SLIDING TO CIVIL WAR
This enormous new addition to the United States meant an enormous fight over whether it would be slave or free. Almost all the free states passed resolutions supporting the Wilmot Proviso (1846), an anti-slavery move calling for all the new land to be admitted as free states. This contentious amendment easily passed the U.S. House of Representatives but couldn't get through the carefully balanced Senate.
Question: What was the first resolution to split the North and South on the slavery issue?
Answer: The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was the first purely sectional vote (which never passed) to block extending slavery to territory acquired from Mexico.
Politically, the South was fighting with its back to the wall. The free-state population now far outnumbered that of slave states, even with the three-fifths provision for nonvoting slaves (see Chapter 9). Therefore, the North had more votes in the House, and if more free states were admitted, it soon would have more votes in the Senate as well. The South couldn't back down.
Meanwhile, hatred for slavery had reached the point in the North at which many people couldn't stand the thought of creating another state under the grip of slaveholders. The Mexican land was becoming a gigantic poison pill for compromise in the Union.
In the election of 1848, the Whigs ran a hero of the Mexican-American War, General Zachary Taylor. Taylor had no political liabilities, having never held public office or, for that matter, having ever voted in a presidential election. The Democrats ran an old veteran of the War of 1812 who believed in popular sovereignty (1850), the principle of letting the people of any territory decide whether they wanted the territory to be slave or free.
Question: What is popular sovereignty?
Answer: Popular sovereignty allowed local voters to choose whether their state would be slave or free.
A new Free Soil Party came out squarely against the extension of slavery to even one more square inch of the United States. The Free Soilers diverted enough votes from the Democrats to elect Zachary Taylor of the Whig party. Taylor hadn't made any speeches about slavery during the election, but he was a slaveholding plantation owner from Louisiana. That was enough to attract most Southern votes.
With the discovery of gold, California rushed toward statehood as a free state. The territory had plenty of people, had written its own constitution, and was ready to more than pay for itself. But if California were admitted, the balance in the Senate would swing to a majority for the nonslave states.
The Southerners were also worried about the issue of runaway slaves. Even the loss of a small number of slaves upset the South:
- Harriet Tubman (1849), a fearless runaway slave, had helped rescue more than 300 other slaves from the South, including her aging parents.
- The Underground Railroad (1850), a series of safe houses and hiding places for escaping slaves, was helping a small number of slaves escape. The total number of slaves who made it North in a year was around 1,000 — a small loss to freedom from a slave population of 4 million.
The South was also angry about the North's nonstop campaign to outlaw slavery in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. The South was looking for a fight almost as though it had a guilty conscience.