Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 5 Sectionalism or, “Manifest Destiny’s Child”

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Last episode we explored American slavery in depth. It was terrible. And today we’re going to look at an important idea that defines American geography, and also, social and political divisions. It’s the simple fact that the United States is really big and environmentally and culturally diverse. So it naturally gets divided up into different sections. We call this… wait for it… sectionalism.

We’re talking about our first frontier president, who’s supposed to be getting taken off the $20 bill as we speak. We’ll look at that time we took over half of Mexico and how all of this expansion just enflamed the debate around slavery. Today’s episode is all about Sectionalism or, “Manifest Destiny’s Child.” This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time…

Before we get into the episode I want to establish a few basic premises.

First, a few continuities in US history:

  1. We hate taxes.
  2. We can’t decide how powerful the federal government should be.
  3. We want to expand, roam, colonize, conquer, whatever you want to call it – Americans always want more. And nothing epitomizes this more than the frontier. Americans in the east saw it as the “edge of civilization,” wild land that was untamed and unclaimed. Meanwhile, Native Americans and Mexico are like “Um… should we be worried?” Yes. Always.

Think about it this way: from the beginning of our history Americans have been frontierspeople. First they traveled across the ocean to unknown territory in the “New World.” One of the reasons we got so angry with the British was because of the Proclamation of 1763 that said we couldn’t go west of the Appalachian Mountains. When we were still just a few years old, we bought the Louisiana Purchase even though we had absolutely no need for it. Jefferson was just like, “Treat yo’ self.” The War of 1812 was mostly motivated by the desire to expand unbothered into that new territory, but we also were secretly hoping to get Spanish Florida and British Canada out of it. Americans be expanding. 

But every time we expand, the question of slavery comes up again: would slavery be allowed in this new land? And every time Congress got into an argument that verged on a real conflict, they would come to some compromise that just pushed the issue down the road. In the first half of the 19th century, the Missouri Compromise banned slavery in the Northern half of the Louisiana Territory while admitting Missouri and Maine as a new slave and free state, respectively. Other similar compromises constantly kept the balance of power equal – neither side wanted the other to get more senators.

So, westward expansion complicated things for our young country. But it also led to demographic changes in U.S. voters. As more frontier states were admitted into the union, many elected leaders pushed for universal white male suffrage. By the 1820s most states had removed the property requirement for voting and this ushered in a new era of leadership away from the wealthy elites and toward a more populist group of leaders coming from the “common people” and the military. 

And in walks…

Act 1: Andrew Jackson

Born into poverty in South Carolina before settling in Tennessee, Jackson was the first president of the so-called “common man.” He rose to prominence in the War of 1812  fighting the Native Americans along the frontier and he emerged as the Hero of New Orleans after defeating the British on the Mississippi River. Jackson is a fascinating and problematic president to study because he basically just does whatever he wants. 

During the War of 1812, without anyone really asking him to, he followed British troops around the south, eventually taking his troops to Spanish Florida. He marched all the way into the foreign territory, taking control of Pensacola for a while. I’m sure everyone in Washington was like, “Can he do that?” I don’t know but he just did.

He defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans and although it was fought after the war had officially ended, Jackson became a national celebrity. After the close of the war, Jackson was named commander of the southern district. He entrusted the command of the troops in the field to subordinates while he retired to his home at the Hermitage, near Nashville, but he was ordered back to active service at the end of December 1817, when unrest along the border appeared to be reaching critical proportions. There were Indian raids along the southern border with Spanish Florida and Jackson was like, “You again? I thought I invaded you already.” 

Jackson’s instructions were vaguely to “subdue” the unrest along the Florida border but he heard, “Conquer Florida, please!” He captured two Spanish posts and appointed one of his subordinates as the new military governor of Florida. A crisis emerged between Washington D.C. and Spain, who would eventually sell the territory to the U.S., and Jackson’s reputation was only saved by a strong defense from the current Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Ah, irony…

The “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824

You see, a few years later Jackson ran for president. And his biggest opponent was none other than John Quincy Adams. The son of the Founding Father and a popular figure amongst the Washington elite, Adams was the perfect character foil for Jackson. Together, they represented the old and new “sections” of the U.S.: Adams was east coast privilege while Jackson was a frontier lawyer from Tennessee. Thanks, in part, to newly introduced universal white male suffrage (you no longer had to own property to vote in most states), Jackson won both the popular vote and he won the most electoral delegates, but neither number was a clear majority, because there were four total candidates in the election. In this case that meant that the decision went to the House, where Adams was known and quite popular.

Speaker of the House Henry Clay threw his support behind Adams and then, mysteriously, when Adams was chosen as president he quickly made Henry Clay his Secretary of State. Jackson’s supporters across the country called this a “corrupt bargain” and evidence that the government was an elite “insider’s club” that ignored the desires of the common people. Four years later, Jackson won in a landslide, becoming president in 1828. 

The Election of 1828

Side note: the election of 1828 basically killed his wife. 1828 was really the first year that presidential candidates actively campaigned. They toured around the country giving speeches and spread propaganda for their candidate and against the other. Rachel Jackson was vilified in campaign pamphlets as an adulterer because there had been a mistake with her divorce paperwork that meant that she was not technically divorced when she married Andrew. Many believe that the stress of the campaign took its toll and she died just a month after the election. She made it clear that she dreaded the idea of being the First Lady saying, “she would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of God than live in that palace.” 

Besides clearly being an important moment in Jackson’s life and career, the election of 1828 is also a turning point in the political history of the United States. Jackson was the first president from the area west of the Appalachians, evidence of the rise of a third section to compete with the North and South. For many, Jackson was the “Peoples’ President.” Although he eventually became one of the largest landholders in Tennessee, he was the first president born into poverty. But this doesn’t mean that his policies or ideologies were necessarily in synch with what the lower classes wanted. In fact, for 30 years he had been a part of the conservative faction in Tennessee politics and during the financial crisis of 1819 he vigorously opposed legislation that would give relief to those in debt. But the common people saw him as “their guy” – someone who, at least better than the perfectly coiffed pretty boys in Washington, could speak to their experience. And in many ways he lived up to that reputation. On the night of the Inauguration he opened up the White House to the public and threw a huge party on the lawn. The neighbors all locked their doors and stayed in their homes, terrified of the mobs of drunk people partying it up on the White House lawn. Nicknamed the “Inaugural Brawl” this was a portent of the way Jackson would run his White House: however he damn well chose, thank you very much. 

His opponents in government referred to him as King Andrew. He ran his administration like a military commander and he was less interested in experienced politicians and instead relied on friends and supportive newspaper editors to advise him. He is known for a practice known as the spoils system. The idea was that as “to the victor go the spoils,” those who supported the new president should get something out of the deal, maybe a job in the White House. Immediately after he became president, almost 1,000 civil servants, career bureaucrats, were removed to make room for people who had supported Jackson’s campaign. It’s one thing to fill your presidential cabinet with people in your party who agree with you; it’s another to purge those in the government who had been dedicated bureaucrats through multiple administrations and fill those positions with unqualified buddies from back home. 

Now, Jackson is fascinating and I would recommend you go read more about him. But for our purposes there are a few key events during his presidency that can help us understand what’s going on in the U.S. during the 19th century. First, is the Nullification Crisis. So, you should all know by now that I hate talking about economics. But, unfortunately, it’s quite important because a major issue in 19th century politics is tariffs. 

What’s a tariff? (Kind of.)

Tariffs are essentially taxes on foreign goods coming into the country. And, in general, during this time period, people who are in business and manufacturing want high tariffs and farmers want low tariffs. Let’s use a dumb example: chairs. Every year when I talk about this with kids I try to think of an example of a thing that Americans made in the 19th century and every year I draw a blank. I literally can’t think of a thing. So I always say, “chairs.” Which is technically a thing that I’m sure we made, but it’s also the lamest example ever. Oh well.

So let’s say that some other country is a big producer of chairs and they want to sell their chairs in the U.S. People who are chairmakers in the U.S. would want a high tariff on chairs to protect their industry – to raise the price of foreign chairs so that, hopefully, more people will buy yours. And you might be able to raise your own prices, as long as you keep it lower than the foreign competition. Got it? 

But if you’re a farmer, you don’t make chairs, you grow cotton. So you, the farmer, have to buy chairs. So you don’t want a high tariff because that raises the price on all chairs and means you have to spend more money. So, way oversimplified: during the 19th century typically people in the North support high tariffs and people in the South and West don’t. 

OK. Yadda yadda yadda a high tariff was passed and South Carolina was pissed. They argued that they had the right, as a state, to not abide by federal rules that they deemed bad for their constituents. Again, who has more power – the federal government or the states? Jackson said that the federal government did. So he marched troops down to South Carolina to enforce the law and make them accept the new tariff. South Carolina backed down, for now. South Carolina is upset that the federal government is encroaching on its states’ rights to make its own economic decisions and so they threaten to secede? Where have I heard that before? Oh right. 30 years in the future when it literally happens again over slavery.

The Trail of Tears

OK, back to Jackson. The other event he is infamous for is his treatment of Native Americans. He became a national war hero (to white Americans) fighting the Native Americans in the West and in Florida during the War of 1812, but as president he’s going to go even further in asserting white American dominance over indigenous people.

In 1829, people in Georgia were like, “We want more land.” And then they noticed 9 million acres of land inside the state of Georgia where no one lived. And by “no one,” I of course mean that Native Americans were living there but they, apparently, were invisible to the people of Georgia. The state ended up allowing Georgians to settle the land, despite the fact that the Cherokee Indians had a land title that was guaranteed by a treaty with the United States. The Native Americans were like, “Um… can they do that?” And the Supreme Court answered with a resounding, “No way! States can’t violate federal treaties! That’s insane!” So the Supreme Court ruled on the side of the Native Americans.

And in walks Andrew Jackson. And he responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by saying, and I quote, “Chief Justice John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Um… what? That’s literally your job. AJ, you’re the leader of the executive branch – you know, the one that’s supposed to execute, or enforce, the laws passed by Congress and the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. You’re that guy. But nope. Jackson didn’t send troops down to protect Indian land and he did nothing to stop white settlers from flooding into the native territory – which, again, I just want to make sure we’re clear: it was a foreign country, protected by a treaty with our own government. But whatever. 

In 1830, Congress signed the Indian Removal Act, giving the president the power to give unsettled land in the west to Native Americans in exchange for their homeland, basically nullifying the previous treaties that had been negotiated with each tribe. Without any other options, the Cherokees were forced to sign a new treaty that gave up all of their 9 million square feet of land in Georgia for new territory west of Arkansas. Three years later, rounded up by General Winfield Scott, 15,000 Cherokees were forced to walk westward on what is now known as the Trail of Tears. Along the way, one in every four died of starvation, illness, and exposure. Because oh yeah, they were forced to leave their homes in the middle of winter. 

Throughout the 1830s, Native Americans across the southeast were forced from their tribal lands and funneled to the west, mostly to modern-day Oklahoma. The majority were from the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” which included the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Indians. The Seminoles resisted the most, forcing a Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842. (The First Seminole War was sparked by Jackson’s invasion of Florida in 1817 after being authorized to go in – to a foreign territory – and look for escaped slaves. So, you know. They’re not a huge fan of AJ down there in Florida.)

What was AJ all about?

So, what can we learn from Andrew Jackson? Well, for one, not all presidents have a clear guiding philosophy. He was elected by “common men” who mostly wanted the federal government to have less power over their lives, unless they could get a job working for the federal government in which case they were happy to be “spoiled” by Jackson. And even though most of his supporters didn’t like high tariffs, he used the power and might of the federal government to enforce a tariff in South Carolina. But then, when the Native Americans needed a powerful federal government to step in an enforce the Supreme Court decision, he backed away and said, “I’m leaving it up to the state to figure out.” And when the charter to renew the Bank of the United States came around, he let the Bank (and Hamilton’s dreams) die because he and his supporters saw the bank as a tool for the powerful business elites that wasn’t serving the common man. His decision to spread the government money out across “pet banks” in various states would ultimately lead to an economic panic, but he was out of office by then so it wasn’t his problem. Sorry Van Buren.

So Jackson’s guiding philosophy seems, to me at least, to be self-interest. He was more than willing to use the federal government when his authority was threatened by white southerners, but then he sided with those same people when he realized he could earn their support on another issue – and all he had to do was commit genocide against Native Americans. 

This confusing philosophy also had the important impact of splitting the confusing and confused Democratic-Republican party. Those who supported Jackson – mostly states’ rights people and those who don’t want to be told what to do by the New England elites – became the Democrats. And one of Andrew Jackson’s many nicknames became the symbol of their party: the jackass (or, more politely, the donkey.) And those who opposed Jackson – and there were many – moved away from the Democrats and joined the Whig Party as a faction called the National Republicans. Honestly, I’m just going to oversimplify and start calling them all Republicans right now – sorry to all you Whigs out there who I am, admittedly, writing out of history. But we just don’t have the time to figure y’all out. 

Act 2: The Mexican-American War

OK. So Andrew Jackson was the first US president from west of the Appalachian Mountains. But most of us don’t really think of Tennessee as “the west” anymore. And that’s because, over the course of the 19th century the U.S. went through a period of rapid expansion based on the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Just like white vs. non-white racism was developed as an explanation or justification for the rise of African slavery in the New World, the concept of Manifest Destiny arose as an explanation or justification for westward expansion. Because, let’s be clear: from the white US American view we “expanded” but from the perspective of Mexicans and Native Americans, we “conquered.” Magazine editor and Jacksonian Democrat, John L. O’Sullivan first wrote the term “manifest destiny” in his newspaper in 1845. In fact, he wrote that we should fulfill “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” 

The general idea was that the continent of North America was ours for the taking. We had a rapidly growing population in the east and they needed to go somewhere; and the people living in the western half of the continent were not utilizing the land as well as we would be, not to mention the fact that they were believed to be racially inferior. And so, it was natural and obvious (“manifest”) that God intended for white Americans to eventually settle from sea to shining sea. 

Did everyone believe this concept? No. Many Whigs/National Republicans saw it as a dangerous ideology that could lead us into costly wars, which turned out to be true. But Jacksonian Democrats rallied behind the idea, especially under the “Manifest Destiny President” himself: James K. Polk.

President Polk

OK. Why are we talking about Polk? Well, he was the first “dark horse” candidate in American history, he was the last Jacksonian president, and the last quantifiably strong president that we’ll see until the Civil War. I dare you to name a president from the 1850s… I’ll wait.

Also, Polk went to my alma mater – UNC Chapel Hill – although I’m not super proud of that and you’ll see why.

So, he grew up in North Carolina, became a lawyer in Tennessee alongside friend Andrew Jackson, eventually becoming governor of the state. After Jackson left office, we saw a series of Jacksonian-style presidents: Martin Van Buren (AJ’s vice president), then William Henry Harrison (the hero of Tippecanoe – sorry Tecumseh) but he refused to wear a coat while giving th elongest Inaugural Address in a snowstorm so he died of pneumonia one month into office. His VP John Tyler took over and… did somethings, I’m sure… and finally we get to James Polk. Behind all of these men was Andrew Jackson, still pulling the strings fo the Democratic Party and making sure that his buddies got into office. 

Polk campaigned explicitly on Manifest Destiny. He wanted to get full control of Oregon (which we currently shared with the British – that’s cute, right?) His campaign slogan “54’ 40’ or Bust” referenced his desire to acquire all of the Oregon Territory up to the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. And his supporters also knew that it was Polk’s desire to admit independent Texas as a state in the Union. When he was elected president, Texas was admitted as a slave state into the U.S. and Polk negotiated with Britain to split Oregon so that we got the southern part of the territory as a free state. You see, at this point in time it was super important to Congress that we keep the balance of free and slave states equal so that neither side got more representation in the Senate. So every time we admitted one state – free or slave – we had to have a counterpart ready to go to enter the country alongside them – it was like a buddy system. But with slavery.

So, Polk got half of what he wanted but he wasn’t done. By 1846, one year into his presidency, the U.S. controlled all of the land from sea to shining sea EXCEPT the southwest quarter, which was still part of Mexico. But Polk basically “rounded up” the continent and was like, “Yeah we’re going to need that land.”

Polk offered to buy the California territory (as it was called) from Mexico for $20 million but the Mexican President was like, “Um, yeah. I can’t sell literally half of my country to you. That would be ridiculous.” So, as you do, Polk sent down General – and future president – Zachary Taylor toward the Rio Grande.

You see, the U.S. and Mexico couldn’t quite agree on where the southern border of Texas was. We didn’t have Google Maps, give us a break. The U.S. said it was the Rio Grande but Mexico believed it was the Nueces River, much further north. General Taylor brought his troops into this disputed region and provoked an attack from Mexican troops so that Polk could go to Congress and say, “Look! Mexican troops killed American soldiers on American soil!” Meanwhile, Mexico is like, “Look! American troops invaded Mexico!” Yadda yadda yadda, we were at war.

Side note: Polk had his remarks urging Congress to declare war on Mexico ready to go before any shots were fired. So, most historians agree that he was going to go to war with Mexico no matter what, and he sent Taylor down to pick a fight and give him an excuse. Awesome.

Opposition to the War

Except that one annoying member of Congress didn’t think this was awesome. A Whig from Illinois wrote up a series of resolutions nicknamed the “Spot Resolutions,” so called because they formally requested the president to provide Congress with the exact location, or spot, upon which blood was spilt, because he didn’t believe Polk when he claimed it was on “American soil.” This little-known and annoying representative was named Abraham Lincoln and my sources are telling me that he’s going to be a pretty big deal in a few years. 

So clearly not everyone agreed with the newly declared Mexican-American War. Many abolitionists saw the war as an attempt by slave states to extend slavery and enhance their power by creating additional slave states out of Mexican territory (like Texas.) One example of this is writer Henry David Thoreau who was jailed in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes in protest of the government. Now, he only spent one night in jail – his aunt paid the back taxes and bailed him out (that’s called “privilege,” folks) – but he went on to write a long essay titled Civil Disobedience. In it, he argued that a person should break the law if that law, or that government, is unjust, writing, “If the government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” Whoa. Badass. Also, this was written almost 100 years before Gandhi made the idea of civil disobedience famous, so nicely done Thoreau. Now go write about a pond or something.

Anyway, not everyone supported the war – the Whig Party in Congress eventually censured Polk for what they saw as an illegal war started because of false pretense. But… we went to war anyway.

The War

So… we fought a war with Mexico and we won. Yeah, you know how I feel about military history at this point so let’s just go through this in a bullet-point format:

  • Mexican General Santa Anna was brought back from exile in Cuba to lead his forces (after tricking Polk into believing that he would help negotiate an end to the war). He then became president of Mexico a few months later. “Good for him,” said no white Texan in the 19th century.
  • General Winfield Scott landed his ships at Veracruz and marched toward Mexico City. With zero historical sensitivity, he followed the same route that Hernán Cortés had taken when he conquered the Aztec Empire.
  • By 1847, General Scott laid siege to Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle. During the ensuing battle, a group of young military school cadets nicknamed the niños héroes, all teenagers, defended the castle until they chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. 
  • Also, throughout the war, the Mexican government recruited disenfranchised groups living in the U.S. to fight for them instead, with great success. The most famous example of this is the San Patricios, or the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Formed and led by Irish-American John Riley, this was a unit of a couple hundred men, many were deserters from the U.S. military, who fought for Mexico. The group included mostly Catholic Irish immigrants, other immigrants of European descent, and escaped slaves from the southern United States. They manned artillery in some of the fiercest battles of the war and are honored today in both Mexico and Ireland. Just a reminder that the United States had made plenty of enemies, both inside and outside its borders, by the middle of the 19th century, especially with its treatment of new immigrants and people of color. 

But the U.S. wins the war and signs the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. We establish the Rio Grande as the official southern border with Mexico, Mexico formally recognizes our annexation of its former territory of Texas, and they agree (under duress, really) to sell California and the rest of its territory north of the Rio Grande to us for $15 million. So, the result of the Mexican-American War is that the US acquired more than 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory, finally completing our “Manifest Destiny” to control the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. 

A few notes about that land before we move on. For one, I think it’s hilarious that we call that land the “Mexican Cession” because that implies that Mexico willingly gave us, or ceded, that land. But now you know that’s not the case. Also, that territory, which includes the modern-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico, was not empty. Close to 100,000 Spanish-speaking Mexicans lived there in addition to 100,000 Native Americans. Which is why it’s really problematic to assume that people of Mexican descent in, say, California might be products of immigration. For tens of thousands of families who have lived on that land for centuries now, they didn’t “come to” the United States, the United States came to them.

Act 3: What to do with slavery? 

So, we have all of this new land. And every time we acquire new land, the slavery debate rears its head. Should the new territory allow slavery or be free? I just want us to pause to consider that that’s insane as a legitimate debate in Congress and yet, here we are. But throughout the 19th century, as we expanded and got new territory, the abolition movement, or the movement to completely end slavery, was also growing.

Although there had been abolitionists before now, by the decade of Jackson’s presidency – the 1830s – the abolition movement was firmly established. This is thanks, in part, to an evangelical religious movement that brought social issues into the forefront of our national conversation: the Second Great Awakening.

The First Great Awakening occurred about 100 years earlier, in the 1730s, as religious leaders worried that the Age of Reason and the development of trade and wealth in colonial New England were distracting Protestants from their religious principles. The Second Great Awakening occurred, similarly, as evangelical leaders saw the Founding Fathers and the early United States establish itself firmly as a secular nation. This clear separation of Church and state both concerned many Protestant leaders, but it also provided the freedom from government control to begin widespread popular movements that brought religion to the people in large camp-style meetings. One of the main messages of the Second Great Awakening was the need for Christian values to permeate American society. This meant that many Christians began looking at social issues, like drinking, poverty, and slavery, through the lens of Christianity. And, apparently, they realized that Jesus probably wouldn’t have been super happy about enslaving millions of people for your own wealth. That’s not really “loving your neighbor,” now is it?

So, Christians – especially women – got more involved in social movements like abolition. Another popular movement was the temperance movement, or the push to ban alcohol. In general, take note of the fact that women are slowly expanding their sphere of influence so that they can become more involved in public life. Throughout the 19th century they will focus mostly on issues that were still seen as traditionally “female” – helping those less fortunate, children, education, keeping the family together, etc. But what they’re really doing is getting experience organizing political movements. In fact, the same year the Mexican-American War began – 1848 – the modern women’s rights movement began in Seneca Falls, New York with the Declaration of the Rights of Women. Get it, ladies!

But for now, many activists – men and women – became increasingly convinced that slavery needed to end outright. Newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and organizations like the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1831 and 1833 respectively, helped spread the message in the North. Interestly, the Society broke apart because they disagreed on whether they should also be fighting for women’s equality – William Lloyd Garrison’s faction thought that women’s rights (and women’s leadership in the abolition movement) were important issues they should be fighting for as well. Many of the Founding Mothers of the women’s movement came from this faction, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucetia Mott. 

Frederick Douglass

The other development that helped spread the abolition movement was the increasing availability of testimonials from freed slaves. The most famous was Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland, he was taught the alphabet by a slaveowner’s wife who defied the ban. When she was found out and stopped, he learned from white children. Still enslaved, he read whatever he could find – newspapers, political literature, anything. This is an example of the difference of being enslaved in a middle state that was more densely populated. He was often hired out around the town, and even sent into Baltimore, to make money for his owner, but through these interactions he was able to educate himself. Then he turned around and taught other enslaved people how to read the New Testament at weekly lessons. He was punished brutally for his persistence, often handed over to a man known to be a “slave breaker” who would inflict physical and psychological torture on Douglass.

After two failed attempts he managed to escape, thanks to the help of a free black woman who he soon married. Despite having affairs, his first wife Anna continued to support him as he developed his abolitionist newspaper The North Star. After her death, he married a white abolitionist and suffragette named Helen Pitts. The marriage was controversial not just because she was white, but because she was also 20 years younger than he was. His five children from his first marriage did not support them, but Frederick and Helen were married for 11 years until his death.

Douglass began his career as a professional abolitionist after being noticed by William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of The Liberator and friend to women that I just mentioned. He wrote for his newspaper and gave Anti-Slavery Society speeches before publishing his autobiography in 1845. Since he was an escaped slave, he had to leave the country now that he was a celebrity who could be easily found and taken back into slavery. He went to Ireland right when the potato famine was beginning – as if the guy hadn’t been through enough – and traveled around Ireland and Britain speaking about the evils of slavery for two years. Eventually, his supporters across the pond raised money to purchase his legal freedom and he returned to the U.S. a free man in 1847. 

He went on to publish two more versions of his life story and to become a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, as well. He was the only African American who attended the Seneca Falls Convention and he proclaimed that he could not accept the right to vote if women didn’t get it as well. This would come back to haunt him when he supported the 15th Amendment, even though it failed to address women suffrage. Why men great ‘til they gotta be great, am I right?

During the Civil War, he advised President Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers and he met with President Johnson to discuss black suffrage. He eventually became involved in the Freedmen’s Bureau that sought to help freed slaves after the war. Frederick Douglass became the first African American on a presidential ticket when he was named the Vice Presidential candidate for Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run, in 1872. They ran on the Equal Rights Party and, needless to say, didn’t really gain much traction with voters. Douglass was appointed to diplomatic roles in both the Dominican Republic and newly freed Haiti. This dude had a life. 

So, back to abolition. This movement became more and more popular in the North and it simultaneously angered the South. How dare these Northerners tell us how to live our lives and not enslave people? Violence often broke out, even in Congress. It got so bad that the House of Representatives instituted a “gag rule” that banned any discussion of abolition for almost ten years. 

But by the end of the 1840s, it was impossible not to talk about slavery when the US increased its size thanks to the Mexican-American War. And while the abolition movement was growing, it was more common in political life to see some northerners, especially politicians, becoming “Free Soilers.” So, instead of outright ending slavery, this meant that they didn’t believe slavery should be extended into any new land, or “soil.” Gotta love politicians watering everything down until it’s bland enough for all those dudes in Congress. 

For example, just a few months into the Mexican-American War, Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced a proposal to ban slavery in any territory acquired from the war. The provision, attached to a bill to provide money for the war effort, passed the House along sectional lines (free state representatives voted for it and slave state representatives voted against it.) But, in the Senate, the slave states had more power because the numbers were balanced. Thanks Connecticut Compromise. Southern senators rejected the provision, instead proposing that we just extend the line that had been established decades earlier in another compromise – the Missouri Compromise. Basically, any new state below the southern border of Missouri would be a slave state and any state north of that line would be free. Neither side could come to an agreement and both proposals died in Congress. 

The Compromise of 1850

Complicating things even more, by 1849, California had enough white, English-speaking residents to apply for statehood and this created a problem for Congress. Because there wasn’t another territory that was ready to be admitted – California didn’t have a “buddy.” Beyond that, Congress wasn’t even sure whether California would be a free or slave state. You see, according to the newly drafted state constitution, only white men were acknowledged as citizens (not uncommon at this time) but in addition, as the Native American communities came under attack from the newly arrived white settlers, many of their orphaned children were being sold into slavery by Californians. So, you know. That’s awful. 

Despite these problems, Congress decided to admit California as a free state as part of a compromise passed in 1850. It was called… wait for it… the Compromise of 1850. Congressmen from slave states did not like the California was upsetting the balance in Congress – now there would be more senators from “free” states. In exchange, they got the way more rigid Fugitive Slave Law that made it so that free states had to help return escaped slaves to slave states, or else they would be violating federal law. Now, the Underground Railroad had already existed, but now with this Fugitive Slave Law, the operation escalated quickly. For context, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 – one year before the law was passed. 

Now, I could on for a long time about the Underground Railroad. But for now, I just want to mention one aspect of it that’s often misunderstood. The Underground Railroad was not nearly as secretive as we often think. Obviously, those like Harriet Tubman who are going into the South to free, eventually, 300 slaves, had to operate covertly. But in many parts of the North the Underground Railroad was an open secret. Towns held “Underground Railroad” bake sales and individuals announced themselves in the press as that city’s “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Many parts of the North flaunted the Fugitive Slave Act to the point that people like William Seward sheltered runaways in his basement, while he was serving as a U.S. senator. Ironically, Northern states invoked “states’ rights” to argue that local and state officials did not have to comply with the federal Fugitive Slave Law. This is almost identical to the argument we see so-called “sanctuary cities” today making in regards to federal immigration laws. 

This is not to diminish the danger and sacrifice of those who operated the network of trails and safehouses that helped thousands of people escape slavery. But, for our purposes, it’s important that we understand how angry southern slaveowners were that many in the North were so blatantly disregarding the law. That can’t be good for sectional tensions…

One place in the North that was, interestingly, not as much of a hotbed of abolition as we might think was New York City. The city invested in and sold southern-grown crops, not to mention financing the purchase of slaves (Wall Street was built as the financier of the slave trade – some of the first stocks were to protect slave trader’s investments in enslaved people.) New York’s economy was so tied to the South that one newspaper editor proclaimed that the city was “almost as dependent upon Southern slavery as Charleston.” All of this is just to remind us that it’s not quite as simple as North vs. South, although for the purposes of this highly oversimplified podcast, it will be. Sorry. 

So the Fugitive Slave Law was terrible but, in general, “free soilers” kind of “won” the Compromise of 1850. In addition to getting California, they also established that the rest of the Mexican territory would decide whether to be free or slave based on a popular vote – this is known as popular sovereignty. And even though this is another example of Congress refusing to deal directly with the question of slavery – now instead of a “balance” they’re just letting the people figure it out for themselves – it is a sign that the national mood is trending toward making new territories free. Or, at least, not requiring that the new territories have an equal amount of slave states. Finally, the slave trade was outlawed in DC. 

Wait… what?! I thought we banned the slave trade in, like, 1808. Well, we did. But turns out we only banned the international slave trade. But for the last 40 years there continued to be thriving domestic slave trade, nicknamed the Second Middle Passage, in which slaves were bought and sold between Americans, with DC acting as a major hub. So that was banned in 1850, another sign that the nation was slowly moving toward agreeing that slavery was, you know, bad. 

“Bleeding Kansas”

Back to popular sovereignty, this concept was extended to more territories under the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. So, the decision to allow new states to vote to be free or slave upset the highly controlled balance and put this hugely important decision into the hands of regular voters. Kind of like Brexit. But that’s a topic for another day. And passionate Americans on both sides of the issue saw it as an opportunity to have a direct influence on the future of the country. For example, starting in 1854, residents of the new state of Kansas held elections to decide whether to enter the Union as a free or slave state. On the eve of the elections, slavery advocates and abolitionists flooded into the territory so that they could vote in the election and decide the state’s future. In the first vote just to decide who their nonvoting representative would be (they chose a pro-slavery Democrat, Congress later found 1,729 instances of voter fraud and 1,114 illegeal votes. In one voting location, only 20 out of the 604 voters were actually residents of the Kansas Territory. 

By 1855, there were two completely separate governments that claimed control over the territory: one was backed by pro-slavery advocates mostly from Missouri, this one was officially recognized by the US government, while another rival government was run by abolitionists. By the following year, violence had erupted between various groups. Proslavery groups, nicknamed “border ruffians,” were violently looting antislavery towns. Meanwhile, a militant abolitionist named John Brown orchestrated the murder of five proslavery settlers. For months, small militias roamed the Kansas and clashed at various towns across the territory. The bloodshed only calmed with the arrival of federal troops, almost five years after the first election. But this “calm” still saw periodic outbreaks of violence in the three years leading up to the Civil War. Basically, the Civil War started in Kansas 8 years earlier than it did in the rest of the country. 

John Brown

A quick note about John Brown: he was a militant abolitionist with crazy eyes. Seriously, look him up on Google Images. Besides participating in “Bleeding Kansas,” he was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad and the founder another organization to help runaway slaves escape to Canada called the League of Gileadites. Side note: Gilead is a region mentioned in the Bible. Specifically, a medicinal perfume came from there that was believed to be a universal cure. Known as the Balm of Gilead it’s now used metaphorically to mean something that can cure all of a society’s ills. So, John Brown named his league the Gileadites probably to “cure” the country of slavery. And Handmaid’s Tale is set in fictional Gilead, where the leaders believe they are fixing the problems of the modern world by going back to Biblical practices.

John Brown’s most famous moment in history was his Raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1858, Brown started meeting with black and white abolitionists in Canada where they determined to establish an abolitionist stronghold in the mountains between Maryland and Virginia – today, West Virginia. From this compound they could bring escaped slaves and hopefully build a militia to rise up against slaveowners. They drafted a provincial constitution, elected John Brown as commander in chief and gained investment from wealthy abolitionists across the North. John Brown called in favors from his abolitionist friends, including Frederick Douglass. He asked him to be a liaison officer, helping bridge the divide between white John Brown and the newly escaped slaves. Douglass declined, disagreeing with Brown’s militant approach, and he warned him that this was essentially a suicide mission, saying “You will never get out alive.” ::Foreshadowing::

In 1859, John Brown went through with his plan, renting out a farmhouse four miles north of Harpers Ferry. At the farm, Brown trained 21 men to fight and they planned to capture the Federal Arsenal in the nearby town. The idea was that from there they would use the weapons to liberate slaves, who would join their growing rebellion. Unfortunately, when the raid occurred in October, nothing went right. Slaves in the area did not join the raid and John Brown’s militia was easily put down by local troops and the US Marines, who happened to be under the command of a pretty impressive military mind, none other than Robert E. Lee. Whoops.

Brown was captured and found guilty of murder, inciting slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia. Upon hearing his death sentence, Brown said, “…if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments–I submit; so let it be done!” I mean, he was committed – I’ll give him that.

He was executed in December in front of a crowd that included an unknown actor named John Wilkes Booth. And his death was reported around the world. French novelist Victor Hugo (the guy who wrote Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre Dame) wrote that Brown’s death would “open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder.” When the Civil War finally began just one year later, Union solders would march into battle singing a song called “John Brown’s Body.” The words would be changed after the war but the tune became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“John Brown died that the slaves might be free, But his soul goes marching on.”)

So, the powder keg was full; righteous anger spread across the country; and people were clearly divided. All we need now is a match and this whole thing’s gonna blow. Remember that annoying guy who refused to give up his crusade to find the spot where the Mexican-American War began? Yeah, that guy’s gonna be our match.

Sources

https://www.history.com/topics/mexican-american-war/mexican-american-war

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/james-k-polk/

https://www.britannica.com/event/Manifest-Destiny

https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/bleeding-kansas

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/john-brown

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown%27s_raid_on_Harpers_Ferry#Brown’s_preparation

https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Brown-American-abolitionist

https://www.biography.com/activist/frederick-douglass

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/the-secret-history-of-the-underground-railroad/384966/

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