The Compromise of 1850

This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Henry Clay in the Senate-The Compromise of 1850The period after the Mexican War was a contentious time with between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The United States had acquired vast territories as a result of its victory over Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 would organize all of these territories and hold off disunion for another decade.

The South saw it as an opportunity to tip the balance in favor of the slave states. The North would never agree to this train of events and it appeared that the country was headed for a breakup and the possibility of civil war.

During the deadlock of four years, the Second Party System broke up, Mormon pioneers settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled northern California, and New Mexico under a federal military government turned back Texas’s attempt to assert control over territory Texas claimed as far west as the Rio Grande.

In an attempt to sort out the various territorial and policy issues Senator Henry Clay, a Kentucky Whig, proposed a number of compromises to resolve these issues. But rather than place everything in one bill Clay urged Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, to divide Clay’s bill into several smaller bills, and pass each separately. Clay who was very ill and would die two years later felt that he did not have the strength to push the bills through the Senate.

The Compromise of 1850 came to coalesce around a plan dividing Texas at its present-day boundaries, creating territorial governments with “popular sovereignty” (without the Wilmot Proviso) for New Mexico and Utah, admitting California as a free state, abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and enacting a new fugitive slave law.

Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward who delivered his famous “Higher Law” speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise because it would not have applied the Wilmot Proviso to the western territories and because of the new fugitive slave law, which would have pressed ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols. Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs supported the Compromise. Southern Whigs, many of whom were from the border states, supported it because of the stronger fugitive slave law.

The initial debates were quite acrimonious with compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drawing a pistol on Senator Benton. Vice President Millard Fillmore and Senator Benton verbally sparred, with Fillmore charging that the Missourian was “out of order.”

In early June 9 representatives from 9 Southern states met at the Nashville Convention to consider what to do if the compromises were passed. Some talked about secession but the moderates won and they proposed a series of compromises, including extending the geographic dividing line designated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Coast.

The initial “omnibus” bill was defeated on July 31st with the majority of Clay’s Whig Party opposed to the measure. Clay left the Senate to recuperate from tuberculosis at Newport, Rhode Island and Douglas took over the shepherding of the bill. He immediately divided the measure into five separate bills.

President Zachary Taylor who had been neutral on the “omnibus” bill died in early July 1850 and Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded him. Fillmore was in favor of the compromise and gave it his full support. The Northern Democrats held together and supported each of the bills and gained Whigs or Southern Democrats to pass each one.

The six bills were passed and signed by Fillmore between September 9th and September 20th.

  1. California was admitted as a free state. It passed the House 150-56. It passed the Senate 34-18.
  2. The slave trade was abolished (the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
  3. The Territory of Utah was organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed the House 97-85.
  4. The Territory of New Mexico was organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed the House 108-97. It passed the Senate 30-20.
  5. A harsher Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-76.
  6. Texas gave up much of the western land which it claimed and received compensation of $10,000,000 to pay off its national debt.

The Compromise of 1850 Map

Many historians contend that the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War for the next decade. What we do know is that over the decade a number of events took place that strengthened the North and pushed the country to war.

  • The divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 introduced by Stephen Douglas, which repealed the Missouri Compromise.
  • This led to open warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border.
  • The Republican Party was formed in 1854 as a coalition of anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs“, Know Nothings and Free Soil Democrats.
  • During the decade the Northwest grew more wealthy and more populous and became closer in ideology to the Northeast.
  • The Southern stages for the most part stagnated.
  • The Fugitive Slave Law polarized the North and the South .
  • The free economy of the northern states to continue to industrialize adding many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population.





The Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso

This entry is part 9 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

David Wilmot-The Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso The Wilmot Proviso was a failed attempt by the so-called Barnburner wing of the Democrat Party to ban slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War or in the future.  The term barnburner was derived from the idea of someone who would burn down his own barn to get rid of a rat infestation, in this case slavery. Led by David Wilmot, a Democrat congressman from Pennsylvania, they were opposed to the further spread of slavery.

The fight to stop the spread of slavery was caused by the Mexican War that lasted from April 25, 1846 until February 2, 1848. This period in American history was driven by the spirit of Manifest Destiny. It was a widely held belief that it was America’s destiny to spread all of the way to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1836 the Texans had won their independence and founded the Republic of Texas but pressure began to build almost immediately for Texas to become a state. The annexation of Texas was contentious in the U.S. Congress, where Whigs were largely opposed. Finally, in 1845 Texas agreed to the offer of annexation by the U.S. Congress and became the 28th state on December 29, 1845. Texas entered the Union as a slave state.

The Mexican War began as a boundary dispute between the United States and Mexico. Simultaneously, John C. Fremont and a group of armed men appeared in California. He raised the American flag at a fort on Gavilan Peak but left California in March 1846. However, he returned to California and assisted the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma, where many American immigrants stated that they were playing “the Texas game” and declared California’s independence from Mexico.

Tensions between the two countries continued to heat up despite attempts by the American government to negotiate with their southern neighbor. Mexico was not inclined nor able to negotiate. In 1846 alone, the presidency changed hands four times, the war ministry six times, and the finance ministry sixteen times. Mexican public opinion and all political factions agreed that selling the territories to the United States would tarnish the national honor.

Talks broke down when a more nationalistic government came to power. President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor and his forces south to the Rio Grande, entering the territory that Mexicans disputed. Mexico laid claim to all the lands as far north as the Nueces River—about 150 mi  north of the Rio Grande.

The U.S. claimed that the border was the Rio Grande, citing the 1836 Treaties of Velasco. Mexico rejected the treaties and refused to negotiate; it claimed all of Texas. Taylor ignored Mexican demands to withdraw to the Nueces. He constructed a makeshift fort (later known as Fort Brown/Fort Texas) on the banks of the Rio Grande opposite the city of Matamoros.

On April 25, 1846, a 2,000-strong Mexican cavalry detachment attacked a 70-man U.S. patrol under the command of Captain Seth Thornton, which had been sent into the contested territory north of the Rio Grande and south of the Nueces River. In the Thornton Affair, the Mexican cavalry routed the patrol, killing 16 American soldiers.

The war lasted slightly more than a year and a half with the complete defeat of the Mexican forces. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 ended the war. The treaty gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border of the Rio Grande, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In return, Mexico received US $15,000,000 ($492,399,038 today) – less than half the amount the U.S. had attempted to offer Mexico for the land before the opening of hostilities and the U.S. agreed to assume $3.25 million ($87,687,500 today) in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens.

Enter the anti-slavery forces who attempted to halt the spread of slavery by passing the Wilmot Proviso as a rider on a $2,000,000 appropriations bill intended for the final negotiations to resolve the Mexican–American War. Their first attempt was in August 1846, just three months into the war. It passed the House but failed in the Senate, where the South had greater representation.

The amendment was brief and to the point:

Provided, That, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.

It was reintroduced in February 1847 and again passed the House and failed in the Senate. In 1848, an attempt to make it part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed.

With the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso the issue of the spread of slavery moved from one of abstraction to one involving practical matters. t soon became clear to the South that this long postponed attack on slavery had finally occurred. Rather than simply discuss the politics of the issue, historian William Freehling noted, “Most Southerners raged primarily because David Wilmot’s holier-than-thou stance was so insulting.” 

Combined with other slavery related issues, the Wilmot Proviso led to the Compromise of 1850, which helped buy another shaky decade of peace. Radical secessionists were temporarily at bay as the Nashville Convention failed to endorse secession. Moderates rallied around the Compromise as the final solution to the sectional issues involving slavery and the territories.


The Rise of the Abolitionists

This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slave Kidnap Poster from Boston-The Rise of the AbolitionistsSlavery and abolition of the practice have gone hand and hand in the United States almost from the beginning of the “peculiar institution”. We know that slavery began in 1619 when a Dutch trading ship sold 20 slaves to the Colony of Virginia as indentured servants.

Click image to enlarge.

But we have often overlooked the beginnings of abolition in America, After earlier laws in Massachusetts (1641) and Connecticut (1650) limited slavery to some extent, a 1652 Rhode Island law clearly limited bond service to no more than 10 years or no later than a person attaining the age of 24.

Non-slaveholding farmers in Virginia think slave labor threatens their livelihoods. They persuade the General Assembly to discuss a prohibition of slavery or a ban on importing slaves. In response, the assembly raises the tariff on slaves to five pounds, which about equals the full price of an indenture, so as not to make importation of slaves as initially attractive or preferable to a mere indenture for a term of years.

In 1775 Quakers in Pennsylvania with the aid of other non-Quakers form the first abolition society, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, in Philadelphia. It was reorganized in 1784 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, (better known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society) and was incorporated in 1789. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society still exists today, dedicated to the cause of racial justice.

Even though the Declaration of Independence declared that “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,” slavery remained legal in the American colonies.

In 1777 Vermont, then the Republic of Vermont, prohibited slavery in its constitution. The following year Virginia banned the importation of slaves. It is the first state to ban the slave trade, and all other states eventually followed. In 1780 Pennsylvania adopted a law calling for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Massachusetts banned slavery in its constitution.

In 1782, Virginia liberalizes its very strict law preventing manumission; under the new law, a master may emancipate slaves in his will or by deed. The following year New Hampshire passed a law saying that children of slaves would be born free. In 1784, Rhode Island and Connecticut pass laws providing for gradual emancipation of slaves.

In 1816, Henry ClayJames MonroeBushrod WashingtonRobert FinleySamuel John Mills Jr. and others organize the American Colonization Society to send freed slaves to Liberia. The Society funds the migration of about 10,000 free blacks to return to Africa. Abolition has entered a new phase with an emphasis to return the slaves to their African homelands. Groups calling for migration and outright abolition begin to diverge along the abolition path.

In 1831 Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator. It would be a watershed event and abolitionist across the United States will become more united in the goal of emancipation of slaves. From this time forward many abolitionists call for immediate emancipation.

In 1833 Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child of Massachusetts publishes An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called AfricansWendell Phillips and Charles Sumner are persuaded to become abolitionists.

In the same year the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan. Frederick Douglass was a key leader of this society and often spoke at its meetings as well. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, “The society’s antislavery activities frequently met with violent public opposition, with mobs invading meetings, attacking speakers, and burning presses.”

The following year, Anti-Slavery “debates” are held at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Lane had been founded by abolitionist evangelist and writer Theodore Dwight Weld with financial help from abolitionist merchants and philanthropists Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan. The anti-slavery speaking circuit is born and would flourish in the North right up to the onset of the war.

Committed abolitionists Angelina Grimké Weld and her sister Sarah Grimké were born in Charleston, South Carolina, but move to Philadelphia because of their anti-slavery philosophy and Quaker faith. In 1836, Angelina publishes An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, inviting them to overthrow slavery, which she declares is a horrible system of oppression and cruelty. Angelina would marry Theodore Dwight Weld in 1838.

Divisions begin to appear in churches across America. In 1844, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South breaks away from the Methodist Episcopal Church on the issue of slavery. At the same time black abolitionist, Charles Lenox Remond, and white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, declare they would rather see the union dissolved than keep the Constitution only through the retention of slavery. The following year Southern Baptist Convention breaks from the Northern Baptists but does not formally endorse slavery.

In the same year Frederick Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. The book details his life as a slave. He soon joins William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery speaking circuit. Douglass’ natural speaking ability makes him one of the circuits most popular orators and he soon become well-known across the North.


Slave Revolts (Part 2)

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Am I not a man and a brotherSlave revolts were not a very common occurrence but they continued, on shore and on sea. From 1822 their were a number of revolts and conspiracies by slaves throughout the Southern United States. Slaveowners and state authorities responded by crushing almost all of them.

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a South Carolina freedman, supposedly plotted an uprising of slaves in that state. Vesey won $1,500 in a Charleston city lottery in 1799. He used the money to buy his freedom from his owner and began working as a carpenter.

Apparently, Vesey was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution and also the closing of his African Methodist Episcopal Church. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast.

The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation. Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.

In August 1831 a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner took place in Southampton County, Virginia. We have a description of Turner from a reward poster that was circulated after his uprising:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather “bright” [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow. 

Turner was highly intelligent and how to read and write at an early age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. Turner often conducted Baptist services and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet.”

On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as the final signal, and began the rebellion a week later on August 21. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they encountered. Turner started with a small number of slaves but eventually 70 enslaved and free blacks joined in the revolt.

Turner and his followers used knives, axes, hatchets and other edged weapons rather than firearms since the sound of gunfire would alert the countryside. Traveling from one house to another, they killed almost all of the white people that they encountered.

The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children before Turner and his accomplices were defeated. A white militia with twice the manpower of the rebels and reinforced by three companies of artillery eventually defeated the insurrection.

Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina surrounding Southampton. The state executed 56 blacks. Militias killed at least 100 blacks, and probably many more. Another estimate is that up to 200 blacks were killed. The number of black victims overall far exceeded the number of white victims.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion spread fear throughout the South. The fear and alarm led to whites’ attacking blacks across the South with flimsy cause. The editor of the Richmond Whig, writing “with pain,” described the scene as “the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity.” 

Turner eluded capture over two months. On October 30, a White farmer discovered him in a hole covered with fence rails, and Turner was arrested. A trial was quickly arranged. On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection”, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner’s corpse was flayedbeheaded and quartered.

In 1839 the slaves on the Spanish schooner La Amistad revolted, killed several members of the crew and took over the ship. They demanded to be returned to Africa but were deceived by the remaining crew members who steered the ship to the coast of the United States. The vessel was discovered off the coast of Long Island and was seized by the United States revenue cutter USS Washington.

This began a complex legal case that involved all of the participants including the American captain of the Washington, the owners of the slaves, the Spanish government, the British government and the Africans on board. The case eventually worked its way through the federal court system and arrived at the Supreme Court in February 1841.

The Court ruled that the Africans were in fact free and that the ship itself was lawful salvage. The Africans were taken in by abolitionists. The Amistad Committee instructed the Africans in English and Christianity, and raised funds to pay for their return home. Along with several missionaries, in 1842 the surviving 36 Africans sailed to Sierra Leone.

In 1841 the brig Creole was was transporting 135 slaves from Richmond to New Orleans for sale in the slave market there. While the United States had prohibited the international slave trade effective in 1808, it permitted the domestic slave trade among those states that authorized slavery. Many slave traders transported captives by the coastwise slave trade along the East Coast.

On November 7, 1841, Madison Washington and eighteen other male slaves rebelled. They overwhelmed the crew and killed John R. Hewell, one of the slave traders, with a knife. The crew and passengers had only one gun among them, which they never used. They ordered the crew to take them to Nassau in the Bahamas.

The Bahamas was a British colony and slavery had been outlawed by Britain. After a series of court rulings 128 slaves gained freedom. It has been termed the “most successful slave revolt in US history”.

The 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation was the largest escape of a group of slaves to occur in the Cherokee Nation. The slave revolt took place on November 15, 1842, when a group of African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee escaped and tried to reach Mexico, where slavery had been abolished. They were soon captured, after killing two pursuers. Five slaves were later executed for these deaths.

The event inspired subsequent slave rebellions to take place in the Indian Territory and throughout North America. Although the 1842 slave revolt participants were captured before reaching the Mexican border, the aftermath of this revolt led Cherokee Nation slave holders to create stricter slave codes, expel Freedmen from the territory, and found a ‘rescue’ (slave-catching) company to prevent further loss of slaves.

Perhaps, the most famous attempt at freeing slaves was led by John Brown who along with 19 followers attempted to capture The U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He intended to arm arms with the rifles from the arsenal. You can read about it here.

Slave Revolts

The Two Faces of Abolitionism: Slave Revolts (Part 1)

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slave RevoltsThe rise and spread of abolitionism by its very nature had two faces. On the one hand was non-violent abolitionism as characterized by men like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass who were supported by a significant minority of Americans and anti-slavery organizations.

On the other hand there were armed insurrections throughout America that were met with remorseless responses by slaveholders and their states who were seeking to preserve their “peculiar institution”. In this post we’ll take a look at the slave revolts and plots in America.

The very first instances of servile insurrections occurred in New York in 1712 and 1741. The New York Slave Revolt of 1712 was an uprising in New York City of 23 enslaved Africans who killed nine whites and injured another six. More than three times that number of blacks, 70, were arrested and jailed. Of these, 27 were put on trial, and 21 convicted and executed.

The New York Conspiracy of 1741 was a supposed plot by slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York in 1741 to revolt and level New York City with a series of fires. Historians disagree as to the existence of such a plot. Two slaves were burned at the stake. Before their executions, they confessed to burning the fort and named dozens of others as co-conspirators.

News of the “conspiracy” set off a stampede of arrests. Trials and executions followed through the summer. At the height of the hysteria, nearly half the city’s male slaves over the age of 16 were in jail. The number of arrests totaled 152 blacks and 20 whites. They were tried and convicted in a show trial. John Ury, a teacher and suspected Catholic priest, was charged with instigating the plot. Most of the convicted people were hanged or burnt – how many is uncertain.

In the summer of 1800 a literate enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser planed an insurrection in the capital of Virginia, Richmond. On August 30, 1800, Gabriel intended to lead slaves into Richmond, but the rebellion was postponed because of rain. At that point the plot unraveled.

The slaves’ owners had a suspicion of the uprising, and two slaves told their owner, Mosby Sheppard, about the plans. He warned Virginia’s Governor James Monroe who called out the state militia. Gabriel escaped downriver to Norfolk, but he was spotted and betrayed there by another slave for the reward offered by the state. That slave did not receive the full reward. Returned to Richmond, Prosser and 25 other slaves were hanged.

Gabriel’s Revolt was followed by a slave revolt at Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia in 1803. It is sometimes referred to as Igbo Landing (alternatively written as Ibo LandingEbo Landing, or Ebos Landing) because it involved West African slaves from what is now Nigeria. The captives rose up, killed the crew and committed mass suicide by drowning themselves in nearly Dunbar Creek.

Chatham Manor is the Georgian-style home completed in 1771 by William Fitzhugh. In January 1805, the plantation was the site of a minor slave rebellion. A number of slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and assistants. An armed posse of white men quickly gathered to capture the slaves. They killed one slave in the attack, and two died trying to escape. The posse deported two other slaves, likely to a slave colony in the Caribbean.

In January 1811 a slave uprising known as the German Coast Uprising to place on the  east bank of the Mississippi River in what are now St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes, Louisiana. While the slave insurgency was the largest in US history, the rebels killed only two white men. Confrontations with militia and executions after trial killed ninety-five black people.

Between 64 and 125 enslaved men marched from sugar plantations near present-day LaPlace on the German Coast toward the city of New Orleans. They collected more men along the way. Some accounts claimed a total of 200-500 slaves participated. During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses (three completely), several sugarhouses, and crops. They were armed mostly with hand tools.

In March 1815, George Boxley white abolitionist and former slaveholder allegedly planned an uprising with slaves in and around the Spotsylvania, Virginia area. He tried to recruit slaves to meet at his home with horses, guns, swords and clubs. He planned to attack and take over Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia. Lucy, a local slave, informed her owner, and the plot was foiled. Six slaves involved were imprisoned or executed. With his wife’s help, Boxley escaped from the Spotsylvania County Jail and, despite a reward, he was never caught.


Tariffs and the Nullification Crisis

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

In 1828 the Congress passed a new tariff that the Southerners immediately named the Tariff of Abominations. Northern industries were being driven out of business by low-priced imports and the Northern representatives felt that a higher tariff on low-priced goods was necessary.

However, the Southerners saw it as an attack on them because it forced them to pay higher prices on the goods that they didn’t produce. More importantly,  reducing the exportation of British goods to the US made it difficult for the British to pay for the cotton they imported from the South. The South saw this as a direct attack on their way of life.

The first protective tariff was passed by Congress in 1816; its tariff rates were increased in 1824. Southern states such as South Carolina contended that the tariff was unconstitutional and were opposed to the newer protectionist tariffs, but Western agricultural states favored them, as well as New England’s industries. The Southerners believed that they were unconstitutional because they favored one section of the country over another.

The Tariff of 1828 had the desired effect. Britain reduced their importation of Southern cotton, weakening the Southern economy. THe South was forced to buy more goods from the North rather than Britain. These purchases strengthened Northern manufacturers.

John C. CalhounDespite the sufferings of the South, the US experienced net economic growth with US GDP increasing from $888 million in 1828 to $1.118 billion by 1832 largely due to growth of the Northern manufacturing base.

But the South did not accept the tariff and it created a split within the Democratic Party. Andrew Jackson had been elected President in 1828 with John C. Calhoun of South Carolina as his Vice President. The tariff’s opponents expected Jackson to push for significant reductions in the tariff’s rates but he didn’t address their concerns. In Washington, an open split on the issue occurred between Jackson and Vice-President Calhoun.

On July 14, 1832, Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832 which made some reductions in tariff rates. Calhoun resigned on December 10 of the same year.

The Tariff of 1832 had been substantially written by by former President John Quincy Adams, who had been elected to the House of Representatives and appointed chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. It reduced the existing tariffs to remedy the conflict created by the tariff of 1828, but it was still deemed unsatisfactory by some in the South, especially in South Carolina. South Carolinian opposition to this tariff and its predecessor, the Tariff of Abominations, caused the Nullification Crisis.

The Tariff of 1828 had pushed the duties on citizens to as high as 45 percent on the value of specific manufactured goods. The 1832 act brought the rate down to 35%. As an example, the duty on hemp, which had been $60 a ton in 1828, was reduced to $40. Even then southerners were not happy with it. Eventually, their unrest and dissatisfaction was what led to the nullification crisis. Along with that, another bill was passed, Tariff of 1833.

The tariffs caused the South Carolina legislature to pass the Ordinance of Nullification. This law declared by the power of the State that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of South Carolina.

Southerners were violently opposed to the 1828 Tariff of Abominations but their opposition to tariffs had gone much further back. After the War of 1812 the national government had developed a policy of national tariffs to protect American industries from low-priced European imports.

By 1828 South Carolina state politics was increasingly organized around the tariff issue. When the Jackson administration failed to take any actions to address their concerns, the most radical faction in the state began to advocate that the state itself declare the tariff null and void within South Carolina.

In November 1832 a state convention declared that the tariffs of both 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina after February 1, 1833. Military preparations to resist anticipated federal enforcement were initiated by the state. In late February both a Force Bill, authorizing the President to use military forces against South Carolina, and a new negotiated tariff, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, satisfactory to South Carolina were passed by Congress. The South Carolina convention reconvened and repealed its Nullification Ordinance on March 11, 1833.

The tariff rates were lowered and the crisis was over but nullification would rear its head once again in the 1850s. Southerners would return to it under a new name: states’ rights.


The Missouri Compromise

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Missouri Compromise of 1820The period from 1800 until the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 was a tumultuous one in the United States and the world. The slave population in the United States continued to grow and in the 1800 Census there were 893,605 slaves held in bondage. The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe and the oceans of the world. The United States instituted an embargo that was extremely unpopular in New England and the Mid-Atlantic manufacturing states.

Click to enlarge image.

In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. The total land that came to the United States doubled the size of the country and added 828,000 square miles to the country. There was a large population of enslaved Africans made up of a high proportion of recent arrivals from Africa, as Spain had continued the international slave trade.

This was particularly true of the area of the present-day state of Louisiana, which also contained a large number of free people of color. Both present-day Arkansas and Missouri also had some people holding slaves.

As states organized within the territory, the status of slavery in each state became a matter of contention in Congress, as southern states wanted slavery extended to the west, and northern states just as strongly opposed new states being admitted as slave states.

At the urging of President Jefferson, Congress outlaws the international slave trade in an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. Importing or exporting slaves becomes a federal crime, effective January 1, 1808; in 1820 it is made the crime of piracy. The trade had been about 14,000 a year; illegal smuggling begins and brings in about 1,000 new foreign-born slaves per year.

John Randolph of Roanoke warns during the debates that outlawing the slave trade might become the “pretext of universal emancipation” and further warns that it would “blow up the constitution.” If there ever should be disunion, he prophesies, the line would be drawn between the states that did and those that did not hold slaves

States continued to enter the Union with an alternating pattern of slave states and free states. This was done in order to maintain a balance and keep the opponents and proponents of slavery satisfied that their particular interests were being preserved.

The War of 1812 was fought over issues entirely unrelated to slavery but one offshoot of the conflict was the Hartford Convention. With delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and unofficial delegates from New Hampshire and Vermont who met between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815, they made their unhappiness known about New England’s opposition to the War of 1812 and the trade embargoes.

The convention report said that New England had a “duty” to assert its authority over unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, a position similar to the later nullification theory put forward by South Carolina. The war soon ends and the convention and the Federalist Party which had supported it fell out of favor. This was especially true in the South although leaders there would later adopt the States’ rights concept for their own purposes.

The events that precipitated the Missouri Compromise began when the territory of Missouri petitioned the Congress to enter the Union in 1818. The admission of Missouri as a slave state threatened the balance of 11 free states and 11 slave states. Three years of debate ensued.

A period of maneuvering began in the Congress when Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York submitted an amendment to the Missouri legislation which would have prohibited further introduction of slaves into Missouri. The proposal also would free all children of slave parents in Missouri when they reached the age of twenty-five. The measure passed in the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate.

Representative Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia threatens disunion if Tallmadge persists in attempting to have his amendment enacted. Southern Senators delay a bill to admit Maine as a free state in response to the delay of Missouri’s admission to the union as a slave state.

Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, proposed a compromise to alleviate the Missouri and Maine admissions. He proposed that Missouri be admitted to the Union as a slave state (which it was on August 10, 1821) and the northern counties of Massachusetts would be admitted as a free state, the State of Maine (which occurred on March 15, 1820).

In the west, slavery would be prohibited north of 36°30′ of latitude, which was approximately the southern boundary of Missouri. Many Southerners argued against exclusion of slavery from such a large area of the country. The restriction of slavery north of the 36° 30′ line of latitude would later be abrogated by the popular sovereignty voting provision of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Many historians say that the Missouri Compromise helped to postpone the outbreak of the Civil War by setting up a free slate-slave state framework for the further expansion of the United States across the continent. But Following Maine’s 1820 and Missouri’s 1821 admissions to the Union, no other states were admitted until 1836, when Arkansas was admitted.

But Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Senator John Holmes of Maine said in part:

…but this momentous 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. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

Jefferson believed that a country divided by the Compromise Line would only lead to further divisions and eventually the destruction of the country that he had helped to create.

The Missouri Compromise would last until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. By then pitched battles were taking place along the Kansas-Missouri border and the rise of men like John Brown would eventually light the spark of Disunion and Civil War.


Free State, Slave State and the Northwest Ordinance

This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slaves picking cottonAs the United States expanded beyond the original 13 states clinging to the Atlantic Ocean, it became apparent that the country needed a law to allow the admission of free states and slave states. The first attempt was the Northwest Ordinance of 1789.

The original Northwest Ordinance had been promulgated in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation. The primary effect of the ordinance was the creation of the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, from lands south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.

Following the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 the Congress reaffirmed the original law with some minor modifications and it was signed by George Washington on August 7, 1789. It established the precedent by which the federal government would be sovereign and expand westward across North America with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between free and slave territory in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This division helped set the stage for national competition over admitting free and slave states, the basis of a critical question in American politics in the 19th century until the Civil War.

The Northwest Ordinance began to wholesale admission of new states beginning with Vermont which was admitted as a free state in 1791. The race to balance this out led to Kentucky being admitted as a slave state in 1792.

The following year two events took place that were to have a tremendous impact on the development of the United States with regards to slavery. The Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 based on Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution.

This law guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave and created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished. It also established that children born to fugitive slave mothers were also slaves and the property of the mother’s master, for all their lives.

In response to this section of the law, many Northern states enacted legislation to protect free black Americans (who could otherwise be abducted, then brought before court without the ability to produce a defense, and subsequently lawfully enslaved) as well as runaway slaves.

These laws came to be known as “personal liberty laws” and required slave owners and fugitive hunters to produce evidence that their captures were truly fugitive slaves, “just as southern states demanded the right to retrieve runaway slaves, northern states demanded the right to protect their free black residents from being kidnapped and sold into servitude in the south.” 

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 expanded the slave-catching industry with men acting as bounty hunters capturing and returning many slaves to their legal owners. It also made free blacks targets for these very same bounty hunters due to the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, even if they had “free” papers in their possession.

The case of Solomon Northup documented in the book 12 Years a Slave tells one such story. The historian Carol Wilson documented 300 such cases in Freedom at Risk (1994) and estimated there were likely thousands more.

The other major event that took place in 1793 was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, Jr. He patented it in 1794. Whitney’s cotton gin model was capable of cleaning 50 pounds of lint per day, making it possible for the profitable large-scale production of short-staple cotton in the South. The demand for slave labor increased with the increase in profitable cotton production.

By 1794 every state had banned the international slave trade. However, in 1803 South Carolina reversed their ban because of the need for more slaves partly due to the growth of cotton production.

The penalties for engaging in the slave trade were onerous. In 1794 Congress restricted the slave trade by a law that stated that no U.S. port or shipyard could be used to build or fit out a ship used in the slave trade. Ships sailing to Africa, whether flying the U.S. flag or a foreign flag, had to post cash bond that it would not engage in the slave trade in the next nine months.

Seamen who worked on a slave ship were fined $200 (more than a year’s pay), and half the penalty money would be paid to informers. The law was enforced, and was strengthened in 1800 by sharply raising the fines and giving all the reward to informers. A commercial ship that captured any slaver could take it to a U.S. port and receive the full value of the prize.

Many in the North hoped that slavery would wither away even after Tennessee was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1796. But slaveholders in the South saw slavery as the only way that their section could prosper. They would not go down without a fight.



The Constitution and Slavery

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Am I not a man and a brother-The Constitution and SlaveryDespite all of the state laws that regulated slavery when it came to creating a national governing document, a constitution, the Constitutional Convention almost came to a complete impasse over the issue of slavery.

The use of slaves in the new United States was pervasive. The 1790 census counted slaves in every state except the state of Massachusetts and the “districts” of  Vermont and Maine. (Vermont became the 14th state in 1791 and Maine became the 23rd in 1820.)

In the entire country 3.8 million people were counted, 700,000 of them, or 18 percent, were slaves. In South Carolina, 43 percent of the population was slave. In Maryland 32 percent, and in North Carolina 26 percent. Virginia, with the largest slave population of almost 300,000, had 39 percent of its population made up of slaves.

The previous national governing document, the Articles of Confederation, made no mention of slavery. The main reason was that representation rather than by population was by state with each state having a single vote. There was only a single house of representatives rather than a bicameral legislature.

In the 1780s there was no movement to abolish slavery. Abolitionists did not appear in the United States until the 1830s when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded with William Lloyd Garrison writing the organization’s nascent statement of principles.

However, a number of framers expressed opinions on slavery. John Jay of New York, an author of The Federalist wrote in 1786, “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, one of the signers of the Constitution wrote, a few months after the Convention adjourned, “All good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves.”

Virginian Patrick Henry who declined to attend the convention was opposed to slavery and wrote in 1773: “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery.” 

Thomas Jefferson who was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence and wrote that “all men are created equal” wrote about slavery: “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him.”

Even George Washington who held as many as 300 slaves wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette: “[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view to emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it.”

At the time of the Constitutional Convention it was a given that agriculture in the South could not be conducted without the use of slave labor. The unremitting labor of farming tobacco, rice, cotton and peanuts could only be carried out by African slaves due to the heat and humidity in the South. Accepted belief was that white men and women could not work under such conditions. Hanging over the deliberations was the threat that the Southern states might form their own country.

One of the major roadblocks in framing the Constitution was the issue of counting the slaves for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The Southern states wanted a full enumeration of their slaves which would increase their representation in the House. The Northern states wanted no slaves to be counted.

During the writing of the Articles of Confederation there had been a proposal to count slaves as 3/5th of a person but it had failed to be adopted. However, when the issue came up again during the Constitutional Convention’s deliberations it was a ready-made compromise for the sticky problem of counting slaves.

The 3/5th Compromise  would have an impact in antebellum political affairs due to the disproportionate representation of slaveholding states relative to voters. In 1793 southern slave states would have been apportioned 33 seats in the House of Representatives had the seats been assigned based on the free population; instead they were apportioned 47. In 1812, slaveholding states had 76 instead of the 59; in 1833, 98 instead of 73. As a result, southerners dominated the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War.

The 3/5th Compromise was formalized in the Constitution as the Enumeration Clause. It would later be amended by the 13th Amendment which was adopted on December 6, 1865 and formally abolished slavery. Here is the text of the amendment:

Slavery is mentioned in two other places in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 9, limits Congress expressly from prohibiting the “Importation” of slaves before 1808. The 1808 date, a compromise of 20 years, allowed the slave trade to continue, but placed a date-certain on its survival. Congress eventually passed a law outlawing the slave trade that became effective on January 1, 1808.

The final mention is the Fugitive Slave Clause. In it, a problem that slave states had with extradition of escaped slaves was resolved. The laws of one state, the clause says, cannot excuse a person from “Service or Labour” in another state.” The clause expressly requires that the state in which an escapee is found deliver the slave to the state he escaped from “on Claim of the Party.”

It is said that the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitution of the United States. Despite the belief that the Civil War was caused by economic issues, these issues were created at their root by slavery.



How the Constitution inflamed the problem of slavery

This entry is part of 2 in the series The Constitution and the Civil War

The Three Fifths Compromise-How the Constitution inflamed the problem of slaveryThe Southern politicians and their supporters just didn’t wake up in December of 1860 and decide to secede from the Union. The road that led them to separation from the rest of the country was long and tortured.

At its beginning was the Three-Fifths Compromise that was reached between delegates from southern states and the northern states during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention. The compromise was proposed by delegates James Wilson and Roger Sherman. Interestingly enough both men were from northern states. Wilson was from Pennsylvania, Sherman from Connecticut.

The debate was about how slaves were to be counted to determine the number of seats southern states held. The southern states originally wanted all of the slave to be counted in the South’s population while the North wanted only free inhabitants to be counted. Thus the compromise that counted slaves as three-fifths of free people.

The compromise inflated the number of House representatives from the South. The compromise, is found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution which reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The effect was to give the southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored (but fewer than if counts of slaves and free persons had been lumped together), allowing the slaveholder interests to largely dominate the government of the United States until 1865. The Tree-Fifths Compromise set the new country on the road to twisted and tortured road to devastating war.

What did this Constitutional imbalance mean to the country? Of the first fifteen presidents eight were Southerners including five from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Two presidents were from Massachusetts, the Adams father and son. Two were from New York and one each were from New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The power of the Presidency cannot be underestimated in terms of its political patronage.

With their firm control of the House the bloc of Southern representatives were able to bargain for bill that were advantageous to their region. And the advantage remained right up until the firing on Fort Sumter. As new states were admitted to the Union they were paired: one slave state with one free state.

The first major legislation that codified the slave state-free state split was the Missouri Compromise. The bill was passed by Congress in 1820 and signed by President James Monroe. The bill regulated slavery in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase as they became states. Essentially, the bill prohibited slavery north of the parallel 36°30′ north (the southern boundary of Missouri), except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri.


Initially, Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state in March 1820 while Missouri was admitted as a slave state during the 1820-1821 session of Congress. Not everyone was pleased with the Missouri Compromise. In an April 22 letter to John Holmes, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the division of the country created by the Compromise Line would eventually lead to the destruction of the Union:

…but this momentous 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. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

Following the admission of Maine and Missouri no states were admitted until 1836. The Missouri Compromise lasted until 1854 when it was effectively repealed by Stephen A. Douglas‘s Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. In the intervening 34 years the Southern representatives continue to exercise political power based on the Three-Fifths Compromise.