I saw Thee when Thou did display
The black man and his lord
To bid me free the one, and slay
The other with the sword.
I heard Thee when Thou bade me spurn
Destruction from my hand
And, though all Kansas bleed and burn,
It was at Thy command.
- from "John Brown's Prayer" in John Brown's Body (1928) by Stephen Vincent Benét
We can see in retrospect that there was a series of events that led more-or-less directly to the Civil War. It would be wrong to see war as inevitable. It could have been avoided by abolishing slavery in the whole country. It could have avoided by the free states surrendering to the Slave Power and allowing slavery to become a permanent national institution.
But there are definite landmarks on the road to the Civil War, including:
The Compromise of 1820 (the Missouri Compromise): The free states agreed to relax the previous restrictions on slavery in the territories to allow slavery in Missouri. The slaves states agreed to observe a geographical limit on slavery in the future. This was a definite surrender by the free states to the Slave Power. The latter would not keep their end of the bargain.
The Nullification Controversy of 1831-32: I have discussed this in more detail inprevious posts. Although ostensibly about tariffs, this was an attempt by John C. Calhoun and his South Carolina partners in treason to set a precedent to defend their Peculiar Institution against any threat from the Constitution, the national government or democracy. It was the single most important achievement of Andrew Jackson's exceptionally distinguished career that he quashed this "dry run" for secession. In the process, he defined democratic patriotism for American in a new and enduring way, a vision which ultimately triumphed by the Union in the Civil War.
The Mexican War of 1846-48: While there were arguably legitimate American national security concerns involved in taking Texas and other areas on the North American mainland, by this time slavery had become an unavoidable factor in a wide range of issues. The Slave Power wanted Texas as a new slave state. Many Northern critics and opponents of slavery opposed it for the same reason, famously including Henry David Thoreau and Congressman Abrah Lincoln. The then-President James Polk was a Southerner and supporter of the Slave Power.
Thoreau quixotically refused to pay taxes as a protest against the war. This would have become at best an interesting footnote in his personal biography had he not commemorated his act and the brief time he spent in jail because of it in his famous essay "Civil Disobedience (1849)." In it, he wrote:
See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;—see if I would go"; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.
Lincoln viewed the Mexican War as what we today call preventive war and saw serious danger for democracy in Polk's prosecution of it. He wrote in a letter to William Herndon on 02/15/1848:
The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.
Compromise of 1850: The repercussions of the Mexican War led to the Compromise of 1850, which brought California into the Union as a free state, made concessions to the South on slavery in the Utah and New Mexico territories and established a new Fugitive Slave Law. This law overrode state authoirty compelling free states to return escaped slaves to bondage. It also required by federal authority individual citizens to join posses to hunt down the fugitive property of the "lords of the lash."
The Fugitive Slave Law produced tremendous resentment in the free states. In light of the later "states rights" claims of Lost Cause mythology, it's important to remember that this law demanded by the South used federal powers to override "states rights." The slave state representatives were consistent in this: if they could use federal power to defend slavery, they had no hesitation in brushing aside any "states rights" considerations. Since the slave states dominated the White House and the federal courts in the 1850s, very little was heard from Slave Power spokesmen about "states rights" prior to Abraham Lincoln's election as President.
As Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in his 1940 essay, "The Life of Abraham Lincoln": "The Compromise of 1850 served about as well as putting a stove lid over a volcano would."
Bleeding Kansas:The next political crisis over slavery came with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It incorporated the concept championed by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois called "popular sovereignty." In the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it meant that for a very large portion of the American possessions acquired as a result of the Mexican War, Congress would not exclude slavery from the territories organzied there. Rather, the people in those territories would decide whether slavery would be allowed or not.
This sounded democratic enough to appeal to Northerners who were looking for an excuse to surrender to the Slave Power's demands. In fact, it meant a tremendous opportunity for the slaveowning tyrants to create new slave states, thus expanding slavery, which would inevitably mean further restriction of democracy for the whole country. As Lincoln said of "popular sovereignty" in a speech in Peoria, Illinois of 10/16/1854:
This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of freeinstitutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
(This speech is a long one that is known as "the Peoria speech," and it really is a good summary of the conflict over slavery leading up to that point in time.)
And, in practice, the application of "popular sovereignty" in the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to a shooting war in Kansas. The slaveowners organzied to settle Kansas territory with a proslavery populartion. And Northern abolitionists did the same for the antislavery side. As Lincoln said in the Peoria speech near the beginning of the process:
Some Yankees in the the East are sending emigrants to Nebraska [the Kansas-Nebraska territory] to exclude slavery from it ... But the [proslavery] Missourians are awake, too. They are within a stone's throw of the contested ground. ... They resolve that slavery already exists in the Territory; that more shall go there; that they, remaining in Missouri, will protect it, and that Abolitionists shall be hung or driven away. Through all this bowie-knives and six-shooters are seen plainly enough, but never a glimpse of the ballot-box.
Philip Van Doren Stern's description of Northern reaction gives a good flavor of the combatative spirit that slavery now generated:
Opposition in the North was immediate and violent. Even while the Act was still in Congress, hundreds of mass meetings were held in Northern cities. Editors, clergymen and other intellectuals denounced the measure. The populace was wrought up to a frenzy that spread across the land, growing in fervor and moral earnestness as it spread. The amazing success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had been published in 1852, and immediately had gone into printing after printing, had shown that Northern sentiment—in contradistinction to Northern political practice—was strongly opposed to the institution of slavery. Now that the issue had been forced upon the country by Douglas's ill-advised Nebraska Act, men who had hitherto been willing to let slavery alone were stirred into activity. Abolitionism became respectable. The fugitive slave law was openly defied. The North was in revolt against Southern aggression, for it was now obvious to everyone that the South had no intention of keeping slavery within its present bounds. The move for the annexation of Cuba With which Pierce had been toying, and the attempt of the South to meddle in Central American affairs in order to promote insurrection (and slavery), became apparent as imperialistic gestures of a Southern oligarchy that was on the march to obtain new areas in which they could carry on a type of economy based on human exploitation of the crudest and most naked kind. (my emphasis)
The conflict in Kansas was violent and protracted really a miniature prelude to the Civil War. Abolitionist militant John Brown honed his guerrilla skills in Kansas and earned a great deal of support and admiration from abolitionists in the process. In 1857, proslavery Kansans selected a territorial government and got a proslavery constitution approved, which became known as the Lecompton constitution. During the same period, an antislavery majority was elected to the territorial legislature, leaving Kansas with two parallel governments, one proslavery and the other antislavery.
Proslavery President James Buchanan recognized the Lecompton government. This was too much even for Stephen Douglas and Robert Walker, the proslavery territorial governor of Kansas. Two subsequent elections afirmed a large antislavery majority. But due to the resistance of Buchanan and the slave states, Kansas was not admitted to the Union until 1861.
The Dred Scott decision: With the Republicans and the Radical Right raving about judicial tyranny, I hesitate to even bring up the Dred Scott decision. The climate is so bad right now that I think I should highlight that there's nothing about the Dred Scott decision that in any way justifies violence against judges today.
Aside from that, in the political buzzwords of 2005, "Dred Scott decision" functions as a code meaning, "The Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion was wrong." I'vediscussed this and the actual Dred Scott decision in earlier posts.
Essentially, the Dred Scott decision eliminated Congress' ability to prohibit slavery in the territories. Many inthe freestatessuspected - not without reason - that the proslavery court intended to raise siimilar barriers to regulation of slavery even in free states. Even in the Peoria speech of 1854, Lincoln observed, "Already a few in the South claim the constitutional right to take and to hold slaves in the free States ..."
The fact that today's authoritarian Republicans use the Dred Scott case to oppose judicial limits on Presidential and Congressional power shouldn't prevent us from seeing that this was a bad decision of colossal proportions. It effectively ended any possibility of resolving the slavery issue without a larger version of the violent conflict that Kansas had already experienced.
In light of later Lost Cause claims about how the slave states were defending the pristine abstract principle of "states rights," this commment from Van Doren Stern is notable:
Northern resentment again burned high [after the Dred Scott decision]. There was now as much talk of secession in the North as there had formerly been in the South. The abolitionists openly preached separation - slaveowners, they said, would hold to no compact, therefore it was necessary to cut loose from them so the North could build a new nation, free from all taint of slavery and having no compromise with it anywhere within its borders. (my emphasis)
At that point, states rights seemed to many to be a more promising option for free states, since the Slave Power now appeared to have a lock on the Presidency, the Congress and the federal judiciary. The lords of the lash simply didn't care about states rights as long as the federal government was defending and extending slavery.
(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)