In the 1850s and 1860s, the national discussion was dominated by controversy over slavery.
While some anti-slavery activists viewed slavery as intolerable evil, other protestors of slavery tried to compromise with the Southerners in order to keep the nation united. The anti-slavery activists tried to solve the problem through “moral persuasion”, through laws to contain the spread of slavery, and through the idea of popular sovereignty to avoid any direct conflict with the Southerners. During the mid 19th century many approved of slavery, however, there were also many who opposed the spread of it and demonstrated it through the growth of an anti-slavery sentiment and the demand of keeping balance between free and slave states leading to popular sovereignty, as seen in the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1819, Missouri applies to Congress to be admitted as a new state. A bill to authorize a state constitutional convention was introduced in Congress early in 1819. However, Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr.
, of New York introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill to prohibit the introduction of new slaves into the state and gradually free those who were already there. Tallmadge’s amendment created a huge crisis in which southern representatives and senators attacked it and its author. In the heated debated of the next four decades, Tallmadge threatens Southern secession. When the Constitution was adopted, many from both the South and the North believed that slavery was dying. However, cotton transformed the economics of slavery. By 1820, slave owners in Missouri were not about to allow an attack on the institution of slavery. In the North, hostility to slavery was growing. Many northerners now hated the whole idea of human slavery and disliked a constitutional system that protected it.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders.
The act also roused Abraham Lincoln by paving the way for the extension of slavery, a prospect he had long opposed. Lincoln, who was practicing law at the time, campaigned on behalf of abolitionist Republicans in Illinois and attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He denounced members of the Democratic Party for backing a law that “assumes there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another.” He believed that the law went against the founding American principle that “all men are created equal.” He claimed that popular sovereignty would lead to the spread of slavery which makes blacks a minority. Lincoln also cited that the powers of government came from the consent of the governed. The relation of master and slave is a violation of this principle. Lincoln claimed that popular sovereignty went against the Declaration of Independence.
Many other northerners had more strategic objections to the constitutional protection of slavery. The three-fifths clause in the Constitution gave the slaveholding South 17 more seats in the House of Representatives and thus, 17 more electoral votes in presidential elections than an allocation of representatives based on only free people would have done. The nation was becoming divided between a commercial North and an agricultural South, and although neither region was purely for or against slavery, the fact that slavery gave the South a political edge came across to many northerners as being unfair. Before Congress reassembled in 1820, President Monroe and Henry Clay of Kentucky, the speaker of the House of Representatives, designed a compromise to resolve the issue.
The Senate was evenly split between slave and free states. The Senate was split 22-22 on the issue of slavery. In addition, while Congress had debated what to do with Missouri, the region known as the District of Maine, within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was also petitioning for statehood. The compromise proposed that if Maine and Missouri were admitted at the same time, and if Missouri was allowed to be a slave state and Maine as a free state, then the balance in the Senate would be maintained.
However, this proposed compromise would also restrict the spread of slavery: while Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, all other states north of the 36° 30° north parallel, that is, the southern border of Missouri, would be admitted as free states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´. The Kansas-Nebraska Act infuriated many in the North who considered the Missouri Compromise to be a long-standing binding agreement. In the pro-slavery South it was strongly supported.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters rushed in to settle Kansas to affect the outcome of the first election held thereafter the law went into effect. Pro-slavery settlers carried the election but were charged with fraud by anti-slavery settlers, and the results were not accepted by them. The anti-slavery settlers held another election, however pro-slavery settlers refused to vote.
This resulted in the establishment of two opposing legislatures within the Kansas territory. Violence soon erupted, with the anti-slavery forces led by John Brown. The territory earned the nickname “bleeding Kansas” as the death toll rose. President Franklin Pierce, in support of the pro-slavery settlers, sent in Federal troops to stop the violence and disperse the anti-slavery legislature. Another election was called.
Once again pro-slavery supporters won and once again they were charged with election fraud. As a result, Congress did not recognize the constitution adopted by the pro-slavery settlers and Kansas was not allowed to become a state.Anti-slavery activists displayed their opposition through a growing abolition movement and attempts at regulating slavery in new states. The anti-slavery activists tried to solve the problem through “moral persuasion”, the development of new laws to contain the spread of slavery, and the idea of popular sovereignty to avoid any direct conflict with the Southerners. American revolutionists and anti-slavery activists are similar in the fact they struggled to escape from an oppressing relationship. America had been under oppressive British rule.
In 1764, Britain imposed new laws and taxes on America and overall became much stricter in its governance. Slaves lived under the oppressive rule of their masters. Slave owners controlled everything in a slave’s life. It took a war for America to break free from Britain.
It seemed like it would take a war for slaves to break from the hold of slavery. In addition, the outcome of this opposition to slavery is comparable in magnitude to a political revolution. It was an uprising from below, lasting over a decade, which led to a profound restructuring of the political superstructure in the United States which the American Revolution did for the United States. Also, to achieve real equality, not only in the realm of law but also in all aspects of life—a further social revolution is required. It would push far beyond the bounds of formal equality by liberating the wealth of society and using it to meet people’s needs.
That cannot happen short of a social revolution. In these events, moral calls were denied and responded with political actions, but ultimately ending in conflict. Anti-slavery activists sparked the beginning of the spread of equality, no matter how they got their point across.