The way the Constitution was written, it was very vague considering slavery. Because of the Constitution being so vague, this left states free to interpret the principles stated in their own way. The reason of the fundamentals in the composition was to create a “more perfect union” and put provisions in it to abolish an oppressive government.
From the South’s perspective, the North was instilling oppressive policies. Conflicts having to do with the Constitution separating the union can date back to Polk’s presidency, leading to the conflicts from 1850 to 1861. When war in the Northwest could not be avoided, Polk concentrated on efforts to claim the Southwest from Mexico. When Polk failed to claim the territory, he challenged Mexican authorities on the border of Texas, provoking a Mexican attack on American troops. Polk then used the boarder attack to argue for a declaration of war.
Congress granted the declaration and in 1846 the Mexican-American War began. Abolitionists, largely in the North but elsewhere as well, feared that new states in the West would become slave states, thus tipping the balance in Congress in favor of proslavery forces. Opponents argued that Polk had provoked Mexico into war at the request of powerful slaveholders, and the idea that a few slave owners had control over the government became popular. Those rich Southerners who allegedly were “pulling the strings” were referred to as Slave Power by abolitionist.
The defeat of Wilmot Proviso, a congressional bill prohibiting the extension of slavery into any territory gained from Mexico, reinforced those suspicions. The failure of the proviso led to the formation of the Free-Soil Party, a regional, single-issue party devoted to the goals of the Wilmot Proviso. Southerners felt that there should be no federal restrictions on the extension of slavery into the new territories. The two sides were growing farther apart and more rigid in their determination not to give in. From this, the Compromise of 1850 (Document A) came into action to resolve the war.
It consisted of laws admitting California as a free state, creating Utah and New Mexico territories with the question of slavery in each to be determined by popular sovereignty, settling a Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute in the former’s favor, ending the slave trade in Washington, D. C. , and making it easier for Southerners to recover fugitive slaves. From here on Northerners and Southerners begin to develop their own interpretation of the Constitution, aiding the theory that the same Constitution that was supposed to unite the union becomes the reason why it is breaking.
For years, the union used compromises to preserve the peace in the nation. Throughout the Compromise of 1850, there were still arguments having to do with having California and making it a slave state. During the Gold Rush, settlers had flooded into California, and the populous territory wanted statehood. Californians had already drawn up a state constitution. That constitution prohibited slavery, and of course, the South opposed California’s bid for statehood. At the very least, proslavery forces argued, southern California should be forced to accept slavery, in accordance with the boundary drawn by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Democrat Stephen Douglas and Whig Henry Clay came up with what they thought to be a workable solution, known as the Compromise of 1850 (Document A). The Compromise of 1850, what was supposed to be a solution due to the misinterpretations of the Constitution, was only adding on to the argument about free states versus slave states. Senator Henry Clay attempted to end the rancor by proposing a series of measures that would balance the interests of the free and slave states.
He wanted to admit California as a free state but organize the rest of the southwestern territory without restrictions on slavery; require Texas to give up its claims to parts of New Mexico, but have the federal government assume Texas’s pre annexation debt; abolish the slave trade in Washington, D. C. , but confirm slavery in the capital; and reinforce Congress’s inability to regulate the interstate slave trade and enact a stronger fugitive slave law. The measures all passed only because Senator Stephen A. Douglas broke them into their component parts and put together a different majority for each one.
Because there had not been real agreement or compromise on the measures, the question of slavery in the territories had been avoided only and not solved. Clay managed to organize majorities to support each of the component bills, and thus ushered the entire compromise through Congress. Together, the bills admitted California as a free state and enacted a stronger fugitive slave law. They also created the territories of Utah and New Mexico, but left the status of slavery up to each territory to decide only when it came time for each to write its constitution, thus reinforcing the concept of popular sovereignty.
The Compromise of 1850 abolished the slave trade, not slavery itself, in Washington, D. C. Proponents of this provision argued that it was immoral to “buy and sell human flesh in the shadow of the nation’s capital. ” After California, no new states would be admitted to the Union until 1858. However, the contentious status of new territories proved increasingly problematic. Settlers entering the Kansas and Nebraska territories found no established civil authority.
Congress also wanted to build railways through the territory, but they needed some form of government to impose order, secure land, and supervise construction. Stephen Douglas sought to address these issues with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Nebraska lay north of the Missouri Compromise line and was thus closed to slavery by the terms of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. To pass the bill, Douglas had to win the support of southern congressmen, many of whom had no interest in helping a northern city win the railroad and did not want to help in the creation of another free state.
To gain southern support, Douglas agreed to repeal the Missouri Compromise and organize the Nebraska Territory according to the doctrine of popular sovereignty. This meant that slavery would have a chance to develop in the area, and it reopened the issue of the expansion of slavery, which caused uproar in the North. The Kansas-Nebraska Act is the way the southerners attacked back at the northerners. As mentioned in Document B, it implies that the southerners felt oppressed by the northerners because of all the free states the northerners had.
From the anonymous Georgian in Document B he mentions how it is simply impossible for any new State representing the Southern interest ever to come to the union. Basically, it was extremely difficult for the south to get it their way. Because of the Constitution being vague on slavery, Douglas felt it was right to begin the Kansas-Nebraska and as a result came political sectionalism and tension rising between the North and South. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also drove the final stake into the heart of the Whig party.
Anti-slavery Whigs, growing more impassioned about the issue and more convinced that the national party would never take a strong stand, joined Northern Democrats and former Free-Soil to form a new party, the Republicans. Though not abolitionist, the Republicans were dedicated to keeping slavery out of the territories. It is evident that the Free-Soilers joined sides with the Northern Democrats because they the Free-Soilers also had slavery “forced down their throat” just like how the political diagram in Document F depicted it. There are more examples of political sectionalism with the Cotton Whigs and the Conscience Whigs.
Cotton Whigs were found more in the South and were pro-slavery unlike the Conscience Whigs who were generally found in the North and opposed slavery. Political sectionalism can be seen in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his own and his family’s freedom on the grounds that his master had taken them to live first in a free state and then in a free territory. The Supreme Court’s majority decision ruled that Scott could not claim that his constitutional rights had been violated by his enslavement because no black person, whether free or enslaved, was a citizen.
The ruling also held that the laws of Scott’s home state of Missouri determined his status, that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The decision harmed the Democrats by casting doubts on the effectiveness of popular sovereignty, the idea that had held the northern and southern factions in the party together; if Congress could not ban slavery; neither could a territorial government, which was essentially a creation of Congress.
The southerners not considering Dred Scott as a citizen enraged the northerners, making the gap between the North and South even larger. In Document G it shows that the south should be able to do what they wanted and if refused, then “the Constitution, to which all the states and parties, will have been violated by one portion of them in a provision essential to the domestic security and happiness of the remainder. ” From the looks of the government right now, civil war seems like the most logical thing to occur from this.
From misinterpretation of the constitution to an upcoming civil war, the union was truly breaking apart. Adding fuel to the fire was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Brown hoped to spark a slave revolt but failed. After his execution, news spread that Brown had received financial backing from Northern abolitionist organizations. When it came time for the Democrats to choose their 1860 presidential candidate, their convention split. Northern Democrats backed Douglas; Southerners backed John Brekinridge.
A new party centered in the Upper South, the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Immediately after the election, Southern leaders who wanted to maintain the Union tried to negotiate and came up with the Crittendon Compromise. All hope of resolution died, however, when Lincoln refused to soften the Republican demand that all territories be declared free. In December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the union and other states joined to form the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy made a move on April 12, 1861, attacking For Sumter.
By looking back to everything that was going on in the government from 1850 to 1861, it is obvious to tell that this is the fault of the vagueness of the Constitution. Because of the Constitution being so vague, this left states free to interpret the principles stated in their own way. The reason of the fundamentals in the composition was to create a “more perfect union” and put provisions in it to abolish an oppressive government. By the looks of what was going on from 1850 to 1860, the Constitution didn’t help bring the union together to form a more perfect government, but separate the union.
In Document E, it mentions how the words ‘slaves’ and ‘slavery’ are not to be found in the Constitution, and therefore that it was never intended to give any protection or countenance to the slave system. This indicates that the Constitution can be interpreted differently. The views of the Constitution differentiated between the North and South. Document D is proof that by the 1850’s the Constitution, originally framed as an instrument of national unity, had become a source of sectional discord and tension and ultimately contributed to the failure of the union is has created.