Wy, it's just ez clear ez Aggers, Clear ez one an' one make two, Chaps thet make black slaves o' niggers, Want to make wite slaves o' you

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Slavery and the Nation's Future

Dred Scott, a slave who brought suit in Missouri for his freedom, and Chief Justice Roger Taney, a descen­dant of Maryland's slaveholding elite, were principal fig­ures in the most controversial Supreme Court de­cision of the nine­teenth century. (Scott: Missouri Historical Society; Taney: Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore)

three of the northern justices actively dissented or re­fused to concur in crucial parts of the decision. The only northerner who supported Taney's opinion, Jus­tice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania, was known to be close to President Buchanan. In fact, Buchanan had se­cretly brought to bear improper but effective influence.

A storm of angry reaction broke in the North. The decision seemed to confirm every charge against the aggressive Slave Power. "There is such a thing as the slave power," warned the Cincinnati Daily Commer­cial. "It has marched over and annihilated the bound­aries of the states. We are now one great homogenous slaveholding community." The Cincinnati Freeman asked, "What security have the Germans and the Irish that their children will not, within a hundred years, be reduced to slavery in this land of their adoption?" "Where will it end?" asked the Atlantic Monthly. "Is the success of this conspiracy to be final and eternal?" The poet James Russell Lowell expressed the anxieties of poor northern whites when he had his Yankee charac­ter Ezekiel Biglow say:

Wy, it's just ez clear ez Aggers, Clear ez one an' one make two, Chaps thet make black slaves o' niggers, Want to make wite slaves o' you.

Republican politicians used these fears to strengthen their antislavery coalition. Abraham Lin­coln stressed that the territorial question affected every citizen. "The whole nation," he had declared as

Abraham Lincoln on the Slave Power

early as 1854, "is interested that the best use shall be made of these Terri­tories. We want them for homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them." The territories must be reserved, he insisted, "as an outlet for free white people everywhere" so that immigrants could come to America and "find new homes and better their condition in life."

More importantly, Lincoln warned of slavery's in­creasing control over the nation. The founders had created a government dedicated to freedom, Lincoln insisted. Admittedly they had recognized slavery's exis­tence, but the public mind, he argued in 1858, had al­ways rested in the belief that slavery would die either naturally or by legislation. The next step in the unfolding Slave Power conspiracy, Lincoln alleged, would be a Supreme Court decision "declaring that the Constitution does not permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits. . . . We shall lie down pleas­antly, dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State." This charge was not pure hyper­bole, for lawsuits soon challenged state laws that freed slaves brought within their borders.

Lincoln's most eloquent statement against the Slave Power was his famous "House Divided" speech, delivered as he announced his campaign for the U.S.

Chapter 14 Slavery and America's Future: The Road to War, 1845-1861

firm, * -/...* /


that Abraham Lincoln despised slavery? Lincoln, of course, was a politician who made mam public-addresses' and statements. Later, as pre^idejit, - '■' 11111 mastered the form.nf >' .ing news^apers/Lii

jug nsw^^rs..Jbiu^^^^ ifodets^rid^;>rf-pt^ slavery' anctanandpatiqn, and when the war came, * ' : :: he p^;siivirig the Union ahead of freeing slaves as; ; a matter of policy, until the two causes became in­terdependent. But before he received the Republi­can nomination for president'in -1860, he uas long ' en record as a leading vuke of his party's intention to put slavery on a "course of ultimate extinction." This pfebtograph was taken in Chicago in 1859, the year before the-iHjrto^-lawyer wajj.elected presi-

Lincoln also produced many private writings. "T he page reproduced here comes from a notebook in which.be recorded his reactions to a proslavery book'. Shivery OnlainedofGud, by Reverend Fred A. Ross. Criticizing Ross, Lincoln revealed his1 dislike of privilege and exposed the self-interest of those who.; would exploit others ut>t Ross sits in the shade, w-ith gloves *on his hands, and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning" sun" rather than "delvfingj for his own bread." Lincoln was no radical abolitionist, and his various stands on slavery represented both his piaguuirc politics and his personal \ iews. But there can be no doubt that, when it came to his twrt convictions, he hated slavery as a».idea~and.'as:an institution. (Photos; Notebook: Courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Li­brary; Lincoln',CHcaffoHistorical Society) f

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Senate in 1858. Using biblical metaphor and extraor­dinary grace, he declared:

'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure, permanendy half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dis­solved—I do not expect the House to fall—but I do ex­pect it to cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery

will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Lincoln warned repeatedly that the latter possibility was real, and events convinced coundess northerners that slaveholders were nearing their goal of making


slavery a national institution. And southerners never forgot Lincoln's use of the direct words "ultimate ex­tinction."

Politically, these forceful Republican arguments offset the difficulties that the Dred Scott decision posed. By endorsing the South's doctrine of state sovereignty, the Court had in effect declared that the central posi­tion of the Republican Party—no extension of slav­ery—was unconstitutional. Republicans could only repudiate the decision, appealing to a "higher law," or hope to change the personnel of the Court. They did both and gained politically as fear of the Slave Power grew. But fear also grew among free blacks, as they wondered if they had any future in America. Frederick Douglass continued to try to fashion hope among his people, but concluded a speech in the wake of the Dred Scott decision bleakly: "I walk by faith, not by sight."

For northern Democrats like Stephen Douglas, the Court's decision posed an awful dilemma. North­ern voters were alarmed by the

~**mm*mmmmmm*mmm prospect that the territories would be The Lecompton , , ~ , .

n ... .. opened to slavery, io retain their

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support, Douglas had to hnd some

way to reassure them. Yet, given his ambitions to lead the national Democratic Party and become president, Douglas could not afford to alien­ate southern Democrats.

Douglas chose to stand by his principle of popular sovereignty, even if the result angered southerners. In 1857 Kansans voted on a proslavery constitution that had been drafted at Lecompton. It was defeated by more than ten thousand votes. The evidence was over­whelming that Kansans did not want slavery, yet President Buchanan tried to force the Lecompton Constitution through Congress in an effort to hastily organize the territory.

Never had the Slave Power's influence over the government seemed more blatant; the Buchanan ad­ministration and southerners demanded a proslavery outcome, contrary to the popular will of the majority in Kansas. Breaking with the administration, Douglas threw his weight against the Lecompton Constitution. He gauged opinion in Kansas correctly, for in 1858 voters there rejected the constitution again. But his ac­tion infuriated southern Democrats. After the Dred Scott decision, southerners like Senator Albert G. Brown of Mississippi believed that slavery was pro­tected in the territories: "The Constitution as ex­pounded by the Supreme Court awards it. We demand it; we mean to have it."

Douglas further alienated the southern wing of his party in his well-publicized debates with Abraham

Stephen Douglas and the Freeport Doctrine

Lincoln, who challenged him for the Illinois Senate seat in 1858. Speaking at Freeport, Illinois, Douglas at­tempted to revive the concept of popular sovereignty with some tor­tured arguments. Asserting that the Supreme Court had ruled only on the powers of Con­gress, not on the powers of a territorial legislature, Douglas claimed that citizens in a territory could still bar slavery either by passing a law against it or by do­ing nothing. Without the patrol laws and police regu­lations that supported slavery, he reasoned, the institution could not exist. This argument, called the Freeport Doctrine, temporarily shored up Douglas's crumbling position in the North. But it gave southern Democrats further evidence that Douglas was unreli­able, and many turned viciously against him. Many southerners studied the trend in northern opinion and concluded that southern rights and slavery would be safe only in a separate nation.

Such feelings were not new. As early as 1838, the Louisiana planter Bennet Barrow had written in his diary: "Northern States meddling with slavery.. . openly speaking of the sin of Slavery in the southern states ... must eventually cause a separation of the Union." In 1856 a calmer, more polished Georgian named Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., rejoiced at James Buchanan's defeat of Republican John C. Fremont for the presidency. The result guaranteed four more years of peace and prosperity, wrote Jones, but "beyond that period ... we scarce dare expect a continuance of our present relations." Increasingly, slaveowners lived with a sense of crisis about the fate of the Union.

The immediate consequence for politics, however, was the likelihood of a split in the Democratic Party. Northern Democrats could not support the territorial protection for slavery that southern Democrats in­sisted was theirs as a constitutional right. Thus, in the North and in the South the issue of slavery in the ter­ritories continued to destroy moderation and promote militancy.


It is worth remembering that in the late 1850s most Americans were not caught up daily in the slavery crisis. They were pre­occupied with personal affairs, especially coping with the effects of the economic panic that had begun in the spring of 1857. They were worried about widespread unemployment, a sick cow, the plummet­ing price of wheat, the declining wages at a textile mill,

Chapter 14 Slavery and America's Future: The Road to War, 1845-1861

or a son who wanted to marry and needed land. In the Midwest, clerks, mechanics, domestics, railroad hands, and lumber camp workers lost jobs by the thousands. Bankers were at a loss for what to do about a weak credit system caused by frenzied western land specula­tion that began early in the decade. In parts of the South, such as Georgia, the panic intensified class divi­sions between upcountry yeomen and coastal slave-holding planters. Farmers blamed the tight money policies of Georgia's budding commercial banking sys­tem on wealthy planters who controlled the state's Democratic Party.

By 1858 Philadelphia had 40,000 unemployed workers, and New York City nearly 100,000. Fear of bread riots and class warfare gripped many cities in the North. True to form, blame for such economic woe became sectionalized, as southerners saw their system justified by the temporary collapse of industrial pros­perity, and northerners feared even more the incur­sions of the Slave Power on an insecure future.

The earliest known photograph of John Brown, probably taken in 1846 in Massachusetts, shows him pledging his devotion to an unidentified flag, possibly an abolitionist banner. Already Brown was aiding runaway slaves and pondering ways to strike at slavery. (Ohio Historical Society)

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

Soon, however, the entire nation's focus would be thrown again on a new dimension of the slavery ques­tion—armed rebellion. Born in Con­necticut in 1800, John Brown had been raised by staunchly religious and antislavery parents. Between 1820 and 1855, he engaged in some twenty business ventures, including farming, nearly all of them failures. But Brown had a distinctive vision of abolitionism, though he never joined any antislavery organizations. He relied on an Old Testa­ment conception of justice—"an eye for an eye"—and he had a puritanical obsession with the wickedness of others, especially southern slaveowners. Brown be­lieved that slavery was an "unjustifiable" state of war conducted by one group of people against another. He also believed that violence in a righteous cause was a holy act, even a rite of purification for those who en­gaged in it. To Brown, the destruction of slavery in America required revolutionary ideology and revolu­tionary acts.

On October 16, 1859, Brown led a small band of whites and blacks (eighteen men in all) in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Hoping to trigger a slave rebellion, Brown failed miserably and was quickly captured. In a celebrated trial in Novem­ber, and a highly guarded but widely publicized execu­tion in December, in Charles Town, Virginia, Brown became one of the most enduring martyrs, as well as villains, of American history. His attempted insurrec­tion struck fear into the South.

Then it became known that Brown had received financial backing from several prominent abolitionists. When northern intellectuals such as Emerson and Henry David Thoreau praised Brown as a holy warrior who "would make the gallows as glorious as the cross," and as "an angel of light," white southerners' outrage multiplied. The South almost universally interpreted Brown's attack at Harpers Ferry as the act of midnight terrorism, as the fulfillment of their long-stated dread of "abolition emissaries" who would infiltrate the re­gion to incite slave rebellion.

Perhaps most telling of all was the fact that the pivotal election of 1860 was less than a year away when Brown went so eagerly to the gallows, handing a note to his jailer with the famous prediction: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood." Most trou­bling to southerners, perhaps, was their awareness that while Republican politicians condemned Brown's crimes, they did so in a way that deflected attention onto the still greater crime of slavery.


Many Americans believed that the election of

1860 would decide the fate of the Union. Only the

Democratic Party remained as an or-

TTtTrirTTT!!^ ganization that was truly national in Election of 1860 ° M/~ , / „

scope. One after another, wrote a

Mississippi editor, "the links which have bound the North and South together, have been severed .. . [but] the Democratic party looms gradu­ally up .. . and waves the olive branch over the trou­bled waters of politics." But at its 1860 convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the Democratic Party split.

Stephen A. Douglas wanted his party's presiden­tial nomination, but he could not afford to alienate northern voters by accepting the southern position on the territories. Southern Democrats, however, insisted on recognition of their rights—as the Dred Scott deci­sion had defined them—and they moved to block Douglas's nomination. When Douglas obtained a ma­jority for his version of the platform, delegates from the five Gulf states plus South Carolina, Georgia, and Arkansas walked out of the convention. After efforts at compromise failed, the Democrats presented two nominees: Douglas for the northern wing, and Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for the southern.

The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln at a rousing convention in Chicago. Lincoln's choice re­flected the growing power of the Midwest, and he was perceived as more moderate on slavery than the early front runner, Senator William H. Seward of New York. A Constitutional Union Party, formed to pre­serve the nation but strong only in the Upper South, nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

Bell's only issue in the ensuing campaign was the urgency of preserving the Union, and Douglas desper­ately wanted to hold his northern and southern sup­porters together. Even Breckinridge quickly backed away from the appearance of extremism, and his sup­porters in several states stressed his unionism. Al­though Lincoln and the Republicans denied any intent to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed, they stood firm against the extension of slavery into the territories.

The election of 1860 was sectional in character, and the only one in American history in which the losers refused to accept the result. Lincoln won, but Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell together received most of the votes. Douglas had broad-based support but won few states. Breckinridge carried nine southern states, all in the Deep South. Bell won pluralities in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Lincoln prevailed in the North, but in the four border states that ulti­mately remained loyal to the Union (Missouri, Ken­tucky, Maryland, and Delaware) he gained only a plurality, not a majority (see Table 14.3). Lincoln's vic­tory was won in the electoral college. He polled only 40 percent of the total vote and was not even on the ballot in ten slave states.

Opposition to slavery's extension was the core is­sue of the Republican Party, and Lincoln's alarm over slavery's growing political power was genuine. More­over, abolitionists and supporters of free soil in the North worked to keep the Republicans from compro­mising on their territorial stand. Meanwhile in the South, proslavery advocates and secessionists whipped up public opinion and demanded that state conven­tions assemble to consider secession.

Lincoln made the crucial decision not to soften his party's position on the territories. He wrote of the ne­cessity of maintaining the bond of faith between voter and candidate and of declining to set "the minority over the majority." But Lincoln's refusal to compro­mise derived both from conviction and from concern for the unity of the Republican Party. Although many conservative Republicans—eastern businessmen and former Whigs who did not feel strongly about slav­ery—hoped for a compromise, the original and most
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