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The Coming of the Civil War
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Page 1234

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The Slavery Debate Continues to Escalate

[Picture of Professor Martin]

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.

[Picture of a battle from the Mexican American War]

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 American nation.

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 1850.

[Picture of Henry Clay]

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 compromise.

[Picture of Daniel Webster]

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 Union."

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.

[Picture of a slave market]

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.

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