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United States: Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850, and Kansas-Nebraska Act
Compromises over extension of slavery into U.S. territories.
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Despite their opposition to slavery, however, few Northerners made serious efforts to eradicate it nationally during the first decades of the 19th century. Tellingly, in 1831, when abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison started his newspaper The Liberator, calling for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people, he had only a tiny following. But as the country expanded and its sections became more closely entwined, sectional differences over the issue of slavery became visible in institutions across American society. During the 1840s, attitudes toward slavery caused splits in major national religious denominations, including the Methodists and Presbyterians. In politics, the Whig Party, once an alliance of Northern and Western conservative business interests with Southern planters, divided sectionally and, following the 1852 election, virtually disappeared.

The Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the formation of the Republican Party

In 1850, sectional passions were inflamed when California applied to enter the union as a state that prohibited slavery. Compromise legislation—originally championed by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky but ultimately guided to passage by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—averted a likely civil war by bundling admission of California as a free state with a new, more aggressive Fugitive Slave Act, which provided for the seizure and return of people who escaped enslavement (see Compromise of 1850). Although the Missouri Compromise had excluded slavery from that part of the Louisiana Purchase (except Missouri) north of the 36°30′ parallel, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, sponsored by Douglas, provided for the territorial organization of Kansas and Nebraska under the principle of popular sovereignty, according to which the people of territories would decide for themselves whether to enter the union as states permitting or prohibiting slavery. Some Northerners responded by organizing an antislavery political party, called the Republican Party in most places.

Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and the Harpers Ferry Raid

In the mid-1850s a virtual civil war broke out in Kansas, where rival state legislatures—one proslavery, the other antislavery—both claimed legitimacy. Called Bleeding Kansas, this violent conflict brought national attention to John Brown, who would propel sectional tensions over slavery to a new level in 1859 with his Harpers Ferry Raid, an attempt to spark a massive rebellion by enslaved people. Before Brown’s raid, in 1857 the Supreme Court of the United States had added fuel to the fire of sectionalism with its ruling in the Dred Scott case, regarding an enslaved person who claimed freedom on the ground that he had been taken to live in free territory. The court’s ruling—that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that, because Black Americans were not citizens, they had no right to bring suit before the court—was acclaimed in the South but condemned and repudiated throughout the North. For many Americans, the Dred Scott decision confirmed their belief that compromise had been exhausted as a solution to the problem of slavery.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1950 (accession no. 50.94.1); www.metmuseum.org

The election of 1860

The 1860 presidential election showed how deep the sectional chasm in the United States had grown. The Republican Party was not a national party but rather a party of the North. The name of its presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, an ardent opponent of slavery, would not even appear on the ballot in 10 states that permitted slavery. On the other hand, as the election approached, the country’s only truly national party, the Democratic Party, splintered. Douglas entered the party’s national convention in April as the front-runner for its presidential nomination, but he was seen as no friend of the South, and, when the convention refused to adopt the so-called Alabama Platform, delegates from eight Southern states left the convention and nominated their own candidate, Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge, a holder of enslaved people. Douglas became the candidate of the Northern Democrats. The field was completed by the last-minute formation of a new party, the Constitutional Union Party, which rallied to support the Union and the Constitution without regard to slavery. John Bell was its candidate.

Cartoon of the 1860 U.S. presidential election showing three of the candidates—(left to right) Republican Abraham Lincoln, Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge—tearing the country apart while the Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, applies glue from a tiny useless pot.

When all of the ballots were counted, Lincoln was found to have captured only about 40 percent of the popular vote. However, he won all of the Northern states except New Jersey and tallied enough electoral votes to claim victory. The ultimate outcome of the election and the country’s long sectionalist struggle would be secession and civil war.

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The Editors of Encyclopaedia rwandachamber.orgThis article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.