The Beginning of the End of Slavery

The issue of slavery overshadowed virtually every part of American life. The Methodist and Baptist churches split into North–South factions because of it. Families with branches in the North and South stopped speaking to each other. It even strained business relations in a country where hardly anything got in the way of making a dollar.

And it was showing no signs of going away by itself. Despite a federal ban on importing slaves, the slave population grew from 3.2 million in 1850 to almost 4 million in 1860, almost all of it through childbirths. Adult slaves who could put in a full day’s work had become so expensive that some Southerners began calling for ending the ban on new slaves from Africa.

Factoring a slave’s life

Actually, about 75 percent of Southern families didn’t even own any slaves. But even nonslave owners defended slavery. Slaves, they said, received the benefits of being exposed to the Christian religion, of having cradle-to-grave shelter and food, and of being a contributing part of Southern society.

That was more, they said, than many Northern factory workers could say. (Of course, that ignored the fact that even the most miserable factory worker could still make his own choices as to where he worked, didn’t have to submit to beatings from his employer, and wasn’t likely to see his wife and children taken from him and sold off to some other state.)

Proslavery forces also pointed out that slaves were actually well treated if they behaved. “Negroes are too high [priced] in proportion to the price of cotton,” explained a slave owner in 1849, “and it behooves those who own them to make them last as long as possible.” And, slavery’s defenders said, what would the nation do with them if all the slaves were freed?

That was a question that stopped many Northerners who did oppose slavery but did not agree with the abolitionists’ demand for an immediate end to it. In 1854, Abraham Lincoln, who was then in private practice as a lawyer, admitted,

“If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing situation.”

But Lincoln and others balked at the idea of slavery being allowed to spread, and that’s what the fighting was about.

Battling in Kansas

The South wanted a railroad, Kansas and Nebraska wanted to be states, and the combination of wants caused even more troubles. Spurred by the California gold rush and westward expansion, Congress was getting ready to decide on a route for a transcontinental railroad.

The route that made the most sense, and the route the South wanted, started in New Orleans and moved across Texas before ending up in San Diego. It was the shortest route and went most of the way through already organized states or territories. But Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was pressing hard for a central route, starting in Chicago.

Douglas owned a lot of real estate in the area and stood to make a sizeable chunk of cash if the trains ran through his property. Trouble was his route went through land that had been given to the Native Americans.

So Douglas pushed a bill through Congress that organized the area into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. To win Southern support, his bill also repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prevented slavery in the new territories. Instead, it said people in Kansas and Nebraska should decide for themselves, a process he called popular sovereignty.

The North seethed with anger. Douglas was burned in effigy all around the North and ripped in the press. Nebraska proved to be too far north for crops that would attract much proslavery interest. But Kansas became a warm-up for the Civil War. Antislavery forces clashed with proslavery forces, and both sides were guilty of terrorism and guerilla warfare.

One of the effects of Douglas’s bill was to kill the Whig Party, whose leaders were wishy-washy on the subject. In its place came the Republican Party, which was strongly against the spread of slavery.

In 1856, the Republicans ran John C. Fremont, a famous explorer and soldier, against the Democrats’ James Buchanan, a former Pennsylvania congressman and secretary of state, who had Southern sympathies. Buchanan, a heavy man with tiny feet and almost no backbone, won. He proved to be worthless as president.

Making a “dredful” decision

Dred Scott was a slave who was temporarily taken by his master to Illinois, which was a free state. When they returned to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom, claiming that his time in Illinois, on free soil, made him an ex-slave.

But the seven Southern members of the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, found against Scott in 1857.

The court decided that as an African American, Scott wasn’t a U.S. citizen and, thus, had no right to sue; that as a Missouri resident, Illinois laws didn’t apply to him; and that as a slave, he was property, just like a mule, and the government had no right to deprive his master of property without a good reason.

The decision absolutely infuriated people in the North. The court’s contention that Scott had no more rights than a mule caused many moderate Northerners to take a harder look at the true injustice of slavery.

The decision, along with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, also added greatly to business on the Underground Railroad, the name given to a network of abolitionists in the North and South who worked together to get escaped slaves to freedom, often in Canada. It’s estimated that the system, which involved “conductors” and “stations,” or hiding places, helped from 50,000 to 100,000 people with their escape.

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