Chains, Whips, and Heartbreak (1724-1857). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Chains, Whips, and Heartbreak (1724-1857). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) * (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

A nation divided over the slavery issue.

Abolition movements, the Underground Railroad, and rebellion.

Compromises on the slavery issue.

Bleeding Kansas and the Dred Scott decision.

 By the early 1700s, slavery had caught on in a big way throughout the Southern colonies. In places like South Carolina, slavery became essential to the economy, and slaves soon outnumbered whites in that colony. The Declaration of Independence declared no slave free, and the Constitution mostly avoided the issue, except for the purposes of levying taxes, determining representation in Congress (for purposes of such enumeration, slaves were deemed three-fifths of a human being), and specifying that the slave trade (that is, importation) was to end within 20 years.

The irony was most bitter. The sweet land of liberty persisted in maintaining an institution that the rest of the world’s nations were quickly abandoning. The British Parliament outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and all slavery in 1833. The emerging nations of South America made slavery illegal, and Spain and Portugal officially abolished slave trading in 1840. But America remained a slave nation, and this fact was tearing the country apart.

Against the American Grain. From the beginning, a great many Americans were opposed to slavery. The first organized opposition came from the Quakers, who issued a statement against the institution as early as 1724.

During the colonial periods, slave markets were active in the North as well as the South. However, the agricultural economy of the northern colonies was built upon small farms rather than vast plantations. Although many people in the North were passionately opposed to slavery on moral grounds, it is also true that the region lacked the economic motives for it. Therefore, an increasing number of colonists regarded slavery as unnecessary and undesirable; following independence, various states outlawed slavery. Rhode Island, traditionally a seat of tolerance, abolished the institution as early as 1774. Another bright spot existed in this early era: The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 excluded slavery from the vast Northwest Territory.

Cotton Gin. Just six years after passage of the Northwest Ordinance, however, a New Englander working as a tutor in Georgia invented a brilliantly simple machine that revolutionized the cotton industry; in so doing, he ensured the continuance of slavery. Eli Whitney (1765-1825), fascinated by operations on the large Southern plantations, saw that planters were vexed by a problem with the short-staple cotton raised in the lower South. The plants’ seeds required extensive handwork to remove. Even done by slaves, the labor was so time-consuming that profits were sharply curtailed. By April 1793, Whitney had fashioned a machine that used a toothed cylinder to separate the cottonseed from the cotton fiber. Each “cotton gin” could turn out 50 pounds of cleaned cotton a day—far more than what manual labor could produce.

With cotton production suddenly becoming extremely profitable, farmers all over the South turned to it, and “King Cotton” soon displaced tobacco, rice, and indigo as the primary Southern export crop. With increased production also came a greatly increased demand for slave labor to pick the cotton.

Underground Railroad. As an earlier generation had been fascinated by inventions like the cotton gin, so now Americans were enthralled by another innovation, railroads, which began appearing in the United States during the late 1820s. If the railroad seemed a technological miracle, abolitionists (those who wanted to abolish slavery) were aware that they needed a spiritual and moral miracle. By 1830, the highly organized abolitionists developed a network they called the Underground Railroad.

The system was a loose network of individuals—whites and free blacks, called “conductors”—and safe houses (“stations”) dedicated to nothing less than the secret delivery—and deliverance—of slaves (“passengers”) from slave states to free ones. In the years prior to the Civil War, 50,000 to 100,000 slaves found freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Southern slaveholders did not suffer the Underground Railroad gladly. “Conductors” were menaced, assaulted, and even killed. Fugitive slaves, once retaken, were often severely punished as an example to others. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1842 (Prigg v. Pennsylvania) that states were not required to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 179 3 (which provided for the return of slaves who escaped to free states), opposition to the Underground Railroad became rabid.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Resistance to slavery was not always nonviolent, and the fear of slave rebellion was never far from the thoughts of Southern slave holders. Nat Turner was a slave on the South-hampton County, Virginia, plantation of Joseph Travis. A fiery lay preacher, Turner gathered about him a band of rebellious fellow slaves, and just before dawn on August 22, 1831, lie and his followers killed every white member of the Travis household. The band then swept through the countryside, killing every white they encountered during the next 24 hours—perhaps 60 whites in all. Reaction, in turn, was swift and terrible. Turner and 50 of his band were apprehended and quickly tried. Twenty were summarily hanged. The enflamed white avengers went beyond this measure, however, indulging in their own rampage of killing and torture, directed indiscriminately at whatever blacks they happened to run across.

Although slave rebellions were hardly new in 1831, in an atmosphere of organized opposition to slavery, Nat Turner’s Rebellion created unprecedented panic in the South and hardened Southern antagonism to abolitionist efforts.

The Liberator and the Narrative. The year that saw Nat Turner’s Rebellion also witnessed the emergence of a new newspaper in the North. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was a genteel New England abolitionist—a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts—who became coeditor of a moderate periodical called The Genius of Universal Emancipation. But the injustice of slavery soon ignited a fiercer fire in Garrison’s belly, and on January 1, 1831, he published the first issue of The Liberator. This was a radical and eloquent abolitionist periodical that declared slaver, an abomination in the sight of God and that demanded the immediate emancipation of all slaves, without compromise. The Liberator galvanized the abolitionist movement, Three years after the first number was printed, Garrison presided over the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Using The Liberator and the society, Garrison embarked on a massive campaign of what he called “moral suasion.” He believed that slaver), would be abolished when a majority of white Americans experienced a “revolution in conscience.”

Garrison grew increasingly strident in his views, and by the late 1830s, some abolitionists broke with him. In 1842, he made his most radical stand, declaring that Northerners should disavow all allegiance to the Union because the Constitution protected slavery. A pacifist, Garrison nevertheless hailed John Brown’s bloody 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry for the purpose of stealing guns to arm slaves for a general uprising.

If The Liberator was the most powerful white voice in support of abolition, a gripping account of slavery and liberation by an escaped Maryland slave named Frederick Douglass was the most compelling African-American voice. Published in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was widely read and discussed. Not only did the Narrative vividly portray the inhumanity of slavery, it i simultaneously made manifest the intense humanity of the slaves, especially of the brilliant, self-educated Douglass himself. Active as a lecturer in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass parted company with Garrison over the issue of breaking with the Union. Douglass wanted to work within the Constitution.

The Tortured Course of Compromise. The awkward Missouri Compromise hammered out in 1820 began to buckle in 1848-49 when gold was discovered in California. The territory was officially transferred to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War on February 2, 1848. On January 24, 1848, just a few days before the treaty was signed, gold was found at a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River. During the height of the gold rush, in .1849, more than 80,000 fortune seekers poured into the territory. This event suddenly made statehood for the territory an urgent issue. But would California be admitted as a slave state or free?

In 1846, Congress, seeking a means of bringing the Mexican War to a speedy conclusion, had debated a bill to appropriate $2 million to compensate Mexico for “territorial adjustments.” Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot introduced an amendment to the bill, called the Wilmot Proviso, that would have barred the introduction of slavery into any land acquired by the United States as a result of the war. As usual, Southern opposition to the limitation of slavery was articulated by South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. He proposed four resolutions:

1. Territories, including those acquired as a result of the war, were the common and joint property of the states.

2. Congress, acting as agent for the states, could make no law discriminating between the states and depriving any state of its rights with regard to any territory.

3. The enactment of any national law regarding slavery would violate the Constitution and the doctrine of states’ rights.

4. The people have the right to form their state government as they wish, provided that its government is republican.

As if Calhoun’s resolutions were not enough, he dropped another bombshell, warning that failure to maintain a balance between the demands of the North and the South would lead to “civil war.”

1850. Congress labored over the next three years to bolster the 1820 compromise. Thanks to abolitionists such as Garrison and Douglass, most Northerners were no longer willing to allow slavery to extend into any new territory, whether it lay above or below the line drawn by the Missouri Compromise. To break the dangerous stalemate, Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan advanced the doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” proposing that new territories would be organized without any mention of slavery one way or the other. When the territory wrote its own constitution and applied for admission as a state, the people of the territory would vote to be slave or free. As to California, it would be admitted to the Union directly instead of going through an interim of territorial status.

Southerners cringed. They assumed that California would vote itself free, as would New Mexico down the line. Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster worked out a new compromise. California would indeed be admitted to the Union as a free state. The other territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War would be subject to “popular sovereignty.” In addition, the slave trade in the District of Columbia would be discontinued. To appease the South, however, a strong Fugitive Slave Law was passed, strictly forbidding Northerners to grant: refuge to escaped slaves. Finally, the federal government agreed to assume debts Texas (admitted as a slave state in 1845) incurred before it was annexed to the United States.

As with the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 pleased no one completely. Abolitionists were outraged by the Fugitive Slave Law, while states’ rights supporters saw the slave-free balance in Congress as shifting inexorably northward.

Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the Compromise of 1850, many observers saw the handwriting on the wall: the Union was coming apart at the seams. In 1854, the territories of Nebraska and Kansas applied for statehood. In response, Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise and passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left the question of slavery to “popular sovereignty.” There was never any doubt that Nebraskans would vote themselves a free state, but Kansas was very much up for grabs. Pro-slavery Missourians suddenly flooded across the border, elected a pro-slavery territorial legislature, then, mission accomplished, returned to Missouri. Anti-slavery Iowans likewise poured in, but they decided to settle. Soon a chronic state of civil warfare developed between pro-and anti-slavery factions in Kansas. The situation became so ugly that the territory was soon called “Bleeding Kansas.”

The anti-slavery faction set up its headquarters at the town of Lawrence. In 1856, pro-slavery “border ruffians” raided Lawrence, setting fire to a hotel and a number of houses, and destroying a printing press. In the process, several townspeople were killed. During the night of May 24, John Brown, a radical abolitionist who had taken command of the territory’s so-called Free Soil Militia, led four of his sons and two other followers in an assault on pro-slavery settlers along the Pottawatomie River. Five defenseless settlers were hacked to death with sabers. Claiming responsibility for the act, Brown pronounced it payback for the sack of Lawrence. The incident was just one jarring passage in a grim overture to the great Civil War.

The Dred Scott Disgrace. In 1857, at the height of the Kansas bloodshed, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a decision concerning the case of one Dred Scott, a fugitive slave. Scott had belonged to John Emerson of Saint Louis. An army surgeon, Emerson had been transferred first to Illinois and then to Wisconsin Territory, with his slave in tow. When Emerson died in 1846, Scott returned to Saint Louis and sued Emerson’s widow for his freedom, arguing that lie was a citizen of Missouri, now free by virtue of having lived in Illinois, where slavery was banned by the Northwest Ordinance, and in Wisconsin Territory, where the terms of the Missouri Compromise made slavery illegal. The Missouri state court decided against Scott, but his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court.

The high court was divided along regional lines. The anti-slavery Northern justices sided with Scott, while the pro-slavery Southerners upheld the Missouri state court decision. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had the final word. He ruled, in the first place, that neither free blacks nor enslaved blacks were citizens of the Untied States and, therefore, could not sue in federal court. That ruling would have been enough to settle the case, but Taney went on. He held that the Illinois law banning slavery had no force on Scott after he returned to Missouri, a slave state. The law that obtained in Wisconsin was likewise null and void, Taney argued, because the Missouri Compromise was (he said) unconstitutional. According to Taney, the law violated the fifth amendment to the Constitution, which bars the government from depriving an individual of “life, liberty, or property” without due process of law.

The decision outraged abolitionists and galvanized their cause. Here was the spectacle of the United States Supreme Court using the Bill of Rights to deny freedom to a human being! Here was the federal government saying to slave owners that their ownership of human beings would be honored and protected everywhere in the nation! No longer was the slavery issue a question of how the nation could expand westward while maintaining a balance in Congress. It was now an issue of property. Justice Taney’s decision had put slavery beyond compromise. If, as his decision implied, the rights of slaveholders were to be universally respected as long as slavery existed, then, universally, slavery had to be abolished so that the rights of slaveowners could be abolished. And that, inevitably, meant war.

The Least You Need to Know

The labor-intensive cultivation of cotton made the Southern economy dependent on slavery.

 A series of compromises staved off civil war for three decades, as Northern opposition to slavery grew stronger and Southern advocacy of it became increasingly strident.

 The Dred Scott decision made slavery an issue transcending individual states; therefore, it made compromise impossible-and civil war inevitable.

Word for the Day. Cotton gin sounds to us like a peculiar form of booze, but late 18th-century ears would have immediately recognized “gin” as a shortened from of “engine.” Two hundred years ago, a gin—or engine—was any labor-saving device, particularly one intended to help move heavy objects.

Real Life. The most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, a courageous, self-taught, charismatic escaped slave, single-minded in her dedication to freeing others. Born in Dorchester County, Maryland, about 1821, she escaped to freedom about 1849 by following the North Star. Not content with having achieved her own freedom, she repeatedly risked recapture throughout the 1850s by journeying into slave territory to lead some 300 other fugitives, including her parents, to freedom.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Tubman volunteered her services as a Union army cook and nurse, then undertook hazardous duty as a spy and guide for Union forces in Maryland and Virginia. Capture would surely have meant death.

Following the war, Tubman operated a home in Auburn, New York, for aged and indigent African-Americans. She ran the facility until her death on March 10, 1913, when she was buried with full military honors.

Main Event. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96) was the daughter of a celebrated Congregationalist minister, Lyman Beecher, and the wife of biblical scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe. In 1843, she wrote her first book, Tile Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters among the Descendants of the Pilgrims, which revealed her familiarity with New England. However, living near Kentucky for a time acquainted her with the South. After Stowe and her husband moved to Brunswick, Maine, in 1850, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law stirred memories of what she had seen of slavery.


Stowe began to write a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, which was published serially in the National Era during 1852. The following year, the work came out in book form and created a tremendous popular sensation. With its vivid—and sentimental—scenes dramatizing the cruelty of slavery, the book shook the apathy out of many Northerners and enraged slaveholding Southerners. So powerful was the effect of the novel in the years preceding the Civil War that, when Abraham Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe during the conflict, he reportedly referred to her as “the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war.”


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