The Civil War 1850–1865
The Buchanan Years: 1857–1858
Dred Scott v. Sanford
Just two days after James Buchanan became president in 1857, controversy over the slavery issue struck again when the Supreme Court declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case. In the infamous decision, the enslaved Dred Scott sued his master for his freedom and that of his wife and daughter. Scott had married a free black woman while traveling with his master in the free state of Illinois in the 1830s. The two had a child but then moved back to the South. Scott believed that he had been freed once he had crossed the 36˚ 30' parallel and that his wife and daughter had been enslaved illegally when they returned to the South.
However, Chief Justice Roger Taney, along with a majority of the other justices—all but one from the South—ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because the federal government had no right to restrict the movement of property (i.e., slaves). Taney also contended that Scott had no business suing his master in a U.S. court, because that right was reserved only for citizens. Taney hoped his ruling would finalize blacks’ status as property, uphold slavery, and end the divisive sectional debates.
The Dred Scott ruling only exacerbated sectional tensions, however. Whereas Southerners hailed it as a landmark decision that would finally bring peace, Northerners were appalled. Thousands in the North took to the streets to protest the decision, and many questioned the impartiality of the Southern-dominated Supreme Court. Several state legislatures essentially nullified the decision and declared that they would never permit slavery within their borders, no matter who ordered them to do so. Buchanan himself was implicated when it was discovered that he had pressured the Northern justice into voting with the Southerners. Arguably, the Dred Scott decision had almost as great an effect on Northern public opinion as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Lecompton Constitution
Meanwhile, the bleeding had not stopped in Kansas, where abolitionist settlers and border ruffians, unable to agree on a territorial government, established two separate ones—a Free-Soil legislature in Topeka and a proslavery legislature in Lecompton. After the Free-Soilers boycotted a rigged election to draft a state constitution in 1857, proslavery settlers were given a free hand to write the document as they sought fit. When they finished this Lecompton Constitution, they then applied for statehood as a slave state.
President Buchanan accepted the constitution immediately and welcomed Kansas into the Union. In 1858, however, the Republican-dominated Congress refused to admit Kansas on the grounds that border ruffians had rigged the election. Stephen Douglas declared that Kansas would be admitted only after honest elections were held to determine whether the state would be free or slave. The Lecompton Constitution was put to a special vote in the territory the following year and was soundly defeated. Kansas eventually entered the Union as a free state in 1861.
The Panic of 1857
Buchanan’s other major challenge was the brief economic depression that swept the nation in 1857 and 1858. The depression was sparked by the Panic of 1857 , which occurred when newspapers reported the failure of a prominent bank in the Midwest. Reduced exports of food and manufactured goods made the depression worse in the West and North but left the South’s cotton economy relatively untouched. Southerners relished Britain’s dependence on cotton and hailed the soaring unemployment rate in the North as proof that the wage-labor system had failed.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
In this atmosphere of national confusion, relatively unknown former congressman Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas to a series of public debates in their home state of Illinois. Lincoln, hoping to steal Douglas’s seat in the Senate in the 1858 elections, wanted to be the first to put the question of slavery to the voters. The “Little Giant” accepted and engaged Lincoln in a total of seven debates, each in front of several thousand people.
During the debates, Lincoln denounced slavery as a moral wrong and argued that the “peculiar institution” should be banned from the West permanently. At the same time, though, he also called for the preservation of the Union. Douglas accused Lincoln of being a radical abolitionist and articulated a new policy—the Freeport Doctrine—stating that popular sovereignty in the territories was the only democratic solution to resolving the slavery problem. Even though Lincoln lost the Senate race, the Lincoln-Douglas debates brought him to national prominence.