- Jefferson believed in an “Empire of Liberty,” by which he meant a growing American republic as a counterpoise and living rebuke to ossified and tyrannical European monarchies. Expanding the American republic also had the benefit of providing additional land for famers, and Jefferson believed that farmers were the most virtuous of citizens, tied to the land, raising their own food, beholden to none, and consequently impervious to the corrupt blandishments of kings and princes. Many Jeffersonian-Republicans believed in an organic conception of nation states, that is, that nations had a birth, youth, old age, and death. Each life stage was associated with a particular economic model. Youth was the agricultural age, when a country relied primarily on agriculture and its citizens were farmers. By contrast, old age was associated with industrialism and large urban centers, areas of corruption and decay with factory workers, not independent yeomen. Extending the youthful, agricultural stage of national life could be regarded as a patriotic imperative. Jefferson pursued territorial expansion, ignoring his own concerns with constitutional limitations, acquiring the region dubbed Louisiana from Napoleonic France without explicit congressional sanction. The Monroe doctrine prohibited European settlement in the Americas, leaving the region to follow the American example and join the Empire of Liberty.
The peril came when expansion was linked with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery in the Ohio Country, and while concessions to slave ownership were necessary in the Constitution to insure ratification, it was confidently hoped that slavery was in decline, fated to vanish with time. Unfortunately, the invention of the cotton gin and the acquisition of new and fertile land that came into cultivation after the War of 1812 made cotton an increasingly profitable cash crop. As new states petitioned to enter the Union in the years following the war, sectional tensions rose and peaked. Northern politicians recognized the advantages that additional slave states gave to the South in terms of more congressional seats, more electoral votes for president, and more power on key congressional committees like the House Ways and Means. When Missouri petitioned to join the Union as a slave state, Northern opposition was based primarily on concerns with Southern political dominance becoming permanent, not over humanitarian objections to slavery as an institution. Jefferson sadly reflected on the dangers to the Union of sectional voting in Congress on the admission of new slave states, and the violent rhetoric and agitation that accompanied the debate. In his gloomy conclusion, the Union was doomed despite the Missouri Compromise settlement.
- With the Missouri Compromise, sectional tension abated, though Jefferson had warned that such tensions were merely temporarily hushed. With the rise of militant abolitionism after 1830, agitation of the slavery issue became a constant in American life. Abolitionism prior to 1830 had been rather sedate, typically confined to the pulpit and to individual slave owners deciding to manumit their charges. Thanks to William Lloyd Garrison and others, abolitionism became a social movement of perpetual antislavery lobbying and criticism. The new militancy was in part driven by the changing character of American Protestantism. The old doctrine of predestinarianism, that at birth the fate of the soul had been determined, was abandoned for a more proactive faith, in which an individual could earn salvation by deeds. Revivals were staged that invited emotional conversions, and itinerant preachers traveled the country to reach rural farm families. The emphasis on salvation by deeds, on the necessity of acting for good while living to earn heaven after death, naturally spurred interest and engagement in the antislavery struggle. What better cause to advocate than the freedom of slaves? Garrison employed harsh and unforgiving rhetoric in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, to condemn slavery and slave owners. Southern slave states responded by banning abolitionist rhetoric and sending warrants for Garrison’s arrest on treason charges to Northern states. What has been termed an “intellectual blockade” started in the South; by 1840, any debate on the slavery issue had ceased, and Southern intellectuals and politicians described slavery as a positive good for which they need not apologize.
- Southern politicians, notably John C. Calhoun, argued that the Constitution was a compact of sovereign states who could remove themselves at will from the nation state that they created. While in the Union, states that objected to federal laws regarded as unconstitutional could “interpose” or prevent the enforcement of those laws in their respective states. The concept of state interposition, which dated to the Virginia-Kentucky resolutions censuring the Sedition Acts, was the ideological basis for South Carolina’s resistance to the tariff during the winter of 1832-33, and, coupled with the compact theory, for secession. Militant abolitionism angered Southern politicians, who worried that Northern growth in population and in economic prosperity and diversity would translate into Northern efforts to use the federal government to curb and ultimately abolish slavery. Calhoun called for a series of amendments to the Constitution that would restore what he claimed was the balance between the two sections. He regarded Northern efforts to prohibit slavery in territory acquired from Mexico as degrading to the South. Southerners in Congress blocked efforts to keep slavery out of the Mexican acquisition, such as Wilmot’s Proviso. Calhoun argued that slaves were property, and that the Constitution protected the right of Southern slave owners to take their property into American territory.
Other politicians, such as Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster, believed that the Constitution, in Jackson’s words “formed a government, not a league.” Having created a Union based on the people’s consent (We the people), states could not simply opt out at their whim. If they objected to laws, their options were to pass news laws, elect like-minded representatives, or amend the Constitution. Americans also retained a right to revolution if sorely afflicted. But Jackson and others argued that there was no constitutional process for secession as such would be an absurdity. Abolitionists were divided in their views on the Constitution and slavery. Garrison vociferously maintained that the Constitution protected and sustained slavery, that it was a covenant with death. Frederick Douglass denied that the Constitution safeguarded slavery, noting that the term slavery did not appear in the document, which he memorably characterized as a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Lincoln believed that the Founders only dealt with slavery out of necessity, and that they intended to place the institution on a course of ultimate extinction.
- Repeated political controversies ensued each time the national domain expanded or with attempts to organize existing territories. Expansion and slavery were wrecking the ability of the nation’s political system to adjudicate disputes. William Cooper has noted that with the rise of militant abolitionism and the resulting Southern intellectual blockade, congressional races in the South often turned on which candidate was most robust in support for slavery and in condemnation of abolition. Further, the abolition movement criticized slavery as a moral wrong, this within the fervent atmosphere of the religious revivalism of the period. While Northerners were clearly concerned with the political dominance of the South that came with slavery and the 3/5th rule, as expressed in the controversy over Missouri’s admission, with the Mexican cession, many began to criticize slavery as morally abhorrent. Given Southern political culture, this made compromise on slavery and expansion very difficult. Wilmot’s Proviso, which prohibited slavery in territory acquired from Mexico, introduced in the House in August 1846, produced four years of acrimonious debate finally ended with the Compromise of 1850. But like its predecessor in 1820, the Compromise of 1850 provided only a lull. Sectional tensions sprang anew with Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which dismissed the Missouri restriction that had barred slavery from territory north of Missouri’s southern border. Abraham Lincoln emerged from quasi-political retirement to assail the act, condemning it for violating what many regarded as a sacred political compromise. Although Lincoln refused to rebuke Southerners for slavery, he nevertheless bluntly labeled slavery morally wrong, and he noted that given the 3/5th compromise, the North could not be expected to idly accept new slave states. To Lincoln, slavery was an anachronism that the prescient Founders had placed on a course of ultimate extinction. Lincoln dismissed Douglas’s solution to the slavery and expansion controversy, popular sovereignty, as effectively allowing slavery’s expansion without resistance. Lincoln averred that the Congress in fact could restrict slavery from the territories, as it had done in the past. The resulting maelstrom in Kansas, effectively a civil war within the territory, presaged the larger civil war to come.