The great subject before the country at this time was skivery. It had been the cause of trouble for many years.
In the early settlement of the American colonies, slavery had been introduced through the influence of the English government. The first slaves had been brought to Virginia nearly 240 years before the time of which I am telling you.
Many people saw from the beginning that it was an evil which would at some distant day bring disaster upon the country. In 1772, the people of Virginia petitioned the king of England to put a stop to the bringing of slaves from Africa into that colony. But the petition was rejected; and the king forbade them to speak of the matter any more.
Washington, Jefferson, and other founders of our nation looked upon slavery as an evil. They hoped that the time might come when it would be done away with; for they knew that the country would prosper better without it.
At the time of the Revolution, slavery was permitted in all the states. But it was gradually abolished, first in Pennsylvania and then in the New England states, and afterwards in New York. In 1787, a law was passed by Congress declaring that there should be no slavery in the territory northwest of the river Ohio. This was the territory from which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were formed; and so, of course, these states were free states from the beginning.
The great industry of the South was cotton-raising. The people of the Southern states claimed that slavery was necessary, because only negro slaves could do the work required on the big cotton plantations. Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were admitted, one by one, into the Union; and all were slave states.
In 1821, Missouri applied for admission into the Union. The South wanted slavery in this state also, but the North objected. There were many hot debate's in Congress over this question. At last, through the influence of Henry Clay, the dispute was settled by what has since been known as the Missouri Compromise.
The Missouri Compromise provided that Missouri should be a slave state; this was to satisfy the South. On the other hand, it declared that all the western territory north of the line which formed the southern boundary of Missouri, should forever be free; this was to appease the North.
But the cotton planters of the South grew more wealthy by the labor of their slaves. More territory was needed for the extension of slavery. Texas joined the United States and became a slave state.
Then followed a war with Mexico; and California, New Mexico and Utah were taken from that country. Should slavery be allowed in these new territories also?
At this time a new political party was formed. It was called the "Free Soil Party," and the principle for which it contended was this: "No more slave states and no slave territory."
This party was not very strong at first, but soon large numbers of Whigs and many northern Democrats, who did not believe in the extension of slavery, began to join it.
Although the Whig party refused to take any position against the extension of slavery, there were many anti-slavery Whigs who still remained with it and voted the Whig ticket—and one of these men was Abraham Lincoln.
The contest between freedom and slavery became more fierce every day. At last another compromise was proposed by Henry Clay.
This compromise provided that California should be admitted as a free state; that slavery should not be prohibited in New Mexico and Utah; that there should be no more markets for slaves in the District of Columbia; and that a new and very strict fugitive-slave law should be passed.
This compromise is called the "Compromise of 1850." It was in support of these measures that Daniel Webster made his last great speech.
It was hoped by Webster and Clay that the Compromise of 1850 would put an end to the agitation about slavery. "Now we shall have peace," they said. But the agitation became stronger and stronger, and peace seemed farther away than ever before.
In 1854, a bill was passed by Congress to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This bill provided that the Missouri Compromise should be repealed, and that the question of slavery in these territories should be decided by the people living in them.
The bill was passed through the influence of Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. There was now no bar to the extension of slavery into any of the territories save that of public opinion.
The excitement all over the North was very great. In Kansas there was actual war between those who favored slavery and those who opposed it. Thinking men in all parts of the country saw that a great crisis was at hand.