The Slavery Debate Continues to Escalate
Martin: The story of the Civil War and its origins, what one scholar
has termed "our most felt history," cuts to the core of the American national
experience. Clearly, black slavery, functioning as a fundamental basis for
white freedom, contradicted the liberty all Americans cherished. Indeed, the
growing conflict between Northern freedom and Southern slavery only grew over
time. Unable to reach a viable compromise over slavery, Northerners and
Southerners eventually found themselves at one another's throats.
Ultimately, the bitter contest between slavery and freedom had to be resolved, by violent, if not peaceful, means. Closely tied to this battle between
slavery and freedom was the question of the status of blacks, free and slave,
and the status of non-whites. Black freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass
constantly reminded white Americans that a tragic limitation of the freedom
they envisioned was that this freedom included whites only. In other words,
white Americans were unable to see blacks as Americans like themselves,
entitled to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
An increasingly aggressive pro-slavery spirit dominated the white South. Slave
owners and pro-slavery advocates, like South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun,
vigorously defended the right of slavery to expand wherever it might,
especially in the newly gained and newly organized territories in the Midwest
and the Southwest. An equally aggressive freedom loving spirit dominated the
North. Northerners like Abraham Lincoln saw the right of free soil and free
labor to expand across and dominate the territories and new states as equally
critical. For them, Northern white men in particular, free labor, free soil,
and political freedom were necessarily linked.
The Mexican American War, fought between 1846 and 1848, reveals two critical
strands of the growing sectional conflict over slavery. First, there was the
issue of whether the territories, and in time the states which would grow out
of these territories, would be pro-slavery or antislavery. Second, the United
States' victory in the war spoke to the question of the Manifest Destiny of the
In this context, Manifest Destiny referred not just to the expanding national
belief that it was God's will that the United States take full control of the
territory stretching to the Pacific in the West, Mexico in the South, and
Canada in the North. In addition, Manifest Destiny included the unsettled
question of whether or not the nation could continue to exist half-slave,
half-free. Speaking from his position as a representative Northern voice, Ralph
Waldo Emerson observed early on: "The United States will conquer Mexico, but it
will be as the man swallows the arsenic; Mexico will poison us."
The Compromise of 1850
Likewise, South Carolina's favorite son John C. Calhoun likened Mexico to "the
forbidden fruit. The penalty of eating it would be to subject our institutions
to political death." It would be the Compromise of 1850 that would organize
territory gained in this war. Nowhere was the failure of the political system
to contain the problem of slavery more clear-cut than this Compromise of
Crafted principally by the venerable Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, and supported
by the equally venerable Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, the effort had
impeccable political backing. Calhoun, another political giant, provided the
key opposition. Literally on his deathbed, Calhoun railed against the measure
as antislavery and anti-Southern. Together Clay, Webster, and Calhoun--often
referred to as The Great Triumvirate--invigorated the debate over the
Calhoun maintained: "I have... believed from the first that the agitation of
the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective
measure, end in disunion." Clay and Webster, on the contrary, spoke to
American nationalism and the preservation of the Union as absolutely essential.
Webster movingly claimed to be speaking "not as a Massachusetts man, not as a
Northern man, but as an American.... I speak for the preservation of the
Similarly, Clay contended that he knew "no North, no South, no East, no West,
to which I owe any allegiance.... My allegiance is to the American Union and to
my own state." Clay was widely admired for trying over two decades to keep
peace between the North and the South. At mid-century, the sickly yet proud old
warrior still argued forcefully for "peace, concord, and harmony" over
"passion...,party, and intemperance."
Shortly after the debate over the Compromise, Calhoun, Clay, and Webster were
all dead. Soon, the spirit of sectional compromise would wither away
completely. Nevertheless, the Compromise of 1850 had become law.
Under its provisions, California entered the Union as a free state. New Mexico
and Utah were organized as territorial governments, which would decide for
themselves whether slavery was to be allowed or prohibited. The United States
assumed the debts Texas owed before annexation. New Mexico received land in
dispute between that state and Texas.
Speaking directly to the issue of slavery, the Compromise of 1850 ended the
slave trade in the District of Columbia and forbade slave emancipation there,
without compensation to the slave owners and without the slave owners' consent.
Directly appeasing pro-slavery interests, Congress clarified that it lacked
jurisdiction over the internal, or domestic, slave trade in the South.
Likewise, the compromise featured a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. This act
gave the federal government greater power to enforce the return of fugitive
slaves to the South.