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A Nation Divided: The Political Climate of 1850s America

By the 1850s the United States had become a nation polarized by specific regional identities. The South held a pro-slavery identity that supported the expansion of slavery into western territories, while the North largely held abolitionist sentiments and opposed the institution’s westward expansion. Until the 1850s the nation precariously balanced the slavery issue. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the first serious argument over the expansion of slavery into newly acquired western territory and also revealed fissures between the Second Party System of Whigs and Democrats in the North and the South. Whigs, while not an abolitionist party, believed a strong government served as the protector of Republican principles. The Democrats, on the other hand, emphasized the right of individual states to create and enforce laws. Ultimately, the parties compromised and prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. This compromise artificially quelled the storm brewing between the two regions and for over thirty years the nation maintained this delicate balance with regards to slavery. This balance would teeter in the mid-1840s when, amid extreme controversy, Texas was annexed as a slave state by a majority vote in 1845. Events following the annexation of Texas would lead to war with Mexico and eventually to the American Civil War.

After two years of fighting, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican American War. Through this treaty the United States acquired over a half million square acres. This territory included all of present day California, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. (Niven 1990, 53) The treaty may have ended the hostilities between Mexico and the United States; however it revived the contentious arguments concerning slavery between the North and the South. Some politicians, like ardent pro-slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, had opposed the war with Mexico, fearing that any territory acquired as a result would imperil the Union. His fears would be realized in 1846 when Democratic Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso in Congess. (Niven 1990, 53) The Wilmot Proviso stated that slavery would not be allowed to spread into any territory obtained from Mexico. Wilmot’s proposal proved highly unpopular throughout the southern states whose white residents believed that the bill would infringe on the rights of their state and the rights provided them as American citizens by the Constitution. 

In North Carolina, a slaveholding state with a relatively small slave population, “it was unclear whether ordinary North Carolinians ever accepted the notion that the issue of slavery in the territories was a matter of vital concern to them. Of course no influential politician in the state chose to endorse the restrictions of slavery in the territories. Instead, both parties tried to capitalize on the issue by denouncing their opponents and ‘Wilmot Provisoists.’” (Jeffrey 1989, 287) In North Carolina, the Wilmot Proviso highlighted the competition between the Whig and Democratic Parties regarding which party most ardently supported and protected the right to own slave property. Although the Wilmot Proviso passed in the House of Representatives, where the Free States had a clear majority, the Senate rejected the legislation. Despite its failure, the Wilmot Proviso, like the Compromise of 1820, revealed the discontinuity between the Whig and Democratic Parties in the North and South and opened the way for the sectional realignment of the nation’s party system.  

The question of how to deal with the new territory acquired from Mexico led to the Compromise of 1850, orchestrated by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster with southern Democrat, John C. Calhoun. They warned that the Union would only survive if the North and the South shared equal power within it. After a series of fierce debates, “the ‘Compromise’ that finally emerged was not really a compromise in which all parties conceded part of what they wanted, but a series of separately enacted measures each of which became law with a majority of congressmen from each section voting against a majority of those from the other.” (McPherson 1988, 71) The Compromise passed in a series of five bills. As part of the Compromise, California was annexed as a free state, which upset the balance of free and slave states. Additionally, the New Mexico and Utah territories were given popular sovereignty, which allowed them to choose whether slavery would be allowed within their borders. The Compromise abolished the slave trade in Washington D.C., but  appeased southern Democrats with the passage of a tougher Fugitive Slave Law, to the outrage of the northern public. 

In North Carolina the Compromise of 1850 demonstrated the divisiveness of the state’s Second Party System comprised of Whigs and Democrats. The divide in the parties can be seen in the state’s political newspapers. The majority of “Whig presses in North Carolina supported the Compromise and rejoiced after its passage in Congress, while Democratic newspapers like the North Carolina Standard opposed the key compromise proposals and regarded their passage as a defeat for the South.” (Jeffrey 1989, 293) Ultimately the debates concerning Clay’s Compromise proposal placed the North Carolina Democratic Party firmly in the corner of southern rights. They used the controversy over the compromise, “as an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to Southern rights and to create an image of their opponents as cowardly submissionists who were willing to sacrifice the interests of their own section in the name of compromise and moderation.” (Jeffrey 1989, 293)  

The Compromise of 1850 settled the turmoil created by the territory acquisition of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, however, the nation’s debate over slavery would resurface on a national level only a few years later with the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Over the years a steady stream of settlers made their way to these areas and looked to establish territorial and eventually state governments. Once again slavery became an issue in these areas. The 1854 act proposed by Democrat Stephen Douglass, “sought to expand the political liberties of the territory’s white men by giving them the power at the local level to pronounce on the most contentious issue of the time, black slavery.  Popular sovereignty, the principal of the Kansas bill, built on the belief that the balance between personal freedom and government power ought to tilt toward the former.” (Etcheson 2004, 2) Giving settlers in the Kansas-Nebraska territory the opportunity to choose whether or not they would allow slavery conflicted with the parameters of the 1820 Missouri Compromise which outlawed slavery in that area of the country. Debates about the bill erupted throughout the nation. Despite public opposition, Douglass, “utilizing all his powers of argument, his prestige, and his mastery of parliamentary tactics [forced] the bill through Congress by the narrowest of margins. It received President Pierce’s signature on May 29, 1854.” (Niven 1990, 83) The Kansas-Nebraska Act deepened the already existing gulf between the North and the South that would eventually push the nation to Civil War. It also led to the creation of a new national political party.

A Nation Divided: The Political Climate of 1850s America