History of the abolitionist movement



The sentiment in favor of slave-manumission died away in great measure after the passage of the Missouri Compromise Bill in 1820, and, though it was kept feebly alive, it failed to become a question of national importance until after the close of the Mexican War. A feeling in favor of "gradual abolition" existed in some measure both South and North until 1830, though no steps were taken towards its realization. The doctrine of immediate abolition was first openly promulgated by William Lloyd Garrison, in The Liberator, a newspaper of which the first number was issued on January 1, 1831. Anti-slavery societies were soon after formed, but the cause which they advocated met with great opposition in the North during the succeeding twenty years, the meetings of the abolitionists being violently broken up, and their lives occasionally endangered. The political strength of the abolition idea was first made manifest in 1844, when the candidate of the so-called Liberty party polled 62,300 votes, enough to defeat Clay and make Polk President of the United States.

It was, however, the close of the Mexican War, and the consequent large addition of territory to the United States, that brought the question of slavery-extension prominently before Congress, and opened that series of hostile debates which ended only with the Southern declaration of war. In the discussion of the treaty with Mexico, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania proposed to add to the appropriation bill the proviso that slavery should be prohibited in any territory which might be acquired in consequence of the war. This "Wilmot Proviso" was defeated in the Senate, but was received with much approbation in the North. The opponents of slavery organized themselves, in 1848, into the Free Soil party, which in the ensuing Presidential election polled 300,000 votes for its candidate, Van Buren. It sent Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase to the Senate, and a considerable number of members to the House of Representatives.

The rapid settlement of California and the West soon became a disturbing element in the situation. The people of Oregon organized a provisional Territorial government, from which slavery was excluded. A convention held in California in 1849 adopted a similar measure, and an application was made to Congress for admission of the Territory as a State with this proviso in its Constitution. A fierce debate followed, the Southern extremists insisting on the organization of California, Utah, and New Mexico, as Territories, with no restriction as to slavery. The Free Soilers and many others demanded that California should be admitted as a State, and that Territorial governments prohibiting slavery should be given to Utah and New Mexico. The dispute ended in a compromise bill proposed by Henry Clay, and accepted by Congress, in whose measures California was admitted as a free State, Utah and New Mexico organized as Territories without restriction as to slavery, the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia prohibited, and provision made for the return of fugitive slaves from Northern States.

For a while everything seemed settled: the compromise was spoken of as a finality, and a state of public feeling prevailed which greatly discouraged anti-slavery agitation. In the succeeding Presidential election the Free Soil ticket received but 151,000 votes, and the party ended its political existence, to be absorbed in 1855 into the Republican party, a new and strongly-consolidated organization, which was destined to become famous in the succeeding history of the country.





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