Slavery, Compromise, and the Long Road to War

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

What caused the Civil War? No discussion introducing the American Civil War would be complete without an extensive analysis of slavery and the economic conditions of the antebellum world. Delve into the complexities of the years leading up to the Civil War. Find out what was happening at the state and federal levels of government that put Americans on the road to war.

Slaves and soldiers
A Union soldier stands with African Americans on the plantation of Thomas F. Drayton, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, 1862. Photo by Henry P. Moore, May 1862

Did slavery cause the Civil War? While only 25 percent of southerners were slave owners, all Southern white people had a stake in the system of slavery.  In an ironic way, all Southern whites, regardless of economic status, were made equal by the fact of slavery. For this reason, and because there was genuine fear of what would happen if large numbers of free black people were to be set loose, as they would put it, to live among them, Southern whites, almost all of them, saw slavery as a necessary and generally good institution, and they reacted very defensively when Northerners attacked it.

Now I think it’s important to separate notions about slavery from notions about race. Most white Southerners were intensely racist. Most white Northerners were intensely racist during the mid-19th century. The difference was that virtually all of the black people in the United States lived in the South at this time. I mean virtually all of them lived in the South. Whenever enough black people would congregate some place in the North to pose a threat to the white population of that area, white Northerners often responded almost precisely as white Southerners did. So do not assume that racism was somehow a Southern phenomenon during the 19th century; rather, the attitude extended nationwide.

Expanding Federal Territories

The South was aware of the fact, obviously, that the North was outstripping it in population. The House of Representatives was clearly dominated by the North well before the Civil War because, as you know, that’s representation based on population there. The Senate was something the South tried to maintain parity in. We’ll talk more about that in just a minute, but because the South knew the North was outstripping it in population, the white Southerners believed it was necessary on their part to do anything possible to try to erect safeguards to their social system and the ability of their social system to expand, in other words, the ability of slavery to expand. One of the ways to do that was to try to keep parity in the Senate, as I said.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Now, the North is equally aware of its preponderance of population. It believed that since there were more people in the North, the North should have more clout in the United States. There are more of us. Why should we not be able to do what we want to do if we outnumber, and increasingly outnumber the South? White Southerners felt that the “peculiar institution,” as they called slavery, had to expand into new federal territories or their economy would stagnate. They’d be caught in a situation where slavery was boxed in. Slave populations would grow in that area, and it would be a problem, potentially not only socially but also economically.

Northerners, on the other hand, increasingly came to call for territories being reserved for free men only who would work their own farms. The “Free Soil” movement that gained strength through the 1840s and 1850s argued for this. Reserve the Western territories for free men. Many of these Northerners calling for Free Soil in the West, I will emphasize, couldn’t care less about the black people who were caught in slavery. They wanted Free Soil for white men in the West. They didn’t want Free Soil for black freed slaves in the West. They wanted the territories reserved for white men.

Learn more about Southern society and the defense of slavery

So this was an issue—whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand into the territories—that became a greater and greater area of dispute between the sections as we go toward 1860. And, of course, it was a problem because the United States was acquiring more and more land as we go toward 1860.

The Long Road to War

Let’s shift now to some of the key mileposts along the road of sectional friction. Now most of these, I suspect, are very familiar to you, but we’ll go through some of the more important ones just to have them fresh in your minds. And again, I don’t want to convey, by going through this list of sectional tensions, that there was a sense beginning in 1820 or so that we’re pointing toward an inevitable civil war, that all of these things are just leading to a point where we’re going to be killing each other. Most people did not believe that. Some would argue that, but that isn’t the main thing on everybody’s mind. Nonetheless, these things occurred, and they upped the level of tensions, and they made more possible an explosion at some point.

Let’s start in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise. It restricted slavery in the old Louisiana Purchase country to land below the 36°30’ line of latitude. It allowed Missouri to come in as a slave state, and Missouri would be balanced by Maine very shortly thereafter coming in as a free state. Until 1850, free states and slave states would alternate coming into the Union, which preserved the balance of power in the Senate. So for 30 years after the Missouri Compromise, you’ll have states essentially coming in in pairs in the United States, one slave and one free.

Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831

In 1831, two major events occurred. The first was the most important slave rebellion in the United States’s history. Nat Turner’s insurrection or rebellion in Southside, Virginia, where Nat Turner, a black preacher, and a handful of followers rose up and killed several dozen white people, sent an enormous shock across the white South. This is, of course, a great Southern nightmare, slaves rising up and slaughtering masters.

That same year, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publication of The Liberator, which would become the most famous abolitionist newspaper. That also set off alarms in the South. Here’s somebody publishing a newspaper, getting a lot of attention, saying all of our slave property should be swept away. These events are both in 1831.

A nullification controversy in South Carolina carried over from the late 1820s into the early 1830s, ostensibly about a tariff, but really about slavery and a fear of too much federal power. Southern states worried whether the federal government, if it were given the power in the area of tariffs, might not step in and interfere with state institutions such as slavery later on. In 1840, the Liberty Party first ran a presidential candidate. The Liberty Party had one issue: the end of slavery.

The Issue of Compromise

The admission of Texas to the Union in 1845, and then the Mexican War in 1846 to 1847, brought vast new Western lands into the nation that fanned sectional conflict during the 1840s. In response to these huge new areas brought in—and they included California and Utah, or what are now California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Nevada—the North staked out a clear position with the 1846 Wilmot Proviso offered by a Democrat from Pennsylvania named, interestingly enough, David Wilmot.

Learn more about rebellious Texas and the Alamo

David Wilmot (1814-1868) proposed to ban slavery in states acquired during Mexican war.

Wilmot’s Proviso said, all right, we’ll take all this land from Mexico, we’ll bring all of this land into the Union, but we will bar slavery from any lands acquired as a result of the war with Mexico. That policy passed in the Northern-dominated House of Representatives, but it was voted down in the Senate. It gave a clear warning to the South of the intention of a good part of the North to seal off new territories to slavery. Many people in the North, even some Democrats, said white Southerners like David Wilmot want to keep our slave property out of the territories.

Crisis followed crisis fairly rapidly after 1848, a year in which the Free Soil Party ran a presidential candidate in a major effort. The Free Soil Party, obviously, was for keeping slavery out of the territories. The Compromise of 1850, together with the Missouri Compromise, are two of the most famous efforts in the antebellum years to dampen sectional tensions and animosities. The Compromise of 1850 arose in response to a number of issues, and it really consisted of a cluster of pieces of legislation that didn’t really please anybody but did manage to quiet things down for a while.

The key elements of the Compromise? California came in as a free state, and that broke parity in the Senate. From the admission of California forward, the North would control the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. On the Southern side, the Compromise included a very tough Fugitive Slave Law that put the United States government in the position of having to help slave owners recover slaves who managed to run away to free territory. Much of the North, therefore, was unhappy with the Fugitive Slave Law, and much of the South was unhappy with California coming in as a free state under the Compromise of 1850.

From the lecture series The American Civil War, taught by Professor Gary Gallagher

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Images courtesy of:
by unknown (from the book, Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
by David Wilmot; scanned by Bob Burkhardt [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons