At the end of the Mexican War, many new lands west of Texas were yielded to the United States, and the debate over the westward expansion of slavery was rekindled. Southern politicians and slave owners demanded that slavery be allowed in the West because they feared that a closed door would spell doom for their economy and way of life. Whig Northerners, however, believed that slavery should be banned from the new territories. Pennsylvanian congressman David Wilmot proposed such a ban in 1846, even before the conclusion of the war. Southerners were outraged over this Wilmot Proviso and blocked it before it could reach the Senate.
The Wilmot Proviso justified Southerners’ fears that the North had designs against slavery. They worried that if politicians in the North prevented slavery from expanding westward, then it was only a matter of time before they began attacking it in the South as well. As a result, Southerners in both parties flatly rejected the proviso. Such bipartisan support was unprecedented and demonstrated just how serious the South really felt about the issue.
The large land concessions made to the U.S. in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo only exacerbated tensions. Debates in Congress grew so heated that fistfights even broke out between Northerners and Southerners on the floor of the House of Representatives. In fact, sectional division became so pronounced that many historians label the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso the first battles of the Civil War.
Even though the Wilmot Proviso failed, the expansion of slavery remained the most pressing issue in the election of 1848. The Whigs nominated Mexican War hero General Zachary Taylor, a popular but politically inexperienced candidate who said nothing about the issue in hopes of avoiding controversy.
The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated Lewis Cass. Also hoping to sidestep the issue of slavery, Cass proposed allowing the citizens of each western territory to decide for themselves whether or not to be free or slave. Cass hoped that a platform based on such popular sovereignty would win him votes in both the North and South.
The election of 1848 also marked the birth of the Free-Soil Party, a hodgepodge collection of Northern abolitionists, former Liberty Party voters, and disgruntled Democrats and Whigs. The Free-Soilers nominated former president Martin Van Buren, who hoped to split the Democrats. He succeeded and diverted enough votes from Cass to throw the election in Taylor’s favor. (Taylor, however, died after only sixteen months in office and was replaced by Millard Fillmore.)
Although Taylor’s silence on the issue quieted the debate for about a year, the issue was revived when California and Utah applied for statehood. California’s population had boomed after the 1849 gold rush had attracted thousands of prospectors, while barren Utah had blossomed due to the ingenuity of several thousand Mormons. The question arose whether these states should be admitted as free states or slave states. The future of slavery in Washington, D.C., was likewise in question.
A great debate ensued in Congress over the future of these three regions as Southerners attempted to defend their economic system while Northerners decried the evils of slavery. In Congress, the dying John C. Calhoun argued that the South still had every right to nullify unconstitutional laws and, if necessary, to secede from the Union it created. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, on the other hand, championed the Union and compromise. Webster in particular pointed out that discussion over the expansion of slavery in the West was moot because western lands were unsuitable for growing cotton.
In the end, the North and South agreed to compromise. Although Clay was instrumental in getting both sides to agree, he and Calhoun were too elderly and infirm to negotiate concessions and draft the necessary legislation. This task fell to a younger generation of politicians, especially the “Little Giant” Stephen Douglas, so named for his short stature and big mouth. A Democratic senator from Illinois, Douglas was responsible for pushing the finished piece of legislature through Congress.
The Compromise of 1850 , as it was called, was a bundle of legislation that everyone could agree on. First, congressmen agreed that California would be admitted to the Union as a free state (Utah was not admitted because the Mormons refused to give up the practice of polygamy). The fate of slavery in the other territories, though, would be determined by popular sovereignty. Next, the slave trade (though not slavery itself) was banned in Washington, D.C. Additionally, Texas had to give up some of its land to form the New Mexican territory in exchange for a cancellation of debts owed to the federal government. Finally, Congress agreed to pass a newer and tougher Fugitive Slave Act to enforce the return of escaped slaves to the South.
Though both sides agreed to it, the Compromise of 1850 clearly favored the North over the South. California’s admission as a free state not only set a precedent in the West against the expansion of slavery, but also ended the sectional balance in the Senate, with sixteen free states to fifteen slave states. Ever since the Missouri Compromise, this balance had always been considered essential to prevent the North from banning slavery. The South also conceded to end the slave trade in Washington, D.C., in exchange for debt relief for Texans and a tougher Fugitive Slave Law. Southerners were willing to make so many concessions because, like Northerners, they truly believed the Compromise of 1850 would end the debate over slavery. As it turned out, of course, they were wrong.
Ironically, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act only fanned the abolitionist flame rather than put it out. Even though many white Americans in the North felt little love for blacks, they detested the idea of sending escaped slaves back to the South. In fact, armed mobs in the North freed captured slaves on several occasions, especially in New England, and violence against slave catchers increased despite the federal government’s protests. On one occasion, it took several hundred troops and a naval ship to escort a single captured slave through the streets of Boston and back to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act thus allowed the abolitionists to transform their movement from a radical one to one that most Americans supported.
Even though few slaves actually managed to escape to the North, the fact that Northern abolitionists encouraged slaves to run away infuriated Southern plantation owners. One network, the Underground Railroad, did successfully ferry as many as several thousand fugitive slaves into the North and Canada between 1840 and 1860. “Conductor” Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave from Maryland, personally delivered several hundred slaves to freedom.
Another major boost for the abolitionist cause came via Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a story about slavery in the South. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold, awakening Northerners to the plight of enslaved blacks. The book affected the North so much that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1863, he commented, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
Despite the concessions of the Compromise of 1850 and the growing abolitionist movement, Southerners believed the future of slavery to be secure, so they looked for new territories to expand the cotton kingdom. The election of Franklin Pierce in 1852 helped the Southern cause. A pro-South Democrat from New England, Pierce hoped to add more territory to the United States, in true Jacksonian fashion.
Pierce was particularly interested in acquiring new territories in Latin America and went as far as to quietly support William Walker’s takeover of Nicaragua. A proslavery Southerner, Walker hoped that Pierce would annex Nicaragua as Polk had annexed Texas in 1844. The plan failed, however, when several other Latin American countries sent troops to depose the adventurer. Pierce’s reputation was also muddied over his threat to steal Cuba from Spain, which was revealed in a secret document called the Ostend Manifesto, which was leaked to the public in 1854.
Despite his failures in Nicaragua and Cuba, Pierce did have several major successes during his term. In 1853, he completed negotiations to make the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico—30,000 square miles of territory in the southern portions of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. In addition, Pierce successfully opened Japan to American trade that same year.