Politically, the 1850s can be characterized as a decade of failure in which the nation's leaders were unable to resolve, or even contain, the divisive issue of slavery. In 1852, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. When Stowe began writing her book, she thought of it as only a minor sketch, but it widened in scope as the work progressed. Immediately upon its publication, it caused a sensation. More than 300,000 copies were sold the first year, and presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand.
Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom's Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and the fundamental conflict between free and slave societies. The rising generation of voters in the North was deeply stirred by the work. It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the antislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions —— indignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation.
In 1854 the old issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter. The region that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establishment of territorial, and eventually, state governments.
Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire region was closed to slavery. The Compromise of 1850, however, inadvertently reopened the question. Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri, objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa and Kansas). They feared the prospect of their state being forced to become a free state as well. For a time, Missourians in Congress, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region.
At this point, Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic senior senator from Illinois, stirred up a storm by proposing a bill, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which enraged all free-soil supporters. Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850, which left Utah and New Mexico free to resolve the slavery issue for themselves, superseded the Missouri Compromise. His plan called for two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and permitted settlers to carry slaves into them. The inhabitants themselves were to determine whether they should enter the Union as free or slave states.
Northerners accused Douglas of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856. Angry debates marked the progress of the bill. The free-soil press violently denounced it. Northern clergymen assailed it. Businessmen who had hitherto befriended the South suddenly turned about-face. Yet in May 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Senate amid the boom of cannon fired by Southern enthusiasts. When Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor lowered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard.
The immediate results of Douglas's ill-starred measure were momentous. The Whig Party, which had straddled the question of slavery expansion, sank to its death, and in its stead a powerful new organization arose, the Republican Party, whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown. Although Fremont lost the election, the new Republican Party swept a great part of the North. Such free-soil leaders as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward exerted greater influence than ever. Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln.
The flow of both Southern slave holders and antislavery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict, and soon the territory was being called "bleeding Kansas." Other events brought the nation still closer to upheaval: notably, the Supreme Court's infamous 1857 decision concerning Dred Scott.
Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been taken by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been banned by the Northwest Ordinance. Returning to Missouri and becoming discontented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil. The Supreme Court —— dominated by Southerners —— decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resident of a slave state (Missouri); and that slave holders had the right to take their "property" anywhere in the federal territories and that Congress could not restrict the expansion of slavery. The Court's decision thus invalidated the whole set of comprise measures by which Congress for a generation had tried to settle the slavery issue.
The Dred Scott decision stirred fierce resentment throughout the North. Never before had the Court been so bitterly condemned. For Southern Democrats, the decision was a great victory, since it gave judicial sanction to their justification of slavery throughout the territories.