Sectionalism/ Theme: Turning Points

Write a 400-500 word summary over the theme becoming human. You must cite information from the material,focus on the theme, and offer your personal refelction.

The Westward Expansion Of Slavery
Module Introduction
The creation of the cotton kingdom during the first half of the nineteenth century transformed the lives of
African Americans, often for the worse. One of the most consequential inventions in American history, Eli
Whitney’s cotton gin from 1794, made large-scale cotton agriculture profitable. White planters and farmers
from eastern seaboard states such as Virginia and North Carolina coveted lands in newer states to the southwest
such as Alabama and Mississippi for their fertile soils and long growing seasons. Due in part to the growth of
the cotton kingdom, nine new slave states entered the Union between 1789 and 1860, rapidly expanding and
transforming the South into a region of economic growth built on slave labor. (4)
In addition to new land, white farmers and planters demanded large numbers of slaves for clearing land and
planting and picking cotton. Since the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808, planters now purchased
slaves internally from traders in a process known as the domestic slave trade. African-American slave labor in
the South’s cotton fields generated tremendous wealth for the region’s small slave-holding elite. By the 1850s,
slaves in the South produced 75% of the world’s cotton. (Roche, 9) (1)
The creation of the cotton kingdom intensified the strain and trauma endured by slaves who feared being sold
into the Deep South to work on often brutal cotton plantations and separated from family and friends. As
always, African-Americans resisted slavery’s dehumanizing forces by creating strong kinship or social
networks and maintaining unique cultural traditions. (4)
Works Cited
Julian Roche, The International Cotton Trade (Cambridge, England: Woodhead Publishing, 1994), 9.
Learning Outcomes
This module addresses the following Course Learning Outcomes listed in the Syllabus for this course:
• To provide students with a general understanding of the history of African Americans within the context
of American History.
• To motivate students to become interested and active in African American history by comparing current
events with historical information.(1)
Additional learning outcomes associated with this module are:
• The student will be able to discuss the origins, evolution, and spread of racial slavery.
• The student will be able to describe the creation of a distinct African-American culture and how that
culture became part of the broader American culture. (1)
Module Objectives
Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:
• Discuss two ways that the cotton kingdom transformed the lives of African Americans.
• Examine the legacy of cotton slavery.
Readings and Resources
Learning Unit: The Creation of the Cotton Kingdom (see below) (1)
The Creation Of The Cotton Kingdom
The Importance of Cotton
In November of 1785, the Liverpool firm of Peel, Yates, & Co. imported the first seven bales of American
cotton ever to arrive in Europe. Prior to this unscheduled, and frankly unwanted, delivery, European merchants
saw cotton as a product of the colonial Caribbean islands of Barbados, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti),
Martinique, Cuba, and Jamaica. The American South, though relatively wide and expansive, was the go-to
source for rice and, most importantly, tobacco.
Few knew that the seven bales sitting in Liverpool that winter of 1785 would change the world. But they did.
By the early 1800s, the American South had developed a niche in the European market for “luxurious” longstaple cotton grown exclusively on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. But this was only the
beginning of a massive flood to come, and the foundation of the South’s astronomical rise to global
prominence. Before long, botanists, merchants, and planters alike set out to develop strains of cotton seed that
would grow further west on the Southern mainland, especially in the new lands opened up by the Louisiana
Purchase of 1803—an area that stretched from New Orleans in the South to what is today Minnesota, parts of
the Dakotas, and Montana. (2)
Figure 7-1: PATENT FOR COTTON GIN by Eli Whitney is in
the Public Domain .Model of Whitney’s cotton gin displays
cotton after the gin has removed the seeds from its boll
The discovery of Gossypium barbadense—often called “Petit
Gulf” cotton—near Rodney, Mississippi, in 1820 changed the
American and global cotton markets forever. “Petit Gulf,” it was
said, slid through the cotton gin—a machine developed by Eli
Whitney in 1794 for deseeding cotton—more easily than any
other strain. It also grew tightly, producing more usable cotton
than anyone had imagined to that point. Perhaps most
importantly, though, it came up at a time when Native peoples
were being removed from the Southwest—southern Georgia,
Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana. After Indian
removal, land became readily available for white men with a few
dollars and big dreams. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, the
federal government implemented several forced migrations of
Native Americans, establishing a system of reservations west of
the Mississippi River upon which all eastern peoples were
required to relocate and settle. This, enacted through the Indian
Figure 7-2: Cotton gin EWM 2007 by Tom Murphy VII is in
the Public Domain .
Removal Act of 1830, allowed the federal government
to survey, divide, and auction off millions of acres of
land for however much bidders were willing to pay.
Suddenly, farmers with dreams of owning a large
plantation could purchase dozens, even hundreds, of
acres in the fertile Mississippi River Delta for cents on
the dollar. Pieces of land that would cost thousands of
dollars elsewhere sold in the 1830s for several hundred,
at prices as low as 40¢ per acre.
Thousands of people, each with his or her own dream of
massive and immediate success, rushed to the “Cotton
Belt.” Joseph Holt Ingraham, a writer and traveler from
Maine, called it “mania.” William Henry Sparks, a lawyer living in Natchez, Mississippi, remembered it as “a
new El Dorado” in which “fortunes were made in a day, without enterprise or work.” The change was
astonishing. “Where yesterday the wilderness darkened over the land with her wild forests,” he recalled, “to-day
the cotton plantations whitened the earth.” Money flowed from banks, many newly formed, on promises of
“other-worldly” profits and overnight returns. Banks in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even
London offered lines of credit to anyone looking to buy land in the Southwest. Some even sent their own agents
to purchase cheap land at auction for the express purpose of selling it, sometimes the very next day, at double
and triple the original value, a process known as “speculation.”
The explosion of available land in the fertile cotton belt brought new life to the South. By the end of the 1830s,
“Petit Gulf” cotton had been perfected, distributed, and planted throughout the region.
Advances in steam power and water travel revolutionized Southern farmers’ and planters’ ability to deseed,
bundle, and move their products to ports popping up along the Atlantic seaboard. Indeed, by the end of the
1830s, cotton had become the primary crop not only of the Southwestern states, but of the entire nation.
The numbers were staggering. In 1793, just a few years after the first, albeit unintentional, shipment of
American cotton to Europe, the South produced around five million pounds of cotton, again almost exclusively
the product of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Seven years later, in 1800, South Carolina remained the primary
cotton producer in the South, sending 6.5 million pounds of the luxurious long-staple blend to markets in
Charleston, Liverpool, London, and New York. But as the tighter, more abundant, and vibrant “Petit Gulf”
strain moved west with the dreamers, schemers, and speculators, the American South quickly became the
world’s leading cotton producer. By 1835, the five main cotton-growing states—South Carolina, Georgia,
Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—produced more than 500 million pounds of “Petit Gulf” for a global
market stretching from New Orleans to New York to London, Liverpool, Paris and beyond. That 500 million
pounds of cotton made up nearly 55 percent of the entire United States export market, a trend that continued
nearly every year until the outbreak of the Civil War. Indeed, the two billion pounds of cotton produced in 1860
alone amounted to more than 60 percent of the United States’ total exports for that year.
“Petit Gulf” cotton grew relatively quickly on cheap, widely available land. With the invention of the cotton gin
in 1794, and the emergence of steam power three decades later, cotton became the average man’s commodity,
the product with which the United States could expand westward, producing and reproducing Thomas
Jefferson’s vision of an idyllic republic of small farmers—a nation in control of its land, reaping the benefits of
honest, free, and self-reliant work, a nation of families and farmers, expansion and settlement. But this all came
at a violent cost. With the democratization of land ownership through Indian Removal, federal auctions, readily
available credit, and the seemingly universal dream of cotton’s immediate profit, one of the South’s lasting
“traditions” became normalized and engrained. And by the 1860s, that very “tradition,” seen as the backbone of
Southern society and culture, would split the nation in two. The heyday of American slavery had arrived. (2)
Cotton and Slavery
The rise of cotton, and the resulting upsurge in the United States’ global position, wed the South to slavery.
Without slavery there could be no “Cotton Kingdom,” no massive production of raw materials stretching across
thousands of acres worth millions of dollars. Indeed, cotton grew alongside slavery. The two moved hand-inhand. The existence of slavery, and its importance to the Southern economy, became the defining factor in what
would be known as the “Slave South.” Although slavery arrived in the Americas long before cotton became a
profitable commodity, the use and purchase of slaves, the moralistic and economic justifications for the
continuation of slavery, even the urgency to protect the practice from extinction before the Civil War all
received new life from the rise of cotton and the economic, social, and cultural growth spurt that accompanied
its success.
Slavery had existed in the South since at least 1619, when a group of Dutch traders arrived at Jamestown with
20 Africans. Although these Africans remained under the ambiguous legal status of “unfree,” rather than actual
slaves, their arrival set in motion a practice that would stretch across the entire continent over the next two
centuries. Slavery was everywhere by the time the American Revolution created the United States, although
Northern states began a process of gradually abolishing the practice soon thereafter. In the more rural, agrarian
South, slavery became a way of life, especially as farmers expanded their lands, planted more crops, and
entered into the international trade market. By 1790, four years after the ratification of the Constitution, 654,121
slaves lived in the South—then just Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the “Southwest
Territory” (now Tennessee). Just twenty years later, in 1810, that number had increased to more than 1.1
million individuals in bondage.
The massive change in the South’s enslaved population between 1790 and 1810 makes sense, though. During
that time, the South went from a region of four states and one rather small territory to a region of six states
(Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) and three rather large territories
(Mississippi, Louisiana, and Orleans). The free population of the South also nearly doubled over that period—
from around 1.3 million in 1790 to more than 2.3 million in 1810. It is important to note here that the enslaved
population of the South did not increase at any rapid rate over the next two decades, until the cotton boom took
hold in the mid-1830s. Indeed, following the constitutional ban on the international slave trade in 1808, the
number of slaves in the South increased by just 750,000 in twenty years.
But then cotton came, and grew, and changed everything. Over the course of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, slavery
became so endemic to the “Cotton Belt” that travelers, writers, and statisticians began referring to the area as
the “Black Belt,” not only to describe the color of the rich land, but also to describe the skin color of those
forced to work its fields, line its docks, and move its products.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Southern slavery during this so-called “Cotton Revolution” was the value
placed upon both the work and the body of the slaves themselves. Once the fever of the initial land rush
subsided, land values became more static, and credit less free-flowing. For Mississippi land that in 1835 cost no
more than $600, a farmer or investor would have to shell out more than $3,000 in 1850. By 1860, that same
land, depending on its record of production and location, could cost as much as $100,000. In many cases, cotton
growers, especially planters with large lots and enslaved workforces, put up slaves as collateral for funds
dedicated to buying more land. If that land, for one reason or another, be it weevils, a late freeze, or a simple
lack of nutrients, did not produce a viable crop within a year, the planter would lose not only the new land, but
also the slaves he or she put up as a guarantee of payment.
So much went into the production of cotton, the expansion of land, and maintenance of enslaved workforces
that by the 1850s, nearly every ounce of credit offered by Southern, and even Northern, banks dealt directly
with some aspect of the cotton market. Millions of dollars changed hands. Slaves, the literal and figurative
backbones of the Southern cotton economy, served as the highest and most important expense for any
successful cotton grower. Prices for slaves varied drastically, depending on skin color, sex, age, and location,
both of purchase and birth. In Virginia in the 1820s, for example, a single female slave of childbearing years
sold for an average of $300; an unskilled man above the age of 18 sold for around $450; and boys and girls
below 13 years sold for between $100 and $150.
By the 1840s, and into the 1850s, prices had nearly doubled—a result of both standard inflation and the
increasing importance of enslaved laborers in the cotton market. In 1845, “plow boys” under the age of 18 sold
for more than $600 in some areas, measured at “five or six dollars per pound.” “Prime field hands,” as they
were called by merchants and traders, averaged $1,600 at market by 1850, a figure that fell in line with the
rising prices of the cotton they picked. For example, when cotton sat at 7¢ per pound in 1838, the average “field
hand” cost around $700. As the price of cotton increased to 9¢, 10¢, then 11¢ per pound over the next ten years,
the average cost of an enslaved male laborer likewise rose to $775, $900, and then more than $1,600. (2)
An African-American family picking cotton in a field near
Savannah, Georgia in 1867 – two years after the abolition
of slavery.Figure 7-3: Picking Cotton, Savannah, Ga,
early Negro life by Launey & Goebel has no known
copyright restrictions.
The key is that cotton and slaves helped define each other,
at least in the cotton South. By the 1850s, slavery and
cotton had become so intertwined, that the very idea of
change—be it crop diversity, anti-slavery ideologies,
economic diversification, or the increasingly staggering
cost of purchasing and maintaining slaves—became
anathema to the Southern economic and cultural identity. Cotton had become the foundation of the Southern
economy. Indeed, it was the only major product, besides perhaps sugar cane in Louisiana, that the South could
effectively market internationally.
As a result, Southern planters, politicians, merchants, and traders became more and more dedicated—some
would say “obsessed”—to the means of its production: slaves and slavery. In 1834, Joseph Ingraham wrote that
“to sell cotton in order to buy negroes—to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum,’ is the aim and
direct tendency of all the operations of the thorough going cotton planter; his whole soul is wrapped up in the
pursuit.” Twenty-three years later, such pursuit had taken a seemingly religious character, as James Stirling, an
Englishman traveling through the South, observed, “[slaves] and cotton—cotton and [slaves]; these are the law
and the prophets to the men of the South.”
The Cotton Revolution was a time of capitalism, panic, stress, and competition. Planters expanded their lands,
purchased slaves, extended lines of credit, and went into massive amounts of debt because they were constantly
working against the next guy, the newcomer, the social mover, the speculator, the trader. A single bad crop
could cost even the wealthiest planter his or her entire life, along with those of his or her slaves and their
families. Although the cotton market was large and profitable, it was also fickle, risky, and cost intensive. The
more wealth one gained, the more land he or she needed to procure, which led to more slaves, more credit, and
more mouths to feed. The decades before the Civil War in the South, then, were not times of slow, simple
tradition. They were times of high competition, high risk, and high reward, no matter where one stood in the
social hierarchy. But the risk was not always economic in nature.
The most tragic, indeed horrifying, aspect of slavery was its inhumanity. All slaves had memories, emotions,
experiences, and thoughts. They saw their experiences in full color, felt the pain of the lash, the heat of the sun,
and the heartbreak of loss, whether through death, betrayal, or sale. Communities developed upon a shared
sense of suffering, common work, and even family ties. Slaves communicated in the slave markets of the urban
South, and worked together to help their families, ease their loads, or simply frustrate their owners. Simple
actions of resistance, such as breaking a hoe, running a wagon off the road, causing a delay in production due to
injury, running away, or even pregnancy, provided a language shared by nearly all slaves in the agricultural
workforce, a sense of unity that remained unsaid, but was acted out daily.
Beyond the basic and confounding horror of it all, the problem of slavery in the cotton South was twofold. First,
and most immediate, was the fear and risk of rebellion. With nearly four million individual slaves residing in
the South in 1860, and nearly 2.5 million living in the “Cotton Belt” alone, the system of communication,
resistance, and potential violence among slaves did not escape the minds of slaveholders across the region and
nation as a whole. As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that black and
white people were “two warring nations” held at bay by the existence of slavery. If white slaveholders did not
remain vigilant, Jefferson wrote, the presence of Africans in the Americas would “produce convulsions, which
will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
Southern writers, planters, farmers, merchants, and politicians expressed the same fears more than a half
century later. “The South cannot recede,” declared an anonymous writer in an 1852 issue of the New Orleansbased De Bow’s Review. “She must fight for her slaves or against them. Even cowardice would not save her.”
To many slaveholders in the South, slavery was the saving grace not only of their own economic stability, but
also the maintenance of peace and security in everyday life. Much of pro-slavery ideology rested upon the
notion that slavery provided a sense of order, duty, and legitimacy to the lives of individual slaves, feelings that
Africans and African Americans, it was said, could not otherwise experience. Without slavery, many thought,
“blacks” (the word most often used for “slaves” in regular conversation) would become violent, aimless, and
Some commentators recognized the problem in the 1850s, as the internal, or domestic, slave trade, the legal
trade of slaves between states, along rivers, and along the Atlantic coastline. The internal trade picked up in the
decade before the Civil War. The problem was rather simple. The more slaves one owned, the more money it
cost to a) maintain them, and b) extract product from their work. As planters and cotton growers expanded their
lands and purchased more slaves, their expectations increased.
And productivity, in large part, did increase. But it came on the backs of slaves with heavier workloads, longer
hours, and more intense punishments. “The great limitation to production is labor,” wrote one commentator in
the American Cotton Planter in 1853. And many planters recognized this limitation, and worked night and day,
sometimes literally, to find the furthest extent of that limit. According to some contemporary accounts, by the
mid 1850s, the expected production of an individual slave in Mississippi’s Cotton Belt had increased from
between four and five bales (weighing about 500 pounds each) per day to between eight and ten bales per day,
on average. Other, perhaps more reliable sources, such as the account book of Buena Vista Plantation in Tensas
Parish, Louisiana, list average daily production at between 300 and 500 pounds “per hand,” with weekly
averages ranging from 1,700 to 2,100 pounds “per hand.” Cotton production “per hand” increased by 600
percent in Mississippi between 1820 and 1860. Each slave, then, was working longer, harder hours to keep up
with his or her master’s expected yield. (2)
Stereograph image
from Florida cotton
circa 1870Figure 74: A pyramid of
cotton seed,
Florida by B.W.
Kilburn is in
the Public Domain .
Here was capitalism
with its most
colonial, violent,
and exploitative
face. Humanity
became a
commodity used and
worked to produce
profit for a select
group of investors,
regardless of its
shortfalls, dangers, and immoralities. But slavery, profit, and cotton did not exist only in the rural South. The
Cotton Revolution sparked the growth of an urban South. The region’s burgeoning cities served as Southern
hubs of a global market, conduits through which the work of slaves and the profits of planters met and funded a
wider world. (2)
The Domestic Slave Trade
The Domestic Slave Trade
The South’s dependence on cotton was matched by its dependence on slaves to harvest the cotton. Despite the
rhetoric of the Revolution that “all men are created equal,” slavery not only endured in the American republic
but formed the very foundation of the country’s economic success. Cotton and slavery occupied a central—and
intertwined—place in the nineteenth-century economy.
In 1807, the U.S. Congress abolished the foreign slave trade, a ban that went into effect on January 1, 1808.
After this date, importing slaves from Africa became illegal in the United States. While smuggling continued to
occur, the end of the international slave trade meant that domestic slaves were in very high demand. Fortunately
for Americans whose wealth depended upon the exploitation of slave labor, a fall in the price of tobacco had
caused landowners in the Upper South to reduce their production of this crop and use more of their land to grow
wheat, which was far more profitable. While tobacco was a labor-intensive crop that required many people to
cultivate it, wheat was not. Former tobacco farmers in the older states of Virginia and Maryland found
themselves with “surplus” slaves whom they were obligated to feed, clothe, and shelter. Some slaveholders
responded to this situation by freeing slaves; far more decided to sell their excess bondsmen. Virginia and
Maryland therefore took the lead in the domestic slave trade, the trading of slaves within the borders of the
United States. (11)
A group of slaves, also known as a coffle,
being marched from Virginia to
Tennessee by white slave traders in the
domestic slave trade.Figure 7-5: SLAVE
Unknown is in the Public Domain .
The text on the image below reads:
(top of drawing)
Arise! Arise! and weep no more dry
up your tears, we shall part no more.
Come rose we go to Tennessee, that
happy shore, to old Virginia never—
(bottom of drawing)
The Company going to Tennessee
from Staunton, Augusta county, – the
law of Virginia suffered them to go
on. I was astonished at this boldness,
the carrier stopped a moment. Then
ordered the march, I saw the play it is
commonly in this state, with the
negro’s in droves Sold.
The domestic slave trade offered many economic opportunities for white men. Those who sold their slaves
could realize great profits, as could the slave brokers who served as middlemen between sellers and buyers.
Other white men could benefit from the trade as owners of warehouses and pens in which slaves were held, or
as suppliers of clothing and food for slaves on the move. Between 1790 and 1859, slaveholders in Virginia sold
more than half a million slaves. In the early part of this period, many of these slaves were sold to people living
in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina. By the 1820s, however, people in Kentucky and the
Carolinas had begun to sell many of their slaves as well. Maryland slave dealers sold at least 185,000 slaves.
Kentucky slaveholders sold some seventy-one thousand individuals. Most of the slave traders carried these
slaves further south to Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans, the hub of commerce, boasted the
largest slave market in the United States and grew to become the nation’s fourth-largest city as a result.
Natchez, Mississippi, had the second-largest market. In Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and elsewhere in the
South, slave auctions happened every day. (11)
An 1840 advertisement by a slave trader for the sale of slaves at an
auction in New Orleans, Louisiana.Figure 76: VALUABLEGANGOFYOUNGNEGROES1840 by Jos. A. Beard is in
the Public Domain .
All told, the movement of slaves in the South made up one of the
largest forced internal migrations in the United States. In each of the
decades between 1820 and 1860, about 200,000 people were sold and
relocated. The 1800 census recorded over one million African
Americans, of which nearly 900,000 were slaves. By 1860, the total
number of African Americans increased to 4.4 million, and of that
number, 3.95 million were held in bondage. For many slaves, the
domestic slave trade incited the terror of being sold away from family
and friends. (11)
An 1853 painting by the English artist Eyre Crowe showing African
American slaves in a slave market in Richmond, Virginia being
auctioned to slave
traders.Figure 7-7: SLAVES
RICHMOND , Virginia by Eyre
Crowe is in the Public
Domain .
Solomon Northup
Remembers the New Orleans
Slave Market
Solomon Northup was a free
black man living in Saratoga,
New York, when he was
kidnapped and sold into slavery
in 1841. He later escaped and
wrote a book about his
experiences: TWELVE YEARS
KIDNAPPED IN WASHINGTON CITY IN 1841 AND RESCUED IN 1853 (the basis of a 2013 Academy Award–
winning film). This excerpt derives from Northup’s description of being sold in New Orleans, along with fellow
slave Eliza and her children Randall and Emily.
One old gentleman, who said he wanted a coachman, appeared to take a fancy to me… The same man
also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many
other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying
aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and
Emily… Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop
her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work—such snivelling; and unless she ceased
that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes… Eliza shrunk before him, and
tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little
time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted
mother. (11)
A map issued by the US Coast Guard showing the
percentage of slaves in the population in each county in
the slave-holding states of the United States in 1860. The
note reads: It should be observed, that several counties
appear comparatively light. This arises from the
Preponderance of white and free blacks in the large towns
in those counties, such as Henrico Co. Va… Charleston
Co. S/C, etc. The figures in each county represent the
percentage of slaves viz: Amherst Co, Va 46-7/10 are
slaves in every 100 inhabitants; Wayne Co, N. Carolina
38-5/10 are slaves in every 100 inhabitants.Figure 79: SLAVEPOPULATIONUS1860 by E. Hergesheimer and
Th. Leonhardt is in the Public Domain .
Life as a Slave in the Cotton Kingdom
Life as a Slave in the Cotton Kingdom
In addition to cotton, the great commodity of the antebellum South was human chattel. Slavery was the
cornerstone of the southern economy. By 1850, about 3.2 million slaves labored in the United States, 1.8
million of whom worked in the cotton fields. Slaves faced arbitrary power abuses from whites; they coped by
creating family and community networks. Storytelling, song, and Christianity also provided solace and allowed
slaves to develop their own interpretations of their condition.
Southern whites frequently relied upon the idea of paternalism—the premise that white slaveholders acted in the
best interests of slaves, taking responsibility for their care, feeding, discipline, and even their Christian
morality—to justify the existence of slavery. This grossly misrepresented the reality of slavery, which was, by
any measure, a dehumanizing, traumatizing, and horrifying human disaster and crime against humanity.
Nevertheless, slaves were hardly passive victims of their conditions; they sought and found myriad ways to
resist their shackles and develop their own communities and cultures. (11)
Figure 7-10: Cotton planter and pickers 1908 by
H. Tees is in the Public Domain .
Slaves often used the notion of paternalism to their
advantage, finding opportunities within this system
to engage in acts of resistance and win a degree of
freedom and autonomy. For example, some slaves
played into their masters’ racism by hiding their
intelligence and feigning childishness and ignorance.
The slaves could then slow down the workday and
sabotage the system in small ways by “accidentally”
breaking tools, for example; the master, seeing his
slaves as unsophisticated and childlike, would
believe these incidents were accidents rather than rebellions. Some slaves engaged in more dramatic forms of
resistance, such as poisoning their masters slowly. Other slaves reported rebellious slaves to their masters,
hoping to gain preferential treatment. Slaves who informed their masters about planned slave rebellions could
often expect the slaveholder’s gratitude and, perhaps, more lenient treatment. Such expectations were always
tempered by the individual personality and caprice of the master.
Slaveholders used both psychological coercion and physical violence to prevent slaves from disobeying their
wishes. Often, the most efficient way to discipline slaves was to threaten to sell them. The lash, while the most
common form of punishment, was effective but not efficient; whippings sometimes left slaves incapacitated or
even dead. Slave masters also used punishment gear like neck braces, balls and chains, leg irons, and paddles
with holes to produce blood blisters. Slaves lived in constant terror of both physical violence and separation
from family and friends.
Under southern law, slaves could not marry. Nonetheless, some slaveholders allowed marriages to promote the
birth of children and to foster harmony on plantations. Some masters even forced certain slaves to form unions,
anticipating the birth of more children (and consequently greater profits) from them. Masters sometimes
allowed slaves to choose their own partners, but they could also veto a match. Slave couples always faced the
prospect of being sold away from each other, and, once they had children, the horrifying reality that their
children could be sold and sent away at any time.
Slave parents had to show their children the best way to survive under slavery. This meant teaching them to be
discreet, submissive, and guarded around whites. Parents also taught their children through the stories they told.
Popular stories among slaves included tales of tricksters, sly slaves, or animals like Brer Rabbit, who outwitted
their antagonists. Such stories provided comfort in humor and conveyed the slaves’ sense of the wrongs of
slavery. Slaves’ work songs commented on the harshness of their life and often had double meanings—a literal
meaning that whites would not find offensive and a deeper meaning for slaves. (11)
Work Song Example 1: Slow Drag Work Song by John A. Lomax (Collector) has no known copyright
restrictions. (17)
Work Song Example 2: Long Hot Summer Day by John A. Lomax (Collector) has no known copyright
restrictions. (18)
Gordon, pictured here with scars and welts on his back from whippings he
received as a slave, endured terrible brutality from his master before
escaping to Union Army lines in 1863. He would become a soldier and help
fight to end the violent system that produced the horrendous scars on his
back.Figure 7-11: GORDON, SCOURGED BACK by Mathew Brady is in
the Public Domain .
African beliefs, including ideas about the spiritual world and the importance
of African healers, survived in the South as well. Whites who became aware
of non-Christian rituals among slaves labeled such practices as witchcraft.
Among Africans, however, the rituals and use of various plants by respected
slave healers created connections between the African past and the American
South while also providing a sense of community and identity for slaves.
Other African customs, including traditional naming patterns, the making of
baskets, and the cultivation of certain native African plants that had been
brought to the New World, also endured. (4)
The concept of family, more than anything else, played a crucial role in the
daily lives of slaves. Family and kinship networks, and the benefits they
carried, represented an institution through which slaves could piece together a
sense of community, a sense of feeling and dedication, separate from the forced system of production that
defined their daily lives. The creation of family units, distant relations, and communal traditions allowed slaves
to maintain religious beliefs, ancient ancestral traditions, and even names passed down from generation to
generation in a way that challenged enslavement. Ideas passed between relatives on different plantations, names
given to children in honor of the deceased, and basic forms of love and devotion created a sense of
individuality, an identity that assuaged the loneliness and desperation of enslaved life. Family defined how each
plantation, each community, functioned, grew, and labored.
Marriage served as the single most important aspect of cultural and identity formation, as it connected slaves to
their own pasts, and gave some sense of protection for the future. By the start of the Civil War, approximately
two-thirds of slaves were members of nuclear households, each household averaging six people—mother,
father, children, and often a grandparent, elderly aunt or uncle, and even “in-laws.” Those who did not have a
marriage bond, or even a nuclear family, still maintained family ties, most often living with a single parent,
brother, sister, or grandparent.
Many slave marriages endured for many years. But the threat of disruption, often through sale, always loomed.
As the domestic slave trade increased following the constitutional ban on slave importation in 1808 and the rise
of cotton in the 1830s and 1840s, slave families, especially those established prior to the slaves’ arrival in the
United States, came under increased threat. Hundreds of thousands of marriages, many with children, fell victim
to sale “downriver”—a euphemism for the near constant flow of slave laborers down the Mississippi River to
the developing cotton belt in the Southwest. In fact, during the Cotton Revolution alone, between one-fifth and
one-third of all slave marriages were broken up through sale or forced migration. But this was not the only
threat. Planters, and slaveholders of all shapes and sizes, recognized that marriage was, in the most basic and
tragic sense, a privilege granted and defined by them for their slaves. And as a result, many slaveholders used
slaves’ marriages, or the threats thereto, to squeeze out more production, counteract disobedience, or simply
make a gesture of power and superiority.
Threats to family networks, marriages, and household stability did not stop with the death of a master. A slave
couple could live their entire lives together, even having been born, raised, and married on the slave plantation,
and, following the death of their master, find themselves at opposite sides of the known world. It only took a
single relative, executor, creditor, or friend of the deceased to make a claim against the estate to cause the sale
and dispersal of an entire slave community.
Enslaved women were particularly vulnerable to the shifts of fate attached to slavery. In many cases, female
slaves did the same work as men, spending the day—from sun up to sun down—in the fields picking and
bundling cotton. In some rare cases, especially among the larger plantations, planters tended to use women as
house servants more than men, but this was not universal. In both cases, however, female slaves’ experiences
were different than their male counterparts, husbands, and neighbors. Sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies,
and constant childrearing while continuing to work the fields all made life as a female slave more prone to
disruption and uncertainty.
Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman from North Carolina, chronicled her master’s attempts to sexually abuse her
in her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs suggested that her successful attempts to resist
sexual assault and her determination to love whom she pleased was “something akin to freedom.” But this
“freedom,” however empowering and contextual, did not cast a wide net. Many enslaved women had no choice
concerning love, sex, and motherhood. On plantations, small farms, and even in cities, rape was ever-present.
Like the splitting of families, slaveholders used sexual violence as a form of terrorism, a way to promote
increased production, obedience, and power relations. And this was not restricted only to unmarried women. In
numerous contemporary accounts, particularly violent slaveholders forced men to witness the rape of their
wives, daughters, and relatives, often as punishment, but occasionally as a sadistic expression of power and
As property, enslaved women had no recourse, and society, by and large, did not see a crime in this type of
violence. Racist pseudo-scientists claimed that whites could not physically rape Africans or African Americans,
as the sexual organs of each were not compatible in that way. State law, in some cases, supported this view,
claiming that rape could only occur between either two white people or a black man and a white woman. All
other cases fell under a silent acceptance. The consequences of rape, too, fell to the victim in the case of slaves.
Pregnancies that resulted from rape did not always lead to a lighter workload for the mother. And if a slave
acted out against a rapist, whether that be her master, mistress, or any other white attacker, her actions were
seen as crimes rather than desperate acts of survival. For example, a 19-year-old slave named Celia fell victim
to repeated rape by her master in Callaway County, Missouri. Between 1850 and 1855, Robert Newsom raped
Celia hundreds of times, producing two children and several miscarriages. Sick and desperate in the fall of
1855, Celia took a club and struck her master in the head, killing him. But instead of sympathy and aid, or even
an honest attempt to understand and empathize, the community called for the execution of Celia. On November
16, 1855, after a trial of ten days, Celia, the 19-year-old rape victim and slave, was hanged for her crimes
against her master.
Life on the ground in cotton South, like the cities, systems, and networks within which it rested, defied the
standard narrative of the Old South. Slavery existed to dominate, yet slaves formed bonds, maintained
traditions, and crafted new culture. They fell in love, had children, and protected one another using the
privileges granted them by their captors, and the basic intellect allowed all human beings. They were
resourceful, brilliant, and vibrant, and they created freedom where freedom seemingly could not exist. And
within those communities, resilience and dedication often led to cultural sustenance. Among the enslaved,
women, and the impoverished-but-free, culture thrived in ways that are difficult to see through the bales of
cotton and the stacks of money sitting on the docks and in the counting houses of the South’s urban centers. But
religion, honor, and pride transcended material goods, especially among those who could not express
themselves that way. (2)
The Free Black Population
The Free Black Population
Complicating the picture of the slavery in the antebellum South was the existence of a large free black
population. In fact, more free blacks lived in the South than in the North; roughly 261,000 lived in slave states,
while 226,000 lived in northern states without slavery. Most free blacks did not live in the Lower, or Deep
South: the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.
Instead, the largest number lived in the upper southern states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina,
and later Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.
A late 18 th century collage painting of a free black woman with her
quadroon daughter. They are wearing elaborate dresses that signify
their relatively high social status as free people.Figure 7-12: FREE
the Public Domain .
Part of the reason for the large number of free blacks living in slave
states were the many instances of manumission—the formal granting
of freedom to slaves—that occurred as a result of the Revolution,
when many slaveholders put into action the ideal that “all men are
created equal” and freed their slaves. The transition in the Upper
South to the staple crop of wheat, which did not require large
numbers of slaves to produce, also spurred manumissions. Another
large group of free blacks in the South had been free residents of
Louisiana before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, while still other free
blacks came from Cuba and Haiti.
Most free blacks in the South lived in cities, and a majority of free
blacks were lighter-skinned women, a reflection of the interracial
unions that formed between white men and black women.
Everywhere in the United States blackness had come to be associated with slavery, the station at the bottom of
the social ladder. Both whites and those with African ancestry tended to delineate varying degrees of lightness
in skin color in a social hierarchy. In the slaveholding South, different names described one’s distance from
blackness or whiteness: mulattos (those with one black and one white parent), quadroons (those with one black
grandparent), and octoroons (those with one black great-grandparent). Lighter-skinned blacks often looked
down on their darker counterparts, an indication of the ways in which both whites and blacks internalized the
racism of the age.
Some free blacks in the South owned slaves of their own. Andrew Durnford, for example, was born in New
Orleans in 1800, three years before the Louisiana Purchase. His father was white, and his mother was a free
black. Durnford became an American citizen after the Louisiana Purchase, rising to prominence as a Louisiana
sugar planter and slaveholder. William Ellison, another free black who amassed great wealth and power in the
South, was born a slave in 1790 in South Carolina. After buying his freedom and that of his wife and daughter,
he proceeded to purchase his own slaves, whom he then put to work manufacturing cotton gins. By the eve of
the Civil War, Ellison had become one of the richest and largest slaveholders in the entire state.
The phenomenon of free blacks amassing large fortunes within a slave society predicated on racial difference,
however, was exceedingly rare. Most free blacks in the South lived under the specter of slavery and faced many
obstacles. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, southern states increasingly made manumission of slaves
illegal. They also devised laws that divested free blacks of their rights, such as the right to testify against whites
in court or the right to seek employment where they pleased. Interestingly, it was in the upper southern states
that such laws were the harshest. In Virginia, for example, legislators made efforts to require free blacks to
leave the state. In parts of the Deep South, free blacks were able to maintain their rights more easily. The
difference in treatment between free blacks in the Deep South and those in the Upper South, historians have
surmised, came down to economics. In the Deep South, slavery as an institution was strong and profitable. In
the Upper South, the opposite was true. The anxiety of this economic uncertainty manifested in the form of
harsh laws that targeted free blacks. (11)
Cotton transformed the South into the most profitable and powerful slave society in world history. The
commodity opened a previously closed society to the grandeur, the profit, the exploitation, and the social
dimensions of a larger, more connected, global community. By 1860, not only did the South produce three
quarters of the world’s cotton it held in bondage nearly 4 million slaves worth more than 3 billion dollars, or 13
trillion in 2016 dollars. Nothing was more valuable in the United States other than the land itself. The cotton
kingdom generated not only tremendous wealth, it also deepened the sectional fault lines between North and
South during the first half of the nineteenth-century. Northern states looked on with dread as slavery continued
spread and threatened to dominate land out west that Thomas Jefferson and other founders envisioned as an
“empire of liberty,” a land reserved free white farmers. As slavery spread into new territories and then states,
Northern politicians feared that slaveholders and their interests would dominate Congress and corrupt American
democracy. Southerners argued vehemently that the Constitution protected their property rights, which included
slaves, and allowed them to spread slavery anywhere they wished. The cotton kingdom, and with it the
westward expansion of slavery, thus set the stage for the sectional crisis of the nineteenth century. (Huston,
27) (1)
Slavery And The Sectional Crisis
Slavery’s western expansion created problems for the United States from the very start. Battles emerged over
the westward expansion of slavery and over the role of the federal government in protecting the interests of
slaveholders. Northern workers felt that slavery suppressed wages and stole land that could have been used by
poor white Americans to achieve economic independence. Southerners feared that without slavery’s expansion,
the abolitionist faction would come to dominate national politics and an increasingly dense population of slaves
would lead to bloody insurrection and race war.
Constant resistance from enslaved men and women required a strong proslavery government to maintain order.
As the North gradually abolished human bondage, enslaved men and women headed North on an underground
railroad of hideaways and safe houses. Northerners and Southerners came to disagree sharply on the role of the
federal government in capturing and returning these freedom seekers. While Northerners appealed to their
states’ rights to refuse capturing runaway slaves, Southerners demanded a national commitment to slavery.
Enslaved laborers meanwhile remained vitally important to the nation’s economy, fueling not only the southern
plantation economy but also providing raw materials for the industrial North.
Differences over the fate of slavery remained at the heart of American politics, especially as the United States
expanded. After decades of conflict, Americans north and south began to fear that the opposite section of the
country had seized control of the government. By November 1860, an opponent of slavery’s expansion arose
from within the Republican Party. During the secession crisis that followed, fears, nearly a century in the
making, at last devolved into bloody war. (2)
Learning Outcomes
This module addresses the following Course Learning Outcomes listed in the Syllabus for this course:
• To provide students with a general understanding of the history of African Americans within the context
of American History.
• To motivate students to become interested and active in African American history by comparing current
events with historical information.(1)
Additional learning outcomes associated with this module are:
• The student will be able to discuss the origins, evolution, and spread of racial slavery.
• The student will be able to describe the creation of a distinct African-American culture and how that
culture became part of the broader American culture. (1)
Module Objectives
Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:
• Identify issues related to slavery that divided the north and south in the 19th century.
• Discuss the sectional crisis between the north and the south.
Readings and Resources
Learning Unit: The Sectional Crisis (see below) (1)
The Sectional Crisis
Sectionalism in the Early Republic
Slavery’s history stretched back to antiquity. Prior to the American Revolution, nearly everyone in the world
accepted it as a natural part of life. English colonies north and south relied on enslaved workers who grew
tobacco, harvested indigo and sugar, and worked in ports. They generated tremendous wealth for the British
crown. That wealth and luxury fostered seemingly limitless opportunities, and inspired seemingly boundless
imaginations. Enslaved workers also helped give rise to revolutionary new ideals, ideals that in time became the
ideological foundations of the sectional crisis. English political theorists, in particular, began to re-think natural
law justifications for slavery. They rejected the longstanding idea that slavery was a condition that naturally
suited some people. A new transatlantic antislavery movement began to argue that freedom was the natural
condition of man.
Revolutionaries seized onto these ideas to stunning effect in the late eighteenth century. In the United States,
France, and Haiti, revolutionaries began the work of splintering the old order. Each revolution seemed to
radicalize the next. Bolder and more expansive declarations of equality and freedom followed one after the
other. Revolutionaries in the United States declared, “All men are created equal,” in the 1770s. French
visionaries issued the “Declaration of Rights and Man and Citizen” by 1789. But the most startling development
came in 1803. A revolution led by the island’s rebellious slaves turned France’s most valuable sugar colony into
an independent country administered by the formerly enslaved.(2)
Attack and take of the Crête-àPierrot—1803 Battle of
Vertiéres. Haitian rebel forces,
comprised of liberated slaves,
fight Napoleon’s expeditionary
forces.Figure 8-1: HAITIAN
Raffet is in the Public Domain .
The Haitian Revolution marked
an early origin of the sectional
crisis. It helped splinter the
Atlantic basin into clear zones of
freedom and un-freedom,
shattering the longstanding
assumption that Africandescended slaves could not also
be rulers. Despite the clear
limitations of the American
Revolution in attacking slavery,
the era marked a powerful break
in slavery’s history. Military service on behalf of both the English and the American army freed thousands of
slaves. Many others simply used the turmoil of war to make their escape. As a result, free black communities
emerged—communities that would continually reignite the antislavery struggle. For nearly a century, most
white Americans were content to compromise over the issue of slavery, but the constant agitation of black
Americans, both enslaved and free, kept the issue alive.
The national breakdown over slavery occurred over a long timeline and across a broad geography. Debates over
slavery in the American West proved especially important. As the United States pressed westward, new
questions arose as to whether those lands ought to be slave or free. The framers of the Constitution did a little,
but not much, to help resolve these early questions. Article VI of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance banned slavery
north and west of the Ohio River. Many took it to mean that the founders intended for slavery to die out, as why
else would they prohibit its spread across such a huge swath of territory?
Debates over the framer’s intentions often led to confusion and bitter debate, but the actions of the new
government left better clues as to what the new nation intended for slavery. Congress authorized the admission
of Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792), with Vermont coming into the Union as a free state, and Kentucky
coming in as a slave state. Though Americans at the time made relatively little of the balancing act suggested by
the admission of a slave state and a free state, the pattern became increasingly important. By 1820, preserving
the balance of free states and slave states would be seen as an issue of national security.
New pressures challenging the delicate balance again arose in the West. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 more
than doubled the size of the United States. Questions immediately arose as to whether these lands would be
made slave or free. Complicating matters further was the rapid expansion of plantation slavery fueled by the
invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Yet even with the booming cotton economy, many Americans, including
Thomas Jefferson, believed that slavery was a temporary institution and would soon die out. Tensions rose with
the Louisiana Purchase, but a truly sectional national debate remained mostly dormant.
That debate, however, came quickly. Sectional differences tied to the expansion of plantation slavery in the
West were especially important after 1803. The Ohio River Valley became an early fault line in the coming
sectional struggle. Kentucky and Tennessee emerged as slave states, while free states Ohio, Indiana (1816) and
Illinois (1818) gained admission along the river’s northern banks. Borderland negotiations and accommodations
along the Ohio River fostered a distinctive kind of white supremacy, as laws tried to keep blacks out of the
West entirely. Ohio’s so-called “Black Laws,” of 1803 foreshadowed the exclusionary cultures of Indiana,
Illinois, and several subsequent states of the Old Northwest and later, the Far West. These laws often banned
African American voting, denied black Americans access to public schools, and made it impossible for nonwhites to serve on juries and in local militias, among a host of other restrictions and obstacles.
Map showing the distribution of slaves in the United States in
1820.Figure 8-2: SLAVERY US 1820 by Allen Johnson is in
the Public Domain .
The Missouri Territory, by far the largest section of the Louisiana
Territory, marked a turning point in the sectional crisis. Saint
Louis, a bustling Mississippi River town filled with powerful slave
owners, loomed large as an important trade headquarters for
networks in the northern Mississippi Valley and the Greater West.
In 1817, eager to put questions of whether this territory would be
slave or free to rest, Congress opened its debate over Missouri’s
admission to the Union. Congressman James Tallmadge of New
York proposed laws that would gradually abolish slavery in the
new state. Southern states responded with unanimous outrage, and
the nation shuddered at an undeniable sectional controversy.
Congress reached a “compromise” on Missouri’s admission,
largely through the work of Kentuckian Henry Clay. Maine would
be admitted to the Union as a free state. In exchange, Missouri
would come into the Union as a slave state. Legislators sought to
prevent future conflicts by making Missouri’s southern border at
36° 30′ the new dividing line between slavery and freedom in the
Louisiana Purchase lands. South of that line, running east from Missouri to the western edge of the Louisiana
Purchase lands (near the present-day Texas panhandle) slavery could expand. North of it, encompassing what in
1820 was still “unorganized territory,” there would be no slavery.
The Missouri Compromise marked a major turning point in America’s sectional crisis because it exposed to the
public just how divisive the slavery issue had grown. The debate filled newspapers, speeches, and
Congressional records. Antislavery and pro-slavery positions from that point forward repeatedly returned to
points made during the Missouri debates. Legislators battled for weeks over whether the Constitutional framers
intended slavery’s expansion or not, and these contests left deep scars. Even seemingly simple and
straightforward phrases like “All Men Are Created Equal” were hotly contested all over again. Questions over
the expansion of slavery remained open, but nearly all Americans concluded that the Constitution protected
slavery where it already existed.
Southerners were not yet advancing arguments that said slavery was a positive good, but they did insist during
the Missouri Debate that the framers supported slavery and wanted to see it expand. In Article 1, Section 2, for
example, the Constitution enabled representation in the South to be based on rules defining enslaved people
as 3 / 5 of a voter, meaning southern white men would be overrepresented in Congress. The Constitution also
stipulated that Congress could not interfere with the slave trade before 1808, and enabled Congress to draft
fugitive slave laws.
Antislavery participants in the Missouri debate argued that the framers never intended slavery to survive the
Revolution and in fact hoped it would disappear through peaceful means. The framers of the Constitution never
used the word “slave.” Slaves were referred to as “persons held in service,” perhaps referring to English
common law precedents that questioned the legitimacy of “property in man.” Antislavery activists also pointed
out that while the Congress could not pass a law limiting the slave trade by 1808, the framers had also
recognized the flip side of the debate and had thus opened the door to legislating the slave trade’s end once the
deadline arrived. Language in the Tenth Amendment, they claimed, also said slavery could be banned in the
territories. Finally, they pointed to the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which said that property
could be seized through appropriate legislation. The bruising Missouri debates ultimately transcended
arguments about the Constitution. They became an all-encompassing referendum on the American past,
present, and future.
Despite the furor, the Missouri Crisis did not yet inspire hardened defenses of either slave or free labor as
positive good. Those would come in the coming decades. In the meantime, the uneasy consensus forged by the
Missouri Debate managed to bring a measure of calm.
The Missouri debate had also deeply troubled the nation’s African Americans and Native Americans. By the
time of the Missouri compromise debate, both groups saw that whites never intended them to be citizens of the
United States. In fact, the debates over Missouri’s admission had offered the first sustained debate on the
question of black citizenship, as Missouri’s State Constitution wanted to impose a hard ban on any future black
migrants. Legislators ultimately agreed that this hard ban violated the Constitution, but reaffirmed Missouri’s
ability to deny citizenship to African Americans. Americans by 1820 had endured a broad challenge, not only to
their cherished ideals but also more fundamentally to their conceptions of self. (2)
The Crisis Joined
Missouri’s admission to the Union in 1821 exposed deep fault lines in American society. But the Compromise
created a new sectional consensus that most white Americans, at least, hoped would ensure a lasting peace.
Through sustained debates and arguments, white Americans agreed that the Constitution could do little about
slavery where it already existed and that slavery, with the State of Missouri as the key exception, would never
expand north of the 36°30′ line.
Once again westward expansion challenged this consensus, and this time the results proved even more
damaging. Tellingly, enslaved southerners were among the first to signal their discontent. A rebellion led by
Denmark Vesey in 1822 threatened lives and property throughout the Carolinas. The nation’s religious leaders
also expressed a rising discontent with the new status quo. (9) The Second Great Awakening further sharpened
political differences by promoting schisms within the major Protestant churches, schisms that also became
increasingly sectional in nature. Between 1820 and 1846, sectionalism drew on new political parties, new
religious organizations, and new reform movements.
As politics grew more democratic, leaders attacked old inequalities of wealth and power, but in doing so many
pandered to a unity under white supremacy. Slavery briefly receded from the nation’s attention in the early
1820s, but that would change quickly. By the last half of the decade, slavery was back, and this time it appeared
even more threatening.
Inspired by the social change of Jacksonian democracy, white men regardless of status would gain not only land
and jobs, but also the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to attend public schools, and the right to
serve in the militia and armed forces. In this post-Missouri context, leaders arose to push the country’s new
expansionist desires in aggressive new directions. As they did so, however, the sectional crisis again deepened.
The Democratic Party initially seemed to offer a compelling answer to the problems of sectionalism by
promising benefits to white working men of the North, South, and West, while also uniting rural, small town,
and urban residents. Indeed, huge numbers of western, southern, and northern workingmen rallied during the
1828 Presidential election behind Andrew Jackson. The Democratic Party tried to avoid the issue of slavery and
instead sought to unite Americans around shared commitments to white supremacy and desires to expand the
Democrats were not without their critics. Northerners seen as especially friendly to the South had become
known as “Doughfaces” during the Missouri debates, and as the 1830s wore on, more and more Doughfaced
Democrats became vulnerable to the charge that they served the Southern slave oligarchs better than they served
their own northern communities. Whites discontented with the direction of the country used the slur and other
critiques to help chip away at Democratic Party majorities. The accusation that northern Democrats
were lap dogs for southern
slaveholders had real power.
(1820) Slave states, including
Missouri, in red and the free states in
blue. The green line is the Missouri
Compromise line.Figure 83: MISSOURI COMPROMISE LINE by
Júlio Reis is licensed under CC BY-SA
3.0 .
The Whigs offered an organized major party
challenge to the Democrats. Whig strongholds
often mirrored
the patterns of westward migrations out of New
England. Whigs drew
from an odd coalition of wealthy merchants,
middle and upper class
farmers, planters in the Upland South, and
settlers in the Great Lakes.
Because of this motley coalition, the party
struggled to bring a cohesive message to voters in the 1830s. Their strongest support came from places like
Ohio’s Western Reserve, the rural and Protestant-dominated areas of Michigan, and similar parts of Protestant
and small-town Illinois, particularly the fast-growing towns and cities of the state’s northern half.
Whig leaders stressed Protestant culture, federal-sponsored internal improvements, and courted the support of a
variety of reform movements, including temperance, nativism, and even antislavery, though few Whigs
believed in racial equality. These positions attracted a wide range of figures, including a young convert to
politics named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln admired Whig leader Henry Clay of Kentucky, and by the early
1830s, Lincoln certainly fit the image of developing Whig. A veteran of the Black Hawk War, Lincoln had relocated to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, living a life of thrift, self-discipline, and
sobriety as he educated himself in preparation for a professional life in law and politics.
The Whig Party blamed Democrats for defending slavery at the expense of the American people, but antislavery
was never a core component of the Whig platform. Several abolitionists grew so disgusted with the Whigs that
they formed their own party, a true antislavery party. Activists in Warsaw, New York organized the antislavery
Liberty Party in 1839. Liberty leaders demanded the end of slavery in the District of Columbia, the end of the
interstate slave trade, and the prohibition of slavery’s expansion into the West. But the Liberty Party also
shunned women’s participation in the movement and distanced themselves from visions of true racial
egalitarianism. Few Americans voted for the party. The Democrats and Whigs continued to dominate American
Democrats and Whigs fostered a moment of relative calm on the slavery debate, partially aided by gag rules
prohibiting discussion of antislavery petitions. Arkansas (1836) and Michigan (1837) became the newest states
admitted to the Union, with Arkansas coming in as a slave state, and Michigan coming in as a free state.
Michigan gained admission through provisions established in the Northwest Ordinance, while Arkansas came in
under the Missouri Compromise. Since its lands were below the line at 36° 30′ the admission of Arkansas did
not threaten the Missouri consensus. The balancing act between slavery and freedom continued.
Events in Texas would shatter the balance. Independent Texas soon gained recognition from a supportive
Andrew Jackson administration in 1837. But Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, also a
Democrat, soon had reasons to worry about the Republic of Texas. Texas struggled with ongoing conflicts with
Mexico and Indian raids from the powerful Comanche. The 1844 democratic presidential candidate James K.
Polk sought to bridge the sectional divide by promising new lands to whites north and south. Polk cited the
annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory as campaign cornerstones. Yet as Polk championed the
acquisition of these vast new lands, northern Democrats grew annoyed by their southern colleagues, especially
when it came to Texas.
For many observers, the debates over Texas statehood illustrated that the federal government was clearly proslavery. Texas President Sam Houston managed to secure a deal with Polk, and gained admission to the Union
for Texas in 1845. Antislavery northerners also worried about the admission of Florida, which entered the
Union as a slave state in 1845. The year 1845 became a pivotal year in the memory of antislavery leaders. As
Americans embraced calls to pursue their “Manifest Destiny,” antislavery voices looked at developments in
Florida and Texas as signs that the sectional crisis had taken an ominous and perhaps irredeemable turn.
The 1840s opened with a number of disturbing developments for antislavery leaders. The 1842 Supreme Court
case PRIGG V. PENNSYLVANIA ruled that the federal government’s Fugitive Slave Act trumped
Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law. Antislavery activists believed that the federal government only served
southern slaveholders and were trouncing the states’ rights of the North. A number of northern states reacted by
passing new personal liberty laws in protest in 1843.
The year 1846 signaled new reversals to the antislavery cause, and the beginnings of a dark new era in
American politics. President Polk and his Democratic allies were eager to see western lands brought into the
Union and were especially anxious to see the borders of the nation extended to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Critics of the administration blasted these efforts as little more than land-grabs on behalf of slaveholders. Events
in early 1846 seemed to justify antislavery complaints. Since Mexico had never recognized independent Texas,
it continued to lay claim to its lands, even after the United States admitted it to the Union. In January 1846, Polk
ordered troops to Texas to enforce claims stemming from its border dispute along the Rio Grande. Polk asked
for war on May 11, 1846, and by September 1847, the United States had invaded Mexico City. Whigs, like
Abraham Lincoln, found their protests sidelined, but antislavery voices were becoming more vocal
and more powerful.
After 1846, the sectional crisis raged throughout North America. Debates swirled over whether the new lands
would be slave or free. The South began defending slavery as a positive good. At the same time, Congressman
David Wilmot submitted his “Wilmot Proviso” late in 1846, banning the expansion of slavery into the territories
won from Mexico. The Proviso gained widespread northern support and even passed the House with bipartisan
support, but it failed in the Senate. (2)
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men
The conclusion of the Mexican War gave rise to the 1848 Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. The treaty infuriated
antislavery leaders in the United States. The spoils gained from the Mexican War were impressive, and it was
clear they would help expand slavery. The United States required Mexican officials to cede the California and
New Mexico Territories for $15 million dollars. With American soldiers occupying their capital, Mexican
leaders had no choice but sign or continue fighting a war they could not win. The new American territory
included lands that would become the future states of California, Utah, Nevada, most of Arizona, and well as
parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Map showing the states and territories of the United States in 1848, including the Mexican Cession—land
acquired from Mexico following the Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848).
Figure 8-4: UNITED STATES 1848 by Golbez is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 .
The acquisition of so much land made
it imperative to antislavery leaders that
these lands not be opened to slavery.
But knowing that the Liberty Party was
not likely to provide a home to many
moderate voters, leaders instead hoped
to foster a new and more competitive
party, which they called the Free Soil
Party. Antislavery leaders entered the
1848 election hoping that their vision
of a federal government divorced from
slavery might be heard. But both the
Whigs and the Democrats, nominated
pro-slavery southerners. Left
unrepresented, antislavery Free Soil
leaders swung into action.
Demanding an alternative to the proslavery status quo, Free Soil leaders
assembled so-called “Conscience Whigs.” The new coalition called for a national convention in August 1848 at
Buffalo, New York. A number of ex-Democrats committed to the party right away, including an important
group of New Yorkers loyal to Martin Van Buren. The Free Soil Party’s platform bridged the eastern and the
western leadership together and called for an end to slavery in Washington DC and a halt on slavery’s
expansion in the territories. The Free Soil movement hardly made a dent in the 1848 Presidential election, but it
drew more than four times the popular vote won by the Liberty Party earlier. It was a promising start. In 1848,
Free Soil leaders claimed just 10% of the popular vote, but won over a dozen House seats, and even managed to
win one Senate seat in Ohio, which went to Salmon P. Chase. In Congress, Free Soil members had enough
votes to swing power to either the Whigs or the Democrats.
The admission of Wisconsin as a free state in May 1848 helped cool tensions after the Texas and Florida
admissions. But news from a number of failed revolutions in Europe alarmed American reformers. As exiled
radicals filtered out of Europe and into the United States, a women’s rights movement also got underway at
Seneca Falls, New York. Representing the first of such meetings ever held in United States history, it was led
by figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, women with deep ties to the abolitionist cause.
Frederick Douglass also appeared at the convention and took part in the proceedings, where participants debated
the Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances and Resolutions.
By August 1848, it seemed plausible that the Free Soil Movement might tap into these reforms and build a
broader coalition. In some ways that is precisely what it did. But come November, the spirit of reform failed to
yield much at the polls. Whig candidate Zachary Taylor bested Democrat Lewis Cass of Michigan.
The upheavals signaled by 1848 came to a quick end. Taylor remained in office only a brief time until his
unexpected death from a stomach ailment in 1850. During Taylor’s brief time in office, the fruits of the
Mexican War began to spoil. While he was alive, Taylor and his administration struggled to find a good
remedy. Increased clamoring for the admission of California, New Mexico, and Utah pushed the country closer
to the edge. Gold had been discovered in California, and as thousands continued to pour onto the West Coast
and through the trans-Mississippi West, the admission of new states loomed. In Utah, Mormons were also
making claims to an independent state they called Deseret. By 1850, California wanted admission as a free
state. With so many competing dynamics underway, and with the President dead and replaced by Whig Millard
Fillmore, the 1850s were off to a troubling start.
Congressional leaders like Henry Clay and newer legislators like Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois were asked to
broker a compromise, but this time it was clear no compromise could bridge all the diverging interests at play in
the country. Clay eventually left Washington disheartened by affairs. It fell to young Stephen Douglas, then, to
shepherd the bills through the Congress, which he in fact did. Legislators rallied behind the “Compromise of
1850,” an assemblage of bills passed late in 1850, which managed to keep the promises of the Missouri
Compromise alive.
Henry Clay (‘The Great
Compromiser’) addresses the
U.S. Senate during the debates
over the Compromise of 1850.
The print shows a number of
incendiary personalities, like
John C. Calhoun, whose
increasingly sectional beliefs
were pacified for a time by the
Compromise. (2)Figure 85: HENRY CLAY SENATE by
Peter F. Rothermel is in
the Public Domain .
The Compromise of 1850 tried
to offer something to everyone,
but in the end, it only worsened
the sectional crisis. For
southerners, the package offered
a tough new fugitive slave law
that empowered the federal
government to deputize regular
citizens in arresting runaways.
The New Mexico territory and the Utah Territory, would be allowed to determine their own fates as slave or
free states based on popular sovereignty. The Compromise also allowed territories to submit suits directly to the
Supreme Court over the status of fugitive slaves within its bounds.
The admission of California as the newest free state in the Union cheered many northerners, but even the
admission of a vast new state full of resources and rich agricultural lands was not enough. In addition to
California, northerners also gained a ban on the slave trade in Washington, D.C., but not the full emancipation
abolitionists had long advocated. Texas, which had already come into the Union as a slave state, was asked to
give some of its land to New Mexico in return for the federal government absorbing some of the former
republic’s debt. But the Compromise debates soon grew ugly.
After the Compromise of 1850, antislavery critics became increasingly certain that slaveholders had co-opted
the federal government, and that a southern “Slave Power” secretly held sway in Washington, where it hoped to
make slavery a national institution. These northern complaints pointed back to how the 3 / 5 compromise of the
Constitution gave southerners more representatives in Congress. In the 1850s, antislavery leaders increasingly
argued that Washington worked on behalf of slaveholders while ignoring the interests of white working men.
None of the individual 1850 Compromise measures proved more troubling to national and international
observers than the Fugitive Slave Act. In a clear bid to extend slavery’s influence throughout the country, the
act created special federal commissioners to determine the fate of alleged fugitives without benefit of a jury trial
or even court testimony. Under its provisions, local authorities in the North could not interfere with the capture
of fugitives. Northern citizens, moreover, had to assist in the arrest of fugitive slaves when called upon by
federal agents. The Fugitive Slave Act created the foundation for a massive expansion of federal power,
including an alarming increase in the nation’s policing powers. Many northerners were also troubled by the way
the bill undermined local and state laws. The law itself fostered corruption and the enslavement of free black
northerners. The federal commissioners who heard these cases were paid $10 if they determined that the
defendant was a slave and only $5 if they determined he or she was free. Many black northerners responded to
the new law by heading further north to Canada.
The 1852 Presidential election gave the Whigs their most stunning defeat and effectively ended their existence
as a national political party. Whigs captured just 42 of the 254 electoral votes needed to win. With the
Compromise of 1850 and plenty of new lands, peaceful consensus seemed on the horizon. Antislavery feelings
continued to run deep, however, and their depth revealed that with a Democratic Party misstep, a coalition
united against the Democrats might yet emerge and bring them to defeat. One measure of the popularity of
antislavery ideas came in 1852 when Harriet Beecher Stowe published her bestselling antislavery
novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN . ((Harriet Beecher Stowe, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (Boston: 1852).)) Sales
for UNCLE TOM’S CABIN were astronomical, eclipsed only by sales of the Bible. The book became a
sensation and helped move antislavery into everyday conversation for many northerners. Despite the powerful
antislavery message, Stowe’s book also reinforced many racist stereotypes. Even abolitionists struggled with
the deeply ingrained racism that plagued American society. While the major success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
bolstered the abolitionist cause, the terms outlined by the Compromise of 1850 appeared strong enough to keep
the peace.
Democrats by 1853 were badly splintered along sectional lines over slavery, but they also had reasons to act
with confidence. Voters had returned them to office in 1852 following the bitter fights over the Compromise of
1850. Emboldened, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced a set of additional amendments to a bill
drafted in late 1853 to help organize the Nebraska Territory, the last of the Louisiana Purchase lands. In 1853,
the Nebraska Territory was huge, extending from the northern end of Texas to the Canadian Border. Altogether,
it encompassed present-day Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado and Montana.
Douglas’s efforts to amend and introduce the bill in 1854 opened dynamics that would break the Democratic
Party in two and, in the process, rip the country apart.
Fullpage illustration
CABIN . Characters Eliza,
Harry, Chloe, Tom, and Old
Bruno. Eliza is coming to tell
Uncle Tom he is to be sold
and that she is running away
with her child.Figure 86: ELIZAENGRAVING by
Hammatt Billings is in
the Public Domain .
Democrats by 1853 were
badly splintered along
sectional lines over slavery,
but they also had reasons to
act with confidence. Voters
had returned them to office in
1852 following the bitter fights over the Compromise of 1850. Emboldened, Illinois Senator Stephen A.
Douglas introduced a set of additional amendments to a bill drafted in late 1853 to help organize the Nebraska
Territory, the last of the Louisiana Purchase lands. In 1853, the Nebraska Territory was huge, extending from
the northern end of Texas to the Canadian Border. Altogether, it encompassed present-day Nebraska, Wyoming,
South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado and Montana. Douglas’s efforts to amend and introduce the bill in 1854
opened dynamics that would break the Democratic Party in two and, in the process, rip the country apart.
Douglas proposed a bold plan in 1854 to cut off a large southern chunk of Nebraska and create it separately as
the Kansas Territory. Douglas had a number of goals in mind. The expansionist Democrat from Illinois wanted
to organize the territory to facilitate the completion of a national railroad that would flow through Chicago. But
before he had even finished introducing the bill, opposition had already mobilized. Salmon P. Chase drafted a
response in northern newspapers that exposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill as a measure to overturn the Missouri
Compromise and open western lands for slavery. Kansas-Nebraska protests emerged in 1854 throughout the
North, with key meetings in Wisconsin and Michigan. Kansas would become slave or free depending on the
result of local elections, elections that would be greatly influenced by migrants flooding to the state to either
protect or stop the spread of slavery.
Ordinary Americans in the North increasingly resisted what they believed to be a pro-slavery federal
government on their own terms. The rescues and arrests of fugitive slaves Anthony Burns in Boston and Joshua
Glover in Milwaukee, for example, both signaled the rising vehemence of resistance to the nation’s 1850
fugitive slave law. The case of Anthony Burns illustrates how the Fugitive Slave Law radicalized many
northerners. On May 24, 1854, 20-year-old Burns, a preacher who worked in a Boston clothing shop, was
clubbed and dragged to jail. One year earlier, Burns had escaped slavery in Virginia, and a group of slave
catchers had come to return him to Richmond. Word of Burns’ capture spread rapidly through Boston, and a
mob gathered outside of the courthouse demanding Burns’ release. Two days after the arrest, the crowd stormed
the courthouse and shot a Deputy U.S. Marshall to death. News reached Washington, and the federal
government sent soldiers. Boston was placed under Martial Law. Federal troops lined the streets of Boston as
Burns was marched to a ship where he was sent back to slavery in Virginia. After spending over $40,000, the
United States Government had successfully reenslaved Anthony Burns. A short time later, Burns was redeemed
by abolitionists who paid $1,300 to return him to freedom, but the outrage among Bostonians only grew. And
Anthony Burns was only one of hundreds of highly publicized episodes of the federal governments imposing
the Fugitive Slave Law on rebellious northern populations. In the words of Amos Adams Lawrence, “We went
to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs & woke up stark mad Abolitionists.”
As northerners radicalized, organizations like the New England Emigrant Aid Society provided guns and other
goods for pioneers willing to go to Kansas and establish the territory as antislavery through popular sovereignty.
On all sides of the slavery issue, politics became increasingly militarized.
The year 1855 nearly derailed the northern antislavery coalition. A resurgent anti-immigrant movement briefly
took advantage of the Whig collapse, and nearly stole the energy of the anti-administration forces by channeling
its frustrations into fights against the large number of mostly Catholic German and Irish immigrants in
American cities. Calling themselves “Know-Nothings,” on account of their tendency to pretend ignorance when
asked about their activities, the Know-Nothing or American Party made impressive gains in 1854 and 1855,
particularly in New England and the Middle Atlantic. But the anti-immigrant movement simply could not
capture the nation’s attention in ways the antislavery movement already had.
The antislavery political movements that started in 1854 coalesced as the coming Presidential election of 1856
accelerated the formation of a new political party. Harkening back to the founding fathers, this new party called
itself the Republican Party. Republicans moved into a highly charged summer expecting great things for their
cause. Following his explosive speech before Congress on May 19-20 in which he castigated Southern
Democrats their complicity in the “crimes” occurring in Kansas, Charles Sumner was beaten by congressional
representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina right on the floor of the Senate chamber. Among other
accusations, Sumner accused Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina of defending slavery so he could have
sexual access to black women. Butler’s cousin, representative Brooks felt that he had to defend his relative’s
honor, and nearly killed Sumner as a result.
An 1856 Lithograph showing Democratic
Representative Preston Brooks beating Republican
Senator Charles Sumner with a cane.Figure 88: SOUTHERN CHIVALRY by John L. Magee is in
the Public Domain .
The violence in Washington pales before the many
murders occurring in Kansas. Proslavery raiders
attacked Lawrence, Kansas. Radical abolitionist John
Brown retaliated, murdering several pro-slavery
Kansans in retribution. As all of this played out, the
House failed to expel Brooks. Brooks resigned his seat
anyway, only to be re-elected by his constituents later
in the year. He received new canes emblazoned with
the words “Hit him again!”
With sectional tensions at a breaking point, both parties readied for the coming Presidential election. In June
1856, the newly named Republican Party held its nominating convention at Philadelphia, and selected
Californian John Charles Frémont. Frémont’s antislavery credentials may not have pleased many abolitionists,
A bust portrait of the twenty-four-year-old Burns is surrounded by scenes from his life. These include
(clockwise from lower left): the sale of the youthful Burns at auction, a whipping post with bales of cotton, his
arrest in Boston on May 24, 1854, his escape from Richmond on shipboard, his departure from Boston escorted
by federal marshals and troops, Burns’s “address” (to the court?), and finally Burns in prison. Copyrighting
works such as prints and pamphlets under the name of the subject (here Anthony Burns) was a common
abolitionist practice. This was no doubt the case in this instance, since by 1855 Burns had in fact been returned
to his owner in Virginia.Figure 8-7: ANTHONY BURNS by R.M. Edwards is in the Public Domain.
but his dynamic and talented wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, appealed to more radical members of the coalition.
The Kansas-Nebraska Debate, the organization of the Republican Party, and the 1856 Presidential Campaign all
energized a new generation of political leaders, including Abraham Lincoln. Beginning with his speech at
Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, Lincoln carved out a message that encapsulated better than anyone else the main ideas
and visions of the Republican Party. Lincoln himself was slow to join the coalition, yet by the summer of 1856,
Lincoln had fully committed to the Frémont campaign.
Frémont lost, but Republicans celebrated that he won 11 of the 16 free states. This showing, they urged, was
truly impressive for any party making its first run at the Presidency. Yet northern Democrats in crucial swing
states remained unmoved by the Republican Party’s appeals. Ulysses S. Grant of Missouri, for example,
worried that Frémont and Republicans signaled trouble for the Union itself. Grant voted for the Democratic
candidate, James Buchanan, believing a Republican victory might bring about disunion. In abolitionist and
especially black American circles, Frémont’s defeat was more than a disappointment. Believing their fate had
been sealed as permanent non-citizens, some African Americans would consider foreign emigration and
colonization. Others began to explore the option of more radical and direct action against the Slave Power. (2)
From Sectional Crisis to National Crisis
White antislavery leaders hailed Frémont’s defeat as a “glorious” one and looked ahead to the party’s future
successes. For those still in slavery, or hoping to see loved ones freed, the news was of course much harder to
take. The Republican Party had promised the rise of an antislavery coalition, but voters rebuked it. The lessons
seemed clear enough.
Kansas loomed large over the 1856 election, darkening the national mood. The story of voter fraud in Kansas
had begun years before in 1854, when nearby Missourians first started crossing the border to tamper with the
Kansas elections. Noting this, critics at the time attacked the Pierce administration for not living up to the ideals
of popular sovereignty by ensuring fair elections. From there, the crisis only deepened. Kansas voted to come
into the Union as a free state, but the federal government refused to recognize their votes and instead recognized
a sham pro-slavery legislature.
The sectional crisis had at last become a national crisis. “Bleeding Kansas” was the first place to demonstrate
that the sectional crisis could easily, and in fact already was, exploding into a full-blown national crisis. As the
national mood grew increasingly grim, Kansas attracted militants representing the extreme sides of the slavery
In the days after the 1856 Presidential election, Buchanan made his plans for his time in office clear. He talked
with Chief Justice Roger Taney on inauguration day about a court decision he hoped to see handled during his
time in office. Indeed, not long after the inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that would
come to define Buchanan’s Presidency. The Dred Scott decision, SCOTT V. SANDFORD , ruled that black
Americans could not be citizens of the United States. This gave the Buchanan administration and its southern
allies a direct repudiation of the Missouri Compromise. The court ruled that Scott, a Missouri slave, had no
right to sue in United States courts. The Dred Scott decision signaled that the federal government was now fully
committed to extending slavery as far and as wide as it might want.
The Dred Scott decision seemed to settle the sectional crisis by making slavery fully national, but in reality it
just exacerbated sectional tensions further. In 1857, Buchanan sent U.S. military forces to Utah, hoping to
subdue Utah’s Mormon communities. This action, however, led to renewed charges, many of them leveled from
within his own party, that the administration was abusing its powers. Far more important than the Utah
invasion, however, was the ongoing events in Kansas. It was Kansas that at last proved to many northerners that
the sectional crisis would not go away unless slavery also went away.
The Illinois Senate race in 1858 put the scope of the sectional crisis on full display. Republican candidate
Abraham Lincoln challenged the greatly influential Democrat Stephen Douglas. Pandering to appeals to white
supremacy, Douglas hammered the Republican opposition as a “Black Republican” party bent on racial
equality. The Republicans, including Lincoln, were thrown on the defensive. Democrats hung on as best they
could, but the Republicans won the House of Representatives and picked up seats in the Senate. Lincoln
actually lost his contest with Stephen Douglas, but in the process firmly established himself as a leading
national Republican. After the 1858 elections, all eyes turned to 1860. Given the Republican Party’s successes
since 1854, it was expected that the 1860 Presidential election might produce the nation’s first antislavery
In the troubled decades since the Missouri Compromise, the nation slowly tore itself apart. Congressman
clubbed each other nearly to death on the floor of the Congress, and by the middle of the 1850s Americans were
already at war on the Kansas and Missouri plains. Across the country, cities and towns were in various stages of
revolt against federal authority. Fighting spread even further against Indians in the Far West and against
Mormons in Utah. The nation’s militants anticipated a coming breakdown, and worked to exploit it. John
Brown, fresh from his actions in Kansas, moved east and planned more violence. Assembling a team from
across the West, including black radicals from Oberlin, Ohio, and throughout communities in Canada West,
Brown hatched a plan to attack Harper’s Ferry, a federal weapon’s arsenal in Virginia (now West Virginia). He
would use the weapons to lead a slave revolt. Brown approached Frederick Douglass, though Douglass refused
to join.
Brown’s raid embarked on October 16. By October 18, a command under Robert E. Lee had crushed the
revolt. (2) Five black men joined Brown’s cause, including a former slave from Virginia named Dangerfield
Newby who was the first man killed in the raid. Newby fought for the freedom of all slaves but particularly for
the freedom of his wife, Harriet, and their children who remained enslaved in Prince William County, Virginia
about fifty miles from Harper’s Ferry. Discovered in Newby’s pocket following the raid were letters Harriet had
written to him. In one from August 1859 she told her husband of the dread she felt at the possibility of her
master selling her soon and her fervent desire to be reunited with him soon. (1)
I want you to buy me as soon as possible for if you do not get me somebody else will… it is said Master is
in want of monney [sic] if so, I know not what time he may sell me an then all my bright hops [sic] of the
futer [sic] are blasted for there has ben [sic] one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles that is to be with
you for if I thought I shoul [sic] never see you this earth would have no charms for me… (qtd. in Williams
51) (1)
Nine other of Brown’s raiders were killed, including his own sons, were killed, but Brown himself lived and
was imprisoned. Brown prophesied while in prison that the nation’s crimes would only be purged with blood.
He went to the gallows in December 1859. Northerners made a stunning display of sympathy on the day of his
execution. Southerners took their reactions to mean that the coming 1860 election would be, in many ways, a
referendum on secession and disunion. (1)
Republicans wanted little to do with Brown and instead tried to portray themselves as moderates opposed to
both abolitionists and proslavery expansionists. In this climate, the parties opened their contest for the 1860
Presidential election. The Democratic Party fared poorly as its southern delegates bolted its national convention
at Charleston and ran their own candidate, Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. Hoping to field a
candidate who might nonetheless manage to bridge the broken party’s factions, the Democrats decided to meet
again at Baltimore, and nominated Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.
The Republicans, meanwhile, held their boisterous convention in Chicago. The Republican platform made the
party’s antislavery commitments clear, also making wide promises to its white constituents, particularly
westerners, with the promise of new land, transcontinental railroads, and broad support of public schools.
Abraham Lincoln, a candidate few outside of Illinois truly expected to win, nonetheless proved far less
polarizing than the other names on the ballot. Lincoln won the nomination, and with the Democrats in disarray,
Republicans knew their candidate Lincoln had a good chance of winning.
Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 contest on November 6, gaining just 40% of the popular vote and not a single
southern vote in the Electoral College. Within days, southern states were organizing secession conventions.
John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed a series of compromises, but a clear pro-southern bias meant they had
little chance of gaining Republican acceptance. Crittenden’s plan promised renewed enforcement of the
Fugitive Slave Law and offered a plan to keep slavery in the nation’s capital. Republicans by late 1860 knew
that the voters who had just placed them in power did not want them to cave on these points, and southern states
proceed with their plans to leave the Union. On December 20, South Carolina voted to secede, and issued its
“Declaration of the Immediate Causes.” The Declaration highlighted failure of the federal government to
enforce the Fugitive Slave Act over competing personal liberty laws in northern states. After the war many
southerners claimed that secession was primarily motivated by a concern to preserve states’ rights, but the
primary complaint of the very first ordinance of secession, listed the federal government’s failure to exert its
authority over the northern states.
The year 1861, then, saw the culmination of the secession crisis. Before he left for Washington, Lincoln told
those who had gathered in Springfield to wish him well and that he faced a “task greater than Washington’s” in
the years to come. Southerners were also learning the challenges of forming a new nation. The seceded states
grappled with internal divisions right away, as states with slaveholders sometimes did not support the newly
seceded states. In January, for example, Delaware rejected secession. But states in the lower south adopted a
different course. The State of Mississippi seceded. Later in the month, the states of Florida, Alabama, Georgia,
and Louisiana also all left the Union. By early February, Texas had also joined the newly seceded states. In
February, southerners drafted a constitution protecting slavery and named a westerner, Jefferson Davis of
Mississippi, as their President. When Abraham Lincoln acted upon his constitutio…

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