“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (US History.org). In the early history of our nation Negroes (people of African American descent) were considered property and were not considered to be “men”. This began an argument that was to culminate in one of the worst wars our nation has ever seen. During the heated debates of the first Continental Congress, while “Americans debated and fought for liberty and freedom, some saw the inherent contradiction of slavery” (Tindell/Olmstead, digital history center). Those “some” were the representatives from the Northern states. For the sake of the Union, the Northerners chose to set aside the issue for later times. The issue of slavery heated up again in the mid-1800’s, when western expansionism, the rise of abolitionist and anti- slavery movements, and the disclosure of the inhuman treatment of the slaves caused the Northerners to shift their position and take a stand on the issue of slavery. This eventually split the country and led us into the Civil War.
Western expansion threatened to upset the balance of votes as they pertained to the slavery issue. A truce of sorts had been reached, with the Missouri compromise, which left a balance on the slavery issue of 12 states for slavery, 12 against. But with the move westward there were new territories to consider. California, the Southwest territories, and New Mexico, with predominantly anti-slavery views, threatened the South and caused the North to take notice, thus renewing the slavery battle. Calhoun, the spokesman for the south, left his sickbed to attend the Senate in order to present his views which stated that “the south needed simply an acceptance of its rights; equality in the territories, the return of fugitive slaves, and some guarantee of “an equilibrium between the sections” (489). The North stood firmly, but not exactly united, some holding that slavery was wrong and that no new slavery should commence and some radical northerners demanding the total emancipation of all slaves. Daniel Webster spoke making the case for a peaceful resolution stating “The extent of slavery was already determined … by the Missouri Compromise” and chastising both sides for their extreme views, declaring the people should “enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union” rather then warring on this issue. The Compromise of 1850 paused the fight for a bit, making provisions to appease both sides in the interest of peace, with President Clay warning that “continued bickering would “lead to a furious, bloody, implacable, exterminating” civil war” (488). The provisions set in the Compromise of 1850 determined: 1) California’s admission to the Union as a free state; 2) “The Texas and new Mexico Act which made new Mexico a territory and set the Texas boundary at its present location; 3) The Utah Act which set up another territory; 4) A new Fugitive Slave Act which put the matter of retrieving runaways wholly under federal jurisdiction and stacked cards in favor of slave-catchers; and lastly, 5) As a gesture to antislavery forces, the slave trade, but not slavery itself, was abolished in the District of Columbia” (491). But the Kansas –Nebraska Act unleashed the inconsistent laws and ideas that were commonplace on the issue of slavery and two illegal governments were created, vying for control. What ensued was in effect “a dress rehearsal for civil war” (498) and an indication of things to come. The North could no longer avoid the slavery issue.
Newspapers and publications were also effective in spreading the abolitionist’s views about slavery during this time period. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison of Boston began an anti-slavery newspaper named The Liberator vowing, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, to speak, or write, with moderation” (Tindell, 472). He followed this with the formation of the New England Anti-slavery Society in 1832, which eventually expanded into the American Anti-slavery Society, seeking to convince people “that Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God, and that the duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment, without expatriation” (473). The society argued that blacks should “share equality with the whites, of civil and religious privileges”. Through pamphlets, speeches and newspaper writings information spread rapidly, educating the public about the inhumane abuses of slavery.
The spread of information inspired furious debates, instigating women to demand a voice, inspiring the rise of black abolitionists, and eventually splitting the country. It also inspired writings that had a powerful effect on the readers. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional drama Uncle Tom’s Cabin painted a vivid and horrible portrait of slavery, “depicting the callous brutality at the hands of indulgent master, to the indignity of extravagant ineptitude and bankruptcy” (492). Newspapers were extremely influential during this period of time, as the news developed and spread across the states. The widely publicized Dred Scott case set the stage for the polarization between the North and the South. The case occurred when the abolitionists had Dred Scott (a Negro man) sue for his freedom on the grounds that his residence in Minnesota (a free state) had made him a free man. He was ruled against by the Supreme Court, who stated that slaves were property, and the court would not deprive slave owners of their property without due process of law according to the Fifth Amendment. The news hit the papers, making southern states ecstatic and northern states quite unhappy. The papers continued to report the bad news as Buchanan’s presidency endured crisis after crisis, including the troubles in Kansas, and a business panic. Finally a new Illinois Republican named Abraham Lincoln stepped forward to put his hat in the ring to challenge the sitting Senator Douglas for the senate seat for Illinois. Although he lost this race, he would return later to run for president. The papers dubbed him “honest Abe” the uncommon common man, and he easily won the election with popular vote of 39 percent and 180 electoral votes. Deeply upset, the south endorsed an Ordinance of Secession, ratified a new Constitution and declared themselves out of the Union. After many efforts at compromise, an amendment narrowly passed the Senate guaranteeing slavery where it existed, but maintaining the stand against slavery in the territories. The vote came in on Lincoln’s Inauguration Day. It would be known as the Thirteenth Amendment and was “the first use of the work “slavery” in the constitution” … When it was ratified in 1865, it did not guarantee slavery, it abolished slavery” (515).
The mid-1800’s was a time of great volatility, with western expansionism, the rise of various abolitionist movements, and the disclosure of inhuman treatment giving rise to a fundamental change in our country. The people of the North moved from their initial peace-keeping stance of “anti-slavery in their own state” to a more righteous and aggressive stance of fighting for the rights of all men under the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Frederick Law Olmstead said, “Advocates on both sides of this great struggle presented their basic premises in the 1830s and then rehashed them again and again throughout the 1840s and 1850s until they threw away the words to pick up arms. Slavery may not have been the only cause of the Civil War, but as a physical presence and ideological issue it helped dig the grave of, if not bury, the early union”. It is only with the grace of God that our great nation survived.
Tindall, George Brown, David E. Shi, Chapters 14-16, America A Narrative History, 6th Edition, Volume 1, New York. London: W.W. Norton & Company (With digital history center, Review of a First Rate Cotton Plantation (1845), Frederick Law Olmstead Document Overview; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison (1833))
US History.org, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, Copyright ©1995-2006 by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as ushistory.org. On the Internet since July 4, 1995,