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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.