Slavery Polarizes the Nation
THERE HAD BEEN agitation against slavery since before the founding of the republic, but the rise of the militant abolitionist movement is usually dated from 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison founded the Liberator. On that basis, the prerealignment period that preceded the first of the three great political upheavals analyzed in this book--the realignment of the 1850s--lasted almost a quarter of a century. The slavery issue cut squarely across the two major parties that existed at the time, the Democrats and the Whigs. Indeed, the schism could be plotted geographically, along the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River, which separated the slave states from the free. At each pole, in each region, a political force dedicated above all else to the resolution of the slavery issue took form and grew. For two decades and more, the politics of the nation centered around the struggle between the two polar forces and the moderate centrists who, straddling the Mason-Dixon line and the slavery issue, struggled to hold the parties and the nation together.
The prerealignment period, the subject of this chapter, can be described in three stages. In the first stage, the centrists were in full control of both parties; the antislavery forces, while struggling as a minority in the major parties, also found expression in a new Liberty party. Then the minority began to disrupt the major parties with determined attacks on the centrist leaders, and a more powerful third party, the Free-Soilers, came into being. Finally, in the third stage, the centrists in the Whig party were overwhelmed and the party was literally pulled apart. The realignment was then precipitated.
"I am in earnest; I will not equivocate; I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard," wrote Garrison in the first issue of the Liberator. There followed a wave of organization. Local abolitionist societies that had been quiescent in the North since that region had outlawed slavery