The 1850s from Know Nothings to Bleeding Kansas
By the 1850s the sectional differences in America solidified, from the more
industrial North complete with canals and railroads, urban areas and factories to
the Southern region focused on agriculture with cash crops like cotton prominent,
and slavery a cornerstone of the system. The West was largely separated from
both North and South by what some had referred to as the Great American
Desert, or the Great Plains, where Sioux Indians and bison dominated the
landscape, and yet growing boomtowns tied to mineral production helped fuel the
industrial East. Lumber, fish, animal furs and hides all contributed to the economy
as well. So while the regions appeared separate, they complemented each other
in some ways and in others the continuing conflict over the expansion of slavery
permeated political and economic issues.
Americans avoided the slavery issue temporarily in 1848 with the election of
Zachary Taylor, who died in office and allowed the rather forgettable Millard
Fillmore to then serve. By the Election of 1852 the Whig party waned, and
Democrat Franklin Pierce, who was from the North but sympathetic to the South,
won. He continued expansionist policies Polk had espoused, even suggesting
the nation take Cuba and expand slavery south of the Missouri Compromise Line
to Mexico and the Caribbean.
Immigration increased during the 1830s and 1850s with as many as 4.5 million
arriving from Europe. 40% of the new arrivals were Irish Catholics, and as a
result of the Great Potato Famine which struck Ireland in the mid 1840s, one of
every eight Irish left their nation looking for a better life. The large influx of
destitute Roman Catholics caused native-born White Anglo Saxon Protestants
(WASPs) concern, fearing immigrants would be a drain on economic resources
and in many ways they were. In 1851 an estimated one of every six New Yorkers
was a pauper, and of the 113,000 residing in jails, workhouses, hospitals or
asylums or receiving public charity, 3/4 were foreign born, mostly Irish.
Protestants had long-standing conflicts with Catholics, and in American
democracy many feared that the Catholics were minions of the Pope and
enemies of the Protestant character of the country. Samuel Morse called
Roman Catholics and saw their immigration
to America as a Jesuit conspiracy to destroy American democracy. Higher
numbers of immigrants fueled a nativist backlash. Nativism essentially asserted
that American values were WASP values, blaming problems on immigrants. And
yet immigrants were often targeted: in 1844 a rally in Philadelphia ended in a
three day riot in which assailants burned two Catholic churches, a convent and
library and killed a dozen people. Some Chinese immigrants came to the West
Coast in search of better opportunities, and they were also discriminated against,
threatened and run out of towns. It is no surprise that the Irish built many canals
and railroads in the East and the Chinese in the West given the dangerous and
low-paid work. Immigrants tended to stay in the North and Midwest rather than
go south. Why? Because thats where the jobs were, and they didnt want to
compete with slave labor.
A political response to immigration included the formation of the Know-Nothing
Party, an by former Whigs and Northern Democrats
in 1853. By 1855 it had over a million members nationwide. It was very popular in
places with large Irish populations like Massachusetts, but also Maine, Ohio,
Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. In many ways the party was an outgrowth of
the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, with a focus on
temperance which drew on the evangelical impulses of the time. Major
newspapers of the day decried Irish Catholics as drunk and disorderly sots and
bums living in rotten nests of filth as they voted for Democrats. A growing
number of German immigrants escaping the revolution of 1848 also came to the
nation, but they generally didnt scare WASPs the same way because most were
Protestant, and many newspapers praised them for their industriousness. They
also werent generally destitute and moved out of the cities to purchase land in
While immigration roiled people in the North and Midwest, the issue of slavery
continued to dominate Congressional debate. Northern delegates believed there
was a slave power in Congress, calling land cessions a history of northern
concession and southern triumph. Land acquired from Mexico whetted the
appetite of southern expansionists and even if the Compromise of 1850 had
averted further crisis, it enraged northern abolitionists as they saw the Fugitive
Slave Act go after enslaved people that had escaped and been living in the North
for many years. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Toms Cabin largely as a
reaction to reports she had heard, and it became an immediate best-seller in
1852, making her audience sympathize with enslaved mothers and fictionalizing
the cruel treatment of enslaved people, even faithful and virtuous ones.
The Know Nothing party died after a majority of northern supporters endorsed
the . Congress passed the Kansas Nebraska
Act in 1854, challenging the Missouri Compromise. Based on popular
sovereignty, or letting the people decide, it would split the Louisiana Purchase
territory of Nebraska into two states: Kansas and Nebraska. The assumption was
that that Nebraska would be free and because Kansas was south of Nebraska it
would be slave. But both sides swarmed Kansas with supporters to vote in
elections: pro-slavery forces from Missouri and anti-slavery from Illinois. Because
of the turmoil, Kansas had two legislatures: one pro-slavery in Lecompton and
one against slavery in Lawrence. Violence erupted in May 1856 when the
Lecompton legislature sent 700 pro-slavery posse members with banners stating
Southern Rights and Let Yankees Tremble and Abolitionists Fall into
Lawrence. Thankfully the raid led to no deaths but it destroyed buildings and
Ardent and psychologically troubled abolitionist John Brown responded to the
attack of Lawrence with his own posse, violently hacking to death 5 proslavery
settlers at the Pottawatomie Massacre. This terrified southerners and turned
Kansas into a battleground dubbed Bleeding Kansas. The issues that arose
helped show that Popular Sovereignty did not work – it created two governments
at odds with one another. This all led to the rise of a new political party out of the
ashes of the Whig party and Know Nothing Party, the Republican Party, which
advocated free soil, free speech, free labor, free men. And while many
Republicans were just as racist at the time as any other Americans, they
disagreed with the way slave labor cheapened free labor. They didnt like
slavery, but didnt necessarily believe in equality either. I always shake my head
when I hear people refer to todays modern Republican party as the Party of
Lincoln. Lincolns Republican party believed in a strong centralized government.
And the Democrats in the 1850s believed in a weaker government with an
emphasis on the states rights. This is flipped in todays political parties.
There was also violence on the Senate floor in 1856 tied to the Kansas-Nebraska
Act. Massachusetts Republican Charles Sumner gave a speech decrying the
issue of adding Kansas as a slave state, and made disparaging remarks about
Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butlers cousin Preston Brooks, a
House Representative from South Carolina, challenged this affront to the family
honor, beating Sumner with a cane in the Senate Chamber. Both men became
heroes in their regions, and it symbolized the ideological impasse the nation
One of the most important events related to slavery was the Supreme Courts
Dred Scott decision of 1857, because it took the Missouri Compromise, Popular
Sovereignty, and any laws restricting slavery in certain regions like the Northwest
Ordinances and essentially ruled them null and void. Dred Scott was an enslaved
man whose owner was in the military, living in Missouri, then Illinois and
Wisconsin. When he went back to Missouri he sued for his freedom since he had
lived in free states. The that African Americans were not
citizens and thus could not sue, but more importantly slaves were property and
thus could be taken anywhere. Congress could not ban slavery, thus the Missouri
Compromise was unconstitutional and slavery could expand throughout the
The slavery issue would not subside. In October 1859, John Brown led 18
heavily armed white and black men in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers
Ferry in Virginia in the hopes of starting a slave rebellion. It was put down. While
he was a zealot for his cause, the nation learned that he had support in
prominent abolitionist circles, leading Southerners to claim that northerners were
involved in a conspiracy against them and rekindling fears of slave insurrections.
Sectionalism was getting more and more heated as the South felt like it was the
true descendent of the founding fathers and the rest of the nation was becoming
something very different.
And even as northerners felt that a slave power controlled Congress, more
immigration to the north was swaying the House of Representatives. The Election
of 1860 capped the tensions from the previous decade. Abraham Lincoln, a
Republican from Illinois, ran against three other candidates, with Democrats
themselves split between Stephen Douglas in the North and John Breckinridge in
the South. Lincoln wasnt even on the ballot in many southern states, and when
he won the election without the South it seemed as if the writing was on the wall:
a man leading a party opposed to slavery now governed the land. Southerners
feared Lincoln would free their slaves and called for secession, or leaving the
Union. Even as Lincoln claimed he would not free the slaves but didnt want
slavery to expand further, South Carolina and other states with large enslaved
populations asserted they should have the right to keep slavery. When South
Carolina attacked Union forces at Fort Sumter in April 1861, it led to war. The
new Confederate States of America wanted to keep their right to own slaves, and
the Union forces wanted the keep the United States of America together.
Karin Enloe, PhD
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