Podcast # 21: Events of the 1850s

The Women’s Suffrage movement

We have been building up to the Civil War for quite some time. Sectionalism, lack of national unity and the issue of the extension of slavery into new territories are at an all-time high. The events of the 1850s will make the Civil War all but inevitable.

After the Mexican American War ended in 1848, sectional tensions were at an all-time high. In 1849, The Whigs were victorious in electing their candidate Zachary Taylor as President. Zachary Taylor was a General in the US army and gained notoriety in both the second Seminole war and the Mexican American War. His military achievements made him a household name and his ownership of two southern plantations and around 100 slaves gave him southern appeal. During the first year of his presidency, he was faced with a major conflict. Once again, southern states were threatening secession, this time over the issue of the extension of slavery into the new territories. Taylor was a well-known military general and threatened to personally lead the army and put an end to such rebellion, going further to say that he would see the rebels hanged. He opposed the compromise being put forth in the legislative branch, even though he was a southerner, he didn’t support the southerners’ demands. Zachary Taylor’s time as President was short lived, he died in office in July of 1850 after becoming ill. His Vice President, Millard Fillmore became President.

Millard Fillmore was the second President from the great state of New York! He was selected as the Whig party’s candidate for VP under Zachary Taylor to help garner northern support for the ticket. Unlike previous Presidents who claimed to come from humble beginnings and lived in a log cabin, Millard Fillmore actually did. No marketing campaign was necessary to make him a common man. He had limited schooling and was mostly self-taught. Very little is known about Millard Fillmore and there is very little interest in him. He was able to become a lawyer after gaining an apprenticeship and Prior to being the VP and then President of The United States he was involved in local NY Politics. A member of the Whig Party he served in the NY Legislature and then went out to serve in the House of Representatives where he shared similar feelings to that of Henry Clay who was Speaker of the House at the time in regards to slavery. He held the belied that only compromise would work when it came to the issue of slavery. When he was VP he openly disagreed with Zachary Taylor over the Compromise of 1850 and when Taylor died in office from Cholera, making him President, he quickly replaced Taylor’s cabinet and put in advisors who supported the compromise.

The vast territory gained by the United States after the Mexican-American War made it necessary to create another solution to how these new territories might be admitted to the union. The Missouri Compromise line or the 36 30 parallel was no longer going to work.

The Library of Congress has downloadable copies of the Compromise of 1850.

If you go to visitthecapital.gov – they have a number of primary source documents, you can use. A newspaper article from the time period condemning the fugitive slave act, Daniel Webster’s notes from his speech where he attempts to bring support for the compromise.

Like any good compromise, there had to be components that would appease both sides. Henry Clay yet again steps in further cementing his status as The Great Compromiser. Sen. Henry Clay was in his 70s at this point, he was supported in this endeavor by a number of other senators who each tried to persuade their section of the United States to support this compromise in the hopes of avoiding war. So you have Sen. Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois, Daniel Webster from Massachusetts and the infamous, John C. Calhoun from South Carolina each giving passionate arguments on the senate floor. Calhoun for example argued that there was only way to save the Union was to satisfy the South – there was nothing left to compromise – he urged the addition of a provision in the Constitution protecting slavery. New Territories must be open to slavery. If not, the two sides should separate. Now this was not the first time that John C. Calhoun supported the notion of secession. During the Nullification crisis from the Tariff of Abominations in 1828 – he first noted that states had the right to secede. Daniel Webster tried to urge for a Compromise – the union must be preserved and that peaceful secession was not possible. So you can see how this Compromise had to provide each side with just enough to get them on board. The Compromise of 1850 consisted of 5 individual bills each focusing on a specific issue that members of Congress could either vote to support or choose to abstain from a vote instead of voting no:

  1. California would be added to the Union as a Free State California was part of the Mexican Cession. When gold was found in California in 1849 – thousands of settlers rushed to the area. This was known as the California Gold Rush. This allowed California to reach its necessary population of 60,000 in order to become a state. California never went through the same territory procedures as other new states to the union went through. California petitioned to be a state and it was approved to enter the Union as a free state.
  2. Remaining Mexican Cession territories would allow Popular Sovereignty to determine how they entered the Union. To appease the South, the remaining territories would be decided by allowing the settlers of the territories to vote on how it would enter the union.
  3. Border dispute between Texas and New Mexico was settled. You would think that a border dispute in Texas wouldn’t have been a national issue but since it included slavery, naturally the North and South each took sides. Texas had claimed that the area known as Santa Fe, belonged to Texas. Settlers of New Mexico had hoped to become a state and as such wouldn’t allow slavery. You can imagine that the south quickly came to the defense of Texas and Northern abolitionists to the defense of New Mexico. Under the terms of the agreement, Texas would give up claims to the territory in exchange for 10 million dollars. New Mexico’s standing would be determined by popular sovereignty. If you are looking for more detailed information on this, the Texas state historical society is a great resource.
  4. The Slave Trade was banned in Washington D.C. Washington DC was our nation’s capital’s 3rd location. After two stints in the North, a southern location was agreed upon. The states of Maryland and Virginia willingly gave up territory to create the District of Columbia. It is no secret that slave labor was used to build our nation’s capital and that slavery existed in Washington DC well into the Civil War. Its location made it a major center for the slave trade. Numerous bills had been proposed to abolish slavery in the capital but none had succeeded. The Compromise of 1850 ended the slave trade in the nation’s capital but owning slaves there remained legal. The White House Historical Association has great information on this topic and you can get even more details there.
  5. Fugitive Slave Act – All citizens had to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves. If you didn’t you could be fined $1000 or go to jail for 6 months. If a person was thought to be a fugitive slave they could not testify on their own behalf or provide proof to their freedom. Only the owner or the person who claimed to be the owner could testify. Judges were paid $10 for every slave sent back and $5 for every person they freed. You have to consider the impact that this law had. This forced white northerners to do one of two things: support the institution of slavery whether or not the agreed with it OR refuse to obey the law and risk paying a hefty fine or be sent to jail. Now, for black northerners whether a runaway and fugitive slave in the eyes of the law or a Freed Black this new law put you at grave risk. Do you stay in the North and risk being sent back to your owner? If you are a freed man, how can you prove it? If you stand accused, you can’t testify on your own behalf? For some black northerners, regardless of their status, they fled to Canada which had already abolished Slavery. It was no longer safe for them in the North where they had lived free for years. When southern states do secede, they will specifically call out the Northern States’ refusal to protect their property and return Fugitive Slaves.

President Millard Fillmore’s enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act made him extremely unpopular with Northern Abolitionists. They saw him as a Southern Sympathizer and the South viewed him as not doing enough. At this point the Whig Party was breaking apart. The party that was created in the 1830s out of opposition to Andrew Jackson’s policies ultimately broke down over the issue of slavery. Whigs who had strong abolitionist feelings joined the newly created Republican party which we will get into and other joined another short lived Political Party known as the Know Nothings.

The Know Nothing Party (1854) – protested the growing number of immigrants to the United States. Many of these new immigrants were Roman Catholics. The majority of people in the United States were Protestants. Again very short lived but the party is known for helping to establish the Nativist movement in the US.

The Election of 1852:

In 1852, a number of well-known politicians threw their hats into the ring. Deep sectional tensions and their already established positions on both slavery and the recently passed and divisive Compromise of 1850 made most unlikely to win.

Like James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce was a dark horse candidate. Pierce was younger than previous presidents, some might have even called him handsome. (for the record, I am not one of those people) He was from a well-connected New Hampshire family and he was well educated. He served in both the House of Representatives and the senate and while a Northerner, supported proslavery views. This combination made me him a smart choice for a candidate for the democrats. Like the ailing Whigs, the democratic party was divided over the issue of slavery. Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats had different interests and southerners supported Pierce instead of Whig candidate Winfield Scott. As he was poised to begin his term, the personal tragedy of the death of his young son and only surviving child gave way to a somber start to his Presidency. Like his most recent predecessors, he only served 1 term. His cabinet included representatives from various sections of the US including Jefferson Davis who served as his Sec. of War (for those of you who don’t recognize his name, he was the President of the Confederacy) Pierce’s VP died shortly after he was sworn in and was never replaced.

Domestic Issues:

Gadsden Purchase which we discussed in our podcast on the Mexican American War. The US agreed to pay 10 million to Mexico for the southern sections of AZ and New Mexico. We wanted this territory to help build a southern line of the transcontinental railroad.

Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) Formally repealed the Missouri Compromise. The territories in the Great Plains region that had been designated as Indian Country after the forced removal of Native Americans from ancestral lands in the south east were now going to be organized into territories and settled so as to further the development of the Transcontinental railroad lines that were being built. The Question of Slavery would be determined by Popular Sovereignty in these territories. Popular Sovereignty means that the people who lived in a territory could vote and decide how the territory would enter the Union as a free state or as a slave state. This act was pushed by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois who had hopes of running for President but knew that he would need Southern support to win. He argued that this would be good for both the North and South and provided an equal opportunity for each side to get its way. Now here is where knowledge of geography is important. When it comes to states like Kansas and Nebraska the answer you get when you ask someone of their location is typically (ehhh somewhere in the middle). For Kansas, it was so close to the slave state of Missouri that it really became a battleground for both sides. The passage of this bill led to violence - an event known as Bleeding Kansas (1856-1857) Pro Slavery settlers and Anti-slavery settlers rushed to settle in this territories ahead of the vote and it led to violent clashes.

Before a Constitution could be written and the territory formally entered into the union, a territorial government first had to be created. So Pro Slavery settlers created a government in Lecompton and Anti-Slavery Settlers established a Government in Topeka. Tensions were high and the stakes for each side of the conflict were even higher. The Kansas Historical Society and Territorialkansasonline.ku.edu are both great resources if you are looking for primary source documents on this topic. They have wonderful letters of settlers on both sides describing the conflict, newspaper articles from the time period.

One of the most famous Anti-Slavery settlers who went to Kansas was John Brown. John Brown is one of my favorite historical figures. He is an Abolitionist and he is a Calvinist. For Calvinists there was right and there was wrong. There was no grey area. For John Brown, he believed with every fiber of his being that when people did something wrong, they deserved to be punished. Just to give you some perspective on how deep those feeling went, he made his children keep accountings of the bad things they had done and then would tally up how many lashings were due to them. In 1856, in response to an anti-slavery town being attacked, John Brown led a group of men including a few of his sons, and went and attacked a Pro-Slavery settlement and brutally killed 5 people. It became known as the Potawatomie Massacre. The violence wasn’t just limited to Kansas. On the Senate floor after giving a speech attacking slavery, Sen Charles Sumner was beaten to a pulp by southern Sen Preston Brooks with his cane. Northerners condemned the vicious attack but southerners thought Brooks a hero and sent him canes in support. When the smoke cleared, you have more than 100 people killed in Kansas and Kansas ultimately enters the union as a free state. John Brown was hunted by federal troops but he is able to flee to the North where he is celebrated as a hero by Abolitionists and goes on to plan yet another attempt to end slavery which we will get into in a little bit.

Rise of new political parties:

The creation of the Republican Party (1854) comes out of the overwhelming outrage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Republican Party was established in Wisconsin at an Anti-Slavery meeting. Made up of Northern Whigs, free Soilers and abolitionists. One the goals of the newly created party was to stop the spread of slavery into the territories. In 1856, the Republicans put up their first Presidential candidate. John C. Fremont, a soldier and explorer from California. Franklin Pierce was not re nominated by his party, instead they put up James Buchanan. He was well educated and came from a well to do merchant family in PA. He became a lawyer, was a former member of the House of Representatives and Senator from Pennsylvania and he also served as Sec of State for President James K. Polk. He never married and so his niece was the White House hostess. When it came to slavery, Buchanan towed the middle line and supported popular sovereignty. By the time of his inauguration, in 1857, the issue of slavery was at a boiling point.

Dred Scott Decision (1857) Dred Scott vs. Sanford.

Issue: Dred Scott had been born into the institution of slavery. He was owned by Dr. Emerson who often traveled to different places some of which were free states. Scott argued that because he lived in a free state, he should be free.

The Supreme Court had to decide the following issues:

  1. Was Dred Scott a Citizen?
  2. Did residence in a free state make a slave free?
  3. Was the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional?

The Supreme Court answered all those questions in the following

  1. Dred Scott was not a citizen, he was property.
  2. Living in a free state did not make one free
  3. The Missouri Compromise was declared Unconstitutional because it denied a person of their property. Slavery was technically legal everywhere because you couldn’t prevent someone from bringing their property with them.

While Dred Scott and his wife weren’t freed from their case. They were purchased by the children of their first owner who were abolitionists and were freed.

On October 16, 1859, Abolitionist John Brown and a group of over 20 men set out for Harper’s Ferry, VA. John Brown planned it and his efforts were funded by a group of wealthy abolitionists that became known as The Secret 6. The plan to was attack a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, seize the weapons and arm slaves, moving from plantation to plantation and freeing as many as possible. The idea is that it would leave to a full scale rebellion. The sheer geography of Harper’s Ferry made the likelihood of success unlikely. There was one way out, a fact Frederick Douglass warned John Brown of when he turned him down to join in on the raid. The local VA militia quickly surrounded the engine house where John Brown and his men had held themselves up. They were quickly joined by Marines led by Gen. Robert E Lee who killed most of them men and captured John Brown who was put on trial and charged with treason against the state of VA, attempted slave insurrection and murder. The trial was covered extensively by the press. He was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. Only military personnel were allowed for fear that large crowds of supporters would gather. A local Virginia actor enlisted in the local militia just to witness John Brown’s execution. That local actor, was a man by the name of John Wilkes Booth.

All of these events contributed to the start of the Civil War. Tensions continued to rise and the success of the newly created Republican Party in the election of 1860 would be the final straw. Outgoing President James Buchanan who throughout his presidency attempted to please both sides to avoid war did little to stop southern states from leaving the union. That would be left up to his successor, Abraham Lincoln.

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