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The Coming of the Civil War
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Page 1234

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Tensions Pervade Society

Escalating sectional tensions extended even to American culture. No moment could match the sensational impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Published in 1852, it was widely praised in the North and equally widely condemned in the South. Uncle Tom's Cabin provided a melodramatic and sentimental view of the essential horror of slavery. Stowe's text showed how the absolute evilness of slavery dehumanized and corrupted good as well as bad people.

The effect of the runaway bestseller was electric. More than any other single cultural episode, the controversy surrounding the novel created converts for the Northern antislavery cause, on one hand, and converts for the Southern pro-slavery cause, on the other. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold over 300,000 copies in its first year of publication alone, and a million by mid-1853.

Its impact was everywhere; it penetrated American consciousness through all kinds of contemporary media: copycat fiction, dramatic readings and plays, and all manner of everyday popular cultural productions, like woodcuts and drawings. Little wonder, therefore, that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe during the Civil War, he observed: "So you're the little lady who started this war."

[Picture of the attack on Charles Sumner]

Violence also bled onto the floor of the Congress. In spring 1856, the radical abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, denounced "the crime against Kansas" being committed in the name of the "harlot of slavery." When, in a speech, Sumner personally attacked pro-slavery Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, Butler's cousin, Representative Preston Brooks, took offense.

Brooks viciously attacked Sumner with a cane as Sumner sat in his Senate seat. Sumner soon collapsed from the attack and the loss of blood. While the North howled in protest, the white South expressed approval of Brooks' response to Sumner's "slander" on the South. The Richmond Enquirer boldly noted that "it was a proper act, done at the proper time, and in the proper place."

In the North, fears of a "Slave Power Conspiracy" only grew. Increasingly, Northerners saw the designs of the "Slave Power Conspiracy" as a threat to their very own freedom. What, many thought, was to stop the slave South from not only taking over the territories and new states in the West, but ultimately from swallowing up the North?

The strengthened Fugitive Slave Law within the Compromise of 1850 greatly alarmed Northerners, black and white. Freed and runaway blacks had legitimate fears about being re-enslaved. The fear of being abducted and sold south as slaves also alarmed free Northern blacks whose communities and persons were under growing assault. Furthermore, many Northern whites saw this Fugitive Slave act as further proof of a "Slave Power Conspiracy" which posed a direct threat to the personal liberties of free blacks, and an indirect threat to their very own liberty.

[Picture of Frederick Douglass]

As a result, throughout the North, a series of Personal Liberty Laws was passed. These acts sought to give free blacks and accused black fugitive slaves greater protections against real and potential abuses of the Fugitive Slave Act. As the irrepressible Frederick Douglass put it: "This reproach, the Fugitive Slave Act, must be wiped out, and nothing short of resistance on the part of the colored man can wipe it out. Every slavehunter who meets a bloody death in his infernal business is an argument in favor of the manhood of our race." Nevertheless, the Act led to some 300 alleged fugitives being officially returned to slavery in the South.

Collective resistance grew with the Underground Railroad. Its many way-stations secretly moved fugitive slaves along various paths to freedom in the North and Canada. At the same time, there were numerous highly dramatic episodes in the North emphasizing the gross inhumanity of slavery. These moments created much sympathy for the antislavery cause throughout the region.

In 1854, the capture of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, and his return to slavery in Virginia created a stunning public spectacle. Over 50,000 Bostonians lined the street, screaming and shouting in protest, as federal authorities led Burns from the courthouse to the return ship. The Burns episode thrilled the pro-slavery South, deeply angered many in the North, especially in Boston, and cost the federal government $100,000.

[Picture of Dred Scott]

In the Dred Scott vs. Sandford case, Scott, a Missouri slave, claimed that extended residence on free soil had made him a free man. In the 1857 decision in the case, the Supreme Court ruled against Scott. The court reasoned that Scott did not have legal standing as a slave and as a black person. Blacks, free as well as slave, were not citizens.

In effect, as Chief Justice Roger Taney observed, blacks possessed "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." The Dred Scott decision also invalidated the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and its principle of popular sovereignty. Congress, according to the court, did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

Not surprisingly, again, Southerners were pleased and Northerners were alarmed. For Northerners, the decision unfortunately constituted further evidence of the growing influence of the Slave power over the government. For the pro-slavery South, it confirmed them in their belief in slavery as a positive good.

[Picture of John Brown on trial]

In 1859, John Brown and his seventeen-member team of black and white co-revolutionaries, including several of his own sons, boldly seized control of the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Once they possessed the large cache of arms stored there, they took several planters and slaves hostage. Brown and his co-insurrectionists hoped their surprise actions would inspire a massive slave insurrection, which, in turn, would destroy Southern slavery. Instead, federal authorities quickly and ruthlessly squelched the insurrection, but not before the news spread like wildfire throughout the nation, inflaming further sectional tension.

The Slave South and their Northern sympathizers were especially outraged. For them, this awful episode was further proof of an abolitionist conspiracy--a Black Republican Conspiracy--to destroy the world of southern slavery. Bravely confronting the gallows for his actions, Brown spoke of an inclusive, interracial vision of equality.

This uncompromising commitment to freedom, justice, and a common humanity as the birthright of blacks as well as whites had fueled his intense hatred of slavery. In a classic American moment, Brown explained: "Now, it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."


Secession Sparks the Civil War

When Lincoln became the Republican Party candidate for president in the 1860 election, he was thoroughly unacceptable to Southern whites. They warned that his election as a Northern antislavery Republican opposed to the Southern way of life would mean secession of the South from the Union. His eventual election in a vigorously fought, highly split, and sectional election featuring four parties, only increased Southern white alarms. Lincoln was unable to calm their fears.

In his inaugural address on March the 4th, 1861, he even offered support for a constitutional amendment ensuring that "the federal government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the states," that is, slavery. For Southern secessionists, that was precisely the problem. They rejected the very notion that the federal government had the power to interfere with slavery, wherever it existed.

Lincoln, nevertheless, projected a persuasive vision of the Union as one, and of the Union as unbreakable. He firmly believed that the Union could not exist divided against itself, half-slave and half-free. In a post-election letter to Georgia's Alexander Stephens, a good friend, Lincoln noted: "You think slavery is right and ought to be expanded; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That, I suppose, is the rub."

[Picture of South Carolina's formal withdrawal from the Union]

Indeed it was. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office, Southern secession was already a reality. South Carolina had led the way in the creation of the Confederacy by formally withdrawing from the United States of America on December 20, 1860. Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama met in early February 1861 at Montgomery to create the Confederate States of America.

In spite of pockets of compromise, especially within the Upper South and the Border States, the Union appeared permanently divided. The Confederates fired on the federal forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April the 12th, 1861 to bring it under Confederate control. As a result, civil war broke loose.



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