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What was America Like in the Mid-1800s?

America was experiencing many growing pain in the middle of the 19th Century.  The country had grown with the addition of Texas to the United States and the land added through the war with Mexico.  Settlers rushed to the west.  Slavery was a obviously a continuing source of controversy.  To better appreciate the events of Proviso and York Townships we should examine a few of these events.

These articles are from "Don't Know Much About History" by Kenneth C. Davis.  The book (also available on audio tapes) is a very good chronology with articles and essays on key events in the history of the United States.  The Society does not necessarily agree with some of editorializing, but Kenneth Davis' opinions still provide a valuable perspective to the times.

What was the Compromise of 1850?1

The election of 1848 was really about the future of slavery and the Union. But you wouldn't know it from the chief candidates. The hero of the Mexican War, General Zachary Taylor, got the Whig nod without expressing or even possessing any opinions about the chief question of the day: the future of slavery in the new territories. The Democratic nominee, Lewis Cass, side-stepped the issue with a call for "popular sovereignty," or leaving the decision up to territorial governments. The only clear stand on slavery was taken by an aging Martin Van Buren, who had given up equivocating and was now running on the Free Soil ticket, a splinter group of antislavery Democrats. Taylor's image as the conquering hero won the popular nomination, and with Van Buren's third party draining Democratic votes from Cass, Taylor was elected.

Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States

As President, Taylor had no policy or plan to cope with the new territories, including the impact of the (California) Gold Rush on the American economy.  But when California petitioned for admission as a free state in 1849, the issue was placed squarely once more before Congress, with the fate of the Union hanging in the balance.  Southerners, who accepted the Oregon Territory as free didn't want slaves kept out of another state, especially one of California's size and wealth.

Only another compromise saved the Union for the moment this one as distasteful to abolitionists as all the others in history had been.  A package of bills, mostly the work of the aging Henry Clay, were introduced and heatedly debated in the Senate, chiefly by the other two congressional giants of the age, Daniel Webster -- who was willing to accept limited slavery in preservation of the Union -- and John Calhoun.  Because Calhoun was too ill to speak his views were presented by Senator James Murray Mason of Virginia.  Vowing secession, Calhoun died before the Compromise was signed into law.  New faces on the congressional stage also joined the fray.  William Seward of New York weighed in with an impassioned antislavery speech.  The new senator from Illinois Stephen Douglas, finally ramrodded the Compromise through by dividing it into five separate bills and pulling together sufficient support for each of these.

It was only Zachary Taylor's death in office in 1850 that finally allowed passage of the Compromise of 1850 Taylor's successor, Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), signed the five bills that made up the Compromise of 1850.  Under these bills, California was admitted as a free state; New Mexico and Utah were organized without restrictions on slavery;  Texas, also unrestricted as to slavery, had its boundaries set and received $10 million for the land that would become New Mexico; the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was abolished in the District of Columbia -- a new Fugitive Slave Act provided federal jurisdiction to assist slaveowners in the recovery of escaped slaves.  It was the last of these bills that provoked the most controversy, since it gave slaveowners enormous powers to call on federal help in recovering escaped slaves.  Under the law no black person was safe.  Only an affidavit was needed to prove ownership. Commissioners were granted great powers -- thoroughly unconstitutional in modern light -- to make arrests.  Even the expenses of capturing and returning a fugitive slave were to be borne by the federal government.  Although the burden of proof was on them, accused fugitives were not entitled to a jury trial and couldn't defend themselves.  And citizens who concealed, aided, or rescued fugitives were subject to harsh fines and imprisonment.

Millard Fillmore, 13th President of the United States

Suddenly free blacks, many of them presumably safely established for years in northern towns, were subject to seizure and transport back to the South.  Angry mobs in several cities bolted at the law with violent protests.  In Boston, seat of abolitionist activity, William and Ellen Craft, who gained fame when they escaped through a ruse that involved Ellen posing as the male owner of William, were defended and hidden from slave catchers.  When federal, marshals snatched a fugitive named Shadrach, a mob of angry blacks overwhelmed the marshals and sent Shadrach to Montreal.  Outraged by this defiance of federal law, President Fillmore sent troops to Boston to remove a seventeen-year-old captured slave named Thomas Sims.

Resistance grew elsewhere.  In Syracuse, New York, a large group of mixed race broke into a jail and grabbed William McHenry, known as Jerry, from his captors, spiriting him off to Canada. And in Christiana, Pennsylvania, a Quaker town that openly welcomed fugitives, troops again were called out after some escaped slaves shot and killed an owner and then escaped to Canada.  President Fillmore sent marines after these slaves, but Canada refused to extradite them.  In the South, these were viewed as affronts to what was considered their property and honor.  New anger was spilling over into renewed threats of the Union's dissolution.

What was "Manifest Destiny"?2

The annexing of Texas was a symptom of a larger frenzy that was sweeping through America like a nineteenth-century version of "Lotto Fever". In 1845 this fervor was christened. In an expansionist magazine, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, journalistic John L. O'Sullivan wrote of the "fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."

O'Sullivan's phrase, quickly adopted by other publications and politicians, neatly expressed a vision that sounded almost a religious mission.  Behind this vision was some ideological saber-rattling, but the greatest motivator was greed, the obsessive desire for Americans to control the entire continent from Atlantic to Pacific.  As each successive generation of Americans had pressed the fringes of civilization a little farther, this idea took on the passion of a sacred quest.  The rapid westward movement of large group of settlers was spurred by the development of the famous trails to the West. The Santa Fe Trail linked Independence, Missouri with the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles.  The Oregon Trail, mapped by trappers and missionaries, went northwest to the Oregon Territory.  The Mormon Trail, first traveled in 1847, first took the religious group and then other settlers from Illinois to Salt Lake City And In the Southwest, the Oxbow Route, from Missouri west to California, carried mail under a federal contract.

The fact that California, with its great ports, was still part of Mexico, and that England still lay claim to Oregon, only heightened the aggressiveness of the American desire to control all of it.

Why was Uncle Tom's Cabin the most important and controversial American novel of its time?3

The number of blacks actually captured and sent south under the Fugitive Slave Act was relatively small, perhaps three hundred.  But the law did produce one practical effect.  Calling the law a "nightmare abomination," a young woman decided to write a novel that shook the conscience of America and the world.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is certainly not the great American novel.  It is far from the best-selling American novel, but for a long time it was surely the most significant American novel.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister, and wife of Protestant clergymen.  Her father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, was a Calvinist minister who took the family to Cincinnati, where he headed a new seminary.  There Harriet Beecher met and married Calvin Stowe, a professor of biblical literature.  The seminary was a center of abolitionist sentiment, and a trip to nearby Kentucky provided the young woman with her only first-hand glimpse of slavery.  In 1850 her husband took a teaching job at Bowdoin College in Maine, and there, after putting her children to bed at night, Stowe followed her family's urgings to write about the evils of slavery.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly first appeared in serial form in the National Era, an abolitionist journal.  In 1852 a Boston publisher brought out the book in its complete form.  Simplistic and overly melodramatic, the novel was also deeply affecting.  The plot attempted to depict the lives of slaves and slaveholders through three primary characters:

That family, living together in Tom's idealized cabin on a Kentucky farm, represented the humanity of slaves, depicting them as husbands and wives, parents and children, in stark counterpoint to the common image of slaves as mere drudges.

Many of the book's characters were simply caricatures calculated to jolt tears from even the most heartless, but the book contained unforgettable images and scenes, perhaps the most famous of which was the picture of the barefoot Eliza, her child in her arms, leaping from one ice floe to another across the frozen Ohio River to escape a ruthless slave trader.  There was the cherubic child Eva, trying to bring out the good in everyone in a weepy death scene; the vicious plantation owner, Simon Legree -- pointedly written as a transplanted Yankee -- vainly trying to break the will and spirit of Tom; and Uncle Tom himself, resilient and saintly, the novel's Christ-like central character, beaten by Legree but refusing to submit to overseeing the other slaves.

The reaction of the public -- North, South, and worldwide -- was astonishing. Sales reached 300,000 copies within a year.  Foreign translations were published throughout Europe, and sales soon afterward exceeded 1.5 million copies worldwide, a staggering number of books for the mid-nineteenth century, when there were no paperbacks or big bookstore chains.  A dramatic version played on stages around the world, making Stowe one of the most famous women in the world, although not necessarily wealthy; pirated editions were commonplace.  The theatrical presentation also spawned a brand of popular minstrel entertainments called "Tom Shows," which provided the basis for the use of "Uncle Tom" as a derisive epithet for a black man viewed by other blacks as a shuffling lackey to whites.

In a time when slavery was discussed with dry legalisms and code words like "states' rights" and "popular sovereignty," this book personalized the question of slavery as no amount of abolitionist literature or congressional debate had. For the first time, thousands of whites got some taste of slavery's human suffering. In the South there was outraged indignation. Yet even there the book sold out. Stowe was criticized as naive or a liar. In one infamous incident, she received an anonymous parcel containing the ear of a disobedient slave. Faced with the charge that the book was deceitful, Stowe answered with A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which provided documentation that every incident in the novel had actually happened.

In 1862, Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe and reportedly said, "So you're the little woman that wrote the book that made this great war."  The copies sold can be counted, but the emotional impact can't be calculated so easily.  It is safe to say that no other literary work since 1776, when Tom Paine's Common Sense incited a wave of pro-Independence fervor, had the political impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

What forced the Republicans to start a new political party?4

After (President) Polk left the White House in 1849, America was cursed by a string of Presidents who were at best mediocre and at worst ineffectual or incompetent. Polk's successor in the White House Zachary Taylor, had enormous battlefield experience but was in-prepared for the political wars of his administration. Before he had a chance to grow in office, he died of cholera in 1850 and was succeeded by Vice President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874).  Overshadowed by the congressional giants of his time -- Webster, Clay and Calhoun -- Fillmore made little impact in his abbreviated administration other than by winning passage of the Compromise of 1850 and dispatching Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open trade and diplomatic relations with Japan, a further extension of the Manifest Destiny" mood that had spilled past the California coast to overseas expansionism.

The campaign of 1852 brought another ineffectual leader to the White House in Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), and his election was symptomatic of the country's problems. The two major parties, Whig and Democrat, were fracturing over slavery and other sectional conflicts. Having once been a significant third-party factor, the Free Soil Party, which had opposed the Compromise of 1850, was leaderless.  Looking for the battle-hero charm to work once more, the Whigs put up General Winfield Scott, the commander during the Mexican War.  But this time the charm had worn out.  A northern Democrat taking a southern stand, Pierce outpolled Scott easily, but in his attempts to appease southern Democrats he lost northern support and any hope of holding the middle ground against the two ends.

The election results meant political chaos.  The Whigs were in a tailspin, no longer led by Clay and Webster, the two congressional masters who once gave the party its strength.  Northern Democrats, rapidly outnumbered by the growing ranks of southerners in their party, were being pushed out.  Out of the chaos came a new alliance.  A series of meetings, the first occurring m Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854, resulted in the birth of a new party known as the Republicans.  A group of thirty congressmen adopted this party label on May 9, 1854.  Although the Republicans made antislavery claims that attracted former Free Soilers and other antislavery groups, the party's opposition to extending slavery beyond its existing boundaries came from economic and political reasoning rather than from moral outrage.  Essentially, the party appealed to the free, white workingman.  Its basic tenet was that the American West must be open to free, white labor.  Not only were the Republicans opposed to slaves in the West; they wanted all blacks kept out.  This was hardly the ringing message of morality that we tend to associate with the antislavery movement, but it was a message that appealed to many in the North. In 1854 the Republicans won 100 seats in Congress.  Just six years after the party was born, it would put its first President into the White House.

For the history of our local settlers, see Early Settler History (1833 - 1850).

1"Don't Know Much About History", Kenneth C. Davis, pages 148-150
2"Don't Know Much About History", Kenneth C. Davis, page 131
3From "Don't Know Much About History", Kenneth C. Davis, pages 150-152
4"Don't Know Much About History", Kenneth C. Davis, pages 153-154

Last Modified:  04/11/2003