5.2. The Midwest, 1820-1865: The Antebellum Era

Population (1000s), rank


(24 states)


(26 states)


(33 states)


















































Total population

% of US pop.













Key events

  • The Midwest grew rapidly between 1820 and 1860.  Ohio quickly one of the nation’s largest states; settlers filled up Indiana and Illinois and pushed the frontier steadily north and west.  By 1860, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago had become major American cities.
  • The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 transformed the Midwest:  it spurred agricultural growth and gave birth to new industries such as the McCormick farm implement empire.  The Canal also forged a permanent commercial link between the Midwest and the northeast.  Migrants from New York and New England filled up northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and southern Michigan and Wisconsin.  The Yankees were joined by immigrants, mainly from Germany and Scandinavia, who strongly favored a free-labor system.

The Midwest and the slavery crisis

  • Many slaves tried to escape to freedom on Underground Railroad routes going through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and slaveowners regularly took their slaves through Midwestern states on their way to other destinations.  As a result, courts in the lower Midwest had to confront “transit cases” that raised the question:  Does bringing slaves into free states automatically make them free?
  • Midwestern law took an abolitionist turn after 1840:
    • Cincinnati’s Salmon Chase was one of the founders of the legal arm of the abolitionist movement in 1837. 
    • Efforts to abolish the black laws began in Ohio (1849).
    • Several Midwestern legislatures enacted “personal liberty” laws in the 1850s, stating that their states would never cooperate in efforts to capture fugitive slaves or to expand slavery into U.S. territories.  In 1854, Wisconsin’s supreme court  nullified federal fugitive slave laws; in 1859, Ohio’s supreme court came close to joining Wisconsin.

 Indiana    Illinois     Michigan Wisconsin
 1830s1837:  Whites-only public school system created
1837:  Courts hold that slaves do not automatically become free by entering Ohio but in cases of doubt as to a fugitive's status, he/she will be presumed free
1831:  Supreme court holds that slaves do not automatically become free by residing in Indiana
1831:  Free blacks may not enter Indiana without posting bond    
 Statehood, 1837
State abandons remnants of territorial black code
 1840s1841:  First cases holding that slaves in transit across Ohio become free
1849:  Legislature repeals all black code laws except those prohibiting black suffrage and jury service
     1843:  Supreme court holds that slaves do not automatically become free by entering Illinois
1845:  Court holds that all slaves remaining in Illinois are now free
1848:  State constitution requires legislature to prohibit immigration and emancipation of blacks in Illinois
  Statehood, 1848
 1850s 1859:  Personal liberty law enacted
1859:  Supreme court upholds federal fugitive slave law by 3-2 vote
 1853:  Legislature prohibits blacks from entering Illinois
1857:  Supreme court holds that slaveowners  may not sue those aiding fugitive slaves
1855:  Personal liberty law enacted   
1854:  Wisconsin supreme court holds federal fugitive slave law unconstitutional; later refuses to recognize U.S. Supreme Court decision reversing its holding (1859)
1858:  Personal liberty law enacted

KEY CASES - The Slavery Crisis:

Matilda’s Case – Ohio, 1837 (unpublished; Hamilton County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas); Birney v. State – Ohio, 1837 (8 Ohio 230); State v. Farr - Ohio, 1841  (unpublished)

  • These cases were milestones in Ohio’s civil rights history.  In Matilda’s Case, Larkin Lawrence and his slave Matilda stopped in Cincinnati on their way from Virginia to Missouri.  Matilda escaped and hid in Cincinnati’s black community, eventually finding work as a maid for James Birney, a local abolitionist.  An Ohio court ordered that Matilda be returned to slavery, but Lawrence, not content with his victory, persuaded state officials to charge  Birney with the crime of harboring a fugitive slave.  The Ohio supreme court rejected the charge:  it stated there was no evidence that Birney knew Matilda was a slave and that in Ohio, every person was presumed to be free.  The court thus sent a strong signal that Ohio courts would not go out of their way to help slaveowners.   
  • In 1839 one Farr, an abolitionist told slaves passing through Ohio that once they set foot on Ohio soil, they were free.  The slaves fled, and Farr was charged with larceny and abduction.  Salmon Chase secured Farr’s acquittal, and Ohio Chief Justice Ebenezer Lane agreed with one of the arguments that the Matilda court had rejected:  namely, that slaves became free as soon as they set foot in Ohio, except in the very limited situation where they were actively trying to escape from their masters.  Farr was one of the first cases to declare that any slave in transit across free soil automatically became free.

Jarrot v. Jarrot – Illinois, 1845 (7 Ill. 1); Rodney v. Illinois Central Railroad Co. – Illinois, 1857 (19 Ill. 42)

  • Illinois courts moved toward the cause of freedom more hesitantly than their Ohio colleagues.  In 1843, the court upheld a 40-year indenture under the state’s early indenture laws, even though it was clear to all that the indenture was slavery in disguise.  The court also held that slaves did not automatically become free once they crossed into Illinois. 
  • But two years later, in Jarrot, the court drew a line against slavery.  It was asked to hold that notwithstanding the Northwest Ordinance, all children of Illinois blacks who were slaves when the Ordinance was passed (1787) were also slaves.  A narrow majority of the justices declined to do so, relying heavily on Indiana’s Lasselle case. 
  • Jarrot marked a turning point:  after 1845, the Illinois court interpreted the state’s anti-black laws narrowly and was consistently reluctant to help owners of fugitive slaves recapture their property.  In Rodney, a slaveowner sued the Illinois Central for damages when his slave escaped by jumping off a Chicago-bound train.  The justices could easily have held that the railroad was responsible for the owner’s loss but it refused to do so:  it held because Illinois did not recognize slavery, slaveowners could not sue for damage to their property in Illinois.       

Defying the fugitive slave laws:  In re BoothWisconsin, 1854 (3 Wis. 1 (1854) ; reversed,  __ U.S. ___ (1859)); Ableman v. Booth – Wisconsin, 1859  (11 Wis. ___ (1859)); Ex Parte Bushnell – Ohio, 1859 (9 Ohio St. 198)

  • In 1850, Congress enacted a Fugitive Slave Act requiring Northern law enforcement officials to help recapture fugitive slaves.  The law triggered a firestorm of protest in the North.  Ohio (where opponents of slavery had recently become a majority), Michigan and Wisconsin all passed laws stating that they would not cooperate with enforcement efforts.
  • Wisconsin’s supreme court went a step further.  In 1854, a Milwaukee mob rescued escaped slave Joshua Glover from federal officials and sent him to Canada and freedom.  Sherman Booth, the mob leader, was then indicted under the Act.  Booth argued that even though the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected other challenges to fugitive slaves laws, Wisconsin as a sovereign state did not have to go along with its decisions.  The Wisconsin court agreed:  the law would not be enforced in Wisconsin.  
  • In 1859, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Wisconsin court’s opinion, Wisconsinites simply ignored it.  The Booth cases created a national sensation, eliciting praise from abolitionists, outrage from Southerners, and qualms from northern federalists who argued that defiance of the nation’s highest court was not the proper way to attack slavery. 
  • In Bushnell, the Ohio supreme court came within one vote of following Wisconsin’s lead.   After a mob rescued a fugitive slave near Oberlin its leader, Bushnell, was convicted of violating the Act; like Booth, he asked his state’s supreme court to rescue him from federal confinement.  By a 3-2 vote, the court declined to do so.  Chief Justice Joseph Swan, writing for the majority, held the U.S. Supreme Court had the final word as to whether federal laws were constitutional, although he admitted that “if a weary, frightened slave should appeal to me to protect him from his pursuers, it is possible I might momentarily forget my allegiance to the law and the constitution.”  Swan lost his seat at the next election, largely because of his vote. 

Antebellum social reforms

The early women’s rights revolution

  • Prior to the 1830s, the law treated married women as mere appendages of their husbands.  Husbands legally controlled all of their wives’ property, including wages and business assets.  Women were not allowed to vote, serve on juries, or even to make wills.
  • Starting in the 1830s, reformers argued that married women should have the right to control property they brought to the marriage.  Most did so not because they wanted to empower women, but because they wanted to shelter wives’ assets from the creditors of husbands who had bankrupted themselves through alcohol or bad luck, thus giving families a crude safety net.  The movement gained traction when New York incorporated a women’s property provision into its 1846 constitution.
From Godey's Lady's Magazine, 1859
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Homestead laws and debtors’ prison:

  • The common law allowed all of a person’s assets to be seized in order to pay debts, even basic items which the debtor needed to survive.  Debtors who did not pay could be imprisoned until they paid their debts.
  • In the early 1800s, reformers began to realize that debtors could not pay their debts if they were imprisoned and were denied items essential to survival.  Imprisonment for debt gradually died out, and many Midwestern states formally abolished it.
  • Beginning in the 1840s, many states started enacting homestead laws exempting debtors’ work tools, furniture and homesteads (or a sum of money needed for shelter) from the reach of creditors.  Several Midwestern states added homestead law provisions to their constitutions.

Kentucky debtors prison, 1843
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 Married women's property law enacted    
 Homestead law enacted
 Imprisonment for debt abolished
 Ohio 1861 
 1802 (if debtor gives up all property)
1851 (unconditionally abolished)
 Indiana 1847 1870 ((constitution)
 Illinois 1861 1850 (constitution) 1845 (if debtor gives up all property)
 1848     1847 (upon certification of inability to pay)
 Wisconsin 1850 1850 1848 (constitution)
 Iowa 1846 1849 1857 (constitution)
 Minnesota 1860 1854
 1857 (constitution)

The economic revolution in the Midwest: 

  • New York’s completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 prompted Midwestern states to undertake transportation projects of their own.  State and local governments subsidized canal and railroad construction; most suffered heavy losses in the depressions of 1837 and 1857.   
  • Many Midwestern legislatures enacted “mill dam” laws, which overturned the common-law rule that water-mill operators could not use dams that flooded the lands of upstream neighbors even if such a dam was essential in order to operate the mill.  The new laws allowed flooding but required the mill owner to compensate owners of flooded lands.  Midwestern courts upheld the laws, but only reluctantly.  .
  • Midwestern courts and legislatures became increasingly “instrumentalist”:  they supported entrepreneurs who would develop resources and promote the industrial revolution. 



New states:

  • Michigan (1837)
  • Iowa (1846)
  • Wisconsin (1848)
  • Minnesota (1858)

Map of Underground Railroad routes (courtesy Library of Congress)

Headquarters of the Underground Railroad:  Levi Coffin house, Fountain City, Indiana (courtesy Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources and Wikimedia Commons)

“[T]he presumption is in favor of freedom … [I]t cannot be assumed that an act which … involves no moral wrong, nay, an act that in many cases would be highly praiseworthy, should be made grievously criminal, when performed in total unconsciousness of the facts that infect it with crime.”

 Justice Reuben Wood, in Birney

James G. Birney (courtesy Library of Congress)

“All philanthropists unite in deprecating the evils of slavery, and it affords me sincere pleasure, when my duty under the constitution and law requires me to break the fetters of the slave, and declare the captive free.”

- Justice Walter Scates, in Jarrot

“Property in persons being repugnant to our laws and the genius of our State institutions, our courts will not enforce … the laws of other States recognizing this species of property, where the cause of action, based upon such laws, arises in this State.”

- Justice Onias Skinner, in Rodney

“It required the enactment and enforcement of the fugitive slave act of 1850, … disregarding in its provisions even the decencies of legislation, as if for the very purpose of irritation and humiliation, and the fine and imprisonment under of it of white men for the exercise of the instinctive virtues of humanity, to awaken general inquiry. … And let it be finally yielded, that the federal government is, in the last resort, the authoritative judge of the extent of its own powers, and … [it] will speedily become, if it be not already, practically omnipotent.”

-Justice Jacob Brinckerhoff (dissenting), in Bushnell

 “[W]e have arrived at a point in our system of double allegiance, where ‘fidelity to the state is treason to the United States, and treason to her, fidelity to them,’ … [A states rights construction] would … place it in the power of any one state, beyond all peaceful remedy, to arrest the execution of the laws of the entire Union, and to break down and destroy at pleasure every barrier created and right given by the constitution.”

-Chief Justice Luther Dixon (dissenting), in Ableman

“Who believes that [married women’s property rights] will make a fiend of a worthy wife?  No one believes it; it is all humbug … [F]or true merit the female sex stand much higher than the mail.  They know but little of the low, truckling and vacillating demagogism that pervades the male portion of creation, and in that particular their ignorance is a jewel.”

-David Noggle, Wisconsin constitutional convention (1846)

“By any principle of disunion between husband and wife, incorporated into the organization of sex, you will do far more injury to woman than to man.  Her life and wealth consist preeminently in the fullness of reciprocated affections.  Her empire is home.”

-John B. Niles, Indiana constitutional convention (1850)

“[A]ccidents [and] sickness … may reduce a man of limited means almost to bankruptcy.  And, if they do, the law most kindly steps in and finishes the work. … [I]t crushes him to the earth … sickness chains him to a bed of pain, and while thus there, it punishes him by the sacrifice of his property, because he is not well and at work, earning money to pay his debt.  Is this the true policy of the State?”

-Schuyler Colfax, Indiana constitutional convention (1850)

“Can it be possible that any law thus nakedly admitting of legal swindling, can meet with the approbation of the citizens of this State?  Law, instead of laying traps for men’s consciences, shuld always, on the contrary, remove every temptation possible.”

-Alvan P. Hovey, Indiana constitutional convention (1850)

Railroad yard, 1860s - Matthew Brady (courtesy Library of Congress)