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Authors: Steven Woodworth

This Great Struggle (4 page)

BOOK: This Great Struggle

Slaveholders felt complacent, abolitionists disgusted; both were stunned when, only a few months into his tenure, Taylor proposed admitting California directly to statehood, without passing through territorial status. This was de facto popular sovereignty, the policy of his defeated opponent, since California residents would draw up a state constitution either with or without legalized slavery, and since few slaveholders had chosen to bring their valuable human investments into turbulent and nearly lawless California, the vote of its residents was almost certain to make it a free state. That, as angry white southerners pointed out, amounted to de facto imposition of the Wilmot Proviso. To the compounded horror of slavery supporters, this would bring the total of free states to sixteen as against fifteen slave states, giving the free states a majority in the Senate as they had had in the House for many years, with little prospect of ever adding enough additional slave states to catch up again.

At the urging of aged proslavery extremist John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, delegates from several southern states met in October 1849 in Mississippi to denounce the Wilmot Proviso. There the delegates also called for a convention to represent all of the slave states the following June. The implication was clear that if slavery were not permitted to expand into the Mexican Cession, the Nashville Convention would become an opportunity for the slave states to declare themselves out of the Union.

With this tacit threat hanging over the country, Henry Clay in January 1850 presented a comprehensive compromise plan to Congress. Clay’s eight-part package aimed at settling all of the issues then threatening to divide the country, each of which had at its core the dispute over slavery. The public closely followed the extensive debates in Congress over the course of the next eight months. Passions ran high. Proslavery extremists opposed the compromise because they considered it too hostile to slavery, especially because it admitted California as a free state. Abolitionists and more moderate opponents of slavery were equally opposed to the compromise but for opposite reasons, chiefly because it provided for the imposition, nationwide, of a draconian new Fugitive Slave Law, much tougher than the one previously on the books.

A coterie of senators and congressmen, led by Clay and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, championed the cause of compromise. Those two, as well as Calhoun, who opposed the compromise, had dominated congressional politics for nearly half a century and were now obviously near the end of their careers. Calhoun actually died of tuberculosis in March 1850. All three men were considered to have given their most dramatic and moving speeches during the compromise debates. Yet despite Webster’s legendary eloquence and Clay’s unparalleled legislative skills, the compromise proposal stalled.

The Nashville Convention met in early June, but southern moderates prevailed and prevented any call for the slave states to leave the Union. The convention did, however, call for the extension of the Missouri Compromise boundary between slavery and freedom in the Louisiana Purchase, thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes latitude, all the way through the Mexican Cession to the Pacific, including the southern half of California. Such a step would provide land for several more slave states. The implication was that if the demand was not met, secession-minded southerners could schedule another convention.

The outlook for compromise began to change in midsummer. Anticom-promise President Zachary Taylor took ill on the Fourth of July and died five days later. Vice President Millard Fillmore, a proponent of compromise, succeeded to the office. The influence of the presidency was now pulling the other way. Clay had left Washington to escape the sweltering summer heat, but thirty-six-year-old Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois took up the compromise and began again the effort to put it through Congress. At five feet two inches tall, Douglas was four or five inches shorter than the average man and decidedly pudgy, but his reputation for legislative prowess, first in his adopted state of Illinois (he was a Vermont native) and then in the national capital, was already winning him the nickname “Little Giant.”

Douglas skillfully divided the compromise’s eight points into several separate packages. Then he used shifting coalitions to hustle them through Congress. Many—though by no means all—northern members resolutely opposed the Fugitive Slave Act whenever it came up, and nearly every southern member bitterly opposed acceptance of California as a free state each time that proposal reached the floor, but Douglas threaded his way through the legislative opposition, adding the votes of his relatively small band of dedicated compromisers to the votes in favor of each point of the compromise until all had passed and President Fillmore had signed each of them into law between September 9 and September 20, 1850, leaving large majorities in both houses of Congress in stunned dismay at the passage of a compromise they had bitterly opposed.

With that, the crisis was past, for the moment, and the problem of slavery contention in Washington seemed to have been permanently solved. The American public breathed a collective sigh of relief that secession and possible civil war had been averted. Yet the Compromise of 1850 was more illusion than reality. The majority of the members of Congress had opposed it, though for quite opposite reasons. Neither side in the dispute had been ready to accept any portion of the other side’s demands. The compromise had simply been forced on an unwilling Congress by a small segment of compromisers using skillful legislative maneuvering.

For once, the politicians, who interacted regularly with persons from the other section of the country, may have understood the problem better than their constituents, few of whom were acquainted with persons outside their section. Few white southerners could bring themselves to believe that “Yankees” really cared so much for the slaves. They must be after some mere political and mercantile advantage and would back down when they saw there was no profit to be made from their hypocritical cant about freedom. Most northerners could not imagine that white southerners were so committed not only to the survival but even to the extension of slavery that they would destroy the country and risk war in order to secure it. As was to be the case steadily until almost 1865, each side underestimated the other’s earnestness and determination. For now, large numbers on each side of the sectional divide imagined that the other side had backed down, at least to some degree, and they considered the compromise a godsend.


The Compromise of 1850 had not removed the underlying fundamental difference of values regarding slavery, and over the next several years, while sectional peace reigned in Washington, slavery conflict flared up in various places around the country. The largest cause of that strife was the new Fugitive Slave Act that had been part of the Compromise of 1850. The act was so draconian that it made it relatively easy for any white southerner to come north and kidnap any black person, whether a former slave of his or a free-born citizen of a northern state, and carry him or her off into slavery. Further, it mandated, under threat of severe criminal penalty in case of refusal, the use of northern state and local facilities, such as jails, and the active cooperation of northern state officials, sheriffs, and even common citizens. The latter might be drafted into a posse to hunt down alleged runaways. Thus, northerners, some of whom were opposed to slavery, were compelled not only to acquiesce but actively to participate in the enforcement of a law they held to be positively immoral. No amount of abolitionist speeches, sermons, or pamphlets could have created as many converts to abolitionism as did the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Fugitive Slave Act was a slap in the face of state rights. Nothing else the federal government had ever done or proposed doing throughout all of the nation’s history up to that time had so thoroughly trampled on the rights and sovereignty of the individual states. This was especially ironic in view of the fact that less than twenty years later some white southerners would already be claiming that their cause had been that of state rights. The history of the 1850s does not bear that out. Southern political leaders during that decade, as during the preceding decades, championed either the cause of state rights or that of federal authority according to whichever seemed most likely to protect the institution of slavery. Since southerners had generally controlled the federal government during that era, they had more often than not been the active enemies of state rights.

The Fugitive Slave Act soon sparked resistance. Some abolitionists already maintained a network of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, aimed at aiding runaway slaves in making their way through the northern states to ultimate freedom in Canada. Perhaps one hundred thousand slaves had already taken the route to freedom, most of them to Canada, and the Underground Railroad came to carry its peak traffic in the 1850s, as the Fugitive Slave Act drove more northerners to take the step of outright civil disobedience by aiding the slaves in their escape.

Animosity toward the Fugitive Slave Act and its high-handed enforcement in the North led in 1851 to violence in the town of Christiana, Pennsylvania. On September 11 of that year, a group of escaped slaves shot and killed a slaveholder who was leading a posse with the intent of apprehending one of them. A celebrated trial followed in which Pennsylvania authorities, compelled by law to cooperate in a process they hated, allowed two of the accused to escape and otherwise did their best to assure a just, if not a legal, outcome. Southerners took notice and angrily determined to see the Fugitive Slave Act enforced in the North.

They got their chance for a high-profile case two years later. In 1853 Virginia slave Anthony Burns escaped and managed to board a ship at Richmond and sail to Boston. His master got wind of his whereabouts and invoked the Fugitive Slave Act to secure his return. Boston contained more abolitionists than any other major city in America, though even there they were a minority. Some of them determined to free Burns and launched a mob assault on the jail where he was being held, killing a deputy U.S. marshal but failing in their purpose. President Franklin Pierce, who had been elected in 1852 as a “northern man of southern principles,” determined to make an example of this case and teach northerners a lesson about the supremacy of law and the return of fugitive slaves. Pierce sent in large numbers of federal troops to line the streets leading down to the docks. More soldiers formed a moving square around Burns as they marched him through Boston in chains and put him aboard a ship bound for Virginia. Bostonians watched in impotent rage, and thousands who had previously been apathetic turned overnight into what one of them called “stark, raving abolitionists.” The return of Burns had cost the federal government forty thousand dollars, or perhaps fifty times the price he would have brought at the slave market.

Meanwhile a growing war of words was raging over the subject of slavery. In June 1851 the magazine
National Era
began running a serialized fictional story by a Lane Seminary professor’s wife named Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had been inspired to write by her outrage at the Fugitive Slave Act. The story she wrote continued in installments through forty weeks and gained a large following. Published the next year as a book titled
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
, it became a runaway best-seller. Based on careful research,
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
was meant to show the evil not of southern whites but of the system of slavery. Some of its slaveholding characters were kindly, and its chief villain was Connecticut-born Simon Legree, who had moved to Louisiana and bought a plantation. Such refinements were lost on proslavery readers, however, who reacted with howls of rage and a flurry of books of their own purporting to show that slavery was a benevolent institution and that slaves were far better off than white northern factory workers. It remained unclear why no one sought the allegedly privileged status of slave. On the other hand, so many slaves were willing to attempt escape that southerners had felt the need of a ferocious new Fugitive Slave Act.

Despite the rival publications and the controversies stemming from the Fugitive Slave Act, the country could at least take comfort in the fact that slavery had not been an issue of dispute in Washington since the passage of the Compromise of 1850. That changed abruptly in 1854, and ironically the man who sparked the change was the chief architect of the final passage of the Compromise of 1850 and perhaps the politician who had the most to lose from a revival of the national political controversy over slavery. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas had not intended to reignite the slavery debate in Washington in 1854. He had wanted to get a transcontinental railroad built across the plains and mountains to connect California with the rest of the country.

In the strange logic of politics, railroad building connected directly to slavery. Douglas shared the mistaken but widespread belief that building such a large railroad required federal subsidies. That in itself made the railroad’s construction a political prize to be fought over by the various sections of the country, each wanting the route to originate in its region. During the 1850s the only sort of federal subsidy that was considered feasible was some sort of land grant, along the right-of-way. The government could not grant land until it was properly surveyed, and the land could not be properly surveyed until it was within an organized territory. Thus, in order to build a transcontinental railroad where he wanted it, stretching westward from Iowa, Douglas had to organize a territorial government in the remaining unorganized lands of the Louisiana Purchase, lands that had been forever closed to slavery by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Southern congressmen and senators would therefore be hostile to Douglas’s bill for two reasons. First, they would wish to see the transcontinental railroad built on a southern route rather than across the central plains. Second, and more significant, organizing those lands into territories would be the first step toward turning them into states that, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, must be free states.

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