The Kansas-Nebraska Act

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

In 1844, Asa Whitney, a merchant in New York, proposed that a transcontinental railroad be built. While he hoped to lead the construction of the railroad and reap the benefits of the ambitious project, that was not to be. However, three components of his plan captured the spirit of Americans toward the construction of the railroad: “There must be a railroad to the Pacific; it must be financed by grants of public lands along the route; and it must be built by private interests which received these grants.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 146. Read more

The Compromise of 1850

“United States Senate, A.D. 1850.” By: Peter F. Rothermel.

Upon President Zachary Taylor taking office, he sent a message to Congress deploring the sectionalism that was pervading the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91. He looked to George Washington’s warnings against “characterizing parties by geographical discriminations,” which appeared by 1849 to be a prescient warning. Id. citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. President Taylor offered hope for northerners and those Americans who wanted to preserve the Union with his vow: “Whatever dangers may threaten it [the Union] I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91 citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. Read more

The Election of 1824

William Harris Crawford.

Not long after the election of 1820, an essentially uncontested election seeing the re-election of President James Monroe, the campaigning for the election of 1824 began. President Monroe had indicated that he would not seek an unprecedented third term as president, but that did not stop others from posturing for the election. As a journalist observed in the spring of 1822, “electioneering begins to wax hot.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 203 quoting James F. Hopkins, “Election of 1824,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1985), 363.

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The Beginning of Oppression

Tenskwatawa. By: Charles Bird King.

For centuries prior to the War of 1812, the Native Americans were able to manipulate the British, French, Spanish, and Americans to sustain themselves. After the War of 1812, the entirety of the land east of the Mississippi River was owned by America, effectively ended the Native Americans’ strategy. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 74.

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The Justifications for Slavery

George Washington on his Plantation.

Early Americans, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery, explored the potential justifications for slavery in the United States.

In 1764, James Otis of Massachusetts asked “Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?” after pondering why only blacks had been enslaved. James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), in Bernard Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776 (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 1: 439.

Some believed that slavery could not stand against the “relentless march of liberty and progress.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 519. For example, James Madison believed that making noise on the issue of slavery would only slow down the march of progress within the United States. Id. at 525. Perhaps those who held this view perpetuated slavery, believing that it was bound to end eventually without action.

Others had more profoundly prejudiced and racist views toward slavery. Thomas Jefferson believed that “various characteristics of blacks . . . [such as] their tolerance of heat, their need for less sleep, their sexual ardor, their lack of imagination and artistic ability, and their music talent . . . were inherent and not learned.” Id. at 539. Jefferson believed that “blacks’ deficiencies were innate, because when they mixed their blood with whites’, they improved ‘in body and mind,’ which ‘proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life.'” Id. citing Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Peden, 138-43.

Even entire states took action that is hard to fathom in modern times, all with the underlying belief that slavery was justified and must be protected. The state of Kentucky wrote into its 1792 Constitution that “the legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners.” Robin L. Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago, 2006), 220, 232, 249, 236; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “A New Meaning for Turner’s Frontier: Part II: The Southwest Frontier and New England,” Political Science Quarterly, 69 (1954), 572-76. This language was added to Kentucky’s Constitution despite the fact that only a mere 16% of the state’s population were slaves. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 531.

All of these varying views affected American policy, both foreign and domestic. Taking foreign policy as an example, while Haiti had a slave revolution in 1803 that both ended slavery and proclaimed racial equality, and the United States typically was the first country to extend diplomatic relations to a new republic, it would not be until the Civil War that the “United States [would] recognize the Haitian republic.” Id. at 537.

As early Americans searched for justifications for slavery, many who were thinking critically would come to the same conclusion as James Otis: that there was no justification. However, those whose livelihoods depended on the existence of slavery were predisposed to never coming to that conclusion. Nonetheless, as is obvious from these varying views on justifications for slavery, hypocrisy was prevalent, ignorance was rampant (even amongst one of the greatest intellectuals, Jefferson), and at the very least, progress was slow.

Regardless of who was right or wrong about the issue of slavery, it is clear that the justifications for slavery ran deep, permeating societal beliefs and policy decisions, foreign and domestic. Not many issues have rivaled the contentious nature of slavery. But analyzing the justifications for slavery shows just how far an issue can reverberate throughout the country, touching even the very threads that hold society together.