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The Antebellum Period is a five-decade period in American history that spans the years after the War of 1812 but before the Civil War in 1861. This period saw the end of the Founding Fathers and their generation when questions of slavery and states rights remained unresolved in the grand experiment of the United States. Northern and Southern economies developed along different trajectories; abolitionists battled with slavery defenders in the courts of public opinion and sometimes with actual firearms, and political factions moved toward an unavoidable collision that resulted in the Civil War.

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The Missouri Compromise of 1820

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the legislation that provided for the admission of Maine to the United States as a free state along with Missouri as a slave state, thus maintaining the balance of power between North and South in the United States Senate.

The debate that began in 1818 over the admission of Missouri, a slave state, was a critical juncture in the young nation’s formation. At the time, there were equal numbers of slave and free states—eleven each—resulting in a kind of balance of power in the Senate. But the admission of Missouri would have given the South an edge in the Senate. The stalemate was finally broken in 1820 by the Missouri Compromise: Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine a free state.

Of much greater significance was a provision of the Compromise that pertained to the status of slavery in the Louisiana Territory. With the exception of Missouri, any territory north of 36°30′ (the southern border of Missouri) would be forever closed to slavery, while in any territory south slavery would be permitted. Awkward as it was, the compromise prevented similar crises in the future, and remained in effect for more than three decades.

Nullification Crisis: Catalysis for the Civil War

The Nullification Crisis was a United States sectional political crisis in 1832–33, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, which involved a confrontation between the state of South Carolina and the federal government in 1832–33 over the former’s attempt to declare null and void within the state the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

Responding to the claim that the federal judiciary and not the states had the final word on the constitutionality of federal measures, James Madison’s Report of 1800 argued that “dangerous powers, not delegated, may not only be usurped and executed by the other departments, but. . . the judicial department may also exercise or sanction dangerous powers, beyond the grant of the Constitution… However true, therefore, it may be, that the judicial department, is, in all questions submitted to it by the forms of the Constitution, to decide in the last resort, this resort must necessarily be deemed the last in relation to the other departments of the government; not in relation to the rights of the parties to the constitutional compact, from which the judicial, as well as the other departments, hold their delegated trusts” (emphasis added). Thus the Supreme Court’s decisions could not be considered absolutely final in constitutional questions touching upon the powers of the states.

The most common argument among the early statesmen against nullification is that it would produce chaos: a bewildering number of states nullifying a bewildering array of federal laws. (Given the character of the vast majority of federal legislation, a good answer to this objection is: Who cares?) Abel Upshur, a Virginian legal thinker who would serve brief terms as secretary of the Navy and secretary of state in the early 1840s, undertook to put the fears of opponents of nullification to rest:

If the States may abuse their reserved rights in the manner contemplated by the President, the Federal government, on the other hand, may abuse its delegated rights. There is danger from both sides, and as we are compelled to confide in the one or the other, we have only to inquire, which is most worthy of our confidence.

It is much more probable that the Federal government will abuse its power than that the States will abuse theirs. And if we suppose a case of actual abuse on either hand, it will not be difficult to decide which is the greater evil.

Perhaps the most important nullification theorist was John C. Calhoun, one of the most brilliant and creative political thinkers in American history. The Liberty Press edition of Calhoun’s writings, Union and Liberty, is indispensable for anyone interested in this subject—especially his Fort Hill address, a concise and elegant case for nullification. Calhoun proposed that an aggrieved state would hold a special nullification convention, much like the ratifying conventions held by the states to ratify the
Constitution, and there decide whether to nullify the law in question. This is how it was practiced in the great standoff between South Carolina and Andrew Jackson. When South Carolina nullified a protective tariff in 1832–33 (its argument being that the Constitution authorized the tariff power for the purpose of revenue only, not to encourage manufactures or to profit one section of the country at the expense of another—a violation of the general welfare clause) it held just such a nullification convention.

In Calhoun’s conception, when a state officially nullified a federal law on the grounds of its dubious constitutionality, the law must be regarded as suspended. Thus could the “concurrent majority” of a state be protected by the unconstitutional actions of a numerical majority of the entire country. But there were limits to what the concurrent majority could do. Should three-fourths of the states, by means of the amendment process, choose to grant the federal government the disputed
power, then the nullifying state would have to decide whether it could live with the decision of its fellow states or whether it would prefer to secede from the Union.

That Madison indicated in 1830 that he had never meant to propose nullification or secession either in his work on the Constitution or in his Virginia Resolutions of 1798 is frequently taken as the last word on the subject. But Madison’s frequent change of position has been documented by countless scholars. One modern study on the subject is called “How Many Madisons Will We Find?” “The truth seems to be, that Mr. Madison was more solicitous to preserve the integrity of the Union, than the coherency of his own thoughts,” writes Albert Taylor Bledsoe.

American Anti-Slavery Society

The American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS; 1833–1870) was an abolitionist society founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan.

Among the abolitionist movement’s most prominent spokesmen was the Massachusetts activist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison, who started the newspaper The Liberator in 1831. Garrison had nothing but contempt for gradual emancipation, a policy he called “pernicious,” and would brook no compromise on the issue. His newspaper was widely influential, since larger papers reprinted its articles. Some Southerners believed it was no coincidence that the Nat Turner rebellion, a famous slave insurrection in which fifty-five whites perished, took place the same year that Garrison began his paper.

There was no evidence that Turner had heard of Garrison or The Liberator. But the connection did not need to be that direct. Many Southerners were shocked at the tone of abolitionist literature, which seethed with loathing for the entire South and at times seemed to urge violent resistance to slavery. Such rhetorical assaults on an entire region only served to discredit local anti-slavery activity in the South. As of 1827, there were more than four times as many anti-slavery societies in the South as in the North. The abolitionist movement, in peppering their message with belligerent and vitriolic anti-Southern rhetoric, made it all but impossible for Southern anti-slavery activists not to be viewed with suspicion. Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, no friend of slavery, blamed the abolitionists of the North for having contributed in no small measure to Southern obstinacy.

Sectional conflict was further aggravated by the Wilmot Proviso, which was introduced in Congress in 1846 by Congressman David Wilmot, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. The proviso was attached to an appropriations bill authorizing funds for the Mexican War, then under way. Its premise was simple: Slavery would be prohibited in any territory acquired from Mexico in the war. Wilmot was outlining a point of view that became known in American history as the “free-soil” position, according to which slavery would remain undisturbed in the states in which it already existed but would be prevented from expanding into
new territories, such as those that might be added to the American domain as a result of the war with Mexico. Although it never became law (it passed the House numerous times but failed in the Senate), the proviso contributed greatly to the tension between North and South.

Free Soil Movement 

The Free Soil Movement (1848–54) was a minor but influential political party in the pre-Civil War period of American history that opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories.

Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, for example, took no public position on the Wilmot Proviso. As a result, his supporters North and South could each claim him as the logical choice for their section. Southerners could point to the fact that Taylor was a Southerner. Northern supporters could point to rumors that Taylor supported the Wilmot Proviso.

Michigan’s Lewis Cass, who received the Democratic nomination, was also portrayed differently in the North and in the South. In the South, Cass was pitched as the logical choice for Southerners because as an advocate of “popular sovereignty” he would give them a fair shot in the territories. Cass also pledged to veto the Wilmot Proviso. In the North, Cass supporters pointed to the arid climate of the southwest, noting that even with popular sovereignty it was very unlikely that slavery would ever develop in its inhospitable climate. Cass was said to be the logical choice for Northerners because allowing the people of the territories to vote on slavery would almost surely have a free-soil outcome, but without unnecessarily alienating the Sout—as would happen if slavery were prohibited by the legislative fiat of Congress. Simply shutting slavery out of the territories would strike Southerners as an intolerable blow to their honor and another example of the North’s refusal to grant them equality in the Union. Cass could thus accomplish the free-soil objective without sowing discord between the sections.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was a series of acts that dealt with issues related to slavery and territorial expansion.

The issue of slavery in the territories, along with several outstanding issues between the sections, would ultimately be addressed in the Compromise of 1850. It eased tension between the sections, and talk of Southern secession withered away.

The controversy over the southwestern territories, temporarily resolved by the compromise, suggests that the slavery debate masked the real issue: the struggle for power and domination. That does not mean that slavery was irrelevant or insignificant, but without understanding the sectional power relationships at stake we can be led to overstate its importance. According to the 1860 census, there were a grand total of twenty-nine slaves in Utah, and none at all in New Mexico. It makes sense to suspect that the vigorous debates over slavery in the Mexican Cession must have involved an issue more significant than whether Southerners would be allowed to bring twenty-nine slaves into the new territories. Even Republicans acknowledged that political power was at the root of debates over slavery. As one Indiana congressman put it, speaking to Southerners, “It is not room that you are anxious to obtain, but power— political power.”

The slavery issue returned again in the Nebraska Territory in 1854. It should not have, since the territory was north of the Missouri Compromise line and should, therefore, have been closed to slavery. But there was increasing support for a transcontinental railroad that would stretch from coast to coast, and Illinois senator Stephen Douglas was determined that the new railroad’s eastern terminus would be located in Chicago. (Since railroad lines already existed in the East, a transcontinental railroad amounted to building a road from the West Coast and joining it to the existing roads in the East.)

Douglas’s proposal appears harmless, but the railroad would have to pass through the unorganized Nebraska Territory. In order to secure the line from bandits or from Indian attacks, a territorial government would have to be established. To win Southern support for a Chicago terminus, Douglas proposed that the territory be split in two—Kansas and Nebraska—and that the issue of slavery be decided by popular sovereignty. The legislation would repeal the Missouri Compromise. By theoretically opening these territories to slavery, Douglas appealed to Southerners who considered prohibitions on slavery an insult to Southern honor and a blow to Southern equality in the Union. The resulting legislation, known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, became law in 1854.

Why was the territorial issue so contentious? Some territories passed through the territorial stage quickly and rapidly became states. Others took longer. All the while, the population of the would-be state would be increasing. If slavery were prohibited during the territorial stage, slaveholders would likely stay away. When the territory became a state and the time came to decide on the issue, the absence of slaveholders practically guaranteed that the new state would decide against slavery. Had slavery been permitted during the territorial stage, slaveholders would likely have settled in the territory, and increased the possibility that it would become a slave state. This was why the legal issue of slavery in the territories was so important and divisive.

The Significance of ‘Bleeding Kansas’

Bleeding Kansas, Bloody Kansas or the Border War was a series of violent civil confrontations in the United States between 1854 and 1861 which emerged from a political and ideological debate over the legality of slavery in the proposed state of Kansas.

It was fairly clear that slavery would not take root in Nebraska, but the outcome in Kansas was not so certain. Supporters and opponents of slavery flocked to Kansas to influence the vote. The typical textbook describes Kansas as the scene of ceaseless slavery-related violence. Recent scholarship, however, casts doubt on this perception. Eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports appear to have been unreliable, even wildly exaggerated. In their own propaganda, both sides tended to inflate the number of killings either to call attention to their own plight or to impress readers with the number of casualties they managed to inflict on their opponents. “Political killings,” writes researcher Dale Watts, “account for about one-third of the total violent deaths. They were not common. The streets and byways did not run red with blood as some writers have imagined.”

A recent study concluded that of the 157 violent deaths that occurred during Kansas’ territorial period, fifty-six appear to have had some connection to the political situation or to the slavery issue. According to Watts:

The antislavery party was not the innocent victim of violence that its propagandists, both contemporary and subsequent, tried to portray. Both sides employed violent tactics and both were adept at focusing blame on their opponents, habitually claiming self-defense in any killings committed by their own men. However, the antislavery party, as the ultimate victor in the contest, was in a position to write the history of the period from its point of view… The data, however, indicate that the two sides were nearly equally involved in killing their political opponents.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (10 Stat. 277) was an organic act that created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The controversy over the Kansas Nebraska Act proved too much for the ramshackle Whig Party, which was torn apart by sectional antagonism. Filling the political vacuum left by the self-destruction of the Whig Party was the Republican Party, created in 1854 as a sectional party—just what so many American statesmen had tried to avoid. The Republicans attracted a variety of supporters with their free-soil position and their support for high protective tariffs.

As free-soilers, they opposed slavery in the territories, though the racialist motivation of such exclusion of slavery is clear from the party’s 1856 platform, which read, in part, that “all unoccupied territory of the United States, and such as they may hereafter acquire, shall be reserved for the white Caucasian race—a thing that cannot be except by the exclusion of slavery.” Their economic program, of which the protective tariff formed an important plank, could not have been better devised to attract Southern antipathy. Abraham Lincoln, who would be elected in 1860 as the first Republican president, had been a supporter of the protective tariff for several decades by the time he reached the White House.

Power over what?

For the more radical Republicans, the free-soil position was only the opening salvo in what they hoped would be the ultimate extinction of slavery. Conservative Republicans, no friends of slavery either, recognized that what was going on between the sections was a struggle for power, plain and simple. According to historian Eric Foner:

The idea of combating Southern political power and its economic consequences was the key to conservative support for the Republican party. Such measures as a Pacific railroad, a homestead act, a protective tariff, and government aid to internal improvements had been blocked time and again by the Democratic party, at the dictation, it seemed, of the South. The conservatives hoped to use the Republican party to wrest control of the federal government away from the slaveholders, and they viewed the sectional struggle as primarily a contest for political power.

The protective tariff was perhaps the most controversial economic issue of the antebellum period. High tariffs, intended to protect Northern industry from foreign competition, were a terrible burden to the agricultural South, which had little industry to protect. To Southerners, the tariffs meant higher prices for manufactured goods because they bought them abroad and paid the tariff or because they bought them from Northerners at the inflated prices that tariff protection made possible. Although certain sectors of the Southern economy, like Louisiana sugar growers, favored protective tariffs, in general the South opposed the tariff. (Tariff protection would have done little good for Southern products, since the South sold most of its goods on a world market.)

Likewise, federal land policy divided the sections. Northerners favored land giveaways by the federal government, while Southerners believed the federal lands should be sold. Southerners feared that without the revenue the federal government took in from land sales, there would be added pressure to raise the tariff to make up the loss. They also believed that a policy of free land, by increasing the overall amount of agricultural land in use, would tend to lower Southern land values. These were some of the economic issues that divided the sections, and they, as Foner observes, were never far from the surface in the debates of the 1840s and 1850s.

The Dred Scott Case Summary

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court held that the Constitution of the United States was not meant to include American citizenship for black people, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, and therefore the rights and privileges it confers upon American citizens could not apply to them.

Among the decade’s most controversial and divisive events was the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857. That case involved a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, who had been taken by his master, an army surgeon, to both the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. Scott later sued for his freedom on the grounds that his time in those places, where slavery was not recognized in law, had made him a free man.

The Dred Scott Case summary was enormously complicated. In 1836, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society brought before the Massachusetts Supreme Court the case of a six-year-old slave girl who had been brought to the state by her mistress for a visit. According to the Society, since this slave girl was in a free state, the slave relation was dissolved and she was now free. (Since the girl was not a runaway, the case had nothing to do with the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.) Arguing on behalf of the girl, Rufus Choate declared: “Comity is only policy and courtesy—and is never to be indulged, at the expense of what the State, by its public law, declared to be justice.” That is, the understanding whereby states honored one another’s laws was a matter of courtesy and convenience, not of unbending principle, and thus Massachusetts was not bound by another state’s laws on slavery.

The rule of comity thus could not be used to challenge Massachusetts’s ability to declare free those non-fugitive slaves who reached its borders. The Court, concurring with Choate, declared that “an owner of a slave in another State where slavery is warranted by law, voluntarily bringing such slave into this State, has no authority to retain him against his will, or carry him out of the State against his consent, for the purpose of being held in slavery.”

Scott’s case was not entirely similar to that of this six-year-old girl, since the Massachusetts Supreme Court was deciding a case in which the slave had not yet been removed from Massachusetts. Scott, on the other hand, had already been back in Missouri for years by the time he pursued his case. The Massachusetts example, however, shows that entering the jurisdiction of a free state could make a slave free.

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