Chapter 9 - Sectional Conflict

A slave family standing next to baskets of recently-picked cotton near Savannah, Georgia in the 1860s.
A slave family standing next to baskets of recently-picked cotton near Savannah, Georgia in the 1860s. (Cropped)

A slave family standing next to baskets of recently-picked cotton near Savannah, Georgia in the 1860s.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.” Senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln, 1858

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Introduction: Two Americas

No visitor to the United States left a more enduring record of his travels and observations than the French writer and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America, first published in 1835, remains one of the most trenchant and insightful analyses of American social and political practices. Tocqueville was far too shrewd an observer to be uncritical about the United States, but his verdict was fundamentally positive. “The government of a democracy brings the notion of political rights to the level of the humblest citizens,” he wrote, “just as the dissemination of wealth brings the notion of property within the reach of all men.” Nonetheless, Tocqueville was only one in the first of a long line of thinkers to worry whether such rough equality could survive in the face of a growing factory system that threatened to create divisions between industrial workers and a new business elite.

Other travelers marveled at the growth and vitality of the country, where they could see “everywhere the most unequivocal proofs of prosperity and rapid progress in agriculture, commerce, and great public works.” But such optimistic views of the American experiment were by no means universal. One skeptic was the English novelist Charles Dickens, who first visited the United States in 1841-42. “This is not the Republic I came to see,” he wrote in a letter. “This is not the Republic of my imagination. ... The more I think of its youth and strength, the poorer and more trifling in a thousand respects, it appears in my eyes in everything of which it has made a boast — excepting its education of the people, and its care for poor children — it sinks immeasurably below the level I had placed it upon.”

Dickens was not alone. America in the 19th century, as throughout its history, generated expectations and passions that often conflicted with a reality at once more mundane and more complex. The young nation’s size and diversity defied easy generalization and invited contradiction: America was both a freedom-loving and slave-holding society, a nation of expansive and primitive frontiers, a society with cities built on growing commerce and industrialization.


“View of Cincinnati” 1853. Edward Beyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“View of Cincinnati” 1853. Edward Beyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Landscape scene shows a river with several large boats with smokestacks. On the near side of the river, rolling green hills with trees. On the far side of the river, an are densely packed with buildings.

By 1850 the national territory stretched over forest, plain, and mountain. Within its far-flung limits dwelt 23 million people in a Union comprising 31 states. In the East, industry boomed. In the Midwest and the South, agriculture flourished. After 1849 the gold mines of California poured their precious ore into the channels of trade.

New England and the Middle Atlantic states were the main centers of manufacturing, commerce, and finance. Principal products of these areas were textiles, lumber, clothing, machinery, leather, and woolen goods. The maritime trade had reached the height of its prosperity; vessels flying the American flag plied the oceans, distributing wares of all nations.

“Picking Cotton,” Author unknown [Public domain], via Digital Collections, The New York Public Library
“Picking Cotton,” Author unknown [Public domain], via Digital Collections, The New York Public Library

A cotton field with six slaves picking cotton. A child is in the foreground, sitting with chin in hand; behind the child a woman in leaning down to add cotton to a large basket. Another slave is a seen in the background carrying a large basket on his head.

The South, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River and beyond, featured an economy centered on agriculture. Tobacco was important in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. In South Carolina, rice was an abundant crop. The climate and soil of Louisiana encouraged the cultivation of sugar. But cotton eventually became the dominant commodity and the one with which the South was identified. By 1850 the American South grew more than 80 percent of the world’s cotton. Slaves cultivated all these crops.

McCormick Harvester Company advertisement published in The Abilene reflector, Kansas, May 29, 1884 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement for the twine binder version of the McCormick reaper. Caption reads: "The People's Favorite! The World-Renowned McCormick Twine Binder! Victorious in over 100 Field Trials! New and Valuable Improvements for 1884!"

McCormick Harvester Company advertisement published in The Abilene reflector, Kansas, May 29, 1884 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement for the twine binder version of the McCormick reaper. Caption reads: "The People's Favorite! The World-Renowned McCormick Twine Binder! Victorious in over 100 Field Trials! New and Valuable Improvements for 1884!"

The Midwest, with its boundless prairies and swiftly growing population, flourished. Europe and the older settled parts of America demanded its wheat and meat products. The introduction of labor- saving implements — notably the McCormick reaper (a machine to cut and harvest grain) — made possible an unparalleled increase in grain production. The nation’s wheat crops swelled from some 98 million bushels in 1850 to nearly 171 million in 1860, more than half grown in the Midwest.

“Crampton Engine, Camden and Amboy Railroad, about 1847.” By Herbert T. Walker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Crampton Engine, Camden and Amboy Railroad, about 1847.” By Herbert T. Walker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An early locomotive with a large smokestack and several stream pipes.

An important stimulus to the country’s prosperity was the great improvement in transportation facilities; from 1850 to 1857 the Appalachian Mountain barrier was pierced by five railway trunk lines linking the Midwest and the Northeast. These links established the economic interests that would undergird the political alliance of the Union from 1861 to 1865. The South lagged behind. It was not until the late 1850s that a continuous line ran through the mountains connecting the lower Mississippi River area with the southern Atlantic seaboard.

 Play Video(00:01:21): Early Railroad (


One overriding issue exacerbated the regional and economic differences between North and South: slavery. Resenting the large profits amassed by Northern businessmen from marketing the cotton crop, many Southerners attributed the backwardness of their own section to Northern aggrandizement. Many Northerners, on the other hand, declared that slavery — the “peculiar institution” that the South regarded as essential to its economy — was largely responsible for the region’s relative financial and industrial backwardness.

Missouri Compromise Line Map

Júlio Reis. Missouri Compromise Line.  GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons.


  • Free states as of 1850 were Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts)
  • Slave states as of 1850 were Texas (not including Texas claims surrendered in Compromise of 1850 and Border slave states that did not later secede in 1861), Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
  • Territories with eventual state Boundaries superimposed  were New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and including later Gadsden Purchase of 1853
  • Missouri Compromise Line ran through mid California across to the east ending at the border of Arkansas and Tennessee.

As far back as the Missouri Compromise in 1819, sectional lines had been steadily hardening on the slavery question. In the North, sentiment for outright abolition grew increasingly powerful. Southerners in general expressed little guilt about slavery and defended it vehemently. In some seaboard areas, slavery by 1850 was well over 200 years old; it was an integral part of the basic economy of the region.

Although the 1860 census showed that there were nearly four million slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the 15 slave states, only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves. There were some 385,000 slave owners out of about 1.5 million white families. Fifty percent of these slave owners owned no more than five slaves. Twelve percent owned 20 or more slaves, the number defined as turning a farmer into a planter. Three-quarters of Southern white families, including the “poor whites,” those on the lowest rung of Southern society, owned no slaves but many of these aspired to.

It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that, if freed, blacks would compete with them economically and challenge their higher social status. Southern whites defended slavery not simply on the basis of economic necessity  but out of a visceral dedication to white supremacy.

As they fought the weight of Northern opinion, political leaders of the South, the professional classes, and most of the clergy now no longer apologized for slavery but championed it. Southern publicists insisted, for example, that the relationship between capital and labor was more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system  of the North.

Before 1830 the old patriarchal system of plantation government, with its personal supervision of the slaves by their owners or masters, was still characteristic. Gradually, however, with the introduction of large-scale cotton production in the lower South, the master gradually ceased to exercise close personal supervision over his slaves, and employed professional overseers charged with exacting from slaves a maximum amount of work. In such circumstances, slavery could become a system of brutality and coercion in which beatings and the breakup of families through the sale of individuals were commonplace. In other settings, however, it could be much milder.

In the end, however, the most trenchant criticism of slavery was not the behavior of individual masters and overseers. Systematically treating African-American laborers as if they were domestic animals, slavery, the abolitionists pointed out, violated every human being’s inalienable right to be free.


Masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator. By Hammatt Billings [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator. By Hammatt Billings [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Newspaper headline of abolitionist paper, The Liberator. An image of Christ is in the middle of masthead, with the words "I come to break the bonds of the oppressors." A slave market is depicted in the background. Above the newspaper title is a banner with the words, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor."

In national politics, Southerners chiefly sought protection and enlargement of the interests represented by the cotton/slavery system. They sought territorial expansion because the wastefulness of cultivating a single crop, cotton, rapidly exhausted the soil, increasing the need for new fertile lands. Moreover, new territory would establish a basis for additional slave states to offset the admission of new free states. Antislavery Northerners saw in the Southern view a conspiracy for proslavery aggrandizement. In the 1830s their opposition became fierce.

An earlier antislavery movement, an offshoot of the American Revolution, had won its last victory in 1808 when Congress abolished the slave trade with Africa. Thereafter, opposition came largely from the Quakers, who kept up a mild but ineffectual protest. Meanwhile, the cotton gin and westward expansion into the Mississippi delta region created an increasing demand for slaves.


Portraits of William Lloyd Garrison (left) and Frederick Douglass (right)

Garrison, author unknown (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Douglass, By Samuel J. Miller (The Art Institute of Chicago) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The abolitionist movement that emerged in the early 1830s was combative, uncompromising, and insistent upon an immediate end to slavery. This approach found a leader in William Lloyd Garrison, a young man from Massachusetts, who combined the heroism of a martyr with the crusading zeal of a demagogue. On January 1, 1831, Garrison produced the first issue of his newspaper, The Liberator, which bore the announcement: “I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. ... On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.... I am in earnest — I will  not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Garrison’s sensational methods awakened Northerners to the evil in an institution many had long come to regard as unchangeable. He sought to hold up to public gaze the most repulsive aspects of slavery and to castigate slave-holders as torturers and traffickers in human life. He recognized no rights of the masters, acknowledged no compromise, tolerated no delay. Other abolitionists, unwilling to subscribe to his law-defying tactics, held that reform should be accomplished by legal and peaceful means. Garrison was joined by another powerful voice, that of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who galvanized Northern audiences. Theodore Dwight Weld and many other abolitionists crusaded against slavery in the states of the old Northwest Territory with evangelical zeal.

Mariners’ Church in Detroit was one of the secret routes to freedom in the Underground Railroad; via a hidden tunnel to Windsor, Canada
By Victor Stankiewitz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mariners’ Church in Detroit was one of the secret routes to freedom in the Underground Railroad; via a hidden tunnel to Windsor, Canada By Victor Stankiewitz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mariner's Church; a brick building in a downtown setting surrounded by storefronts.

One activity of the movement involved helping slaves escape to safe refuges in the North or over the border into Canada. The “Underground Railroad,” an elaborate network of secret routes, was firmly established in the 1830s in all parts of the North. In Ohio alone, from 1830 to 1860, as many as 40,000 fugitive slaves were helped to freedom. The number of local antislavery societies increased at such a rate that by 1838 there were about 1,350 with a membership of perhaps 250,000.

Political cartoon depicting the enforcement of the “gag rule,” prohibiting the discussion of the subject of abolition in the House of Representatives.  John Quincy Adams is shown cowering over a pile of petitions with 
“Abolition frowned down,” 1839, by Henry Dacre and Henry Robinson [Public domain], (American cartoon print filing series) via Library of Congress.
Political cartoon depicting the enforcement of the “gag rule,” prohibiting the discussion of the subject of abolition in the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams is shown cowering over a pile of petitions with “Abolition frowned down,” 1839, by Henry Dacre and Henry Robinson [Public domain], (American cartoon print filing series) via Library of Congress.

Political cartoon depicting the enforcement of the “gag rule,” prohibiting the discussion of the subject of abolition in the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams is shown cowering over a pile of petitions.

Most Northerners nonetheless either held themselves aloof from the abolitionist movement or actively opposed it. In 1837, for example, a mob attacked and killed the antislavery editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. Still, Southern repression of free speech allowed the abolitionists to link the slavery issue with the cause of civil liberties for whites. In 1835 an angry mob destroyed abolitionist literature in the Charleston, South Carolina, post office. When the postmaster-general stated he would not enforce delivery of abolitionist material, bitter debates ensued in Congress. Abolitionists flooded Congress with petitions calling for action against slavery. In 1836 the House voted to table such petitions automatically, thus effectively killing them. Former President John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, fought this so-called gag rule as a violation of the First Amendment, finally winning its repeal in 1844.


Mexican Independence from Spain

In 1819, Florida became a territory of the U.S.. Two years later, Mexico established its independence from Spain and established itself as an independent monarchy. In another two years the monarchy was overthrown and a republic established with a written constitution in 1824. Mexico’s northernmost provinces included almost everything west of the Louisiana Purchase, including modern day Texas, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, California and New Mexico. Mexico feared the westward expansion of the United States and sought to populate its vast northern territories as a buffer against that expansion. Accordingly, they offered free land in exchange for the settlers' promise of Catholic worship, preference for Mexican markets, government directed crop production, and other regulations. The problem they did not foresee, however, was that it was largely American pioneers from the southern U.S. who took them up on the offer—the very people Mexico feared as expansionists.

Texas Independence from Mexico

The U.S. had made several offers to buy Mexico’s northern province of Texas due to the dominant American presence there. Santa Anna feared an impending land grab by the U.S. and began garrisoning troops in the region, abolishing local legislatures and eventually abolishing the Mexican constitution itself. Revolutionary forces led by Sam Houston established the Republic of Texas in 1836 after defeating and capturing Santa Anna.

Play Video (00:02:55): Texas Independence (

For almost a decade, Texas remained an independent republic, largely because its annexation as a huge new slave state would disrupt the increasingly precarious balance of political power in the United States. In 1845, President James K. Polk, narrowly elected on a platform of westward expansion, brought the Republic of Texas into the Union. Polk’s move was the first gambit in a larger design. Texas claimed that its border with Mexico was the Rio Grande; Mexico argued that the border stood far to the north along the Nueces River. Meanwhile, settlers were flooding into the territories of New Mexico and California. Many Americans claimed that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to expand westward to the Pacific Ocean.

“American Progress” By John Gast (painter) (scan or photograph of 1872 painting) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“American Progress” By John Gast (painter) (scan or photograph of 1872 painting) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A scene of westward expansion is dominated by a woman dressed in Roman-style, flowing white robes, who float across the sky. She is holding a book in her right hand, and stringing along telegraph wire with her left. To the east, the sky is bright; to the west, it is dark and cloudy. Native Americans and bison and depicted fleeing into the stormy West, while settlers, wagons and trains move westward across the canvas.

Play Video (00:02:53) The Presidents: James Polk (

War with Mexico

The situation remained tense between Mexico, the United States, and the teetering new Republic of Texas for about a decade as successive American presidents refused to consider Texas’ applications for statehood for fear of beginning a war with Mexico. Finally, in 1845, President Polk supported, and the United States conducted, the annexation of Texas as the 28th state of the American Union. War broke out after a border skirmish with Mexican troops. The war, which ended in 1848, added another third to the size of the United States. The United States dictated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which Mexico ceded what would become the American Southwest region and California for $15 million. One noteworthy difference in this territorial acquisition was that most of this territory was in the southern part of the continent, whereas, previous territorial acquisitions had been mostly in the North. Immediately, the question presented itself: “Shall slavery be permitted in the new territories?”

The war was also a training ground for American officers who would later fight on both sides in the Civil War. It was also politically divisive. Polk, in a simultaneous facedown with Great Britain, had achieved British recognition of American sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest to the 49th parallel. Still, antislavery forces, mainly among the Whigs, attacked Polk’s 2-pronged expansion of the continent as a proslavery plot.

With the conclusion of the Mexican War, the United States gained a vast new territory 529,000  square miles encompassing the present-day states of New Mexico, Nevada, California, Utah, most of Arizona, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming. The nation also faced a revival of the most explosive question in American politics of the time: Would the new territories be slave or free?


Until 1845, it had seemed likely that slavery would be confined to the areas where it already existed. It had been given limits by the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and had no opportunity to overstep them. The new territories made renewed expansion of slavery a real likelihood.

Many Northerners believed that if not allowed to spread, slavery would ultimately decline and die. To justify their opposition to adding new slave states, they pointed to the statements of Washington and Jefferson, and to the Ordinance of 1787, which forbade the extension of slavery into the Northwest. Texas, which already permitted slavery, naturally entered the Union as a slave state. But the California, New Mexico, and Utah territories did not have slavery. From the beginning, there were strongly conflicting opinions on whether they should.

Southerners urged that all the lands acquired from Mexico should be thrown open to slave-holders. Antislavery Northerners demanded that all the new regions be closed to slavery. One group of moderates suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific with free states north of it and slave states to the south. Another group proposed that the question be left to “popular sovereignty.” This meant that government should permit settlers to enter the new territory with or without slaves as they pleased. When the time came to organize the region into states, the people themselves could decide.

Despite the vitality of the abolitionist movement, most Northerners were unwilling to challenge the existence of slavery in the South. Many, however, were against its expansion. In 1848 nearly 300,000 men voted for the candidates of a new Free Soil Party, which declared that the best policy was “to limit, localize, and discourage slavery.” In the immediate aftermath of the war with Mexico, however, popular sovereignty had considerable appeal.

Play Video (00:01:48) The Presidents: Taylor and Filmore (

In January 1848 the discovery of gold in California precipitated a headlong rush of settlers, more than 80,000 in the single year of 1849. Congress had to determine the status of this new region quickly in order to establish an organized government. The venerable Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who twice before in times of crisis had come forward with compromise arrangements, advanced a complicated and carefully balanced plan. His old Massachusetts rival, Daniel Webster, supported it. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the leading advocate of popular sovereignty, did much of the work in guiding it through Congress.

By Made by User:Golbez. (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( ], via Wikimedia Commons
By Made by User:Golbez. (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( ], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the states and territories of the United States as it was from 1850 to March 1853. On September 9th, 1850, several western areas changed: The Mexican Cession was organized, being split in to Utah Territory and NEw Mexico Territory, and one portion was admitted as the state of California. These two territories also included a portion of Texas, ceded to the federal government. Finally a small area known as the Neutal strip as not officially included in any state or territory. A small portion of Texas and the Mexican Cession became unorganized land. On March 2nd, 1853, Washington Territory was split from Oregon Territory.

Even before the Mexican war had ended, the nation was at odds over the expansion of slavery. David Wilmott had introduced a proviso in 1846 that any territory won from Mexico should not allow slavery. While this was never passed, it served as a launch pad to the compromise which Webster, Clay and Douglas eventually birthed. In its final form, the compromise included California as a free state, New Mexico territory organized without prohibitions against slavery, an end to the slave trade in Washington D.C. and a strictly enforced Fugitive Slave Act which would require all Americans to aid in the return of runaway slaves. Thus, the Compromise of 1850 would put off for another decade, the open conflict that all had feared since the compromises of the Constitutional Convention.

The country breathed a sigh of relief. For the next three years, the compromise seemed to settle nearly all differences. The new Fugitive Slave Law, however, was an immediate source of tension. It deeply offended many Northerners, who refused to have any part in catching slaves. Some actively and violently obstructed its enforcement. The Underground Railroad became more efficient and daring than ever.  


During the 1850s, the issue of slavery severed the political bonds that had held the United States together. It ate away at the country’s two great political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, destroying the first and irrevocably dividing the second. It produced weak presidents whose irresolution mirrored that of their parties. It eventually discredited even the Supreme Court.

By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. The Cover reads: Uncle Tom's Cabin; Life among the lowly.

The moral fervor of abolitionist feeling grew steadily. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. More than 300,000 copies were sold the first year. Presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand. Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and posited a fundamental conflict between free and slave societies. It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the antislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions — indignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation.

Play Video (00:03:12): The Presidents: Pierce (

Kansas/Nebraska Act

In 1854 the issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter. The region that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establishment of territorial, and eventually, state governments.

Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler. By John L. Magee (c.1820–c.1870) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler. By John L. Magee (c.1820–c.1870) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An 1854 cartoon depicts a giant free soiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass standing on the Democratic platform marked "Kansas", "Cuba" and "Central America" (referring to accusations that southerners wanted to annex areas in Latin America to expand slavery). Franklin Pierce also holds down the giant's beard as Stephen A. Douglas shoves a black man down his throat.

Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire region was closed to slavery. Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas) and might be forced to become a free state as well. Their congressional delegation, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region.

Stephen Douglas, who had shepherded the Compromise of 1850 to completion, was keenly interested in the construction of a trans-continental railroad. Organization of the Kansas/Nebraska territory could greatly speed this project by getting organized state governments to support the effort. Douglas introduced the act and made “Popular Sovereignty” a key component of it. According to “Popular Sovereignty,” the people of each territory would decide the issue of slavery for themselves. Since both territories were above 36-30, passage of the act in 1854 effectively killed the Missouri Compromise. Since Kansas was directly next door to the slave state of Missouri, a flood of settlers crossed from Missouri to Kansas to vote (many illegally) for a slave-state constitution. Free-state settlers also poured into Kansas to vote in a free-state constitution.

Stephen Arnold Douglas. Image is part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Arnold Douglas. Image is part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Douglas’s opponents accused him of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856. The free-soil movement, which had seemed to be in decline, reemerged with greater momentum than ever. When Douglas’s plan passed in Congress to be signed by President Franklin Pierce, southern enthusiasts celebrated with cannon fire. But when Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor lowered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour, and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard.

The immediate results of Douglas’s ill-starred measure were momentous. The Whig Party, which had straddled the question of slavery expansion, sank to its death. In  its stead a powerful new organization held its first convention in Jackson, Michigan -the Republican Party- whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown. Fremont lost the election, but the new party swept a great part of the North. Such free-soil leaders as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward exerted greater influence than ever. Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln.

Play Video (00:02:23): The Presidents: Buchanan (

Bleeding Kansas

Meanwhile, the flow of both Southern slaveholders and antislavery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict. Soon the territory was being called “bleeding Kansas.” In the rush to settle and establish Kansas as either a "free" or "slave" state, 3,000 legal residents cast 6,000 votes to install a pro-slavery constitution in 1855. This particular constitution made even criticism of slavery illegal. Meanwhile, a rival constitution was created in Topeka. In Lawrence Kansas, an abolitionist printer was murdered and his press thrown into the river as the town itself was sacked by pro-slavery forces. These opposing forces would battle back and forth until after Congress accepted a free-state constitution for Kansas and Kansas became a state in 1861. The Supreme Court then made things worse with its infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Dredd Scott

Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been taken by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory; in both places, slavery was banned. Returning to Missouri and becoming discontented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil. A majority of the Supreme Court — dominated by Southerners — decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resident of a slave state (Missouri); and that slaveholders had the right to take their “property” anywhere in the federal territories. Thus, Congress could not restrict the expansion of slavery. This last assertion invalidated former compromises on slavery and made new ones impossible to craft. Northerners now reasoned that if “Popular Sovereignty” had killed the Missouri Compromise, and the Dredd Scott decision had killed part of the Northwest Ordinance, then there was no place that a slave could be taken in the United States without remaining a slave. In other words, for many Northerners, the Slave Power had won. Slavery was now open, in their eyes, to the entire nation.

Dred Scott photograph. By Uncredited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dred Scott photograph. By Uncredited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Dred Scott decision stirred fierce resentment throughout the North. Never before had the Court been so bitterly condemned. For Southern Democrats, the decision was a great victory, since it gave judicial sanction to their justification of slavery throughout the territories.


Abraham Lincoln had long regarded slavery as an evil. As early as 1854 in a widely publicized speech, he declared that all national legislation should be framed on the principle that slavery was to be restricted and eventually abolished. He contended also that the principle of popular sovereignty was false, for slavery in the western territories was the concern not only of the local inhabitants but of the United States as a whole.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In 1858 Lincoln opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

By U.S. Government, Post Office Department [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By U.S. Government, Post Office Department [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Postage, 1958 issue, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates. Lincoln is standing at a podium with a crowd in front of him and Douglas standing behind him.

Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in the ensuing months of 1858. Senator Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty. In the end, Douglas won the election by a small margin, but Lincoln had achieved stature as a national figure.

Play Video (00:03:52): Lincoln's Springfield Home (

John Brown

By then events were spinning out of control. Weary of mere anti-slavery “talk,” John Brown was yearning for deeds. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his followers raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with the intent of starting and arming a slave rebellion. He was quickly captured by marines under the command of colonel Robert E. Lee, tried for treason, and hung. Three years earlier in 1856, he had led a small raid on some pro-slavery settlers in Pottowatamie Creek, Kansas in which five were killed. To Lincoln, Brown was a “fanatic.” Although most Northerners had initially condemned him, increasing numbers were coming to accept Brown’s own view that he had been an instrument in the hand of God. For most Southerners, Brown represented a militantly abolitionist North. Southern militias began to assemble and train—just in case.


Play Video (00:01:36): The Presidents: Lincoln (

In 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president. The Republican platform declared that slavery could spread no farther, promised a tariff for the protection of industry, and pledged the enactment of a law granting free homesteads to settlers who would help in the opening of the West. Southern Democrats, unwilling in the wake of the Dred Scott case to accept Douglas’s popular sovereignty, split from the party and nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for president. Stephen A. Douglas was the nominee of northern Democrats. Diehard Whigs from the border states, formed into the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John C. Bell of Tennessee.

Lincoln and Douglas competed in the North, Breckenridge and Bell in the South. Lincoln won only 39 percent of the popular vote, but had a clear majority of 180 electoral votes, carrying all 18 free states. Bell won Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia; Breckenridge took the other slave states except for Missouri, which was won by Douglas. Despite his poor showing, Douglas trailed only Lincoln in the popular vote.


Lincoln’s stance against the spread of slavery, coupled with his resolve not to disturb slavery where it already existed, had made him a viable Presidential candidate for the new party. Enough southerners, however, viewed Lincoln as a rabid abolitionist that South Carolina, for one, vowed to secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected. Lincoln was elected. South Carolina seceded. Within a few short months, in two successive waves, most of the southern slave states, excepting Missouri, Maryland and Kentucky (the border states) had followed their lead.

Attack on Fort Sumter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Attack on Fort Sumter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bombardment of Fort Sumter by the batteries of the Confederate states. It shows many soldiers behind a cannon firing at Fort Sumter.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln declared the Confederacy “legally void.” His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of union, but the South turned a deaf ear. Having declared separate status from the Union, South Carolina (and other states) waited to see what response the Union would make. Lincoln forced the South to fire the first shot by announcing his intention to resupply a federal fort in Charleston harbor. If South Carolina allowed the resupply, the rebellion would be effectively stillborn as the Fort was part of South Carolina. The Fort was bombarded heavily by shore emplacements before the Union resupply ships could arrive. Surrender followed in turn and the Civil War was officially underway.

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         In the seven states that had seceded, the people responded positively to the Confederate action and the leadership of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Both sides now tensely awaited the action of the slave states that thus far had remained loyal. Virginia seceded on April 17; Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed quickly.

Play Video (00:00:57)First Confederate White House (

No state left the Union with greater reluctance than Virginia Her statesmen had a leading part in the winning of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, and she had  provided the nation with five presidents. With Virginia went Colonel Robert E .  Lee, who declined the command of the Union Army out of loyalty to his native state.

 Between the enlarged Confederacy and the free-soil North lay the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which, despite some sympathy with the South, would remain loyal to the Union.

Unknow Author. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Unknow Author. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

a Map of a divide United States over slavery. The free states are Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania. New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Kansas, California, and Oregon. Slave states are Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. The rest of the areas are territories. The Union - Confederate boundary is south of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Indian territory and New Mexico Territory meaning that some slave states (Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delware) were in the Union.

Each side entered the war with high hopes for an early victory. In material resources the North enjoyed a decided advantage. Twenty-three states with a population of 22 million were arrayed against 11 states inhabited by nine million, including slaves. The industrial superiority of the North exceeded even its preponderance in population, providing it with abundant facilities for manufacturing arms and ammunition, clothing, and other supplies. It had a greatly superior railway network.

The South nonetheless had certain advantages.The most important was geography; the South was fighting a defensive war on its own territory. It could establish its independence simply by beating off the Northern armies. The South also had a stronger military tradition, and possessed the more experienced military leaders.


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