As early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, American leaders had known that they could not settle the differences between the states committed to slavery and those that were not. The three–fifths rule, the constitutional promise not to halt the international slave trade until 1808, and the banning of slavery in the Northwest Territory were allattempts to avoid confronting differences between the North and South.
Some Northerners thought Southerners would recognize the inefficiency of slavery and end it voluntarily—a hope that was dashed by the cotton boom and the South’s recommitment to slavery. Many Southerners thought that an agrarian coalition uniting the South and West could keep Northeastern commercial interests from running thecountry. They realized that hope when a South–West coalition elected Thomas Jefferson president in 1800.
But by the 1830s the market revolution had tied Northeastern factories and Northwestern farms into a roughly unified, commercialized North. Most Northerners were committed to free–market capitalism, individual opportunity, and free labor, and many contrasted what they believed to be the civilizingeffects of hard work and commerce with the supposed laziness and barbarism of the slave South. For their part, white Southerners began to see themselves as a beleaguered minority.
Following the 1819 crisis over statehood for Missouri, a national two–party system developed, and both parties worked to prevent sectional differences from becoming the focus of politics. They were successful until theMexican War gave the United States huge new territories. Territorial questions had to be handled by Congress, and the question of whether slavery would be allowed into lands ceded by Mexico immediately became the all–consuming issue in national politics. By the mid–1850s the old party system was in ruins. An antislavery Republican Party became dominant in the North and elected Abraham Lincolnpresident in 1860. With an antislavery party in control of the White House, slave states seceded beginning in December 1860. The Union refused to let them go, and the Civil War began.
COMING OF THE CIVIL WAR: A NARRATIVE A The Wilmot Proviso
Both the North and the South saw the issue of slavery in the territories as a simple question of right and wrong, but the issue traveled through elaboratetwists and turns from 1846 through the beginning of the Civil War.
Many Northern Democrats in Congress were disappointed with President James K. Polk (1845-1849). Some represented market–oriented constituencies that supported a moderately protective tariff and federal internal improvements. Polk was a Southerner and an old Jacksonian, and he opposed both of those measures. Northern Democrats alsodisliked Polk’s willingness to compromise with the British on expansion into Oregon, while he went to war with Mexico over Texas. It looked to many Democratic Northerners as though the Democratic Party was less interested in the expansion of the agrarian republic than in the expansion of slavery.
Among these Democrats was Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania. In 1846, during the war withMexico, he proposed what became known as the Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery from all territory taken from Mexico. In subsequent years the proviso was repeatedly attached to territorial legislation. In the House, combinations of Northern Whigs and Democrats passed it several times, but the proviso was always stopped in the Senate. The Wilmot Proviso would become the principal plank in the platform ofthe Republican Party.
President Polk and his cabinet favored extending the Missouri Compromise line west to the Pacific, a solution that would allow slavery in the New Mexico Territory and in Southern California, but ban it from Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Northern California. Neither the North nor the South favored Polk’s solution. In 1849 President Zachary Taylor proposed allowing the...