Antebellum Law and Politics Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The political and legal landscape in the first decades of the nineteenth century reflected a nation struggling to define itself and what it meant to be a citizen of the United States. The War of 1812 tested the military resolve of the new nation, and forced the British to respect US sovereignty. When Henry Clay referred to the “sacred rights of the American freeman” in his speech to Congress in 1813, his audience understood that he did not include American Indians or African Americans in this category. He did, however, include people who were not born in the United States but had become citizens. Indeed, the question of who was an American at all, and whose rights were bound to be respected, drove political and legal action during this period.

A vexing issue to the new nation involved the delicate balance between states’ rights and the powers of the federal government. Colonies with unique characteristics and traditions before the Revolution became states that were expected to be able to operate together as a unified nation under a narrowly defined central government. The memory of the Revolutionary War was still fresh, and many Americans were wary of centralized power. The authority of the federal government to regulate trade, settlement, and commerce was tested repeatedly. Throughout this period, the Supreme Court defined and broadened its reach. State laws could not contradict or countermand federal laws, and when South Carolina rejected trade tariffs in 1833, armed federal intervention was threatened.

The newly muscular federal government was able to push forward with westward and southern expansion, declaring under the Monroe Doctrine that the continents of North and South America were no longer available for colonization by European powers, and acquiring vast swaths of territory from Mexico, France, and Spain. The stage was also set for the removal of native tribes, whose traditional lands were coveted by white settlers, and whose rights were hotly debated, with calls for Indian resettlement winning out in the end.

States were also deeply divided over the issue of slavery, and attempts at compromise during this period forestalled, but could not prevent, a final collapse of the Union. The increasingly antislavery North was enraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the capture and return of escaped slaves discovered in free states. This was part of the Compromise of 1850, which sought to keep the Union together by accommodating both pro- and antislavery interests. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the citizens of those two territories to choose whether to allow slavery or not, which set the stage for bloody pre–Civil War conflicts there. The 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which concluded, essentially, that slaves were considered property even in free states, and that free blacks could never be citizens, further increased tension in the divided nation.

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