Territorial Expansion and Sectional Conflict

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Territorial Expansion and Sectional Conflict


Missouri Compromise. The issue of the expansion of slavery reared its head even as the Panic of 1819 put a damper on postwar nationalism and patriotism. By 1820 Missouri had a population of about sixty thousand, including ten thousand slaves, making it the first territory within the Louisiana Purchase with enough people to become a state. Before that could happen, Congress had to pass an enabling act to allow Missouri to create a state constitution and then must approve the resulting document. Representative James Tallmadge of New York offered two amendments to Missouris enabling act that would have barred more slaves from entering the state and emancipated those already there as they reached the age of twenty-five. Without such legislation Missouri was poised to enter the Union as a slave state, bringing more slave-state senators and representatives into the United States Congress. In a purely sectional vote the House passed the Tallmadge amendments; northerners voted eighty-six to ten for the first amendment and eighty to fourteen for the second, while southerners opposed the first, sixty-six to one, and the second, sixty-four to two. In the Senate a unanimous South rejected the amendments with help from a few northerners. Congress, after heated debate, adjourned without resolving Missouris situation. In the next session Massachusetts representatives broke the impasse by offering to give up the states northern counties as the free state of


Every November the University of Michigan and Ohio State University battle each other on the gridiron for bragging rights and frequently for the Big Ten football title. Their two states also went to war in the 1830s for control of Toledo, Ohio. The conflict originated with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which placed Toledo and the Maumee Bay north of the boundary that separated Michigan and Ohio. When Ohio entered the Union in 1803, it altered the boundary in its constitution to include Toledo. In 1835 the Michigan Territory sought a congressional enabling act so it could become a state, but Ohios congressional representatives delayed action on Michigans request. Undeterred, Michigan proceeded to create a state government without permission and became a state out of the Union for two years. Michigans Boy Governor Stevens T. Mason, who was actually an Acting Territorial Governor, called out the militia and led an army to the disputed boundary to assert Michigans control over Toledo and the surrounding area. Ohio also called out its militia and sent surveyors into Michigan. The war was on. Fortunately, the only battle occurred in an onion field south of Adrian, Michigan, when several militia men fired over the heads of an Ohio surveying party, who were then captured and imprisoned in a local jail. The only casualty was a Monroe (Michigan) Country sheriff who was stabbed with a penknife when he entered Toledo to auction off property. Cooler heads eventually prevailed after President Andrew Jackson dismissed Mason as territorial governor. Michigan voters elected him the first state governor a few months later. Eventually, Congress worked out a compromise, and Michigan was admitted to the Union in January 1837, giving up its claim to Toledo in return for the western half of the Upper Peninsula and a percentage of federal land sales in the state.

Source: Peter Onuf, Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

Maine. If Maine and Missouri entered together, one slave and the other free, the balance between North and South would be maintained. Sen. Jesse Thomas of Illinois offered an amendment that banned slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36° 30 line. All seemed fine and admission of both states moved ahead until a second crisis developed over the Missouri constitutions prohibition against the migration of free African Americans into the state, which conflicted with the federal Constitutions guarantee that the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states (Article IV, section 1). Missouri agreed not to abridge African American rights, without actually acknowledging that they were citizens.

Gag Rule. In the 1830s northern abolitionists increasingly brought pressure on the federal government to confront slavery. They especially wanted to end slavery in the District of Columbia, the one place where Congress had clear authority to act. Abolitionists began sending thousands of petitions to Congress, asking that slavery be abolished in the nations capital. Normal routine was for all petitions to be read, and since Congress dealt with the most mundane personal problems during the period, petitions provided the public with access to Congress. Southerners, however, were incensed by the number of petitions seeking abolition in the capital, especially since many were from women and children, who were not able to vote. Southerners demanded that Congress refuse to consider any of these petitions. Every year between 1836 and 1844 one of Congresss first acts was to pass a gag rule that tabled all petitions on abolition without reading or acting on them. Many northern congressmen voted with southerners to pass the rule, but northern voters increasingly came to resent the southern Slave Power that denied them their right to petition their representatives.

Wilmot Proviso. On 8 August 1846, a sweltering day by all accounts, Congress gathered for the last time before adjourning for the year. President James K. Polk sent a hurried request for $2 million to expedite negotiations with Mexico, hoping to end the war before Congress returned. After spending most of the day tying up loose ends, the House late in the evening turned to Polks request, which seemed likely to pass. With only a few minutes left before adjourning, the chairman recognized David Wilmot, an administration Democrat from Pennsylvania. No one expected what was to follow. As Wilmot rose to speak he stated that he was no Free-Soiler (though he would eventually become an antislavery Republican) and that he supported territorial expansion, the annexation of Texas, and the war with Mexico. But, Wilmot noted, slavery was currently illegal under Mexican law in the areas that the United States might gain after the war. Wilmot questioned why slavery should be reintroduced by the United States. God forbid that we should be the means of planting this institution upon it. He then offered the following amendment to Polks request: That, as an express and fundamental condition of the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory. The proviso framed the debate over slavery in the territories until the Civil War. Southerners argued that all Americans, including slaveholders, should have access to the new land. Northerners, wanting a safety valve for immigrants and urban laborers, believed that once slavery entered an area it ended all economic opportunity for free white settlers. The House, on a strictly sectional vote, approved the proviso. The Senate rejected it, and Polks request failed as Congress adjourned.


Presidents James Madison and James Monroe had agreed on the need for a better transportation network, but neither believed that the internal improvement bills they received from Congress were constitutional. By the 1820s the federal government opted out of funding improvements, with the exception of the National Road and a few other modest efforts. Even the maintenance of the National Road became a heated issue. John Quincy Adamss massive plans, outlined in his 1825 inaugural address, went nowhere, and his Jacksonian opponents ensured that Henry Clays American System would not get out of Congress. In 1830 Congress passed the Maysville, Road Bill, to construct a road from Maysville, Kentucky, to Lexington, in order to link the National Road at Cincinnati with the interior. Jackson vetoed the bill, perhaps because it enriched his rival Clays home state of Kentucky, but mainly because he doubted the constitutionality of a bill to construct a project that lay entirely within a single state and thus could be construed as local rather than federal. Jackson consented to other projects more national in scope, such as territorial roads, that clearly lay within the authority of Congress. Initially Jackson also favored the distribution of federal revenue surpluses to the states, to be used for internal improvements. He realized, though, that even this type of federal intervention could set a dangerous precedent and and encourage Congress to raise tariffs, taxes, and land prices in order to have more to send to their respective states.

Source: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945).

Compromise of 1850. The failure of the Wilmot Proviso left the question of slavery in the territories unresolved. The California gold rush made the situation worse, as people flooded into California looking to strike it rich. By the end of 1849, tens of thousands had flocked to California, and the region desperately needed the order that a territorial government could provide. California would clearly become a free state, but southerners refused to help create a new territory that barred slavery. The rest of the Mexican cession needed territorial government as well. Several other problems prevented any agreements in Congress. Southerners were upset by northern failure to abide by fugitive slave laws; many northern states had even passed personal liberty laws that freed local officials from the obligation of hunting runaway slaves. Slavery in the federal capitol still was a hot issue. And Texas and New Mexico were engaged in a border dispute that threatened to become a shooting war. Under the guidance of Henry Clay, an omnibus bill that would have resolved all these outstanding issues was introduced to Congress. The legislation would admit California as a free state and would leave the rest of the Mexican cession open to slavery. It would fix Texass western boundary in New Mexicos favor but would pay the states debt (incurred while it was an independent republic). Finally, the slave trade in the District of Columbia would end, and a much stronger fugitive slave law would be enacted. There was something for everyone to dislike in the bill, and it failed as a package. Clay, his health failing, left Washington. Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas took over the bill and separated its provisions, which each sections moderates combined to pass individually. President Zachary Taylor, who opposed the compromise, died suddenly after overindulging in cherries jubilee at Fourth of July celebration, and the new president, Millard Fillmore, signed the separate bills into law in September 1850. The compromise was illusory; no one had voted for the portions they opposed. Instead, the compromise was a temporary armistice.


In December 1814 Andrew Jacksons army pressed into service a man named Warwick, who spent a month delivering wood to the troops with a horse and cart. At the battle of New Orleans he was shot through the left eye and arm. Marigny DAuterive, a Louisiana slaveholder, was the legal owner of the horse, cart, wood, and Warwick. DAuterive waited until 1826 before making a claim totaling $1, 094 against the federal government for the use of the horse and cart, ninetyfive cords of wood used by the army, and the disability to Warwick. The congressional committee handling the claim recommended rejecting it, in part because it believed that slaves had not been put on the footing of property. This outraged southern congressmen and set off a debate over slavery that lasted several months. Most southerners wanted DAuterive to be paid, but a few wondered what might logically follow. Would paying the slaveholder for Warwicks injury acknowledge the federal governments right to impress slaves? Taken one step farther, would not acceptance of such payment imply consent to the proposition that slaves could be confiscated and emancipated, as long as their masters were compensated? DAuterives claim was significant because it arose at the same time that the American Colonization Society had decided to seek federal funding to colonize free blacks and manumitted slaves in Liberia. Also, abolitionist organizations had begun petitioning Congress to end slavery in the District of Columbia. Thus, according to some southerners, paying DAuterives minor claim might set a dangerous precedent that would threaten the Souths peculiar institution. In the end Congress never voted on the claim, and DAuterive was never paid.

Source: William J. Cooper, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (New York: Knopf, 1983).


William J. Cooper, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (New York: Knopf, 1983);

William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 17761854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990);

William H. Goetzmann, When the Eagle Screamed: The Romantic Horizon in American Diplomacy, 18001860 (New York: Wiley, 1966);

David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 18481861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).