Here I am again, with Part Two! This is the part that I didn’t actually script beforehand. It’s also the part during which I explain the lecture’s tagline – “How Hollywood Almost Became Part of Colorado.”
THE CIVIL WAR: PART THE SECOND
So, to recap the last episode of the Great Soap Opera of the American Nineteenth Century: Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, walked in on her father with- WAIT! SORRY! WRONG EPISODE! To recap the last episode, the Compromise of 1850 was passed – California was admitted as free, and Utah and New Mexico could choose their status – free or slave.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. The Compromise of 1850 had just one more part to it: a tiny little thing, really, called the “Fugitive Slave Act.” The Fugitive Slave Act decreed that any enslaved people who escaped to the free states wouldn’t be free – they’d be labeled “contraband” and shipped back to their Southern owners ASAP. Given the increase of abolitionist sentiments in the North, it was only natural that Northerners bitterly resented the Fugitive Slave Act, and resisted it as much as they could – something that the Southerners whose slaves were escaping did not take kindly. Thus, the so-called Compromise of 1850 only served to deepen the gap between the South and the rest of the country.
The event that really, truly sealed the divide, though, wasn’t a law. It wasn’t a riot. Nope, it was a book. A book that was published in 1852… a book named Uncle Bob’s Cabin.
JUST KIDDING! Its real name was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a pretty famous book… so let’s see how much YOU, dear reader, know about it:
True or false:
1) Harriet Tubman, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had never been to the Deep South.
2) Two main characters – a slave and a slave-owner – were both named George.
3) The main antagonist was a Southerner named Simon Legree.
1) False. The author’s name was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave who helped run the Underground Railroad.
2) True. George Harris is a slave and the husband of Eliza Harris – and George Shelby is the son of Uncle Tom’s owner.
3) False. Simon Legree was a Northerner, from Vermont (although he did move to Louisiana).
How’d you do? If you’ve discovered that you need a refresher, here’s a quick summary of the book:
Uncle Tom, a middle-aged slave, belongs to the Shelby family of Kentucky. The Shelbys are decent people, and Tom leads a relatively peaceful life with his wife and children. However, one day, the Shelby patriarch realizes that he’s in debt, and decides to sell some slaves. He settles on two: Tom and a toddler named Harry Harris. Harry’s mother, Eliza, finds out about her son’s pending sale – and decides to run away. After a protracted struggle, Eliza, Harry, and Eliza’s husband George manage to escape the slave-catchers and reach the safety of Canada.
Meanwhile, Uncle Tom gets sold “down the river” in Louisiana – originally as a house servant to a kind family in New Orleans, and later (when pretty much everyone in the aforementioned kind family kicks the bucket in a plethora of horrible ways) as a field hand to the dreaded Simon Legree. Legree hates Tom’s Christian attitude, and eventually orders him to be beaten to death.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin quickly became one of America’s greatest bestsellers, beaten only by the Bible. Millions of people across the country purchased copies, and, touched by the horrific ordeals of Uncle Tom and the Harris family, began to question the institution of slavery.
Naturally, the Southern aristocrats, whose fortunes and livelihoods depended on their slaves, didn’t take too kindly to this. They absolutely panned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and denied that there was any truth in it – claiming that, since the Southernmost state Stowe had visited was Kentucky, she had no right to write about Deep Southern slavery. The book caused such violent arguments that, when he finally met her, Lincoln addressed Stowe as “the little woman who started the big war”.
From then on, the 1850s were one enormous sectionalist disaster. In 1857, Dred Scott – a Missouri slave – sued for his freedom, on the grounds that he and his master had been living on free soil for a few years. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, a Marylander by the name of Robert Taney, struck down the case, declaring that slaves were not American citizens, and therefore Scott had no right to file a lawsuit. Taney’s decision outraged the abolitionists, and drove another wedge into the widening gap between the North and the South.
Let’s take a short interlude here and travel west – to the state of California, far removed from all of this political turmoil.
Or was it? Although the slavery issue wasn’t hotly debated in California, a free state, the situation was far from idyllic. For one thing, the southernmost part of California – including Los Angeles and San Diego – believed that, as they were too dissimilar from the northern part, they should secede and form a new state, Colorado. This was actually their second attempt at secession – the first took place in 1854, and was almost approved; the President rejected it at the last minute. Now, in 1859, what with the dramatic rise in tensions between the North and the South, California absolutely could not be allowed to split up – so SoCal grudgingly agreed to stick with its northern half.
Aaaaand that’s how Hollywood almost ended up in Colorado. Wrap your mind around that for a minute.
Returning to the East: one of the most momentous incidents of the decade took place in 1859, when John Brown, a fervent abolitionist who vaguely resembled an electrocuted hawk, decided to incite a slave uprising in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia). Harpers Ferry was a thriving factory town; Brown’s successfully capturing it would pose a serious threat to Virginia and the rest of the South.
Unfortunately for him, most slaves didn’t dare take part in the armed rebellion, and Brown’s group was quickly captured – by none other than then-Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was hanged in Charleston, Virginia; his execution was guarded by Thomas Jonathan Jackson and his cadets from the Virginia Military Institute.
The death of John Brown served as another blow to the country’s already crumbling foundation – but the straw that really broke the camel’s back came in the form of a tall, gangling, rail-splitting lawyer from Illinois.
His name was Abraham Lincoln.
END OF PART THE SECOND
UPCOMING: THE CAMPAIGN OF THE CENTURY! SOUTH CAROLINA METAPHORICALLY STICKS ITS TONGUE OUT AT THE REST OF THE COUNTRY! *WAR IS DECLARED!*