America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

By Kenneth M. Stampp | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Heart of the Matter: Slavery and Sectionalism

The debate between the sections and political parties over the Dred Scott case, though often shrill and hyperbolic, nevertheless clearly illustrated both the substantive issues that divided North and South and the manner in which the parties tried to deal with them. Whether or not the Court's decision would have any practical significance for the existing territories, the various reactions to the case did make clear -- as the Kansas controversy had done the year before -- the centrality of the slavery issue in the sectional conflict. The issue assumed many forms. Northern abolitionists aimed their attacks directly at slavery in the southern states, denouncing it as immoral and its survival as a national disgrace. Most Republicans, who did not consider themselves to be abolitionists, hoped to promote its ultimate extinction indirectly by preventing its expansion, or by resisting enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Others avoided frontal assaults by stressing only the need to check the aggressions of the southern Slave Power. Proslavery Southerners, not without reason, claimed to see no significant difference between these several forms of attack, regarding each as a dangerous threat, varying only in its degree of subtlety.

Southern editors, politicians, and literary champions, in turn, frequently elected not to speak directly of the need to defend slavery but stressed instead the more abstract and elevated concepts of southern honor or constitutional rights. In most cases the terms were interchangeable, for as they were generally used the concepts of rights and honor were almost invariably linked to slavery. The RichmondEnquirer made the linkage explicit when it argued that secession would be justified "only when the honor of the slave states" was "outraged by a Black Republican control of the country. . . . Let Congress enact another boundary line, beyond which slavery shall not go, and we would say repeal it, or the

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