Modern history

Expansion and the Politics of slavery

The place of African Americans and of slavery in the West aroused intense political debates as territories in the region began to seek statehood. Debates over the eradication of slavery and limits on its expansion had shaped the highly contested presidential election of 1848 (see chapters 10 and 11). After the Mexican-American War, the battle between proponents and opponents of slavery intensified and focused more specifically on its westward expansion. Each time a territory achieved the requirements for statehood, a new crisis erupted. To resolve these crises required strong presidential and congressional leadership, judicial moderation, and a spirit of compromise among the people as well as their representatives. None of these conditions prevailed. Instead, passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 aroused deeper hostilities, and President Franklin Pierce (1853—1857) encouraged further expansion but failed to address the crises that ensued.

California and the compromise of 1850

In the winter of 1849, just before Zachary Taylor’s March inauguration, California applied for admission to the Union as a free state. Some California political leaders opposed slavery on principle. Others wanted to “save” the state for whites by outlawing slavery, discouraging free blacks from migrating to the state, and restricting the rights of American Indian, Mexican, and Chinese residents. Yet the internal debates among Californians were not uppermost in the minds of those in Congress. Southerners were concerned about the impact of California’s free-state status on the sectional balance in Congress, while northern Whigs were shocked when President Taylor suggested that slavery should be allowed anywhere in the West.

Other debates percolated in Congress at the same time. Many Northerners were horrified by the spectacle of slavery and slave trading in the nation’s capital and argued that it damaged America’s international reputation. Southerners, meanwhile, complained that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was being widely ignored in the North, as abolitionists aided runaways seeking freedom. A boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico irritated western legislators, and Texas continued to claim that debts it accrued while an independent republic and during the Mexican-American War should be assumed by the federal government.

Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Whig leader who had hammered out the Missouri Compromise in 1819—1820, again tried to resolve the many conflicts that stalled congressional action. He offered a compromise by which California would be admitted as a free state; the remaining land acquired from Mexico would be divided into two territories—New Mexico and Utah—and slavery there would be decided by popular sovereignty; the border dispute between New Mexico and Texas would be decided in favor of New Mexico, but the federal government would assume Texas’s war debts; the slave trade (but not slavery) would be abolished in the District of Columbia; and a new and more effective fugitive slave law would be approved. Although Clay’s compromise offered something to everyone, his colleagues did not immediately embrace it.

By March 1850, after months of debate, the sides remained sharply divided, with senators on both sides of the issue opposing the measure. John C. Calhoun, a proslavery senator from South Carolina, refused to support any compromise that allowed Congress to decide the fate of slavery in the western territories. Meanwhile William H. Seward, an antislavery Whig senator from New York, proclaimed that in all good conscience he could not support a compromise that forced Northerners to help hunt down fugitives from slavery. Daniel Webster, a Massachusetts Whig and an elder statesman, appealed to his fellow senators to support the compromise in order to preserve the Union, but Congress adjourned with the fate of California undecided.

Before the Senate reconvened in the fall of 1850, however, the political landscape changed in unexpected ways. Henry Clay retired in the spring of 1850, leaving the Capitol with his last great legislative effort unfinished. On March 31, Calhoun died; his absence from the Senate made compromise more likely. In July, President Taylor died unexpectedly, and his vice president, Millard Fillmore of Buffalo, New York, was elevated to the presidency. Fillmore then appointed Webster as secretary of state, removing him from the Senate as well.

In September 1850, with President Fillmore’s support, a younger cohort of senators and representatives steered the Compromise of 1850 through Congress, one clause at a time, thereby allowing legislators to support only those parts of the compromise they found palatable. In the end, all the provisions passed, and Fillmore quickly signed the bills into law. California entered the Union as a free state, and John C. Fremont entered Congress as one of that state’s first two senators. The Compromise of 1850, like the Missouri Compromise thirty years earlier, fended off a sectional crisis, but it also signaled future problems. Would popular sovereignty prevail when later territories sought admission to the Union, and would Northerners abide by a fugitive slave law that called on them to aid directly in the capture of runaway slaves?

Rescue of Fugitive Slaves This 1872 illustration portrays the dramatic rescue of the North Carolina slave Jane Johnson and her two children aboard a Philadelphia ferry in 1855 as they accompanied their owner on a trip through the free state of Pennsylvania. They were liberated by members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, led by the black abolitionist William Still, who boarded the boat and removed them to safety. photo Researchers, Inc.

The Fugitive Slave Act inspires Northern Protest

The fugitive slave laws of 1793 and 1824 mandated that all states aid in apprehending and returning runaway slaves to their owners. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was different in two important respects. First, it eliminated jury trials for alleged fugitives. Second, the law required individual citizens, not just state officials, to help return runaways or else risk being fined or imprisoned. The act angered many Northerners who believed that the federal government had gone too far in protecting the rights of slaveholders and thereby aroused sympathy for the abolitionist cause.

Before 1850, the most well-known individuals aiding fugitives were free blacks such as David Ruggles in New York City; Jermaine Loguen in Syracuse, New York; and, after his own successful escape, Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. Their main allies in this work were white Quakers such as Amy and Isaac Post in Rochester; Thomas Garrett in Chester County, Pennsylvania; and Levi and Catherine Coffin in Newport, Indiana. The work was dangerous. Charles Turner Torrey, a white Congregationalist minister, may have aided as many as four hundred fugitives, but he was eventually caught and imprisoned. He died of tuberculosis in a Baltimore jail in 1846.

Following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the number of slave owners and hired slave catchers pursuing fugitives increased dramatically. But so, too, did the number of northern abolitionists helping blacks escape. Enslaved women and men followed various paths northward from rural plantations and southern cities. Once they crossed into free territory, most fugitives contacted free blacks or individuals known to be sympathetic to their cause. They then began the often slow progress along the underground railroad, from house to house or barn to barn, until they found safe haven. A small number of fortunate slaves were led north by fugitives like Harriet Tubman, who returned south repeatedly to free dozens of family members and other enslaved men and women. Fugitives followed disparate paths through the Midwest, Pennsylvania, New York, and New England, and there was little coordination among the “conductors” from one region or state to another. But the underground railroad was nonetheless an important resource for fugitives, some of whom sought refuge in Canada while others hoped to blend into free black communities in the United States.

Free blacks were endangered by the claim that slaves hid themselves in their midst. In Chester County, Pennsylvania, on the Maryland border, newspapers reported on at least a dozen free blacks who were kidnapped or arrested as runaways in the first three months of1851. One provision of the Fugitive Slave Act encouraged such arrests: Commissioners were paid $10 for each slave sent back but only $5 if a slave was not returned. Without the right to a trial, a free black could easily be sent south as a fugitive. It was this fear that prompted hundreds of African Americans, both free and enslaved, to flee to Canada.

At the same time, a growing number of Northerners challenged the federal government’s right to enforce the law. Blacks and whites organized protest meetings throughout the free states. At a meeting in Boston in 1851, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the law: “We execrate it, we spit upon it, we trample it under our feet.” Abolitionists also joined forces to rescue fugitives who had been arrested. In Syracuse, New York, in October 1851, Jermaine Loguen, Samuel Ward, and the Reverend Samuel J. May led a well-organized crowd as it broke into a Syracuse courthouse to rescue a fugitive slave known as Jerry. They successfully hid him from authorities and then spirited him to Canada. As such incidents increased across the North, Daniel Webster bemoaned the lack of respect for federal law, and President Fillmore lamented the rise of “mob rule.” But northern abolitionists gained growing sympathy from their neighbors and became bolder in denouncing both the Fugitive Slave Act and “the bloodhound kidnappers” who sought to enforce it.

Meanwhile members of Congress continued to debate the law’s effects. Senator Fremont was among the legislators who helped defeat a bill that would have imposed harsher penalties on those who assisted runaways. And Congress felt growing pressure to calm the situation, including from foreign officials who were horrified by the violence required to sustain slavery in the United States. Abolitionist speakers like Frederick Douglass, who spent six months denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act across Canada, Ireland, and England, intensified foreign concern over the law. Great Britain and France had already abolished slavery in their West Indian colonies and found it hard to support what they saw as extreme policies to keep the institution alive in the United States. Yet neither southern slaveholders nor northern abolitionists were willing to compromise any further.

Pierce Encourages U.S. Expansion

In the presidential election of 1852, the Whigs and the Democrats tried once again to appeal to voters across the North-South divide by running candidates who either skirted the critical issues of the day or held ambiguous views. The Democrats, who had great difficulty choosing a candidate, finally nominated Franklin Pierce. A successful New Hampshire lawyer who opposed abolition, Pierce had served in Congress from 1833 to 1842 and in the U.S. army during the Mexican-American War. The Whigs rejected Vice President Millard Fillmore, who had angered many in the party by supporting popular sovereignty and vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Whig Party turned instead to another military leader, General Winfield Scott of Virginia, to head the ticket. General Scott had served with distinction in the war against Mexico, but he had not expressed any proslavery views. The Whigs thus hoped to gain southern support while maintaining their northern base. The Free-Soil Party, too, hoped to expand its appeal, given northern hostility to the Fugitive Slave Act. But Free-Soilers were unable to take advantage of the moment, nominating John P. Hale, a relatively unknown former Democratic senator from New Hampshire.

Franklin Pierce’s eventual victory left the Whigs and the Free-Soilers in disarray. A third of southern Whigs threw their support to the Democrats, seeking a truly proslavery party. Many Democrats who had supported Free-Soilers in 1848, like Martin Van Buren, were driven to vote for Pierce by their enthusiasm over the admission of California as a free state. But despite the Democratic triumph, that party also remained fragile. The nation now faced some of its gravest challenges under a president with limited political experience and no firm base of support. His cabinet included men of widely differing views, part of an effort to appease the various factions of the Democratic Party. But when confronted with difficult decisions, Pierce often received contradictory advice and generally pursued his own expansionist vision.

Early in his administration, Pierce focused on expanding U.S. trade and extending the “civilizing” power of U.S. institutions to other parts of the world. Inspired by the promise of new markets, Pierce and his supporters sought to shift Americans’ attention outward. Trade with China had declined in the 1840s, but the United States had begun commercial negotiations with Japan in 1846. These came to fruition in 1854, when U.S. emissary Commodore Matthew C. Perry obtained the first formal treaty with Japan that allowed for mutual trading. Within four years, Pierce and his agent, international trader Townsend Harris, succeeded in expanding commercial ties and enhancing diplomatic relations with Japan, in large part by ensuring U.S. support for the island nation against its traditional enemies in China, Russia, and Europe.

Although the president rejected Commodore Perry’s offer to take military possession of Formosa and other territories near Japan, Pierce was willing to consider conquests in the Caribbean and Central America. For decades, U.S. politicians, particularly Southerners, had looked to gain control of Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua. A “Young America” movement within the Democratic Party imagined manifest destiny reaching southward as well as westward. In hopes of stirring up rebellious Cubans against Spanish rule, some Democrats joined with private adventurers to send three expeditions, known as filibusters, to invade Cuba under the leadership of Cuban exile General Narciso Lopez. In 1854 the capture of one of the filibustering ships led to an international incident. Spanish officials confiscated the ship, while Democrats eager to add Cuba to the United States urged Pierce to seek an apology and redress from Spain. But many northern Democrats rejected any effort to obtain another slave state, and Pierce was forced to withdraw even tacit federal approval for the filibusters.

Other politicians still pressured Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. These included Pierce’s secretary of state, William Marcy, and the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, James Buchanan, as well as the ministers to France and Spain. In October 1854, these ministers met in Ostend, Belgium, and sent a letter to Pierce: “If we possess the power, [the United States is justified] by every law, human and Divine” in taking Cuba by force. When this Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the press, Northerners were outraged. They viewed the whole episode as “a dirty plot” to gain more slave territory and forced Pierce to give up any plans to obtain Cuba. In 1855 a private adventurer named William Walker, who had organized four filibusters to Nicaragua, invaded that country and set himself up as ruler. He then invited southern planters to take up vast lands he had confiscated from local farmers and to reintroduce slavery in Nicaragua. Pierce and many Democrats endorsed his plan, but neighboring Hondurans forced Walker from power in 1857 and executed him by firing squad three years later. Although Pierce’s expansionist dreams failed, his efforts heightened sectional tensions.


• What steps did legislators take in the 1840s and early 1850s to resolve the issue of the expansion of slavery?

• How were slavery and American imperialist ambitions intertwined in the 1840s and 1850s?

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