Senator Stephen Douglas had come into the political spotlight through his work in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had temporarily held the country together but perpetuated the institution of slavery. Douglas, a Democrat, was a force to be reckoned with for keeping a seat in the United States Senate despite the growing strength of the Republican Party throughout the North and in his home state of Illinois. Throughout 1858, a time when the state legislatures elected senators to the United States Senate, Douglas would have to win the support of the people of Illinois, and the Illinois legislature, by debating the issue of slavery, and the future of the country, with the Republican candidate for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 330-31. Read more
Following the violence in Kansas known as Bleeding Kansas, there was a question of whether the territory would be admitted as a free state or slave state. After taking office in 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker of Pennsylvania to be governor of Kansas. Governor Walker wrote a letter to President Buchanan, stating “that the actual bona fide residents of the territory of Kansas, by a fair and regular vote, unaffected by fraud or violence, must be permitted, in adopting their State Constitution, to decide for themselves what shall be their social institutions.” Walker to Buchanan, March 26, 1857, in Kansas State Historical Society Transactions, V (1891-1896), 290 (italics in original). Even with such a pronouncement regarding the nature of an election, no one knew how Kansans would vote on the issue of slavery or how soon Kansas would become a state. Read more
In 1857, the United States Supreme Court decided one of the most controversial cases in the history of the country. Just days after James Buchanan began his term as president, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the opinion for the Court, ruling that neither slaves nor freedmen could be citizens of the United States. The implications of this decision, and its reasoning, have been analyzed, dissected, and discussed since 1857. While many have concluded it is one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions, its impact on Antebellum America should not be overlooked.
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
With the first term of Millard Fillmore’s presidency winding down in 1852, the Democrats felt a sense of momentum that they could reclaim the White House. In the midterm elections of 1850, the Democrats secured 140 of the 233 seats in the House of Representatives, eclipsing the Whig Party. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 141.
The Fugitive Slave Act, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, was intended to resolve the tension surrounding the issue of slavery. Its provisions, however, ensured that it would not have such an alleviating effect.¹ The Act “denied the alleged fugitive any right to jury trial, not even guaranteeing it in the jurisdiction from which he had escaped.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 131. It also allowed a court to appoint a commissioner to decide a fugitive slave’s case. See id. That commissioner was entitled to a $10 fee where the “alleged fugitive was delivered to the claimant,” but if the slave was set free, the commissioner would receive only a $5 fee, creating an incentive for returning fugitives to slavery. Id. Finally, the Act gave federal marshals the power “to summon all citizens to aid in enforcement of the Act.” Id. citing Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill, 1968). Read more
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
During President James Polk’s administration, Congress grappled with resolving sectional tension arising out of whether slavery would be extended to newly acquired land from Mexico as well as the Oregon territory. Congress did not resolve that sectional tension but exacerbated it in what may have been one of the most deadlocked and destructive Congresses in American history. Read more
In the 15 years leading up to the Civil War, a wide variety of theories emerged for how the federal government should deal with slavery expanding, or not expanding, into the territories acquired by the United States.
Since the outbreak of the Civil War and continuing to the present day, the role of slavery in splitting America has been hotly debated. One may wonder whether there was merely a correlation between slavery and the Civil War or whether slavery was the cause. Investigating the nuances of the issue of slavery reveals that the Civil War resulted from sectionalism and slavery, which were practically synonymous.