The Constitution gave the federal government the right to abolish the international slave trade, but no power to regulate or destroy the institution of slavery where it already existed. Nonetheless, Congress had prevented the extension of slavery to certain territories in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. So long as both the free North and the slave South had some opportunities for expansion, compromise had been possible. Traditionally, slavery had been kept out of American politics, with the result that no practical program could be devised for its elimination in the southern states. Congress, however, had the power to set the conditions under which territories became states and to forbid slavery in new states.

In the 1840s, as the result of expansion, Congress faced the problem of determining the status of slavery in the territories taken from Mexico. While prosperity came from territorial expansion, sectional harmony did not. When the United States gained 500,000 square miles of new land in 1848 (over 1,000,000 counting Texas), the nation again had to decide whether slavery was to be allowed in the territories of the United States. The Constitution prevented federal control of slavery in states where it existed, but gave Congress control over the territories. That was where slavery’s opponents could combat the institution they deplored.

Beginning with the Great Land Ordinances of the 1780s the United States had tried to govern its territories in a way which would be consistent with American practice (which unfortunately included neglect of the rights of the indigenous populations of Indians and others.) The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which covered five future states, established federal territorial policy. As was discussed earlier, had that policy been extended to future territories, a great deal of grief might have been spared, for the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Old Northwest.

From previous discussion we are aware that the acquisition of new territory from France (Louisiana) precipitated a crisis when the subject of slavery in that territory came to a head over the issue of the admission of Missouri. The Missouri Compromise in 1820 resolved the issue for the time, but only postponed the crisis—as Jefferson and many others recognized at the time. The issue reemerged in 1848 after the Mexican-American War, and another crisis over the handling of slavery in the territories developed. To begin with, absent laws (such as the Northwest Ordinance) prohibiting slavery, nothing prevented slave owners from taking their “property” into the territories. Thus when the population became large enough for the territory to begin thinking of statehood, slavery had to be considered when the people in the territories wrote their constitutions and applied to Congress for admission. Since those state constitutions were an essential step on the road to statehood, Congress had some control over the process through approval of the proposed constitutions. Thus the issue became a national one and not one of states’ (or territorial) rights.

Since abolitionism never reached majority status in the non-slave states, and since most Americans accepted the existence of slavery where it was legal (and constitutionally protected), the chief controversy between North and South became the issue of slavery in the territories. The issue might have been resolved by extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific to cover the new territory, but since the movement to prohibit slavery in the territories was much stronger in 1850 than it had been in 1820, the political forces were unable handle it as smoothly as in 1820. Thus another sort of compromise was needed, one that shifted responsibility from the national government to the territories themselves. That novel concept was known as “popular sovereignty.”

The idea of popular sovereignty had two things going for it. First, it seemed democratic. Why not let the people decide for themselves whether or not they want slavery? (Of course participation in that decision was never extended to the slave population.) Second, it seemed acceptable to Americans for whom “states’ rights” was the condition on which they continued to tolerate federal government control over local issues. The doctrine contained a major flaw, however, in that it ignored the concerns of Americans who continued to accept slavery only on the assumption, as Lincoln and others put it, that it “was in the course of ultimate extinction.” Allowing slavery to go into the territories was certain, as the abolition and free soil advocates saw it, to postpone that day.

The net result of popular sovereignty was that the federal government, in attempting to evade responsibility by shifting it to the people of the territories themselves, merely heightened the crisis. For a time some politicians comforted themselves with the notion that slavery could not exist in any territory absent legislation to support it. (Douglas’s “Freeport Doctrine,” for example.) Such claims satisfied neither supporters nor opponents of slavery. By 1850 slavery had become a “federal case,” and despite the best efforts of compromisers like Clay and Douglas, the tactic of popular sovereignty backfired, and the country drifted closer to war.


As soon as the United States declared war against Mexico in 1846, antislavery groups wanted to make sure that slavery would not expand because of American victory. Congressman David Wilmot opened the debate by introducing a bill in Congress that would have banned all African-Americans, slave or free, from whatever land the United States took from Mexico, thus preserving the area for white small farmers. It passed the House, but failed in the Senate where John C. Calhoun argued that Congress had no right to bar slavery from any territory. Others tried to find compromise ground between Wilmot and Calhoun. Polk suggested extending the 36-30 line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific coast. In 1848 Lewis Cass proposed to settle the issue by “popular sovereignty”—organizing the territories without mention of slavery and letting local settlers decide whether theirs would be a free or slave territory. It seemed a democratic way to solve the problem and it got Congress off the hook. This blend of racism and antislavery won great support in the North, but although it was debated frequently, it never passed. The battle over the Proviso foreshadowed an even more urgent controversy once the peace treaty with Mexico was signed.

Popular Sovereignty and the Election of 1848

The North rejected the extension of the Missouri Compromise line as too beneficial to southern interests, but many supported popular sovereignty. The Democrats, who almost split North and South over slavery, nominated Lewis Cass, who urged “popular sovereignty.” Webster was the natural choice of Whigs, but the war hero was too appealing. Zachary Taylor avoided taking a stand but promised no executive interference with congressional legislation. Discontented Democrats (called “barnburners”) walked out and joined with old members of the Liberty Party to form the Free-Soil Party, which nominated Martin Van Buren—who favored the Wilmot Proviso,—and Charles Francis Adams. Popular sovereignty found support among antislavery forces, who assumed that the territorial settlers would have a chance to prohibit slavery before it could get established, but it was unacceptable to those who wanted a definite limit placed on the expansion of slavery. President Polk’s fears were realized when Taylor won with a minority of the popular vote.


When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, thousands of Americans began flocking to California’s gold fields in 1848-1849, creating demands for a territorial government. There were few slaves in California, though more than in New Mexico and Utah combined. But slavery was not an admission issue, though California passed “sojourner” laws that allow slaveholders to bring slaves and keep them for a time. Still, the question of slavery in the territories had to be faced; California merely precipitated the crisis. Taylor proposed to settle the controversy by admitting California and New Mexico as states without the prior organization of a territorial government, even though New Mexico had too few people to be a state. The white South reacted angrily. Planters objected that they had not yet had time to settle the new territories, which would certainly ban slavery if they immediately became states. A convention of the Southern states was called to meet at Nashville, perhaps to declare secession. Only nine states sent representatives, and although nothing was formally decided, the Nashville Convention forbode greater problems.

No one questioned the right of a state to be free or slave. Californians submitted an antislavery constitution with their request to admission. Southerners were outraged because the admission of California would give the free states a majority and control of the Senate. Once again, Henry Clay rose to offer a compromise. He proposed the admission of California as a free state; the remainder of the cession territory be organized without mention of slavery; a Texas-New Mexico boundary controversy be settled in New Mexico’s favor, but Texas be compensated with a federal assumption of its state debt; the slave trade (but not slavery) be abolished in Washington, D.C.; and a more stringent fugitive slave law be enacted and vigorously enforced. Although Taylor resisted the compromise until his death, his successor Millard Fillmore supported what became known as the Compromise of 1850.

THE COMPROMISE OF 1850 — The Last Best Hope

After the death of Calhoun and departure of Webster and Clay, young Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois took over. Breaking the compromise down into separate measures, which allowed members to vote against what they didn’t like and for the rest, Douglas brought the seven-month-long debate to a successful conclusion. Congress adopted each of Clay’s proposals as a separate measure and changed them slightly—for example, the Democrats extended popular sovereignty to the Utah territory. The Compromise admitted California as a free state, organized the territories of New Mexico and Utah on the basis of popular sovereignty, retracted the borders of Texas in return for assumption of the state’s debt, and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The most controversial provision created a strong Fugitive Slave Law, denying suspected runaways any rights of self-defense, and requiring Northerners to help enforce slavery. The South accepted the Compromise of 1850 as conclusive and backed away from threats of secession. In the North, the Democratic party gained popularity by taking credit for the compromise, and the Whigs found it necessary to cease their criticism of it.

1850 Compromise: Miscellaneous points:

  • Clay back in Senate; negotiates compromise by introducing various resolutions;
  • This is the last Clay, Calhoun, Webster show.
  • Calhoun ill, speech delivered by Mason of Virginia, grandson of George Mason; foresees disunion, calls for 2 presidents (N&S) and argues for a federal guarantee for slavery in all territories.
  • Webster leaves to become Secretary of State; last speech maybe greatest, cements idea of union in the North.; Webster backs Clay’s proposals;
  • Abolitionist Senator William Seward cites a “higher (moral) law” that binds him to oppose slavery’s expansion.
  • The death of President Taylor breaks the deadlock.
  • Senator Stephen Douglas picks up leadership and guides separate bills through; everybody gets to vote against part of it. Each part passes, including the anti-libertarian Fugitive Slave Act that compels northerners to cooperate in the identification, capture, and return of runaway slaves.
  • For the time, the Compromise of 1850 preserves the Union, but the bloom soon fades.

When finally passed after 7 months, 5 separate laws provide for:

  • 1) California enters as free state;
  • 2) Texas-New Mexico boundary adjusted; New Mexico Territory gets popular sovereignty; Texas quits claims to New Mexico for $10 million;
  • 3) Utah territory also gets popular sovereignty;
  • 4) Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 superseded. New Act tougher; federal jurisdiction; owner affidavit sufficient for warrant; freemen “no voice”; stiff penalties for interference;
  • 5) Slave trade in District of Columbia abolished

Results of 1850 Compromise

  • Euphoric Acceptance! Many consider this a “final solution”—all except northern radicals; but it is not really a compromise in that both sides reject the other’s conditions; everybody opposed part of it.
  • Reconciliation occurs among estranged politicians, etc.
  • But, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law struck fear in the hearts of northern blacks and encouraged more southerners to try to recover escaped slaves.
  • Abolitionists often interfered with the enforcement of the law, and such efforts exacerbated sectional feelings. The sight of blacks being carried off to slavery outraged northerners, and southerners resented the northerners’ refusal to obey the law.
  • Some states passed personal liberty laws to protect free blacks, but the Fugitive Slave Law forced many northerners to experience the heartlessness of slavery. Christiana, Pa., episode.
  • South had to back Compromise or face secession; they had no moral ground to stand on
  • South divides into camps
    • Radicals (secessionists)
    • Ultra-Unionists; Conditional Unionists (moderates); many sought to retain Union: “What of Louisiana?”—purchase


In the weeks of Senatorial debate which preceded the enactment of the Compromise of 1850 a range of attitudes was expressed. Clay took the lead early in speaking for the resolutions he had introduced The Great Compromiser advised the North against insisting on the terms of the Wilmot Proviso and the South against thinking seriously of disunion. Calhoun, who was dying, asked Senator James M. Mason of Virginia to read his gloomy speech for him. After explaining why the bonds of sentiment between North and South had been progressively weakened, Calhoun goes on, in the section printed here, to say how he thought the Union could be saved. Three days later, he was followed by Daniel Webster, who agreed with Clay that there could be no peaceable secession. Webster’s attempt to restrain Northern extremists brought him abuse from anti-slavery men in his own section where formerly he had been so admired. Extreme views were expressed on both sides, but the passage of the compromise measures showed that the moderate spirit of Clay and Webster was still dominant

HENRY CLAY, Feb. 5 and 6, 1850.

… Sir, I must take occasion here to say that in my opinion there is no right on the part of any one or more of the States to secede from the Union. War and dissolution of the Union are identical and inevitable, in my opinion. There can be a dissolution of the Union only by consent or by war. Consent no one can anticipate, from any existing state of things, is likely to be given; and war is the only alternative by which a dissolution could be accomplished. If consent were given—if it were possible that we were to be separated by one great line—in less than sixty days after such consent was given war would break out between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding portions of this Union—between the two independent parts into which it would be erected in virtue of the act of separation. In less than sixty days, I believe, our slaves from Kentucky, flocking over in numbers to the other side of the river, would be pursued by their owners. Our hot and ardent spirits would be restrained by no sense of the right which appertains to the independence of the other side of the river, should that be the line of separation. They would pursue their slaves into the adjacent free States; they would be repelled; and the consequence would be that, in less than sixty days, war would, be blazing in every part of this now happy and peaceful land.

And, sir, how are you going to separate the states of this confederacy? In my humble opinion, Mr. President, we should begin with at least three separate confederacies. There would be a confederacy of the North, a confederacy of the Southern Atlantic slaveholding States, and a confederacy of the valley of the Mississippi. … Such, I believe, would be the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, immediately ensuing; but other confederacies would spring up from time to time, as dissatisfaction and discontent were disseminated throughout the country—the confederacy of the lakes, perhaps the confederacy of New England, or of the middle States. Ah, sir, the veil which covers these sad and disastrous events that lie beyond it, is too thick to be penetrated or lifted by any mortal eye or hand. . . .

Mr. President, I have said, what I solemnly believe, that dissolution of the Union and war are identical and inevitable; and they are convertible terms; and such a war as it would be, following a dissolution of the Union! Sir, we may search the pages of history, and none so ferocious, so bloody, so implacable, so exterminating—not even the wars of Greece, including those of the Commoners of England and the revolutions of France—none, none of them all would rage with such violence, or be characterized with such bloodshed and enormities as would the war which must succeed, if that ever happens, the dissolution of the Union.


The first question is: What is it that has endangered the Union? . . .

One of the causes is, undoubtedly, to be traced to the long continued agitation of the slave question on the part of the North and the many aggressions which they have made on the rights of the South . . .

There is another lying back of it, with which this is intimately connected, that may be regarded as the great and primary cause. That is to be found in the fact that the equilibrium between the two sections in the government, as it stood when the Constitution was ratified and the government put into action, has been destroyed. … I propose … that it is owing to the action of this government that the equilibrium between the two sections has been destroyed and the whole powers of the system centered in a sectional majority.

The next [cause] is the system of revenue and disbursements which his been adopted by the government. It is well known that the government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting states, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due proportion of the revenue because . . . the subject has on so many occasions been fully discussed. …

It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected by a single blow. …Disunion must be the work of time. It is only through a long process, and successively, that the cords can be snapped, until the whole fabric falls asunder. Already the agitation of the slavery question has snapped some of the most important and has greatly weakened all the others. . . .

Having now, senators, explained what it is that endangers the Union, and traced it to its cause, and explained its nature and character, the question again recurs: How can the Union be saved? To this I answer there is but one way by which it can be; and that is by adopting such measures as will satisfy the states belonging to the Southern section that they can remain in the Union consistently with their honor and their safety. … But, before I undertake to answer this question, I propose to show by what the Union cannot be saved.

It cannot, then be saved by eulogies on the Union, however splendid or numerous. The cry of “Union, union, the glorious Union!” can no more prevent disunion than the cry of “Health, health, glorious health!” on the part of the physician can save a patient lying dangerously ill. So long as the Union, instead of being regarded as a protector, is regarded in the opposite character, by not much more than a majority of the States, it will be in vain to attempt to conciliate them by pronouncing eulogies upon it.

The plan of the administration cannot save the Union, because it can have no effect whatever toward satisfying the states composing the Southern section of the Union that they can, consistently with safety and honor, remain in the Union. …

Having now shown what cannot save the Union, I return to the question with which I commenced: How can the Union be saved? There is but one way by which it can with any certainty, and that is by a full and final settlement on the principle of justice of all the questions at issue between the two sections. The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take. She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left to surrender. Such a settlement would go to the root of the evil and remove all cause of discontent by satisfying the South that she could remain honorably and safely in the Union; and thereby restore the harmony and fraternal feelings between the sections which existed anterior to the Missouri agitation. Nothing else can, with any certainty, finally and forever settle the questions at issue, terminate agitation, and save the Union.


  1. PRESIDENT, I WISH TO SPEAK TODAY, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . . I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole and the preservation of the whole; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. “Hear me for my cause.” I speak today out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all. . . .

I put it to all the sober and sound minds at the North as a question of morals and a question of conscience: What right have they, in all their legislative capacity, or any other, to endeavor to get round this Constitution, to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution, to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all—none at all. Neither in the forum of conscience nor before the face of the Constitution are they justified in any opinion. Of course, it is a matter for their consideration. They probably, in the turmoil of the times, have not stopped to consider of this; they have followed what seemed to be the current of thought and of motives as the occasion arose, and neglected to investigate fully the real question, and to consider their constitutional obligations, as I am sure, if they did consider, they would fulfill them with alacrity.

Therefore, I repeat, sir, that here is a ground of complaint against the North, well founded, which ought to be removed;…

… Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish—I beg everybody’s pardon—as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common center, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space without producing the crush of the universe. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.

Is the great Constitution under which we live here—covering this whole country—is it to be thawed and melted away by secession as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun—disappear almost unobserved and die off? No, sir! No, sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the states; but, sir, I see it as plainly as I see the sun in heaven—I see that disruption must produce such a war as I will not describe, in its twofold characters.

Peaceable secession! Peaceable secession! The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great republic to separate! A voluntary separation, with alimony on one side and on the other. Why, what would be the result? Where is the line to be drawn? What states are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be? An American no longer? Where is the flag of the republic to remain? Where is the eagle still to tower? Or is he to cower, and shrink, and fall to the ground? Why, sit, our ancestors—our fathers, and our grandfathers, those of them that are yet living among us with prolonged lives—would rebuke and reproach us; and our children and our grandchildren would cry out, Shame upon us! if we of this generation should dishonor these ensigns of the power of the government and the harmony of the Union, which is every day felt among us with so much joy and gratitude. … And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in these caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union…

WILLIAM H. SEWARD: A Higher Law than the Constitution

…It is insisted that the admission of California shall be attended by a compromise of questions which have arisen out of slavery. I AM OPPOSED TO ANY SUCH COMPROMISE, IN ANY AND ALL THE FORMS IN WHICH IT HAS BEEN PROPOSED, because, while admitting the purity and the patriotism of all from whom it is my misfortune to differ, I think all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious. They involve the surrender of the exercise of judgment and conscience on distinct and separate questions, at distinct, and separate times, with the indispensable advantages it affords for ascertaining truth. They involve a relinquishment of the right to reconsider in future the decisions of the present on questions prematurely anticipated; and they are a usurpation as to future questions of the province of future legislators. …

… There is another aspect of the principle of compromise which deserves consideration. It assumes that slavery, if not the only institution in a slave state, is at least a ruling institution, and that this characteristic is recognized by the Constitution. But slavery is only one of many institutions there – freedom is equally an institution there. Slavery is only a temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one; freedom, on the contrary, is a perpetual, organic, universal one, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States. The slaveholder himself stands under the protection of the latter, in common with all the free citizens of the state; but it is, moreover, an indispensable institution. You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain; but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist.

But there is yet another aspect in which this principle must be examined. It regards the domain only as a possession, to be enjoyed either in common or by partition by the citizens of the old states. It is true, in. deed, that the national domain is ours; it is true, it was acquired by the valor and with the wealth of the whole nation; but we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty.

But there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are His stewards and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness. . . .

… And now the simple, bold, and even awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions—shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and unjust shall we establish human bondage, or permit it, by our sufferance, to be established? Sir, our forefathers would not have hesitated an hour. They found slavery existing here, and they left it only because they could not remove it. There is not only no free state which would now establish it but there is no slave state which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. … I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question.

Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery. I speak on due consideration, because Britain, France, and Mexico have abolished slavery, and all other European states are preparing to abolish it as speedily as they can. We cannot establish slavery, because there are certain elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations, which we all admit, or ought to admit, and recognize as essential; and these are the security of natural rights, the diffusion of knowledge, and the freedom of industry. Slavery is incompatible with all of these, and just in proportion to the extent that it prevails and controls in any republican state, just to that extent it subverts the principle of democracy and converts the state into an aristocracy or a despotism. . . .


  • Runaways and Abolitionists
  • The Fugitive Slave Act
    • Radical Northerners bound to resist Fugitive Slave Law
    • Adopted old Southern nullification position


The Compromise of 1850 robbed the political parties of distinctive appeals and contributed to voter apathy and disenchantment. Although a colorless candidate, Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election of 1852 over Winfield Scott, the candidate of a Whig party which was on the verge of collapse from internal divisions. Once the Compromise of 1850 seemed to have settled the territorial controversy, Whigs and Democrats looked for new issues. The Democrats claimed credit for the nation’s prosperity and promised to defend the compromise. Whigs, however, could find no popular issue and began to fight among themselves. Their candidate in 1852, Winfield Scott, lost in a landslide to Democrat Franklin Pierce, a colorless nonentity.

  • Pierce, pro-slavery, unites Democrats;
  • Republicans divided between compromisers and free soilers; Winfield Scott nominated on 52nd ballot;
  • Hale (free soil) small 3rd party; Whigs in decline

FREE SOILERS AND FREE BLACKS. Personal liberty laws in North and Black laws in North and South create all kinds of restrictions on free Blacks in lower northern states: marriage, property, voting military service all restricted. Still, Fugitive Slave searches anger many northerners; interference angers Southerners. Movement for freedom was rarely a movement for equality for Blacks (see Lincoln); some political parties went farther than others: Free Soilers not as liberal as Liberty Party; Anti-slavery Whigs; few parties clean on objectives; most Free Soilers, Republicans were ambivalent on black rights.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” also heightened sectional tensions. Like other northerners, the Fugitive Slave Law stirred Stowe’s conscience, and her novel drove home the evils of slavery. While Stowe knew little about slavery and her picture of plantation life was distorted, her story had sympathetic characters and it was told with sensitivity. She was the first white American writer to look at slaves as people.

Lincoln: “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this big war.”


Tom was soon busy at his work; but, as the woman was at no great distance from him, he often glanced an eye to her, at her work. He saw, at a glance, that a native adroitness and handiness made the task to her an easier one than it proved to many. She picked very fast and very clean, and with an air of scorn, as if she despised both the work and the disgrace and humiliation of the circumstances in which she was placed.

In the course of the day, Tom was working near the mulatto woman who had been bought in the same lot with himself She was evidently in a condition of great suffering, and Tom often heard her praying, as she wavered and trembled, and seemed about to fall down. Tom silently as he came near to her, transferred several handfuls of cotton from his own sack to hers.

“O, don’t, don’t!” said the woman, looking surprised; “it’ll get you into trouble.”

Just then Sambo came up. He seemed to have a special spite against this woman; and, flourishing his whip, said, in brutal, guttural tones, “What dis yer, Luce,—foolin ‘ a’?” and, with the word, kicking the woman with his heavy cow-hide shoe, he struck Tom across the face with his whip.

Tom silently resumed his task; but the woman, before at the last point of exhaustion, fainted.

“I’ll bring her to!” said the driver, with a brutal grin’ “I’ll give her something better than camphire!” and, taking a pin from his coat-sleeve, he buried it to the head in her flesh. The woman groaned, and half rose. “Get up, you beast, and work, will yer, or I’ll show yer a trick more!”

The woman seemed stimulated, for a few moments, to an unnatural strength, and worked with desperate eagerness.

“See that you keep to dat ar,” said the man, “or yer’ll wish yer’s dead to-night, I reckin!”

“That I do now!” Tom heard her sav; and again he heard her say, “O, Lord, how long! 0, Lord, why don’t you help us?”

At the risk of all that he might suffer, Tom came forward again, and put all the cotton in his sack into the woman’s.

“O, you mustn’t! you donno what they’ll do to yet”

said the woman.

“I can bar it!” said Tom, “better ‘n you;” and he was at his place again. It passed in a moment.

Suddenly, the stranger woman whom we have described, and who had, in the course of her work, come near enough to hear Tom’s last words, raised her heavy black eyes, and fixed them, for a second, on him; then, taking a quantity of cotton from her basket, she placed it in his.

“You know nothing about this place,” she said, “or you wouldn’t have done that. When you’ve been here a month, you’ll be done helping anybody; you’ll find it hard enough to take care of your own skin!”

“The Lord forbid, Missis!” said Tom, using instinctively to his field companion the respectful form proper to the high bred with whom he had lived-

“The Lord never visits these parts,” said the woman, bitterly, as she went nimbly forward with her work; and again the scornful smile curled her lips.

But the action of the woman had been seen by the driver, across the field; and, flourishing his whip, he came up to her.

“What! what!” he said to the woman, with an air of triumph, “You a foolin’? Go along! yer under me now, mind yourself, or yer’ll cotch it!”

A glance like sheet-lightning suddenly flashed from those black eyes; and, facing about, with quivering lip and dilated nostrils, she drew herself up, and fix-ed a glance, blazing with rage and scorn, on the driver.

“Dog!” she said, “touch me, if you dare! I’ve power enough, yet, to have you torn by the dogs, burnt alive, cut to inches! I’ve only to say the word!”

“What de devil you here for, den?” said the man, evidently cowed, and sullenly retreating a step or two. “Didn’t mean no harm, Misse Cassy!”

“Keep your distance, then!” said the woman. And, in truth, the man seemed greatly inclined to attend to something at the other end of the field, and started off .in quick time.

The woman suddenly turned to her work, and labored with a despatch that was perfectly astonishing to Tom. She seemed to work by magic. Before the day was through, her basket was filled, crowded down, times put largely into whole weary train, with defiled up to the building appropriated to the storing and weighing the cotton. Legree was there, busily conversing with the two drivers.

“Dat ar Tom’s gwine to make a powerful deal o’ trouble; kept a puttin’ into Lucy’s basket.—One o’ these yer dat will get all der niggers to feelin’ bused, if Mas’r don’t watch him!” said Sambo.

“Hey-dey! The black cuss!” said Legree. “He’ll have to get a breakin’ in, won’t he, boys?”

Both negroes grinned a horrid grin, at this intimation.

“Ay, ay! Let Mas’r Legree alone, for breakin’ in! De debil heself couldn’t beat Mas’r at dat!” said Quimbo.

“Wal, boys, the best way is to give him the flogging to do, till he gets over his notions. Break him in!”

“Lord, Mas’r’ll have hard work to get dat out o’ him!”

“It’ll have to come out of him, though!” said Legree, as he rolled his tobacco in his mouth.

“Now, dar’s Lucy,—de aggravatinest, ugliest wench on de place!” pursued Sambo.

“Take care, Sam; I shall begin to think what’s the reason for your spite agin Lucy.”

“Well, Mas’r knows she sot herself up agin Mas’r, and wouldn’t have me, when he telled her to.” “I’d a flogged her into ‘t,” said Legree, spitting, only there’s such a press o’ work, it don’t seem wuth a while to upset her jist now. She’s slender; but these yer slender gals will bear half killin’ to get their own way!”

“Wal, Lucy was real aggravatin’ and lazy, sulkin’ round; wouldn’t do nothin’,—and Tom he tuck up for her.”

“He did, eh! Wal, then, Tom shall have the pleasure of flogging her. It’ll be a good practice for him, and he won’t put it on to the gal like you devils, neither.”

“Ho, ho! haw! haw! haw!” laughed both the sooty wretches; and the diabolical sounds seemed, in truth, a not unapt expression of the fiendish character which Legree gave them.

“Wal, but, Mas’r, Tom and Misse Cassy, and dey among ‘cm, filled Lucy’s basket. I ruther guess der weight ‘s in it, Mas’r! ::

“I do the weighing! said Legree, emphatically.

Both the drivers again laughed their diabolical laugh.

“So, he added, “Misse Cassy did her day’s work.”

“She picks like de debil and all his angels!”

“She’s got ’em all in her, I believe!” said Legree; and, growling a brutal oath, he proceeded to the weighing-room.

Slowly the weary, dispirited creatures, wound their way into the room, and, with crouching reluctance, presented their baskets to be weighed.

Legree noted on a slate, on the side of which was pasted a list of names, the amount.

Tom’s basket was weighed and approved; and he looked, with an anxious glance, for the success of the woman he had befriended.

Tottering with weakness, she came forward, and delivered her basket. It was of full weight, as Legree well perceived; but, affecting anger, he said,

“What, you lazy beast! short again! stand aside, you’ll catch it, pretty soon!”

The woman gave a groan of utter despair, and sat down on a board.

The person who had been called Misse Cassy now came forward, and, with a haughty, negligent -ir, delivered her basket. As she delivered it, Legree looked in her eyes with a sneering yet inquiring glance.

She fixed her black eyes steadily on him, her lips moved slightly, and she said something in French. What it was, no one knew; but Legree’s face became perfectly demoniacal in its expression, as she spoke; he half raised his hand, as if to strike,—a gesture which she regarded with fierce disdain, as she turned and walked away.

“And now,” said Legree, “come here, you Tom. You see, I telled ye I didn’t buy ye jest for the common work; I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye; and to-night ye may jest as well begin to get yer hand in. Now, ye ‘est take this yer gal and flog her; ye’ve seen enough on’t to know how.”

“I beg Mas’r’s pardon,” said Tom; “hopes Mas’r won’t set me at that. It’s what I an’t used to,-never did,—and can’t do, no way possible.”

“Ye’ll larn a pretty smart chance of things ye never did know, before I’ve done with ye!” said Legree, taking up a cowhide, and striking Tom a heavy blow cross the cheek, and following up the infliction by a shower of blows.

“There!” he said, as he stopped to rest; “now, will ye tell me ye can’t do it?”

“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, putting up his hand, to wipe the blood, that trickled down his face. “I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do’;-and, Mas’r, I never shall do it,—never !”

Tom had a remarkably smooth, soft voice, and habitually respectful manner, that had given Legr idea that he would be cowardly, and easily sub When he spoke these last words, a thrill of amaz( went through every one; the poor woman clasp hands, and said, “O Lord!” and every one involuntarily looked at each other and drew in their breath, as if to prepare for the storm that was about to burst.

Legree looked stupefied and confounded; but at last burst forth,—

“What! ye blasted black beast! tell me ye don’t think it right to do what I tell ye! What have any of you cussed cattle to do with thinking what’s right? I’ll put a stop to it! Why, what do ye think ye are? May be ye think ye’r a Gentleman master, Tom, to be a telling your master what’s right, and what ain’t! So you pretend it’s wrong to flog the gal!”

“I think so, Mas’r,” said Tom; “the poor crittur’s sick and feeble; ‘t would be downright cruel, and it’s what I never will do, nor begin to. Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin any one here, I never shall,—I’ll die first!”

Tom spoke in a mild voice, but with a decision that could not be mistaken. Legree shook with anger; his greenish eyes glared fiercely, and his very whiskers seemed to curl with passion; but, like some ferocious beast that plays with its victim before he devours it, he kept back his strong impulse to proceed to immediate violence, and broke out into bitter raillery.

“Well, here’s a pious dog, at last, let down among us sinners!—a saint, a gentleman, and no less, to talk to us sinners about our sins! Powerful holy critter, he must be! Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious,—didn’t you never hear, out of yer Bible, ‘Servants, obey yer masters’? An’t I yer master? Didn’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black she]]? An’t yer mine, now, body and soul?” he said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot; “tell me!”

In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of iov and triumph through Tom’s soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed,

“No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it,—ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it,—no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!”

“I can’t!” said Legree, with a sneer; “we’ll see,—we’ll see! Here, Sambo, Quimbo, give this dog such a breakin’ in as he won’t get over, this month!”

The two gigantic negroes that now laid hold of Tom, with fiendish exultation in their faces, might have formed no unapt personification of powers of darkness. The poor woman screamed with apprehension, and all rose, as by a general impulse, while they dragged him unresisting from the place.



Foreign affairs offered a distraction from the growing sectional hostility. Sympathies were extended to European revolutionaries in revolt against autocratic government. Some also dreamed of territorial acquisitions in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The need for better communication with California produced the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. It gave the United States and Britain joint control of any canal built through the isthmus. American diplomats who signed the Ostend Manifesto proposed the acquisition of Cuba, but the idea was dropped when northerners charged that the manifesto was a plot to expand slavery. The United States also signed a trade agreement with Japan in this period. (388-391)

The Appeal of an Isthmian Canal

Perry in Japan

The Gadsden Purchase


Senator Stephen Douglas saw the needs of the nation in a broad perspective. He advocated territorial expansion and popular sovereignty. He opposed slavery, but did not find it morally repugnant. Generally, he did not think it was necessary for the nation to expend its energy on the slave issue. Both parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850 in the 1852 campaign, but the Whig party was disintegrating and proslavery southerners were coming to dominate the Democratic party.

Foundations of Douglas’s Politics

Steering the 1850 Compromise through Congress

The Kansas-Nebraska Act Raises a Storm

In 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, anxious to expand American settlement and commerce across the northern plains while promoting his own presidential ambitions, pushed an act through Congress organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on the basis of popular sovereignty. This repeal of the long-standing Missouri Compromise, along with publication of the “Ostend Manifesto” urging the United States acquisition of Cuba, convinced an increasing number of Northerners that Pierce’s Democratic administration was dominated by pro-southern sympathizers, if not conspirators.

In 1854, Stephen Douglas introduced a bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The area had a growing population and Douglas hoped to speed construction of a transcontinental railroad through the territory. Southerners balked because they wanted the railroad farther south and they feared Nebraska would become a free state. These areas were north of the Missouri Compromise line and had been off-limits to slavery since 1820, but Douglas proposed to apply popular sovereignty to them in an effort to get southern votes and avoid another controversy over territories. Douglas expected to revive the spirit of Manifest Destiny for the benefit of the Democratic party and for his own benefit when he ran for president in 1860. The South insisted, and Douglas agreed to add an explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thus provoking a storm of protest in the North, where it was felt that the South had broken a long-established agreement. The Whig party, unable to decide what position to take on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, disintegrated. The Democratic party suffered mass defections in the North. In the congressional elections of 1854, coalitions of “anti-Nebraska” candidates swept the North, and the Democrats became virtually the only political party in the South.

In the midst of this uproar, President Pierce made an effort to buy, or seize, Cuba from Spain, but northern anger at any further extension of slavery forced the president to drop the idea.

Nevertheless, the bill passed and the nation took a giant step toward disunion. Douglas introduces bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories based on “popular sovereignty” or squatter principle. As it allowed for slavery in all new territories, it implicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise. Douglas not especially against slavery.

Douglas’s rationale:

  • Believed in principle of self-government;
  • Southern support for 1856 Presidential election;
  • Geography would limit slavery by natural means;
  • open settlement to facilitate transcontinental Railroad with eastern terminus in Illinois.
    • Bottom line: Douglas’s position was probably Manifest Destiny.
  • Final Act repeals Missouri Compromise; Supreme Court has last say
  • “Appeal of the Independent Democrats”–Act a “gross violation of a sacred pledge” (Missouri Compromise).
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act is a significant southern victory. Greeley: Created more abolitionists than Garrison et. al. in 30 years
  • 1854 Burns affair, which leads (1859) to Abelman v. Booth Burns captured in Boston; mob attacks, federal troops arrive; Supreme Court says Fugitive Slave Law constitutional; state personal freedom laws no;
  • IRONY–States’ Rights issue shifts to Northern states
  • 1854 Elections: Democrats get beat up over K-N Act–“disaster.”
  • Democrats lose most of North, become a southern party.
  • 1854-55 Know-Nothing (American) Party opposes Catholics; nativist. Anti-slavery members defect to Republicans. Anti-black feelings in North
  • 1855 Lincoln condemns K-N Act in speech. He’s unknown outside Illinois.
  • 1855 The Kansas question grows. Dual government; 1500 Missouri “Border Ruffians” invade state to participate in elections: “Wakarusa War.” Leads to …

An Appeal to Nativism: The Know-Nothing Episode

Appearing after the demise of the Whig Party, the American, or Know-Nothing, party appealed to the anti-immigrant sentiments of American citizens who feared and resented the heavy influx of European immigrants. Although enjoying temporary success, the Know-Nothing party soon lost influence and numbers because of inexperienced leaders, a lack of cohesion, and a failure to address the nation’s major problems.

As the Whigs collapsed, a new party, the Know-Nothings, or American Party, gained in popularity. The Know-Nothing party especially appealed to evangelical Protestants, who objected to the millions of Catholics immigrating to America. By the 1850s, the Know-Nothings also picked up support from former Whigs and Democrats disgusted with politics as usual. In 1854, the American party suddenly took political control of Massachusetts and spread rapidly across the nation. In less than two years, the Know-Nothings collapsed for reasons that are still obscure. Most probably, Northerners worried less about immigration as it slowed down, and turned their attention to the slavery issue.

Kansas and the Rise of the Republicans

Formed in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Republican party adopted a firm position opposing any further extension of slavery. Election fraud and violence in Kansas discredited the principle of popular sovereignty and strengthened Republican appeal in the North.

The Republican party emerged as a coalition of former Whigs, Know-Nothings, Free-Soilers, and Democrats by emphasizing the sectional struggle and by appealing strictly to northern voters. Republicans promised to save the West as a preserve for white, small farmers.

Events in Kansas helped the Republicans. Abolitionists and proslavery forces raced into the territory to gain control of the territorial legislature. Proslavery forces won and passed laws that made it illegal even to criticize the institution of slavery. Very soon, however, those who favored free soil became the majority and set up a rival government. President Pierce recognized the proslavery legislature, while the Republicans attacked it as the tyrannical instrument of a minority. In Kansas, fighting broke out, and the Republicans used “Bleeding Kansas” to win more Northern voters.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act compelled former Whigs and antislavery northern Democrats to join new parties. The Know Nothing party was founded by nativists who blamed the recent flood of Catholic immigrants for rising crime, drunkenness, and poverty. The party enjoyed support in both the North and South because it was flexible on the slavery issue. More significant was the Republican party, a party dedicated to opposing the expansion of slavery. It was a sectional party that appealed to growing antislavery sentiments in the North.

Brought about by opposition to Kansas-Nebraska Act (Outrage”), which realigned political forces in North and West. Whigs, Free-Soilers, & antislavery Democrats.

Common platform: stopping extension of slavery into territories. Jackson meeting called for repeal of K-N Act and Fugitive Slave Law and abolition in D.C. Many well-known Whigs, Free-Soilers, Nativists joined as movement spread.

Issues: Reform; Anti-slavery; Protestantism; support for dynamic capitalism and modernization; pro-school, temperance, black suffrage, etc. Opponents: “Black Republicans,” “Puritans”, etc. Believed them acquisitive, given to sharp practice, hypocrisy, bigotry; interfering meddlers


Kansas became a testing ground over slavery and it eventually exposed a fatal flaw in the idea of popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had been ambiguous about when a vote on slavery would be held and who would be allowed to vote. Both sections sought to influence the situation in Kansas: New England sent organized groups of antislavery settlers to Kansas, and proslavery Missourians crossed the border to vote in key Kansas elections. The result was a virtual civil war in Kansas. The Pierce administration refused to insist on order and honesty; instead it backed the proslavery element in Kansas, but warned the border ruffians to disperse. Civil War breaks out in Kansas, where two governments exist. John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre occurs 24-25 May. Both sides mobilize, Governor Geary gets aid of federal troops, disperses Border Ruffians; 200 killed, millions in property destroyed.

Reaction on Congress:

Douglas joins Pierce, arouse opposition. Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” (Crude, offensive) speech leads to brawl. Sumner caned by Preston Brooks, absent from Senate for several years. His vacant chair becomes a symbol.

Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, relentlessly demeaned slavery and southerners. His insistence on the admission of Kansas as a free state and his personal attack on a southern senator resulted in his being assaulted by a South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks. Northerners viewed the incident as an illustration of the brutalizing effects of slavery on southern whites.


In the 1856 election the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, won by portraying the Republican party as a sectional party that threatened the Union. Republicans labeled Buchanan a “doughface”–a northerner with southern principles.

  • Democrats nominate Buchanan; platform supports K-N Act, affirms 1850 Compromise. Breckinridge for VP.
  • Republicans nominate Fremont.
  • American Party–Fillmore, compromisers split vote.
  • Chief Issues in election: K-N Act and “Bleeding Kansas”
  • Buchanan nominated (had been out of country) because no stand on Kansas; Buchanan primarily an ardent Democrat, sympathetic to South; later more Unionist; Many northerners supported Buchanan out of fear of disunion
  • A southern sympathizer, Buchanan became more and more a unionist as the crisis developed.

Sectional Division in the Election of 1856

In 1856, Democrat James Buchanan won the presidency over Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore. National unity was temporarily maintained, but the overwhelmingly sectional Republican party showed surprising strength for a fledgling organization in sweeping the upper North. The Republicans, who sought votes only in the free states, nominated John C. Fremont for President. The Know-Nothings ran ex-President Millard Fillmore as a champion of sectional compromise. The Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, defended the Compromise of 1850 and carried the election, despite clear gains for the Republicans.


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