Fears of Southern Politicians | The Cultural Divide | Lincoln and Kansas-Nebraska, 1847-54 | Congress, Kansas and Dred Scott, 1855-57 | John Brown, Terrorism in Kansas and the Assault on Harper's Ferry, 1854-59 | Lincoln becomes President | the South Secedes, 1860-61 | The First Year of War, 1861 | Second Year of War and the Emancipation Proclamation | Gettysburg, Quantrill's Raids, Hardship and Revivalism | Sherman's March and Confederate Desertions | Confederate Surrender and the Assassination of Lincoln, 1865
Southern politicians held that slavery should be allowed to follow the flag into new territories and into new states west of the Mississippi River, and Northern politicians were opposed. The Southern politicians were concerned about their power to influence. They were Democrats and in coalition with northern Democrats, a coalition from the days of Andrew Jackson. They feared an imbalance between slave states and free states would subvert their influence and give too much power to those hostile toward slavery.
Texas and Florida entered the union as slave states in 1845. Iowa entered as a free state in 1846 and Wisconsin as a free state in 1848. Oregon was organized as a territory without slavery. President, Zachary Taylor, a member of the Whig party and a slave owner from Virginia, told Californians to bypass territorial status and apply for admission to the union as a free state. Southerners were outraged. Their support for Taylor had given him the presidency, and they felt betrayed.
Those digging for gold in California and others there did not want competition from slaves and they did not want their dignity undermined by being seen as doing the same work as slaves. A constitution was drafted in California that prohibited slavery, ratified by a vote of 12,000 to 800. In the US Congress, shouting matches erupted over the question of admitting California into the union, with Southern politicians complaining that they had suffered the "wrongs and insults of the North long enough." Again, talk of the South seceding from the union arose, and President Taylor, veteran of the war with Mexico, declared that he would crush secession if he had to lead the army himself. The aging Senator known as the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay of Kentucky, tried to calm his fellow Southerners. He believed that secessionists were being lightheaded. On the Senate floor he spoke of the benefits to the South of remaining in the Union. He described as delusional the view that secession was constitutional, and warned that it could not be accomplished peacefully.
President Taylor died in July and was succeeded by the vice president, Millard Fillmore – America's last Whig president. On September 9, 1850, Congress voted California into the union as a free state, but it was done as part of a compromise: for the slaveholders, Congress passed the nation's second Fugitive Slave Law.
The first Fugitive Slave Act, passed back in 1793, allowed run-away catchers to function in any state or territory, and that they needed only an oral claim given to a federal or state judge that the person was an escaped slave. Anyone sheltering an escaped slave could be fined 500 dollars – a large amount at that time. By the mid-1800s, states that had outlawed slavery were considering runaways free persons when crossing their border. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 changed this. A federal marshal who failed to arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined 1,000 dollars and the federal government was now obligated to track down and apprehend runaway slaves wherever they were. In the North any "Negro" could be arrested without a warrant and turned over to someone who claimed him or her to be a runaway and himself his or her owner. A fine of 1,000 dollars and six months' imprisonment could be charged against anyone caught providing shelter, food or any other assistance to a slave.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 intensified the hunt for runaways. It jeopardized all free Blacks, and for slave owners there was blowback: in the North more energy was devoted to the rescue of slaves through the "underground railroad," and there were calls for civil disobedience. More support for the Underground Railroad came in 1852 with the publication of a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin. The popularity of the book made supporters of slavery feel more besieged. They complained that the novel was exaggerated fiction, and in the South politicians made owning a copy of the book illegal.
Copyright © 2002-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.