Many Americans believed that a transcontinental railroad would unify the United States by linking eastern and western points of the rapidly expanding nation. Not everyone, however, agreed where the railroad should be built. U.S. minister to Mexico James Gadsden, a Southerner, wanted the route to go through Texas and the New Mexico Territory to the Pacific Ocean. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, meanwhile, supported a plan to wind the railroad through Chicago and the Nebraska Territory, where he owned a sizable amount of land. Douglas’s proposal, though, faced substantial obstacles—the U.S. government had designated the region as Indian Territory and banned white settlers.
Douglas refused to let anything block his plan. He supported the decision by the federal government to revoke earlier land grant promises and force the Indians to move. The senator then developed a political scheme to win the support of Southerners, the primary backers of Gadsden’s plan. In 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which split the territory into two sections, slave state Kansas and free state Nebraska. He believed in popular sovereignty and pushed to let the residents of each territory decide whether their state would permit slavery. Douglas called for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30’ line because both Nebraska and Kansas were located north of the line.
The senator realized that the opportunity to create another slave state would entice Southerners to support his plan, which they did with enthusiasm. He drove the bill through Congress and, in the process, angered a majority of his fellow Northerners. Douglas knew that Southerners would whole-heartedly support his plan; however, he seriously miscalculated reaction from Northerners. Outraged protesters declared the compromise repeal “a gross violation of a sacred pledge.” The decision to reopen the slavery issue to allow more slave states re-ignited decades-old conflict between Northerners and Southerners and set the foundation for the coming Civil War.
Kansas’ fertile farm land and its location next to Missouri, a slave state, made it the most likely of the new territories to support slavery. However, since popular sovereignty gave the citizens of the territory the right to decide the issue, both abolitionists and “proslavery-ites” recruited settlers to establish a majority there. One organization, the New England Emigrant Aid Company, sent thousands of people to Kansas. The company armed the pioneers with rifles nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles,” after the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher who raised money to purchase the weapons. The group traveled to the new territory singing a marching song penned by Quaker poet Whittier.
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Southerners who supported Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act became irate when abolitionists attempted to make both Nebraska and Kansas free states. Leading Southerners refused to lose both territories to the “Negro-loving free-soilers,” and encouraged many settlers, including several slave-owners, to claim Kansas land. The proslavery-ites, who like their Northern counterparts were also well-armed, shouted their own rallying cry.
As the two groups convinced more and more followers to move to Kansas, their anger and hostility toward each other swelled. Skirmishes took place throughout the territory and conflicts over land claims often grew violent. In 1855, residents went to the polls to elect members of the territory’s first legislature. However, armed slavery supporters from Missouri, angry that “foreigners” from New England were trying to “steal” Kansas, poured across the border to vote repeatedly. Although a census recorded almost 3,000 eligible voters, more than 6,000 votes were cast. The Missourian’s strong-arm tactics vaulted slavery supporters to victory and established Kansas as a slave state. Abolitionists considered the government fraudulent and arranged their own regime based in the town of Topeka. Both groups claimed authority over the territory but neither had secured the right legally.
President Pierce fanned the flames of controversy by denouncing the free state government. In 1856, the crisis reached its boiling point when a mob of proslavery-ites raided the free-soil town of Lawrence. They looted stores, burned buildings, and destroyed the town’s printing press. The violent attack was just the first of many to come and prompted journalists to call the escalating conflict “Bleeding Kansas.”
The controversy in Kansas reflected a growing crisis that was consuming the entire nation. Tension between American-born citizens and immigrants, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews altered the political landscape. New political parties emerged to support the various religious and ethnic causes. The Know-Nothings maintained an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic platform, but bigotry was not an effective base for a national party and they soon disbanded. Many northern Know-Nothings, Whigs, and Democrats angry at President Pierce for his Kansas policy joined forces in the summer of 1854 to form the Republican Party.
The new party, comprised of mostly Northerners, clashed with Southerners over many federally funded programs, including harbor and river improvements and the trans-continental railroad. Although many abolitionists voted Republican, not all Republicans were strictly antislavery. Many of the party members simply did not want blacks—free or slave—in the territory. The Republican Party grew quickly throughout the northern states and soon became a prominent player in American politics.
The controversy surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act affected the 1856 Democratic presidential nomination. Party members vetoed the selection of two prominent figures involved with the act—Stephen Douglas and Franklin Pierce. Rather, delegates elected James Buchanan, a Pennsylvania lawyer not connected with the Kansas-Nebraska affair. Therefore, Democratic leaders believed he was safe from Republican scrutiny.
Buchanan sailed to an easy victory over Republican candidate John Frémont and ex-president Millard Fillmore, who represented the Know-Nothings. At the core of the Buchanan victory was a group of southern ruffians who violently threatened war and secession should the “slave-loving” Frémont take office. The threats worried Northerners, who made up the majority of the Republican Party. Since the Republicans were primarily businessmen, and the possibility of losing their profitable business connections with the South would be a financial disaster. Therefore, many Republicans begrudgingly voted for Buchanan.
Two days after Buchanan took the oath of office, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that would push the nation one step closer to Civil War. The case involved Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who frequently traveled with his owner through Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. In 1846, Scott sued his owner’s widow for his freedom. He claimed that his residence in free state Illinois, and in the Wisconsin Territory, where the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery, made him a free man.
After several years in litigation, the case made it to the United States Supreme Court. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney announced the dismissal of Scott’s case. The Supreme Court—with five of its nine members from slave states—ruled that black people were not citizens of the United States. Since Scott was not a U.S. citizen, he could not sue for his liberty. Taney also announced that even if Scott had been considered a citizen, his residence in the Wisconsin Territory did not qualify him to be free. Taney argued that, in his opinion, the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it deprived citizens of their property—slaves in this case—without the due process of the law outlined in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Taney’s ruling declared that since slave owners could take their “property” anywhere, Congress could not ban slavery from the territories.
The Supreme Court’s decision shocked and angered blacks, abolitionists, and popular sovereignty supporters who had fought to end—or at least limit—the expansion of slavery. Republicans responded by declaring that the Court’s ruling was an opinion and, therefore, was not enforceable. Southerners were outraged at the Northerners’ blatant defiance of the Supreme Court’s verdict and promptly revisited their secession discussions. With these actions, the nation crept closer to war.
The Dred Scott case played a pivotal role in the 1858 Illinois senate race and in the 1860 presidential election. Eyeing Stephen Douglas’s seat in the Senate, Abraham Lincoln challenged the incumbent to a series of debates. The two politicians differed in almost every respect. Lincoln, a tall and lanky Republican with a high-pitched voice, relied on his whit and integrity to provide a comforting sense of sincerity. Douglas, meanwhile, was a short, barrel-chested Democrat whose sweeping gestures and booming voice consistently captured the attention of his audiences. Many historians call Douglas the best speaker of his time, which emphasizes the boldness of Lincoln’s challenge.
The seven debates took place in cities throughout Illinois but garnered national attention. The topics discussed on the plains of the Midwest mirrored the issues that concerned all Americans. The viewpoints and ideas presented by both Lincoln and Douglas set the tone for political discussions for years to come.
Perhaps the most famous Lincoln-Douglas debate took place in Freeport, Illinois. Referring to the Dred Scott case, Lincoln asked his opponent if the residents of a territory could exclude slavery before the territory became a state. The Republican, who, like the majority of his party, believed slavery to be a moral issue, hoped to back Douglas into a corner by forcing him to comment on popular sovereignty and slavery. If Douglas continued to support popular sovereignty, his views would contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling that seemed to prohibit a territorial legislature from excluding slavery before statehood. Douglas replied that in order for slavery to exist, laws were necessary to protect it. If no such laws were established, slave-owners would not reside there and the territory would be free. He concluded that if the residents did nothing, slavery would essentially be excluded from the territory. Douglas effectively answered the question without offending pro or antislavery supporters. His famous response became known as the Freeport Doctrine.
Although Lincoln proved to be a formidable challenger, Douglas employed his superior debating skills to maintain his position in the Senate. Lincoln, however, was by no means a loser. He showed his strengths as a leader not just to the citizens of Illinois, but to the people of America. The modest, Kentucky-born lawyer placed Republican ideals before a national audience and influenced the fledgling party’s strong showing in the 1858 congressional elections.
During the next several months leading up to the 1860 presidential election, Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine would resurface and cost him the Democratic nomination. Many Southerners, primarily boisterous Democrats who influenced many party members, focused on the senator’s statement that the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision could be circumvented. They refused to support a candidate who did not completely back their views on slavery.
Lincoln, on the other hand, catapulted to the top of the Republican Party and received its nomination for president. The emergence of the Republican Party in the north put southern Democrats on the defensive. Although neither party actually campaigned for or against slavery, antislavery supporters began to associate themselves with Republicans while proslavery backers tended to support Democrats. A wall of hostility and bitterness soon separated Northerners from Southerners. As the election of 1860 approached, and Abraham Lincoln’s popularity soared, southern radicals openly discussed secession should the Republican win the White House.
Tension between the North and South over the slavery issue grew more intense as the election of 1860 drew near. Violent reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act spread rapidly throughout the nation. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision deepened the divide between Northerners and Southerners—antislavery supporters and proslavery-ites. In 1859, fifty-nine-year-old John Brown devised a plan to provoke a slave revolt to answer the “sacking” of Lawrence, Kansas by radical slavery backers three years earlier.
The Bible-toting abolitionist believed that he was appointed by God to rid the nation of slavery. He turned his home in Ohio into a station on the Underground Railroad, and for a brief period lived in North Elba, a free black community in New York. While Brown planned his retaliatory strike in Virginia, he was a wanted man for several violent raids in Kansas and Missouri. In 1856, two days after Missouri marauders attacked Lawrence, Brown gathered a group of volunteers and raided Pottawatomie Creek. The group savagely murdered five proslavery supporters, mutilating the bodies beyond recognition. Brown and his band moved from town to town, raising havoc in the name of God and antislavery supporters.
The fight over slavery in Kansas pressed President Buchanan to establish a legitimate government there. He appointed Robert Walker as territorial governor to oversee the election of a constitutional convention in 1857. However, those wanting a free state feared that proslavery forces would use intimidation and violence to garner fraudulent votes and boycotted the election, which was held in Lecompton. Consequently, slavery supporters dominated the convention and eventually drafted a proslavery constitution called the Lecompton Constitution. As Buchanan pushed Congress to approve the constitution, Northerners and antislavery supporters, including Brown, became irate.
During the next year, Brown formulated a plan to start a slave rebellion and form a free state for blacks. The heart of the plan involved attacking the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He rented a farmhouse a few miles from the armory and studied the site’s layout. With each passing month, more volunteers, including Brown’s sons, arrived at the farmhouse to join the operation. Brown also secured financial backing for his plan from several wealthy Northerners, commonly referred to as The Secret Six. He shared his strategy with approximately 20 volunteers, but he left most of the plan’s details to divine guidance. Brown believed that that God would intervene to provide exactly what the group needed to succeed.
On a crisp fall night in 1859, Brown and his gang advanced toward Harpers Ferry and cut the telegraph lines. The men overpowered the few night watchmen assigned to guard the armory and took several townspeople hostage. Brown then sent his men to look for more hostages. They particularly wanted to find Lewis Washington, a local slaveholder and the great-grandnephew of George Washington. Brown believed that a hostage of his stature would attract additional attention to his cause. The group returned with a handful of hostages, including Washington. Brown explained his mission to the hostages and anyone else within earshot.
“I came here from Kansas, and this is a slave State. I want to free all the negroes in this State; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood."
Word of Brown’s scheme quickly spread throughout the town. The abolitionist figured it was only a matter of time before droves of runaway slaves and sympathetic whites arrived at the armory to pick up their weapons and fight for freedom for all slaves. He and his men shuffled the hostages into the compound’s engine house and waited for the next phase of the plan. However, the slaves never showed up. Ironically, the area Brown selected for his slave uprising had very few slaves, and the ones living there were well off and in no hurry to cause trouble.
Early the next morning, Brown’s men shot a railroad employee. The townspeople heard the shots and sent for help. Before long, Brown and his gang were surrounded by local militiamen and a company of United States Marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee. President Buchanan, who had been told that the uprising involved more than 700 blacks and whites, ordered three artillery companies and Lee’s unit to respond. Since the Marines were based nearby, they were the first soldiers to arrive.
Brown repeatedly tried to negotiate freedom for his surviving followers, but a cease fire never happened. Lee and his Marines eventually rushed the building and captured Brown and four of his men. The fight left Brown beaten, bleeding, and unconscious. Inside the engine house and the home that Brown and his group rented, federal forces found crates filled with weapons intended to arm the defiant slaves.
Brown and the surviving members of his gang were charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason against the state of Virginia. Brown’s lawyer planned to enter an insanity plea, but the accused refused to go along because he wanted to become a martyr in death. The trial lasted four days, and the jury deliberated for less than one hour before finding Brown guilty and sentencing him to death. The devout abolitionist, lying on a cot in the court room because he was still weak from the wounds he suffered during his capture, was granted an opportunity to address the people. Brown spoke slowly so reporters could capture every word for the following day’s newspapers.
“I believe that to have interfered as I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is not wrong, but right. Now, it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.”Although Brown’s actions were backed by a small group of wealthy New Yorkers, Southerners linked the violence to all Northerners. Additionally, since Northerners comprised a majority of the Republican Party, Democrats used the incident to claim that “the raid was the result of the teachings of the Republican Party.” To many Southerners, Civil War now seemed inevitable.
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