Monday, 7 November 2016

The coming of the Civil War (1)


The Fugitive Slave Act

Slave kidnap poster, Boston 1851
On 9 September 1850 California became the 31st state of the Union. On 18 September President Millard Filmore signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act. This provision of the Compromise of 1850 called for federal jurisdiction over runaway slaves and for their prompt return to their southern owners. The law also denied them a trial by jury or the right to testify on their own behalf. Any white man who attempted to help a slave escape its owner would be subjected to a heavy fine and/or six months’ imprisonment.  The federal commissioner who returned a slave to his owner was to receive $10 but only $5 dollars if he did not return the slave.  

In the North, particularly New England, the Fugitive Slave Act  was bitterly denounced.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century by people who could read and write', and he urged his neighbours to break the law. 

One aspect of this law-breaking was the Underground Railroad 
Harriet Tubman
whereby fugitive slaves were hidden and smuggled into Canada. The escaped slave Harriet Tubman was already actively engaged in rescuing slaves. However, in spite of protests, the law seemed to be working. In the first six years of the act only three fugitives were forcibly rescued from the slave-catchers.  On the other hand, fewer than two hundred slaves were captured and returned. 


Harriet Beecher Stowe
From June 1851 to April 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and the wife of a prominent biblical scholar, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form in the journal, National Era. It was published in book form on 20 March 1852 and became the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Initially, however,  it sold better in Britain than America.  The country was enjoying a surge of prosperity and the presidential campaign of 1852 showed that neither side wished to raise the issue of slavery.




The 1852 election

Another consequence of the 1850 Compromise was the break-up of the Whig party, with the Southern Whigs abandoning the party for the Democrats.   For the election of 1852 the Democrats chose Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire candidate, in preference to Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois. Pierce committed his party to adhere to the Compromise, and defeated his Whig rival, General Winfield Scott by 254 electoral votes to 42.  But the divisions over slavery were now so deep that his presidency was doomed to failure.


A new generation of politicians was emerging. William Henry Sewarda ferocious opponent of slavery, was the former governor of New York. He was re-elected as Senator for New York in 1855. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who became Pierce’s Secretary for War in 1853, was the spokesman of the South. The anti-slavery radical Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, was the most extreme voice of abolition in the Senate. 


The Kansas-Nebraska Act

American commercial interests were increasingly assertive in demanding a project that would bid the East and West together by furthering settlement along the trails to Oregon and California. This ambitious programme would involve granting public land to pioneer families, establishing a telegraph and a transcontinental railroad. Above all, it would mean organising politically the lands between the Missouri river and the Rockies, which bore the Indian name, Nebraska.  Settlers were pouring into this territory ever-increasing numbers, but until the area was organised as a territory they had no claim to the land. 

Congressmen from the South were reluctant to permit a Nebraska territory because the land lay north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30'. Senator Stephen A. Douglas thought he had a solution to this dilemma. In the winter of 1853-4 he presented a bill to CongressThis proposed the establishment of two new territories, Kansas, west of Missouri, and Nebraska, west of Iowa and Minnesota.  But in order to secure the support of the South, Douglas wrote the principle of popular sovereignty into the Bill: the voters in each territory were to decide themselves whether to allow slavery. He believed that this measure was purely symbolic as the new settlers would not be slave-owners. However, the bill meant the end of the Missouri Compromise, and abolitionists fought it relentlessly.   But they were outnumbered. The bill passed both Houses and on 30 May 1854 Pierce signed it into law


The Kansas-Nebraska territory (in orange)


Douglas believed that he had pulled off a clever political trick, but
Stephen A. Douglas - too
clever by half?
in fact he had made a massive blunder. His great mistake was to underestimate the depth of antislavery feeling in the North. It created the probably the most spontaneous outburst of public indignation since the Stamp Act disturbances of the previous century. Douglas declared that he was burned in effigy from Boston to Chicago and he doubted he would be able to hold his Senate seat.  The fiery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner described him as a 

‘human anomaly – A Northern man with Southern principles’. 
Many in the North argued that if the Missouri Compromise was not a sacred pledge, then neither was the Fugitive Slave Act. On 2 June Boston witnessed a dramatic demonstration against the Act as a fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, was despatched to a waiting ship.  At the same time a dangerous new opponent was emerging; Abraham Lincoln was provoked by the crisis to re-enter politics.


The emergence of the Republican Party

The strain of the Kansas-Nebraska Act marked the final destruction of the Whig Party.  Northern Whigs moved to two new parties. One was the Know-Nothings, an anti-immigrant (especially anti-Irish) party.  Another was to prove longer-lasting. 

In February 1854 a group of Whigs and Free-Soil Democrats met at a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin (see below), to discuss what action they would take if the Kansas-Nebraska Act should be passed. They resolved that if it became law, they would form a new party, called the Republican Party in honour of Jefferson. 



On 6 July 1854 at Jackson, Michigan, ten thousand anti-Nebraska citizens met and formed themselves into the Republican Party, the name partly chosen to pay homage to Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. Its guiding principle was opposition to any further expansion of slavery but it also became a Protestant, pro-business party and a formidable enemy for the Democrats of the South


‘Bleeding’ Kansas

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act Kansas became a rehearsal for the Civil War as groups from both North and Sough hurried to settle there. The first governor ordered a census and scheduled an election for a territorial legislature in 1855. The election took place in an atmosphere of violence as ‘Border Ruffians’ from Missouri crossed over illegally.  The Republican, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, coined the term ‘Bleeding Kansas’ to describe the disturbances. To countermand the pro-slavers around 1,200 Northerners emigrated to Kansas. The abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) armed many of them with Sharps rifles, which, it is alleged, became known as 'Beecher's Bibles' because of their shipment in wooden crates so labelled. Nevertheless the pro-slavers swept the polls, even though the pro-slavers were greatly outnumbered by the free-soilers. The new legislature expelled the few antislavery members, adopted a drastic slave code and made it a capital offence to aid a fugitive slave.  

In response free-state advocates held a constitutional convention in Topeka. They passed the Topeka Constitution in December and set up their own government in the territory. Kansas now had two governments.




In May 1856 a proslavery mob set fire to property in the free-state town of Lawrence. Two days later a fanatical Kansas Free Soiler, John Brown, set out with his four sins and three other men to the proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, where they dragged five men from their houses and hacked them to death in front of their families. This massacre set off further violence and by the end of 1856 200 people had been killed, and $2 million in property had been destroyed. 


The Pottawatomie Massacre

On 4 July 1856 the Topeka legislature was dispersed on the orders of President Pierce. 


The attack on Sumner

A Northern view of the attack
on Sumner
On 20 May 1856 Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered an extremely inflammatory speech on ‘The Crime against Kansas’. On 22 May the South Carolina Congressman, Preston S. Brooksbeat him about the head with a cane in front of the appalled Senators, until Brooks' cane broke and Sumner was unconscious.  ‘Bully Brooks’ became a hero to the South. He resigned his seat and was triumphantly re-elected and his southern admirers presented him with new canes. But to the North Sumner was a martyr. Ralph Waldo Emerson wondered 
‘how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. We must either get rid of slavery or get rid of freedom’. 


The election of 1856


The bitterness can be seen in the election of 1856. Stephen Douglas, who was blamed for the turmoil following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, failed to get his party’s nomination. Instead, the Democrats chose James Buchanan, who only got the nomination because he came from  Pennsylvania.  The Republican candidate, the military hero, John C. Frémont, carried the northern states, but Buchanan took the South and five free states.  In his inauguration address on 4 March 1857 he said: ‘The great object of my administration will be to arrest …the agitation of the slavery question’ in the North ‘and to destroy the sectional parties’. 


Buchanan's inauguration - the first
to be photographed








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