The previous fifty years had seen political crises come and go, some involving the issue of Slavery, others not. The 1850s proved to be different, with the problems coming faster and the sides being drawn more clearly. By the end of the decade, the course was set for a final, armed confrontation, the Civil War.
Before 1850, the political landscape was one of balance. The Democratic Party was dominant in most regions. Mainstream Southerners joined Northerners who were willing to ignore slavery issues. The other major party, the Whigs, was a strange political party. It could best be described as an ‘anti-Democrat’ party. In the North, it included those least comfortable with slavery. In the South, it included the pro-Slavery zealots who attacked the Democrats as ‘too soft’. The Whigs did better when these two sides weren’t at sword’s points, so they had an interest in managing the crises involving slavery. The only two times the Whigs won the Presidency they ran Generals who could avoid taking a side on the issue.
The political issue of the day was not abolition – pretty much everyone except for fringe agitators agreed about this. The contentious issue was the extension of slavery into the territories, and thus to construct new slave or free states, affecting the balance of power in Congress. The Missouri Compromise in 1820 set a line on the south border of that state, north of which were to become free territories and states. The new territories added in 1848, after some agitation, had that same line extended to the Pacific coast. States were added in pairs, one slave and one free, to keep the balance going.
In 1850, a new crisis came when the explosive growth of California due to the gold rush required its admission as a state. There was no slave state to counterbalance it, so a new deal had to be struck. Tensions rose high, but eventually a deal was struck that allowed California in, set the boundary of Texas, and established a new Fugitive Slave Law. While there was a general relief, there were two issues left simmering, to cause problems later.
The first was the secessionist wing, while overplaying their hand, had taken one lesson to heart. They had lost, they felt, because time spent without action gave the compromisers a chance to react. If they ever got the chance again, they would not give anyone that time before forcing a final, armed confrontation.
The other issue was that the Fugitive Slave Law brought the spectacle of slaves being carried off right to the doorsteps of Northern watchers. Certain obnoxious terms in the law, such as the fact that acquitting paid less than conviction, were sure to keep the slavery issue alive.
The Whig Party was fatally wounded by the aftermath of the Compromise. It dissolved, with the Southern wing being absorbed into the Democrats.
The next step was the Kansas-Nebraska act. Stephen Douglas, a senator from Illinois, wanted to organize this territory into states in 1854. Needing some Southern support, he allowed slavery into the southern part of the area, Kansas. He tried to sell it as no big deal – that when the settlers got there, they would vote it out and the state would be free regardless. This “Popular Sovereignty’ idea went over like a lead balloon in the North, who saw it as a violation of the existing Missouri deal, given away for nothing.
Events soon made things even worse, as the elections Douglas was counting on were marred by gangs of armed Missourians crossing the border and fixing the votes. Even in those days, a district with a few dozen settlers polling a thousand pro-slavery votes raised eyebrows. The crisis led to a Northern reaction. with old Whigs and disaffected Democrats joining to form a new party, the Republicans. The main plank of the party was “No extension of Slavery” – no new slave territories or slave states. The fact that one party had chosen a side instead of straddling it made concessions less likely.
Kansas’ free settlers, a large majority and growing daily, formed their own territorial government, illegally. The two sides soon had their own war going. The Democrats managed to stamp it out in time for the next Presidential election, but the results were a lot closer than before.
The next explosion was the Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision in 1857. Alluded to in President Buchanan’s speech on taking office as one that would settle all questions, it instead was a direct assault on the Republican Platform – and on Popular Sovereignty, for that matter. It said that Congress had no power to ban slavery in any territory, even though they had done so repeatedly in the past. It also brought into reasonable question if a free state could do so, since Scott had lived in the state of Illinois for some time as well. The North, even the Democrats, were livid.
And to make matters worse, the President decided to settle the Kansas question by getting it admitted as a slave state at once, despite the fact that there were too few settlers. The Lecompton Constitution that resulted was opposed by about nine- tenths of the settlers, because the delegates were chosen by the legislature that had been elected in the early fraudulent elections. The Free State ‘government’ reformed, and it looked like a new war might break out there.
Buchanan sent a special trouble-shooter, Robert Walker of Mississippi. He, to his credit, quickly saw that the Democrats could have a Democratic Kansas without slavery, or a radical state if they tried to force slavery on it. He started working for the former solution, and the local situation grew calmer.
When Buchanan repudiated Walker’s solution, and the slavery Constitution was submitted to Congress, the fat was in the fire. Douglas and the Northern Democrats had to defeat it, or lose their own influence to the Republicans. It now was a struggle for control of the Democratic Party.
Douglas won the political battle, and Kansas did not become a slave state, but the Democratic party was fatally split by the victory. Without control of either party, the ultras began to look elsewhere for security for slavery. And only the secessionists had an answer for that – to form their own country, where they could rule without opposition.
The next election was sure to go to the Republicans, as the southerners could not support Douglas. And fear of how the Republican support would grow in the South once they could appoint government workers throughout the southern states meant that secession would have to follow at once.