Debate Over Slavery Mounts

Political leaders of the south, the professional classes, and most of the clergy, as they fought the weight of northern opinion, now no longer apologized for slavery but became its ardent champions. It was held to shower benefits upon the black, and southern publicists insisted that the relations of capital and labor were more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system of the north.

Before 1830, the old patriarchal system of plantation government, with its easygoing methods of management and personal supervision of the slaves by their master, was still characteristic. After 1830, however, with the introduction of large-scale cotton production in the lower south, the master gradually ceased to exercise close personal supervision over his slaves and employed professional overseers whose tenure depended upon their ability to exact from slaves a maximum amount of work.

While many planters continued to treat their slaves kindly, there were instances of heartless cruelty, especially those involving the breaking of family ties. The most trenchant criticism of slavery, however, was not the inhumanity of overseers, but the violation of every person's basic right to be free.

Cotton culture and its labor system came to represent a vast investment of capital in the south. From a crop of negligible importance, cotton production in 1800 leaped to about 16 million kilograms, rose to 72 million kilograms in 1820, and, by 1840, reached a total of more than 301,500,000 kilograms. By 1850, seveneighths of the world's supply of cotton was grown in the American south.

Slavery increased concomitantly, and in national politics southerners chiefly sought protection and enlargement of the interests represented by the cotton-slavery system. Expansion was considered a necessity because the wastefulness of cultivating a single crop, cotton, rapidly exhausted the land, and new fertile areas were needed. Further, in the interest of political power, the south needed new territory for additional slave states to offset the admission of new free states. Antislavery northerners saw in the southern view a conspiracy for proslavery aggrandizement, and in the 1830s their opposition became militant.

An earlier antislavery movement, an offshoot of the American Revolution, had won its last victory in 1808 when Congress abolished the slave trade with Africa. After that, opposition was largely by the Quakers, who kept up a mild and ineffectual protest, while the cotton gin was creating an increasing demand for slaves. The 1820s saw a new phase of agitation which owed much to the dynamic democratic idealism of the times and to the new interest in social justice for all classes.

In its more extreme form the abolitionist movement in America was combative, uncompromising, and insistent upon an immediate end to slavery. This extremist approach found a leader in William Lloyd Garrison, a young man of Massachusetts, who combined the heroism of a martyr with the crusading zeal of a demagogue.

On January 1, 1831, Garrison produced the first issue of his newspaper, The Liberator, bearing the announcement:

"I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population.... On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.... I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard"

Garrison's sensational methods awakened northerners to the evil in an institution many had long come to regard as unchangeable. His policy was to hold up to public gaze the most repulsive aspects of black slavery and to castigate slaveholders as torturers and traffickers in human life. He would recognize no rights of the masters, acknowledge no compromise, tolerate no delay. Less violently inclined northerners, unwilling to subscribe to his law-defying tactics, held that reform should be accomplished by legal and peaceful means.

One phase of the antislavery movement involved helping slaves escape to safe refuges in the north or over the border into Canada. Known as the "Underground Railroad," an elaborate network of secret routes was firmly established in the 1830s in all parts of the north. Its most successful operation was in the old Northwest Territory. In Ohio alone, it is estimated that from 1830 to 1860 no fewer than 40,000 fugitive slaves were helped to freedom. The number of local antislavery societies increased at such a rate that in 1840 there were about 2,000, with a membership of perhaps 200,000.

Despite the efforts of active abolitionists to make slavery a question of conscience, the people of the north as a whole held aloof from the antislavery movement. Busy with their own concerns, they considered slavery a problem for southerners to solve through state action. In their view, the unbridled agitation of the antislavery zealots was a threat to the integrity of the Union itself.

In 1845, however, the acquisition of Texas - and, soon after, the territorial gains in the southwest resulting from the Mexican War - converted the moral question of slavery into a burning political issue. Up to then, it had seemed likely that slavery would be confined to the areas where it already existed. It had been given limits by the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and had had no opportunity to overstep them. The new territories made renewed expansion of slavery a real likelihood.

Many northerners believed that, if kept within close bounds, slavery would ultimately diminish and die. To justify their opposition to adding new slave states, they pointed to the statements of Washington and Jefferson and to the Ordinance of 1787, which forbade the extension of slavery into the northwest. As Texas already had slavery, she naturally entered the Union as a slave state. But California, New Mexico, and Utah did not have slavery, and when the United States prepared to take over these areas in 1846, there were conflicting suggestions on what to do with them.

Extremists in the south urged that all the lands acquired from Mexico be thrown open to slaveholders. Strong antislavery northerners demanded that all the new regions be closed to slavery. One group of moderates suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific with free states north of it and slave states to the south. Another group proposed that the question be left to "popular sovereignty" - that is, the government should permit settlers to flock into the new territory with or without slaves as they pleased and, when the time came to organize the region into states, the people themselves should determine the question.

Southern opinion held that slavery had a right to exist in all the territories. The north asserted that it had a right in none. In 1848, nearly 300,000 men voted for the candidates of a Free Soil Party , which declared that the best policy was "to limit, locaIize, and discourage slavery."

In January 1848, the discovery of gold in California precipitated a headlong rush of more than 80,000 immigrants for the single year 1849. California became a crucial question, for clearly Congress had to determine the status of this new region before an organized government could be established. The hopes of the nation rested with Senator Henry Clay, who twice before in times of crisis had come forward with compromise arrangements. Now once again he halted a dangerous sectional quarrel with a wellwrought plan.

His compromise (as subsequently modified in Congress) proposed, among other things, that California be admitted as a state with a free-soil (slavery-prohibited) constitution while the remainder of the new annexation be divided into the two territories of New Mexico and Utah and organized without mention of slavery; that the claims of Texas to a portion of New Mexico be satisfied by a payment of $10 million; that more effective machinery be established for catching runaway slaves and returning them to their masters; and that the buying and selling of slaves (but not slavery) be abolished in the District of Columbia. These measures - famous in American history as the "Compromise of 1850" - were passed, and the country breathed a sigh of relief.

For three years, the compromise seemed to settle nearly all differences. Beneath the surface, however, the tension grew. The new Fugitive Slave Law deeply offended many northerners, who refused to have any part in catching slaves. Instead, they continued to help fugitives to escape, and made the Underground Railroad more efficient and more daring than it had been before.