Deepening of the Sectional Crisis

The Sectional Crisis Deepens

Increasing sectional polarization pushed most Americans into two distinct political camps on the eve of the 1860 presidential election.

Learning Objectives

Discuss some of the consequences of increased sectionalism prior to the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Republicans became the party of the North, promoting industry and business while also attracting antislavery factions by opposing the expansion of slavery into new territories.
  • The Democrats were split between North and South, with separate election tickets in 1860.
  • Northern Democrats hoped for a long-term compromise between slave and free states in new territories, while Southern Democrats demanded federal protections of slavery and threatened secession if Congress did not meet their demands.

Key Terms

  • Republican Party: One of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. It was founded in 1854 following the dissolution of the Whig and Free Labor Parties.
  • Northern Democrats: An unofficial faction within the larger Democratic Party. The party supported nominee Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. presidential election of 1864.
  • Southern Democrats: Members of the U.S. Democratic Party who reside in the American South. In the nineteenth century, they were the definitive proslavery wing of the party, opposed to both the antislavery Republicans (GOP) and the more liberal Northern Democrats.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, politics had become a part of mass culture, fueled by elections, rallies, campaign parades, public speeches, and the media. Between 1854 and 1856 alone, an abundance of new political parties and organizations emerged, including the Republicans, the People’s Party, Anti-Nebraskans, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, the Temperance Movement, Hard Shell Democrats, Rum Democrats, and Silver Gray Whigs. Yet the abundance of political parties and organizations was eventually whittled down due to increasing sectionalism between the North and the South.

Sectionalism

Sectionalism refers to the different economies, social structure, customs, and political values of the North and the South. Sectionalism increased steadily between 1800 and 1860 as the North (which phased slavery out of existence) industrialized, urbanized, and built prosperous farms, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor together with subsistence farming for the poor white families. During this time, the South aimed to expand into rich new lands in the Southwest.

Distinct Political Divisions

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president of the United States following a period of increased sectional conflict among and within existing American political parties.

The debates between slave-state and free-state interests raged in Congress; many people in the North and the South began to polarize along similar fault lines, and various disparate political organizations began to coalesce into distinct camps. The Republicans became the party of the North, promoting industry and business while also attracting antislavery factions. The core platform of the Republican Party was opposition to the expansion of slavery into new territories in order to protect the interests of yeoman farmers and industrialists seeking new land and investments. The Democrats were split between the North and the South with separate election tickets in 1860. Northern Democrats hoped for a long-term compromise between slave and free states in new territories, while Southern Democrats demanded federal protections of slavery and threatened secession if Congress refused to meet their demands.

By the election of 1860, these political camps were firmly aligned with Northern and Southern interests, with Southern states whipping up public support for state conventions to vote on secession if Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans won the presidency. The antebellum era of short-term compromise and evasion between the political camps was heading toward an end.

The Dred Scott Decision

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens.

Learning Objectives

Explain why the Dred Scott decision increased sectional conflict

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the North, the Dred Scott decision fueled antislavery factions and in particular strengthened the Republican Party. In the South, it encouraged proslavery, secessionist elements to make bolder demands in Congress.
  • For many Northerners, the Dred Scott decision implied that slavery could move, unhindered, into the North, and Southerners viewed the decision as a justification of their position.
  • The Court ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit the expansion of slavery in new federal territories, nullifying the Missouri Compromise.

Key Terms

  • secession: The act of separating from the union.
  • Missouri Compromise: An agreement passed in 1820 between proslavery and antislavery factions in Congress, primarily involving the regulation of slavery in the western territories.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), also known as the Dred Scott decision, was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court stating that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. The Dred Scott decision was particularly significant because the Court concluded that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories (nullifying the Missouri Compromise) and that, because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattel or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process.

In reaching this decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney had hoped to settle the issue of slavery in the United States, but it had the opposite effect. The decision was fiercely debated across the country and contributed to Abraham Lincoln ‘s success in the presidential election in 1860 as opposition to the Dred Scott decision and the prohibition of further expansion of slavery became integral to the Republican Party platform. The court’s decision was so contentious that some historians go as far as to suggest that the Dred Scott decision caused the Civil War.

Background

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Dred Scott: Portrait of Dred Scott.

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia sometime between 1795 and 1800. In 1820, he followed his owner, Peter Blow, to Missouri. In 1832, Blow died and U.S. Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Scott and took him to Illinois, a free state. In 1836, Scott was again moved to the Wisconsin territory, an area where slavery was “forever prohibited” under the Missouri Compromise. In 1846, Dred attempted to purchase his freedom, but the Emerson family refused, prompting Scott to seek legal recourse.

Over the next 11 years, Scott first won, and then lost, his case as it moved from state to federal courts on appeal, and eventually to the Supreme Court. In 1857, when the Supreme Court heard Dred Scott’s case, it was faced with several controversial questions that were of great significance to an increasingly polarized country. Were black people considered citizens of the United States and therefore eligible to pursue suits in court? Did residence in a free state render a slave free? Most significantly, did Congress have the constitutional authority to prohibit slavery in any state or territory? With proslavery and antislavery supporters pushing for a resolution to sectional conflict over the issue, the Court used its authority in the Dred Scott case more to render a final ruling on the Missouri Compromise rather than to decide the fate of a single man.

Decision

The Supreme Court ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857, just two days after James Buchanan ‘s inauguration. Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the opinion of the Court with each of the concurring and dissenting justices filing separate opinions. In total, six justices agreed with the ruling. The Court ruled that Scott was not a citizen of the United States, that residence in a free territory did not make Scott free, and that Congress had no constitutional authority to prohibit slavery in any territory. The decision effectively overturned all of the political compromises negotiated between Northern and Southern congressional representatives over the past 30 years in a significant victory for proslavery factions.

Taney based his ruling in part on his interpretation of how the authors of the U.S. Constitution would have perceived Scott as a man of African descent, stating that a black individual would be perceived too inferior to be granted equal rights on the same level as a white person. He also stated that any act of Congress denying a slaveholder his property (i.e., his slave) was to be considered unconstitutional on the basis of the Fifth Amendment. This marked only the second time the Supreme Court had found an act of Congress, in this case the Missouri Compromise, to be unconstitutional.

Consequences

Although Chief Justice Roger Taney believed that the decision would answer the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. In the North, it fueled claims of a “slave power” conspiracy with President Buchanan, a Democrat, and the Supreme Court, controlled by a Democratic majority, working to benefit the interests of Southern slaveowners. The decision led many Democrats to start supporting the Republican Party, drawn in by their opposition to the expansion of slavery into new federal territories. In the South, the decision encouraged proslavery, secessionist elements to make bolder demands in Congress.

Many historians consider the Dred Scott decision to be one of the direct causes of Southern secession and the Civil War. It strengthened the Republican Party in the North by creating a platform against the expansion of slavery outside its traditional Southern boundaries and signaled to the South that Northern abolitionists would not quietly accept the Court’s ruling on the matter, leading many Southerners to embrace secession as a defensive measure to protect their interests.

The Lecompton Constitution

The Lecompton Constitution, drafted by proslavery factions, was a state constitution proposed for the state of Kansas that rivaled the constitution proposed by the Free-Soil faction.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the purpose of the Lecompton Constitution and its impact on the slavery debate

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Lecompton Constitution guaranteed the protection of slavery in the state of Kansas and received the support of President Buchanan and the Southern Democrats.
  • Northern Democrats, however, opposed the Lecompton Constitution after it was voted down by the majority of Kansas settlers.
  • For Northern Democrats, federal intervention in passing the Lecompton Constitution was seen as an act violating the popular sovereignty of the population of Kansas.

Key Terms

  • Topeka Constitution: The Topeka Constitution, drafted by the Topeka Constitutional Convention, banned slavery in Kansas. The Convention was held in October 1855 in the town of Topeka and was the first effort to establish Kansas under a state constitution. The Topeka Constitution was approved by voters in Kansas on December 15, 1855.
  • Lecompton Constitution: The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas drafted by proslavery supporters. The constitution secured the continuation of slavery in the proposed state and protected the rights of slaveholders.

In 1857, settlers in Kansas were faced with voting on a constitution that outlined a government for the territory. The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas. It was produced in September 1857 by the territorial legislature, which consisted mostly of slaveowners in response to the antislavery position of the 1855 Topeka Constitution drafted by the Free-Soil faction. Free-state supporters, who comprised a large majority of actual settlers, boycotted the vote. The resulting Lecompton Constitution secured the continuation of slavery in the proposed state and protected the rights of slaveholders.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton Constitutions were placed before the people of the Kansas Territory for a vote, and both votes were boycotted by supporters of the opposing faction. In the case of Lecompton, however, the constitution was defeated by several thousand votes, demonstrating that the majority of Kansas settlers did not want slavery to continue as an institution within the state. Nevertheless, both the Lecompton and Topeka Constitutions were sent to Washington for approval.

Portrait of Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas: Stephen A. Douglas broke with the Democratic Party leadership over the Lecompton Constitution.

Meanwhile, despite the controversial Dred Scott decision, Stephen Douglas and many other Northern Democrats continued their support of popular sovereignty as the final authority on the admission of slavery into new territories, while Republicans denounced any measure that would allow for the expansion of slavery. President Buchanan, however, formally endorsed the Lecompton Constitution before Congress, joining with the Southern Democrats who demanded that the document be adopted as the Kansas state constitution. While the president received the support of the Southern Democrats, Northern Democrats and Republicans denounced the blatant violation of the will of the popular majority in Kansas.

In 1858, in an effort to win Northern support for the popular sovereignty argument, Douglas entered into a series of debates with Abraham Lincoln who was challenging him for the Illinois congressional seat. Douglas argued that, while the Dred Scott case prohibited Congress from legislating on the expansion of slavery, citizens in the territories could effectively legislate against it via their own local governance or by refusing to reinforce infrastructure protecting slaveowners’ interests within the territory. This argument, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, alienated many Southerners from the Northern Democrats permanently. Furthermore, Douglas’s appeal to the North convinced many Southerners that their interests and proslavery rights only could be protected by secession.

The Panic of 1857

The Panic of 1857 was a financial crisis in the United States caused by the overexpansion of the domestic economy.

Learning Objectives

Examine how the Panic of 1857 impacted the economy and increased sectional tension

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Panic of 1857 began after the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company in September 1857 and lasted until the Civil War.
  • Many Northerners blamed the Panic of 1857 on the South’s aggressive proslavery agenda.
  • The Dred Scott decision contributed to the Panic because many Northern financiers found it risky to invest in western territory with the possibility of slavery extending into new U.S. territories.

Key Terms

  • Panic of 1857: The Panic of 1857 was a financial crisis in the United States caused by the declining international economy and an overexpansion of the domestic economy.
  • Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company: A banking institution based in Cincinnati, Ohio, which existed from 1830 to 1857. The Panic of 1857, an economic depression, resulted after the company’s New York City offices ceased operations due to bad investments, especially in agricultural-related businesses.

The Panic of 1857 was a financial crisis in the United States caused by an overexpansion of the domestic economy following an international crisis over currency valuation in Britain. It is considered by many to be the first worldwide financial crisis. Beginning in September 1857, the financial downturn lasted until the Civil War. After the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, the Panic quickly spread as businesses failed and the stock market began to plummet. In particular, the railroad industry experienced financial declines and hundreds of workers were laid off, and many banks, merchants, and farmers who had seized the opportunity to take risks with their investments when the market was good experienced widespread financial loss.

Causes

In the early 1850s, westward expansion, development, and investment had resulted in widespread economic prosperity throughout the United States. Railroads and factories began to borrow and invest with generous bank loans. However, by 1857, the value of western land fell and migration drastically slowed. Combined with a falling demand for American goods in Europe, commercial credit was curtailed and many merchants and investors found themselves unable to pay back their debts. Because many banks had financed railroads and the purchase of western lands, they began to feel the pressures of falling railroad securities.

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The Panic of 1857 : Bank run on the Seamen’s Savings Bank during the Panic of 1857.

Numerous western railroad companies began to fail—further decreasing the value of railroad securities, stocks, and bonds. The prices of grain also decreased significantly, and farmers experienced a loss in revenue, resulting in many foreclosures on recently purchased lands. For instance, grain prices in 1855 had skyrocketed to $2.19 a bushel, so farmers had begun to purchase land to increase their crop supply (and profits). However, by 1858, grain prices dropped severely to $0.80 a bushel, and as a result, land sales declined and westward expansion essentially halted until the Panic ended.

The Panic of 1857 was set into motion with the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, which had large mortgage holdings and ties to national investment banks. The failure of Ohio Life brought attention to the financial state of the railroad industry and land markets and brought the financial panic to the forefront of public issues. Another event that precipitated the Panic was the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case, which opened all western territories to slavery. Soon after the Dred Scott case, it became evident that the ruling would have drastic financial and political effects as railroad securities and land values began to decrease. As a result, many Americans began to view the West as a risky investment where previously they considered it a symbol of prosperity and development.

Results of the Panic

In the aftermath of the Panic, the Southern economy suffered little while the Northern economy made a slow recovery. Urban riots became common in the North and West as laborers and wealthier factions clashed over the financial crisis. Blame for the Panic, however, was leveled at the South, which was seen as responsible for undermining the stability and security of western industrial development by pushing its proslavery agenda. Southerners, however, saw the temporary collapse of Northern industry as validation of the plantation economy and proof that a proslavery society was a superior system to wage labor and continued to push for more political concessions from Congress. As a result, by 1859, tensions between North and South were heightened with agitation coalescing around the slavery issue on both sides.

The Emergence of Abraham Lincoln

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 helped Lincoln rise to national prominence and secure the Republican presidential nomination in the election of 1860.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate how the Lincoln-Douglas debates shaped Lincoln’s political career and the election of 1860

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The main theme of all seven Lincoln-Douglas debates was slavery and its expansion into the territories.
  • As the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas’s aim in the debates was to defend his position that popular sovereignty was the best method to legislate the expansion of slavery regardless of the Dred Scott decision.
  • Lincoln, on the other hand, claimed that popular sovereignty and Dred Scott set dangerous precedents for the spread of slavery and that the nation could not exist perpetually as half slave and half free.
  • Lincoln’s vehement opposition to the expansion of slavery in the territories did not mean that he supported emancipation or social equality.
  • The widespread media coverage of the debates raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable nominee for the Republican Party in the presidential election of 1860.

Key Terms

  • Kansas-Nebraska Act: An 1854 bill (10 Stat. 277) that created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opening new lands for settlement and effectively repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing settlers in those territories to determine via popular sovereignty whether they would allow slavery within each territory.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and the incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. At the time, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; therefore, Lincoln and Douglas were campaigning for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature. All seven debates primarily discussed the slavery issue, and for Lincoln, the debates provided an opportunity to articulate his position against the expansion of slavery into the territories, which bolstered his popularity with the Republicans and helped him secure the party’s nomination in the 1860 presidential election.

The postage stamp depicts Lincoln speaking to a large crowd of people. Douglas, standing with Lincoln on the stage, looks on in the background.

U.S. Postage, 1958 issue, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates

As the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas’s aim in the debates was to defend his position that popular sovereignty was the best method to legislate on the expansion of slavery, regardless of the Dred Scott decision. Douglas argued that, while the Dred Scott case prohibited Congress from legislating on the expansion of slavery, citizens in the territories could effectively legislate against it by refusing to create the structures and enforcements to protect slave owners’ interests within the territory (this position later became known as the Freeport Doctrine). By refusing to enact slave codes, Douglas claimed, territories could remain “free” in every way but a technical sense. In the aftermath of the debates, the Freeport Doctrine effectively alienated Southern Democrats from Douglas and the Northern faction of the Democratic Party.

Lincoln, who had served as the only Whig representative from Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, had most recently practiced law in Springfield and only returned to politics in order to oppose the proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln argued that legislating slavery based on popular sovereignty would nationalize and perpetuate slavery in both the territories and in the Northern states. Lincoln asserted that United States policy had always been to legislate against slavery, citing the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from a large part of what is now the Midwest. Therefore, popular sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision were departures from policies of the past.

Addressing Douglas’s accusations that he was an abolitionist, Lincoln countered that popular sovereignty and Dred Scott set dangerous precedents and that the nation could not exist perpetually as half slave and half free. Lincoln’s vehement opposition to the expansion of slavery in the territories did not mean that he supported emancipation or social equality among races. Indeed many historians argue that while Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery, he occupied a moderate position on the subject, and was primarily concerned with how the institution interfered with the republican principles of the Founding Fathers rather than with taking a moral stance against it. Although Lincoln claimed that African Americans had an equal right to liberty and labor, he remained ambiguous on the matter of emancipation and denied that they were entitled to equal social and civic rights.

Results

After the debates, Southern politicians demanded the establishment of slave codes in territories such as Kansas in order to challenge Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine. These demands further splintered the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party and strengthened the Republican Party in the upcoming election of 1860.

On election day, Democrats won a narrow majority of seats in the Illinois General Assembly, despite getting slightly less than half the votes. The legislature then reelected Douglas. However, the widespread media coverage of the debates raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable nominee as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election.