Territories acquired after the Mexican War forced an old
question back into politics about whether or not slavery would
be permitted in new territories.
Each new state that was admitted to the Union could tip the
balance for or against slavery. Both sides wanted to establish
their practices in the new territories before these territories
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had stated that any new
states created north of 36° 30' N latitude had to be free states.
Much of the new territory, however, was south of this line.
Some members of both parties who opposed slavery in the
territories formed the Free Soil Party. The Free Soil Party did
not win any states in the presidential election of 1848, but it did
tip the balance in favor of Whig candidate Zachary Taylor.
In 1849, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky
proposed what would become known as the
Compromise of 1850 as a middle ground on the
Terms of the Compromise
California would become a free state,
New Mexico and Utah would decide their own
A Fugitive Slave Act would order United States
citizens to help return enslaved people who had
Four issues in the last years of the 1850’s and
into 1860, further polarized the nation over
the issue of slavery and pushed the North
and South toward open conflict.
The Dred Scott Case
John Brown’s Raid
The Election of 1860
The rich farm lands west of Missouri beckoned families
and investors. In 1852 and 1853, Congress considered
creating the territories of Kansas and Nebraska for
The legislation caught the attention of southern
Congressmen who refused to consider the creation of the
new territories unless the provisions were made for
southerners to bring slaves into the territories.
Northern representatives argued that the expansion of
slavery into the new territories was a violation of the
Missouri Compromise. In 1854, Congress again took up the
issue of slavery in new U.S. states and territories.
Stephen A. Douglas included a provision using popular
sovereignty (rule by the people), which would allow the
citizens of the territory to decide whether or not slavery
would be allowed.
Southerners hoped that by allowing the people to decide
the issue that more slave states could be added. After a
great deal of rancorous debate in both Houses, the bill was
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act had several
First, the Kansas-Nebraska Act virtually repealed the
Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.
Settlers in all new territories would have the right to decide
for themselves whether their new home would be a free or a
Second, pro- and antislavery groups hurried into Kansas in
an attempt to create voting majorities there. Antislavery
abolitionists came from eastern states; proslavery settlers
came mainly from neighboring Missouri.
Some of these Missourians settled in Kansas, but many
more stayed there only long enough to vote for slavery and
then returned to Missouri.
Proslavery voters elected a legislature ready to make Kansas
a slave state.
Abolitionists then elected a rival Kansas government with
an antislavery constitution, established a different capital
city, and raised an army.
Proslavery Kansans reacted by raising their own army.
Violence between the two sides created warlike
conditions that lead to the territory being referred to
as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Ultimately, in 1859, a constitution reflecting an
abolitionist point of view was approved by both
citizens in Kansas and the Congress. Popular
sovereignty, excepting voter fraud, proved a failure for
Third, politically, the passage of the act split the
existent political parties and gave rise to the
President Pierce’s inability to control the violence in
Kansas led to his defeat in the election of 1856.
Abraham Lincoln made his initial national reputation
in a failed attempt at Douglas’ Illinois Congressional
seat by debating the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott
decision, settling a lawsuit in which a slave named
Dred Scott claimed he should be a free man because
he had lived with his master in slave states and in free
The Court rejected Scott’s claim, ruling that no
African American–even if free–could be a U.S. citizen.
The Court said Congress could not prohibit slavery in
Thus, the Court found that popular sovereignty and
the Missouri Compromise of 1820 were
The Dred Scott decision gave slavery the protection of
the U.S. Constitution.
In essence, nothing short of a constitutional
amendment could end slavery—an event not likely to
Proslavery Americans welcomed the Court’s ruling as
proof they had been right during the previous few
decades’ struggles against abolitionists.
In contrast, abolitionists convinced many state
legislatures to declare the Dred Scott decision not
binding within their state borders.
The new Republican Party said that if its candidate
were elected president in 1860, he would appoint a
new Supreme Court that would reverse Dred Scott.
The third issue was John Brown’s Raid.
John Brown, an ardent abolitionist, decided to fight
slavery with violence and killing.
In 1856, believing he was chosen by God to end slavery,
Brown commanded family members and other
abolitionists to attack proslavery settlers in Kansas,
killing five men.
Leaving Kansas, Brown decided to begin a slave war in
the east by seizing arms and munitions and leading
slaves in rebellion.
In 1859, he led a group of white and black men in a
raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia
(in modern-day West Virginia) in hopes of arming
slaves for a rebellion.
The raid failed and Brown was captured by U.S.
Marines led by U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee.
Eventually, Brown was convicted of treason against the
state of Virginia and executed by hanging.
At first, many northerners and southerners were horrified
by Brown’s actions. Eventually, many northerners came to
respect what Brown had done, viewing him as a martyr for
the abolitionist movement.
Southerners were angered. Many in the South viewed
Brown as a terrorist killer, a man that sought to incite a
slave insurrection that would have led to the slaughter of
hundreds of men, women, and children.
Vocal northern support of Brown’s actions did little to calm
an anxious south. Invoking the specter of the Nat Turner
Rebellion nearly 20 years earlier, Southern states began to
strengthen and train their state militias.
The presidential election of 1860 further demonstrated the
division between the North and the South.
National political parties no longer existed. Voters in the
North chose between Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas
and Republican Abraham Lincoln, while Southerners
voted for Southern Democrat J.C. Breckinridge or John
Bell of the newly formed Constitutional Union Party.
While votes in the Border States (Delaware, Maryland,
Kentucky, and Missouri) were mixed, many in the Lower
South (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida,
Georgia, and South Carolina) supported Breckinridge.
Abraham Lincoln won the election without winning a
single electoral from a southern state.
Southerners were outraged that a President had been
elected without any southern electoral votes. They were
also worried that the Republican Party would ruin the
southern way of life.
Secessionists, or those who wanted the South to secede,
argued that since the states had voluntarily joined the
Union, they could also voluntarily leave it.
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina officially seceded.
Six other states of the Lower South followed.
In early February 1861, these states proclaimed
themselves a new nation, the Confederate States of
America, or Confederacy. Jefferson Davis, a former
senator from Mississippi, became president of the