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In the 1840s, westward expansion raised the question of whether slavery should spread to new territories. Many voters in slaveholding states considered slavery necessary to maintaining individual liberty and economic opportunity for whites and believed that slavery had to grow for the South to maintain political equality within the federal government. Yet many residents of non-slaveholding states, even those who disapproved of abolitionism, believed that slavery mocked American ideals, feared the disproportionate power wielded by the slaveholding states nationally, and wanted slavery—and slaves—barred from the territories. The question was no mere abstraction: with the end of the Mexican-American War, the United States acquired thousands of square miles of territory where slavery had been barred under Mexican law, but toward which slaveholders looked optimistically as lands that could be lucratively irrigated and mined with slave labor. In 1846, when Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prevented slavery from spreading to territories where it did not already exist, Southern political leaders threatened secession. The stage was set for years of complex legal wrangling over the status of slavery in national territories.
For enslaved Americans, the issue was quite straightforward: they wanted freedom. Penniless and usually illiterate, runaway slaves rarely escaped because they faced almost impossible odds against armed patrols, despite the "underground railroad," an informal aid network consisting mainly of other blacks. Nonetheless, runaways assumed symbolic significance, leading to a stringent Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 which dramatically increased the involvement of the federal government in the recapture of slaves, even as it went to unprecedented lengths to dictate the actions of individuals living within Northern states, each of whom was turned by the Fugitive Slave Law into a de facto slavecatcher. Many Northern states, including Massachusetts, tried to blunt the edge of the federal law by passing state personal liberty laws. Personal liberty laws allowed individual state residents to choose not to participate personally in the recapture of a fugitive slave for conscientious reasons, but such laws were repeatedly struck down. Some, most notably the prominent senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster, embraced the Fugitive Slave Law as necessary to keep the Union together, but among most Massachusetts residents, white as well as black, the law's coercive nature made it wildly unpopular. Despite the tiny number of fugitive slaves who actually made it North, a handful of sensational "rescues" of fugitive slaves apprehended under the new law, including the rescue of Anthony Burns in Boston, heightened the symbolic significance of the fugitive slave issue. When Southern states left the Union a decade later, they all cited Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law as a chief cause.
In the 1850s, violence flared. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 revoked a decades-long ban on slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories and replaced it with "popular sovereignty," the practice by which white men settling in territories would vote on slavery. This seemingly peaceful solution soon dissolved into bloodshed. Whites from slave and free states rushed to settle. A group of Massachusetts citizens formed themselves into the "New England Emigrant Aid Society" and founded the town of Lawrence, Kansas, which soon became a stronghold of free-state sentiment. Violent conflict erupted between proponents and opponents of slavery in Kansas. One participant, John Brown, next turned east in efforts to bring about abolition by violence. With a small group of white and black co-conspirators, and with the financial backing of the "Secret Six," a group of wealthy men chiefly from New England, Brown occupied a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859 before getting captured and hanged. His brief raid excited white fears and set the highly emotional tone in which the election of 1860 would take place.