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The Irrepressible Conflict

The word “slavery” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the document gave indirect sanction to the institution. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention provided that three-fifths of the slaves would be counted in determining the number of congressmen each state could elect to the House of Representatives. The Constitution then required the return to their owners of fugitive slaves (“persons held to service or labor”) crossing state lines. And it set a date—1808—after which Congress would not be prohibited from ending the slave trade (“the migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit”).

Each of these provisions was hotly debated at the convention, and each was finally accepted in a spirit of compromise. Even members of northern antislavery societies, such as Alexander Hamilton, opposed pursuing the slavery issue, arguing that such an effort would irrevocably divide the states and endanger the more urgent goal of a strong national government. Compromise was urged also by such prominent southerners as George Washington and James Madison, who detested slavery but believed it would disappear once the Union was confirmed.

The moral issue, however, was raised passionately at the convention on several occasions. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania denounced slavery as a “nefarious institution, the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” He contrasted the prosperity and human dignity of free regions with “the misery and poverty” of slave states.

Ironically, the most eloquent attack on slavery at the convention was voiced by Virginian George Mason, whom Thomas Jefferson called “the wisest man of his generation.” Slavery, Mason said, “produces the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.... Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when they see it performed by slaves.... I hold it essential ... that the general government should have the power to prevent the increase of slavery.”

Sectional disputes dominated debate during the period between the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. It was not until a great psychological wave of religious and altruistic enthusiasm swept over the North shortly after the Missouri contest that deprecation of slavery took a concrete form which made its destruction but a question of time. And this would have spread southward but for the simultaneous development of an immense and overpowering interest through the demand for cotton, the invention of the cotton-gin, the consequent expansion on a gigantic scale of cotton production, adn the transformation of the slave system.

In the Senate, where the Constitution established an equality of states, there existed a delicate balance between North and South, slave and free states. For many years, senators crafted legislation designed to resolve sectional conflicts and avoid secession and civil war. In the 1850s, however, further efforts at compromise failed. The population of the North had, by reason of the vast numbers of foreigners that had been induced to settle there, become so great that the balance of power in the house of Representatives was completely destroyed, and soon that of the Electoral College.

The cession by Virginia to the United States of the territory northwest of the Ohio River brought the subject of the extension of slavery over the territories into active discussion. This cession was followed by the ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory, that declared that slavery should be forever excluded from that territory. This ordinance, speaking as it does the sentiment of the people of the United States, condemns in effect the institution of slavery aa unsuited to harmonize with the spirit of American liberty, and as justified where it should continue to exist by local causes alone. Unless the ordinance can be interpreted in this sense it cannot be rationally interpreted at all.

The purchase of Louisiana, consummated by President Jefferson in 1803, opened wide the door of controversy to the parties that respectively supported and antagonized slavery. The territory thus acquired supported the institution of slavery, and was largely subject to the same climatic conditions that had caused slavery to become deeply rooted in some of the Southern States.

The invention of the cotton-gin had rendered the separation of the fiber of cotton from the seed an inexpensive process, instead of a laborious and expensive one, as it had theretofore been. The culture of cotton in the United States, from being an experiment, passed into a great industry that revolutionized not only the industry of the Southern section of the Union, but its political condition as well. Slave labor was regarded by the cotton States as indispensable to the success of that industry, and the perpetuation of slavery was the leading tenet of the new doctrine.

The advocates of slavery found it necessary to strengthen the position of the slave interest on two sides, the moral and the political. It was habilitated as a patriarchal institution commended by the sacred writings, held in the highest estimation by Christianity. The ideal of slavery was traced in the relations between a beneficent and just master and a faithful and loving slave, just as monarchy has been idealized in the charming picture of a just and generous king having no interest but the interests of his loving subjects, who thrive under his genial sway as plants in the sunlight.

Whether this line of speculation was intended as apologetic or to dominate the thought of the nineteenth century, it was insufficient to provide the security that slavery needed. The country was becoming populous and spreading over a vast area. It was foreseen that popular support in favor of slavery could not be relied upon, unless the majority had a stake in its perpetuation, and this could only be secured by its territorial expansion.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was both a reaction to, and a reflection of, the political climate of its era. As a novel and a theatrical production, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to fuel the abolitionist effort by creating what Wendell Phillips calls in “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement,” “rather an event than a book,” (page 29). Phillips praises the stage interpretation for its ability to present a message to its audience that other members of the community were reluctant to express: "The theatre, bowing to its audience, has preached immediate emancipation, and given us the whole of "Uncle Tom"; while the pulpit is either silent or hostile, and in the columns of the theological papers, the work is subjected to criticism, to reproach, and its author to severe rebuke."

The London Times review, “Uncle Tom in England,” offers one contemporary reaction to the novel and points to why this format might have been an ideal medium for Stowe’s message: "She does not preach a sermon, for men are accustomed to nap and nod under the pulpit: she does not indite a philosophical discourse, for philosophy is exacting, is solicitous for truth, and scorns exaggeration. Nor does the lady condescend to survey her intricate subject in the capacity of a judge, for the judicial seat is fixed high above human passion, and she is in no temper to mount it."

William Henry Seward (1801–72) was a United States Senator in 1849–61; a prominent candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 1860, and Secretary of State in 1861–69. Seward gave a speech delivered from the stump in Rochester on October 25, 1858, in which stated that "The slave system is one of constant danger, distrust, suspicion and watchfulness. It debases those whose toil alone can produce wealth and resources for defense to the lowest degree of which human nature is capable — to guard against mutiny and insurrection ... these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact and collision results. .... It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation. ... It is the failure to apprehend this great truth that induces so many unsuccessful attempts at final compromise between the slave and free States, and it is the existence of this great fact that renders all such pretended compromises, when made, vain and ephemeral."

By 1860, the country witnessed a growing distrust with which the people of the North and the South regarded each other; the diminution of Southern travel, either for business or pleasure, in the Northern States ; the efforts of each section to develop its own resources, so as virtually to render it independent of the other; the enactment of “unfriendly legislation,” in several of the States, towards other States of the Union, or their citizens; the contest for the exclusive possession of the territories, the common property of the States; the anarchy and bloodshed in Kansas; the exasperation of parties throughout the Union; the attempt to nullify, by popular clamor, the decision of the supreme tribunal of the country; the existence of the “underground railroad,” and of a party in the North organized for the express purpose of robbing the citizens of the Southern States of their property; the almost daily occurrence of fugitive slave mobs; the total insecurity of slave property in the border States [strange that they were called border States, which lay in the very midst of the Union], the attempt to circulate incendiary documents among the slaves in the Southern States; and finally, the attempt to excite, at Harper’s Ferry, and throughout the South, an insurrection, and a civil and servile war, with all its attendant horrors.

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Page last modified: 14-10-2017 18:13:54 ZULU