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IN THE YEARS FOLLOWING 1850 THE PROSPECTS OF THE UNITED States filled America with hope and Europe with envious admiration. The continent had been conquered and nourished. Exports, imports, and, most of all, internal trade, had been more than doubled in a decade. The American mercantile marine outnumbered the ships under the British flag. Nearly £50,000,000 in gold was added to the coinage in the years 1851 and 1852. More than thirty thousand miles of railway overcame the vast distances, and added economic cohesion to political unity. Here democracy, shielded by the oceans and the Royal Navy from European dangers, founded upon English institutions and the Common Law, stimulated by the impulse of the French Revolution, seemed at last to have achieved both prosperity and power. The abounding industrialism of the Eastern states was balanced and fed by an immense agriculture of yeomen farmers. In all material affairs the American people surpassed anything that history had known before.

Yet thoughtful men and travellers had for some years observed the approach of a convulsion which would grip not only the body but the soul of the United States. Of the three races who dwelt in North America, the Whites towered overwhelming and supreme. The Red Men, the original inhabitants, age-long product of the soil and climate, shrank back, pushed, exploited, but always disdainful, from the arms, and still more from the civilisation, of the transplanted European society by which they were ousted and eclipsed. The Black Men presented a problem, moral, social, economic, and political, the like of which had never before been known. It was said that both these races were downtrodden by White ascendancy as truly as animals are mastered, used, or exterminated by mankind. The proud Redskin was set upon his road to ruin by an excessive liberty. Almost all the four million Negroes were slaves.

In regions so wide and varied as those of the Union extreme divergences of interest, outlook, and culture had developed. South of the fortieth parallel and the projecting angle formed by the Mississippi and the Ohio the institution of Negro slavery had long reigned almost unquestioned. Upon this basis the whole life of the Southern states had been erected. It was a strange, fierce, old-fashioned life. An aristocracy of planters, living in rural magnificence and almost feudal state, and a multitude of smallholders, grew cotton for the world by slave-labour. Of the six million white inhabitants of the so-called “slave states” less than three hundred and fifty thousand owned slaves, and only forty thousand controlled plantations requiring a working unit of more than twenty field hands. But the three or four thousand principal slave-owners generally ruled the politics of the South as effectively as the medieval baronage had ruled England. Beneath them, but not dissociated from them, were, first, several hundred thousand small slave-owners, to whom “the peculiar institution,” as it had already come to be called, was a domestic convenience; second, a strong class of yeomen farmers similar to that existing in the North; and, thirdly, a rabble of “mean whites” capable of being formed into an army.

There was a grace and ease about the life of the white men in the South that was lacking in the bustling North. It was certainly not their fault that these unnatural conditions had arisen. For two centuries the slave trade in African Negroes with the New World had been a staple enterprise in Spain, in France, and above all in England. Vast numbers of black men, caught upon the west coast of Africa, had been transported like cattle across the Atlantic to be the property of their purchasers. They had toiled and multiplied. The bulk had become adapted to their state of life, which, though odious to Christian civilisation, was physically less harsh than African barbarism. The average Negro slave, like the medieval serf, was protected by his market value, actual and pro-creative, as well as by the rising standards of society, from the more senseless and brutal forms of ill-usage.

The planters of the South, and the slaves they owned, had both grown up in wide, unkempt lands without ever having known any other relationship. Now, suddenly, in the midst of the nineteenth century, dire challenge was hurled at the whole system and the society in which it was engrained. A considerable, strongly characterised, and slowly matured community found itself subjected to the baleful and scandalised glare of the Christian world, itself in vigorous and self-confident progress. They had long dwelt comfortably upon the fertile slopes of a volcano. Now began the rumblings, tremors, and exhalations which portended a frightful eruption.

It is almost impossible for us nowadays to understand how profoundly and inextricably Negro slavery was interwoven into the whole life, economy, and culture of the Southern states. The tentacles of slavery spread widely through the Northern “free” states, along every channel of business dealing and many paths of political influence. One assertion alone reveals the powerlessness of the community to shake itself free from the frightful disease which had become part of its being. It was said that over six hundred and sixty thousand slaves were held by ministers of the Gospel and members of the different Protestant Churches. Five thousand Methodist ministers owned two hundred and nineteen thousand slaves; six thousand five hundred Baptists owned a hundred and twenty-five thousand; one thousand four hundred Episcopalians held eighty-eight thousand; and so on. Thus the institution of slavery was not only defended by every argument of self-interest, but many a Southern pulpit championed it as a system ordained by the Creator and sanctified by the Gospel of Christ.

It had not always been so. During the Revolution against King George III many Southerners had expressed the hope that slavery would eventually be abolished. But as time passed “the peculiar institution” became, in the words of Morison and Commager, “so necessary that it ceased to appear evil.”1 By the 1830’s Southerners were ready to defend slavery as a positive good and a permanent basis for society. This was a striking change of opinion for which there were several reasons. The rapid growth of cotton cultivation called for a large labour force which according to Southerners could only be provided by Negroes in a state of slavery. Moreover, widespread fears had been aroused in the South by a number of slave insurrections in which some whites had been massacred. If the Negro were freed, it was asked, would a white man’s life be safe? Or, to press the question more closely home, a white woman’s honour? In earlier times hopeful philanthropists had thought to solve the problem by shipping the Negroes back to Africa and setting them up in their own republic. The state of Liberia had thus come into existence. But attempts to carry this plan further were abandoned. It was too expensive. Besides, the Negroes preferred America. For Southerners there was an alarming example near at hand of what happened when slaves were freed. In the British West Indies, as elsewhere in the British Empire, slavery had been abolished by the Act passed in 1833. This was one of the great reforms achieved by the Whig Government of Earl Grey. The planters of the West Indies, who led a life much like that of Southern gentlemen, were paid compensation for the loss of their human property. Nevertheless their fortunes promptly and visibly declined. All this could be perceived by men of reflection on the neighbouring American mainland.

Meanwhile the North, once largely indifferent to the fate of slaves, had been converted by the 1850’s to the cause of anti-slavery. For twenty years William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, had been carrying on from Boston a campaign of the utmost virulence against the institution of slavery. This public print was not very widely read, but its language enraged the South. At the same time the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York and other humanitarian bodies were issuing vigorous tracts and periodicals. They employed scores of agents to preach Abolition up and down the land. The result was a hardening of sentiment on both sides of the question. It was hardened still further in 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her work was frankly propagandist; she used every weapon. In its pages the theoretical and religious arguments are bandied to and fro, but there was one method in which she excelled all other assailants of the evil. She presented to her readers a succession of simple, poignant incidents inseparable from a system of slavery: the breaking up of the Negro’s home and family, the parting of husband and wife, the sale of the baby from the breast of its mother; the indiscriminate auction of the slaves on the death of a good employer; the impotence of the virtuous slave-owner, the cruelties of the bad; the callous traffic of the slave-dealers, and the horrors of the remote plantations, the whipping establishments to which fine ladies sent their maids for chastisement for minor faults; the aggravated problem of the quadroon and the mulatto; the almost-white slave girl sold and resold for lust; the bringing into the world of slave children indistinguishable in their colour from the dominant race—all these features of the life of a civilised, educated, modern Christian community, occupying enormous fertile regions of the earth, were introduced with every trapping of art and appeal into her pages.

Such advocacy was devastating. By the end of the year hundreds of thousands of copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been sold in the United States. In September, it is said, ten thousand copies of it were being supplied every day to a single firm of English booksellers. By the end of 1852 more than a million copies had been sold in England, probably ten times as many as had ever been sold of any other work except the Bible and the Prayer Book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin rolled round the world in every language and was read with passion and emotion in every country. It was the herald of the storm.


The moral surge of the age had first suppressed, by naval power, the slave trade on the seas, and thereafter—the young Mr Gladstone notwithstanding—abolished the status of slavery throughout the British Empire. The same temper stirred alike the New England states of the Atlantic shore and the powerful, swiftly growing population of the Middle West of the American Union. A gulf of sentiment and interest opened and widened between the Northern and Southern states. Across this gulf there flashed for some years the interchanges of thought, of argument and parley. In the North many of the leaders, religious and secular, felt intensely that the whole future of the noble continent they had won lay under a curse. If it could not at once be lifted, at least it must be prevented from spreading. Nor was this passion in any degree excited, in its earliest phase, by commercial rivalry. There was no doubt that slave labour could not hold its own with free labour in tilling the soil where the climatic conditions were similar. The contrast between the activity and progress of a free state on the Ohio and the stagnation of a slave state on the opposite bank was glaringly apparent to all beholders. It was the contrast between the nineteenth century and the seventeenth. The Northern states were not undersold by the competition of the South. They also needed the cotton crop in which alone slave labour was an economic advantage. The issue was not economic, but moral. It was also social. The slave-owning aristocracy in much of the South felt a class-superiority to the business, manufacturing, and financial society of the North. The Puritan stock of the North regarded the elegant gentry of the South with something of the wrath and censure of Cromwell’s Ironsides for Rupert’s Cavaliers. Indeed, at many points the grim struggle which impended resembled and reproduced in its passions the antagonisms of the English Civil War.

But the actual occasion of quarrel was political and constitutional. The North held tenaciously to the Federal conceptions of Alexander Hamilton. In the South Jefferson’s idea of sovereign state rights was paramount. Many of the Southern Generals, like Joseph E. Johnston, Ambrose P. Hill, and FitzHugh Lee, had never owned a slave. A Virginian colonel of the United States Army serving in Texas, Robert E. Lee, wrote that slavery was “a moral and political evil in any country,” as few in an enlightened age could but acknowledge. But upon the constitutional issue all these men of the highest morale and virtue deemed themselves bound to the death to the fortunes and sovereign independence of their states. The North, it was said, was enriching itself at the expense of the South. The Yankees were jealous of a style and distinction to which vulgar commercialism could never attain. They had no right to use the Federal Constitution which the great Virginians Washington and Madison had largely founded, in order to bind the most famous states of the Union to their dictates. They did not understand the totally different conditions of Southern life. They maligned and insulted a civilisation more elevated in manners, if not in worldly wealth, than their own. They sought to impose the tyranny of their ideas upon states which had freely joined the Union for common purposes, and might as freely depart when those purposes had been fulfilled.

The old Missouri compromise of 1820, namely, that latitude 36° 30ʹ should divide freedom from slavery in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase, no longer satisfied the passions now aroused. By the Mexican War extensive new territories had been acquired; what principle should be applied to them? The Southerners, still dominated by that great figure of the 1812 generation, John C. Calhoun, held that the territories belonged to the states united, not to the United States, that slaves were Common Law property, and that Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in the Territories. The demand of California for admission to the Union precipitated the crisis. Many moderates had wanted to prolong the line of the Missouri compromise across the continent to the Pacific. But in California it did not meet the case. It would have run right through the middle of the state. Besides, the constitution of California prohibited slavery, and its introduction would set a precedent in those states which were to be created out of the conquests from Mexico. In January 1850 the gathering storm-clouds of slavery and secession evoked in the Senate the last of the great oratorical debates in which Calhoun, Clay, and Webster vied with one another. Henry Clay produced his last compromise in resolutions to postpone collision. California should be admitted to the Union immediately as a “free” state; the territorial Governments in New Mexico and Utah should be organised without mentioning slavery; a stringent Fugitive Slave Law would appease the South, and the assumption of the Texas National Debt by the Federal Government the bondholders of the North. By these mutual concessions Clay hoped to preserve the political unity of the continent. On this last occasion he rose and spoke for nearly two days in the Senate. Calhoun was dying, and sat grimly silent in the Senate. One of his colleagues spoke his plea for him. “I have, Senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion. . . . The cords that bind the states together are snapping.” Beneath the slavery problem lay the root fear of the Southern states that economically and politically they were being oppressed by the North and losing in the race for allies in the Western states.

Daniel Webster rose three days later: “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.” The voices of Webster and Clay prevailed and the compromise was adopted. Passions were for the moment stilled by what was called the “principle of popular sovereignty.” This meant that when the new Territories became states the settlers should decide for themselves for or against slavery. Calhoun was already dead, and within two years Clay and Webster passed from the scene. They left behind them an uneasy calm. Meanwhile the continent developed at dizzy speed. By 1850 nine thousand miles of railway had been built; by 1861 over thirty thousand. German and Irish immigrants from Europe streamed into the new lands of the West. Agricultural machinery changed the settler type. The prairie farmer replaced the backwoodsman, and the cultivation of the Great Plains began in earnest.


A fresh cause of divergence sprang from the choice of the transcontinental railway route. The rival interests of North and South were decisively involved, and in the political dispute the North and West drew together. The southern route was the shortest to the Pacific coast, and passed through organised territories from New Orleans to Texas and thence by the Gila valley to San Diego. The northern followed the natural trail of emigration which bound California and Oregon to the states bordering the Great Lakes. In between lay a third route through regions as yet unorganised, but in which Northern capital was invested. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who ardently wished to promote the settlement of the West and was heavily committed to the central line, became the champion of Northern interests. In order to organise this central zone he proposed in January 1854 a Bill establishing the territory of Nebraska. As a bait for Southern votes he included a clause embodying the conception of “popular sovereignty.” This changed the issue and aggravated the dispute. People in the North had taken the compromise of 1850 to apply only to the former Mexican territories. Now it was proposed to introduce it into regions where hitherto the line of the Missouri compromise had prevailed. As these areas of the Great Plains were north of latitude 36° 30ʹ the new Bill implicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise Act. The Southerners wished this to be done explicitly, and Douglas agreed. This might carry slavery north of the line.

The anti-slavery forces in the North, already furious with Douglas, were determined to resist the introduction of slavery into the new territories. In May the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the Senate. The new territories of the Great Plains were to be divided into Kansas and Nebraska, and the principle of “popular sovereignty” was affirmed. This Act was a signal for outbursts of agitation and violence in the Northern states. Under the Fugitive Slave Law Federal agents had already been instructed to arrest and send back to their masters slaves who had escaped into the free states. There had been innumerable minor incidents, but now, on the morrow of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the patience of the North was at an end. The day after it came into force a Boston mob attempted to rescue a fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, who was detained for deportation to the South. It took a battalion of artillery, four platoons of marines, the sheriff’s posse, and twenty-two companies of the militia to line the streets and bring the slave to the ship at Boston wharf. “It cost the United States about a hundred thousand dollars to return the slave to his master. The real bill came later, and it was paid in blood.”2

In the new territory of Kansas there was murderous faction fighting between the free-soil and pro-slavery partisans. Slavery-men sacked the free-soil town of Lawrence, and three days later John Brown, a Puritanical mystic and militant Abolitionist from Ohio, with his four sons, dragged five slavery-men from their beds and slaughtered them as a reprisal. Over two hundred lives were lost in this local reign of terror, but John Brown escaped. At every point, in every walk of life, the opposing causes came into conflict. A Senator from Massachusetts was beaten over the head with a cane in the Senate by a South Carolina Representative till he was unconscious. All the anti-slavery elements in the North and West had coalesced after the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a new Republican Party upon the platform of anti-slavery. Feeling ran high in the Presidential elections of 1856. But Democratic influences nominated “a Northern man with Southern principles,” James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and for the last time Southern influences had their voice at Washington.

Two days after the inauguration of the new President the Supreme Court published its decision upon the famous case of the slave Dred Scott versus his master, Sanford. Scott had been taken by his master from slave-owning Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to Wisconsin Territory. He sued for his freedom on the grounds that residence in those two places had made him a free man. The questions before the Court were two. Was Scott a citizen of Missouri, which he needed to be to have the right to bring an action? And had his residence elsewhere changed his established status? The Court decided against him on both points. Chief Justice Taney delivered a judgment which, while it expressed the law as it existed under the Constitution, provoked a storm throughout the North. “The negro,” declared Taney, “was not a citizen in the eyes of the Constitution, which was ‘made for white men only.’” He could not sue in any court of the United States. The Negroes were regarded as “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The slave was the property of his owner, and the National Government was nowhere given power over the property of the inhabitants of the United States. It had no right to prohibit slavery in the Territories, and the old Missouri compromise, on which Scott had in part relied for his freedom, was constitutionally wrong. Thus the Supreme Court. It is fair to add that Taney remarked it was not within the province of the Court to decide whether the Founding Fathers had been right to regard the Negro in this way. And in fact Dred Scott was immediately freed after the verdict. His had been a case purposefully designed to test the law and inflame opinion. This it certainly did. The Republican Party, which had been launched to prevent slavery spreading into the Territories, saw its whole programme declared unconstitutional. “The people of the United States,” cried William H. Seward, a Republican leader, “never can and never will accept principles so abhorrent.”

The savage struggle between free-soil and slavery in the Great Plains brought from the backwoods into national politics a new figure. Abraham Lincoln, a small-town lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, was stirred to the depths of his being by the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He had already served a term in Congress; now he stood for the Senate. He espoused the duty of opposing by the moral force of his personality the principle of slavery. “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.” In a series of public debates and speeches Lincoln fought Douglas throughout the prairie towns of Illinois in the summer and autumn of 1858, and although he was beaten for the Senatorship he had already become a national figure. He had made slavery a moral and not a legal issue, and he had propounded the disruptive idea of overriding the Supreme Court decision and of outlawing slavery in the new territories. He felt instinctively the weakness and impermanence of this new concession to the susceptibilities of the South. He realised that as the agitation for abolition grew, so the Southerners would demand further guarantees to protect their own peculiar slave society. President Buchanan and the Democratic circle around the White House talked of conquering Cuba and Nicaragua in the hope of adding new slave-owning territories to the Union. Southern business men urged reopening the slave trade owing to the high price of slaves, while all the time the North, in a series of disturbing incidents, defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

It needed but a spark to cause an explosion. In October 1859 the fanatic John Brown, with his sons and a dozen followers, seized the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, on the slavery frontier, declared war upon the United States, and liberated a number of bewildered slaves. He was attacked by the Federal marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee, and after some loss of life was captured, severely wounded. He was tried and hanged with four of his adherents. The South, declaring the outrage the work of the Republican Party, was convulsed with excitement. In the North millions regarded John Brown as a martyr. His body lay mouldering in the grave, but his soul went marching on.

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