This is the fourth and final enstallment of my paper on slavery in America.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was yet another sectional conflict that arose over the creation of new states or territories. Many in the North were anxious to see the Nebraska Territory organized to allow a cross-country railroad to have its terminus in the North. The South was in no mood to allow another free territory into the Union. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas proposed splitting the Nebraska Territory into two separate territories and allowing the inhabitants of each to decide if they would be free or slave, with the “obvious inference…that the first would be slave, the second free” (“Kansas-Nebraska Act,” n.d.). The proposal flew directly in the face of the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery north of the 36th parallel, which the whole of the Nebraska Territory was. With Southern support the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, and the Missouri Compromise was repealed. Northern abolitionists fumed. Both sides rushed into the newly created territory of Kansas in an effort to establish it on their side of the slavery issue. Violence often erupted. The episode was but the next in a chain of ongoing and increasingly violent struggles between the slaveholding South and North, which was becoming ever more homogenous in its anti-slavery sentiment. More importantly, many Northern Democrats felt that Douglas had betrayed them with the act and a rift grew within the party. As Kennedy et al. (2002) have written, “The proud Democrats—a party now over have a century old—were shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act” (p. 408). With the decline of the Democrats came the rise of another party, the Republicans. This new party made no secret of its desire to stop the spread of slavery and was outlawed in much of the South.
Dred Scott Decision
Dred Scott was a slave who had lived in the free state of Wisconsin with his master for several years. As Kennedy et al. (2002) reported, “Backed by interested abolitionists, he [Scott] sued for his freedom on the basis of his long residence on free soil” (p. 417). As a slave, and therefore not a citizen, the Supreme Court ruled that he was not eligible to sue. The court went on to rule that since they were property, slaves could be held in bondage in no matter what territory or state their masters may take them, free or otherwise. The decision enraged Northerners and undoubtedly “greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election” (“Dred Scott’s fight for freedom,” n.d.). The election would prove to be the last straw for the South. Before Lincoln could officially take office seven states had seceded.
Lincoln’s proclamation in January of 1863 was technically nothing more than that. The statement offered freedom to the slaves in the states that had seceded but not to those in states still loyal to the Union. His secretary of state William Seward commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free” (as cited in “Emancipation Proclamation,” n.d.). Much like his founding forbears, Lincoln, who detested slavery, addressed the question pragmatically. If he attempted to free the slaves in loyal slave states, they may not be loyal for much longer. More than practically freeing the slaves at that point in time, the goal of Lincoln’s proclamation was to “strengthen the moral cause of the Union at home and abroad” (Kennedy et al., 2002, p. 459). To that point the war had ostensibly been to restore the Union, not to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation served if not as the immediate death blow to slavery, then as the introduction of a time-release vaccine to kill it over a prescribed period of time, namely, the length of the war.
Slavery was finally ended in the United States by the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Proposed in January of 1865 it was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states by December of that year. Technically speaking the amendment only freed the slaves in Kentucky and Delaware as all other states had either already passed measures in their state legislatures abolishing the practice or were affected by the Emancipation Proclamation of two years prior. In a somewhat ironic twist the bill was authored by John Brooks Henderson of the once-controversial state of Missouri.
It took a long, bloody war to finally put an end to slavery and that was probably the only way it could have happened at that point in America’s history. If allowed to continue it no doubt would have died out gradually as technology and morality would have increased pressure on the South to change its archaic plantation methods. But how many more lives would have been subjected to what Ben Franklin called, “an atrocious debasement of human nature” (as cited in Spalding, 2002)? The strong sectionalism of the first half of the 19th century provided the conditions in which only a violent national convulsion could effectively expectorate the sickness of slavery from its soul.
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