The United States of America was a country founded upon contradiction and hypocrisy. It was an inevitable development as the demons had plagued the Colonies even before the dream of independence had been realized.
It is of no surprise then, that the very contradiction that the country was founded on wormed its way into the westward frontier, the President’s cabinet, and by proxy, every part of the country. It even had foundation in the document that substantiated the country: the Constitution. Despite blatantly subverting the preamble of the Declaration of Independence in which the country asserted all men to be equal, the Constitutional convention nonetheless lent a clause to the document that declared slaves to be qualitatively and consequently politically inferior. Such hypocrisy continued to characterize the nation throughout Thomas Jefferson’s and Andrew Jackson’s presidencies where their actions and decisions as presidents undermined the stances they maintained in their campaign platforms and left America divided on multiple fronts. Sectional animosity, which had been conveniently ignored in order to become an internationally recognized nation, reemerged revitalized with years to fester and became an entity that tainted all aspects of American life. The country, stiff with tension and irreconcilable interests, could no longer resist as it reached the breaking point.
Although the moral implications of slavery contributed to the Civil War, it was ultimately the deeply intertwined and divisive political and economic clout of slavery that set the nation to war. Socially, slavery provided impetus to those who believed they took the moral high-ground by combating it: abolitionists. In the 19th century, families like the Beechers notably extended the issue of slavery morally into other mediums. Lyman Beecher, for example, both preached as a minister to promote abolitionism as well as was cofounder of the American Temperance Society. The American Temperance Society was a more public advocate of several societies that opposed slavery in some capacity and spoke in hopes of improving society.
The daughter of Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was another significant proponent of abolitionism in the moral context. In her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she responded to recent federal decisions, namely the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act that obstructed abolitionist efforts (Document 5). Devoutly religious and a bereaved mother herself, Stowe wrote her novel to evoke sympathy for the ideas motherhood and family in slaves. Her poignant portrayal of a desperate mother attempting to resist the threat of having her son irrevocably torn from her, an idea Stowe was certainly able to relate with herself, provided many with a moral justification for repudiating slavery. Abolitionist propaganda also spread through media. William Lloyd Garrison, editor and cofounder of anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, was a journalist born in Massachusetts who sought to convince the north to rid the nation of slavery’s vice. In an 1858 edition of The Liberator where Garrison discusses the Supreme Court ruling on the Dred Scott case, he argues slavery to be so inherently antithetical to the nation’s ideals that if the nation cannot rid itself of the practice, it should rid itself of the area that still contains it (Document 7). His radical call for disunion liberally used invective to antagonize the south as well as discussed how the institution fundamentally opposed the ideals upon which the nation was built to anger and galvanize the public.
Through media like newspapers and novels that disseminated abolitionist propaganda or through outlets like the American Temperance Society that served as venues for abolitionist efforts, moral opposition to slavery grew and exacerbated the economic and political tension that led to violent civil war in America. Economically, slavery was what Southern agriculture was built upon. Removing that meant crippling the South and giving them justification to secede. In order to mollify the South and prevent them from seceding after California, land gained from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and a veritable gold mine, petitioned to become a free state, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. As the site of the eponymous California Gold Rush and an undecided member of either the North or South, the state was poised to be either an incredible asset or dangerous threat depending on which side it ended up on.
So when the state decided independently that it wanted to enter the Union as the free state, and by doing so disregarding the Missouri Compromise, the South was understably furious. The Fugitive Slave Act, a law that was part of the Compromise of 1850 attempted to solve this economic issue not through addressing California’s position on slavery, but through fining abolitionists complicit in the escape of fugitive slaves and aiding the pursuit and capture of them (Document 4). Although written in the impartial legal tongue of statutes, the document’s content belied its veneer as it blatantly attempted to navigate the economic conundrum expansion posed. The looming threat of slavery’s removal also The issue of Southern agriculture being almost entirely reliant on slavery created another economic problem the South could not afford to concede without drastic economic upheaval. James Henry Hammond, a planter from South Carolina and confident of the South’s ability to prosper on its own, so long as it had slavery, sought to convince the South to secede on the merit of cotton.
His speech, aptly titled “Cotton is King,” referenced numerical data to argue for the South’s ability to prosper as an independent nation.