Jan. 1, 2013 came and went without any extraordinary fanfare. Sure there were New Year’s Eve parties and football games on New Year’s Day, but did you remember what happened 150 years ago, Jan. 1, 1863? One of our country’s most significant events occurred - the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. In my next column I will relate to you an early childhood experience that shaped Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs about slavery and how it led to his term in the House of Representatives and later his Presidency.
The Proclamation was not issued in a vacuum. Threats of secession did not begin when Lincoln was elected President. The issue of slavery was formally addressed only 11 years after our Declaration of Independence was signed when our country’s founders sought to confine slavery within the boundaries of the existing states and prohibit its future spread. The Northwest Ordinance was passed by the Congress of the Confederation of the United States in July 1787, two months BEFORE our Constitution was adopted. The Ordinance created the Northwest Territory, which was the first organized territory of the United States. The Ordinance provided for the administration of the future territories and set rules for admission of a state. Among other things, it forbade the introduction of slavery into the vast Northwest Territory, which later became the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio.
As more states applied for statehood and as debates continued regarding whether they should be admitted as a free state or a slave state, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It temporarily defused the sectional and political rivalries triggered by the request of Missouri late in 1819 for admission as a state in which slavery would be permitted. At the time, the United States contained 22 states, evenly divided between slave and free states. Admission of Missouri as a slave state would upset that balance; it would also set a precedent for congressional acceptance to the expansion of slavery. Two sections of this act allowed Missouri to become a slave state and Maine to become a free state and also established a boundary between free and slave regions that many call the 36-30 parallel line across the former Louisiana Territory, which was purchased in 1803. The strange part about this compromise is that Missouri is north of that line, breaking its own rule. Florida was then admitted as a slave state and Iowa a free state. Texas was then admitted as a slave state and Wisconsin a free state.
Laws are made to be changed, which transpired again in the Compromise of 1850. California was admitted as a free state, and the act allowed the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide by popular vote whether to be a slave or free state. Lawmakers reinforced this decision in 1854 by passing the Kansas–Nebraska Act. It created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing settlers in those territories to determine whether they would allow slavery within each territory. The result was that pro- and anti-slavery elements flooded into Kansas with the goal of voting slavery up or down, leading to a bloody civil war there. In the 1860 presidential race, the debates of the past ten years became more fervent and the sentiments of northern and southern states rose to the boiling point.