Internal US Conflict in the 19th Century: Pro-Slavery vs Anti-Slavery

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Table of contents

  1. Pro-Slavery vs Anti-Slavery in the 19th century US
  2. Conclsuion
  3. References

During the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the debate over slavery was the paramount force that was conducting the political life in America; it lead to the deaths of millions and provoked social tensions that lasted for more than a century. The division started even before the expansion of America to the West. It started with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, when amid growing sectional tensions over the issue of slavery, the U.S. Congress passed a law that admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state, while banning slavery from the remaining Louisiana Purchase lands located north of the 36º 30’ parallel. This is the very first instance where we can see the clash between the two blocks, the Pro-Slavery Block, and the Anti-Slavery one. This Compromise was aimed at maintaining the balance of power between North and South in the United States Senate and it literally drew a line that divided the U.S in “Slave” and “Free”.

Pro-Slavery vs Anti-Slavery in the 19th century US

However, the chief force beyond internal US conflict in the nineteenth century, which repeatedly threatened the state of the Union and eventually drove the nation to civil war, was not the institution of slavery itself, not necessarily the question of whether or not persons could be owned and treated as chattel property or not. No, rather it was the question of that institution’s expansion, to the newly acquired territories which were continually added to the ever-growing republic. During the 1840s, territorial expansion westward surged forward under the leadership of President Polk. The U.S engaged into war with Mexico and as a results it gained massive amounts of territory including: New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and Texas. The war provoked controversy, as President Polk was accused of provoking an unnecessary war that aimed the expansion of slavery.

The annexation of these territories deepened the fears of “slave power”. This was a notion created by Abolitionists who warned of a slaveholding oligarchy who intended to dominate the country through its hold on federal power. The fear of Slave Power and the ideal of free labor created a new political persuasion was created in the North. They believed that slave labor would degrade the honest toil of free man. Therefore, the West must be kept free of slaves. However, the South did not share the same ideas, as it saw the West as an ideal opportunity to increase the power it wielded on the national stage, through which it could protect its own interests, in the form of enshrining slavery in federal law as an inalienable right of theirs. From now on, I believe that the upcoming events are more like a war between these two blocks.

The very first sectional battle involved California, which saw more than 80000 Americans flooding its territory during the 1849 Gold Rush. President Taylor urged the settlers to apply for admission to the Union. They promptly did so, proposing a state constitution that did not allow slavery. This would unbalance the sectional power in the North’s favor, Southern politicians did not welcome this decision. This, combined with other growing concerns like the Fugitive Slaves and the arrangement of the new territories lead to the Compromise of 1850. Under the Compromise, California was admitted to the Union as a free state; the slave trade was outlawed in Washington, D.C., a strict new Fugitive Slave Act compelled citizens of free states to assist in capturing enslaved people; and the new territories of Utah and New Mexico would permit white residents to decide whether they would allow slavery or not (Popular Sovereignty). This Compromise caused a lot of controversy as it made the federal government responsible for apprehending fugitive slaves in the North, and sending them back to the South. This extended slavery and its enforcement beyond the South. To counter this, Northern states began passing personal liberty laws. Additionally, because of the ambiguous Popular Sovereignty Notion, there were claims both from the North and from the South that this notion was beneficial to them.

The biggest controversy of all was the Kansas-Nebraska act 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act was a direct violation of the “sacred” Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´. This was considered as a massive “win” for the Pro-Slavery block, and it deepened the fears of Slave Power. At the same time, the ambiguous “Popular Sovereignty” notion caused bloodshed in Kansas as land-hungry partisans repeatedly clashed with armed Abolitionist religious groups. This act dealt a major blow to the two major political parties as it literally divided the Whigs party in half, and the Democratic Party lost all its support in the North. This gave rise to the Republican Party which was created as an Anti-Slavery coalition including Northern Democrats, Free Soilers, and Whigs. This is a proof of how divided America was at this time.

The event that ultimately ignited the debate over slavery and that won the Republican Party a lot of support was the Dred Scott’s case. The Dred Scott decision was the Supreme Court's ruling, that having lived in a Free State and territory did not entitle a slave, Dred Scott, to his freedom. In essence, the decision argued that as a slave Scott was not a citizen and could not sue in a federal court. This decision proved that the Slave Power had won a constitutional victory, and a storm of angry reaction broke in the North where legislators were constantly passing personal liberty laws.

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The Republican Party, with Abraham Lincoln as its head, used the ever-growing fear of Slave Power to strengthen the antislavery coalition, which managed to win the 1860 election. South Carolina lamented the election of a new president “whose opinions and purposes were hostile to slavery.” For this reason, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina passed an ordinance of secessions amid jubilation and cheering. By reclaiming its independence, South Carolina raised the stakes of sectional confrontation. This was the climax of the division that the debate over slavery had caused. No longer was secession an unthinkable step; the Union was broken. Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Georgia followed. By February 1861, a new government was formed in Montgomery, Alabama: The Confederate States of America. The war was knocking at the door, and on April 12, 1861 the Confederates bombarded Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

During the time Lincoln was President, he made remarkable progress with regards to abolishing slavery and granting freed slaves civil rights. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that all slaves were finally free. However, it was more of a threat to put pressure to the South, as it did not prohibit slavery in the Border States, rather than an actual piece of legislation that prohibited slavery. However, Lincoln finished what he started with the 13th Amendment 1865, which had two provisions: first, it abolished involuntary servitude everywhere in the U.S; second, it declared that Congress shall have the power to enforce this outcome by “appropriate legislation”. The second part was aimed at avoiding another “defeat” form the Supreme Court. From now on, the debate revolves around the rights of the freed men.

Less than a week after Robert E. Lee effectively surrenders the Confederacy, Lincoln is assassinated. The great post-war Reconstruction now occurs without the very man who could have ensured all the bloodshed was not in vain and the country enters yet another period of political turmoil. Lincoln’s successor was Andrew Johnson, the only southern Democrat who did not give up his seat after secession. Johnson was a white supremacist who did not favor black civil and political rights. Even though, at first, many believed that Johnson would treat the ex-Confederates very harshly, it turned out quite the contrary. Johnson started pardoning planters and leading rebels. These pardons, plus the rapid return of planter’s abandoned lands, quickly restored the old elite to power, and he was considered as the South’s champion. The Congress, led by the Republican Radicals, engaged in a fierce tug-of-war with the President over the issues of Reconstruction, from which Congress ended up being the winner.

The biggest clash between the two was the Fourteenth Amendment 1866, which gave citizenship to everyone born in the U.S and granted Black suffrage. Johnson definitely did not accept this piece of legislation. He travelled state after state criticizing Congress in a renting, undignified style. This made him a really unpopular figure, and as a consequence, the elections of 1866 were a resounding victory for the Republicans in Congress. Now that the Radicals had the lead, the passed Reconstruction Acts which were vetoed and then overroded one after the other. The role of the President at this time was reduced to the maximum.

The next elections, saw Ulysses S. Grant become President of the U.S. In 1869, the Radicals pushed through with the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that no state should forbade the right to vote on the basis of color, race, or previous conditions of servitude. With this Amendment, Reconstruction was considered complete.

There was, however, a difference between providing laws protecting African Americans and enforcing those laws. Since, the 15th Amendment could be considered a “win” for the Anti-Slavery Block, the Pro-Slavery Block now The White Supremacist Block turned to violence.

The Ku Klux Klan started conducting violent actions, whippings, harassments, and beatings which terrorized black people and made it significantly more difficult for them to escape from their situation. President Grant was constantly losing popularity due to his naïve political decisions, which lead to Democrats gaining back control of the Congress. In 1870, the Supreme Court successfully limited the effectiveness of the 14th Amendment by stating that there is a distinction between state citizenship and national citizenship. In 1876, Hayes (republican) becomes President through a compromise with the Southern Democrats, which means that black people can no longer turn to the Republican Party.

White supremacist devised several different methods of preventing black people from voting like: putting a tax on voting, literacy tests etc. The Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment protected the rights of the citizens only against infringements made by the federal government, and not by individuals or organizations and that the citizens had to appeal to state law for infringements made by individuals or organizations. Racism prevailed. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act which prohibited segregation in public facilities. At the state level, segregation could legally occur on a “separate-but-equal” basis as upheld by the Supreme Court in 1896. Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Segregation was enforced for public pools, phone booths, hospitals, asylums, jails and residential homes for the elderly and handicapped. Some states required separate textbooks black and white students. Yet blacks encountered segregation in the North as well. Rather than through de jure segregation, most northern whites and blacks lived in separate neighborhoods and attended separate schools largely through de facto segregation. All these facts show that slavery still left a deep wound in the American society that would take more than a century to heal.

Conclsuion

In conclusion, the issue of slavery and its expansion was the primary force driving American politics during the 19th century, leading to the deaths of millions and provoking social tensions that lasted for more than a century. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established a line dividing the country into "Slave" and "Free" states, but the question of slavery's expansion into newly acquired territories led to further divisions. The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 both attempted to address this issue but instead deepened tensions, leading to the creation of the Republican Party and ultimately the Civil War. The Dred Scott decision further fueled the North's anger towards the institution of slavery, ultimately leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of Southern states. The legacy of slavery and its impact on American society continues to this day, highlighting the importance of addressing systemic issues that result in social injustices.

References

  1. Berlin, I. (2009). The long emancipation: The demise of slavery in the United States. Harvard University Press.
  2. Foner, E. (2010). The fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American slavery. WW Norton & Company.
  3. Freehling, W. W. (1994). The road to disunion: Secessionists at bay, 1776-1854. Oxford University Press.
  4. Gienapp, W. E. (1988). The origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. Oxford University Press.
  5. McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle cry of freedom: The Civil War era. Oxford University Press.
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