In the matter of the Territories they had a great advantage. The North was up against a stone wall at the Canadian border. In that direction it could not advance a step, while the South had practically an unlimited field on its side from which to carve possessions as they might be wanted, very much as you would cut a pie.
In pursuance of its territorial policy—being the line of action it first resolved upon—the first movement of the South was to annex Texas—a victory. The next was to make war on Mexico, and (a joke of the day) conquer a “piece” from it large enough to make half a dozen States, all expected to be slaveholding—another victory.
By a curious irony the filching of land for slavery’s uses from a neighbor, and on which the foot of a slave had never pressed, was exultingly spoken of at the time by its supporters as “an extension of the area of freedom.” The act was justified on the ground that we needed “land for the landless,” which led Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio to assert on the floor of the United States Senate, with as much truth as wit, that it was not land for the landless that was wanted, but “niggers for the niggerless.”
Then came the battle over Kansas. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in Congress, although involving a breach of good faith on the part of the South, was hailed as another victory for that section. It was a costly victory. It was followed by defeat not only disastrous but fatal. The result in Kansas was really the turning-point in the great struggle. It broke the line of Southern victories. It neutralized the effect of the whole territorial movement up to that point. It completely spoiled the slaveholders’ well-laid plans. We will always give Grant and his men all praise for victories leading up to Appomatox, but, in some respects, the most important victory of the great conflict was won on the plains of Kansas by John Brown of Ossawattomie and his Abolition associates.
The most sagacious Southern leaders saw in that result conclusive proof that the scale was turned. They realized that they were beaten within the lines of the Union, and they began to arrange for going out of it. They helped to elect a Republican President by dividing the Democratic party in 1860 between two candidates—Douglas and Breckenridge—in order that they might have a plausible pretext for secession.
But the slaveholders had not abandoned the other policy to which reference has been made—that of carrying their institution, by main force, as it were, into some, if not all, of the free States. To that end they had, in sporting parlance, a card up their sleeves which they proceeded to play. That card was the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, upon which they relied to give them the legal power to take and hold their slaves in all parts of the land. Up to the date of that decision, the current of judicial rulings had been that slavery, being a municipal institution,