by Andy Mateja

Much has been made about whether the Civil War was a conflict over preserving slavery or upholding states’ rights. Events during the preceding 87 years of our country’s existence pretty much identify the root cause of the bloody war that took the lives of 618,000 Americans and maimed millions more.
Slavery was allowed to exist from the inception of our great nation. However there were many at the time that believed slavery was wrong and began to implement “corrective action” although at a very slow pace.
During the second Continental Congress in April of 1776, the delegates agreed to end slave trade from offshore sources. In 1777 Vermont was the FIRST state that outlawed slavery followed in 1780 by Massachusetts. Gradual emancipation began in 1780 in Pennsylvania and later in 1784 in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
In 1787 the Continental Congress enacts the Northwest Ordnance which prohibits slavery north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. Thus begins the long string of “compromises”…..
Later that same year the Three-Fifths Compromise was enacted. It allowed slave states to have a 3/5th representation in Congress for every slave. It also prevented the official ending of offshore slave trading until 1808 and enacted laws that required fugitive slaves crossing state lines to be returned to their owners.
In reaction, the states of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania refuses to cooperate with the fugitive slave laws and forbad its citizens from complying with the law.
In 1792 Kentucky enters the Union as the first NEW slave state and in 1793 Congress passes the official Fugitive Slave Law. Many Northerners were opposed to this new law and felt it was a direct assault on personal liberty as it prevented runaway slaves from any legal representation.
In 1799 New York passed a gradual emancipation statute and later that year Virginia and Kentucky protested against the Federalist Alien & Sedition Acts written by Thomas Jefferson & James Madison (both Virginians) which in essence allowed the states to reject and Federal law they deem in violation of the Constitution.
The ongoing slavery debate heated up in 1803 due to the expansive lands gained by the Louisiana Purchase. In 1804 New Jersey passed their own gradual emancipation statute and was the last northern state to do so. Three years later Congress passes a Federal law prohibiting American citizens from participating in the African slave trade. Like the immigration laws of today, this law was not vigorously enforced
In1814, following the Alien & Sedition Acts, a group of New England Federalists held a convention in Hartford Ct to protest the growing power of slaveholders in the Federal government. They wanted to amend the Constitution by requiring a two-thirds vote of Congress for the admission of new states and the elimination of the three-fifths representation clause for the slave-owning states. Their actions failed to gain enough support and were accused of being “un-patriotic”.
In 1820 the Missouri Compromise is enacted allowing Missouri to the enter the Union as a slave state, even though it is west of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River. The “compromise” was that no additional slave states would be allowed to enter the Union north of the 36° 30’ latitude from the original Louisiana Purchase. With the admission of Missouri, there were now 12 Slave and 12 Free states in the Union – an equal balance. Also that same year, Congress defines slave trade as “piracy”
In 1823, despite objections from federal courts, South Carolina arrests free blacks who enter the state in fear of slave uprisings, which had almost occurred the year before.
In 1831, the first slave uprising occurs under the leadership of Nat Turner. It cost the lives of 70 whites and in reprisal 100 black were killed while searching for Nat Turner. The Virginia legislation debates the issue of slavery the following year and rejects a bill that would provide gradual abolition of slavery. Some southern whites believe Nat Turner’s uprising will lead to further bloodshed, while the majority of Virginians seek to maintain slavery and severely discipline slaves to suppress and further attempts at insurrection. Also that same year William Lloyd Garrison organizes the New England Antislavery Society.
In 1833 a Compromise Tariff was passed by Congress which was proposed by two southern senators (Henry Clay & John C. Calhoun) who believed that the states had a right to “nullify” federal legislation that is not in accord with the state’s interest. This was in response to the congressional tariffs passed in 1828 & 1832 which South Carolina was resisting. To prevent federal military action to enforce the tariff law and possibly lead to “civil war”, Clay proposes this compromise measure to lower the 1832 tariff.
In 1836 Congress passes the “Gag Rule” which prohibits even the mention of antislavery petitions or publications of same Northern Democrats join their southern colleagues and vote for the rule while northern Whigs oppose it. Later that year Texas forms its own republic and inters into “secret” negotiations with the Federal government on annexation so as not to inflame the sectional strife. Also that year Massachusetts Supreme Court declares that any slave brought into that state by a master is free……..
In 1837 Sen John C Calhoun of South Carolina asserts on the Senate floor that Slavery is a “positive good”. Later that year unemployment reaches record levels due to an economic panic which causes inflation to spiral upward.
In 1842 the Supreme Court upholds the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and says no state can pass legislation that prevents the removal of runaway slaves. Two years later a letter written by John C. Calhoun, now Secretary of State is leaked to the press. In it he links the annexation of Texas to the goal of strengthening slavery in the United States. Also that year James Polk is elected President by a razor thin majority – due in part to the splitting of his opponent’s vote between the Whig Party and the new abolitionist “Liberty Party”. Representative John Quincy Adams also submits legislation to repeal the “Gag Rule” which passes overwhelmingly.
In 1845 Texas enters the Union after an almost an evenly divided congressional vote – 120 to 98 in the House and 27-25 in the Senate. Also that year the potato famine hits Ireland and tens of thousands of Irish immigrants flood the shores of the United States looking for work.
In 1846 the Wilmot Proviso is voted on in Congress less than six months after the United States declares war on Mexico. Congressman David Wilmot proposes the proviso based on his certainty the U.S. will win the war with Mexico and newly acquired land will be available for the expansion of slavery. He wanted to ban the expansion into these new territories but his proviso is defeated in the – most northerners supported it and most southerners opposed it. The balance of Congressional power between the slave and free states is still about even at this time. However that changes when Iowa enters the Union as a free state later that year. The following year Senator Cass of Michigan suggested to Congress that residents in the territories be allowed to decide whether to allow slavery or prohibit it.
In 1848 the War with Mexico ends and additional land is acquired which later become the states of California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and the disputed land of Texas. Later that year the “Free Soil” Party emerges which opposes the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired western lands and requests the U.S. government provide free land to settlers in the West.
In 1849 Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave, begins the “Underground Railroad” and begins to help slaves escape from captivity. Three years later the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is published with over one million copies sold in its first year. Southerners were infuriated by the book and most southern states banned its sale.
In 1850 the Compromise of 1850 is enacted which allowed the admission of California into the Union as a free state and gives voters in the New Mexico and Utah territories the right to decide whether to allow slavery. It essentially is a series of five bills that defuses the escalating animosity between the free and slave states and avoids secession and civil war at the time. Another key element of this compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act which strengthens the enforcement of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, making the federal government, rather than the states responsible for the capture and return of runaway slaves through government federal marshals also called “slave catchers”. Federal Marshals who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1000. Captured slaves did not have any legal rights in court.
In 1854 local Boston residents make unsuccessful attempts to rescue a captured runaway slave. The slave is returned to Virginia at the direct order of President Franklin Pierce, a northerner, as an example of how he will enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill also passes that year which was sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Northern Democrat. The bill in effect repeals the Missouri Comprise of 1820 and allows slavery to exist in territories if agreed to by the settlers of those territories. Douglas believes the bill was a win-win for both sides … as it allowed for the expansion of slavery or its prohibition based on the popular sovereignty or rule of the people. This bill instead becomes the most divisive of all and effectively splits the Democrat party into two wings – northern & southern and spurs on the creation of the Republican Party in the North. The following year a pro-slavery book was published called “Cotton is King”
In 1856 and escaped slave and her children reach Ohio and fearing capture tries to murder her children to keep them from returning into bondage. She kills her daughter but only injures her son. She and her remaining children are captured by federal slave catchers and returned to Kentucky under the Fugitive Slave Act. Also that year tempers flare on the floor of the U.S. Senate between Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Senator Andrew Pickens Butler. Sumner’s antislavery speech “The Crime Against Kansas” denounced Sen Butler and also Senators Stephen A Douglas and Senator James Mason because of their involvement in the development of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This provoked Congressman Preston Brooks, the nephew of Sen Pickens to enter the Senate chamber two days later and mercilessly beat Sen Sumner on the head with a wooden cane. Violence also erupted in Kansas with pro-slavers and abolitionists fighting each other for control on how Kansas would enter the Union. Abolitionist John Brown is at the center of this violence and somehow escapes capture.
In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court rules (7 to 2) that slavery IS protected by the Constitution and a ban on slavery in the territories is unconstitutional thereby repealing the Missouri Compromise. It is also decided that blacks – free or slaves were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Chief Justice Roger Taney of Maryland writes the majority opinion on what was widely known as the Dred Scott Case.
In 1858 the slavery issue further intensifies as President James Buchannan, via the Lecompton Constitution, tries and fails to admit Kansas as a slave state. The Democrat party, already fractured into two parts, cannot assist in Buchannan in Congress on this issue and matter dies. Kansas is later admitted into the Union in 1861 as a free state. Despite holding the White House for most of the elections between 1788 and 1856 and maintaining a congressional balance during those same years, Southerners begin to see the tide turning against them in favor of the anti-slavery North and began to panic.
Also in 1858 the Lincoln-Douglas debates occurred. For four months both traveled across Illinois and engaged in seven fiery debates – focusing mostly on whether “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. While Douglas eventually won the election, this exchange brought Lincoln to national prominence and ultimate propelled him to the White House two years later.
In 1859 abolitionist John Brown tried to incite another slave uprising by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry VA. He and his 21 men (including 5 blacks) were intent on arming the slaves with weapons from the arsenal. He fails in his objective is later hanged for insurrection and treason. Browns actions however sent a chill throughout the South
In 1860 the Presidential Election culminated in the election of Abraham Lincoln- the first Republican President in U.S. history. Lincoln had made several speeches earlier that year in which he stated the federal government Had the power to halt the spread of slavery. Democrats were unable to agree on a convention platform and ultimately split their vote which allows Lincoln to win. Many southern delegates actually walk out of the Democrat Convention. Some of them would later lead the movement within their states from secession from the Union.
Instead of dealing with the problem from the beginning, statesmen and politicians chose to appease the other side to allow the “peculiar institution” of slavery to continue on. As you can see, all that these compromises did was to delay the inevitable – a “CIVIL WAR to purge the nation of its sins “………………….

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