One such crisis arose in 1819. The territory of Missouri requested statehood in the
Union. In the House of Representatives, James Tallmadge of New York sponsored a plan to restrict slavery in Missouri though it had sought to join the Union as a slave state. At this point in the young Republic, the balance in the Senate between slave and
free states was even. Neither side was anxious to see favor tipped in the direction of the other. A compromise was put forward in which Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, and Maine, then a part of Massachusetts, would be admitted as a
free state, thus preserving the balance in the Senate. Also, the bill would prohibit slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the southern border of Missouri, save for Missouri itself. Initially the bill was thwarted, but through the efforts of Henry Clay and others, the compromise was finally agreed upon in 1820.
As with most compromises, neither side was completely pleased and as Kennedy et al. (2002) have said, “the morality of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ [slavery] could not be swept under the rug” (p. 246). Though the compromise calmed immediate tensions, it only increased the chasm, political and moral, between the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South. With the borders of the young nation expanding ever rapidly, the question of slavery and it’s affect on sectional balance was becoming more and more troublesome. Writing to a friend after the compromise Jefferson said of slavery, “we have a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go” (as cited in Kennedy et al., 2002).
The Nullification Crisis
Sectional concerns were acutely conspicuous during the Nullification Crisis in the early 1830’s. Nullification was not a crisis over the existence of slavery, but rather a tariff. The Tariff of 1828 was passed in order to protect Northern manufacturers from imported goods from Europe. The South was a major importer of European goods, as well as a supplier of foodstuffs to Europe, and as Remini (1989) noted many in the South saw the tariff as an abuse by “a government that used its power to pass legislation detrimental to part of its constituency” (p. 65). Encouraged by John Calhoun, the South Carolina legislature passed the South Carolina Exposition to protest the tariff. In 1832 the legislature called a convention in which they, as Kennedy et al. (2002) have stated, “solemnly declared the existing tariff to be null and void within South Carolina” (p. 264). They further declared that should the federal government use force to collect the duties, “the state would secede and ‘forthwith proceed to organize a separate Government’” (Remini, 1989, p. 69). In an alarming harbinger of things to come, Bennet (2006) has observed that “some ‘nullies’ even struck medals bearing the inscription: ‘John C. Calhoun, First President of the Southern Confederacy’” (Jefferson Davis was the actual first president of the Confederacy). President Andrew Jackson would have none of it and threatened to use force if necessary and declared that “disunion by armed force is treason” (as cited in Remini, 1989, p. 70). Again, Henry Clay worked to ease tensions by guiding a compromise tariff through Congress ending the crisis.
Regarding the future of slavery, nullification had certain and definite ramifications. It provided a precedent for a possible mechanism by which a state could secede should the federal government attempt to pass laws restricting slavery. If other Southern states had joined South Carolina in its efforts the imbroglio may not have been resolved as relatively peacefully as it was. The crisis also served to drive a further wedge between the North and an already suspicious South. Through Clay’s guiding conciliatory hand and Jackson’s firm rhetoric secession had been avoided. But as Jackson would observe, “Nullification is dead. The next pretext will be the negro or slavery question” (as cited in Remini, 1989, p. 72).
Compromise of 1850
America’s ever expanding borders once again brought the free/slave state question to the fore. When California applied for statehood, the Senate balance was once again evenly split between free and slave states. California was applying as a free state and thus threatened to tip the political balance toward the Northern free states. In addition, fugitive slaves were becoming an increasingly bothersome problem for Southern planters and they began calling for stricter fugitive slave laws. Kennedy et al. (2002) have written that, “’fire-eaters’ in the South were voicing ominous threats of secession” (p. 396). Once again, Henry Clay played a crucial role. Along with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, Clay once again proposed a series of compromises to solve the nation’s ills. California would be admitted as a free state, but the remaining territories from the Mexican Cession, much of it claimed by Texas, would be formed without any slavery restrictions. The people of these territories would be allowed to choose slave or free through popular sovereignty. As another concession to the South, stricter fugitive slave laws were proposed. The compromises were fiercely debated in Congress. At one point Vice President Milliard Fillmore and Thomas Hart Benton became involved in a “heated exchange [that] became so emotionally charged that Senator Benton was nearly shot by Compromise floor leader Henry Foote of Mississippi” (“Compromise of 1850, n.d.). The compromises eventually passed and a tenuous “cease-fire” on the issue was initiated.
The results of the Compromise of 1850 would prove to further long-term tensions regarding slavery while quelling short-term worries. The new, harsh laws regarding fugitive slaves would serve to galvanize Northern abolitionists and would lead “many who had previously been ambivalent about slavery [to now take] a definitive stance against the institution” (“The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act,” n.d.). Even with the new laws, many in the South were troubled about how to keep the balance in the Senate. Kennedy et al. (2002) remarked, “If they could not carve out new [slave] states out of the recent conquests from Mexico, where else might they get them?” (p. 398). Perhaps most importantly, the compromise delayed a possible armed conflict in a period when the North would develop “exponentially more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population” (“The Compromise of 1850,” n.d.). These advantages would prove decisive in the coming Civil War.