Before the War
Ever since the founding of the United States, political leaders had been reluctant to grapple openly with the issue of slavery. As the U.S. expanded across the continent, hard-won political compromises kept the issue at bay. Yet with each compromise, the national fabric was badly torn. Each time it was more difficult to mend.
The annexation of Texas to the United States was a critical milestone in the transformation of the slavery question from a manageable burden to a violent crisis. After the Texas Revolution in 1836, most Texans and many Americans considered annexation a foregone conclusion. But for nine long and bruising years, Northern politicians blocked the addition of this huge and potentially powerful new slave territory to the nation.
The future of Texas became a pawn in what seemed an endless game between North and South. Finally, in 1845, a coalition of Southern planters and western expansionists succeeded in breaking the deadlock, engineering the admission of Texas as the 28th state of the Union. The political dogfight was so brutal and pitiless that it broke the Democratic Party into bitterly opposed sectional factions. The ability of Americans to find common ground in political compromise was being ripped apart.
Note: You can read much more about Texas annexation by visiting our exhibit Hard Road to Texas: Texas Annexation 1836-1845.
Over the next fifteen years, a series of incendiary events propelled the nation towards war. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a sensational national bestseller, swinging public opinion in the North against slavery while causing outrage in the South. In Kansas and along the Missouri border, dozens of people died in vicious fighting over the extension of slavery into the west. On the floor of the United States Senate, a South Carolina congressman administered a crippling beating to a Massachusetts senator. In 1859, a radical abolitionist named John Brown staged a well-organized raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark an uprising that would purge the nation of the evils of slavery. His treason trial and execution galvanized the nation.
Many Southerners began to talk seriously about secession. In the late 1850s, the Texas legislature even denied Sam Houston another term in the United States Senate because Houston had become a nationally known Unionist, one of very few Southern politicians to speak out in favor of solving the nation’s problems through dialog and compromise. He predicted that secession would only lead the South to war, defeat, and ruin.
In 1857, Houston tried for the Texas governorship but was defeated for the first time in his political career, losing to secessionist Hardin Runnels. Two years later, the political picture had changed. Runnels had failed to deal effectively with Indian attacks on the frontier, and the popular old hero of San Jacinto seemed like the man to put things right. Moreover, the Kansas territory was in a bloody uproar, and many Texans were having misgivings about unleashing that kind of violence within their state. In a rematch election, Houston defeated Runnels, becoming the only Unionist governor of a Southern state.
Page last modified: August 2, 2011