5.6 Failure of Compromise

6 min readjanuary 12, 2023

Robby May

Robby May

Caleb Lagerwey

Caleb Lagerwey

Dalia Savy

Dalia Savy

AP US History 🇺🇸

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Slavery in the Western territories continued to be a problem, even after the Compromise of 1850—sorry, Henry Clay! This guide outlines some of the attempts made to resolve the issue of slavery, but since the Civil War ultimately happened, these failed to reduce conflict.

Kansas- Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a law passed by the United States Congress in 1854, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The act, which was sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, was intended to open up these territories for settlement and economic development.

Image Courtesy of Nebraska Public Media

The key provision of the act was that it established the principle of "popular sovereignty", which allowed the settlers in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders, instead of the federal government dictating the rules. This was a significant change in the policy, as the Missouri Compromise had established a line of latitude above which slavery was not allowed, the 36°30′ parallel north.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce. However, the law was highly controversial and it sparked a significant amount of debate and protests. The Act was supported by the pro-slavery advocates as it gave them the opportunity to expand slavery into new territories and was opposed by abolitionists and many Northerners as they saw it as a betrayal of the principles of the Missouri compromise and an attempt to expand slavery into the northern states.

The Third-Party System

Also, the voting was almost entirely along sectional lines: instead of Whigs vs. Democrats, you now had Northern Whigs and Northern Democrats teaming up against the bill and Southern Whigs and Southern Democrats supporting the bill. 
This leads to the breakup of the Whig Party, which was split into:
  1. Conscience Whigs were a faction within the Whig Party that was primarily based in the Northern states. They were mostly abolitionists or anti-slavery and were opposed to the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. You can remember them by thinking "Northern Whigs whose consciences were bothered by slavery." They saw the abolition of slavery as a moral imperative and believed that it was necessary for the nation to live up to its ideals of liberty and equality.
  2. Cotton Whigs were a faction within the Whig Party that was primarily based in the Southern states. They were mostly pro-slavery, and they believed that slavery was a necessary institution for the economic development of the Southern states, particularly in the cotton industry. They saw the protection of slavery as a matter of states' rights and regional economic interests. For remembering this faction, think: "Southern Whigs who supported slavery for its economic and cotton-based agricultural value to the nation."
After the Whigs split, some of the Conscience Whigs teamed up with other anti-slavery parties such as the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party, along with some Know-Nothings, to form the Republican Party
The Republicans are a largely northern party whose existence is all about opposition to slavery in the territories and thus to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 1854 is, therefore, the end of the Second Party System and the start of the Third Party System, with largely regional parties splitting the country.

Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas was a period of violent conflict in the Kansas Territory in the 1850s, which was driven by the struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions over the issue of whether or not to allow slavery in the territory. The term "Bleeding Kansas" refers to the violent clashes between these two groups, which resulted in a number of deaths and injuries.

Image Courtesy of History.com

The conflict in Kansas was sparked by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which led to a rush of settlers from both the North and South to the territory, each seeking to influence the outcome of the vote on slavery.
  • Pro-slavery forces, known as "Border Ruffians," entered Kansas from neighboring Missouri, where slavery was legal, in order to vote in Kansas elections and influence the outcome in favor of slavery.
  • Anti-slavery forces, known as "Free-Soilers," also flooded into the territory to vote against slavery.
This rush of forces ultimately resulted in a series of violent clashes between the two groups, with each side committing atrocities against the other.
Most of the Kansas settlers were Free Soilers, but every time there was a vote on popular sovereignty, thousands of pro-slavery Border Ruffians poured in from Missouri to vote for slavery (even though they weren’t citizens of the state and thus were not entitled to vote).

Caning of Senator Sumner

The violence in Kansas spilled over into the halls of the US Congress. On May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina erupted onto the floor of the Senate with a cane in his hand. He approached Charles Sumner (anti-slavery Senator from MA) who had given a speech condemning slavery.
The speech included insulting references to Senator Andrew Butler of SC.  Brooks found Sumner at his desk and battered him over the head. He made an attempt to rise from the desk, but collapsed onto the floor under the torrent of blows. He was so badly injured that he didn’t return to the Senate for 3 years. 

Lecompton Constitution

One of Buchanan’s (probably the worst president in American history) first challenges as president was to decide whether to accept or reject a pro-slavery state constitution for Kansas submitted by the Southern legislature in Lecompton.
He knew that the constitution did not have the support of the majority of settlers. Even so, he asked Congress to accept the document and admit Kansas as a slave state. Congress didn’t do so, because many Democrats, including Stephen Douglas, joined with Republicans in rejecting the Lecompton constitution.
The next year, it was overwhelmingly rejected by Kansas settlers, most of who were anti-slavery Republicans. 

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was an enslaved African American man who, in the mid-1800s, sued for his freedom in court. Scott was born into slavery in Virginia in the late 1700s and was owned by a number of different masters before ending up in the state of Missouri, where slavery was legal. In 1857, after his owner died, Scott went to court to argue that he should be freed because he was brought to Wisconsin, a free state, where he lived for years. 

Dred Scott; Image Courtesy of Britannica

The case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. In the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in March of 1857, the court ruled that Scott was not a citizen. It ruled that African Americans descended from enslaved people and whether or not they were still enslaved did not matter; they were not citizens of the U.S. and thus could not sue in a Federal court. 
The court should have left the matter there, but Chief Justice Roger B. Taney went further, deciding that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress could not make laws prohibiting slavery in United States territories. Since slaves were considered property, the U.S. government could not take them away without due process as per the Fifth Amendment
This was immediately condemned by Republicans and many in the North since it invalidated compromises over slavery in the territories and essentially allowed slavery in the Northern states too. It was eventually overturned by the 14th Amendment and is widely considered one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time. 

John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown was an abolitionist who in 1859 led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The raid was an attempt by Brown and a group of followers, both Black and White, to start a slave rebellion by seizing weapons and inciting enslaved people to rise up against their masters.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Brown, who appeared in a manner of an Old Testament Prophet, thought of himself as God’s chosen instrument “to purge this land with blood” and eradicate the sin of slaveholding. He led men across the Potomac River from his base in Maryland and seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He hoped that his revolt would spread with slaves joining him, but neighboring slaves did not rise up. After a two-day siege, Brown and his remaining men were captured.
Brown was sentenced and hanged. Southerners were stunned by the outpouring of sympathy from the North. He was considered in some ways a martyred saint. In the North, there was the firing of cannons, ringing of bells, and memorial services on the day of his death.
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