Authors: Steven Woodworth
Throughout the 1820s and 1830s those irritations remained small but occurred with disturbing regularity. In 1822 South Carolina slaveholders purported to have uncovered an elaborate conspiracy of slaves bent on revolt and subsequent mayhem. They blamed the ferment on the widely publicized Missouri Compromise debates, which, they said, had introduced evil ideas of freedom into the minds of their otherwise contented slaves. Some modern scholars suspect the slaveholders may have fabricated the entire story in order to justify a more strident defense of slavery.
ABOLITIONISM, NULLIFICATION, AND TERRITORIAL EXPANSION
An 1831 Virginia slave revolt was real enough. In August of that year a slave preacher and mystic named Nat Turner led fellow slaves in a bloody uprising, killing almost every white man, woman, and child who came across their path, fifty-five in all, before finally being suppressed by the aroused Virginia militia in less than forty-eight hours. Captured several weeks later, Turner and fifty-five of his fellow slaves were executed. Other blacks may have died at the hands of mobs during the reaction to the uprising. It was the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history.
Some southerners saw the outbreak as the result of more evil Yankee ideas, this time emanating from a group known as abolitionists who presented the country with a new kind of opposition to slavery. Prior to this time, moral witness against slavery in America had mostly been expressed in genteel manner by members of an organization called the American Colonization Society. The society advocated persuading America’s free blacks to migrate to Africa as a first step toward persuading planters that it would be safe to manumit their slaves since the freedmen would no doubt quickly follow the other members of their race to their ancestral continent. As a means of bringing about the end of slavery in the United States, the American Colonization Society had been notable chiefly for its complete ineffectiveness, which won it the good opinion even of some slaveholders, including Henry Clay. The abolitionists were something else entirely. They called for the immediate, uncompensated emancipation of all slaves. Most of them were evangelical Christians, and they made it plain that they considered the ownership of slaves to be a sin.
The abolitionists’ loudest and most strident spokesman was in some ways not representative of the movement. William Lloyd Garrison was unorthodox in his religious views and more radical even than most other abolitionists, but he became one of the most recognized public voices and faces of the movement thanks to the weekly abolitionist newspaper he founded in 1831 in Boston. Garrison’s rhetoric was inflammatory. “I am in earnest,” he wrote in his first issue, “I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.” He certainly was. Though the paper, named
, had fewer than four hundred subscribers that first year and its circulation grew only very slowly, Garrison’s shocking statements made him and his message well known throughout the country. The state of Georgia offered a five-thousand-dollar reward for his arrest, and death threats were numerous.
Much as abolitionists like Garrison might fill the hearts of southern whites with fear and loathing, they posed almost as little practical threat to slavery as did the prim and stuffy gentlemen of the American Colonization Society. The abolitionists were earnest enough, but their numbers were few. Nowhere in the country were they in the majority, and even in the Northeast they could easily become the objects of popular outrage and mob violence. Abolitionist preachers were sometimes arrested out of their pulpits by the local sheriff as disturbers of the peace. Garrison once narrowly escaped a lynch mob in Boston. Outside of the Northeast and some strongly antislavery parts of the upper Midwest, abolitionism was an extremely dangerous creed to embrace. When Presbyterian minister Elijah P. Lovejoy began publishing an abolition newspaper in Alton, Illinois, near St. Louis, a proslavery mob destroyed his printing press. Supporters helped him purchase a replacement press, and the mob destroyed it too. His third press met a similar fate, and when in November 1837 Lovejoy attempted to prevent the destruction of a fourth press, the mob killed him.
Southern whites and their northern sympathizers reacted aggressively toward abolitionism in legal ways as well. One southern countereffort took the form of South Carolina “nullifying” the federal tariff. In November 1832 a special South Carolina state convention declared the tariff unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the state. The tariff was a foolish economic policy, highly unpopular in the South. Getting free of it would have been a welcome development, but establishing a state’s right to nullify federal laws would have been a much larger accomplishment. Southern states could then have nullified any federal act they might feel impinged on the rights of slaveholders without the tiresome and, to southern minds, dangerous debates that had surrounded the Missouri Compromise. President Andrew Jackson handled the situation with both firmness and finesse, putting the South Carolinians in a position in which they would have to become the aggressors in order to stop collection of the tariff. Knowing that Jackson would throw the whole armed might of the Union against them if they attacked and disappointed that no other southern states had joined them in their stand, the South Carolinians sullenly backed down.
Slavery advocates invented additional means to preserve the peculiar institution. Later during the 1830s southern congressmen persuaded the U.S. Post Office to ban the transmission of abolitionist literature through the mail. Throughout the decade abolitionists had sent petitions to Congress requesting the banning of slavery within the District of Columbia or at least of the slave trade there. So in 1836 proslavery members of Congress led the way in imposing, with the help of sympathetic northerners, the so-called Gag Rule stipulating that Congress would not receive any petition against slavery and implying that the petitioners had committed an offense, at least against good manners, by sending it. Slavery supporters did not intend to let perceived abolitionist radicalism infect the U.S. government.
Party politics helped suppress abolitionist agitation. By the mid-1830s the United States had an established two-party system, pitting Democrats against Whigs. Democrats favored strict adherence to the Constitution and very limited government. Whigs played fast and loose with the Constitution and advocated government intervention in the economy in hopes of boosting prosperity, at least for some people. Both parties were alike, however, in appealing to a nationwide constituency, and therefore both were committed to avoiding any national debate over slavery. Party leaders cracked the whip vigorously to keep their members of Congress in line on such issues as the banning of abolitionist literature from the mail or the maintenance of the odious congressional Gag Rule. Within the South, both parties billed themselves as the surest defenders of slavery, while in the North the Whigs, always more loosely organized, sometimes presented themselves as principled foes of slavery, and the Democrats maintained that the issue was none of any northerner’s business. So effective was the two-party system in muzzling all criticism of slavery at the national level that frustrated abolitionists in 1840 formed a party of their own, but in that year’s presidential election the ideologically pure Liberty Party garnered fewer than ten thousand votes and had no impact on the outcome of the election.
The momentous events of the 1840s fundamentally changed this situation and made it drastically more difficult for politicians to dodge the issue of slavery. Early in the decade President John Tyler made the friendly annexation of the Republic of Texas a goal of his administration. Beginning in the 1820s, Americans had settled in Tejas, Mexico’s northeastern province, first with the blessing of the government in far-off Mexico City, then with its suspicion and finally outright hostility. Mexican misrule had led in late 1835 to an uprising in Texas. The rebellious Texians, as they called themselves, won their independence the following April at the Battle of San Jacinto and established the Republic of Texas. Mexico sullenly maintained its claim to the province it could no longer rule. Tyler’s move to annex Texas, though warmly welcomed by the Texians, drew the ire of abolitionists and of more moderate antislavery Americans since the Texians, being mostly migrants from the American South, had legalized slavery in their new republic. Adding Texas to the United States would increase the number of slave states in the Union.
The potent crosscurrent of slavery, which some Americans opposed regardless of the consequences for national growth, and of territorial expansion, which many Americans favored regardless of their views on slavery, now generated a political maelstrom that grew in size and strength. As the election of 1844 approached, the Democrats dumped their antiannexation frontrunner in favor of dark-horse annexationist James K. Polk of Tennessee on a platform calling for annexation not only of Texas but also of the entire Oregon Territory, hitherto jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain. The Whigs nominated their own antiannexation candidate, Mr. Whig himself, Henry Clay, but as election day approached, Clay, fearing his anti-Texas stand might cost him at the polls, began hedging. His efforts to straddle the issue served only to prompt slavery opponents to bolt his party in favor of the Liberty Party. Enough of them did so in key states to throw the election to the expansionist Polk. Reading Polk’s victory as a mandate for annexation, the lame-duck Tyler renewed his efforts and finally added Texas to the Union in March 1845, days before Polk’s accession to office.
On entering the presidency, Polk found that Britain would negotiate its differences with the United States, but Mexico would not. The result was an amicable division of the Oregon Territory but war with Mexico when the latter declined to remove its troops from territory claimed by Texas. To the astonishment of European military pundits, including the renowned Duke of Wellington, who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, the United States triumphed over Mexico. General Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812, captured Mexico City with a small but excellent American army whose junior officers included Captain Robert E. Lee and lieutenants Ulysses S. Grant, Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Thomas J. Jackson, and George B. McClellan, among others who were destined to become far better known a decade and a half later.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the war, granted the United States, in exchange for a fifteen-million-dollar payment to Mexico, the vast tract of territory that now comprises all or most of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. The value of this tract, known as the Mexican Cession, increased drastically when a few months later news reached the East that American settlers in California had discovered gold there. The California Gold Rush was on, and multitudes flocked to the Pacific slope of the Sierra Nevada, not only from the rest of the United States but also from nearly every other country of the globe.
The acquisition of the Mexican Cession, combined with the rush of gold seekers to California, changed the political situation in America so that the two-party system was no longer able to keep the issue of slavery out of national politics. The new territories would have to be organized sooner or later, and when they were organized they would have to be either open to slavery or closed to it. Congress would have to decide. It had not faced that type of decision since the 1820 Missouri controversy, Jefferson’s “fire bell in the night.” Now Congress would once again face the slavery issue, which had in the meantime become far more polarized and intense than it had been a generation before. The rush of settlers to California meant that the problem of organizing at least that particular portion of the Mexican Cession could not be postponed. In a state of virtual anarchy, California must have a government at once. The question of slavery there could not be delayed.
THE WILMOT PROVISO AND THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
Some Americans did not wish to delay settlement of the slavery issue. Among them were northern Democrats who felt betrayed that Polk had passed up the kind of massive territorial acquisition in the Northwest that he had achieved in the Southwest, notwithstanding the 1844 Democratic platform’s promises of both. This laid northern Democratic officeholders open to the northern Whigs’ charge that their party was merely a front for the slaveholders’ quest to increase the extent and power of the slave system. One such disgruntled northern Democrat was freshman Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania. In order to demonstrate that his and other northern Democrats’ support of the war and expansion did not equal support of slavery, Wilmot introduced a proviso, or limitation, to one of the first major spending authorizations for the war.
The Wilmot Proviso specified that slavery would not exist in any lands acquired as a result of the Mexican War. Southerners of both parties were enraged, partially because they did indeed hope the war’s southwestern expansion would increase the power of the slave system and partially because they were insulted by the very suggestion that slavery was a morally questionable practice that needed limitation. The proviso passed the House, where northern numbers predominated, but failed in the Senate, where the South still possessed an equal number of states and at least a few northern senators could always be trusted to vote for the interests of slavery, whether to guard the interests of northern cotton mills that used the fiber grown largely by slaves or simply to keep southerners happy. Subsequently, northern representatives reintroduced the Wilmot Proviso on one spending bill after another. The result each time was the same, and southern rage grew.
Meanwhile, the leadership of each of the two parties did its best to dodge the issue of slavery completely. In the presidential election of 1848, the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan on a platform featuring Cass’s own concept of popular sovereignty—the idea of allowing the settlers in any given territory to decide the status of slavery there. The Whigs countered by nominating successful Mexican War general Zachary Taylor, who was also the absentee owner of a plantation and many slaves in Louisiana. In the best Whig fashion, the party declined to adopt any platform at all. Taylor’s slave ownership, as well as his prominent role in a war that had been popular in the South, won him added support in that region, but some strongly antislavery northern Whigs were displeased enough to bolt the party, joining with some equally discontent antislavery Democrats as well as the old Liberty Party supporters to form the new Free Soil Party, a politically somewhat disparate group united in opposition to any further spread of slavery in the territories. The Free Soilers polled considerably more votes than had the old Liberty Party but this time not in such a way as to influence the outcome of the election. Instead, the Whigs, with their war hero and lack of any specifically defined policies to defend, took the White House.