The Expansion of Slavery in the United States

Nicholas Bunner

The chief force beyond internal US conflict in the nineteenth century, which repeatedly threatened the state of the Union and eventually drove the nation to civil war, was not the institution of slavery itself, not necessarily the question of whether or not persons could be owned and treated as chattel property or not. No, rather it was the question of that institution’s expansion, to the newly acquired territories which were continually added to the ever-growing republic, that was the issue at hand. The reason for this conflict over merely the spread of slavery, rather than its entire existence, was largely due to concerns over the balance of political power in the United States, as the slaveholding South sought to increase the power it wielded on the national stage, through which it could protect its own interests, in the form of enshrining slavery in federal law as an inalienable right of theirs. At the same time, northern whites feared that the expansion of slavery, and the corresponding growth of the Southern political bloc, would neuter their own political power, and that the United States would eventually become totally dominated by elite Southern slaveholders protecting their own interests. When northern congressmen fought against the annexation of Texas, they did so because it requested to be a slave state. They didn’t intend to end slavery in the United States; they didn’t intend to launch a national abolitionist campaign. They simply feared, as former President John Quincy Adams warned his supporters, that the annexation of a slave-holding territory as vast as Texas would undermine New England’s political power forever. And it was the zeal with which southern politicians strove to silence and any and all opposition to slavery, imposing a gag rule on its debate in Congress, and suing for libel those who spoke out against slavery, that enabled northerners like John Quincy Adams to galvanize their supporters against the expansion of Southern power. They were able to, quite easily and effectively, make the case to their fellow northerners that the Southern power brokers cared only for their own interests, and were willing to go so far as to silence the fundamental rights of fellow whites, their rights to free speech, the ability to speak their minds about any topic, in defense of their own selfish pursuits (Baptist 268). William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist journalist, wrote against slavery for years, but when he garnered the most support was when he railed against southerners’ efforts to suppress any opposition to their policies (313). Anti-slavery sentiment in the north was at its most zealous whenever northerners perceived their own political freedom as coming under fire. Opposition to slavery stemmed from the fear among northern whites that, if slavery were to continue to expanding to new territories, which would inevitably join the southern slave-holding coalition, they would become politically irrelevant, no longer able to influence the sway of national politics.

United States Slave Trade (1850)

Southerners, meanwhile, used every legal tool at their disposal to protect their rights to own people, and force them to work for their masters’ profit. The common interest that united them, that forged them into the bloc that dominated US politics until the civil war, was that of slavery and its defense. They viewed slavery, as well as its expansion, as a fundamental right of theirs, inalienable and granted by the Constitution. Additionally, they saw it as the key to their economic prosperity and, whenever faced with difficulty, they knew that by expanding slavery to new lands, opening up ever-increasing production possibilities, they could continue to ensure their own well-being (300). And they fought tooth and nail to ensure the primacy of their constitutional interpretations: they determined to see slavery protected absolutely by constitutional law under Supreme Court rulings, to see the institution spread to the new territories of the United States, to see its inalienability embedded within every law of the land, and they declared that anything less than this absolute and unconditional victory would leave their status in the Union an untenable affair (346). Indeed, every new territorial acquisition, every application for statehood, drove this unerring resolve home. Over the question of Missouri’s admission, John C. Calhoun privately informed John Quincy Adams that denial of Missouri’s rights to hold slaves would necessitate that the South allied itself with Britain once more, against the northern Union, and that this return to colonial rule would be driven by absolute necessity, as southerners saw slavery’s expansion as the very foundation of their future (156). Two years of incredible tension saw debate rage on Congress’ floor before the Missouri Compromise was formed and, even then, many southern politicians won their election and re-elections shortly after on the basis of opposition to the Compromise. The problem had been pushed off, momentarily, but was an ever-present, underlying threat. As long as the United States continued to expand, the question of slavery’s expansion would return. And Americans were hungry for expansion, as they wished to become one of the great world powers, and began to see it as their right and very destiny to extend their power and dominion as far as they could, securing forever America’s place at the top layer of world power. Sure enough, the crisis returned with Texas, a vast territory the US had secured from Mexico, which had asked for admission to the Union as a slave state. Southerners were adamant in their belief that unless they had the freedom to expand as they wished, their entrepreneurial and political ambitions would be inexcusably curtailed. On the national stage, new rhetoric gained traction among southern politicians: a slave-holding West may be the required price of continued Union (333). Increasingly, southerners were seeing inextricable ties between slavery’s growth and their own economic and political power.

William Plumer of New Hampshire

Northerners, for their part, were terrified by the solidarity and strength of the burgeoning southern bloc. On the Missouri issue, something happened which few had anticipated: the House of Representatives had actually passed the bill banning slavery in Missouri, due to heavy northern support. Though the Senate rejected the House’s version of the bill, and debate would continue for years before the Missouri Compromise would be reached, the truth could not be denied: northerners were ready to draw a line. It wasn’t slavery itself they were fighting against; they weren’t quite ready to act against their own self-interest by removing the cotton stream that formed the lifeblood of the young nation. No, it was slavery’s expansion; it was the further growth of southern power. They were frightened that they were losing any semblance of control in the national government, that soon the country would be overrun by elite slaveholders. John Quincy Adams wrote that the situation revealed the nasty truth lurking beneath the surface: they were on a path that ended in blood. Southerners stood steadfast in their belief that slavery was inseparable from any of their other inalienable rights, while it became clear that, if pushed, there would be massive northern opposition to slavery’s expansion (155). Indeed, by the next session of Congress, William Plumer of New Hampshire declared that it had become unthinkable for any free-state politician to condone slavery’s expansion, that any further expansion would render the North powerless, handing the government over to “arrogant planter-politicians” (156). The question of Missouri’s status on a state had presented a very different choice from that of Lousiana’s acquisition: this wasn’t about securing the United States’ freedom to expand by eliminating roadblocks of European empire; this was solely a question of whether the new state would be admitted as slave-holding or free. The vehemence of the debates, and the utter polarization along sectional lines revealed the stark contrast between the two power bases, and the extent to which they would fight for their continued position of power. The South saw slavery’s expansion as inextricably tied to its own prosperity, whilst the North refused to allow the South to grow even more, and thus render the North a mere subject state within the Union. The northerners, the mainstream, at least, weren’t fighting against slavery itself, and they never had been. Even among northerners, emancipation was unthinkable: they couldn’t live alongside massive populations of free blacks, and they couldn’t very well ship millions of people somewhere else. They never tried to break slavery, merely to halt its advance. And it was that struggle, over whose vision of the future would emerge dominant and which region would become the junior partner that drove the conflict of the nineteenth century.


Works Cited

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic, 2014. Print.

The Expansion of Slavery in the United States
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