Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What is the significance of popular sovereignty in US history?

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Popular sovereignty was the core principle at the heart of the system of republican democracy established by the Founding Fathers. According to this principle, ultimate political sovereignty resided with the people, who acted through their elected representatives in each individual state. Popular sovereignty was intended to be a bulwark against...

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Popular sovereignty was the core principle at the heart of the system of republican democracy established by the Founding Fathers. According to this principle, ultimate political sovereignty resided with the people, who acted through their elected representatives in each individual state. Popular sovereignty was intended to be a bulwark against the kind of over-mighty centralized state which the American colonists had fought during the Revolutionary War.

The principle was used successively by the Southern states to stymie attempts to abolish or curtail the spread of slavery. The peculiar institution was regarded as the exclusive province of the states. Furthermore, it enjoyed the active support of the vast majority of voters in states where slavery operated. The slave interest in Congress used this principle to determine the thorny question of slavery in the new Western territories. Anti-slavery campaigners were determined that slavery should not be permitted to expand beyond its existing borders. However, supporters of slavery advocated the principle of popular sovereignty to decide whether the new territories would allow slavery or not.

To abolitionists, slavery was a moral issue, not a simple matter of counting votes. And though what on paper appeared to be a simple solution to the problem of slavery's expansion—let the people decide—in practice there were all kinds of difficulties with putting the policy into effect. For one thing, it overlooked the problem of vote-rigging and corruption. What was intended as a novel compromise to a seemingly intractable problem merely inflamed tensions between supporters of slavery and abolitionists.

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Popular sovereignty, in the context of US history, is used to refer to a system in which each state would be able to decide for itself whether it would be slave or free.  Popular sovereignty was a change from the previous system in which Congress had decided which areas would be able to have slaves and which would not.  Congress had done this, for example, in the Missouri Compromise.

Popular sovereignty was significant because it helped lead to the Civil War.  It helped to cause conflict in the various territories as people fought over whether they would have slaves.  The worst of these conflicts was in “Bleeding Kansas” where pro- and anti-slavery forces took turns inflicting atrocities on one another.  This conflict helped bring about the Civil War.

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