Documents: Sectionalism

In 1819 Missouri requested admission to the union of the United States as a slaveholding state. Missouri’s admission as a slave state would have upset the balance in Congress between the slaveholding states and the free states. Henry Clay introduced a compromise called the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The compromise allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state, but also allowed Maine to enter the union as a free state, thus keeping the balance in Congress and avoiding war between the sections. The compromise also forbade slavery in all the territory north of the 36°30’ parallel with the exception of Missouri.
The Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the conflict in Congress over the issue of slavery in the western territories. It admitted California to the Union as a free state and split the remaining Mexican Cession territory into Utah and New Mexico (settling a border dispute with Texas). It allowed Utah and New Mexico territories to decide the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty (voting by the people). It also banned the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and enacted a stronger Fugitive Slave Act which required all citizens to help catch and return runaway slaves. It bought some peace and time, but not all its provisions were achieved.
Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 in which she described the horrors of slavery. Although her novel was fictional, it furthered the abolitionist movement in the North and gained international attention. It highlighted slavery as a moral issue (not just an economic or states’ rights issue) and opened many people’s eyes to the harsh reality of slave-life in the South. The South was shocked and argued that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was anti-slavery propaganda. This novel is considered one of the most influential books in American history.
Authored by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 divided the land west of Missouri into two territories: Kansas and Nebraska. It allowed the residents of the two territories to decide the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty (voting by the people). Pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters from neighboring territories (including radical abolitionist John Brown) flooded into Kansas to sway the vote, resulting in violent clashes between the two groups. This violence was known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom after his owner took him into a territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Anti-slavery lawyers argued that he should be freed because he had lived in a free territory. When his case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, the Court, presided over by Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled that Mr. Scott could not file a lawsuit because, as a slave, he was not considered a U.S. citizen. The Court further reasoned that people of African descent could never be citizens. According to the Court, slaves were “property,” and thus could not be taken from their owners without violating the due process of law clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Court also struck down part of Congress’ Missouri Compromise of 1820 as unconstitutional, stating that Congress could not ban slavery in the western territories. The Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford was later overruled by Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution in 1868. Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment granted former slaves citizenship.