The American nation has been formed out of allegiance to the patriotic feelings that often go unquestioned for the rank-and-file American and the inherent support for pluralism. Therefore, the US history was destined to include outbursts of intolerance and calls for conformity. These two driving forces of the US social development were evident at all times, and were present in the period between 1840 and the start of the Civil War that ultimately reshaped the political balance in the nation. However, intolerance was mounting, evidenced by the outbreak of the war, and efforts to conform were becoming increasingly rare in the North where people began to understand what evil they were facing.
The major controversy in the period that has never been resolved and has finally led to the war that took the lives of approximately 600,000 or 700,000 Americans was the debate over slavery between the North and the South. In the more technologically and industrially developed northern states that did not rely so heavily on slave labor for the survival of their economy, abolitionists were calling for cancellation of slavery that tarnished their nation. However, the northern politicians, eager to prevent what later turned into an armed conflict, could not afford to break with their southern counterparts for that reason.
In 1850, after the annexation of Mexican territories allowed the US to add Texas to its territory, the explosion of the debate over the expansion of slavery necessitated a new compromise that would replace the accord reached in the Missouri Compromise in 1818. The moderate political forces both in the North and the South pushed the nation towards the Compromise Measures of 1850. This agreement defined California as free soil and allowed other former Mexican territories to choose their fate. This compromise allowed a temporary respite in the vehement controversies plaguing the northern and the southern states.
Among other things, this compromise admitted as a free state and set up territorial governments in the remainder of the Mexican cession with authority to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery or not. Moderates in both North and South hoped that the slavery question was settled, at least for a while.
The measures included in the compromise of 1850 were challenged by the appearance of a literary work, however strange this may seem. Of all novels that influenced the course of history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in 1851 was one of the most instrumental in the fight for human freedom. A terrifying description of the life of a black slave sought to reach the hearts of those who were still in the pro-slavery camp and strengthen the conviction of those opposing it. The book was denounced by the South where Stowe was labeled a “coarse, ugly, long-tongued woman” attempting to “awaken rancorous hatred and malignant jealousies” threatening the nation (Garraty, Carnes 2002: 370). On the contrary, in the North it gathered a lot of admirers and motivated quite a few to fight for abolition of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin exacerbated the controversy between the North and the South.
The next explosion of intolerance was caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act introduced in 1854 by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. These two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, that were previously required to remain free soil, were now allowed to decide upon their own choice whether to permit slavery or not, under the doctrine of popular sovereignty. The act that was a footsy in the direction of slave-owners aimed at preserving the national unity raised a storm of protest on the part of the anti-slavery forces. The future US president Abraham Lincoln expressed his indignation over this act by saying that “the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before” (MSN Encarta). The opponents of the extension of slavery refused to conform: to oppose the spread of this evil they formed the Republican Party that was meant to unite anti-slavery forces.
Perhaps the most vivid example of a person who refused to conform to the norms of the then society was the raid of John Brown in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in which the armed people got hold of the federal armory and arsenal. The raiders were the people who used the military operation to vent their protest against slavery. There arose a real threat that his followers will enter the southern states and try to liberate slaves using armed force. Brown was executed, to later become a hero for the anti-slave North.
One of the most efficient forms of protest against slave owning was the Underground Railroad, also known under the name of the Liberty Line, a network of people who helped Afro-Americans enslaved in the southern states to flee to the free northern states or Canada before slavery was abolished after the American Civil War. It is assessed that about 100,000 slaves were able to get out of slavery with the help of the railroad in the period from 1810 to 1850 (Wikipedia). The main reason for the existence of the Underground Railroad was the wide spread of the Abolitionist ideas that called for the elimination of slavery as a social and economic phenomenon. Brave idealists who chose to participate in the undertaking were ready to defy the laws of their states in order to accomplish what they thought to be the right thing.
Although many abolitionists chose to defy the laws to free slaves, the lawmakers deemed it appropriate to pacify the South by toughening the laws against runaways. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 allowed slave hunters to enter northern in search of runaway slaves and capture slaves who had run away from their southern masters. After the passage of the law, runaway slaves could no longer settle down in northern states.
Thus, outbursts of intolerance for another’s position by far exceeded conformity attempts in the America of the 1840s-1850s. American people had too serious an issue to confront to be able to conform: they had to decide on the future of their nation, selecting between a nation of slave-owners, a democracy akin to that of Ancient Greece where rule of people referred to everybody but the slaves and that of freedom and equal opportunities for all. The refusal to accede to the views of the other side finally led to the secession of the southern states from the Union.
Garraty, John A. & Mark C. Carnes. The American Nation: A History of The United States. Prentice Hall, 2002.
MSN Encarta. Civil War, American. http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761567354_3/Civil_War.html (July 10, 2005)
Wikipedia. Underground Railroad. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad (July 10, 2005)