The 1850s were a time of intense escalation for a sectional conflict between the free-labor-based, industrial North and the slavery-based agrarian South. In this controversy, both sides claimed sanction for their point of view and vision of America’s political future from the country’s founding document, the Constitution. Thus, the nature of the highest law of the land turned it from a cohesive force into fuel for the coming clash between the North and South. The contents of and the omissions in the Constitution, as well as the greatly varying interpretations thereof, brought about this state of affairs.
Multiple interpretations of the Constitution that fed into the crisis of the 1850s had existed since 1798, when Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions proclaimed that the Constitution and the Federal Government were the products of a compact amongst the states, and that the Federal Government’s legislation possessed no legitimate connection to the interests of the people unless verified by more direct representatives thereof (Norton 225).
This was the origin of the powerful new doctrine of States’ Rights, which Southern politicians would develop over the course of the next 63 years. During the Nullification Crisis of 1832, John Calhoun and other leading South Carolina politicians argued that a state had the right to overturn federal legislation, such as a deleterious tariff, which was passed without that state’s consent (Norton 383).
Following the immense territorial gains of the Mexican War, the issue of States’ Rights in the context of the status of slavery in the new territories gained even greater prominence. Lewis Cass, Democratic Presidential candidate in 1848, proposed the doctrine of popular sovereignty to enable the residents of a given territory to decide whether or not to institute slavery in the territory and in the state that it would become. Cass’s argument hinged on the notion that Congress did not have the Constitutional authority to legislate slavery in the territories (Norton 402).
Already this philosophy conflicted with a sentiment emerging in the North and expressed in the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which sought Congressional action for the abolition of slavery from all territories gained from Mexico (Norton 400). By 1850, old political safeguards, such as the Missouri Compromise, which were designed to quell any discord in regard to the issue of slavery’s status in new territories, had begun to atrophy as the Compromise of 1850 legislated for California’s admission as a free state and the extension of slave status to territories such as Utah, which were North of the Missouri Compromise line (Norton 405).
During the 1850s, the safeguards to the relative stability of the Union during prior decades steadily began to crumble. The Compromise of 1850 sparked hostility from abolitionists, free blacks, and an increasing number of moderate Northerners via the enactment of a draconian Fugitive Slave Act. Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 dealt the death blow to the Missouri Compromise by outright annulling it and granting the residents of the Kansas and Nebraska territories the ability to decide the status of slavery therein by popular vote.
What resulted was a state of quasi-war known as “Bleeding Kansas,” in which over 200 people were murdered on both sides and dishonest election practices were rampant (Norton 413). In 1857, the Supreme Court itself addressed the issue of the Constitution in the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, ruling essentially that black Americans were not citizens of the United States and that Congress had no power to bar slavery from the territories (Norton 415). This ruling, along with the presence of a majority of Southern judges on the Court indicated that not even this ideally impartial body was exempt from the regional struggle.
The Constitution, indeed, was not a perfect a document, and some of the words and concepts therein left the political stage open to the enmity between the advocates of freedom and the slaveholders. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote that, although the Constitution did not contain explicit mention of the words “slave” or “slavery,” it did implicitly and deliberately seek to legitimize the institution. Euphemisms such as “other persons” were used in the text, and the three-fifths clause, which counted every slave as three-fifths of a state’s inhabitant, entrenched the status of the slave as an inferior and inherently different being in the eyes of the law.
In addition, via the promise to aid states in the event of “domestic violence,” the Constitution could be interpreted to mandate Congress to suppress slave revolts (Norton 203). Such facts permitted Garrison to chastise the Constitution as an instrument of an oppressive government that violated the liberties naturally attributable to every man.
Abolitionists grew increasingly enraged in regard to the Constitution’s treatment of a slave as three-fifths of a person and the South’s disproportionate representation in the House of Representatives as a result.
To be fair, however, an alternate interpretation of the Constitution’s mentions of slavery can be argued. It was precisely because the Founders recognized the incompatibility of slavery with individual rights and wished to see its eventual extinction that they omitted any explicit references to slaves and instead unequivocally acknowledged them to be “persons.” Furthermore, the three-fifths compromise can be seen as a political necessity during the Union’s formation – as without it, there would have been little chance of getting Southern states to consent to the Constitution.
During the 1850s, while the Abolitionists in the North condemned the U. S. Constitution for its alleged support of slavery, Southern planters employed the Constitution’s perceived implicit sanction of slavery in order to claim protected or at least inviolable status for the practice.
An anonymous Georgian wrote in “Plain Words for the North” that the Constitution had recognized slavery where it existed and, since men from such regions had been pivotal in assuring the expansion of the United States into new territories, they should possess a voice in determining slavery’s status. If slaves were indeed property, as the Georgian claimed the Constitution to acknowledge, then it would be a grave injustice for Congress to prevent their mobility into land partly gained by the efforts of the slaveholders.
In the meantime, the Constitution itself did not in fact conclusively and unequivocally recognize slavery’s right to exist, as even slavery proponents like President James Buchanan seemed to recognize. In a message to Congress, Buchanan proposed an “explanatory amendment” assuring the perpetuation of slavery and reinforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. The fact that a similar clause was not present within the original document, along with the absence of a contrary clause abolishing slavery, indicated that the Constitution was ambiguous on the subject and open to a range of conflicting interpretations.
These conflicting interpretations of the Constitution further exacerbated the situation. Confederate President Jefferson Davis developed the argument of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to its extreme and proposed that because the Constitution was a “compact between independent states” and because the process of amendment ratification heavily emphasized state sovereignty, the individual states maintained the ultimate authority to secede from the Union when they no longer deemed the compact advantageous.
Abraham Lincoln, expressing a diametrically opposite view, declared that no state had ever existed as a sovereign entity outside of the Union and that only by virtue of the national Constitution, formed within the framework of a federal Union, could the states claim whatever rights they possessed. By Lincoln’s analysis of the Constitution, States’ Rights could not be but subordinate to the federal authority that engendered them.
Both Lincoln and Davis harbored a fundamental respect for the Constitution, but their irreconcilable interpretations thereof helped establish them as the leaders of the opposing sides in the upcoming war. Ultimately, the “proper” interpretation of the Constitution on this issue would be settled by force and by blood.
In the North during the 1850s, many Americans perceived slavery as an inherent violation of the individual liberties that the Constitution was supposed to represent. The cartoon “Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Free-Soiler” dramatized this sentiment by depicting Democratic politicians shoving a slave into the mouth of a resisting free man who cries “Murder!”
Many Northerners feared that integrating free citizens and slaveholders was another ploy by the Slave Power, a Southern oligarchy bent on extending its domain over the entirety of the United States, intending ultimately to send even the free men of the North into tyranny by unconstitutionally silencing criticism of their actions via such measures as the Gag Rule of 1836, which automatically tabled abolitionist petitions brought before Congress (Norton 400).
But no measure demonstrated the reality of the Slave Power’s existence more than the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which epitomized the Southern planters’ interpretation of the Constitution.
Chief Justice Roger Taney stated in a burst of historical ignorance that the Founding Fathers had never intended for black men to achieve equal status with the white population of the United States. Moreover, having won on the issue of popular sovereignty in the territories, the Southerners, with Taney as their spokesperson, were no longer content with the mere allowance of choice in the territories. Taney’s ruling amounted to an outright protection of slavery in the territories by barring Congress from limiting its spread (Norton 415).
If this were the true nature of the Constitution, then an increasing number of Northerners could not hope for it to preserve any semblance of liberty in the Union. Ruling on Dred Scott’s status as a slave, the Decision clothed the Fugitive Slave Act in Constitutional “justification” by affirming that presence in a free state did not free a slave.
Dred Scott also gave credence to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s association of Constitutional sanction with the Fugitive Slave Act when he denounced it in 1851. Emerson recognized the blatant immorality of legislation that would grant legal protection to the kidnapping of free black men and escaped slaves alike and would result in suicide for a country that deemed itself the home of freedom. Indeed, with laws and interpretations such as these, the conflict between the Northern and Southern ways of life was irreconcilable and could only erupt in blood.
South Carolina’s secession in December of 1860 set in motion the Southern interpretation of a Constitution dominated by States’ Rights, while the resulting Civil War and Lincoln’s use of 2.3 million federal troops to forcefully reunite the country demonstrated the Northern view which justified use of central authority on the grounds of national unity and individual liberty (Norton 461).
Ironically, the secession of the South permitted Northern Republicans to employ Congressional legislation (and the absence of Southern opposition) as a means to firmly establishing their own interpretation of the Constitution.
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, assuring that slavery would exist no more and ending the dispute over its status in the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 guaranteed that all men born or naturalized in the United States were citizens of their respective states and entitled to inalienable individual rights, thus overturning the Dred Scott Decision. Despite the fact that the contents, omissions, and possibilities for opposing interpretations within the Constitution greatly fueled the discord of the 1850s, the document was ultimately perfectible through the amendment process to the extent of assuring a just resolution to the ideological facet of the nation’s greatest inter-regional conflict.
Norton, Katzman, et. al. A People and a Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.