The Underground Railroad

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.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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!”

Franklin Pierce and Expansion

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.

Latin America and the Ostend Manifesto

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.

The Gadsden Purchase

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.

Popular pages: The Civil War 1850–1865