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The History Database

Chapter 18: Renewing the Sectional Struggle (1848-1854)

Art History
History of the Bible
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United States History


American Experience: The Gold RushUnderground RailroadRace to Freedom: The Underground Railroad



Chapter Outline

I. The Popular Sovereignty Panacea

  1. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, but
    it started a whole new debate about the extension of slavery, with
    Northerners rallying around the Wilmot Proviso (which proposed that the
    Mexican Cession lands be free soil); however, the Southerners shot it
  2. Before, the two national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, had
    had strong support from all over the nation; now, that was in jeopardy.
  3. In 1848, Polk, due to tremendous overworking and chronic diarrhea,
    did not seek a second term, and the Democrats nominated General Lewis
    Cass, a veteran of the War of 1812, a senator and diplomat of wide
    experience and considerable ability, and the originator of popular
    sovereignty, the idea that issues should be decided upon by the people
    (specifically, it applied to slavery, stating that the people in the
    territories should decide to legalize it or not).

    • It was good (and liked by politicians) because it was a compromise
      between the extremes of the North and the South, and it stuck with the
      idea of self-determination, but it could spread slavery.

II. Political Triumphs for General Taylor

  1. The Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, the hero of Buena Vista
    in the Mexican War, a man with no political experience, but popular
    man, and they avoided all picky issues in his campaign.
  2. Disgusted antislavery Northerners organized the Free Soil Party, a
    party committed against the extension of slavery in the territories and
    one that also advocated federal aid for internal improvements and urged
    free government homesteads for settlers.

    • This party appealed to people angry over the half-acquisition of
      Oregon, people who didn’t like Blacks in the new territory, as
      well as “conscience Whigs” who condemned slavery on moral
    • The Free-Soilers nominated Martin Van Buren.
  3. Neither major party talked about the slavery issue, but Taylor won narrowly.

III. “Californy Gold”

  1. In 1848, gold was discovered in California, and thousands flooded into the state, thus blowing the lid off of the slavery issue.
  2. Most people didn’t “strike it rich,” but there were many lawless men and women.
  3. As a result, California (privately encouraged by the president)
    drafted a constitution and then applied for free statehood, thus
    bypassing the usual territorial stage and avoiding becoming a slave

IV. Sectional Balance and the Underground Railroad

  1. In 1850, the South was very well off, with a Southerner as
    president (Taylor), a majority in the cabinet and on the Supreme Court,
    and equality in the Senate meaning that its 15 states could block any
    proposed amendment that would outlaw slavery. Still, the South was
  2. The balance of 15 free states and 15 slave states was in danger
    with the admission of free California (which would indeed destroy the
    equilibrium forever) and other states might follow California as free
  3. The South was also agitated about Texas’ claims on disputed
    territory and the prospect of no slavery in Washington D.C., thus
    putting a piece of non-slavery land right in the middle of
    slave-holding Virginia and Maryland.
  4. Finally the Underground Railroad, a secret organization that took
    runaway states north to Canada, was taking more and more slaves from
    the South.
  5. Harriet Tubman freed more than 300 slaves during 19 trips to the South.
  6. The South was also demanded a stricter fugitive slave law.

V. Twilight of the Senatorial Giants

  1. In 1850, the South was confronted with catastrophe, with California demanding admission as a free state.
    • Thus, the three giants met together for the last time to engineer a compromise.
  2. Henry Clay, AKA “The Great Compromiser,” now 73 years
    old, urged concession from both the North and the South (the North for
    a fugitive slave law, the South for others) and was seconded by Stephen
    Douglas, the “Little Giant” and fine senator.
  3. Southern spokesman John C. Calhoun, dying of tuberculosis, pleaded
    for states’ rights, for slavery to be left alone, for the return
    of runaway slaves, the restoration of the rights of the South as a
    minority, and the return for political balance.
  4. Northerner Daniel Webster proclaimed that the new land could not
    hold slaves anyway, since it couldn’t cultivate cotton,
    etc… and his Seventh of March speech helped move the North into
  5. As a result of the popular speech, though, Webster was also
    proclaimed a traitor to the North, since he had called for ignoring the
    slavery subject.

VI. Deadlock and Danger on Capitol Hill

  1. A new group of politicians, the “Young Guard,” seemed
    more interested in purifying the Union rather than patching it up.
  2. William H. Seward, a young senator from New York, was flatly
    against concession and hated slavery, but he didn’t seem to
    realize that the Union was built on compromise, and he said that
    Christian legislators must adhere to a “higher law” and not
    allow slavery to exist; this might have cost him the 1860 presidential
  3. President Taylor also appeared to have fallen under the influence
    of the “higher law,” vetoing every compromise sent to him
    by Congress.

VII. Breaking the Congressional Logjam

  1. Then, in 1850, Zachary Taylor suddenly died of an acute intestinal disorder, and portly Millard Fillmore took over the reigns.
  2. Impressed by arguments of conciliation, he signed a series of agreements that came to be known as the Compromise of 1850.
  3. Clay, Webster, and Douglas orated on behalf of the compromise for
    the North, but the South hated it; fortunately, they finally accepted
    it after much debate.

VIII. Balancing the Compromise Scales

  1. What the North got… (the North got the better deal in the Compromise of 1850)
    1. California was admitted as a free state, permanently tipping the balance.
    2. Texas lost its disputed territory to New Mexico and (now) Oklahoma.
    3. The District of Columbia could not have slave trade, but slavery
      was still legal. This was symbolic only. It was symbolic in that the
      nation’s capital “took a stance” against the trade.
      However, it was impractical because the trade only was illegal, not
      slavery and because a person could easily buy a slave in next-door
  2. What the South got…
    1. Popular sovereignty in the Mexican Cession lands. This was good for
      the South because prior to this, there was to be no new slave lands
      (the 36o30’ Missouri Compromise line had drawn that).
      On paper, this opened a lot of land to slavery, possibly. This was bad
      for the South because those lands were too dry to raise cotton anyway
      and therefore would never see slaves.
    2. Texas was paid $10 million for the land lost to New Mexico.
    3. A new, tougher Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was drastic, and it
      stated that (1) fleeing slaves couldn’t testify on their own
      behalf, (2) the federal commissioner who handled the case got $5 if the
      slave was free and $10 if not, and (3) people who were ordered to help
      catch slaves had to do so, even if they didn’t want to.

      • Angry Northerners pledged not to follow the new law, and the Underground Railroad stepped up its timetable.
      • It turns out that the new Fugitive Slave Law was a blunder on
        behalf of the South, since it inflamed both sides, but a civil war
        didn’t occur, and this was better for the North, since with each
        moment, it was growing ahead of the South in population and
        wealth—in crops, factories, foundries, ships, and railroads.

IX. Defeat and Doom for the Whigs

  1. In 1852, the Democrats, unable to agree, finally nominated dark horse Franklin Pierce, a man who was unknown and enemyless.
  2. The Whigs nominated “Old Fuss and Feathers,” Winfield
    Scott, the old veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.
  3. Both parties boasted about the Compromise of 1850, though the Democrats did more.
  4. The Whigs were hopelessly split, and thus, Pierce won in a
    landslide; the death of the Whigs ended the national political
    arguments and gave rise to sectional political alignments.

X. Expansionist Stirrings South of the Border

  1. Pierce tried to be another Polk, and he impressed followers by
    reciting his inaugural address from memory, but his cabinet was filled
    with Southerners like Jefferson Davis and he was prepared to be a
    Southerners’ tool.
  2. In July of 1856, a brazen American adventurer, William Walker,
    grabbed control in Nicaragua and proclaimed himself president, then
    legalized slavery, but a coalition of Latin American states overthrew
    him. This threw some fuel on the “Slavocracy” theory (a
    conspiracy theory where the South was always seeking new slave land).
  3. America also eyed Cuba with envy.
    • Although America wanted Cuba, Spain wouldn’t sell it to the U.S. at any price.
    • So after two attempts to take Cuba failed, and after Spain captured
      the American steamer Black Warrior on a technicality, three U.S.
      foreign ministers met in Ostend, Belgium and drew up the Ostend
      Manifesto which stated that the U.S. was to offer $120 million to Spain
      for Cuba, and if it refused and Spain’s ownership of Cuba
      continued to endanger the U.S., then America would be justified in
      seizing the island (sell it or it’ll be taken).
  4. Northerners were outraged once this “secret” document
    was leaked, and the South could not get Cuba (and obtain another slave
    state). Pierce was embarrassed and more fuel thrown on the Slavocracy

XI. The Allure of Asia

  1. Over on the Pacific, America was ready to open to Asia.
    • Caleb Cushing was sent to China on a goodwill mission.
  2. The Chinese were welcoming since they wanted to counter the British.
  3. U.S.—China trade began to flourish.
  4. Missionaries also sought to save souls; they largely kindled resent however.
  5. Relations opened up Japan when Commodore Matthew C. Perry steamed
    into the harbor of Tokyo in 1854 and asked/coerced/forced them to open
    up their nation.

    • Perry’s Treaty of Kanagawa formerly opened Japan.
    • This broke Japan’s centuries-old traditional of isolation,
      and started them down a road of modernization and then imperialism and

XII. Pacific Railroad Promoters and the Gadsden Purchase

  1. Though the U.S. owned California and Oregon, getting out there was
    very difficult, since the sea routes were too long and the wagon route
    overland was dangerous, so the only real feasible solution lay in a
    transcontinental railroad.
  2. The Southerners wanted a route through the South, but the best one
    would go through Mexico, so Secretary of War Jefferson Davis arranged
    to have James Gadsden appointed minister to Mexico.

    • Two reasons this was the best route: (1) the land was organized
      meaning any Indian attacks could be repelled by the U.S. Army and (2)
      geography—the plan was to skirt south of the Rocky Mtns
    • Finding Santa Anna in power again, he bought the Gadsden Purchase
      for $10 million, and despite clamor about the “rip-off,”
      Congress passed the sale.
  3. A northern railroad would be less effective since it would cross over mountains and cross through Indian territory.
  4. The South now appeared to have control of the location of the
    transcontinental railroad, but the North said that if the organization
    of territories was the problem, then Nebraska should be organized.

XIII. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Scheme

  1. To do this, Senator Stephen Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska
    Act, which would let slavery in Kansas and Nebraska be decided upon by
    popular sovereignty (a concession to the South in return for giving up
    the railroad).
  2. The problem was that the Missouri Compromise had banned any slavery
    north of the 36∞30’ line, so the act would have to repeal
  3. Southerners had never thought of Kansas as a possible slave state, and thus backed the bill, but Northerners rallied against it.
  4. Nevertheless, Douglas rammed the bill through Congress, and it was passed, repealing the Missouri Compromise.

XIV. Congress Legislates a Civil War

  1. The Kansas-Nebraska Act directly wrecked the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (by opening slavery up above the 36o30’ line) and indirectly wrecked the Compromise of 1850 (when everyone thought the issue was settled and done).
  2. Northerners no longer enforced the Fugitive Slave Law at all, and Southerners were still angry.
  3. The Democratic Party was hopelessly split into two, and after 1856, it would not have a president elected for 28 years.


The History Database