-1860: THE LONG PREQUEL TO THE CIVIL WAR
The amazing thing wasn't that the United States eventually became temporarily disunited by the Civil War; it was that the slavery time bomb took so long to blow up. The U.S. abolished the importation of slaves in 1808, only a few months after Britain did the same thing. All northern U.S. states and a surprising number of southern plantation owners freed their slaves after the Revolution.
However, the invention of the cotton gin made slavery so profitable that it spread throughout the South in the first half of the 1800s, despite the intention of many of the Revolutionary Founding Fathers to bring it to an early end. Suddenly, Southern cotton made more money than anything else. North and South started a long stretch of legal wrangling over slavery:
- The first major bills passed under the early Confederation outlawed slavery in the new Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
- The Missouri Compromise, also known as the Compromise of 1820, assured a balance between free and slave state admissions and drew the Mason-Dixon line between slave and free states; the Compromise of 1850 later extended the Mason-Dixon line out west.
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 weakened the earlier compromises, and the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Southern-controlled Supreme Court blew all the compromises away.
While the South got rich from slavery, the years of compromise had given the North time to get industrialized and relatively united in opposition to slavery. With the election of Abe Lincoln in 1860, Southern politicians decided that it was showdown time.
If you'd been dropped into a random house in the United States in 1860, you'd have had about a 1 in 12 chance of being in a slave owning family. Of course, all the slave holding families were down South. If you had been dropped into a random life in the South, you'd have had a one in three chance of being a slave. Slaves never got paid, worked from dawn to dusk, and could be whipped, sexually exploited, or even killed at the whim of their owners.
Eventually, people who weren't making money off the work of slaves (and even a few people who were) couldn't stand to see the evil system continue. The United States fought through the most horrible war in its history to try to get honest with the proposition that "all men are created equal."