The Road to the Civil War

The Road to the Civil War


            The acquiring of new lands in the Mexican Cession allowed America to achieve its goals of Manifest Destiny.  However, the question of whether these lands would be come slave, or free states would lead the nation to war.  Debates over slavery had long been a central issue dividing the north and south. 

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson had wanted to list slavery as a grievance against the King of England, thereby setting in motion the abolition of slavery in any new nation formed by the revolution.  The southern delegates to the Second Continental Congress refused to sign the Declaration of Independence unless that grievance was removed.  It was.  The Articles of Confederation created the Northwest Ordinance that had banned slavery in the Northwest Territory but had no effect on slavery where it already existed.  In 1787, at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, many northern delegates wanted to ban slavery in the new nation they were creating.  Again, the southern delegates refused, and the Three-Fifths and Slave Trade Compromises were made, effectively making slavery legal in the United States.

            In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase, and again slavery became the key issue.  Would these new lands allow slavery?  Any new states made there would mean more congressmen and senators from newly created slave states.  This would further upset the balance of power in the Senate.  Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise of 1820 had solved the dispute temporarily.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state if Maine entered as a free state, balancing power in the senate between slave and free states.  Furthermore, the compromise drew the Missouri Compromise Line of 1820.  The line ran from the southern border of Missouri across the Louisiana Purchase.  Any new states made from this territory would only be allowed to have slaves if the were below this line.  The Missouri Compromise did not solve the debate over slavery; it only covered up the problem and pushed the war over slavery father into the future.

            Now, the nation had acquired the Mexican Cession.  The majority of these lands were below the Missouri Compromise Line of 1820.  Therefore, these new territories could become slave states and further upset the balance of power between free and slave states.  The discovery of gold in California further worsened the problem.  Within just a few years, the population of California exploded and California asked to be admitted as a free state.   California did not wish to be a slave state.  Again, the balance of power in the senate was at stake.  Sectionalist tensions were at the verge of breaking out into war.

            As the U.S.-Mexican War had begun, Senator Wilmot, an antislavery congressman, had attempted to ban slavery in any territories acquired by the war with Mexico.  His proposal to stop the spread of slavery to these lands, the Wilmot Proviso, failed.  Though the Wilmot Proviso twice passed the northern dominated House of Representatives, it failed in the Senate.  The Senate was split evenly between slave and free states.  Southern senators refused to vote for the plan.  The Wilmot Proviso failed.  Now that the war was over, what would become of these territories?

            California’s admission as a free state would upset the balance of power in the senate, tied at fifteen slave, and fifteen free states.  Therefore the southern senators blocked California’s attempts to enter the Union fearing the loss of power.  A compromise needed to be made.  Henry Clay, author of the American System, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, offered up another compromise in 1850. 

The Compromise of 1850 was to be Henry Clay’s greatest achievement, earning him the title, “The Great Compromiser.”  The Compromise of 1850 had five parts.  The compromise admitted California into the Union as a free states. Though this unbalanced the Senate, the second part of the compromise settled southern fears.  The second part of the compromise divided the rest of the Mexican Cession into two parts, the Utah and New Mexico territories.  Each of these territories would be allowed to decide for itself whether they wanted to become a slave or free state.  In the third part of the compromise, Texas gave up its claims on the New Mexico territory in exchange for the United States paying off the debts Texas had incurred during the time it was an independent nation.  To make the northern states happy, the fourth part of the Compromise of 1850 made slavery illegal in Washington, D.C.  Many northerners had long disparaged at seeing slave auctions being held in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital.  However, to make the south happy as well, the final part of the compromise passed strict fugitive slave laws.   Many southern states had long been irritated to see their slaves escape to the north, and thereby gain their freedom.  These new Fugitive Slave Act would mean that any slaves escaping to the north would be forced to return to slavery in the south.

The Compromise of 1850 did not solve the slavery dispute.  Neither the north nor south was completely happy with this compromise.  Still, both northern and southern politicians were growing tired of continually fighting the issue of slavery.  Both sides believed that the compromise would preserve the union from war between the north and south over slavery.  In fact, the Compromise of 1850 did little more than hold off war between the northern and southern states for ten years.  Conflicts over slavery would continue to disturb the nation and force people to choose sides.  Abraham Lincoln stated that slavery was like a cancer eating away at the nation.  It poisoned men against one another, and would eventually bring the nation to war.


North vs. South


            The issue of slavery was destined to bring the nation to war.  The Compromise of 1850 had not settled the debate over slavery in the United States.  It had merely been just good enough to forestall civil war in 1850.  As Abraham Lincoln had said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The nation was divided over slavery, and it would take a war to decide if America was to be a nation of slave states, or a nation in which “all men are created equal.”

            The north and south had more quarrels than slavery, however.  The south still held on to its beliefs in states’ rights.  Southerners believed that state sovereignty was their only guarantee for protection of their slaveholding rights.  The north, on the other hand, stood for national sovereignty.  Northerners believed in the supremacy of federal law and that all states were constitutionally obliged to follow the laws passed by the Congress of the United States.  The north and south differed over tariffs as well.  Since the south sold most of their cash crops to Europe and bought their manufactured goods from there as well, they wanted the tariffs to be lowered, if not abolished all together.  Yet, the northern industrialists saw tariffs as a necessary evil to protect America’s factories from foreign competition.  Also, the revenue from tariffs funded internal improvements such as roads, bridges and canals that linked the manufacturing centers of the north to the crops and raw materials of the west. 

            Even the economies and societies of the north and south were different.  The south’s economy was based on the use of slave labor on plantations to produce cash crops. The north’s economy was based on manufacturing and trade.  While the south depended on slavery, the north, by in large, had no use for slaves in their factories.             However, the most important reason for the tensions between the north and south was slavery.  Only about twenty-five percent of southerners owned slaves.  And, most slave owners had only a few.  Only one percent of southerners owned more than 100 slaves and lived on huge plantations.  Yet, the vast majority of southerners saw slavery as the way to get rich.  Poor southerners worked hard to purchase slaves and more land so that they too could achieve the great wealth of the plantation owners.  The north, however, had little use for slaves.  Slavery would mean competition for the limited jobs of the northern factories.  Most of the slaves of the north were not agricultural field hands as those in the south were.  The slaves of the north were mainly maids, cooks, and domestic servants.  Unlike the slaves of the south, the slaves of the north lived in close proximity to their owners.  Therefore the slave owners of the north grew to know their slaves on a more personal level.  Getting to know their slaves as people made it harder to justify slavery at all.  Hence, the north was moving to eliminate slavery all the while the south was fighting to keep their way of life.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin


            In 1852, tensions between abolitionists in the north and slave owners in the south reached a new height in tension.  Harriet Beecher Stowe published her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin told a story of the cruelties of slavery in the south.  Though Stowe had never been to the south, she gathered stories from escaped slaves and people who had traveled the south to write her book.  The novel caused a firestorm of opinion.  In the north, the book caused the abolition movement to spread like wildfire.  People who had never really thought about slavery, or had never seen it first hand, were outraged at the depicted treatment of the book’s characters at the hands of their cruel masters.  In the south, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen as vicious propaganda.  Southerners raged at the books depictions of slave owners as cruel and inhuman masters.  Southerners argued that they were not as harsh as the book depicted.  Though not all southern slave owners were as cruel as the book made them out to be, some were.  The results were the same, however.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in its first year alone.  People who read, or talked about, the book soon chose sides in the slavery debate. 


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

And Bleeding Kansas


            The national debate over slavery soon erupted into bloodshed in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.  In 1854, Stephen Douglas, a northern democrat who was trying to win favor with southerners in hopes of winning a presidential election, proposed the Kansas and Nebraska Act of 1854.  The Kansas and Nebraska Act of 1854 proposed that popular sovereignty be used to decide if the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would become free or slave states.  Popular sovereignty means that the people have the power in government and exercise that right by voting.  In this case, the people living in those territories would be allowed to decide the slavery issue for themselves. 

            Northerners were outraged by the Kansas and Nebraska Act.  Northerners argued that the Missouri Compromise Line of 1820 already settled this debate of slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and other western lands.  According to northerners, since these territories were above the Missouri Compromise Line, slavery could not exist in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.  Southerners, however, argued that the constitutional principal of popular sovereignty should rule.  People hold the final authority in government.  If the people of these territories wished to become slave or free states, they could do so by voting for it.  By passing the Kansas and Nebraska Act, congress had made the Missouri Compromise of 1820 null and void.

In 1856, this debate over slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories led to a small scale, but bloody civil war that lasted four months and cost over 200 lives.  This small war became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”  Since the people living in Kansas and Nebraska would be allowed to choose to become free or slaves states by voting, the obvious answer was to pack the states with people who would vote the way your part of the nation wanted them too.  Soon, antislavery forces financed settlers opposed to slavery to move to Kansas and Nebraska before the vote.  Southerners also financed proslavery settlers to move to the territories. 

            On the eve of the vote in Kansas to determine if the state would be a free or slave state, antislavery settlers outnumbered the proslavery settlers.  Not wanting to lose the election and lose slavery in Kansas forever, more than 5,000 proslavery supporters from Missouri traveled to Kansas and illegally voted in the election.  The election therefore resulted in Kansas choosing a proslavery legislature. 

            Antislavery settlers in Kansas boycotted the election and set up their own antislavery government.  They refuse to follow the laws passed by the proslavery government.  Animosity filled the air between the two sides.  With the political authority in dispute, the sides began arming themselves.  Violence was bound to erupt, and just months later it did.  In May of 1856, a proslavery mob attacked the antislavery town of Lawrence, Kansas.  The attackers destroyed the offices of the antislavery government there.

            In response to the Sack of Lawrence, as the attack on the antislavery government there came to be known, antislavery forces retaliated.  The most influential leader of the antislavery forces was John Brown.  John Brown was a rabid abolitionist.  In revenge, John Brown and his men murdered five proslavery settlers in their homes.  What followed was chaos.  Proslavery and antislavery groups roamed the Kansas territory killing one another in ceaseless revenge.  For four months the sides killed one another and over 200 died.  Though violence did slow down after those four months, eruptions of murder and violence between proslavery and antislavery forces happened on and off again for the next three years. 

            The violence even spread to the nation’s capital.  In congress, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a speech denouncing the violence of proslavery forces in Kansas.  In his speech, he verbally attacked A. P. Butler, a southern senator from South Carolina.  When news of this attack on a southern senator, and the south in general, leaked out, a relative of Butler attacked Senator Sumner, beating him with a cane.  Southerners cheered this defense of southern honor.  However, northerners saw this as just another example of the south’s brutality.  “Bleeding Kansas” and “Bleeding Sumner” became the rallying cries of northern abolitionists. 


The Republican Party


            The events in Bleeding Kansas and the division between proslavery and antislavery groups led to the birth of the Republican Party.  1856 was to be an election year, and capturing the presidency was seen as the way for either side to gain the upper hand over the other.  The Democrats chose James Buchanan to run for president.  The Democrats knew they needed southern votes to win, and Buchanan seemed to be the perfect choice.  Buchanan had been ambassador to England during the Bleeding Kansas troubles and had not made a single public statement about the crisis there, the Kansas and Nebraska Act, or about slavery in general.  In fact, Buchanan’s only public statements were that he wanted to keep the Union together.

            The American, or Know Nothing Party, so named because when its members were asked about their party or what it stood for they would reply, “I know nothing about it,” ran Millard Fillmore.  Millard Fillmore had taken over as president after Zachary Taylor died in office.  However, the Know Nothing Party was divided over slavery.  Its party platform committee could not decide if it was for, or against slavery or the expansion of slavery.  Thus, the party had little power.

            The newest political party was the Republican Party.  The Republican Party blamed the problems in Kansas on the Democrats.  Their antislavery stance made them extremely popular in the northern states.  The Republican Party nominated John C. Freemont to run for the presidency.  Freemont had little political experience.  However, Freemont was famous for his exploits as an explorer and his role in the Bear Flag Revolt.  Most importantly, Freemont had spoken in favor of admitting California and Kansas as free states.  This opposition of the expansion of slavery was all he needed to become the favorite of abolitionists in the north. 

            The presidential election of 1856 came evolved into two races.  In the north, the Republican Freemont and the Democrat Buchanan vied for office.  In the south, voting officials did not allow the antislavery Freemont’s name to even appear on the ballot.  Therefore, the southern race for the presidency came down to the Democrat Buchanan versus the Know Nothing’s Fillmore.  With the vote split, Buchanan won, simply because his name was on the ballot in both the north and south, and since he had never made any public statements about slavery, both sides assumed Buchanan represented them.

            Though the election of 1856 was a sorry affair as far as elections go, and Buchanan was woefully unprepared for the job ahead, it did show much about the nation.  The election of 1856 showed that the nation was sharply divided over the issue of slavery.  When the votes were tallied, Freemont had won eleven northern states, even though he lost the election.  This showed that the north was solidly abolitionist.  With the nation so divided, it needed a strong president to ease tensions.  Unfortunately, Buchanan was not up to the task. 


Dred Scott vs. Sanford


            As the nation drew ever closer to civil war, the Supreme Court gave the nation yet another nudge towards the abyss.  In 1857, Dred Scott sued for his freedom.  Scott was a slave in Missouri.  Scott’s owner was dead and he was due to be inherited by his owner’s beneficiaries.  Scott sued that since his owner had taken his to live in territories where slavery was illegal, he should be freed.  The decision handed down in the Dred Scott vs. Sanford Supreme Court case shocked the north. 

            In Dred Scott vs. Sanford, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled against Scott, effectively denying Scott his freedom.  Taney caused shock waves in the north with his decision.  According to the decision, Taney ruled that the Constitution stated that slaves were not citizens of the United States.  Therefore, slaves could not be sued, or bring forth suits in court.  And, according to the Constitution, slaves were property.  They were owned as much as a man could own a horse.  As a horse has no legal rights, nor does a slave.  Furthermore, Taney stated that the 5th Amendment clearly spelled out property rights.  And, since slaves were property, and the Constitution could not take a person’s property without due process of the law, slavery could not be abolished from any state.  This meant that states that had abolished slavery could not do so.  Anyone that wished to own a slave in a free state could do so.  The states had no Constitutional right to prohibit the ownership of slaves anywhere.  Since this was the case, the Missouri Compromise that had banned slavery north of the Missouri Compromise Line of 1820 was also unconstitutional.

            In effect, the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case opened the door to proslavery forces expanding slavery wherever they wanted to.  No where, according to this decision, could slavery be abolished, or restricted.  The decision was heralded throughout the south.  Southerners were overjoyed to learn they no longer needed to fear slavery being abolished or limited in any way.  Northerners, however, were dismayed.  In response, northerners flocked to the new Republican Party.  The Republican Party stood for the abolition, or at least limiting the expansion, of slavery. 


The LincolnDouglas Debates


            Slavery was once again the issue dividing the nation in 1858.  That year, Abraham Lincoln was running against Stephen A. Douglas for the senate seat in Illinois.  In their campaigns, the two candidates traveled through Illinois debating and trying to win votes.  Both candidates were popular in Illinois, and the debates were printed in newspapers in Illinois, and around the nation. 

            Abraham Lincoln was running as the republican candidate for the senate.  Lincoln did not like slavery.  However, Lincoln argued that slavery was constitutional, as the Supreme Court had ruled, but was immoral.  Lincoln described his position as being antislavery, but not an abolitionist.  Though Lincoln admitted he disliked slavery and did not want to see it expand into new territories, since it was protected by the Constitution, it should not be abolished where it already existed.

            Stephen A. Douglas had other ideas about slavery.  Douglas knew the next presidential election was only two years away.  To win the presidency, he needed southern votes.  So, Douglas crafted his arguments to gain southern votes in the next election, using the debates that he knew would be printed in every major newspaper across the land, to get his message to southern voters.  Douglas argued that popular sovereignty was the way to decide the issue.  Douglas favored letting the states and territories vote for themselves to become free or slave states. 

Douglas won reelection to the senate that year.  However, the election did more that just decide a senate race in Illinois.  Douglas earned favor in the south that he would use to earn southern votes in the 1860 presidential election.  Lincoln’s speeches in the debates won him favor with the republican, and abolitionist northern states.  People all over the north had read Lincoln’s words of the debates.  His fame grew quickly in the north, and grew the strength of the Republican Party in the north.  This fame would catapult Lincoln into the republican nomination for president in 1860.




Harper’s Ferry


            In 1859 the nation again saw blood flow over the issue of slavery.  John Brown and his abolitionist followers had killed many proslavery people in the Kansas territory.  As he watched congress argue back and forth with the slavery issue, and the Dred Scott Case expand slaver owners rights even further, he came to believe that politics and the courts would never be able to end slavery.  Brown saw violence as the only way to end the institution of slavery once and for all.  So decided, John Brown came up with a plan to end slavery himself.

            The abolition of slavery had become John Brown’s crusade.  To him, the ends justified the means.  No act of violence was too evil not to justify ending the institution of slavery.  On October 16th, 1859, John Brown led his 18 followers to the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to capture the arsenal’s weapons.  His plan was to capture the weapons and give them to slaves that they would free from neighboring plantations.  Brown hoped to continue to raid plantations for slaves, and arsenals for weapons building a slave army to fight to end slavery once and for all. 

            Brown and his men were able to capture the arsenal and sent word to nearby plantations for slaves to revolt and arm themselves with the captured weapons.  No slaves came.  However, a young Major Robert E. Lee of the United States Army and a company of American Marines did arrive to recapture the arsenal.  Brown has taken several of the townspeople hostages at the arsenal to keep the Marines at bay.  Never the less, Major Robert E. Lee ordered the Marines to attack, using only bayonets so as not to accidentally shoot hostages, and retook the arsenal.  Several of Brown’s followers were killed in the attack, but Brown was captured.  John Brown was tried for treason against the government of the United States, and for stealing government property.  Brown was found guilty of all charges and hanged. 

            On the day John Brown was executed, Brown became a martyr to the abolitionist cause.  In the north, church bells rang in his honor, and special church services honoring his acts were held.  Northern newspapers agreed that his action might have been wrong, but that his cause was just.  Throughout the northern states, John Brown was celebrated as an American Hero and compared to the Founding Fathers and saints martyred for their beliefs and for his fight to end slavery.  In the south, people were shocked!    Southerners felt that John Brown should have been considered a treasonous murderer.  Had he not been found guilty of treason?  Had he not murdered dozens of innocent people in the Kansas territory?  How could the north applaud such scandalous treachery?  John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry showed the division between the north and south.  His actions raised tensions over slavery to the breaking point in the nation.  Just months before the 1860 presidential election, the Harper’s Ferry raid had brought the nation to the brink of the precipice.  It would only take one push, and the nation would fall into war.


The Election of 1860


            As the parties began to nominate candidates for the 1860 presidential election, the nation, and the parties, divided over the issue of slavery.  The Democratic Party began to splinter over the issue.  Southern democrats pushed the protection of slavery as the main issue of their campaign.  However, northern democrats disagreed.   Northern democrats wanted to propose popular sovereignty in the states and territories, let the people decide for themselves if they wanted slavery or not.  At the Democratic Party’s nominating convention, northern delegates outnumbered southern delegates.  When the northern democrats voted for popular sovereignty, the southern delegates walked out to chose their own candidate. 

            This splitting of the democrat’s votes would destroy their chances of wining the election.  The northern democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas to run for the presidency because of his speeches favoring popular sovereignty in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  The southern delegates held their own convention and nominated John Breckinridge, a strong supporter of slavery. 

            The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln to run for the presidency.  Lincoln’s speeches in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates had resonated in the hearts of northern abolitionists.  Though Lincoln had said that slavery was constitutional, he wished to halt its expansion and called slavery an immoral institution.  Clearly, Lincoln was the candidate for the Republican Party, and the northern states rallied behind Lincoln.

            A fourth candidate was added to the choices for president in 1860.  The new Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell of Tennessee to run for office.  Bell and the Constitutional Union Party had one belief, the preservation of the union.  They wanted to keep the nation from falling apart.  They saw the nation dividing over the issue of slavery and sought to hold the nation together.  However, they offered up no suggestions of how to do this, and received only little support from either pro or antislavery voters.

            The election of 1860 was much like the election of 1856.  It was really two races, one in the north, and one in the south.  In the north, voters chose from the republican Lincoln and the northern democrat Douglas.  In the south, voters chose from the southern democrat Breckinridge and the Constitutional Union Party’s Bell.   

            Northern voters decided between Lincoln and Douglas based mainly on the slavery issue.  Lincoln had spoke about limiting the expansion of slavery and won the majority of northern votes.  Douglas had spoke of allowing popular sovereignty in the states let people choose for themselves.  Abolitionists in the north saw this as proslavery and Douglas received few northern votes.  In the south, most voters chose Breckinridge for his proslavery positions.  Some southerners that feared the dissolution of the Union chose Bell.  Most southerners saw slavery as the only way to assure their wealth, however, and most voted for Breckinridge.

            In short, the north had more people than the south.  This meant that the north had more electoral votes.  Lincoln carried all of the northern states, plus the new free states of California and Oregon.  Lincoln received 40% of the popular votes, but 180 electoral votes.  Breckinridge won most of the southern states and received 18% of the popular vote, but received only 72 electoral votes.  Douglas, the northern democrat won two the borders states, those states that bordered the north and south in the middle.  He received 29% of the popular vote, but only gained 12 electoral votes from those states.  Bell of the Constitutional Union Party won the rest of the Border States, with 13% of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes.  Clearly, the election showed that Abraham Lincoln was the clear winner of the 1860 election.  He received the majority of both the popular and electoral votes.

            However, the south was outraged by the 1860 election.  The democratic part had split its votes between Breckinridge and Douglas.  The south argued that together Breckinridge and Douglas had earned 42% of the popular vote.  When you added Bell’s 18%, this meant that 60% of the nation did not want Lincoln to be president.  Still, Lincoln had won the election fairly, and according to the rules for presidential election in the Constitution. 

            Despite Lincoln’s statements during the election that he would not abolish slavery in states where it already existed, in fact could not because the 5th Amendment protected slave owners property rights, the south still believed that Lincoln would abolish slavery and end their way of life.  The southern states simply did not trust Lincoln.  They feared that now that the northern abolitionists had a sympathetic president, they would move to abolish slavery immediately.