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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Events Preceding the Civil War
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


The remaining events of the social and political history of the period covered by the preceding selections are too numerous to give each of them separate treatment, in the limited space at our command. It therefore becomes necessary to deal with them in a rapid review, as preliminary to the momentous historical era of the Civil War. Among the most important of these events was the financial panic of 1837, a startling result of the unbounded speculation, and the executive experiments on the finances, of the preceding epoch. The first era of bank-expansion in the United States was due to the abrogation of the charter of the National Bank in 1811, and to the business activity which followed the close of the second war with Great Britain. A second National Bank was instituted in 1817. The undue extension of banking facilities which existed during this period was followed in 1819 by a necessary contraction. The bank circulation fell from $110,000,000 in 1816 to $65,000,000 in 1819. Financial distress and a general depression of industry succeeded, from which the country did not fully recover for several years.

When Jackson became President, in 1829, he very quickly manifested an enmity to the National Bank, which he declared to be corrupt, dangerous, and unconstitutional. His first hostile measure was to remove from it the government deposits, which he distributed among the State banks. This measure produced a storm of opposition, greatly disturbed the conditions of business, and caused general distress in the industrial community. But Jackson was unyieldingly obstinate in his opinions, and his hostility to the bank was next displayed in a veto of the bill to renew its charter, which would expire on March 3, 1836. The State banks took advantage of this condition of affairs to expand greatly their discounts, new banks came rapidly into existence, and the banking facilities were enormously increased, the discounts augmenting from $200,000,000 in 1830 to $525,000,000 eight years afterwards.

A series of wild speculations attended this expansion: foreign goods were heavily imported, and enormous operations took place in government lands, in payment for which paper money poured profusely into the treasury. Such was the state of affairs at midsummer of 1836. To check these operations a "specie circular" was issued by the Secretary of the Treasury, which required payment for government lands to be made in gold and silver after August 15, 1836. The effect of this series of executive actions, and of the fever of speculation which existed, was disastrous. The species which was expected to flow into the treasury in payment for public lands failed to appear. The banks refused discount and called in their loans. Property was everywhere sacrificed, and prices generally declined. Then, like an avalanche suddenly talling upon the land, came the business crash and panic of 1837, which caused the financial ruin of thousands. During the first three weeks of April two hundred and fifty business houses failed in New York. Within two months the failures in that city alone aggregated nearly one hundred millions of dollars. Throughout the whole country the mercantile interests went down with a general crash, involving the mechanic, the farmer even the humblest laborer, in the ruinous consequences of the disaster. Bankruptcy everywhere prevailed, forced sacrifice for valuable merchandise was the order of the day, on less than eight of the States partially or wholly failed, even the general government could not pay its debts, trade stood still, business confidence vanished, and ruin stalked unchecked over the land.

The panic of 1837 was not due solely to the causes above enumerated. Many influences converged to produce this result, and to give rise to the fever of speculation which was its immediate predecessor. As one of its results the banking system of the country suffered a general collapse. Out of eight hundred and fifty banks, three hundred and forty-three closed entirely, sixty-two failed partially ,and the system of State banks received a shock from which it never fully recovered. The compromise tariff of 1833, though which the tariff was to be annually reduced until it should reach a general twenty per cent. Level in 1842 added to the distress, and recovery only fairly took place after 1842 in which year a few tariff bill was passed, imposing a thirty per cent. ad-valorem rate on all imported goods except in certain special cases. In 1846 a low tariff bill was again passed, which continued in force until 1860 wen in the Morrill tariff bill was resumed the protective principle which has been ever since maintained.

During the era in question the settlement of the broad territory of the West had been taking place with great rapidity, the pioneer emigration, which had log since crossed the Alleghenies and spread throughout the eastern valley of the Mississippi, now extending widely westward of that river towards the infertile barrier of the Rocky Mountains. The movement had even reached the Pacific, through the incitements of the fur-trade, and of certain advantages offered by the rich plains of California. Yet the American population of this region was but sparse in 1848, in which year California became a part of the United States, as a result of the Mexican War. Emigration thither now proceeded more rapidly, while the neighboring territory of Utah became the land of refuge of the strange sect of Mormons who had made their way thither in 1846 and founded Salt Lake City in 1847. The settlement of the Pacific region, however, must have taken place very slowly had it not been for the discovery of gold in the mountain region of that territory. The cry of "Gold," that rang far and wide throughout the land in the summer and autumn of 1848 gave rise to such a fever of emigration as the world has seldom known. Over land and over sea thousands of eager treasurer-seekers flocked to this new land of promise, and within one year of American occupation the land filled up more than it had done in three centuries of the drowsy Spanish rule.

On January 19, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered the glittering yellow fragments, which gave rise to this furore of emigration, in a mill-race which he was excavating for Captain Sutter, at Coloma. Investigation proved that gold existed in great abundance throughout a broad region, and are a year had passed thousands of fortune-seekers were already actively at work, washing treasure out of the sands of ancient rivers, whose waters had ceased to flow ages before. The story of the "gold rush" to California is one of extraordinary interest, and the scenes to which it gave rise are almost without example in the annals of mankind, except in the closely similar case of the Australian gold discovery. A few years, however, began to exhaust the "placer," or surface, diggings of California, and new methods of mining, requiring considerable capital, had to be resorted to. The "hydraulic process" was invented in 1852, the "high gravels" being broken down by the force of powerful jets of water, conducted through pipes from mountain streams and lakes. Quartz mining also came into vogue, the metallic veins being worked and the gold extracted by difficult and costly processes. Rich deposits of silver were also discovered, particularly in Nevada and Colorado. The era of individual fortune-hunting was over, but enormous wealth still lay buried in the rocks of the region, and emigration proceeded with unexampled rapidity, peopling the Pacific Territories in a ratio far exceeding anything ever experienced in the settlement of the Atlantic slope. Agriculture slowly succeeded the mining fever, the rich soil of California proving to hold a wealth more valuable than that contained within its rocks. The vast forests of the Pacific coast ranges also proved treasure-mines. In consequence of these various inducements to population the Far West has, within forty years, become the home of an extensive and flourishing population. State after State has been added to the Union in that distant region, railroads and telegraphs have been stretched across the continent, and in response to the magic cry of "Gold" an immense and thickly-peopled domain has been added to the territory of the United States of America.

There is one further phase of American history, to which our attention is particularly called, from its momentous importance as the producing cause of the Civil War. This is the development of Abolitionism, and the bitter controversies to which it gave rise. The sentiment in favor of slave-manumission died away in great measure after the passage of the Missouri Compromise Bill in 1820, and, though it was kept feebly alive, it failed to become a question of national importance until after the close of the Mexican War. A feeling in favor of "gradual abolition" existed in some measure both South and North until 1830, though no steps were taken towards its realization. The doctrine of immediate abolition was first openly promulgated by William Lloyd Garrison, in The Liberator, a newspaper of which the first number was issued on January 1, 1831. Anti-slavery societies were soon after formed, but the cause which they advocated met with great opposition in the North during the succeeding twenty years, the meetings of the abolitionists being violently broken up, and their lives occasionally endangered. The political strength of the abolition idea was first made manifest in 1844, when the candidate of the so-called Liberty party polled 62,300 votes, enough to defeat Clay and make Polk President of the United States.

It was, however, the close of the Mexican War, and the consequent large addition of territory to the United States, that brought the question of slavery- extension prominently before Congress, and opened that series of hostile debates which ended only with the Southern declaration of war. In the discussion of the treaty with Mexico, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania proposed to add to the appropriation bill the proviso that slavery should be prohibited in any territory which might be acquired in consequence of the war. This "Wilmot Proviso" was defeated in the Senate, but was received with much approbation in the North. The opponents of slavery organized themselves, in 1848, into the Free Soil party, which in the ensuing Presidential election polled 300,000 votes for its candidate, Van Buren. It sent Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase to the Senate, and a considerable number of members to the House of Representatives.

The rapid settlement of California and the West soon became a disturbing element in the situation. The people of Oregon organized a provisional Territorial government, from which slavery was excluded. A convention held in California in 1849 adopted a similar measure, and an application was made to Congress for admission of the Territory as a State with this proviso in its Constitution. A fierce debate followed, the Southern extremists insisting on the organization of California, Utah, and New Mexico, as Territories, with no restriction as to slavery. The Free Soilers and many others demanded that California should be admitted as a State, and that Territorial governments prohibiting slavery should be given to Utah and New Mexico. The dispute ended in a compromise bill proposed by Henry Clay, and accepted by Congress, in whose measures California was admitted as a free State, Utah and New Mexico organized as Territories without restriction as to slavery, the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia prohibited, and provision made for the return of fugitive slaves from Northern States.

For a while everything seemed settled: the compromise was spoken of as a finality, and a state of public feeling prevailed which greatly discouraged anti-slavery agitation. In the succeeding Presidential election the Free Soil ticket received but 151,000 votes, and the party ended its political existence, to be absorbed in 1855 into the Republican party, a new and strongly- consolidated organization, which was destined to become famous in the succeeding history of the country.

Yet the Fugitive Slave proviso of the compromise bill proved a rankling thorn which gave abundant activity to the anti-slavery sentiment in the North. For years previously slaves had been at intervals escaping to the free States, where they found numerous friends to secrete them or assist them in their journey to the safe soil of Canada. The organization for the aid and secretion of fugitive slaves in time became very complete, and received the name of the "underground railroad." Few slaves who crossed the border-line were recovered by their masters, partly from the efficient measures of concealment taken by their friends, and partly from the disinclination of the State and local authorities to assist pursuers, and the legal obstructions which were occasionally placed in their path.

Massachusetts passed a law to secure to such fugitives trial by jury. Pennsylvania passed a law against kidnapping. A decision was finally made in the United States Supreme Court which gave to the owner of a slave authority to recapture him in any State of the Union, without regard to legal processes. Yet little benefit was gained by the South from this decision. The States readily obeyed the mandate against interference. Some of them forbade their courts to hear claims of this character, and laid severe penalties on officers who should arrest or jailers who should detain alleged fugitive slaves. The difficulty thus produced was obviated in the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Commissioners were appointed by the United States to hear such cases, and marshals and their deputies were required to execute warrants for the arrest of fugitives, with a penalty equal to the full value of the slave if they should suffer one to escape after arrest. Other features of this bill increased its stringency, and under its provisions there was little hindrance to a free negro being kidnapped and taken South as a slave. The commissioners in certain cases refused to listen to evidence in favor of the freedom of the alleged fugitive.

A law thus enforced could not fail to arouse indignation, even in those devoid of anti-slavery sympathies. Cases of the arrest of fugitives took place in many parts of the Northern States, in which the requirements of ordinary law and humanity were disregarded, and the captives carried South with little or no effort to prove that they were the persons claimed as fugitives. Hundreds, in all parts of the North, who had viewed the controversy with in-difference and looked upon the abolitionists as a band of wild radicals, had their sympathies awakened by cases of this kind occurring in their own neighborhoods; and there can be no doubt that the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law, while it saved to the South a certain portion of its flying property, greatly added to Northern hostility to slavery, and backed up the ardent abolitionists with an extensive body of moderate sympathizers.

In December, 1853, a bill was introduced into Congress by Mr. Dodge, a Senator from Iowa, for the organization of the Territory of Nebraska. Mr. Dixon, of Kentucky, proposed, as an amendment to this bill, to abrogate the Missouri Compromise and permit the citizens of the Southern States to take and hold their slaves within any of the new Territories or the States formed therefrom. On January 23, 1854, the bill was reported back from committee by Mr. Douglas, modified to propose the formation of two Territories, the southern to be called Kansas and the northern Nebraska. It retained the principle of the Dixon amendment, and for four months thereafter a hot debate was maintained in the halls of Congress. Despite the utmost efforts of Northern members, and the numerous petitions from the best element of the Northern people, the bill was carried by the South, the compromise measure which had been accepted as a finality for thirty-five years flung to the winds, and the whole territory from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains thrown open as a new field of battle between the advocates of slavery and freedom. In 1857 the South gained another victory, in the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, in which the Missouri Compromise was declared to be unconstitutional, the action recently taken by Congress being thus sustained by the highest tribunal in the land.

The truce between slavery and freedom which had been maintained for thirty-five years was broken. The war was about to recommence with tenfold energy. The events above described had very greatly strengthened the abolition party in the North, and all other questions of public policy grew unimportant before the imminent demands of this. A reorganization of parties became necessary. The old Whig party had received its death-blow. The Democratic party divided into two sections, on new lines. Finally the Free Soilers and a section of the Whigs and Democrats fused together in opposition to the new aggressive attitude of slavery, and the Republican party came into existence, while the pro-slavery members of the old parties joined hands as a modified Democracy. The country was drifting it knew not whither. The armies were in the field, arrayed for legislative battle, and the hot and bitter sentiment that was widely manifested was full of the elements of actual war.

The first phase of hostility declared itself on the soil of Kansas, organized as a Territory on May 30, 1854. The decision that slavery might be introduced there led to warlike conflicts between settlers from the Northern States and armed parties from the adjoining slave State of Missouri. An organized effort had been made by the anti-slavery societies of the North to secure Kansas, by colonization with emigrants of abolition sentiments. Missouri made an equally strong effort to secure it to slavery, but rather by violence than by colonization. An armed band of two hundred and fifty Missourians marched upon the settlers at the new town of Lawrence, and threatened to drive them out at the point of the bayonet if they did not immediately strike their tents and leave the Territory. They refused to do so, and their assailants retired, without carrying out their threat. But this battle of words was followed by a series of sanguinary assaults upon the settlers, in which a state of actual war was inaugurated.

An election for a Territorial legislature was ordered in 1855. The slave-holders of Missouri and Arkansas at once adopted a new expedient. They entered the Territory in large bands, took possession of the polling-places, drove the actual settlers from the polls, and cast their votes in favor of pro-slavery candidates. Though the settlers numbered but 2905 voters, there were cast at this mockery of an election 6320 votes. In 1857 the pro-slavery legislature met, formed a Constitution, submitted it to the people, and ratified it at an election in which no votes in opposition were allowed or counted. This fraudulent operation was endorsed by the administration, but it was soon proved that the Free State settlers of Kansas were too greatly in the majority to be thus dealt with. A convention was held at Wyandotte in 1859, in the election of whose members, though many fraudulent pro-slavery votes were again polled, the Free State party gained a decided majority. A Constitution was adopted in which slavery was prohibited. This was submitted to popular suffrage, and carried by a vote of 10,421 for to 5530 against. In 1860, after the withdrawal of the Southern members from Congress, the State was admitted under this Constitution.

The story of abolition may here be briefly ended. From being a Congressional issue it had been made a warlike issue in Kansas. This violent method was carried to the halls of Congress, where, in May, 1856, Charles Sumner delivered one of his most vigorous and telling speeches on "The Crime against Kansas." As a result he was assailed by Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, knocked down with a heavy cane, and beaten so severely that he never fully recovered from the effects. This cowardly and outrageous assault added greatly to the earnestness of abolition sentiment in the North, and had its share in arousing that fanatical outbreak in which John Brown seized Harper's Ferry and attempted to excite a slave-insurrection. This event will be considered at length in a succeeding article.

In the Presidential election of 1860 the rapid growth of anti-slavery sentiment in the North was evidenced in the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, to the Presidency, while the bitterness of hostile feeling in the South was indicated in the secession movements that quickly followed. Though it was declared by Congress, after the outbreak of the war, that hostilities were not prosecuted with any intention of interfering with the "established institutions" of the seceding States, yet it proved impossible to keep measures of abolition out of the contest.

Slavery was at first dealt with from the immediate stand-point of war. Slave property employed in acts against the government was declared confiscated, the army was forbidden to return fugitive slaves, and slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia and in the Territories. Later, the employment of negroes as soldiers was authorized. Two army commanders, Fremont in Missouri and Hunter in South Carolina, took it upon themselves to issue proclamations abolishing slavery within their fields of command. This unauthorized action was disavowed by the President. Though in favor of abolition, he belevied that slave-holders ought to be compensated for their lost property, and in December, 1862, he offered to the consideration of Congress three constitutional amendments, in which he proposed to compensate States which should abolish slavery before 1900 and to colonize free negroes out of the country. Though these recommendations were not considered, yet gradual emancipation was incorporated in 1862 in the Constitution of West Virginia, and in that of Missouri in 1863. Maryland, in 1864, adopted immediate abolition. On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, and on January 1, 1863, a final one, definitely abolishing slavery in the hostile States, with the exception of the parishes of Louisiana and the counties of Virginia which were then within the Union lines. Though it has been claimed that the President had neither constitutional nor physical power to abolish slavery in these States, and that therefore his action was nugatory, yet its effect proved sufficiently positive. As the Federal armies advanced, slavery disappeared behind them. Of the slave States not included in the proclamation, Kentucky and Delaware alone took no action on the subject of slavery, but the institution was everywhere near its death. On April 8, 1864, the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery within the limits of the United States, was offered in Congress, and in 1865 it was ratified by thirty-one of the thirty-six States. The work begun by The Liberator in 1830 was thus completed, and every man, woman, and child within the United States of America was declared free from the date of December 18, 1865.

Charles Morris

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