Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842
Conflicts between the power of the federal government and states’ rights strained American politics throughout the antebellum era. During the 1840s and 1850s, the most consistent source of tension on the issue stemmed from northerners refusing to comply with fugitive slave laws. As early as the 1780s, Pennsylvania passed laws that made it illegal to take a black person from the state for the purpose of enslaving them. In the majority opinion, excerpted here, Supreme Court justice Joseph Story decided that the national fugitive slave act overruled Pennsylvania’s law.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852
In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published her bestselling antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sales for Uncle Tom’s Cabin were astronomical, eclipsed only by sales of the Bible. The book became a sensation and helped move antislavery into everyday conversation for many northerners. In this passage, a senator and his wife debate the Fugitive Slave Law.
Margaraetta Mason and Lydia Maria Child Discuss John Brown, 1860
After John Brown was arrested for his raid on Harpers Ferry, Lydia Maria Child wrote to the governor of Virginia requesting to visit Brown. Margaretta Mason of Virginia wrote a searing letter to Child attacking her for supporting a murder. Child responded, and the exchange of letters was published by the American Antislavery Society.
1860 Republican Party Platform
The 1860 Republican Party convention in Chicago created a platform that clearly opposed the expansion of slavery in the West and the reopening of the slave trade. However, nothing in the document claimed that the government had the power to eliminate slavery where it already existed. Controversies over slavery suffuse the platform, but maybe even more noticeable is the importance of the West to the Republican Party.
South Carolina Declaration of Secession, 1860
Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 contest on November 6 with just 40% of the popular vote and not a single southern vote in the Electoral College. Within days, southern states were organizing secession conventions. On December 20, South Carolina voted to secede, and issued its “Declaration of the Immediate Causes.”
Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law Lithograph, 1850
This lithograph imagines the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850. Four well-dressed black men are being hunted by a party of white men, seen in the background. There are a number of ambiguities in the image – are the black men slaves or free? Are they trying to escape or not? Where exactly are they? These ambiguities speak to the concerns many abolitionists had about the law, which required free citizens to return escaped slaves to their masters.
Sectional Crisis Map, 1856
This piece of Republican propaganda from the 1856 election makes clear distinctions between free states, slave states, and territories. Featured at the top of the page are engravings of John C. Fremont and his running mate, William C. Dayton. A vibrant red sets off the free states. The chart, “Freedom vs. Slavery,” demonstrates the North’s economic and cultural superiority over slave states in terms of everything from population per square mile, capital in manufactures, miles of railroad, the number of newspapers and public libraries, and value of churches.