Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury for the United States, serving under President George Washington from September 11, 1789 to January 31, 1795. Soon after attaining the office Hamilton issued a series of reports on the state of the nation's debt. In order to finance the Revolutionary War, the United States and the individual 13 colonies had borrowed money from the nations of Europe ($12 million) and from its own citizens ($42 million). The fledgling United States had a credit problem. Until they could show that they would repay the debt, it was unlikely that anyone would lend the nation a large amount of money. Hamilton proposed a plan, known today as the Hamiltonian economic program, that would repay the debt and secure the reputation of the United States. The plan called for the issuance of bonds with an interest rate of 4%. The principal of the debt would not be paid, but interest would, thus those who lent money to the country had a vested interest in its long term survival.
The most controversial aspect of Hamilton's plan involved the debt racked up by individual states. His plan called for the Federal government to assume the states' debts. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson opposed Hamilton's plan, believing that it over-extended the Federal government's powers as defined in the constitution. Hamilton's plan finally won out, but not before Madison and Jefferson formed the Democratic-Republican political party (and the proponents of Hamilton's plan formed the Federalist Party). A two-party system was born.
On July 14, 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts was signed into law by President John Adams. This consisted of four laws that were designed to secure the nation, but also helped out the Federalist Party. The Naturalization Act required aliens to live in the country for 14 years — up from the original five years — before they could become citizens. Since many of the people who joined the Democratic-Republican Party were immigrants, this law was designed to hurt that party in favour of the Federalists as only citizens could vote. The Sedition Act also put limits on what people could say about the government. This law was designed to hamper anti-Federalist opposition. Interestingly, the law made it illegal to criticize the president, but it did not prevent criticism of the vice president. At the time, Thomas Jefferson was the vice president. He ran against John Adams, but the rules during Adams' election held that the man who received the second most votes for president became the vice president.
Some states governments disliked giving the Federal government more power than they had at the nation's founding. The method of arguing against unconstitutional legislation was unclear. For this reason, Madison and Jefferson decided to fight the law by unseating the Federalists. They were consulted on two documents that would become known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These two documents stated essentially the same thing, that the states had the right to nullify or invalidate any Federal law the state deemed unconstitutional (this principle was known as nullification), and that the states had the right to protect the liberties of its own citizens, even against the Federal government (the principle of interposition). Jefferson wrote the set of Kentucky Resolutions, which were passed by the Kentucky legislature on November 16, 1798. An additional resolution was passed on December 3, 1799. Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution, which was passed by the Virginia legislature on December 24, 1798.
Madison and Jefferson hoped that the other states would follow with similar resolutions, but nothing came of it. Madison himself eventually joined forces with the Federalists (in establishing the nation's capitol on the Potomac River on the border of Maryland and Virginia, later to become Washington, D.C.). Even though other states did not follow Kentucky's and Virginia's example, the Resolutions had the desired effect. The people voted against the Federalists and they lost their grip on power. The Alien and Sedition Act expired when Adams' term as president ended in 1800.
Nothing was set in the constitution to eliminate nullification or interposition. As such, the Southern Confederacy would later use these resolutions as justification for secession from the Union.
The country's first secession crisis occurred not in the South, but in the North. The administration of Thomas Jefferson (1801 to 1809) pursued anti-foreign trade policies, particularly the Embargo Act of 1807 and Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. These were unpopular in the Northeastern states, which did a lot of trade with Europe in general and Great Britain in particular. James Madison, a Democratic-Republican, was elected president in 1809. He started the War of 1812 with Britain, which lasted from 1812 until 1815. Like the Embargo Act and the Non-Intercourse Act, the war affected trade with Britain, making it unpopular in New England.
The Massachusetts state legislature called for a convention to discuss several amendments to the constitution that would protect the rights of the New England states. They met in secret in Hartford, Connecticut from December 15, 1814 until January 5, 1815.
The amendments they proposed would never have been ratified by the country at large, but that did not matter. Their mere existence was designed to embarrass the ruling Democratic-Republican Party. Along with the amendments, the delegates discussed the idea of seceding from the United States, either to form their own republic or to reunite with Great Britain. Due to the secret — and potentially treasonous — nature of the meeting, no written notes were kept, so no one is sure what was said or by whom. The convention made no formal resolution, but Massachusetts did send three delegates to Washington, D.C. in order to negotiate the state's secession from the Union.
The delegates arrived in Washington in February, 1815, just in time to hear of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and of Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The War of 1812 was over. Trade with Britain could resume. The reason for Massachusetts secession no longer existed, so the delegates slipped back to their home state.
Due to the Hartford Convention and Massachusetts' abortive attempt at secession, the Federalist Party was seen as pro-secession. This made the party less popular in the South. The party collapsed, though it lived on for a few more years in Massachusetts.
In 1819 the question of Missouri's entry into the Union as a state fueled a debate between pro- and anti-slavery factions. Alabama was admitted into the Union as a slave state on December 14, 1819. This meant that the number of free states and slave states was equal in the Union. Since each state had two senators, slave and free states had the same representation in the U.S. Senate. Missouri was up for entry as a state, as was Maine. The bill in the House to admit Maine (which passed on January 3, 1820) declared that Maine would be free.
This brought to the fore the question of whether or not Missouri would be a slave state. If it was a slave state there would continue to be free and slave state parity in the Senate. If Missouri was a free state, the balance of power in the Senate would shift to the free states.
A bill was passed before the House of Representatives allowing Missouri to become a state only if its constitution outlawed slavery within its borders. The Senate decided to connect the Maine bill and Missouri bill in one Senate bill. The Senate's bill had two additional amendments over the bill passed in the House: Missourians would be allowed to write their own state constitution, and slavery would be excluded from the Missouri Territory north of latitude 36° 30' (the Southern border of the proposed state of Missouri), except within the limits of the state of Missouri itself. This second amendment was proposed by Jesse Burgess Thomas of Illinois. The House rejected this combined bill, and the law was handed over to a committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills.
The committee came up with a compromise bill. The bill became known as the Missouri Compromise (also known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820). The Maine and Missouri bills were split into two pieces of legislation. Thomas' amendment to exclude slavery North of latitude 36° 30' except within the confines of the proposed state of Missouri was included with the Missouri bill, which became an "enabling act" (meaning that Missouri would be made a state once its constitution was written and Congress accepted it). The House requirement that Missouri be a free state was removed from the bill. The Compromise would admit Maine into the Union as a free state. If Missouri chose to be a slave state then the balance of power would continue to be equal in the Senate.
The Maine bill was passed on March 5, 1820, and the Missouri enabling act was passed on March 6.
Missouri's constitution was written, and admission of Missouri into the Union came before Congress in the 1820–21 legislative session. There was some debate over a clause in Missouri's constitution that excluded "free negroes and mulattoes" from the state. Henry Clay, an influential Virginia-born representative for Kentucky — later, as a U.S. senator, he would by instrumental in defusing the Nullification Crisis — convinced Congress to allow Missouri into the Union as a state but with an additional clause added to the law. The clause stated that the Missouri constitution should "never be construed to authorize the passage of any law" impairing the privileges and immunities of any U.S. citizen. This clause is sometimes called the Second Missouri Compromise.
Clay's clause was accepted and Missouri joined the Union on August 10, 1821 as a slave state. The ambiguously written clause would later be interpreted to mean that free blacks and mulattoes were not citizens of the United States, though that was not the purpose or the intention of the clause.
The primary result of the Missouri Compromise was to exclude slavery North of the 36° 30' line (except in Missouri). The compromise would hold until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857.
A recession hit the economies of Europe in the wake of the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars. This led Britain to aggressively sell its goods in America at prices American manufacturers could not match. To protect American manufacturers, who were located primarily in the Northeastern states, Congress passed a protective tariff in 1816. A tariff is a fee applied to imported goods. It has two functions: it raises the price of imported goods, making local goods more competitive, and it produces revenue for the Federal government. The tax rate of the 1816 tariff was raised in 1824, and again in 1828.
These tariffs were unpopular in the South. The South was more heavily agrarian than the North, so they had to import manufactured goods from Northern states or from foreign countries. The 1828 tariff was particularly unpopular and was called the "Tariff of Abominations". Not only did the cost of manufactured goods go up in the South, the tariff reduced the sale of British manufactured textile goods in the U.S., which in turn resulted in reduced demand for Southern cotton in the United Kingdom. The Southern economy was faced with increased costs and decreased revenue.
The 1828 tariff was signed by President John Quincy Adams. Signing the bill was partially the reason he lost the 1828 election. Many Southern farmers saw Andrew Jackson, and his South Carolina running mate John C. Calhoun, as opponents of the tariff. Jackson became president when he won one of the dirtiest election campaigns in U.S. history.
Even though he was Jackson's running mate, Calhoun wasn't above stirring up trouble for the administration. He wrote his South Carolina Exposition and Protest in 1828. It called for South Carolina to secede from the Union if its demands for eliminating the tariff were not met. In 1832 Jackson signed into law a milder version of the 1828 tariff, but that did not stop Southern farmers from feeling betrayed.
South Carolina adopted an Ordinance of Nullification, declaring that the 1828 and 1832 tariffs were null and void within the state of South Carolina. It was passed by the state's legislature on November 24, 1832. In response, Congress passed the Force Bill and Jackson sent seven small naval vessels and a man-of-war to Charleston, South Carolina. On December 10, 1832 Jackson threatened to send government troops into the state to enforce the tariff. South Carolina hoped that other states would join them in opposing the Federal government, but none did.
Henry Clay negotiated a compromise in 1833 that defused the situation. The tariff would be rolled back to 1816 levels over the next nine years. This measure was quickly passed and the crisis was over.
The Nullification Crisis is important in retrospect because it showed that a single state could stand up to Congress. It also displayed the growing schism between the North and the South over economic issues.
None of the foregoing events precipitated the American Civil War. Few people during any of these situations thought that hostilities would boil over into armed conflict. Nevertheless, these crises were important milestones on the road to the war for the following reasons:
The most important point is the third one. The Constitution was vague as to whether or not a state could legally secede from the Union. When the Thirteen Colonies broke away from Britain they formed a loose confederation. The nation known as the United States developed over a decade later when it was obvious that certain aspects of government was best done for the colony as a whole, including defense and taxation to pay off the Revolutionary War's debt. The tightly knit country that exists today did not exist until the 20th century. People's loyalty lay first with their state, then with the Federal government. Certainly several states believed that secession was entirely legal.
After the Nullification Crisis, Congress should have made the question unambiguous, either by amending the constitution to make secession impossible or by amending the constitution to include a mechanism for a state's secession. The constitution was not amended. The question of secession's legality was not resolved. The constitution's vague position on the role of the Federal government was not clarified. To many people, particularly in the South, secession remained an option at a point in time when different parts of the country began to differ in their views on a number of issues, the most important being slavery.
Beginning with South Carolina's threat to secede during the Nullification Crisis, some in the North complained that the South had too much political influence. The Democratic-Republicans morphed into the Democratic Party, and the Whig Party formed in 1832 to oppose them. For a decade and a half after the Nullification Crisis the issue of slavery and Southern influence simmered without resolution. The Northeast became more industrialized. Social reformers and abolitionists gained prominence in the North, while the South exerted greater influence over the federal government.
There was no specific crisis between North and South until after the Mexican-American War (1845–48), but there was a deepening schism between slave and free states. This schism was evident in the formation of the free soil movement in the 1840s and the creation of the Free Soil Party in 1848. The Free Soil Party had limited success and its presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, failed to win a single electoral college vote in 1848 presidential election.
The relative calm of the 1830s and 1840s was shattered in the 1850s. Southern influence (and politicians willing to compromise in order to gain that influence) along with social upheaval led to a series of political and economic crises that propelled the nation toward civil war.
A piece of legislation, later known as the Wilmot Proviso, would have outlawed slavery in any territory gained from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. It was written by Congressman Jacob Brinkerhoff of Ohio, but it was presented by David Wilmot — a Democrat from Pennsylvania — because Wilmot had a better standing in Congress. The Proviso was attached to several bills beginning in 1848, but it was never passed.
The Proviso polarized public opinion on slavery in the territories. Free soil Northerners supported it. Southerners, who saw slaves as property and thus believed their property was protected by the Constitution, opposed it. In retaliation, strong opposition developed in the South against attempts to bar slavery while the country was expanding.
California was to be admitted into the Union as a free (non-slave) state, but that was seen by Southerners as unbalancing the number of slave and non-slave states. This had important implications in the senate where each state had the same representation. The Wilmot Proviso, if passed, would further exacerbate the slave/non-slave balance by outlawing slaves in the other Mexican territories. Meanwhile, Texas claimed all of the territory east of the Rio Grande River, including Santa Fe, while residents of the New Mexico territory claimed Santa Fe as their capitol. The Texas government was willing to take Santa Fe by force, and the Federal government under President Zachary Taylor was willing to send troops to stop them.
To solve all of these problems, a compromise solution was enacted. Henry Clay, who negotiated the end of the Nullification Crisis and who was instrumental in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, wrote part of this compromise (and took credit for all of it). It was Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, who was responsible for guiding it through Congress.
The Compromise had five parts:
Southern Democrats, led by Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, did not like the compromise because it meant admitting California as a non-slave state and Texas giving up territorial claims. They were also against the idea of states deciding whether or not they were free or slave for themselves. Such freedom could undo the delicate balance of slave and free states in the Senate. Northern Whigs hated the bill because it ignored the Wilmot Proviso and included the draconian Fugitive Slave Act. Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs (many of the latter were from border states where fugitive slaves were a problem) supported the law. Whig President Zachary Taylor tried to sidestep the compromise by admitting California and New Mexico right away as free states, a move that was not popular in the South.
Vice President John C. Calhoun gave a speech against the bills on March 3, 1850. He was so physically weak that he had to be carried into the Senate chamber and Senator James Mason had to read the speech. Calhoun died four weeks later. The bills were bundled into one big "omnibus" bill, which did not pass.
President Taylor participated in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on July 4, but then came down ill with acute indigestion. He died on July 9. With the support of the new president, Millard Filmore, the five individual bills passed between September 9 through September 20, 1850.
The most controversial of the laws was the Fugitive Slaves Act. It required law officers in non-slave states to apprehend fugitive slaves. Anyone helping a fugitive slave could be fined and/or imprisoned. The slave himself did not have the right to a trial, and could be captured simply if the alleged owner swore that the fugitive was his slave, with or without documentation to back it up. This act was terribly unpopular in the North. Opposition to the law, particularly in Boston, resulted in open violation of it. There were cases where mobs were organized to specifically prevent the enforcement of the law.
Opposition in the South to the other parts of the Compromise (particularly those involving California and Texas) caused several Southern states to consider nullification and secession in 1851. State conventions to discuss the matter were convened, but the conventions were dominated by Unionists; secession was thwarted. The Mississippi convention went so far as to deny that states had a right to secede. South Carolina's convention was the only one not to vote for "no secession", as that wasn't even presented as an option. Instead, they voted on the option of "no secession without the collaboration of other states." This option passed.
Ironically, if nullification had been clarified and legalized within the Constitution, Northern states could have used it to completely ignore the Fugitive Slaves Act.
With the United States now stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, a railroad was needed to connect the two halves of the country. Senator Stephen Douglas wanted Chicago, in his home state of Illinois, to be a hub of this important railroad. To gain support from Southerners for a Northern route across the country he proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act would have all remaining territories from the Louisiana Purchase decide "all questions pertaining to slavery" in their own legislatures. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery in newly formed states North of latitude 36° 30'. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively declared null and void the Missouri Compromise, as the state's latitude would no longer had any bearing on whether or not slavery would be legal there. The legality of slavery would be up to the citizens of the new state.
Opposition in the North was slow to develop. Once opposition was whipped up by politicians like Salmon Chase, Northern newspapers seized on the issue (though some papers, like the National Era and the New York Tribune were against it from the start). Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act gathered momentum.
In order to exert political power on the national stage, Northern abolitionists and free-soilers realized a new political party was needed. The party had to bring free-soilers together with powerful and established anti-administration Whigs. The new party needed to divorce itself from the failed Free Soil Party while maintaining the Free Soil Party's platform on abolition in the territories. On February 28, 1854 at Ripon Wisconsin Congregational Church, this new party, called the Republican Party, was born. The moderates in the party called for a return of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 or a promise that slavery would not be extended into the territories. Radicals within the party also wanted a repeal of the Fugitive Slaves Act. The most radical of the radicals wanted slavery abolished altogether.
The party ran its first election campaign in the mid-term elections of 1854. The result was something less than a success. The party was intolerant of social diversity. It wanted to impose its own values on the nation, including temperance (the banning of alcohol) and some measure of abolition. With its "free soil" roots, it was a party of the white middle class. The Republican party was also in favour of more government intervention in order to expand the economy.
The party favoured by ethnic minorities continued to be the Democrats, who supported lower taxes and less government intervention. The American Party — also known as the "Know-Nothings" — was built around a bias against ethnic minorities, particularly Irish Catholics. The Democrats won most of the seats in the mid-term elections, but they lost some ground to the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings actually won the mayoral election in Philadelphia. After the 1854 elections Stephen Douglas declared that the Know-Nothings were the main threat to the Democrats.
The Republican Party might have been marginalized if not for a series of bloody skirmishes in Kansas in 1855 that brought the expansion of slavery into the forefront of American politics. Abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates portrayed what was becoming known as "Bleeding Kansas" as an armed fight between pro- and anti-slavery factions. They were aided by a partisan press that amplified and distorted events. In fact most of the violence was not over slavery but over land claims between Missourians — who were accused of grabbing the best land without a legal claim — and Yankee squatters — who were seen by the Missourians as invaders.
On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery forces under Sheriff Jones sacked Lawrence, Kansas. In what was apparently a reprisal, a band of abolitionists led by John Brown murdered five men believed to be pro-slavery in what was called the Pottawatomie Massacre. This event triggered a guerrilla war in the state.
Both abolitionist and pro-slavery advocates used "Bleeding Kansas" as a symbol of the fanaticism of the other side. On May 19, even before Brown's attack, Senator Charles Sumner gave a speech in the Senate that condemned pro-slavery politicians, naming Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina in particular. The next day Butler's nephew, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks, beat Sumner with a cane. The attack was almost fatal and it prevented Sumner from joining the Senate for three years. Although Brooks was hailed by the South as the protector of Southern honour, Sumner became a martyr for the North and Brooks was made into a symbol of pro-slavery barbarism.
The Republicans offered up John C. Frémont, a famous explorer and abolitionist, as their candidate for president in the 1856 election. Some Southerners, moderates and radicals, called for secession if Frémont won. With a potential threat to the Union imminent, voters instead elected the Democratic Party's James Buchanan as president.
Dred Scott was a slave who, by birth, belonged to John Blow of Virginia. Blow in turn sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. Army doctor, when the Blow family fell on hard times in St. Louis in 1832. Emerson took Scott on extensive travels through the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin, and the free territory of Minnesota. During these travels both Scott and Emerson married. Emerson moved back to St. Louis in 1837. In 1840 Emerson was called to fight in the Seminole War, so he left Scott and Scott's wife with his own wife in St. Louis. Emerson returned from the war and then moved to Iowa, leaving behind his slaves and his wife until he had settled.
Emerson died unexpectedly in December, 1843. Scott remained as a slave until 1846, when he tried to purchase his freedom from Irene Emerson, the late doctor's wife. The woman refused, so Scott sued for his freedom. He argued that Missouri's doctrine of "once free, always free" applied, as he was technically freed when he was brought by Emerson to Minnesota. Irene Emerson argued that Scott was still her property, willed to her by her husband.
Scott's first trial failed on a technicality. He won the second trial in January 1850. Mrs. Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's decision. Irene Emerson gave Scott and the case over to her brother John Sanford. Scott accused Sanford of hitting him, so he sued Sanford for battery. Scott also sued him for wrongful imprisonment, arguing that if he was free then holding him as a slave was a violation of the law. Scott took his case to the U.S. Circuit Court by claiming he was a citizen of Missouri and Sanford was a citizen of New York, thus the Federal court had jurisdiction. Sanford admitted to touching Scott but argued that this was allowed as Scott was his property. The Circuit Court found in favour of Sanford, but because they rendered a decision Scott was allowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court heard the case, Scott v. Sanford, in December 1856, and handed down its decision on March 6, 1857. By that time the case had captured the attention of the country. The court had to decide if the U.S. Circuit Court had jurisdiction to hear the matter, and if so whether or not there was a problem with the decision. The majority decision under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that the court did not have jurisdiction, as Dred Scott was property and not a citizen. That should have been as far as the decision went, but Taney did not stop there. The court went on to rule on the merits of the case. In his majority decision Taney stated that by restricting property rights the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and likewise was any attempt to restrict the possession of slaves in any of the territories. He wrote that the Missouri Compromise conflicted with the Fifth Amendment's protection against the deprivation of property without due process.
Taney hoped that a clear decision from the bench on slavery would end the discussion. He was wrong. The decision was well received in the South, but it caused an uproar in the North. In one fell swoop Taney had destroyed the Missouri Compromise, even though the dissenting judges pointed out what they believed were mistakes in the majority decision. Fear rose in the North that if a slavery case came before the Supreme Court, Taney and the other like-minded judges would rule against abolitionist state laws. This would turn every state in the Union into a slave state. Such a case, Lemmon v. New York, was making its way through the court system.
The furor that resulted split the Democratic Party and galvanized the North against slavery. Abolitionists and free-soilers had hoped to at least contain slavery; Taney's decision, and his expected decisions, had opened the way for the expansion of slavery throughout the Republic. Members of the Republican Party, including Abraham Lincoln, accused Taney of collaborating with President Buchanan in order to dismantle the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Dred Scott decision had extensive implications. The Supreme Court had not only validated the constitutionality of slavery (which was never seriously in doubt) but it also declared unconstitutional any laws that interfered with slavery. It was possible, given time and given the makeup of the Supreme Court that slavery would be legalized throughout the country. Since it was a Supreme Court decision, nothing short of the court overturning itself or a constitutional amendment could end, or even halt the advance, of slavery.
Abraham Lincoln famously said in his "House Divided" speech on June 16, 1858, "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other." Less famously, in the same speech, he declared, "We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State." It seemed that a North-South clash over slavery was inevitable. On a prescient note, the Albany Evening Journal ended an editorial on the decision with the following, "... All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!"
As for Dred Scott, his original owners bought him his freedom soon after the decision. He died of tuberculosis less than a year and a half later.
The Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company branch in New York failed on August 24, 1857 due to massive embezzlement. The failure shook the public trust in banks. It was followed by a series of other economic events from around the world:
These events precipitated a run on Northern banks and created an economic depression. The South, particularly the Southwest region, was largely insulated from this depression as the cotton market was not badly hurt. Some Southern pundits went so far as to compare the plight of the poor factory worker with the conditions of Southern slaves and declared that the "negro slaves" were better off than Northern "wage slaves". They suggested that Northern states should enslave these people for their own protection.
Adding to the tension between the North and the South was the Tariff Act of 1857. The Tariff Act lowered tariffs on imported goods to about 17%. This followed the Walker Tariff of 1846, which itself lowered rates applied in the Tariff of 1842 (also known as the "Black Tariff"). Lowering the tariff increased overseas imports which in turn increased exports. This sweetened relations with Great Britain, which was also suffering from a depression. The lower tariff was welcomed in the South since the South had to import a lot of manufactured goods. The tariff angered Northerners because it lowered demand for Northern manufactured goods.
Tensions between the North and the South increased while the North lost confidence in the Federal government. It looked to many Northerners that the Democratic Party was helping the South at their expense. The fight was not just about slavery but whether or not the economy of the North was suffering in favour of the economy of the South. Newspapers on both sides of the issue made the situation worse with inflammatory editorials and slanted stories. The stage was set for the Republican Party to make great political strides as the main opposition to what was seen as a Southern-dominated administration.
The catalysts for the rise of the Republican Party were the depression that had begun in 1857 and the Lecomptin Constitution of 1858. The Lecomptin Constitution was one of four state constitutions drawn up for Kansas (the name comes from a small town in Douglas County, Kansas). If ratified it would have made Kansas a slave state. President Buchanan decided that pushing Kansas' statehood through Congress with the Lecomptin Constitution was the quickest way of ending the trouble generated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, because a ratification of the constitution would allow him to point to the Kansas-Nebraska Act as "the will of the people of Kansas". Since Buchanan personally pushed this constitution, he alienated moderates within his own party.
In order to be admitted to the Union, Kansas had to ratify the constitution in a referendum. The referendum was plagued with voting "irregularities" on both sides, but in the end the constitution was defeated by 10,000 votes, even though defeating it meant Kansas' entry into the Union as a state would be delayed.
Moderates within the Republican party saw an opportunity to create an alliance with the anti-administration Democrats led by Stephen Douglas. The problem with this strategy was that it would have required the Republicans to drop their anti-slavery stance in favour of one where states would determine slavery for themselves. In the end no grand alliance was formed. The Republican Party remained it's own entity, while the Democratic party split in two along North/South lines.
The mid-term elections of 1858 were some of the most important in U.S. history. Senate and House of Representative seats were up for grabs for the first time since the Scott v. Sanford decision and the Panic of 1857.
By 1858 the depression had worsened, particularly in the North. The Republicans called for tariffs to protect Northern manufacturing. They believed in a "slave power conspiracy" that controlled the Buchanan administration. Buchanan had unwittingly aided the Republicans by giving patronage appointments to Democrats who supported the Lecomptin constitution. Republicans claimed the Buchanan administration and his Southern supporters were warping the U.S. constitution to their own ends (Taney's Dred Scott decision aided the Republicans in this regard). Southern politicians did not help matters by loudly contesting increased tariffs. The Republicans characterized the Southern aristocracy as ignoring the economic plight of the North.
After the panic of 1857, the price of cotton fell as a result of the global recession. Meanwhile, the cost of slaves increased. The taking of slaves from Africa was illegal. To counter the price of slaves, at the Southern commercial convention in 1858 William L. Yancey of Alabama called for the reopening of the African slave trade. His proposal was voted down by the delegates of the upper South, who represented states that profited from the domestic slave trade. Even though the reopening of the African slave trade was voted down, the Republicans used the mere mention of it as proof that Southern politicians intended to expand slavery.
The rhetoric in the South was equally loud and voracious. Southern newspapers pointed out that higher tariffs would hurt the Southern economy. They declared that Northern industry was sucking the wealth out of the land. Southerners pointed out that in spite of the Missouri Compromise, the last slave state admitted into the Union was Texas on December 29, 1845, with four non-slave states admitted between 1846 and 1858 (Iowa, Wisconsin, California, and Minnesota; Oregon, another free state, would be admitted in 1859). In spite of the Dred Scott ruling, it appeared to many Southerners that the balance of power was shifting away from what they saw was "the Southern way of life."
The election of 1858 was a success for the Republican Party. They gained 26 seats in the House of Representatives, giving them just six shy of a majority. Only 20 of the 64 senators in the Senate were Republicans, but in this era most senators were appointed by the state's legislative assembly and not elected by popular vote; under today's system that number would have been much higher. The Democrats lost the most seats, mostly due to the election of Republicans but also due to the split within their own party. The Know-Nothings dropped from 14 seats to five. It was clear to Democrats, both North and South, that the Republicans were now a major political force.
On October 16, 1859, John Brown — the abolitionist zealot responsible for the Pottawatomie Massacre — led a force of 21 men (16 white, 5 black) in an attack on the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now Harpers Ferry, West Virginia). They were armed with 200 breechloading Sharps carbines and a large number of pikes given to them by Northern sympathizers. Brown planned this raid over several months. He had rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland as a base since early June. His plan was to break into the armory and steal its stock of 100,000 rifled and smoothbore muskets. He would use the muskets to arm local slaves, and then head South to forment a slave uprising. He hoped to end slavery by force of arms.
At first the raid went well. His small force entered the town without incident. They cut the telegraph wires, and captured the Arsenal buildings, which were guarded by a single watchman. They rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grand-nephew of George Washington. They spread the news to the local slaves that the uprising had begun.
The plan started to go awry when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. The train's baggage master, Hayward Shepherd — a free black — tried to warn his passengers. Brown's men fired, killing Shepherd. Brown made the mistake of letting the train leave after Shepherd was shot. By morning the authorities in Washington, D.C. knew of the raid.
On October 17th local farmers and militia traded volleys with Brown and his men. Around noon the militia seized the bridge across the Potomac, cutting off Brown's only exit route. Brown moved his men and the hostages to a small brick engine house near the armory. A vicious fight ensued between Brown and the locals. He sent one of his sons and a supporter out with a white flag, but the crowd cut them down. Another of his sons died later in the day during intermittent fighting.
The next day Brown found himself surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, a respected cavalry officer who happened to be at his home in Arlington, Virginia when the raid took place. The federal government assigned Lee to command the marines. A young Army lieutenant by the name of James Ewell Brown ("Jeb") Stuart acted as a messenger between Lee's force and Brown's. Brown was promised that his people would not be harmed if he surrendered. Brown refused.
The marines battered down the door and rushed inside. During the chaos, Brown was bayoneted (but saved by his belt) and struck on the head several times by a Lt. Green. The raid was over. Brown and seven of his followers were captured. Ten other followers were killed, but five escaped (including his son, Owen). The raiders had killed four people and wounded nine.
Although Brown's attack took place on federal land, his trial was allowed to be conducted in Virginia. He was charged with murdering four whites and a black, for conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against the state of Virginia. After a doctor found him well enough to stand trial, the trial was convened on October 26 in Charles Town, Virginia.
The area was in the grip of hysteria. Most Northern journalists and observers were run off. Brown was brought into court on a cot, and the judge refused to grant a delay until Brown was better. Brown's first court appointed lawyer admitted Brown's crimes before the court and an unruly crowd of spectators. The lawyer said he shared the community's outrage; he apologized for defending Brown. Numerous attempts to slow down the trial and give his lawyers time to mount an adequate defense were denied. His lawyers argued that Brown hadn't murdered anyone himself. They pointed out that no slave uprising took place, so he couldn't have been conspiring with slaves. Brown had no loyalty to Virginia so he couldn't be a traitor to that state. The defense rested on October 27. The trial's last day was November 2. After only 45 minutes deliberation, the jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. He was sentenced to hang in public on December 2.
During his month in jail Brown was allowed to send and receive letters. Many of his letters made it into the Northern press, gaining him many supporters in the North and infuriating Southerners. A friend sneaked into the jail and offered to help him break out, but Brown said he was ready to die a martyr. His wife was brought to be with him for his last meal, but she was not allowed to stay the night, leading Brown to lose his composure for the first time during his trial and imprisonment.
On December 2, cadets from the nearby Virginia Military Institute acted as guards against attempts to free Brown. VMI instructor Major William Gilham led the contingent, while another VMI instructor, Major Thomas J. Jackson commanded the cadet's artillery, which consisted of two howitzers and 21 cadets. Brown turned down an offer of religious service, as he rejected pro-slavery clergy. He wrote a final letter that morning. At 11:00 a.m. he was escorted through the crowd of about 2,000 and taken to the gallows. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m.
On December 14, a bipartisan senate committee was assembled to determine if any citizens had aided Brown in his raid. The chairman was John M. Mason, a senator from Virginia. Republicans distanced themselves from Brown's illegal actions. The committee found no evidence to suggest that Republicans had aided Brown, but their report implied that Brown's raid was fueled by Republican doctrine. The two Republicans on the committee published a minority report.
It is popularly believed that John Brown's raid pushed the nation closer to civil war. Southerners fearful of an abolitionist-led slave uprising began organizing state militias, which would become the backbone of the Confederate army. Those militias allowed the Southern states to be much better prepared to defend themselves in the event of secession. With the 1860 election around the corner, Republicans denounced the raid and labeled Brown an insane fanatic. By contrast, much of the North saw Brown as martyr who died for the "sins of the nation". William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist paper The Liberator said Brown was "well-intended but sadly misguided". In a speech in Boston on the day Brown was hanged, Garrison said, "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections".
John Brown's raid further polarized the nation on the eve of a presidential election. It seemed to John Brown that armed conflict over the slavery issue was inevitable. Before his execution he wrote, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."