Table of Contents
The Encroachments of Slavery
It is necessary at this point to take a glance at the history of American slavery, in order to understand Lincoln’s career. In 1619, or one year before the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth, a Dutch man-of-war landed a cargo of slaves at Jamestown, Virginia. For nearly two centuries after this the slave trade was more or less brisk. The slaves were distributed, though unevenly, over all the colonies. But as time passed, differences appeared. In the North, the public conscience was awake to the injustice of the institution, while in the South it was not. There were many exceptions in both localities, but the public sentiment, the general feeling, was as stated.
There was another difference. Slave labor was more valuable in the South than in the North. This was due to the climate. The negro does not take kindly to the rigors of the North, while in the South the heat, which is excessive to the white man, is precisely suited to the negro. In the course of years, therefore, there came to be comparatively few negroes in the North while large numbers were found in the South.
It is generally conceded that the founders of our government looked forward to a gradual extinction of slavery. In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson inserted some scathing remarks about the King’s part in the slave traffic. But it was felt that such remarks would come with ill grace from colonies that abetted slavery, and the passage was stricken out. It was, however, provided that the slave trade should cease in the year 1808.
The Ordinance of 1787 recognized the difference in sentiment of the two portions of the country on the subject, and was enacted as a compromise. Like several subsequent enactments, it was supposed to set the agitation of the subject for ever at rest. This ordinance provided that slavery should be excluded from the northwestern territory. At that time the Mississippi river formed the western boundary of the country, and the territory thus ordained to be free was that out of which the five states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were subsequently formed. It was not then dreamed that the future acquisition of new territory, or the sudden appreciation of the value of the slave, would reopen the question.
But three facts changed the entire complexion of the subject. It was discovered that the soil and climate of the South were remarkably well adapted to the growth of cotton. Then the development of steam power and machinery in the manufacture of cotton goods created a sudden and enormous demand from Liverpool, Manchester, and other cities in England for American cotton. There remained an obstacle to the supply of this demand. This was the difficulty of separating the cotton fiber from the seed. A negro woman was able to clean about a pound of cotton in a day.
In 1793, Eli Whitney, a graduate of Yale college, was teaching school in Georgia, and boarding with the widow of General Greene. Certain planters were complaining, in the hearing of Mrs. Greene, of the difficulty of cleaning cotton, when she declared that the Yankee school teacher could solve the difficulty, that he was so ingenious that there was almost nothing he could not do.
The matter was brought to Whitney’s attention, who protested that he knew nothing of the subject,–he hardly knew a cotton seed when he saw it. Nevertheless he set to work and invented the cotton gin. By this machine one man, turning a crank; could clean fifty pounds of cotton a day. The effect of this was to put a new face upon the cotton trade. It enabled the planters to meet the rapidly-increasing demand for raw cotton.
It had an equal influence on the slavery question. Only negroes can work successfully in the cotton fields. There was a phenomenal increase in the demand for negro labor. And this was fifteen years before the time limit of the slave trade in 1808.
There soon came to be a decided jealousy between the slave-holding and the non-slave-holding portion of the country which continually increased. At the time of the Ordinance of 1787 the two parts of the country, were about evenly balanced. Each section kept a vigilant watch of the other section so as to avoid losing the balance of power.
As the country enlarged, this balance was preserved by the admission of free and slave states in turn. Vermont was paired with Kentucky; Tennessee with Ohio; Louisiana with Indiana; and Mississippi with Illinois. In 1836, Michigan and Arkansas were admitted on the same day. on the same day. This indicates that the jealousy of the two parties was growing more acute.
Then Texas was admitted December 29, 1845, and was not balanced until the admission of Wisconsin in 1848.
We must now go back to the admission of Missouri. It came into the Union as a slave state, but by what is known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. By this compromise the concession of slavery to Missouri was offset by the enactment that all slavery should be forever excluded from the territory west of that state and north of its southern boundary: namely, the parallel of 36 degrees 30’.
The mutterings of the conflict were heard at the time of the admission of Texas in 1848. It was again “set forever at rest” by what was known as the Wilmot proviso. A year or two later, the discovery of gold in California and the acquisition of New Mexico reopened the whole question. Henry Clay of Kentucky, a slaveholder but opposed to the extension of slavery, was then a member of the House. By a series of compromises–he had a brilliant talent for compromise–he once more set the whole question “forever at rest.” This rest lasted for four years. But in 1852 Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin," an event of national importance. To a degree unprecedented, it roused the conscience of those who were opposed to slavery and inflamed the wrath of those who favored it.
The sudden and rude awakening from this rest came in 1854 with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The overland travel to California after the year 1848 had given to the intervening territory an importance far in excess of its actual population. It early became desirable to admit into the Union both Kansas and Nebraska; and the question arose whether slavery should be excluded according to the act of 1820. The slave-holding residents of Missouri were hostile to the exclusion of slavery. It was situated just beyond their border, and there is no wonder that they were unable to see any good reason why they could not settle there with their slaves. They had the sympathy of the slave states generally.
On the other hand, the free states were bitterly opposed to extending the slave power. To them it seemed that the slaveholders were planning for a vast empire of slavery, an empire which should include not only the southern half of the United States, but also Mexico, Central America, and possibly a portion of South America. The advocates of slavery certainly presented and maintained an imperious and despotic temper. Feeling was running high on both sides in the early fifties.
A leading cyclopedia concludes a brief article on the Missouri Compromise with the parenthetical reference,–"see DOUGLAS, STEPHEN A." The implication contained in these words is fully warranted. The chief event in the life of Douglas is the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. And the history of the Missouri Compromise cannot be written without giving large place to the activity of Douglas. His previous utterances had not led observers, however watchful, to suspect this. In the compromise of 1850 he had spoken with great emphasis: “In taking leave of this subject, I wish to state that I have determined never to make another speech upon the slavery question.... We claim that the compromise is a final settlement.... Those who preach peace should not be the first to commence and reopen an old quarrel.”
This was the man who four years later recommenced and reopened this old quarrel of slavery. In the meantime something had occurred. In 1852 he had been the unsuccessful candidate for the democratic nomination for President, and he had aspirations for the nomination in 1856, when a nomination would have been equivalent to an election. It thus seemed politic for him to make some decided move which would secure to him the loyalty of the slave power.
Upon Stephen A. Douglas rested the responsibility of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. He was at that time chairman of the Senate committee on Territories. His personal friend and political manager for Illinois, William A. Richardson, held a similar position in the House. The control of the legislation upon this subject was then absolutely in the hands of Senator Douglas, the man who had “determined never to make another speech on the slavery question.”
It is not within the scope of this book to go into the details of this iniquitous plot, for plot it was. But the following passage may be quoted as exhibiting the method of the bill: “It being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any territory or state, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution.” In other words, no state or territory could be surely safe from the intrusion of slavery.
Lincoln had been practising law and had been out of politics for six years. It was this bill which called him back to politics, “like a fire-bell in the night.”