(Slavery and the Mexican War.)

Exactly twenty years had now gone by since the Missouri Compromise became a law. That famous instrument for promoting tranquillity between the North and South had been followed by internal peace as to slavery; but it has quite another distinction for services rendered to the Republic. More to it than to any other cause is probably due that long period of national repose in which undisturbed were ushered in western expansion, new and more expeditious transportation methods, manufacturing enterprises, the sewing-machine, the rotary printing-press, and machine implements for farming.

Coincident with these movements new problems of great peril to the peace of the States were soon to arise. Satisfied as the South had been with the Missouri Compromise when passed, it learned eventually that in the workings of the compromise the North was the chief gainer. This was in part because the North grew more rapidly, with its people small energetic farmers and small industrial producers, and its industries widely diversified; whereas in the South the people, by a costly system of slave labor, were large producers, and their sole industry was agriculture. With the opening of great highways westward, there had set in a development for the North that was not paralleled in the South. None in 1820 could have foreseen this, just as none foresaw the oncoming of the new age of mechanical inventions.

In such conditions was the assault made on those Mexican lands we now know as Texas. This was not wholly a movement by slaveholders seeking to extend slavery, but one also of land speculators who held scrip and desired their lands located. Moreover the North had plenty of room in which to expand; the South had little. Expansion in the South had to come; room had to be found for it, and when opposition was encountered from Mexico, and followed by a massacre in the Alamo, nothing could stay the enthusiasm with which the southwestern frontiersmen went into the Battle of San Jacinto, where was fixt the destiny of Texas as a future integral part of the Union open to slavery. The war with Mexico that followed as a consequence of the annexation of Texas was long foreseen, and by the frontiersman, if not by the Federal administration, was desired. Its conclusion secured to the Union a vast country in the Southwest and Far West, out of which five States and parts of two others have since been created. Except for California, which did not come directly from the defeat of Mexico, that war added an enormous area which soon became open to slavery.

Almost coincident with these events came the final settlement of the Oregon boundary, with new emigration to Oregon, and in 1848 the organization of that country into a territory embracing a far greater area than what we now call Oregon. By this addition of non-slaveholding territory much was done to counterbalance the acquisition made by Southern interests in the Southwest. Political leaders in both sections however continued far from tranquil. Within two years from the conclusion of peace with Mexico, another compromise, the one which bears the name of Henry Clay, was put through Congress. This measure in the main would have been acceptable in the North but for the Fugitive Slave Law included in it. Under this law, enforcing the arrest and return of escaped slaves and immediately and aggressively put into effect, slaves were to be considered as any other lost or stolen property. Two notable outcomes of its enforcement ensued—one the "underground railway" by which Northern Abolitionists assisted escaping slaves to reach Canada, the other a book which, more than all the speeches of agitators and all the preaching from pulpits, made anti-slavery sentiment in the North a political rather than a social force—Mrs. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Four years later another act of Congress pushed headlong by further steps the inevitable conflict at arms—the famous Kansas-Nebraska bill, with its "squatter sovereignty" declaration, the contrivance of Stephen A. Douglas, by which the Kansas-Nebraska territory became open alike to slavery and to freedom under a local-option system, and into which the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law was extended. Out of this bill, which amounted to a repeal of the Missouri Compromise, came war in Kansas, with John Brown as a leader. Out of it also come the formation of a great party which for two generations was to dominate the affairs of the nation—that party first called "anti-Nebraska men" and afterward Republicans. These men planted themselves squarely on the principle of the Wilmot Proviso, a despised measure which had failed to pass both houses of Congress, but in that "stone rejected of the builders" was contained a principle which in later years was established as an outcome of an awful civil war.

At this period the Abolition movement, after eleven years of activity, had measurably overcome the strong opposition it had formerly encountered in the North and had drawn within its folds many eminent and far-seeing men. It found a powerful ally, one which eventually was to absorb it, in the Republican party. Then came the Dred Scott Decision, delivered, in 1857 by Chief Justice Taney, which more than all other events, save perhaps the firing on Fort Sumter, precipitated actual war. Its immediate consequence was that a vast territory beyond the Mississippi, now comprizing more than a third of the total area of the United States, which had been open to slavery either by the Compromise of 1850 or by the Kansas-Nebraska act, was actually confirmed to slavery.

The decision, in its immediate aspects, was a great victory for the South. But the larger, distant view shows clearly how it became the undoing of the South. Because of it Abraham Lincoln, in his Illinois debate with Stephen A. Douglas, was able to force Douglas into a dilemma from which Douglas extricated himself in a manner unwelcome to the South, and which made him as a candidate for the Presidency impossible to the South. Hence the famous split in the Democratic party in the Charleston convention of 1860, and the nomination afterward of Breckenridge at Baltimore.

Here now were broken ranks in the Democratic forces which, except in two Presidential elections, had been dominant in national councils for six decades. Except for that split, Lincoln could not have been elected. Because of it, his election became, for the combined anti-slavery and Union forces, a signal triumph. Had there been no Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln's election probably could not have taken place. The war in that case must have been postponed, possibly for half a generation, possibly for longer years, during which the onward march of industrial improvements and population through the North and distant West, forcing still further backward the industrial growth of the South, might have given to the next half decade of a thousand battle-fields a far different history.

F. W. H.

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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman