Slavery, which up to now had re- ceived little public attention, began to assume much greater importance as a national issue . In the early years of the republic, when the Northern states were providing for immedi- ate or gradual emancipation of the slaves, many leaders had supposed that slavery would die out . In 1786 George Washington wrote that he devoutly wished some plan might be adopted “by which slavery may be abolished by slow, sure, and im- perceptible degrees .” Virginians Jef- ferson, Madison, and Monroe and other leading Southern statesmen made similar statements .

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had banned slavery in the Northwest Territory . As late as 1808, when the international slave trade was abol- ished, there were many Southern- ers who thought that slavery would soon end . The expectation proved false, for during the next generation, the South became solidly united behind the institution of slavery as new economic factors made slavery far more profitable than it had been before 1790 .

Chief among these was the rise of a great cotton-growing industry in the South, stimulated by the intro- duction of new types of cotton and


by Eli Whitney’s invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, which separated the seeds from cotton . At the same time, the Industrial Revolution, which made textile manufacturing a large- scale operation, vastly increased the demand for raw cotton . And the opening of new lands in the West after 1812 greatly extended the area available for cotton cultivation . Cot- ton culture moved rapidly from the Tidewater states on the East Coast through much of the lower South to the delta region of the Mississippi and eventually to Texas .

Sugar cane, another labor-inten- sive crop, also contributed to slav- ery’s extension in the South . The rich, hot lands of southeastern Loui- siana proved ideal for growing sug- ar cane profitably . By 1830 the state was supplying the nation with about half its sugar supply . Finally, tobac- co growers moved westward, taking slavery with them .

As the free society of the North and the slave society of the South spread westward, it seemed politi- cally expedient to maintain a rough equality among the new states carved out of western territories . In 1818, when Illinois was admitted to the Union, 10 states permitted slav- ery and 11 states prohibited it; but balance was restored after Alabama was admitted as a slave state . Popula- tion was growing faster in the North, which permitted Northern states to have a clear majority in the House of Representatives . However, equal- ity between the North and the South was maintained in the Senate .

In 1819 Missouri, which had 10,000 slaves, applied to enter the Union . Northerners rallied to op- pose Missouri’s entry except as a free state, and a storm of protest swept the country . For a time Congress was deadlocked, but Henry Clay ar- ranged the so-called Missouri Com- promise: Missouri was admitted as a slave state at the same time Maine came in as a free state . In addition, Congress banned slavery from the territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s south- ern boundary . At the time, this pro- vision appeared to be a victory for the Southern states because it was thought unlikely that this “Great American Desert” would ever be settled . The controversy was tempo- rarily resolved, but Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that “this momen- tous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror . I considered it at once as the knell of the Union .”

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