The Swelling South

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday I described how the South came to feel besieged and how the antislavery forces arrayed against it had never been stronger. The South shrank. Paradoxically, the same could be said of those same forces. In the late 1850s, the antislavery coalition made many electoral gains but the story of the decade held only political reverses. The South swelled:

  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 effectively legalizing kidnapping, requiring federal marshals to arrest and hold any black person that a slaveholder cared to claim was a runaway. These alleged fugitives had no right to contest their seizure, repudiating free state laws that gave them just that. That the law also gave a bounty to those capturing runaways and offered only the narrowest fig leaf of due process: a simple hearing where the alleged fugitive could not defend himself and the judge would be paid $10 (approximately $266 in 2011 dollars) for ruling for the slaveowner but only $5 if ruling against.
  • Filibusters seeking to redress the sectional imbalance in the Senate conspired to seize Cuba (and one group briefly did seize Nicaragua) in the way that their forefathers had separated Texas from Mexico and bring it in as a slave state. They enjoyed support from Southern luminaries and the Pierce administration itself, before the latter backed off in favor of offering to buy the island after expending its political capital on the following concern
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise that formerly excluded slavery from nearly all the territories, opening the West to slavery.
  • As a result of the former, filibusters from Missouri (including senator David Atchison) and Arkansas flooded into Kansas to ensure it became a slave state. Antislavery forces responded in kind and guerrilla war erupted while pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces submitted duelling constitutions to Congress.
  • Then the Dred Scott decisionof 1857 that:
    • No black person could ever be a citizen and thus entitled to the protection of the laws of the United States, including the privilege of freedom granted to slaves who came to free states.
    • Neither Congress nor the the territorial legislatures could constitutionally exclude slavery, ensuring that the Kansas method for making new slave states would remain legal.

What remained, then? The whole antebellum edifice of limited slavery, save the prohibition on the Atlantic slave trade alone, had passed into history. Slaveholders could move their slaves through free states at will. They could bring slaves and with them slavery to any territory. Neither territorial legislature nor Congress could exclude slavery from any part of the United States and slaveholders could flood into any new territory before statehood to be sure it adopted slavery on admission to the Union.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how the antislavery movement understood all of this.

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