Slavery and Compromise: A Rhetorical History

An outline of the History of Compromise Legislation from the Northwest Ordinance to the Civil War, with attention to the dispute over slavery.

Northwest Ordinance


The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territories ceded to the United States by various state claims, notably Virginia. Passed under the Articles of Confederation in 1787 and affirmed under the Constitution in 1789. The slavery clause included a provision for fugitive slaves (the first fugitive slave clause):

Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

Links for Northwest Ordinance

"The Northwest Ordinance." New World Encyclopedia.
"The Problem of Expansion." American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. Retrieved 17 Oct 2012.
"Transcript of Northwest Ordinance." Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives.

Conditional Termination of Slavery / Gradualism

In the early debate over slavery even slaveowners and slaveowning states acknowledged that slavery was at best a necessary evil (See Jefferson's Letter to Demeunier). It was hoped that it would eventually die out as the Union expanded. Efforts to gradually eradicate slavery included:

prohibiting the African slave trade
prohibiting slavery in new territories (as in Northwest Ordinance)
enacting post-nati manumission laws where slavery existed
purchasing and recolonizing slaves to Africa

Constitution: The Great Compromise

Constitution of the United States

Constitutional Convention 25 May - 17 Sep 1787

The Great Compromise in the Constitution created a balance of power between states and federal government, President and Congress, House and Senate, large and small states. In Article One, establishing Congress, it reduces the enslaved population to 3/5ths for purposes of apportionment of representatives. In Article Four, establishing territorial boundaries and privileges among the States, it provides for retrieval of escaped laborers from one state to another and establishes Federal jurisdiction over new territories.

The 3/5 Person Clause

Art. I. Sec. 2.3 Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons

The Fugitive Slave Clause

Art. IV Sec. 2.2 No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due

Congressional Jurisdiction over Federal Territories

Art. IV Sec. 3.2 The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

Ratification 7 Dec 1787 - 26 July 1788

As the Convention was drawing to a close, Benjamin Franklin spoke requesting the delegates go out in support of ratification despite lingering differences.1 Nevertheless ratification was controversial in several states. During the debate Patrick Henry focused on the first line of the Constitution, suggesting it undermined state sovereignty. Compare the evolution of state vs. federal sovereignty in the two following preambles.

Articles of Confederation (1781):

I. The stile of this Confederacy shall be The United States of America. II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Preamble to the Constitution (1787):

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

As a result of these ratification debates, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution were added in the form of the Bill of Rights, based in large part on the Virginia_Declaration_of_Rights.

Below is a list of the ratifying states, the date and vote. Nine states were required to achieve the two thirds majority called for.
Date State Vote
7 Dec 1787 Delaware 30-0 in favor
12 Dec 1787 Pennsylvania 46-23 in favor
18 Dec 1787 New Jersey 38-0 in favor
31 Dec 1787 Georgia 26-0 in favor
9 Jan 1788 Connecticut 128-40 in favor
6 Feb 1788 Massachusetts 187-168 in favor
26 April 1788 Maryland 63-11 in favor
23 May 1788 South Carolina 149-73 in favor
21 June 1788 New Hampshire 57-47 in favor
25 June 1788 Virginia 89-79 in favor
26 July 1788 New York 30-27 in favor
2 Aug 1788 North Carolina 184-84 opposed
21 Nov 1789 North Carolina 194-77 in favor
29 May 1790 Rhode Island 34-32 in favor

Hardening of Pro-Slavery Arguments, 1786-1841

In the eighteenth century and before, slavery was both diffused throughout the colonies and heterogeneous in how it was administered and regulated. Slavery was one of a number of unpaid labor arrangements including indenture. Slaves commonly worked side by side with other laborers in a broad range of manual and skilled tasks. Slaves were often manumitted and it was unclear whether the children of slaves were also to be held as slaves. Laws regarding slavery varied from colony to colony.

The debate over slavery was similarly diverse. The debate was held within the dominant public and was common enough to be included as a school exercise in Bingham's Columbian Orator. While few argued for immediate abolition, most agreed that slavery in principle was wrong and should be eventually eradicated or its further spread prevented. Iterations of this argument supported various schemes of gradual emancipation and became known as gradualism.

Expansion of Slave Territories, 1790-1819

After the Constitution was ratified the Union expanded, and one of the main principles of conditional termination of slavery failed. While the African slave trade was abolished in 1808, there was no Congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories being added to the union.

Eli Whitney patented the mechanical cotton gin, allowing for greatly expanded cotton plantation (1793).

Kentucky Enters Union as Slave State (1792)
Slavery Permitted in Mississippi Territory (1798)
Slavery Permitted in Louisiana Purchase (1803)
African Slave Trade Prohibited (1808)
Slavery Permitted in Arkansas Territory (1819)

As the country expanded some of the provisions of conditional termination were enacted. At the same time the economy of slavery expanded in the cotton, rice and sugar-growing regions of the Southeast. Meanwhile post-nati manumission laws took effect in the northeast, gradually eliminating slavery from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. But in the South, expanded economic dependence on slavery combined with the cut off supply of new slaves from Africa led to the entrenchment of familial chattel slavery and the American apartheid.

The First Two Party System: Federalist and Anti-Federalists

The lines drawn in the Constitutional Convention and ratification debates defined American discourse about the role of government for generations. The Constitution itself says nothing about political parties, but early in its history parties formed, as opposition to Federalism moved anti-Federalists to form the Democratic Republican party.

Compare Federalists Anti-Federalists
Economic Base mercantile, shipping, industrial agricultural
Issues Strong central government, central bank, infrastructure, strong defense, high tariffs. Weak federal government, state sovereignty, low tariffs, weak defense, expansion of territory
Representative Persons James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay. John Marshall. President John Adams. Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Madison after 1791.
Documents Federalist Papers Anti-Federalist Papers

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).

Federalists fearing war with France wrote laws restricting aliens and limiting opposition speech; these laws were mostly applied against the republicans. This action contributed to the victory of the democratic republican party in 1800. Library of Congress Web Guide to Alien and Sedition Acts.

One Party Rule: Republicans

Jefferson gained the presidency in 1801. Exiting Federalists packed the federal courts with midnight appointments. One of these, John Marshall, Secretary of State under John Adams, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A generational split developed in which younger Republicans (including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun) favored some old Federalist policies, particularly nationalism. High tariffs tended to favor Northern industrial economies.


In 1803, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. It was loosely incorporated with no provision for gradual termination of slavery. Also in 1803, Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, established Federal judicial review of Acts of Congress.

In 1808, the African slave trade was prohibited under the conditional termination doctrine. The domestic slave trade continued, and pressure grew to produce more domestic slaves as the supply from Africa was shut off.

Panic of 1819 inflamed resentment over high tariffs, distrust of banks, and regional differences over the use of paper money.

The Marshall Court, 1819

Concurrently, in two major decisions, Marshall established the power of the Supreme Court to declare state laws unconstitutional (McCulloch v. Maryland , Dartmoluth v. Woodward ). In McCulloch, the power of states to tax the Bank of the United States was invalidated. In Dartmouth, the power of the state of New Hampshire to alter the charter of Dartmouth College was declared unconstitutional, with Daniel Webster arguing for Dartmouth.

Missouri Compromise (1820)


Northern Republicans attempted to ban slavery in Missouri statehood bill. Tallmadge Amendments, which failed in the Senate, would have enacted a post-nati manumission law and banned importation of slaves into Missouri. Bill that passed, crafted by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, admitted Missouri as slave and Maine as free states. Thomas Amendment banned slavery in Louisiana Territory N of 36-30. Federal fugitive slave law was enacted for parts of Louisiana Territory lying above the Thomas Amendment line. John Quincy Adams: "I take it for granted that the present question is a mere preamble—a title-page to a great, tragic volume." Jefferson's letter to John Holmes in 1820 expresses deep disapproval of the Thomas Amendment line, terming it "the death knell of the union."

Elections of 1824 and 1828

1824: John Quincy Adams defeated Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson with John C. Calhoun as Vice President. Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote; the election was thrown to the House of Representatives.

1828: Adams preferred Clay to Calhoun as vice president; Calhoun consolidated the Southern position by writing in secret, while still V.P., the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. Andrew Jackson led Calhoun followers and coalition of enemies of high tariff to landslide victory and new Democratic party.

Democratic Party Rule

From 1828-1834 the Democratic Party replaced Republican one party rule, with a strong anti-tariff, expansionist, anti-federalist platform dominated by the personality of Andrew Jackson.

In 1829 Mexico prohibited Slavery.

Webster-Hayne Debate of 1830

Erupted over a resolution by Samuel Augustus Foot of Connecticut, to limit sale of public lands, an attempt to prevent expansion westward and the possible acquisition of Texas from Mexico. Foot resolution attacked by Benton of Missouri and Robert Hayne of South Carolina. Hayne uses the occasion to defend the principle of nullification put forward in the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. In Daniel Webster's two replies to Hayne, his language in praise of the Union elevates the Union as a high ideal and is widely popularized and imitated. Jackson, who was expected to come in on the side of nullification, proposes a toast at a dinner to observe Jefferson's birthday: "Our Federal Union. It must be preserved."

The Marshall Court and the Cherokee Removal

The State of Georgia wished to annex Creek and Cherokee territory within its borders and subject Indians to state laws while not allowing them standing as citizens. The Cherokee retained William Wirt to argue their case before the Supreme Court. By accepting the case, the Supreme Court asserted its jurisdiction over the State of Georgia. In the decision, however, the Court rejected the notion that the Cherokee Nation had the same rights as a foreign nation. In a second decision, however, the Supreme Court overruled a Georgia law requiring whites in Indian territory to swear allegiance to the State of Georgia. President Jackson refused to enforce the decision.

Nullification Crisis

Calhoun resigned as Vice President in 1832, and was replaced by Martin Van Buren.

South Carolina nullified the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832. Jackson responded in a Proclamation. Force Bill gives Jackson more military power and compromise tariff gradually lowers rates. SC nullifies the Force Bill but accepts the compromise tariff. Also in 1832, Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Bank of the United States, ushering in an era of easy credit and inflation associated with Western land expansion.

The Later Discourse of Slavery


Rise of Immediatist Abolition

In 1831, two events occurred that further hardened the lines between pro- and anti- slavery positions, to the point where emancipation of slaves became almost unmentionable in civil terms.

Nat Turner's Revolt greatly increased fears of a widespread, violent slave revolt and generated a heated debate in the Virginia legislature over emancipation. Download text of Nat Turner's Confessions

In the same year, William_Lloyd_Garrison published the first issue of The Liberator. His first editorial advocated immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery. During the 1830's a number of slaveholding states wrote a series of slave codes restricting freedom of speech and assembly of slaves and "free persons of color" and setting limits on the legal personhood of slaves.

In 1833, Garrison, Lucretia_Mott and others founded the American_Anti-Slavery_Society.
Tactics of the Immediatists or Abolitionists included:

organizing public meetings and oratory
publically boycotting the products of slave labor
mailing anti-slavery literature to post offices in the South
utilizing the right of non-voting citizens to petition Congress
collecting and promulgating testimonials to the horrors of slavery
after 1840 some abolitionists formed the Liberty Party to influence electoral politics

Two Party Rule: Whigs and Democrats

Whigs Democrats
Formed in 1834 by J. Q. Adams' National Republicans and Calhoun Democrats in protest over punishment of states rights. Attracted wealthy, Northern Democrats opposed to Jackson's attack on the federal bank. In 1844 adopts high tariff platform and restrictions on presidential veto. Continued to combine anti-Jacksonian, federalist fiscal policy with strong Presidential power and expansionist positions on Indian removal etc.

Texas Revolution

In 1836-1836, Texas revolted against Mexico and declared itself a Republic in March 1836, and immediately applied for annexation to the United States. Mexico refused to recognize the new state, setting the conditions for the U.S. War with Mexico when Texas succeeded to enter the Union as the 28th State in 1845.

The Election of 1836

The Whigs lacked a unifying ideological focus, and ran multiple regional candidates in an attempt to undermine Jackson's chosen successor, Martin_Van_Buren.

The Gag Rule Debates

Beginning in 1834-35, abolitionists began sending petitions to Congress daily to abolish slavery in DC, and sending abolitionist literature to Southern states. In 1836 Congress passed measures, submitted by Calhoun and supported by Van Buren, to seize any mail banned by state law and to automatically table antislavery petitions in the House. John_Quincy_Adams, after losing the 1828 election, returned to the House of Representatives in 1829 and served until he died on the floor of the House in 1848. He became the representative of the abolitionist cause in the House. Through his efforts, the Gag Rule was ultimately repealed in 1844.

Panic of 1837

Jackson's attacks on the federal bank and hard-money policies resulted in a crash and depression that lasted into the 1840's. Van Buren's Independent Treasury solution absolved Jackson and brought back the Calhoun wing to the Democrats.

Immediate Abolition vs. Political Reform

Schism arose in 1839-40 over political vs. moral reform; that is, over the issue of whether the Society should endorse political candidates, and whether women should speak in public meetings. The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society broke off from the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and became the Liberty Party in 1840.

Annexation of Texas and Election of 1844

The Calhoun faction agitated for the annexation of Texas as a slave state, gerrymandering the issue to defeat Tyler (National Democratic candidate) and Van Buren (Democratic candidate). Polk elected as compromise candidate. Henry Clay, Whig candidate, opposes annexation of Texas and loses. Abolitionist James Birney runs for the Liberty Party.

War with Mexico (1846)

The Wilmot_Proviso would prohibit introduction of slavery in lands acquired from Mexico. It provided "that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted." Calhoun opposed annexation of Oregon Territory (nonslave).

Election of 1848

Whigs captured the election with Zachary Taylor as president. Taylor would be the last Whig president. Martin_Van_Buren ran as a Free Soil candidate and Gerrit_Smith, an abolitionist, ran for the Liberty Party. The second two party system showed signs of deformation as Whigs and Liberty Party joined forces to form the Free Soil party.

1850 Compromise


Crisis precipitated by acquisition of huge lands from Mexico. Henry Clay was brought back to the Senate from retirement and with Daniel Webster crafted the compromise: 1. California is admitted as free state. Texas is admitted as a slave state. Utah and New Mexico are incorporated without restrictions. 2. Domestic slave trade is prohibited in Washington DC. But the Fugitive Slave Act further strengthens Federal laws forcing free states to turn over fugitive slaves. Southern Congressmen will argue that admission of California constitutes a repeal of the Thomas amendment.

Election of 1852

July 5 1852

Frederick Douglass delivered his celebrated speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July in Rochester, New York, to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society.

Franklin Pierce, a moderate New Hampshire Democrat with Southern ties, elected in 1852. Whigs, without Clay or Webster, suffer crushing defeat.

Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)


Stephen Douglas submits Kansas-Nebraska bill admitting Kansas to statehood under popular sovereignty: it will be up to the settlers to decide on the question of slavery. This effectively repeals the Thomas amendment and brings on the events known as Bleeding Kansas: One of the first duties of the chief justice of the territorial court, Samuel Lecompte, was to set conditions for electing a representative to Congress. Thousands of Missourians crossed the state line to vote for proslavery candidates. Northerners organized thousands of Free Soil emigrants to flood Kansas with free-state votes (alias Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company). These emigrants made Lawrence their headquarters. Outnumbered Southerners responded by organizing armed men from neighboring Missouri to intercept free-state emigrants (alias Society of Missourians for Mutual Protection). Thus guerilla war broke out in Kansas. Two rival governments formed. Andrew Reeder, governor of the territory appointed by Pierce, attempted to restrain the Missourians. Pierce deposed Reeder and instated William Shannon, a pro-slavery governor, in his place. Free Soilers then elected Reeder to Congress and wrote a free constitution in a convention at Topeka. Pierce denounced the Topeka constitution and supported instead a slave state constitution written under Shannon at Lecompton (between Topeka and Lawrence). An all-out range war ensued between the slave state forces under David Atchinson, a Missouri senator, and the free state forces under Henry Lane, recent Congressman from Indiana.

Republican Party

The Republican Party was formed in 1854 by members of the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party and disgruntled Democrats. Calls for repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska act and the Fugitive Slave Law.

Dred Scott Decision (1856)

In the case of Dred Scott, an ex-slave whose return to slavery was sought by his former owners, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that 1) Scott was not a citizen and had no right to bring suit; 2) Not free based on residence in Wisconsin Territory—Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional on basis of popular sovereignty.

Election of 1856

Republicans ran John Fremont for President. James Buchanan, a Democrat, elected.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln ran for Senate from Illinois against Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska act and the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Lincoln's acceptance speech, "A House Divided", sets the tone. Lincoln lost the campaign, becoming tarred as an abolitionist although in his House Divided speech he insists he is merely advocating the eventual elimination of slavery and keeping slavery contained where it now is.


Election of 1860

When Lincoln was elected, alarms were raised across the South, and several states, invoking the doctrine of state sovereignty put forth in the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, seceded before Lincoln could take office. War began. The table below may be misleading since the state conventions that were called were made up of members who heavily favored secession in the first place.
Date Seceding State Vote
20 Dec 1860 South Carolina 169-0
9 Jan 1861 Mississippi 85-15
10 Jan 1861 Florida 62-7
11 Jan 1861 Alabama 61-39
19 Jan 1861 Georgia 208-89
26 Jan 1860 Louisiana 113-17
1 Feb 1861 Texas 166-8
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