During the 1850s, the issue of slav- ery severed the political bonds that had held the United States together .




It ate away at the country’s two great political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, destroying the first and irrevocably dividing the second . It produced weak presidents whose irresolution mirrored that of their parties . It eventually discredited even the Supreme Court .

The moral fervor of abolition- ist feeling grew steadily . In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel pro- voked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law . More than 300,000 cop- ies were sold the first year . Presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand . Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and pos- ited a fundamental conflict between free and slave societies . It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the an- tislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions — in- dignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation .

In 1854 the issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter . The re- gion that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establish- ment of territorial, and eventually, state governments .

Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire re- gion was closed to slavery . Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would

then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas) and might be forced to become a free state as well . Their congressional delegation, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region .

At this point, Stephen A . Doug- las enraged all free-soil supporters . Douglas argued that the Compro- mise of 1850, having left Utah and New Mexico free to resolve the slav- ery issue for themselves, superseded the Missouri Compromise . His plan called for two territories, Kansas and Nebraska . It permitted settlers to carry slaves into them and even- tually to determine whether they should enter the Union as free or slave states .

Douglas’s opponents accused him of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856 . The free-soil movement, which had seemed to be in decline, reemerged with greater momentum than ever . Yet in May 1854, Douglas’s plan in the form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress to be signed by President Franklin Pierce . Southern enthusiasts celebrated with cannon fire . But when Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor low- ered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour, and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard .

The immediate results of Douglas’s ill-starred measure were momen- tous . The Whig Party, which had straddled the question of slavery ex-


pansion, sank to its death, and in its stead a powerful new organization arose, the Republican Party, whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories . In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown . Fremont lost the election, but the new party swept a great part of the North . Such free- soil leaders as Salmon P . Chase and William Seward exerted greater in- fluence than ever . Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attor- ney, Abraham Lincoln .

Meanwhile, the flow of both Southern slave holders and antislav- ery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict . Soon the territory was being called “bleeding Kansas .” The Supreme Court made things worse with its infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision .

Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been tak- en by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory; in both places, slavery was banned . Return- ing to Missouri and becoming dis- contented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil . A majority of the Supreme Court — dominated by Southerners — decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resi- dent of a slave state (Missouri); and that slave holders had the right to take their “property” anywhere in the federal territories . Thus, Con-

gress could not restrict the expan- sion of slavery . This last assertion invalidated former compromises on slavery and made new ones impos- sible to craft .

The Dred Scott decision stirred fierce resentment throughout the North . Never before had the Court been so bitterly condemned . For Southern Democrats, the decision was a great victory, since it gave ju- dicial sanction to their justification of slavery throughout the territories .

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