Elephant in the Room OverviewThe final lesson of our "Causes of Civil War" unit was called Elephant in the Room. The expression "the elephant in the room" refers to when there is a huge topic or issue and nobody is bothering to discuss it. This had to do with slavery in the early 19th century. The essential question for this lesson is "How do we know the debate over slavery was the 'elephant in the room' for American politics in the early 19th century?". To start the lesson, we got a quick overview on the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise took place in 1820, and it created an even split of eleven slave states and eleven free states. This means slave states and free states have an even number of votes in the Senate. Also, all new territory north of the 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude line will be free in the future. 1849 held the Gold Rush in California. In 1950, California requests to join the United States as a free state. Henry Clay anticipates the inevitable controversy of the loss of balance between slave and free states. So he proposes a 5-part compromise. Our next task was to read this article on PBS titled "The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act". With this, we needed to find these five parts of the compromise. The first part was that Texas would claim the land in dispute but, in compensation, be given 10 million dollars -- money it would use to pay off its debt to Mexico. This satisfied pro-slavery advocates. The second part was the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah being organized without mention of slavery. The decision would be made by the territories' inhabitants later, when they applied for statehood. This also satisfied pro-slavery advocates. The third part was the slave trade being abolished in the District of Columbia, although slavery would still be permitted. This satisfied anti-slavery advocates. The fourth part of the compromise was California being admitted as a free state. To pacify slave-state politicians, who would have objected to the imbalance created by adding another free state, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This also satisfied anti-slavery advocates, because another free state exists. The final part was the Fugitive Slave Act. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It denied a fugitive's right to a jury trial. (Cases would instead be handled by special commisioners -- commisioners who would be paid $5 if an alleged fugitive were released and $10 if he or she were sent away with the claimant.) The act called for changes in filing for a claim, making the process easier for slaveowners. Also, according to the act, there would be more federal officials responsible for enforcing the law. This satisfied pro-slavery advocates. We were split into groups of 2 or 3 to make timelines with the Timeline app. My group's timeline is below, along with descriptions of each event. To answer the essential question; the debate over slavery was the 'elephant in the room' because most decisions were made regarding states and territories, and not how it affected slaves. Slavery was obviously the elephant in the room, and it needed to be a bigger deal to politicians. Next, I will use other events to prove this, even though some politicians truly cared about slaves.
More Proof of Ignoring Slavery
As you can see on the timeline, we also analyzed the Gadsden Purchase, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, The Caning of Charles Sumner, The Dred Scott Decision, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and John Brown's Raid. These events really helped support the idea that slavery was the elephant in the room, the thing that was an obvious issue but was not discussed enough. The Kansas-Nebraska Act took place in 1854 and got rid of the Missouri Compromise. Yes, the compromise that kept territories above a certain line free of slavery was gone. This already helps us answer the essential question. Clearly none of the politicians were worried about those new slave states. This act made it easier for southerners to expand slavery northward. Another important event was Bleeding Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to Bleeding Kansas, which resulted in a lot of major violent outbreaks. The Caning of Charles Sumner proved that even the most civilized men could resort to violence because of slavery controversy. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner delivered a two day speech called The Crime Against Kansas. The anti-slavery Republican attacked southerners in this speech for forcing slavery on territories. He also made bold insults against Senator Andrew Butler. Rep. Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives and Butler's nephew, was angered by Sumner's remarks and was determined to defend the honor of the south. Two days after Sumner's speech, Brooks approached Sumner at his Senate desk and beat him with his cane. People across the south voiced their support for Brooks. Northerners were outraged. Another event was the Dred Scott Decision in 1857. Dred Scott was an enslaved man living in Missouri. He filed a suit against his owner, and argued that he and his wife were free because they had once lived with their owner in states and territories where slavery was illegal. The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 against the Scotts. We read about the effects of this decision here. There were 3 effects of the Dred Scott Decision. Slaves, because they were not citizens, were denied the right to sue in court. Enslaved people could not win freedom just by living in a free territory or state, and the Missouri Compromise ruled unconstitutional and all territories were open to slavery. This last effect really stood out to me because it's as if time was moving backwards. They made the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to keep certain states free, they got rid of the compromise in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then all territories are open to slavery? It makes no sense to me, further proving that politicians did not want to talk about how awfully slaves were treated, and proving that the debate over slavery truly was the elephant in the room for American politics in the early 19th century.
Before and After the Kansas-Nebraska Act that made more states available to slavery.
- The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2951.html.
- The Works of Charles Sumner, vol. IV (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870- 1873), pages 125-249.
- Finkelman. Dred Scott v. Sanford. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933t.html.