The Gathering Storm

The Slavery Issue
Part II

´╗┐The Peculiar Institution´╗┐ | Bleeding Kansas | Insurrection at Harpers Ferry | The Lincoln - Douglas Debates

The Peculiar Institution   

Slavery arrived in North America along side the Spanish and English colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries, with an estimated 645,000 Africans imported during the more than 250 years the institution was legal.  But slavery never existed without controversy. The British colony of Georgia actually banned slavery from 1735 to 1750, although it remained legal in the other 12 colonies. After the American Revolution, northern states one by one passed emancipation laws, and the sectional divide began to open. The  number of slaves compared to number of free blacks varied greatly from state to state in the southern states. In 1860, for example, both Virginia and Mississippi had in excess of 400,000 slaves, but the Virginia population also included more than 58,000 free blacks, as opposed to only 773 in Mississippi. 

slave boat 

These Africans were illegally smuggled into the United States at Key West, Florida, on the slave ship Wildfire on April 30, 1860, less than a year before the start of the Civil War.  This Harper's Weekly engraving was made from a daguerreotype photograph that has been lost.



Edward James Roye was born into a prominent African-American family in Ohio in 1815, two years before the American Colonization Society was organized to resettle African-Americans in Liberia.  Roye, pictured here in an 1850s daguerreotype, immigrated to Liberia in 1846 and became president in 1870, only to be deposed and brutally murdered in 1871.


Massachusetts native William Lloyd Garrison became one of the North's most prominent abolitionists after starting the newspaper The Liberator in 1831 and helping found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.


slave cabins  

Slaves sit next to their cabins on a plantation near Rockville, South Carolina, in this image taken in 1859 or 1860 by Charleston photographers Osborn & Durbec.

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Bleeding Kansas   

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established Kansas and Nebraska as territories, and set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas” when it decreed that residents would decide whether or not slavery would be allowed within their borders through public referendum. Settlers from North and South poured into Kansas, hoping to swell the numbers on their side of the debate.  Passions were enflamed and violence raged.  In the fall of 1855, abolitionist John Brown came to Kansas to fight the forces of slavery He and his supporters killed five pro-slavery settlers in the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas in May, 1856. That August, Brown led a group of men into battle with about 400 pro-slavery men in the Battle of Osawatomie. The violence subsided in late 1856, after Brown departed, and the warring parties forged a fragile peace, but not before more than 50 settlers had been killed.

Filmore Cartoon 

Former U.S. President Millard Fillmore ran for a non-consecutive second term in 1856 as a level-headed third party candidate who could mediate between the abolitionists and pro-slavery forces.  In this cartoon, Fillmore stands between the armed and hostile Republican candidate John C. Fremont (left) and the club-wielding Democrat James Buchanan.



Henry Ward Beecher was a Congregationalist preacher and abolitionist from Brooklyn who raised money to buy rifles for northerners willing to settle in Kansas and Nebraska and fight against slavery.  The rifles his funds purchased became known as "Beecher's Bibles." 


Sen. Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery legislator from Massachusetts, was attacked on the Senate floor in May 1856 by Rep. Preston Brooks, a cane-wielding South Carolinian.  Sumner had vilified Brooks's uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who, along with Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, co-authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act.


sumner cartoon 

This drawing depicts Brooks just before the attack on Sumner.  In a Senate address, Sumner had poked fun at Butler's stroke-impaired speech and physical mannerisms, prompting his nephew to beat the northerner until his cane broke.  Sumner was so badly injured he wasn't able to return to the Senate for three years.

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Insurrection at Harpers Ferry 

Abolitionist John Brown supported violent action against the South to end slavery and played a major role in starting the Civil War. After  the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown returned to the North and plotted a far more threatening act. In October 1859, he and 19 supporters, armed with “Beecher’s Bibles,” led a raid on the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to capture and confiscate the arms located there, distribute them among local slaves and begin armed insurrection. A small force of U.S. Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee, put down the uprising. There were casualties on both sides; seven people were killed and at least 10 more were injured before Brown and seven of his remaining men were captured.  On October 27, Brown was tried for treason against the state of Virginia, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 2. In the five weeks before his execution, Brown entertained the press in his jail cell, turned the episode into a media circus, gained maximum publicity for his cause and further heightening regional tensions. 

 harpers ferry 

In 1801, the United States Armory and Arsenal opened at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.  The facility, situated in the center of this 1865 image, produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols during the next 60 years, and became the target of John Brown's Raid in 1859.


engine house

Learning of the raid, local citizens and militia soon pinned Brown and his men inside the engine house, seen in the center of this wartime photograph.  The structure has subsequently come to be known as John Brown's Fort.

 marines engraving

A special artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper made this on-the-spot illustration of U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee storming the engine house on October 18, 1859.  Inside they captured a wounded Brown and freed his hostages.


 john brown

This engraving of Brown was published on the cover of the November 19, 1859 issue of Leslie's.  It was made from a photograph taken a year earlier by New York photographer Martin Lawrence.

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The Lincoln - Douglas Debates  

In 1858, a one-term former congressman and Springfield, Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln ran as a Republican against the incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, for a seat in the United States Senate.  From August to October of that year, they held a series of seven face-to-face debates, with much of the discussion focused on the issue of slavery.  Attention grew as the debates continued, and before they were over, the forums were being covered by newspapers across the nation.  Lincoln lost the election, but the publicity elevated him to the national stage.

 lincoln 1858 

On October 1, 1858, two weeks before the final Lincoln-Douglas debate at Alton, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln sat before the camera of Calvin Jackson in Pittsfield, Illinois, and had this photograph made.



Stephen A. Douglas, a native of Vermont, moved to Illinois as a young man and helped found the Democratic Party in that state.  He was elected to Congress in 1842 and moved to the Senate in 1847.

 debate scene

In this modern representation of one of the debates, Lincoln speaks while Douglas, seated to the left, awaits his turn.  They took turns starting, with opening speaker holding court for 60 minutes, followed by 90 minutes for the opponent, and then a 30-minute rebuttal by the first speaker.



President William McKinley, a veteran of the Civil War, speaks at the 40th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg, Illinois, in October 1898.

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