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Politics in Abolitionists

Antebellum era politics consisted of a series of failed compromises and increasingly acrimonious conflicts over slavery and the subject of abolition. Sectional animosities compounded to a point where all it took was a spark to ignite the entire powder keg. Radical abolitionist John Brown provided the match, and it was enough to send the country over the edge toward Civil War.


During the Revolutionary era, politicians led by southern slaveholder Thomas Jefferson banned slavery in the future settlement of the Old Northwest region. Then in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Suddenly southern plantation agriculture in cotton became spectacularly profitable, and planters began coveting more land for expansion of the slave system in the west. At the same time, northerners coveted the same western lands to allow for new settlements of free farmers on the frontier. The kinds of easy compromises made by Jefferson were no longer possible. An aging Jefferson presciently feared that the reemergence of slavery as a contentious political issue on the national stage threatened to divide the country along sectional lines. In 1820 he wrote a friend that the slavery issue, "like a firebell in the night...awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union."18

To offset such fears, Congress compromised and artificially imposed a system of moral cartography on the newly expanded national map. The new state of Missouri would be a slave state, while all other lands above the 36°30' parallel (the line extending from the southern border of Missouri, which came to be known as the "Missouri Compromise line") would be "free soil," and therefore closed forever to slavery. Maine—previously the northern province of Massachusetts—would join the Union as a free state at the same time as Missouri; adding the two states simultaneously would maintain the tenuous balance between free and slave states in the Senate. This "dual admission" tactic became a de facto policy in Congress for many decades.

Kentucky representative Henry Clay had to facilitate a second and less artful compromise at the last minute: Missouri's state constitution included a proviso that excluded free blacks and mulattoes from the state. This was a violation of Article IV, Section 2 of the federal Constitution, since citizens of any state could not be denied privileges and immunities of citizens in all other states, and free blacks and mulattoes were considered citizens by several states. To get around this wrinkle, the Missouri legislature agreed to adopt a pledge that they would never interpret the clause to defy the Constitution; but they also denied that the legislature had any power to bind the people of the state, who would effectively enforce the provision anyway.

By 1823, revolutions in North America, France, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean had transformed the ancien regimes of the Old World, demonstrated the power of the organized masses, and made many of the intellectual theories and philosophies of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution into lived realities. Throughout the New World, blacks had been aroused to a new consciousness of their rights, with help from the rumor mill and the constant interchange of goods and people that had fueled the international slave trade in the first place. The example of Haiti, the world's first independent black republic and successful slave revolt, forever undermined the master's comfort in the notion that his slaves actually preferred bondage to freedom. Yet the Missouri Compromise showed abolitionists that a simple appeal to rules would not suffice to accomplish their goals. They soon began developing new tactics to press the issue of slavery upon the congressmen who were reluctant to be reminded of it.


The petition was a vital tool of the antislavery movement throughout the antebellum period, but it was also a tool that dated back to George Washington's administration. Petitions were used as a First Amendment right by citizens seeking any number of reforms, from internal improvements to economic policies and individual claims. Petitions provided citizens, especially disenfranchised women, with a voice in the hallowed halls of government. As a matter of protocol on the floor of Congress, the House of Representatives routinely called for petitions, beginning with the northernmost state (Maine) and moving down the list of states, from north to south. Congressmen declared the subject of the petition on the floor of the House, its origin and the number of signatures it had collected. Then the petition was referred to a committee. Quakers were the first group to use the petition to condemn slavery, and they had been doing so in somewhat small numbers since the very First Congress. Many other petitioners followed the Quakers' lead in the 1830s.

Indeed, the petitions became a source of controversy because of the sheer number that the American Anti-Slavery Society managed to amass in their activism drive over the summer of 1835, the same period during which they sent hundreds of thousands of incendiary (and illustrated) pamphlets around the country. The Society sent hundreds of thousands of petitions, each signed by hundreds if not thousands of men and women (often the same people would sign multiple petitions). Antislavery petitions called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories, they opposed the admission of new slave states and the annexation of Texas, and they also protested against the congressional gag rule.

The gag rule was a response to these petitions, which were traditionally read on the floor of Congress. Southerners found this practice offensive, and they were sure that the simultaneous pamphlet campaign would incite slaves to violence and insurrection—after all, even if the slaves were not supposed to be literate, they could certainly understand the inflammatory illustrations depicted on the pamphlet covers. Future President John Tyler called the female petitioners the "instruments" of "a powerful combination" of "vicious" propagandists. Current President Andrew Jackson wanted severe penalties meted out to the antislavery movement and their "unconstitutional and wicked" activities. Southerners wanted a total rejection of the petitions; what they got by February 1836 was a resolution tabling antislavery petitions, prohibiting their publication, and censoring any discussion or even mention of them on the floor of Congress. Southern resistance underscored the petitions' effectiveness.

Women played a key role in organizing the petition campaigns: in the 1837-38 drive coordinated by the American Anti-Slavery Society as a response to the gag rule, women outnumbered men two to one in a sampling of 67,000 signatures on 402 petitions. Massachusetts women turned in 21,000 names on an 1836-37 petition for abolishing slavery in the District of Colombia, whereas 9,112 names appeared on the male-only petitions. Throughout the post-1836 period, the average number of signatures per petition increased, until it was over three times the 32 names on the average 1836-37 petition. Clearly, as Angelina Grimké Weld had informed her female audience members in 1838, the petition was one of the only and most important means open to them as women. It complemented the religious fervor of those in the Burned-Over District and others affected by the Second Great Awakening as they sought to stamp out sin. These women could now act in that spirit by going door-to-door and requesting signatures to eradicate the "sin" of slavery.

The gag rule was renewed at each congressional session until 1844, when representative and former president John Quincy Adams was finally successful in arguing for its repeal. Adams ultimately succeeded because northern Democrats in Congress sought to distance themselves from the South to hold onto their districts, and thus refused to supply the necessary majority of the votes for their southern colleagues to maintain the gag rule. By 1844, northerners had grown very wary of the "Slave Power," the term for southern oligarchs who wielded disproportionate influence in Congress because of the three-fifths rule. These southerners' anti-democratic actions—embodied by the gag rule—provoked the anger of northern voters who did not so much care about black rights or slavery as they did about freedom of speech and their democratic government.

The National Crisis and Fugitive Slaves

In 1850, as part of one of the last major national compromises before the outbreak of Civil War, Congress agreed to admit California as a free state, thus upsetting the balance between slave and free states. It also established the location of the Texas (at what is now its present location) and paid Texas to relinquish its western territorial claims. The 1850 Congress also established the New Mexico and Utah territories. And, it passed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act. The Act, which strengthened enforcement of the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution (Art. IV, sec. 2), made the federal government responsible for the apprehension and return of all escaped slaves, and made the job easier for slave catchers. It even tempted northerners to kidnap free blacks, since fugitives were denied a jury trial, and the government paid $10 to the commissioners who certified delivery of an alleged slave, but only $5 if they refused certification. In over half of the federal tribunals held in the 1850s, fugitive slaves were forcibly returned to the South (157 times out of about 300 cases). Federal marshals were authorized to compel citizens to help enforce the law, and violators faced up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. As a gesture to antislavery forces, the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was banned in Washington, D.C., but this proved an unsatisfactory consolation for abolitionists.

The Fugitive Slave law transformed the attitudes of many abolitionists who had previously committed to a pacifist tactic of morally persuading the public that their cause was just. Many abolitionists were determined to prevent fugitives from being returned to their owners, by any means necessary. Prominent figures like Frederick Douglass—who had previously spoken out against abolitionists like Henry Highland Garnett for recommending violent tactics—began to suggest that attacking the slave catchers was the only means of preventing the inhuman act that was now sanctioned by national law. Essayist, poet, and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson called it a "filthy enactment" that he advised his neighbors to violate "on the earliest occasion."

This law galvanized the antislavery movement in a more passionate and widespread opposition than ever before. By October of 1850, military force was required to stop a Detroit mob from rescuing an alleged fugitive slave. Nonetheless, such incidents were relatively rare, or rarely successful; only six fugitives were forcibly rescued from slave catchers in the first six years after the law's enactment. Though fewer than two hundred escaped slaves were returned to enslavement during this period, such cases were extremely well publicized and dramatic for the northern public. The number of slaves shepherded northward along the Underground Railroad (the secret network that shepherded runaway slaves to the North or Canada) and by other means probably exceeded that of the returned fugitives.

Free blacks, of course, had long since understood the plight of the fugitive slave. Several of them (including Frederick Douglass) had once run away to become "free" in the North. As early as 1835 the black residents of New York City organized a New York Committee of Vigilance to aid runaway slaves. In the 1780s, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled slavery illegal, and the state soon became a haven for fugitives. Because the U.S. Constitution of 1787 contained a provision that all such runaways must be returned to their masters on demand, Quakers took an early lead in opposing the document for its foundations in "Slavery & Blood," rather than "the Righteousness of God." Though this provision had long existed in the government's founding document, southerners sought to strengthen it with the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire (known as a doughface, or a "northern man with southern principles,") pushed through the extremely controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. Yet they failed to appreciate the depth of antislavery sentiment that had been growing in the North; the legislation actually provided the necessary provocation to expand and sharpen that hostile sentiment. To provide for the organization of all Louisiana Purchase territory extending north to the Canadian border from the Missouri Compromise line, the Kansas-Nebraska Act revoked the Missouri Compromise—which had ruled that all territory north of the 36°30' parallel would be closed forever to slavery. Instead, Kansas-Nebraska relied upon the concept of "popular sovereignty," the idea that the residents of the territories would decide for themselves on the question of slavery.

Senator Douglas's real motivation for crafting this Act was his plan for making Chicago (in his own state) the eastern terminus of the proposed transcontinental railroad. At the time, there was an ongoing debate about which route the transcontinental railroad would take; would it travel through the South, from New Orleans to San Diego, or further north from Memphis to Los Angeles, or across the middle of the country from St. Louis to San Francisco, or from Milwaukee to the Columbia River? When Mississippi plantation owner Jefferson Davis—then the Secretary of War—supported the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, a southern route seemed imminent, since the relatively small Gadsden territory provided the necessary land for a direct rail line from New Orleans to San Diego. That was enough to alarm Douglas, who was determined to bring his state the wealth and prestige that a major railroad terminus would offer. He needed the remaining Louisiana Purchase territory to be organized so that the rail line could pass through it on its way westward to the Pacific coast. Douglas compromised on the slavery question in the territories to garner southern support for his plan. Although he personally preferred free soil in the territories, he rationalized that plantation agriculture would not work in the climate and geography of the territories. Yet his own compromise measures opened up the opportunity for slaveholders to gain a foothold in Kansas.

Northerners had believed that the Missouri Compromise was an inviolable agreement; they were stunned and shaken to their core by the political realignment inherent in the Kansas legislation. Many thought it violated the most cherished principles of the American Revolution and its promise of opportunity and freedom. Thousands of northerners became protestors in response to the proposed legislation. From Boston to Milwaukee, demonstrations took place, and petitions to Congress surpassed their 1830s levels.

The Ballad of Boston

Yet the Kansas-Nebraska controversy pushed the debate beyond the usual tactics. Outright violence erupted on both sides of the slavery issue. This was amply demonstrated by a reemergence of the Fugitive Slave Act controversy in Boston during the summer after passage of Kansas-Nebraska. In the most dramatic form of protest yet exhibited, northerners expressed their disregard for the recent legislation by reasoning that if the Missouri Compromise could be revoked, so too could the Fugitive Slave Act be disregarded. The case of a 21-year-old semi-literate fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, quickly became the center of this controversy. Burns had escaped from Virginia by ship and was living among Boston's free black population when he was apprehended. In the days leading up to his trial, freedom rallies in Faneuil Hall erupted into riots outside the courthouse where Burns was being held. Local residents made several unsuccessful attempts to rescue him. Given the Fugitive Slave Act, the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion; Burns was to be returned to his master.

In a display of federal law enforcement that ultimately cost the government $14,000, President Pierce dispatched soldiers and Marines to escort Burns to a waiting ship that would return him to Virginia. But to get to the dock, the federal force had to wade through crowded streets of some 50,000 hostile onlookers who yelled "Kidnappers!" and "Slave Catcher! Shame! Shame!" at them. Many of Boston's buildings were draped in the black color of mourning, and church bells tolled across the city. Bostonians wrote letters to the president addressing him as "the chief slave-catcher of the United States," calling him a "damned, infernal scoundrel" and threatening to murder him.

Afterwards, poet Walt Whitman was prompted to compose "Boston Ballad," which described the scene and which was later incorporated into his historic volume Leaves of Grass. Whitman had long been a loyal Democrat but the slavery compromises so disgusted him that he shifted allegiance to the Free Soil party, though he continued to think of secessionists and abolitionists as "radicals." John Greenleaf Whittier also composed a poem, "The Rendition," (meaning, in this sense, the surrender) in which he wrote that at the sight of Burns being led through Boston back to slavery "The solid earth beneath my feet / Reeled fluid as the sea." Ministers such as Theodore Parker and Octavius Brooks Frothingham delivered sermons portraying Burns as a modern Christ sacrificed to the slave power. The event enveloped the city and made it impossible for many if not most northerners to ignore the issue; slavery could no longer be abstracted as a distant and irrelevant concept in their lives. It had become intrinsically connected to their sense of rights as American citizens, a threat to their faith in a democracy that must not monopolized by a "Slave Power" conspiracy, and a violation of the central tenets of love, justice, and at least nominal equality espoused by the Christian sects.

The Republicans

Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act helped to bring about the birth of the Republican party and the beginning of the end for cross-sectional alliances under the umbrella of partisanship. The Act proved the final nail in the coffin of the already disintegrating Whig party. Most southern Whigs abstained from voting altogether, while northern Whigs moved toward either the xenophobic American (or Know-Nothing) party or they voted with the Republicans, who formed the same year as the Act (1854). Some independent Democrats and Free Soilers also joined up with the Republicans. The Republicans selected their name to evoke the memory of Thomas Jefferson's old party; but this new coalition was decidedly sectional. The Republicans were the first major party with which the abolitionists aligned after 1861, but the Republicans did not subsume the antislavery movement. The abolitionists were far ahead of the Republicans in policies and objectives, and remained committed to the welfare of the freed black population long after most whites had turned to other concerns after the Civil War.

Bleeding Kansas

Violence escalated as both pro- and antislavery factions flooded into the Kansas Territory in hopes of dominating the territorial legislature to tilt the state constitution towards or against slavery. Vigilantes from both sides attacked their opponents' settlements, murdered people, destroyed houses, smashed newspaper presses and other forms of property, and altogether caused 200 deaths and $2 million in property damage through the summer of 1856. The violence extended into the halls of government on 22 May 1856, when South Carolina Congressman Preston S. Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate.

Two days earlier, Sumner had delivered an incendiary speech on "The Crime against Kansas," in which the Senator had singled out his colleague A. P. Butler of South Carolina as a man who kept a "harlot" of a mistress—slavery. Brooks was Butler's nephew, and his southern upbringing prompted him to respond to any disrespectful allegations by demanding "satisfaction" (usually in the form of a duel). But Brooks knew that Sumner, a Massachusetts representative who was hardly raised in the same southern culture of honor, would refuse any challenge to a duel; besides, if Brooks did not think Sumner a gentleman, he would not acknowledge him with the formal challenge to duel. Instead, he decided to attain the "satisfaction" that southern self-styled "gentlemen" prized by attacking Senator Sumner directly. In the two days that Brooks spent contemplating his attack, he actually considered using a horse whip but then ruled it out. He finally entered the Senate floor and used a metal-topped cane to beat Sumner until he collapsed and had to be carried out of the Senate chamber. Sumner's seat remained empty for the next two and a half years as a reminder of the incident. After he did return to the Senate, Sumner became a leader of the "Radical Republicans" who gained control of Congress during the postwar Reconstruction period. The House censured Brooks and he resigned, but went home only to be triumphantly reelected. Admirers sent Brooks new canes, and southerners who never would have gone that far suddenly found themselves pressed into the position of making excuses for him.

John Brown's Raid

The escalating tensions and violence on both sides of the slavery debate reached something of a pre-war apex with John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown, an abolitionist, had a history of mental instability that was only exacerbated by the events of the 1850s; his son recalled that the news of Senator Charles Sumner's caning on the Senate floor drove him "crazy." Two days later, Brown participated in (and probably spearheaded) the Pottawatomie, Kansas, massacre of five men from a proslavery settlement. In retribution, proslavery Missourians shot one of his sons through the heart, killing him; John Brown himself narrowly escaped with his life. Yet he never wavered from what he viewed as his God-given mission: "to break the jaws of the wicked," as one friend described it, and—as Brown himself said—"to die fighting for this cause." Die he certainly did, in the most dramatic fashion possible, but his legend lived on. The ghost of John Brown haunted America's journey into Civil War.

Under cover of darkness on 16 October 1859, Brown crossed the Potomac River into Virginia (what is now West Virginia) with about twenty men, including five blacks. They occupied the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, planning to use the weapons there to arm the local slaves who they hoped would join up with them, creating a base in the west Virginia mountains for a chain of slave insurrections across the South. Brown and his men seized some hostages and were soon surrounded by militia and townspeople. The next morning, Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag, but the outraged crowd shot them both. Brown was wounded in the ensuing shoot-out.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Cavalry (soon to become the head of the Confederate Army) was sent to suppress the rebellion. Marines broke into the engine house where Brown and his men had been holed up; before Brown could fire on them, a marine plunged his dress sword into Brown and beat him unconscious with the hilt. Four people, including one marine, were killed, and nine wounded; ten of Brown's men died, including two of his sons; seven were captured and five escaped. No slaves joined up with their rebellion, perhaps because they recognized the futility of the entire endeavor.

Brown was quickly tried and convicted of conspiracy to incite insurrection and treason against the state. He refused to plead insanity to avoid a death sentence, for he was sane—and insightful—enough to know, as he wrote his brother, "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose."19 He hanged on 2 December 1859 at Charlestown; six of his followers were executed later.

Brown's example prompted panic in the South and reverence in the North; Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a "new saint" who would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross."20 All across the North, church bells tolled on 2 December, gun salutes were fired, and ministers sermonized about Brown's life and legacy. People focused less on the misguided (or even suicidal) nature of the Harper's Ferry plan and instead praised Brown for his noble aims and his courageous attempt to rid America of its longest-lasting sin. Some, like New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley, praised Brown even as they admitted that he was a "madman."21 "John Brown's Body," the song written to commemorate his legacy, was a huge hit in the North and after the outbreak of Civil War in 1861, historian James McPherson described it as "the favorite marching song of the Union army."22The final lines were:

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground
His soul is marching on

That same year, Julia Ward Howe re-wrote its lyrics so that the same tune became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," one of the most famous songs in American history and also one of the most popular among Union troops and supporters during the Civil War. The final lines then became:

As He [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free
While God is marching on

The Harper's Ferry raid was also a turning point for William Lloyd Garrison; after a lifelong history of pacifism, Garrison now wished "success to every slave insurrection at the South and in every slave country." Ominously, southerners tacitly associated the John Brown raid with the Republican Party. They became ever more resolute in their opposition to the Republicans, for they firmly believed that the Republicans were as radically opposed to slavery as John Brown had been. Southerners did not think about Brown's intentions so much as his actions; they viewed him as a cold-blooded murderer who tried to foment more bloodshed among their own slaves, and anyone who sympathized with Brown as an enemy too. They stopped differentiating between Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, or between Republicans and abolitionists; to southerners, all those who opposed slavery were indistinguishable now. Both sides had become convinced of a conspiracy to undermine and dominate the other: northerners termed this concept the "Slave Power," while southerners deemed it a northern plot. Mutual sectional animosity and paranoia soon led to Civil War.

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