America in the 1850s


Why did it take so long for Americans to get around to a full-scale debate on slavery?

Many Americans hid their heads in the sand where slavery was concerned. Its presence had long been an embarrassment to those who claimed the young republic was the freest place in the world; it had long been a source of discomfort to white Southerners, who rejected the notion that slavery was evil, but admitted it presented complex problems. Foreigners, generally, were able to see into the debate more skillfully than those who were caught up in its heat, but even they sometimes shrugged their shoulders, saying that this was an American problem that required an American solution.

As late as the autumn of 1849, there were still plenty of Americans who found a way not to talk about slavery, but the events of the winter of 1850 finally removed this possibility. In that winter, the Territory of California applied for statehood, and in a special election its voters confirmed that they wished to enter the Union as a free state, one where slavery was specifically and intentionally forbidden.

A newspaper notice announcing the sale of five black slaves. Such ads in classified sections of newspapers were common.


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