The Issue of Slavery
Slavery was a major factor in the country's collapse, albeit not the only one. The North's industrial society needed labor for its economic prosperity, but the commencing wave of immigration provided a labor pool without resorting to slavery.
When slaveholding Missouri applied for statehood in 1818, there was a balance of slave states and free states, with eleven of each. Each faction viewed any attempt by the other faction to tip the scales as dangerous. Such fears delayed the annexation of Texas. Thus, Congress found a middle ground with what became known as the Missouri Compromise, enacted in 1820 and regulating the extension of slavery in the country for three decades until its repeal, in part, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Dred Scott, a fugitive slave, who argued for his freedom after his master died when the two traveled to another state. When the Missouri state court ruled against Scott, he took his case to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had the final word, denying him the right to sue for his freedom, reasoning that a slave wasn't a citizen.
This new act authorized the creation of Kansas and Nebraska, territories west and north of Missouri, and stipulated that the inhabitants of these territories would decide the legality of slavery. The bill's sponsor, Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, wanted to assure Southern support for white settlement into otherwise Native American territory. He hoped such settlement would facilitate construction of the transcontinental railroad. Southern votes were absolutely necessary. Removing the restriction on slavery's expansion ensured passage, and indeed President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law May 30, 1854.
With passage, however, political parties went into turmoil, and tensions between the North and South grew more passionate. The vicious fighting that resulted became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and one of the names made famous over this dispute was John Brown, a self-ordained preacher with fervor against slavery. In May 1856, John Brown and his sons murdered five slave-supporting settlers in cold blood at Pottawatomie Creek.
The issue and the political fallout split the Democratic Party and destroyed the badly divided Whig Party, particularly in the South. The northern Whigs joined antislavery sentiment, forming the Republican Party in 1854.