Slavery, Bleeding Kansas and Dred Scott: Prelude to Civil War
America’s victory in the Mexican-American War brought extensive territorial expansion, but along with it came increasing sectional conflict—especially over the question of slavery. The Compromise of 1850 was an attempt to reconcile the nation’s growing differences, but it did not succeed. Within four years of the Compromise’s approval, relative harmony was again disrupted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its aftermath. Two factors converged to make a tense situation worse. One: the extension of the 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitudinal line (established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820) into the new territories left the South with much less area for the expansion of slavery, as compared to the area north of that line permanently closed to slavery. Two: plans for a trans-continental railroad free of Southern influence or control, which would enhance the prestige of Chicago and its senatorial spokesman, Stephen A. Douglas, required organization of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories—which stirred up the debate over slavery even more.
Article continues after newspaper image from the March 7, 1857, issue of the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Mass.)
To quell Southern anger, Douglas inserted into the Kansas-Nebraska Act a provision for "popular sovereignty" in the two new territories, which would repeal the 1820 ban on slavery in the territories above 36 degrees, 30 minutes and instead let the territories’ settlers decide the issue of slavery. Douglas assured Northern supporters that without enactment of a slave code, removal of the ban would have no practical effect. The bill passed, and the Kansas Territory immediately became a battleground between opposing camps. Each side attempted to flood the territory with residents who would vote according to their preference on the slavery question. New England abolitionists settled there to further their cause, while the pro-slavery forces relied upon Missourians who slipped across the border to establish a temporary presence during voting. This led to violent clashes, giving rise to the term "Bleeding Kansas."
In the midst of this controversy, the bleeding spread to the floor of the U.S. Senate when Massachusetts Senator Charles A. Sumner's verbal attacks on a slavery advocate led to violent retribution. South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Sumner with a cane while an associate held off other senators with a gun. This nearly fatal attack made Brooks a hero in the South, and Sumner a martyr in the North. In this dangerously inflamed climate, the case of Dred Scott reached the Supreme Court.
Dred Scott, a slave in Missouri, was brought by his master to live for several years in the state of Illinois (a free state) and the territory of Wisconsin (a free territory), both above the 36 degrees, 30 minutes line. Afterward Scott, through white supporters, argued that he was now free because he had been taken into territory where slavery was banned by the Missouri Compromise. The Southern-dominated Supreme Court not only rejected Scott's claim, but declared the Missouri Compromise's ban on slavery above that line unconstitutional. The Court further stated that no person of African descent could be a citizen of the United States. Thus, forces set in motion by Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the 37 years of uneasy compromise established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
The following year, 1858, saw Stephen A. Douglas run for re-election. Kansas-Nebraska had given rise to a new party, the Republicans, and their nominee was a former Whig, Abraham Lincoln. The campaign saw a series of seven debates that surveyed the slavery issue in-depth, and drew national attention. Although Douglas found a tenuous middle ground between popular sovereignty and Dred Scott that won him re-election, Lincoln gained a national reputation and positioned himself for the 1860 presidential election.
Just when it seemed things could not grow more impassioned, the specter of "Bleeding Kansas" struck east. John Brown, a New York abolitionist who had been involved in a deadly incident at Pottawatomie, Kansas, in 1856, organized a raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in October of 1859. This attempt to foment a slave rebellion was a tactical failure, but Virginia's trial of Brown for murder and treason, and his subsequent execution, turned him into a hero in the North. Civil war was just a year and a half away, and all attempts at sectional compromise were dashed.
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