Research Paper: African-Americans and Western Expansion

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[. . .] This was why it was prepared to secede in 1850, had Congress adopted the Proviso of David Wilmot banning slavery in all the territories annexed from Mexico in the recent war. In 1848, a new Free Soil Party organized to oppose any further expansion of slavery in the West had garnered enough support to cost the Democrats the election in the North, and many Free Soil supporters later joined the Republican Party after 1854. Henry Clay's Compromise held the Union together for another ten years by allowing the decision about slavery in Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and the other remaining territories in the Mexican Cession to be left to the "popular sovereignty" of the settlers, but in reality slavery never became significant in any of these regions of the Far West.[footnoteRef:19] In this Compromise, the Southern leaders believed they had gained little except a Fugitive Slave Law that many Northern states became increasingly unwilling to enforce as the decade wore on, due to popular opposition. [19: Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 3.]

Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who would be Lincoln's main opponent in the 1860 presidential election, was responsible for opening the next great debate in the issue of slavery in the Western territories when his Kansas-Nebraska Act left the decision about slavery in these new territories to popular sovereignty. This law repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase. He did this not so much because he was part of a Slave Power conspiracy as Lincoln and other Republicans charged, but in order to obtain Southern support for a transcontinental railroad that would link Chicago with San Francisco. Southerners had informed him very clearly that "they would not support any bill…that banned slavery from the territory," but shortly after Douglas had forced the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress, mass outrage led to the formation of a new Republican Party that opposed any further expansion of slavery.[footnoteRef:20] [20: Philip Foner, p. 190.]

At no time before the Civil War did the Republicans call openly for abolition of slavery where it already existed, and this remained Abraham Lincoln's stated position until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. To be sure, millions of abolitionists supported the Republicans, although by no means all Republicans were abolitionists. Although Northern free blacks like Frederick Douglass were opposed to any compromise with slavery or to its continued existence anywhere in the world, they backed the Republicans on the grounds that the party was at least attempting to achieve some of their goals. They also noted that when Congress passed a Homestead Act in 1854 whose provisions excluded blacks completely most members who became Republicans in the future had opposed this.[footnoteRef:21] In his famous debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln merely expressed the hope that slavery would be gradually extinguished or abolished in the years ahead, and argued that the Founders of the United States in the 1770s and 1780s had had the same goal. Nor did he advocate giving blacks equal citizenship and voting rights, although in the right to work and keep the products of their labor he held that they were equal to whites. Douglas and other Democrats who remained in the party were far more openly racist and proslavery in their views. For Lincoln, however, slavery was a moral issue that could not simply be decided by an "up or down" vote as Douglas proposed.[footnoteRef:22] [21: Philip Foner, p. 199.] [22: Philip Foner, p. 217.]

As soon as the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed, Southerners immediately attempted to introduce slavery into the new territory, while Northerners organized free soil settlers to oppose them. Essentially, the Civil War began in Kansas in 1854-55, with pro- and antislavery settlers engaged in violent confrontations. John Brown, the fiery abolitionist from Ohio, got his start here by fighting regular gun battles against proslavery settlers and occasionally massacring them. Later, his attempt to take over the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859 and arm the slaves for a mass rebellion across the South would be one of the final straws that split the Union. Even though Republican leaders like Lincoln regarded Brown as an extremist, Southerners could not help noticing that he was considered a hero and martyr in many parts of the North. Meanwhile, Kansas had two constitutions and two territorial capitals, and applied for admission as both a free and a slave state. This made a mockery of the Douglas idea of popular sovereignty, especially since the majority of settlers preferred that it be admitted as a free state. To this the South would never agree, though, so Kansas was not finally admitted as a free state until 1861, when most of the Southern states had seceded and their Senators and Representatives had left Washington. The next year, Congress abolished slavery everywhere in the Western territories without compensation to the few slave owners in that region.[footnoteRef:23] [23: Philip Foner, p. 192.]

In the midst of intense public debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act that nearly demolished the Democratic Party in the North, the Supreme Court weighed in, ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case that Congress had no power to ban slavery anywhere in the Western territories. It went even further in declaring that blacks could not be citizens of the United States or sue in federal courts, and that they were not even human beings but only a kind of movable property. Since the Constitution declared that every (white) person had a right to property, then Southerners had the right to take their property with them wherever they traveled or settled. Dred Scott had been a slave of an army physician named Dr. John Emerson, who had taken him to Illinois and to other Western territories where slavery was not allowed under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise. Later, Scott had been returned to Missouri where he was still the property of Emerson's widow. After attempting to buy freedom for himself and his family, he then sued in state court and won at the trial level, but not at the Missouri Supreme Court.[footnoteRef:24] According to federal court precedents, the state courts had the final right to determine the status of a slave who had been in free territory but was then returned to a slave state, but in this matter, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was determined to issue a ruling invalidating the Missouri Compromise and upholding the idea that slavery was a national institution. President James Buchanan, a pro-Southern Democrat, also urged Taney to do this from behind the scenes, believing it would lead to the admission of Kansas as a slave state.[footnoteRef:25] [24: Philip Foner, p. 215.] [25: Philip Foner, p. 217.]

Seward, Lincoln and other Republicans leaders changed that Taney, Buchanan and Douglas were part of a Slave Power conspiracy that threatened free labor and free institutions in the United States. They may not have had all the details, but they suspected that Buchanan had secret communications with Taney and other Supreme Court justices to declare that "Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in any territory."[footnoteRef:26] This was proven to be true many decades later when correspondence with Taney and other justices was discovered in the papers of Buchanan, although many historians up to that time had denied the reality of such a conspiracy. For the Republicans, only one more such decision was necessary and then the Northern states would be required to allow slavery within their borders as well, and in reality, many Southern leaders did intend to expand slavery everywhere that it had been banned or did not yet exist, while after 1857, Northern factory owners began threatening white workers on strike that they would be replaced with slave labor. After all, in the South, factory owners already used slave labor on a regular basis by the 1860s.[footnoteRef:27] To be sure, many Republicans were racists and their main concern was never to free the black slaves, much less grant them equality, but rather "to protect the Western states and territories from incursions of blacks, free or slave."[footnoteRef:28] By portraying the Slave Power conspiracy as a threat to white labor and small farmers, Lincoln and the Republicans carried almost all of the North in the election of 1860, while the Deep South quickly seceded afterwards. Although the resulting Civil War and Reconstruction era did lead to the abolition of slavery and the grant of citizenship and voting rights to blacks, these had never been deeply-held commitments for the majority of whites in the North and West at that time. [26: Philip Foner, p. 219.] [27: Philip Foner, p. 223.] [28: Philip Foner, p. 206.]

This became all too clear when the Reconstruction governments in the South were overthrown in the 1870s and the other sections of the country acquiesced to 'home rule'… [END OF PREVIEW]

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African-Americans and Western Expansion.  (2011, February 7).  Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/african-americans-western-expansion/5312719

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"African-Americans and Western Expansion."  Essaytown.com.  February 7, 2011.  Accessed May 21, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/african-americans-western-expansion/5312719.