From thrilling stories of adventure along the underground railways came some of the scenes and themes of the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published two years after the Compromise of 1850. Her stirring tale set forth the worst features of slavery in vivid word pictures that caught and held the attention of millions of readers. Though the book was unfair to the South and was denounced as a hideous distortion of the truth, it was quickly dramatized and played in every city and town throughout the North. Topsy, Little Eva, Uncle Tom, the fleeing slave, Eliza Harris, and the cruel slave driver, Simon Legree, with his baying blood hounds, became living specters in many a home that sought to bar the door to the “unpleasant and irritating business of slavery agitation.”
THE DRIFT OF EVENTS TOWARD THE IRREPRESSIBLE CONFLICT
=Repeal of the Missouri Compromise.=—To practical men, after all, the “rub-a-dub” agitation of a few abolitionists, an occasional riot over fugitive slaves, and the vogue of a popular novel seemed of slight or transient importance. They could point with satisfaction to the election returns of 1852; but their very security was founded upon shifting sands. The magnificent triumph of the pro-slavery Democrats in 1852 brought a turn in affairs that destroyed the foundations under their feet. Emboldened by their own strength and the weakness of their opponents, they now dared to repeal the Missouri Compromise. The leader in this fateful enterprise was Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, and the occasion for the deed was the demand for the organization of territorial government in the regions west of Iowa and Missouri.
Douglas, like Clay and Webster before him, was consumed by a strong passion for the presidency, and, to reach his goal, it was necessary to win the support of the South. This he undoubtedly sought to do when he introduced on January 4, 1854, a bill organizing the Nebraska territory on the principle of the Compromise of 1850; namely, that the people in the territory might themselves decide whether they would have slavery or not. Unwittingly the avalanche was started.
After a stormy debate, in which important amendments were forced on Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill became a law on May 30, 1854. The measure created two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and provided that they, or territories organized out of them, could come into the union as states “with or without slavery as their constitutions may prescribe at the time of their admission.” Not content with this, the law went on to declare the Missouri Compromise null and void as being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the states and territories. Thus by a single blow the very heart of the continent, dedicated to freedom by solemn agreement, was thrown open to slavery. A desperate struggle between slave owners and the advocates of freedom was the outcome in Kansas.