaves—including her parents. During the Civil War, she served as a Union spy.
It is likely that more slaves were emancipated by their owners or purchased their freedom than ever escaped, but fugitive slaves increased sectional tensions. In 1842, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Prigg v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that Congress had the sole power to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This led to the passage of “personal liberty laws” in several northern states, designed to protect the rights of alleged fugitive slaves by prohibiting state officials from assisting in their capture. Southerners complained that these laws made it impossible to return their escaped property, and demanded a more stringent fugitive slave act. Adding further fuel to an already explosive issue, some Northerners called upon Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and ban it from the Mexican Cession. Clearly, a political compromise was needed to settle the sectional controversy.
When California residents applied for statehood after the Gold Rush swelled the population, Congress faced a dilemma. Northerners were a solid majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate was equally divided between 15 free and 15 slave states. Southerners dominated the Supreme Court and Zachary Taylor, who owned plantations and slaves in Louisiana and Mississippi, was in the White House. California sought admission as a free state, and this threatened to upset the delicate sectional balance. Northerners also expected Utah and New Mexico, in need of territorial governments, to eventually join the Union as free states.
It was Senator Henry Clay, the “Great Pacificator,” who attempted to settle the sectional crisis in a sweeping political compromise. In January 1850, the 72 year-old Kentucky Whig introduced a series of resolutions that called for the admission of California as a free state; the organization of territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico, without “any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery”; the abolition of the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia; a more stringent fugitive slave act, to circumvent the various personal liberty laws; and the scaling back of the Texas boundary claims in return for the federal assumption of the state’s debts. Clay implicitly supported the popular sovereignty principle regarding the Mexican Cession, rejecting both the Wilmot Proviso and a federal slave code for the western territory.
Clay defended his proposals in a lengthy two-day speech delivered to the Senate in February, but not everyone in the audience was prepared to compromise. John C. Calhoun was too feeble to speak as scheduled on March 4, so his defiant final thoughts on the sectional crisis were read to the Senate by James M. Mason of Virginia. Calhoun argued that Southerners had “no compromise to offer,” because the North had been chipping away at the political equality of slaveholders since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Northerners must concede to the South the right to carry slaves into the Mexican Cession, return all fugitive slaves, and “cease the agitation of the slave question.” Calhoun died before the month ended, but his unyielding opposition to compromise was espoused by Jefferson Davis and a younger generation of southern “fire-eaters”—the most aggressive supporters of slavery and, ultimately, secession.
Daniel Webster, along with Clay and Calhoun part of the “Great Triumvirate,” rose in the Senate for his last significant address on March 7. “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union,” he began, “Hear me for my cause.” The Massachusetts Whig eloquently upheld Clay’s resolutions, claiming that the Wilmot Proviso was unnecessary because the “laws of nature” prevented slavery from flourishing in the inhospitable western climate and soil. He failed to convince New England abolitionists, however, who denounced Webster for also supporting a stronger fugitive slave law. John Greenleaf Whittier dismissed the once “God-like Daniel” in a vitriolic poem, “Ichabod”:
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William Henry Seward, a 48 year-old New York Whig and an implacable foe of compromise, spoke on March 11. He demanded the immediate admission of California as a free state, without any concessions to the South. Seward argued, “There is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain.” This extra-Constitutional “higher law” idea was frightening to Unionists, and came back to haunt Seward when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Lewis Cass, “The Father of Popular Sovereignty,” joined the Senate debate and echoed Webster’s support for Clay’s proposals in an effort “to calm this agitation.”
On April 18, the Senate chose Henry Clay to chair a Committee of Thirteen, formed to draft compromise legislation. The other 12 members, including Webster and Cass, were equally divided between Northerners and Southerners, and Whigs and Democrats. In May, the committee reported three bills to the Senate. The first, dubbed the “Omnibus bill,” called for the admission of a free California, settled the Texas boundary, and established territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico. The other bills strengthened the fugitive slave law and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
As the debate continued through the hot summer months, it became clear that Clay’s strategy was failing because senators who opposed any section of the Omnibus bill were prepared to vote against it. President Taylor, for his part, saw no reason why California’s admission to the Union should be linked to a larger compromise. On the Fourth of July, the president endured hours of oratory under a broiling sun. Upon returning to the White House, he attempted to cool off by consuming excessive amounts of cucumbers, cherries, and iced milk. He died five days later of a violent stomach disorder. Millard Fillmore, who was sworn in as the thirteenth president, was pledged to support a legislative compromise. Nevertheless, a majority of the Senate still opposed the Omnibus bill in its entirety and, on August 1, only the provision establishing the Utah territorial government was passed.
Bitterly disappointed, Clay gave up the struggle and left Washington for the more healthful climate of the Rhode Island seashore. But the victory of those opposed to a comprehensive accord was short-lived. Stephen A. Douglas, a young Democratic senator from Illinois, assumed the task of dividing Clay’s remaining proposals into individual bills and steering them through Congress. By late September, the legislation collectively known as the Compromise of 1850 was signed into law by President Fillmore. California was admitted as a free state, Utah and New Mexico were created as territories, Texas was compensated with ten million dollars for accepting its present-day borders, the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia, and a more stringent fugitive slave law was enacted. Stephen Douglas, nicknamed the “Little Giant,” proudly declared that “the whole country” accepted the Compromise as the “final settlement” to the sectional controversy.
Americans generally supported the Compromise of 1850, with the exception of political extremists in both the north and the south. The Fugitive Slave Act was particularly galling to many Northerners. Alleged runaways were not permitted a jury trial or allowed to testify at their hearing, and the commissioners who decided the cases were paid ten dollars if they returned accused fugitives to slavery but only five dollars if they released them. In addition, “all good citizens” were “commanded to aid and assist in the prompt execution of this law.” Anyone obstructing the return of a fugitive slave or participating in a rescue was liable to a maximum fine of 1,000 dollars and a six-month term of imprisonment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected the feelings of many Northerners when he wrote, “This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write.” He asserted that no one could obey the Fugitive Slave Act without the “loss of self-respect.” A fellow New Englander put it even more bluntly—the law he reckoned placed the value of an escaped slave at 1,000 dollars, and the price of a Yankee soul at five.
Northern opposition to the law flared when slave catchers attempted to return fugitives to their owners. One of the first arrests took place in October 1850 at Detroit. Giles Rose, employed as a laborer by a former governor of Michigan, was accused of escaping from Tennessee and placed in the custody of the federal marshal. Armed blacks, including several hundred that crossed over from Canada, surrounded the jail and threatened to free Rose. Before blood was shed in a rescue attempt, a town meeting was held and 500 dollars was swiftly raised to purchase his freedom.
More spectacular rescues took place in the year following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Ellen and William Craft were rushed to safety by Boston abolitionists before a Georgia slave catcher could claim them. Frederick “Shadrach” Minkins (variously known as Wilkins or Jenkins), working as a waiter in a Boston coffeehouse, was arrested as a fugitive but freed by a band of African-American citizens. In Syracuse, New York, the Liberty Party was holding its state convention when William “Jerry” Henry, a known fugitive from Missouri, was arrested. An angry crowd marched on the building where he was held. Led by Gerrit Smith, one of the wealthiest men in the state, and Jermain Loguen, a conductor on the Underground Railroad and himself a fugitive, the rescuers broke down the door with a battering ram. Henry was taken in a wagon to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario to freedom in Canada.
Despite some successes by antislavery Northerners, more than 200 runaways were returned to the south under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When an abolitionist newspaper editor in Wisconsin, Sherman Booth, was jailed in 1854 for assisting in the rescue of an escaped slave, the state legislature declared the federal law to be “void, and of no force.” The slavery issue transcended Constitutional theory—even northern states were willing to embrace Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification in the sectional struggle. Several other northern states also passed new “personal liberty laws,” making it difficult for federal authorities to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1859 the Supreme Court ruled in Abelman v. Booth that the law was constitutional, and Booth returned to jail. Nonetheless, the Fugitive Slave Act was essentially unenforceable in many parts of the North by the mid-1850s.
The most significant response to the Fugitive Slave Act came from the pen of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin ran serially for nearly a year in an abolitionist newspaper, before it was published as a book in early 1852. It was an immediate and phenomenal success—selling 10,000 copies its first week in print, and 300,000 within a year. By the time of the Civil War, several million copies were in circulation, and many Union soldiers received their first lessons in the “peculiar institution” from the pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More than anything else, Stowe’s novel released pent-up feelings of guilt and revulsion toward slavery among Northerners who previously had not given much thought to the sectional controversy. What was once primarily a political or constitutional issue, took on the trappings of a moral crusade.
The visceral impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was due largely to the enchanting characters that seemingly leaped to life from its pages. Tom was vividly described as a long-suffering saintly slave; Eva, an angelic daughter of white slave owners; and Simon Legree, a native of Vermont, was the brutal slave driver who whipped Tom to death. A melodramatic plot captured the imaginations of readers and moved many to tears. In one memorable scene a mulatto slave, Eliza Harris, heroically fled across the ice floes of the Ohio River with her son clutched in her arms and the slave catchers’ bloodhounds baying at her heels. Stowe championed domestic and family values, and graphically depicted how the institution of slavery corrupted the Christian virtues of both whites and blacks. She later remarked that God wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and certainly she was profoundly influenced by the Second Great Awakening. Her father, brother, and husband were all evangelical ministers who embraced abolitionism. Stowe was denounced in the south as that “vile wretch in petticoats,” but her novel was a propaganda victory for the antislavery cause.
Southern writers attempted futilely in the ensuing “cabin wars” to portray slavery as a benign institution. Aunt Phyllis’s Cabin, for example, described Christian masters who neither whipped their slaves nor broke up families. Literary defenders of the “peculiar institution” contended that the slaves themselves were more satisfied with their lot than the desperate “wage slaves” of the northern factories. Such efforts did little, however, to change Northern sentiments toward slavery. Instead, Uncle Tom’s Cabin inflamed public opinion in both the north and the south during the 1850s. For millions of Americans, Stowe imbued the slavery issue with an emotional fervor that hastened the Civil War.
Manifest Destiny remained a driving force in the years following the war with Mexico. Throughout the nation Democrats, especially, flocked to the “Young America” movement, which championed the European revolutionaries of 1848 and the spread of democratic ideals around the globe. Expansionists also sought new markets and further territorial acquisitions. Southerners particularly coveted Cuba, the final remnant of Spain’s once grand empire in the Western Hemisphere, and they had an ally in the White House. Franklin Pierce, a Democrat from New Hampshire, defeated General Winfield Scott for the presidency in 1852, despite being derided by abolitionists as “a northern man with southern principles.” The Pierce administration actively sought to annex Cuba, lying 90 miles off the Florida Keys, even though President James K. Polk’s previous offer of 100 million dollars for the island had been scornfully rejected by the Spanish government.
On February 28, 1854, an incident took place in Havana, Cuba, that heightened the tensions between the United States and Spain. An American merchant ship, the Black Warrior, was seized by Spanish authorities and its owners subsequently fined six thousand dollars for violating customs regulations. Southerners were willing to use this affront to national honor as a pretext for war with Spain, expecting to gain Cuba in the process. Spanish officials, however, realized the gravity of the situation and soon released the Black Warrior. This temporarily defused the diplomatic crisis, but the Pierce administration responded with a secret plan to acquire Cuba.
Secretary of State William L. Marcy, a New Yorker, instructed several American diplomats in Europe to devise a solution to the Cuba question. Two of the ministers were aggressively in favor of extending slavery—Pierre Soulé of Louisiana, who represented the U.S. in Madrid; and James M. Mason of Virginia, ambassador to France. The third was James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, minister to Great Britain, who joined many northern Democrats who supported territorial expansion, be it slave or free. The American ministers first met in Ostend, Belgium, before concluding their talks at Aix-la-Chapelle in Prussia. They drafted a truly remarkable document, known as the Ostend Manifesto, on October 18, 1854.Soulé, Mason, and Buchanan claimed that Cuba was “an unceasing danger, and a permanent cause of anxiety and alarm” to the United States. They urged the Pierce administration to “purchase Cuba from Spain at any price for which it can be obtained.” If the Spanish refused to sell the island, however, Americans, “By every law, human and divine, . . . shall be justified in wresting it from Spain if we possess the power.” The Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the New York Herald, and it created a furor in the north. The Pierce administration appeared ready to go to war with Spain to acquire more slave territory. Secretary of State Marcy publicly disavowed the “buccaneering document,” and Soulé resigned in protest. The Ostend Manifesto, coupled with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, drove a wedge between the North and the South and undermined the effectiveness of the Compromise of 1850 as the final solution to the sectional controversy.
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