Slavery: The American Debate

Figure 1.--Slavery was an issue at the Constitutionl Convention, but was unresolvable because the southern states would not accept emancipation. Northners rather than destoying the nation at its birth, decided not to push the issue, although they did succeed in gaining provisions designed to weaken slavery. Many delegates and not just in the North believed that slavery would gradually disappear because it was uneconomic. Unfortunately Eli Witney invnted the cotton gin only a few years after the Constitution was ratified. And this transformed cotton and slavery into a hugely profitable agricultural system. Slavery was not only not going to die out, it would bcome the most profitable economic activity in the early Republic and slaves th mot valuable assett.

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as three-fifths (3/5s) of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.

American Slavery

The European countries which conquered native American civilizations in the 16th century enslaved millions in Brazil and South America to work in mines and the tremendously profitable sugar plantations. The conditions were so brutal and European disesases so virlulent that native American populations were descimated. The Spanish and Portuguese turned to Africans. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans.

Colonial America

Revolutionary War (1776-83)

After the Revolutionary war began, British Torries began asking why it was that the largest slave owners in the colonies cried the the loudest for liberty. Some colonists including Jefferson tried with little success to blane Britain for slavery. Historians in recent years have begun to address the important role blacks played in the Civil War. Still not adequately described is the roles blacks played in the Revolutionary War. Blacks fought on both sides. Washington at first was horrified with the idea of arming blacks, but changed his mind. The British tried to attract blacks to their cause. And many slaves joined the British. This probably backfired as many whites were furious with the idea. This was one of the reasons that the British when they persued their southern strategy failed to encounter the support they had anticipated. Many slaves gained their freedom as a result of their military servive on both sides.

Constitutional Convention (1787)

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decision on the future of slavery wold be deferred by essentially leaving it to the states. This was a sollution the southern states could accept. And the northern delegates even managed to gain acceptance or provisions designed to weaken slavery. This was in part even in the South there were many who thought that slavery would evntually die out.

The Constitution

The Constitution does not use the term slavery, but there are provisions in the Constitution that recognized slavery. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as three-fifths (3/5s) of a person. The Constitution also included a provision to end the African slave trade. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. While the Constitution recognized slavery, it did not authorize it. Rather the Constitution established the principle that powers not specifically delegated to the Federal Government become the jurisdiction of the states. Thus authority over slavery and voting rights fell under the jurisdiction of each state. And this could only be changed by amending the constitution. And because of the difficult amendment process, the Southern slave states could block any effort to abolish slavery through amending the Constitution.

Slavery in the North

At the time of the Revolution, as British colonies, slavery was legal. After the Revolution, northern legislators gradually abolished slavery. The laws varied as to timing and compensation. Pennsylvania passed the first law emancipating slaves in 1780. The process of emancipation had been completed by 1801. As a result, the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, the Mason-Dixon Line, had become a very real dividing line between slave and free labor in the United States. In the new territories west of the Appalachins the straight survey lines were lost and the Ohio River became the boundary between free and slave soil. This created a dividing line line all the way the Mississippi which was at first the western boundary of the United States. It should not be thought that Ante-Bellium America was divided between purely free and slave states. Many of the northern 'free' states provided for gradual emncipation. Such as the law in News York which at first freed those born only after the law was passed or setting ages for emanciption. As a result of this were still slaves in New Jersey into the 1850s. [Berlin] The process varied substantially from state to state.


As the northern states began to pass emancipation laws albit with various terms, a issue arose -- what will be the legal status of the emancipated slaves?. They did not automatically become citizens with civil rights. Here there was considerable differences of opinion, even within the growing emancipation movement. [Berlin] Some wanted to send emancipated blcks back to Africa. This same issue rose in Britain. The Americm abolitionist movement promoted the idea of 'colonization'. The American Colonization Society was formed and with th approval of the Monroe Administrtion founded a colony which would become the state of Liberia. This was, however, never an answer to slavery. Slave owners possessed the single most valuable property in the United States and they would never give it up without a struggle. What Liberia represented was how to deal with freed slaves. This was not only an ussue in the North, but also the South. Slave owners considerd freed slaves a disruotive force and pushed measures in state legislatures to reauired freed slaves to leave the state. The British founded a similar colony in Sierra Leone, but primarily to offload the captive Africans the Royal Navy found on slavers. It would bcome a British colony. Ultimately in the the United States, given the stiring words of the Declaration of Indepndence, "All men are created equal", the answer would have to be full citizenship as granted in the 14th Amendment, but this was not a uniform consensus before the Civil War.

The Cotton Gin and King Cotton

Given the economic and social importance of cotton as a raw material, it is not surprising that cotton has played an important role in history in both the ancient and modern worlds. Cotton fabric has been used since ancient times and the development of cotton agriculture was an important step in the advance of civilization among ancient civilizations. It did not play a major role in European history until the technical developments which led to the industrial revolution, a critical development in the making of the modern world and the rise of the West. Cotton also played a central role in the economic development of the United States, leading to both the expansion of slavery and financing the industrialization of the United States. The invention of the cotton gin and the Industrial Revolution in Europe created a huge demand for cotton. And the American South proved ideal for cotton production. This creasted a demand for slaves as new plantations were founded in the new southern sates west of the Atlantic seaboard.

Probhibiting Slave Imports (1808)

The founding fathers realized that slavery was an issue which would likely make agreement on a new constitution impossile. As a result, the delegates at the Constitution Convention generally avoided the issue and the term "slavery" does not appear in the constitution, although there are references to it. By not mentioning slavery, the instiution was essentially put in the hands of individual state governments. The new United States Constitution which was adopted in 1787, prohibited Congress from banning the importation of slaves before 1808. The Congress did just that on January 1, 1808 suggesting that there was considerable opposition to slavery and the slave trade early in the 19th century. To some extent this was because many still believed that slavery was a dieing institution. This was, however, not the case.

Ending the African Slave Trade

It was the British Royal Navy that eventually ended the African slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New Wiorld and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgur (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cesation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to persue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operartions abour 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be persued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Eventhough thecslave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggresively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Cuban trade ended (1866).

Domestic Slave Trade

Thus at the same time the demand for slaves increased, the supply of slaves was theoretically restricted by the Federal Government. Slaves for the new plantations of the South would theoretically have to be descendants of the slaves already in America. This was not entirely the case because for years slaves were imported illegally. While importing slaves was banned, participation in the international slave trade or outfitting slaves trips was not outlawed. The slave trade was eventually ended primarily by the Royal Navy. Gradually a domestic slave trade developed and American slavery became self-sustaining. The domestic slave trade was conducted by both sea and overland routes. The overland slave trade generally developed from Tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas into the highly profitable plantations of the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississipi, and Louisiana). After the Texas War for Independence (1836) the slave trade extended into Texas. The horrrs of the middle passage, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, are some of the better known aspects of African slavery. Rarely disscused are the agonies involved in the inter-state slave trade.

Missouri Compromise (1820)

Subsequent American history after the ratification of the Constitution was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue of slavery. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). Northern states had abolished slavery or were in the process of doing so. Many had thought that slavery would gradually disappear of its own accord. This had happened in the north, but the development of the cotton gin had given a new live to slavery in the South. Northerners began to see that the admission of more slave states would simply worsen the problem. The first in a series of sectional crisis occurred when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. Many northern Congressmen opposed the admission of another slave state. from the North did not want another slave state. Maine in the asked to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Southern Congressman demanded the admission of Missouri in exchange for their support for admitting Maine. The result was the Missouri Compromise. This allowed Missouri to come into the Union as a slave state and Maine would be a free state. Congress also agreed to draw a line in the remaining territory acquired in the Louisana Purchse. That line was the southern border of Missouri. This line would be the border between free and slaves states. Any new state entering the Union that was south of the line could be a slave state. Any state north of the line would have to enter the Union as a free state. A look of the map of the Louisana Purchase shows that free states would be the real bulk of the Western territories at the time. Henry Clay's role in arranging the Missouri Compromise earned him the title, the Great Compromiser.

Turning Point

Missouri in many ways was turning point in the debate over slavery, both in the North and South. Notice that four of the first five American presidents were from slave owners from Virginia. But these presidents were not instruments of what the abolitionists would call the 'slave power'. They all had reservations about slavery, including the moral issues. And they could all work with northerners who had anti-slavery views. Notice that it was Madison and Monroe tht brouught John Quincy Adams into government and made his presidency possible. Monroe was the most outspoken about abolition, although he never freed his slaves. Each of the Virginian presidents belived that slavery was an inefficnt , die institiution and would disappear on its own. By the Monroe Presidency. however, because of the cotton gin and the incredible profitability of plantation cotton agriculture, it was becoming increasingly clear that slavery was not hoing to just disappar. Missouri also energized the Abolitiinist Movement. It was still a minority, some what fringe movemnt in 1820, but beginning with the Missouri Compromise it would begin to grow and by tghe time of he Civil war becone a mainstream movement. And this began the hardening of opinion. For Southern slave owners, there could be no compromise, it became the issue sine qua non. Slavery was the dominant issue thriughout the South ans even many non-slave owners concurred. This was not the case in the North. While many objected to slavery, it was only one of many issues and for most northeners, not the most important issue. Fir the Abolitionists, slavery as with the Southern slve owners was the issue sine qua non. As as the Abolitionist Movement grew in the North, Northern opinions begn to harden as well, although even by he time of the Civil War was in no way as strident or as widespreas as in the South.

American Aboltionist Movement

The Constitutional Convention largely side stepped the issue of slavery in the new Federal Constitution. As powers vested in the Federal Government has to be specifically enumerated, the question of slavery became a state matter. The Constitution did contain two provisions on slavery. First slaves were to partially counted in determining the apportionment of Congressmen and thus presidential electors. This in effect gave extra voting power to slave states. Second, the Federal Goverment was authorized to end the African slave trade in 1807. The abolitionist movement in the north had already begun to grow at the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified. And it gradually grew in importance leading to abolition in the original northern colonies and the new states formed in the Northwest Territory. Slavery did not, however, emerge as a major national issue until after the War Of 1812 when the number of free states began to outmumber the number od slave states making the slaves states a minority in the Senate. The debate in the Congress over Missouri statehood brought out some empassioned speeches for and against slavery. Movements were a foot to abolish slavery in the northern states and more criticim was being directed at the South's "peculiar institution". Representative Livermore (New Hampshire) asked "How long will the desire for wealth render us blind to the sin of holding both the bodies and souls of our fellow men in chains?" The Abolitionist movement in America was built around Protestant churches in the northern states. At first Quakers were the most prominent voice, but other religious groups in the North also began to question slavery. Southern churches, however, saw no religious problem with slavery. Southern slaves, however, saw considerable paralells with the bondage of the people of Israel in Egypt and their plight. American abolitionism soon found it faced a major problem that the British abolitioinist movement never had to confront. Slasvery so divided Americam on a sectional basis that it threatened the very existence of the nation--breaking apart the national union. The abolitionist movement was a northern moverment. There was no southern aboliionist movement. TYhe movement as it developed was led by a number of agitators. William Lloyd Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Noted authors John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe became influential. Former slaves also had some influence, especially Frederick Douglass. Abolitionists could not become major nationmal political figures because of the need to apease southern voters. Only when the natiobal political parties broke apart on a sectional basis was it possible for an anti-slavery party and presidential candidate to win election. Abrahan Lincoln was not an abolitionist, he was, however, a clear anti-slavery candidate who opposed the spread of slavery. This was a turning point in the abolitionisdt movement. Abolitionists could not end slavery even after the Reoublican victory (1860). Ir was the secession of the Southern states and Civil War that made this possible. Lincoln issued the Emancipastion Proclamation (1863). With out southern Congressmen, the Republicans were able to pass Constitutional amendments enshrining the Emancimation Proclamation in the Constitution with the 13th Amendment.

Nat Turner Revolt (1831)

Nat Turner (1800-31) was born on a small Virginia plantation. His mother had actually been born in Africa and enslaved. She instilled a hatred of slavery in Nat from an early age. As was the case of some slave children, Nat as a boy was assigned to play with the master's son. They became close friends and the boy taught Nat to read. Nat also became deeply religious from reading the Bible. As an educated slave, Nat became seen as a preacher by other slaves as he developed a kind of congregation. Sonme called him "the Prophet." A solar eclipse in 1831 was God's sign to Nat Turner that the time had come to strike the blow for freedom. Christianity, especially the Old Testament, is not a religion that one would choose to preach to slaves. Of course Southerners had no real choice here. But major parts of the Old Testament deal with delivering the Jews from slavery. Turner came to feel that it was his God-given mission to lead his people out of slavery. A solar eclipse convinced Turner that it was time to strike. Turner launched the largest slave uprising in U.S. history. The conspirators struck (August 21, 1831). They killed their master and his family . They moved on to other plantations and recruited more slaves. Evenually they killed 55 white people in Southampton County. They killed all the whites they encomterned, iincluding women and children, in part to stop survivors from raising an alarm. The conspirators mert an armed force outside Jerusalem, the couty seat. There Turner's force was killed, catured, or dispersed. Turner eluded seaech parties for 6 weeks, but was finally captured. He and 16 followers were tried and hanged. A slave rebellion was the nightmare that southern whites most feared. State abnd Federal forces carried out a reign of terror. As many as 200 blacks were eventially killed. State legislatures passed new, more stringent slave codes to make sure there would never be another rebellion. These codes varied from state to state, but two common provisions were measures designed to prevent slave owbers from educating their slaves and new limits on the movements of slaves.

The Gag Rule (1830s-40s)

As the American debate over slavery intensified, American politicans struggle to contain the increasing toxic nature of the debate and the potential for disunion. One effort pursued in Congress while Southern influence was still dominant was the Gag Rule. This amounted to procedural rules adopted by Congress to prevent the submission of potencially inflamatory anti-slavery petitions. This ptoved largely effective during the 1830s, but weakened in te early-40s. It became the primary tool adopted by Jacksonian Democrats to silence northern abolitionist agitation and to maintain the political coalition between Northern Demicrats and Southern slaveholders. Perhaps Whig Congressman, former president, John Quincy Adams' greatest contribution would be to help end the Gag Rule. Adams was an opponent of slavery, but not an abolitionist. The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded (1833). It would be the primary American organization promoting abolition. Its primary political tool was petition drives to promote opposition to slavery. Amd many of those peitions identified ctions that Congress could take. Congress did not have the authority to abolish slavery in the southern states. But one place it could act was the Distric of Colombia -- a Federal enclave. Realtivly fw slves would be affected, but it would sen a powerful symbolic message. As these peitions increased and more northern Congressmen, especially Whig Congressmen, began supporting them, Democrats enacted the first gag rule (1836). It was a resolution that instructed provided that petitions relating to slavery would be tabled without further consideration. They wre not read or referred to committee. Supporters of the gag rule were intent that subject of slavery should never be discussed or debated in Congress. As jt was a resolution and not a house rule, it had to be approved each year during which the issue of slvery could be discussed. And Adams, a master of House rules used his and other procedures iver a decade to fight the Gag Rule. Initially there was overwealming upport for it. But over time as support for abolition grew in the North, the msrgin of support declined. Adams's principled campaign against the Gag Rule attracted more and more converts to the anti-slavery effort. In addition, his skillful parlimentry mnuevers, made the effort to shut down debate largely ineffective. Congress eventually voted to end the Gag Rule (1844). It was Abolitionist Movement's first major Congressional victory. It took a decade. But the degree to which attitudes toward slavery were changing give the glacial rate of change previoiusly was notable. All of which of course was not lost on Southern slaveholders.

Texas (1836-46)

The Mexican province of Texas was to have a destabilizing impact in the national debate over slavery. The efforts by the Mexican national government to limit slavery in Texas was a major reason for the Texas rebellion. An assembly of Texicans and Tejanos at Washington-on-the-Brazos adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence (1836). Meican President Sant Anna moved an army north to supress the Texan rebellion. Styling himself the Napoleon of the West, Santa Anna was in fact one of the most incompetent military commanders in history. He moved north with alarge, well equipped and armed force. He was determined to put down the Texans like the Spanish had put down the Tejano revolt--execute the participants. Sam Houston's victory at San Jacinto (1835) defied all military calculations. Texas existed as an independent country for nearly 10 years. Complications oiver slavery prevented American annexation of Texas. Santa Anna again threatened Texas (1845). The political situation had changed and this time America annexed Texas (1845). President Polk signed a Joint Resolution to Admit Texas as a State (December 29, 1845). Adding a new slave state to the Union was a politically cotentious step. As it was done through annexation od an indepdent country which had legalized slavery, the northern opponents of slavery were unsure how to oppose statehood, The subsequent Mexican War is a contentious historical issue (1846-48). Some historians nelieve that America precipitated the War so it could seize territory from Mexico.There is considerable validity in this assessment. Mexicans view it as war of agression. It is also true that Santa Anna who has regained the Mexican presidency and was spoiling for a fight. The War proved to be another exercise in Santa Anna's incompetence. The result was the acquisition by the United States of territories south of the southern border of Missouri. This fundamentaly altered the politcal calculation upon which the Missouri Compromise was based. Southereners who seemed willing to accept the admission of northern states in tghe Wrestern territories as free states, beganto promote the idea of new slave states in the southwestern territories seized from Mexico. They began to see this as a way of preserving southern power in the Federal Government.

Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is an icon of American mythology. Many school children are disappointed to learn that there were no locomotives, carriages, and it was not underground. But exist it did and it played a major role, not so much in freeing slaves, but in brining on the Civil War which did free the slaves. The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized and constantly changing network of individuals and families who assisted fugitive slaves reach free northern states and Canada. There was no central organization or organizer so southern and Fderal officials found it impossible to shut down. Recent scholarship suggests that many whites, but mostly blacks (both free and slave) were involved in operaing the Underground Railroad. Many of the whites were reliously motivated. Quakers and evangelical protestants played important roles. The first operations are not known, but as early as 1786 George Washing was complaining about Quakers assisting one of his slaves escape. The term "Underground Railroad" was first used in the 1830s and by the 1840s was a universally used term. At the time the first railroads were just being built and they were the technical wonders of the day. The underground railroad adopted the terminology of the railroads. Stops were stations. Operastors were conductors and the fugaive slaves were the passangers. Many famous people were passangers. The most famous was Frederick Douglas himself. There were no maps or timetables and the whole network oprated with great secrecy. This was necessary because even in the free northern states the Underground Railroad was illegal. Not only could the slaves be seized, but anyone involved in assisting them could be arrested and procecuted. As a result the history of the Underground Railroad can not be documented with any detail by modern historians. No one knows how many slaves were spirited to freedom by the Underground Railroad. Most estimates suggest that the total may reach as many as 0.1 million people between the peak years of the Underground Railroad's operation. [Bordewich. Bound Almost all from the upper-tier border states. Few slaves managed to escape from the deep south slave states. At the same time more slaves were shipped south to the cotton plantations of the deep south than escaped north. Also at the same time the slave population grew from 2.0 to 4.0 million. Some might conclude that the Underground Railroad was a failure. The real impact of the Underground Railroad was to inflame public opinion in the North and South. Slaveholders were furious that northerners would help their slaves escae. They demanded and got Federal legislation to strengthen slave catching operatins in Free northern states which fieled Abolitionist sentiment. This in turn further enflamed southern opinion. The outcome was that by 1860, sectionl sentiment had been fanned to such an extent that political compromise was no longer possible.


Southern states prohibited the teaching of reading and writing to Black slaves. As slaves were illiterate, there are few accounts os slavery written by slaves. A few managed to learn. The first slave to public an account of slavery was Olaudah Equiano. Perhaps the most eloquent accont was written by Harriet Jacobs. Sojurner Truth and Stephen Douglas laster wrote powerful accounts. Several great pieces of American literature addressed the slave issue. It was not a topic addressed by the literary giants of the pre-Civil War era. Given the importance of the slavery to early 19th century political discourse, this seems a suprising observation. The most important ante-bellum (pre-War work)was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Stowe was virtually unknown when she wrote the book. She was influenced by the experience s of two teenage Maryland slave girls, Emily and Mary Edmonson, who were rescued from being sold as "fancy girls" to New Orleans bordellos. The story of Eliza , Topsy, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree electrified northern readers and theter goers, affecting northern attitudes toward slavery. Enraged Southeners argued that the book was an exagrtin ad that slaves were in fact trated well. Stow published a second book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin which describe the research she conducted before writing her novel and includes a discription of the ordeal of the Edmonson girls. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher helped rise money to buy the Edmonson girls out of slavery. We know of no important work of American literature that attempted to justify slavery. We might mention Jefferson's Notes in Virginia, but it was not a novel, but rather Jefferson;s efforts at a scientific piece. The Southern states banned abolitionist literature, surely the greates violtion of the First amendment in Ameican history. This action by the Southern states is silent testimony to the fact that it was an uneven debate. The most important work on Amrerican slavery after the War was Mark Twain's Huckeberry Finn (1884), viewed by many as the greatest American novel. A much shorter opiece by Twain often forgotten is "Pudin Head Wilson" a brilliant short story on slavery and still relavent today as an indictement of racial prejudice. Another important work is Alec Haley's Roots.

Creole Affair (1841)

The slave ship Creole set saild from Virginia for New Orleans. It had a crew of 19 whites, mostly guards, and 135 slaves. At the time there was a great demand for slaves in the Deep South states, especiallu the western states like Alabama, Mississpii, and Louisiana to work the new cotton plantations. While slave imports had been banned (1809), there was a substantial domestic slave trade. Slaves from the border states and the coatal states were transpoted west where they commanded the highest prices. Off the coast of Florida, some of the male slaves broke out of the forward hold, killed one of the guards, and commandeered the ship. The white aboard were terrified. The slaves wanted to go to Africa, but settled for Nassau in Bahamas. Britain had ended slavery (1835). It was unclear, however, how the British would treat the slaves onboard given that slavery no longer existd in Britain and the British Empire. The British imprioned 19 who had participated in the uprising as mutineers. They detained the remaining slaves aboard ship until they were freed by angry mostly black islanders. The Tyler Administration demanded that Britain return the slaves and extradite the mutineers (there was no extradition treaty). Britain refused and the mutineers were released. This sparked a firestorm of anti-British feeling. It came only three decades after the War Of 1812 and at time that the Oregon issue was coming to a boil--war being a real possibility. The incident was similar to the earlier Amistad case. There were, however, differences. The Amistad was a Spanish ship and the slaves aboard Spanish subjects. The Creole was an American ship and the crew and passengers of the Creole as well as the slaves were Americans. And the crimes of mutineering and mirder were committed in American waters. Thus the British decided that they had no jurisdiction. Abolitionists in Congress decided to attack the coastal slave trade by trying to limit state jurisdiction once a ship had entered international waters. [Downey] At the time the Creole Affair threanted to undo the Anglo-American negotionas. Eventually war was prevented with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty permanently settling the American-Canadian border (1842). Eventually Britain compensated the slave owners for their losses with a payment of more than $110,000. After the Creole Affair there was no more such incidents. Affarently ship owners and slave owners tightened up secruity.

New States (1836-50)

For 15 years after the Missouri Compromise (1820) no new states were admitted to the Union. Then six new states were admitted. Regional tensions meant that new admissions were paired slave-free state admissions. There were three new slave states: Arkansas (1836), Florida (1845), and Texas (1845). This was ballanced by three new free states: Michigan (1837), Iowa (1846), and Wisconsin (1848). As the three new slaves states were south of Missouri, the Missouri Compromise held as did the ballance of power in the Senate. Thw same was not true in the House. After every Census the growing population of the North mean that a widening desparity between Free and Slave state Congressmen. This was diquieting to the South, but as long as the President was not critical of slaverery, the ballance of power head. Lincoln's election of course xhanged everything. The President appointed the Supreme Court justices. This the slave interests realized that they faced a future in wgich the president, Sumpree Court and House of Representatives could be arayed against slavery.

Wilmot Proviso (1846)

Congressman Jacob Brinkerhoff of Ohio conceived of Congressional action to stop the spread of slavery. Senator Preston King, a long-term abolitionist, from New York also played an important role. Congressmn David Wilmot from Pennsylvania because of his standing in the Demoratic Party, first proposed prohibiting slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico (August 8, 1846). The provision became known as the Wilmot Proviso and numerous efforts were made over the next 4 years to attach it to several pieces of legislation. The provision became popular in some northern states and became the cornerstone of the new Free Soil Party. The Party while never became a major force in American politics was extremely influential in the new Republican Party which Wilmot helped organize. The Wilmot Proviso was anathema in the South and generated increasing support for secession. One outcome of Congressional debate on the Wilmot Proviso was a new element in the debaye over slavery--the question of property rights. Slavery was not mentioned in the Constitution, but property rights were protected under the Constitution. Southerners believed that they had the right to take their property, including slaves, anywhere in the country. Congress never approved the proviso in any of several efforts to attach it as amendment to legislation. Its major importance was in convincing many southerners that the United States was hostile to slavery. (Ironically the Constitution essentially made slavery unasailable had the southern states not seceeded.) The Wilmot Proviso was expressly repudiated in the Compromise of 1850. It was implicity repudiated in the Supreme Court Dred Scott desision.

Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was an effort to defuse the sectional rancor over the spread of slavery in the vast new territories acquired from Mexico. Congress attempted to balance the interests of the free and slave states. Texas was the first state to enter the Union from former Mexican territory War. Some southerners had assumed that Texas would come into the Union as several new slave states. This did not transpire, largelky because of Texan wishe. Whatecver tge reason, it meant onlu one new slave state was added to the Senate. The next territory which asked to be admitted to the Union was California, another large state (1850). This created a problem because the Missouri Compromise line cut California in half. Northen and Southern Congressmen argued over whether California should enter the war as a free or slave state. The great figures of the early 19th century (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun) played their final role in American politics. Calhoun who was dieing and opposed the compromise had to be carried into the Senate chamber. A new generation of leaders, especially Stephen A. Douglas emerged and it was Dougls who was lagely responsible for brokering the final agreement. The result was the Compromise of 1850. It was in effect a mixed bag of legislation. Congress rejected the Wimot Proviso. The individual measures could not be passed by Congress, but were passed as a result of a comprehensive basket consisting of five measures. 1) Congress admitted Califirnia as a free state. 2) Slave trading in Washington, D.C. was ended. (D.C. residents could still own slaves, but could not buy or sell them. 3) Texas was compensated for relinquishing claim to the area west of modern day Texas (New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah). This not only apeased Texas, but also other slave states who wanted new slaves states. 4) Congressmen accepted that at least some of the southwestern land acquired from Mexico could enter the Union as slave states, depending on the desires of the settlers there. The territory of New Mexico (which including modern Arizona and Utah) was organized without any prohibition of slavery. This esentially endorsed Douglas' Popular Sovereignty doctrine. 5) The South was further appeased by a tough new Federal Fugitive Slave Law. Federal marshalls were empowered to arrest and return escaping slaves to their masters even in free states. Bounty hunters would be paid for finding and returning slaves. This created a range of problens. Some bounty hunters kidnapped free blacks. And northerns who resisted the bounty hunters could be procecuted. These actions enraged public opinion in some northern states. The northern reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law enraged southerners. Rather than defuse the sectional tension as the Missouri Compromise had done, the Compromise of 1850 while resolving the immediate problem and postponing civil war, in the long run intensified sectional feeling, especially after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Compromise has thus been criticized as only temporary and bowing to slave interests. Temprising in this case, however, probably mebtv surviuval of the Union. [Bordewich. America's]

Senator Stephen A. Douglas

Symbolic of the importance of Congressional power in the 19th century was the fact that in the 1850s Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois dominated the national debate over slavery. The positions of President Pierce (1853-57) and Bucannan (1857-61) are little renembered. Douglas was short (only 5' 4"") nd squat. He became a powerful force in the Senate and was thus referred to as the "Little Giant". He was a renowned orator. Like Henry Clay, many assumed he was destined to be president. He was a strong nationlist who had supported the Mexican War (1846-48), desirig to see American territory span the North American continent. He disapproved of racism, but was such a blatant racist, that it did not seem an important issue to him. Linclon explained perhaps not alltogether fairly that in all contests between the Negro and the crocidile, Douglas favored the Negro, but in issues between the Negro and White man, he favored Whites. [Miller] What Stephen Douglas did care about was the American empire and connecting California to the East.

Trans-Continental Railway

What Douglas cared most about was extending the boundaries of the United States westvand once this was accomplished, building a trans-conibnental railway to connect California to the east. DouglaS' first attempt at securing Congressional support for the railway failed when he failed to obtain Southern support. Douglas viewed the issue of slavery which had first complicated his efforts to expand the boundaries west and now to obtain approval for an trans-cobntinentl railway as dangerous and destabilizing.

Kansas Nebraska Act (1854)

The Missouri Compromise (1820) has been called as perhaps the "most fatefull single piece of legislation in American history." [Catton] We might suggest Lend Lease, but the "Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas" was undeniably a Congressional act of enormous consequences. The Missosuri Compromise worked for over three decades to defuse the slavery issue until Congress, spearheaded by Seator Stephen Douglas, undid it with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Douglas wanted Congressional support to support the construction of a trans-continental railroad. Southern legislators were unwilling to support the railroad without opening the new western territories. Douuglas' answer was the Kansas-Nebraska Act which in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise. The issue of slavery would be taken out of Federal hands and put in the hands of the people in the territories. Douglas termed this "popular soverignty". Douglas believed that this would difuse the increasingly vitriolic debate over slavery in the Congress. Rarely has a politican been more wrong about the consequences of his actions. The result proved to be rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last the final breakdown of comprosise and a terrible civil war.

Bleeding Kansas (1854-60)

Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act (May 30, 1854). This set in motion the tragedy that came to be called Bleeding or Bloody Kansas. Northern abolitionists and Southern slave holders vied for control of Kansas. The demarcation line established by the Missouri Compromise had sucessfully restrained sectional rivalry for three decades. The Kansas-Nebraska Act adopted Stephen Douglas' doctrine of Popular Sovereignty. Essentially the settlers of the each territory would decide the question. The problem came when each side sought to move settlers into the Territory to gain control of territorial legislature. Northern abolitionists and Emigrant Aid Societies promoted and financed Free-Soil settlers. Slave owners mostly from neigboring Missouri moved into Kansas. Many were not settlers, but just men intent on determining Kansas' choice. They became known as Border Ruffians. As Missouri, a slave state, was the only state bordering on Kansas, the pro-slavery faction gained the upper hand. Evn so, two competing territorial governments were formed. Kansas descended into violence and a small-scale civil war. There were shootings and lynchings and attacks on settlements. Federal and territorial authorities proved incapable of maintaining order. Lawrence, Kansas became a Free-Soilers stronhold. Settlers their harborded abolitionists and run-away slaves. Newspaper editors at Lawrence infuriated the proslavery territorial government. A "posse" of about 800 Border Ruffians from Missouri attacked Lawrence (May 1856). They especially targeted the newspaper offices, but also burned the hotel and the home of the Free-Soil governor. Rabid Abolistionist John Brown retaliated 4 day later at Pottawatomie Creek. Brown and four sons dragged five pro-slavery settlers from their homes and in front of their families hacked them to death. Eventually 200 men would die in Bleeding Kansas. The number seems small in terms of the Civil War, but at the time Americans were horrified.

Dread Scott Decesion (1857)

Dred Scott (1847- ) was a Missouri slave whose owner took him to Illinois and then to Wisconsin Territory, free teritory. His owner took him back to Missouri. After his owner died, Scott sued his new ower, claiming tht since he was taken to a free state, he was no longer a slave (1847). After years of litigation, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Taney Court decided to hear the case. The Court decided that as a slave, Scott had no right to bring suit. The Court, however, went on to say much more. Blacks could not be U.S. citizens. The court clearly stated that the Federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. The Court also ruled that congress could not outlaw slavery any were in America. This in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise, the cornerstone law which had for a time defused the slavery issue. The South was elated at the decission. The North was apalled. It meant that there was no legal (constitutional) way of dealing with the issue of slavery. It also essentially extended slavery to northern states that had abolished it. It gave lie to Southern arguments that slavery was a matter of state's rights.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)

The most famous debate in the history of America occurred in 1858 between Senator Stephem A. Dougla. the most important figure in the Democratic Party, and Abraham Limcoln, a virtually unknown Illinois lawyer. There was no real issue until 1858 that profoundly motivated Lincoln. It was Stephen Douglas, the prominent Illinois Senator, that gave Lincoln an issue. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and popular soverignity. Now Linclon saw the possibility of slavery expanding. Lincoln did not dare to challenge slavery's existence--it was after all enshired in the Constitution and most Americans accepted or supported it. He had hoped, however, that it would slowly wither away. Now there was the possibility that it would expand. Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator in 1858. Lincoln in the speech accepting the nomination made perhaps his most famous speech, questioning whether America coul endure both half slave and half free. The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates framed for the entire country the issue of slavery. Douglas accused Linclon of codeling the blacks. Lincon replie that while blacks may not be equal that they are entiled to the income that they earn from their labor. Douglas also stressed the importance of majority rule. Lincoln evoked moral principles. Lincoln won a small majority, a major accomplishment in heavily Democratic Illinois. He lost the election in the Democratic state legislature. In debating with Douglas, a principal Congressional engineer of the Compromise of 1850 which had postponed Civil War, Lincoln gained a national reputation. He continued speaking out, assuming the middle ground between the abolistionists and the slave holders of the South. The Lincoln-Douglas deabates were a key element that was to enable him to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860.

Brown Raid on Harper's Ferry (1859)

John Brown played a role in the viloence that swept Kansas after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Brown concluded that the only way to end slavery was through violence. He concocted a plan to begin a guerrila war against slavery. The plan which he began forming soon after the Pottawatomie Creek massacre (1856) was to establish a military stronghold in the mountains of western Virginia where there was some opposition tgo slavery. This would provide a haven for run-away slaves and serve as a staging area for attacks on slaveholders. A blackmailer forced Brown into hiding and delayed his attack. Brown set up a camp on a farm in Maryland across the Potomac from Harper's Ferry. The delay weakened Brown's plans because many of the initial recruits had second thoughts. Brown was unable to garner support from notabable abolitionists. Perhaps the most prominant abolitionist advocating insurrection was Henry Highland Garnet, but he did not believe the slaves were prepared. Brown also spoke with Frederick Douglass (August 1859). Brown explained his new plan of attacking the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry to arm alave revolt. Douglas warned him that this was a grave mistake. Instead of attacking slavery, this was an attack on the Federal Government, the only institution which could end slavery. Douglas warned Brown, "You're walking into a perfect steel-trap and you will never get out alive." Brown ignored the warning. Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with 21 men, including 2 sons and 5 blacks (October 16). One of the blacks was Dangerfield Newby wanted to rescue his wife from slavery. They crossed the Potomac, walked through the night under a heavy rain, they arrived in Harper's Ferry early in the morning (October 17). They cut the telegraph wires and then attacked. Surprising the small local garison they captured both the Federal armory and arsernal. They also took Hall's Rifle Works, a private concern making weapons for the Federal Government. Brown then took 60 town residents as s hostages. Brown just assumed that slaves would come flooding into Harper's Ferry where he would arm them. This did not happen, largely because he had failed to set up any system to inform slaves. In addition slaves were not about to risk their lives for a venture that as Douglas foresaw had no real chance of success. Rather the local militia soon pinned Brown's small force down. Brown sent one of his son's out inder a white flag to negotiate. He was immediately shot and killed. While the telegraph lines were cut, an express train headed east to Baltimore sent out the alaem. President Buchanan ordered Colonel Robert E. Lee with a force of marines and soldiers to Harper's Ferry. When Lee arrived, the militia had already killed 8 of Brown's men. Lee ordered the fire house where Brown and his surviving men were holding out to be stormed. Brown was badly wounded, but taken alive. Ten of his men including two sons were killed. Lee captured 7 men, but 5 escaped. Lee transported Brown and the others captives to Charlestown. There he was tried. Brown had to be carried into his trial. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. John Brown's raid was of no real threat to the slave holding South. It was even put down by the Federal Government. The reaction to the raid in both the North and South did, however, have a major impact. Brown's statements during the trial and letters after sentencing were widely reported in the press and distributed in the abolitionist press. Brown became a virtual saint among northern abolitionists. The raid and northern attitides towad Brown convinced many southern slave holders that the South would have to seceed from the Union. Ironically it was secession that doomed slavery in America.

Presidential Election (1860)

The election of 1860 is arguably the most important in American history. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had huge political consequences. It shattered the Democratic Party which had doinated American political life in the first half og the 19th century. The Semocratic Party was one of the few remaining institutions holding north and south together by the 1850s. While the South supported Douglas's Kansas Nebraska Act, when he later temporized with the Freeport Doctrine they turned against him. The Republican Party was formed (1854) out if the whigs and anti-slavery Democrats alientated by the Kansas-Mebraska Act. The Northern Democrats nominated Douglas for presiddent in 1860. The Southern Democrats refused to accept this and nominated a sectional candidate, John C. Brekenridge. This split in the Democratic Party guaranteed the election of Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the new Republicn Party.

Civil War (1861-65)

The issue of slavery of course was never ended in America through the political system by debate. The ussue was resolved by the Civil War--the bloodiest conflict in American history. And a conflict in which Blackthemselves, free and slave, played a major role in resolving. The irony of the Civil War was that the South through Constitutional means could have prevented both the Congress and the president from abolishing slavery. Only by abandoning their seats in the House and Senate and secceeding from the Union, was it possible to destroy the institution os slavery.


Berlin, Ira. The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States

Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad, 2005), 540p.

Bordewich, Fergus M. America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas anbd the Compromise that Saved the Union (2012), 448p.

Catton, William and Bruce.

Downey, Arthur. The Creole Affair.

Halley, Alex. Roots.

Jacobs. Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). This book was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book was at first dismissed as a fabrication but is today widely considered factual.

Miller, William Lee.

Stowe, Hariet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).

Stowe, Hariet Beechr. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.


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