Politics before the American Civil War

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Slavery may have been the key issue that ignited the American Civil War, but a series of political battle lines, compromises, negotiations, and institutional challenges all served as catalysts for war. Take a look at the political storms of the mid-19th century and examine the politics of the American Civil War.

Compromise of 1850
Henry Clay (1777-1852) addressing the U.S. Senate about the Compromise of 1850. (Image: By Drawn by Peter F. Rothermel / engraved by Robert Whitechurch (1814-ca. 1880) – Published: Philadelphia, Pa. : John M. Butler and Alfred Long, c1855.This file was derived from: The United States Senate, A.D. 1850/Public domain)

Civil War politics—like all politics—is about people. Two years after the Compromise of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is impossible to grasp the effect that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had after its publication. The novel was an enormous bestseller, selling hundreds of thousands of copies at a time when the nation had only about 25 million people. It sold thousands of copies overseas as well. It brought home, to a vastly increased proportion of the white North, some notion of the awful situation of black people living under slavery. Many Northerners who hadn’t cared before became sensitive to the issue because of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Image: Unknown/National Archives and Records Administration- Identifier (NAID) 535784/ Public domain)

There’s a wonderful anecdote that may be apocryphal about Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe during the Civil War. He was introduced to her and alleged to have said, “Oh, so this is the young lady who brought on this great Civil War.” Stowe’s book had a good deal to do with increasing, in some ways, pre-existing sectional tensions. It was so loathed in the South, in fact, that several novels from the South were written as answers to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s easily the most important novel in American history.

Popular Sovereignty

Two years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, which included a provision for “popular sovereignty.” Popular sovereignty was the idea that the people of a territory should decide for themselves whether or not they wanted slavery in their territory, rather than Congress. It was the brainchild, to a degree, of Steven A. Douglas of Illinois, although the notion had come up earlier when Louis Cass had brought it up during the Campaign of 1848.

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

Many Northerners felt that popular sovereignty violated the Missouri Compromise. This meant potentially opening up some of the territories to slavery that the Missouri Compromise had said would be closed to the practice forever. Disagreement went beyond the stage of debate and civil discourse. There was tremendous violence associated with the Kansas-Nebraska Act as pro-slavery proponents and antislavery supporters fought and killed each other in Kansas and along the Kansas-Missouri border. Virtually a minor civil war broke out to win control of the area.

In 1856, one of the more dramatic events to ever happen on the floor of either the House or the Senate occurred when Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, after giving a powerful speech condemning what he called the “Crime against Kansas”—perhaps allowing slavery into Kansas—was caned on the floor of the Senate by Preston Brooks, a Representative from South Carolina. Beaten into insensibility and covered with blood, he collapsed on the floor. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, left the Senate for three years as a result of this beating, and Massachusetts left his seat vacant.

The attack on Charles Sumner
The attack and severe beating of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, cartoon by Winslow Homer, 1856. (Image: Bufford, John Henry, 1810-1870.; Homer, Winslow, 1836-1910. – Library of CongressCatalog/Public domain)

According to Northern sentiments of the event at the time, Charles Sumner’s empty seat in the Senate was a constant reminder of the brutality and tendency toward violence on the part of white Southerners. In the white South, they reacted by sending new canes to Preston Brooks, saying that he had upheld the honor of the South against a man who not only impugned the whole region in his speech but who had also personally attacked a relative of Brooks. The caning of Sumner became a major national event.

The Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott. Oil on canvas by Louis Schultze, 1888
Dred Scott (ca. 1795-1858) (Image: Louis Schultze, Missouri Historical Society/Public domain)

In 1857, one of the most important Supreme Court cases in U.S. history was handed down, presided over by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. The decision in effect said that no black person could be a citizen. It asserted that the Missouri Compromise violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against taking property from people without due process, that is, by saying someone couldn’t take their slave property into a part of the old Louisiana Purchase country. In effect, the decision also held that Congress must protect slave property. At issue was the case of a slave named Dred Scott, who was taken to free territory by his master and was then returned to slave territory. The question was whether Scott should have become free because he had lived in free territory. The Taney Court said no.

Learn more about the first week of February 1861

This case alienated a significant part of the North, specifically the abolitionists, who went crazy about it. They argued the decision was a perfect example of how a slave power conspiracy controlled the government. The Supreme Court, which was expected to stand above special interest, weighed-in directly on the side of the slave owners, and that, they argued, was a bad situation. The slave power conspiracy appeared to hold sway, even though the population in the North outnumbered the South, and population growth was outpacing the South. The abolitionists were incensed at the decision and felt the need to curb the “conspiracy”.

Part of the problem through the 1840s and 1850s was that the national institutions that had been historically looked at to bring the nation together were failing. The churches split over the issue of slavery, many of them dividing in the 1840s and later. There were divisions of Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists or Northern Methodists and Southern Methodists, rather than just Baptists and Methodists. Political parties were effected as well: the Whig and Democratic parties broke down. Those parties had been national parties, tending to hold things together because the parties would attempt to find compromises so they would have voters in both the North and the South.

Political Battle Lines

The second party system of the Whigs and Democrats broke down under the strain of sectionalism. The Whigs ran their last serious presidential candidate in 1852, and the Democratic Party became an almost completely Southern-dominated sectional party, with most of its national policies favoring the South.

Learn more about why people think the South was fated to lose

The Republican Party first ran a candidate in 1856: the Army officer and famous explorer John C. Frémont. The Republican Party was a sectional party; it had no appeal in the South and its platform called for the banning of slavery from the territories. In Southern minds, the Republicans quickly became associated with abolitionists though the two were by no means synonymous.

Finally, many people had grasped that the Supreme Court was the last hope for an institution that could rise above the sectional controversy, but Dred Scott showed that that was not the case. Many in the North worried that they were helpless in the face of this powerful slaveholding influence in the nation. They would point to powerful Northern politicians, like Franklin Pierce, a Democratic president from New Hampshire, and James Buchanan, a Democratic president from Pennsylvania, whose policies were all pro-Southern. Many in the North who opposed them, including Republicans, labeled Pierce and Buchanan as “dough faces,” a derisive expression applied to Northern men of Southern principles. Their opinion was that they were Northern men doing the bidding of their Southern masters.

Learn more about slavery’s role in causing the conflict

A key element in the sectional controversy were the perceptions each side held of the other; tensions had reached a point by the mid-1850s that scarcely allowed many Northerners and Southerners to view the other side in anything like sympathetic or even realistic terms. Each side expected the worst from the other. The white South looked north and saw a nation of abolitionists trying to kill the foundational institution of the South’s economic and social order. The North looked south and saw a land of aggressive slaveholders who, through the national courts and with “dough face” allies in Congress and the White House, frustrated the nation’s progress in the modern world.

There wasn’t much common ground as the country moved toward the end of the 1850s. The rising social, political, and economic differences between the North and South created the right conditions for America to turn toward civil war.

Common Questions About the Politics of the American Civil War

Q: What were the two basic sides of the American Civil War?

In the American Civil War, the industrial Northern states were fighting the slave-driven farming Southern states over many differences but primarily because the South wanted to secede and become its own nation.

Q: Were the Confederacy and the Union Democrats or Republicans?

The Confederacy was largely comprised of Democrats, while the Union was made almost entirely of Republicans. The Democratic and Republican parties back then were much different than they are today.

Q: What was the state of the economy of the U.S. during the Civil War?

During the Civil War era, the South was extraordinarily rich, surpassing all the factories and banks of the industrial North with slave labor. This was a major factor in the strife of the Civil War.

This article was updated on October 16, 2019

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