America as a House Dividing, 1840-1861




Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.20.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – Breakdown of Sectional Balance

1.1 – The Fugitive Slave Act

1.1.1 – Overview

The Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave interests and the Northern Free Soil movement. The Fugitive Slave Act was one of the most controversial provisions of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy.”

1.1.2 – Background

By 1843, several hundred slaves a year were successfully escaping to the North, making slavery untenable in the border states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 required the return of runaway slaves by requiring authorities in free states to return fugitive slaves to their masters. However, many Northern states found ways to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act. Some jurisdictions passed “personal liberty laws,” which mandated a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could be moved. Others forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of alleged fugitive slaves. In some cases, juries refused to convict individuals who had been indicted under federal law.

The Missouri Supreme Court held that voluntary transportation of slaves into free states, with the intent of their residing there permanently or definitely, automatically made them free, whereas the Fugitive Slave Act dealt with slaves who went into free states without their master’s consent. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) that states did not have to offer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, which greatly weakened the law of 1793. These and other Northern attempts to sidestep the 1793 legislation agitated the South, which sought stronger federal provisions for returning slave runaways.

In response to the weakening of the original fugitive slave law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. In addition, officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work, and any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to a six-month imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had greater incentive to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave, and sympathizers had much more to risk in aiding those seeking freedom. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal marshal to claim that a slave had run away. The suspected runaway could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. As a result, many free black people were accused of running away and were forced into slavery.

1.1.3 – Effects of the Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act was met with violent protest in the North. This anger stemmed less from the fact that slavery existed than from Northern fury at being coerced into protecting the institution of Southern slavery. Moderate abolitionists were faced with the choice of defying what they believed to be an unjust law or breaking with their own consciences and beliefs, and many became radical antislavery proponents as a result. Many Northerners viewed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act as evidence that the South was conspiring to spread slavery through federal coercion and force regardless of the will of Northern voters. In many Northern towns, slave catchers were attacked, and mobs set free captured fugitives. Two prominent instances in which abolitionists set free captured fugitives include John McHenry in Syracuse, New York, in 1851, and Shadrach Minkins in Boston of the same year.

1.2 – Wilmot Proviso

1.2.1 – Introduction

“Whig Harmony”: A cartoon depicting the ideological split within the Whig Party in the lead up to the June 1848 convention; the Wilmot Proviso was the ultimate obstacle to presidential hopeful Zachary Taylor as he attempted to court Southern support for his campaign.

The Wilmot Proviso, as proposed by Congressman David Wilmot, would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from the Mexican War. The result was a violent sectarian debate in Congress that forced political leaders to make numerous compromises to determine the slave issue in the newly acquired U.S. territories.

1.2.2 – Background and Context

Portrait of David Wilmot: Congressman David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso in 1846.

After the capture of New Mexico and California in the first phases of the Mexican War, political focus shifted to how these new territories would be divided between slave and free states. The Wilmot Proviso, proposed in August 1846, rapidly brought the issue to the political forefront. David Wilmot, a Pennsylvanian Democrat, drafted legislation that decreed, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist” in any of the new territory acquired from Mexico, including Texas and California. For many Southerners, the Wilmot Proviso forced the issue of slavery as a central component of the Mexican War. Led by John C. Calhoun, Southern slaveholders claimed that the federal government had no right to curtail the spread of slavery into any new territories, claiming that it was each individual state’s right under the principle of state sovereignty to determine whether or not its territory would be free or permit slavery.

In the North, many abolitionists and radical antislavery proponents embraced the Wilmot Proviso. Furthermore, the Wilmot Proviso found support among those who were apathetic on the slave issue, such as David Wilmot himself. For Wilmot and other Whigs, slavery was a fundamental threat to the United States not because of its brutality or coercive structure, but because it encroached on the rights of white freemen to labor and cultivate new lands in the West. In other words, for most Northern politicians, the concern was to protect free yeoman farmers’ access to land and socioeconomic opportunities in the West from the slave states of the South that sought complete domination and infiltration of any new territory in order to perpetuate plantation agriculture.

The Wilmot Proviso was killed in the Senate, but the debate it sparked revealed a fundamental divide between Northern and Southern politicians, which translated to a national sectarian split over the governance of new territories. Increasingly, both sides came to see each other as threats to national progress and prosperity.

1.3 – The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 left the question of slave versus free states to popular sovereignty.

In the immediate aftermath of the Mexican War and in the midst of the California Gold Rush, a major political confrontation occurred in Congress that required many compromises in order to prevent Southern secession.

As part of their application for annexation, California settlers proposed that their state would ban slavery. However, the admission of California as a free state would tip the balance of power in the Senate. Southern politicians, alarmed that they would lose their majority, pushed for Congress to pass legislation that would allow California to be admitted as a slave state, or to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, effectively splitting the state in half into one free state and one slave state. Pushing the issue even further, many Southern politicians argued that the federal government had no right to interfere in the rights of slave owners to move their property within the boundaries of the nation, including free states.

This prompted a series of measures designed to appease both Northern and Southern congressmen via a more equitable balance of power. Henry Clay, the leader of the Whig Party (nicknamed the “Great Pacificator”) drafted the following five compromise measures in 1850:

  1. California becomes a free state, and Texas’s boundary would remain at its present-day limits.
  2. The United States would pay Texas $10 million in compensation for the loss of New Mexico territory, which Texas had previously claimed as part of its state territory.
  3. The territories of New Mexico and Utah would be organized on the basis of popular sovereignty.
  4. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 would be passed into law.
  5. The slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia.

The United States, 1849–1850: A map of the United States depicting states and territories, and land held by other countries during the time period of 1849–1850.

These measures, passed through Congress in September 1850, solved the dispute regarding California’s status as free versus slave, but did not provide any long-term, fundamental principle for future decisions on the sectional balance of new territories. By allowing popular sovereignty to determine slave or free states, the Senate basically guaranteed future discord over the sectional balance of power in the coming years. During the debates over California, Northern senators argued that settlers (in any territory) could curtail or ban slavery at will, while Southerners claimed that there could be no prohibition of slavery in the territories because the land belonged to all states equally. In the Compromise of 1850, popular sovereignty was not defined as a guiding principle on the slave issue going forward. Furthermore, the bill’s strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act angered many Northerners, and even provoked violence in Northern cities. In short, the Compromise of 1850 was less an effective tool for federal management of western territories and more a precarious stalemate agreed to by the North and the South that effectively shelved the slave problem for a few more years.

Nonetheless, the Compromise of 1850 was perceived by both sides as a success insofar as it staved off a greater escalation of sectional conflict. During the debate over the Compromise, John C. Calhoun, a notable defender of the South and Southern slavery, wrote an ominous speech that anticipated secession and disunion if the Northern states did not meet Southern demands. This led some politicians to accept what otherwise would have been an unacceptable bill out of fear of raising the stakes of the conflict. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, for example, spoke in favor of the Compromise, urging Northerners to abandon radical antislavery legislation while warning the South that threats to secede would inevitably result in sectional violence. Many Northern abolitionists later denounced Webster for agreeing to the “devil’s compromise”; however, many politicians were relieved to enact temporary measures to keep the peace between the states.

1.4 – The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 mandated that popular sovereignty would determine the slave or free status in the region.

1.4.1 – Introduction

The allure of rich farmlands and the potential for infrastructure development in the Kansas-Nebraska territories put the Compromise of 1850 to the test. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had prohibited slavery in all new territories north of the 36° 30′ latitude line, effectively banning slavery in the Kansas territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, however, drafted by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (IL), repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and mandated that popular sovereignty would determine any new territory’s slave or free status.

The initial purpose of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to facilitate the growth of farmland throughout the territory and the development of a transcontinental railroad through the Midwest. Douglas and other representatives hoped that by tagging on the popular sovereignty mandate, they could avoid confronting the slave issue in the organization of the Kansas-Nebraska territory. However, the act spurred a mass influx of slave owners and independent farmers into Kansas—and both groups went with the explicit aim of voting for or against slavery in the territory. The result was violence, leading to the events of a conflict known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

1.4.2 – “Bleeding Kansas”

“Bleeding Kansas” is the term used to refer to the political violence that erupted in Kansas territory and neighboring Missouri towns between proslavery and abolitionist forces. It is considered by many historians to be a precursor to the U.S. Civil War. Kansas territory was neighbors with slave state Missouri and free state Iowa. As activist settlers poured into Kansas territory with the intent of voting for or against slavery as a state-sanctioned institution, politics began to resemble a war rather than democratic balloting. Proslavery settlers came to Kansas mainly from neighboring Missouri, and some residents of Missouri crossed into Kansas solely for the purpose of voting in territorial elections. During the 1855 elections for territory legislature, thousands of “Border Ruffians” from Missouri entered the territory and rigged the ballots, creating a fraudulent majority for proslavery candidates. In response to the “Border Ruffians,” antislavery settlers held a separate convention to elect their own candidates to the legislature. Proslavery groups, in turn, attacked the city of Lawrence, and John Brown, a radical abolitionist, led attacks on proslavery settlers nearby. Hostilities between the factions reached a state of low-intensity civil war, damaging Franklin Pierce’s administration as the nascent Republican Party sought to capitalize on the scandal of “Bleeding Kansas” in the upcoming election.

1.4.3 – Congress

Though the situation in Kansas territory was descending quickly into anarchy, Congress was too preoccupied with its own internal conflicts to effectively intervene. On May 22, 1856, as Senator Charles Sumner (MA) gave a speech on the violent situation in Kansas, likening the proslavery invasion of the territory to the “rape of a virgin,” Senator Preston Smith Brooks (SC) physically attacked Sumner with his cane. News of the incident shocked the nation and served to further polarize proslavery and antislavery factions. To many Northerners, Sumner was considered an antislavery martyr for standing up for his convictions. To many Southerners, however, the incident provided another example of how abolitionists were willing to use Congress as a forum to attack Southern honor, culture, and economic practices.

Southern Democrats were pleased that the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, while Northerners (including Northern Democrats ) decried the opening of territory to slave owners where slavery had previously been prohibited for more than 30 years. Already a fractured party, the Whigs collapsed and made way for the Northern-dominated Republican Party: a coalition of Free-Soilers, Northern Democrats, and antislavery forces that bitterly resented the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. This, in turn, gave rise to the Know-Nothing Party, a political movement composed of ex-Whigs looking for a vehicle to fight the dominant Democratic Party. In 1854, former congressman Abraham Lincoln publicly aired his moral, legal, and economic arguments against the expansion of slavery, as well as his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in three separate speeches in Illinois.

“Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Free-Soiler”: An 1854 cartoon depicts a giant Free-Soiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass, who stand 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 grips the giant’s beard as Stephen A. Douglas shoves a black man down his throat.

However, with the support of President Pierce, Douglas pushed the act through Congress, albeit with rigidly delineated sectional votes. For many Northern politicians, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the latest in a string of proslavery laws that revealed the South’s aim to aggressively expanded slavery into every state in the Union.

In 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in the midst of the Civil War. Nebraska was not admitted to the Union until 1867, after the Civil War.

1.5 – The Ostend Manifesto and Cuba

The 1854 Ostend Manifesto justified the right of the United States to annex Cuba and implicitly justified war if Spain refused to sell the island.

1.5.1 – Background and Context

Located 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba had been considered a target for annexation by several presidential administrations. President John Quincy Adams described Cuba and Puerto Rico as, “natural appendages to the North American continent,” and Cuba’s annexation as, “indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.” The Spanish empire had been in gradual decline, but so long as control of Cuba did not pass to a stronger power such as Britain or France, most presidential administrations did not aggressively seek annexation.

As the sectional debate over expansion intensified, however, Southern Democrats began to look to Cuba as another potential slave state. Slavery was a centuries-old institution in Cuba, and its sugar plantation system, overall agrarian economy, and location predisposed it to the agricultural interests of the South. Hence it was believed that the annexation of Cuba might greatly strengthen the position of Southern slaveholders against industrial Northern interests. The movement for annexation grew even more intense as free states from the Western territories were admitted to the Union and political conflict erupted in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, upsetting the already delicate balance of power between slave and free states in the Senate.

1.5.2 – Ostend Manifesto

At the suggestion of Secretary of State William L. Marcy, U.S. Minister to Spain Pierre Soulé met with U.S. Minister to Great Britain James Buchanan and U.S. Minister to France John Y. Mason at Ostend, Belgium, to discuss the Cuba matter. The resulting dispatch, drafted at Aix-la-Chapelle in October 1854, outlined the reasons the U.S. purchase of Cuba would be beneficial to all parties involved and declared that the United States would be “justified in wresting” the island from Spanish hands if Spain refused to sell. Prominent among the reasons for annexation outlined in the Ostend Manifesto were fears of a possible slave revolt in Cuba, the likes of which had already occurred in Haiti, in the absence of U.S. intervention. Racial fears raised tension and anxiety over a potential black uprising on the island that could “spread like wildfire” to the United States.

To Marcy’s chagrin, the flamboyant Soulé made no secret of the diplomatic meetings, causing unwanted publicity in both Europe and the United States. In the increasingly volatile political climate of 1854, the Franklin Pierce administration feared the political repercussions of making the negotiations known, but pressure from journalists and politicians alike to publish what was agreed to in Ostend continued to mount. As a result, the dispatch was published in full at the behest of the House of Representatives. Dubbed the Ostend Manifesto, it was immediately denounced in both Northern U.S. states and Europe. It became a rallying cry for Northerners in the events that would later be termed “Bleeding Kansas,” and the political fallout was a significant setback for the Pierce Administration.

1.5.3 – Fallout

Cartoon of the Ostend Doctrine: A political cartoon depicts James Buchanan surrounded by hoodlums using quotations from the Ostend Manifesto to justify robbing him.

When the document was published, it outraged Northerners, who viewed it as an aggressive Southern attempt to extend slavery. American Free-Soilers, recently angered by the Fugitive Slave Law (passed as part of the Compromise of 1850), decried the Manifesto, dubbed by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune as “The Manifesto of the Brigands”, unconstitutional. The Pierce administration was irreparably damaged by the incident, and Northern Democrats began to withdraw their support and gravitate toward the nascent Republican Party.

Portrait of Pierre Soulé: Pierre Soulé, the driving force behind the Ostend Manifesto and its resultant political fallout.

Internationally, the Ostend Manifesto was seen as a threat not only to Spain, but also to all imperial powers across Europe. It was quickly denounced in Madrid, London, and Paris. To preserve what favorable relations the administration had left, Soulé was ordered to cease discussion of Cuba, and he promptly resigned. The backlash from the Ostend Manifesto shelved any expansionist plans for Cuba for several decades. The “Cuban Question” would not dominate U.S. foreign policy discussions until 30 years after the Civil War.

2 – Realignment of the Party System

2.1 – The Election of 1852

2.1.1 – Overview

The election of 1852 was the last election in which the Whig Party nominated a candidate before the party collapsed following Winfield Scott’s loss to Franklin Pierce. It was an election cycle characterized by high degrees of polarization along sectional rather than political lines.

2.1.2 – Conventions

The 1852 Whig National Convention held in Baltimore was bitterly divided. Supporters of President Millard Fillmore, who had succeeded to the presidency after the death of President Taylor, counted the Compromise of 1850 as a success on Fillmore’s record. However, Northern Whigs resented the Compromise of 1850, believing that the bill favored the slaveholding South. As a result, Northern Whigs threw their support behind Mexican-American War hero General Winfield Scott of Virginia, who went on to win the party’s nomination.

Scott-Graham poster: A campaign poster for Winfield Scott and William A. Graham.

The Democrats also met in Baltimore in June 1852 and selected Franklin Pierce—a rather obscure public figure at the time—as their candidate. Although Pierce hailed from the Northern state of New Hampshire, he defended the supremacy of states’ rights as integral to maintaining a united nation and firmly supported the Compromise of 1850. Arguing that Pierce was a “Northern man with Southern principles,” Democrats were able to make a case for his nomination that appealed to both Northern and Southern party members. Southern Democrats were convinced that Pierce’s administration would secure the future of slavery in the territories, while Northern Democrats were relieved to nominate a candidate who did not espouse radical proslavery or antislavery principles. Hence, the slavery issue split the party from the outset, which would continue to cause conflict among Democrats for much of Pierce’s administration.

2.1.3 – Result

Franklin Pierce: Franklin Pierce, Democratic Party candidate.

Pierce and running mate William R. King won what was at the time one of the nation’s largest electoral victories, trouncing Scott by 254 electoral votes to 42. The outcome was a testament to the sectional and organizational weaknesses within the Whig Party. During his years in office, Pierce’s support of the Compromise of 1850—particularly his rigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act —appalled and alienated many Northerners, including factions of the Democratic Party. With the demise of the Whig Party, many Northerners, bitterly resenting the heavy enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act under Pierce, began to loosely coalesce with the emerging antislavery Republican Party.

2.2 – The Rise of the Republican Party

Cartoon of the James Garfield inauguration: An 1881 cartoon attacks the imperial splendor of Garfield’s inauguration in contrast to Jefferson’s republican simplicity (depicted in the upper-left corner).

Following the collapse of the Whigs during the election of 1852, a major realignment of the American political party system occurred with former Whigs splintering into various political factions. Anti-immigration and temperance movements formed the platform of the emerging American (“Know-Nothing”) Party, while those interested in the economic development of finance and business in the West and North were attracted to the Republican Party. By 1858, the Republicans enjoyed majorities in every Northern state and therefore controlled the electoral votes in 1860 presidential election.

The driving ideological forces of the Republican Party were commercial expansion, modernization, and agricultural development in the West. Republicans were opposed to the perceived “anti-modernity” of the Southern slave culture and rallied behind the slogan of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” which they argued was representative of classical American republicanism. Republicans sponsored bills, such as the homestead program, that would give western lands to individual (non-slave owning) farmers, and supported internal improvements designed to facilitate commercial travel to the frontier and develop infrastructure. Republicans argued that the North and the West were models of economic development, autonomy, and production in contrast to the South’s limited industry and slave-labor system. Republicans portrayed themselves as the party of economic opportunity and advancement, offering individuals the chance for work, land, and success.

To that end, Republicans supported various railroad- and steamboat-building projects, approved the construction of new canals and roads, wrote legislation for higher tariffs as entrepreneurial incentives for financiers and industrialists, and passed homestead acts that enabled thousands of families to move west to establish productive farms and form larger communities. The “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Man” ideology came to represent a Northern and western economy that was prosperous, commercial, and modern, and that resonated with the classical republican virtues of equality, liberty, self-government, and labor. This ideology cast the Republicans as the true heirs of the Jeffersonians.

However, it is important to note that mainstream Republicans were not inherently antislavery or abolitionist. Instead, they opposed the extension of slavery into western territories and new states, believing that the institution of slavery should be restricted to its traditional Southern boundaries. Opponents of the expansion of slavery included those who resented Southern political power, were committed to free labor as the future of American industry, or were morally opposed to slavery itself (for example, abolitionists from the more radical wings of the Republican Party).

2.3 – Whigs and Democrats

The Whigs and Democrats were in opposition to each other from 1840 to 1861, but both encountered intraparty sectionalism over slavery.

2.3.1 – Whigs and the Slavery Issue: The Compromise of 1850

President Millard Fillmore: Millard Fillmore, the last Whig President.

A primary conflict between Democrats and Whigs revolved around California’s admission to the union as a free state, which would upset the sectional balance of power between free and slave states in Congress. The result was an arduous legislative battle between Southern and Northern representatives, with the South arguing that Congress and the states did not have the authority to legislate against the territorial expansion of slavery. Realizing that this sectional divide could split the country, Whigs and Democrats came to a compromise that they hoped would prevent secession. The ensuing Compromise of 1850 allowed California to be admitted as a free state, but strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law and made no provisions for how other territories could address the slavery issue.

The Whigs were unable to effectively address the slavery issue after 1850. Nearly all of their Southern members owned slaves, while the Northeastern Whigs were largely businessmen who sought national unity and a strong national market but cared little about the institution of slavery. There was no compromise that could keep the Whigs united, which contributed to the party’s demise in the 1850s.

2.3.2 – Demise of the Whigs, 1852-1856

President Andrew Jackson: President Andrew Jackson was hailed as the founder of the Democratic Party.

The election of 1852 marked the final collapse of the Whigs. The deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster that year severely weakened the party, and the Compromise of 1850 fractured the Whigs along proslavery and antislavery lines.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened new western territories to slavery. Southern Whigs generally supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, while Northern Whigs remained strongly opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories. Most remaining Northern Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, began to form factions that attacked the Act, appealing to widespread Northern outrage over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Other Whigs with xenophobic views joined the American Party.

2.3.3 – The Democratic Party’s Sectional Split

Whig primary, 1848: “An Available Candidate: The One Qualification for a Whig President.” This political cartoon about the 1848 presidential election refers to Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, the two leading contenders for the Whig Party nomination in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Published by Nathaniel Currier in 1848.

Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democratic Party also experienced an internal split. Historically the party had been split into two factions since 1828, with one faction, the National Republicans, being more strongly federalist than other Democrats. Yet by the 1850s, the issue of slavery divided the party even further. Northern Democrats, such as Stephen Douglas, believed that the slavery issue should be decided by popular sovereignty. The more conservative Southern Democrats such as John C. Calhoun, however, insisted that slavery was— and should remain—a national institution. Many Northern, antislavery Democrats flocked to the Free-Soil coalition and joined Northern Whigs to form the Republican Party, whereas Southern, proslavery Democrats coalesced to form the Southern Democratic Party. As a result, the Democrats became almost entirely a Southern party platform, alienating any existing Northern supporters who were largely antislavery.

The result of this sharp sectional split within the Democratic Party was that Democrats were unable to mobilize an effective, united political platform in order to prevent the Republicans from achieving a majority in the electoral college. In the 1860 presidential election, the worsening divide among Democrats led to their nomination of two separate presidential candidates, neither of whom could raise enough electoral support to surpass the electoral support for the Republican Party’s candidate. This paved the way for the eventual election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

2.4 – The Election of 1856

John C. Frémont: Republican candidate in the election of 1856.

The election of 1856 demonstrated the extremity of sectional polarization in national politics during this era. Since the previous election, the Whig Party had disintegrated over the issue of slavery, and new parties (including the Republican Party ) competed to replace it. The Republicans nominated John C. Frémont, who condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act and supported measures to curtail the expansion of slavery. The American Party (known as the Know-Nothing Party) nominated former president Millard Fillmore, who largely ignored the slave issue in favor of an anti-immigrant platform.

1856 Democratic Party campaign poster: A Buchanan/Breckenridge campaign poster.

The Democrats, on the other hand, supported James Buchanan. He had remained out of the crossfire of sectional disputes in his post as ambassador to Britain, making him appear more neutral and therefore appealing to a wider cross-section of Democrats than other potential nominees, such as incumbent President Franklin Pierce. Buchanan embraced the relatively moderate popular sovereignty approach to the expansion of slavery in his election platform and warned that the Republican Party was a coalition of radical antislavery extremists that would force the country into Civil War. Buchanan won the election of 1856 with the full support of the South as well as five free states.

James Buchanan: Democratic candidate for president in 1856 and fifteenth president of the United States.

Although Buchanan won the election and Frémont received fewer than 600 votes in all slave states, the results in the Electoral College indicated that the Republican Party could succeed in the next election if they won just two more states. Buchanan had won 45.3 percent of the popular vote and 174 electoral votes whereas Frémont had won 33.1 percent of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes. Fillmore won 21.6 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes.

3 – Deepening the Sectional Crisis

3.1 – Introduction

3.1.1 – Overview

In the middle of the nineteenth century, politics had become a part of mass culture, fueled by elections, rallies, campaign parades, public speeches, and the media. Between 1854 and 1856 alone, an abundance of new political parties and organizations emerged, including the Republicans, the People’s Party, Anti-Nebraskans, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, the Temperance Movement, Hard Shell Democrats, Rum Democrats, and Silver Gray Whigs. Yet the abundance of political parties and organizations was eventually whittled down due to increasing sectionalism between the North and the South.

3.1.2 – Sectionalism

Sectionalism refers to the different economies, social structure, customs, and political values of the North and the South. Sectionalism increased steadily between 1800 and 1860 as the North (which phased slavery out of existence) industrialized, urbanized, and built prosperous farms, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor together with subsistence farming for the poor white families. During this time, the South aimed to expand into rich new lands in the Southwest.

3.1.3 – Distinct Political Divisions

Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president of the United States following a period of increased sectional conflict among and within existing American political parties.

The debates between slave-state and free-state interests raged in Congress; many people in the North and the South began to polarize along similar fault lines, and various disparate political organizations began to coalesce into distinct camps. The Republicans became the party of the North, promoting industry and business while also attracting antislavery factions. The core platform of the Republican Party was opposition to the expansion of slavery into new territories in order to protect the interests of yeoman farmers and industrialists seeking new land and investments. The Democrats were split between the North and the South with separate election tickets in 1860. Northern Democrats hoped for a long-term compromise between slave and free states in new territories, while Southern Democrats demanded federal protections of slavery and threatened secession if Congress refused to meet their demands.

By the election of 1860, these political camps were firmly aligned with Northern and Southern interests, with Southern states whipping up public support for state conventions to vote on secession if Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans won the presidency. The antebellum era of short-term compromise and evasion between the political camps was heading toward an end.

3.2 – The Dred Scott Decision

3.2.1 – Introduction

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), also known as the Dred Scott decision, was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court stating that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. The Dred Scott decision was particularly significant because the Court concluded that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories (nullifying the Missouri Compromise) and that, because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattel or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process.

In reaching this decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney had hoped to settle the issue of slavery in the United States, but it had the opposite effect. The decision was fiercely debated across the country and contributed to Abraham Lincoln ‘s success in the presidential election in 1860 as opposition to the Dred Scott decision and the prohibition of further expansion of slavery became integral to the Republican Party platform. The court’s decision was so contentious that some historians go as far as to suggest that the Dred Scott decision caused the Civil War.

3.2.2 – Background

Dred Scott: Portrait of Dred Scott.

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia sometime between 1795 and 1800. In 1820, he followed his owner, Peter Blow, to Missouri. In 1832, Blow died and U.S. Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Scott and took him to Illinois, a free state. In 1836, Scott was again moved to the Wisconsin territory, an area where slavery was “forever prohibited” under the Missouri Compromise. In 1846, Dred attempted to purchase his freedom, but the Emerson family refused, prompting Scott to seek legal recourse.

Over the next 11 years, Scott first won, and then lost, his case as it moved from state to federal courts on appeal, and eventually to the Supreme Court. In 1857, when the Supreme Court heard Dred Scott’s case, it was faced with several controversial questions that were of great significance to an increasingly polarized country. Were black people considered citizens of the United States and therefore eligible to pursue suits in court? Did residence in a free state render a slave free? Most significantly, did Congress have the constitutional authority to prohibit slavery in any state or territory? With proslavery and antislavery supporters pushing for a resolution to sectional conflict over the issue, the Court used its authority in the Dred Scott case more to render a final ruling on the Missouri Compromise rather than to decide the fate of a single man.

3.2.3 – Decision

The Supreme Court ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857, just two days after James Buchanan ‘s inauguration. Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the opinion of the Court with each of the concurring and dissenting justices filing separate opinions. In total, six justices agreed with the ruling. The Court ruled that Scott was not a citizen of the United States, that residence in a free territory did not make Scott free, and that Congress had no constitutional authority to prohibit slavery in any territory. The decision effectively overturned all of the political compromises negotiated between Northern and Southern congressional representatives over the past 30 years in a significant victory for proslavery factions.

Taney based his ruling in part on his interpretation of how the authors of the U.S. Constitution would have perceived Scott as a man of African descent, stating that a black individual would be perceived too inferior to be granted equal rights on the same level as a white person. He also stated that any act of Congress denying a slaveholder his property (i.e., his slave) was to be considered unconstitutional on the basis of the Fifth Amendment. This marked only the second time the Supreme Court had found an act of Congress, in this case the Missouri Compromise, to be unconstitutional.

3.2.4 – Consequences

Although Chief Justice Roger Taney believed that the decision would answer the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. In the North, it fueled claims of a “slave power” conspiracy with President Buchanan, a Democrat, and the Supreme Court, controlled by a Democratic majority, working to benefit the interests of Southern slaveowners. The decision led many Democrats to start supporting the Republican Party, drawn in by their opposition to the expansion of slavery into new federal territories. In the South, the decision encouraged proslavery, secessionist elements to make bolder demands in Congress.

Many historians consider the Dred Scott decision to be one of the direct causes of Southern secession and the Civil War. It strengthened the Republican Party in the North by creating a platform against the expansion of slavery outside its traditional Southern boundaries and signaled to the South that Northern abolitionists would not quietly accept the Court’s ruling on the matter, leading many Southerners to embrace secession as a defensive measure to protect their interests.

3.3 – The Lecompton Constitution

The Lecompton Constitution, drafted by proslavery factions, was a state constitution proposed for the state of Kansas that rivaled the constitution proposed by the Free-Soil faction.

In 1857, settlers in Kansas were faced with voting on a constitution that outlined a government for the territory. The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas. It was produced in September 1857 by the territorial legislature, which consisted mostly of slaveowners in response to the antislavery position of the 1855 Topeka Constitution drafted by the Free-Soil faction. Free-state supporters, who comprised a large majority of actual settlers, boycotted the vote. The resulting Lecompton Constitution secured the continuation of slavery in the proposed state and protected the rights of slaveholders.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton Constitutions were placed before the people of the Kansas Territory for a vote, and both votes were boycotted by supporters of the opposing faction. In the case of Lecompton, however, the constitution was defeated by several thousand votes, demonstrating that the majority of Kansas settlers did not want slavery to continue as an institution within the state. Nevertheless, both the Lecompton and Topeka Constitutions were sent to Washington for approval.

Stephen Douglas: Stephen A. Douglas broke with the Democratic Party leadership over the Lecompton Constitution.

Meanwhile, despite the controversial Dred Scott decision, Stephen Douglas and many other Northern Democrats continued their support of popular sovereignty as the final authority on the admission of slavery into new territories, while Republicans denounced any measure that would allow for the expansion of slavery. President Buchanan, however, formally endorsed the Lecompton Constitution before Congress, joining with the Southern Democrats who demanded that the document be adopted as the Kansas state constitution. While the president received the support of the Southern Democrats, Northern Democrats and Republicans denounced the blatant violation of the will of the popular majority in Kansas.

In 1858, in an effort to win Northern support for the popular sovereignty argument, Douglas entered into a series of debates with Abraham Lincoln who was challenging him for the Illinois congressional seat. Douglas argued that, while the Dred Scott case prohibited Congress from legislating on the expansion of slavery, citizens in the territories could effectively legislate against it via their own local governance or by refusing to reinforce infrastructure protecting slaveowners’ interests within the territory. This argument, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, alienated many Southerners from the Northern Democrats permanently. Furthermore, Douglas’s appeal to the North convinced many Southerners that their interests and proslavery rights only could be protected by secession.

3.4 – The Panic of 1857

3.4.1 – Introduction

The Panic of 1857 was a financial crisis in the United States caused by an overexpansion of the domestic economy following an international crisis over currency valuation in Britain. It is considered by many to be the first worldwide financial crisis. Beginning in September 1857, the financial downturn lasted until the Civil War. After the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, the Panic quickly spread as businesses failed and the stock market began to plummet. In particular, the railroad industry experienced financial declines and hundreds of workers were laid off, and many banks, merchants, and farmers who had seized the opportunity to take risks with their investments when the market was good experienced widespread financial loss.

3.4.2 – Causes

In the early 1850s, westward expansion, development, and investment had resulted in widespread economic prosperity throughout the United States. Railroads and factories began to borrow and invest with generous bank loans. However, by 1857, the value of western land fell and migration drastically slowed. Combined with a falling demand for American goods in Europe, commercial credit was curtailed and many merchants and investors found themselves unable to pay back their debts. Because many banks had financed railroads and the purchase of western lands, they began to feel the pressures of falling railroad securities.

The Panic of 1857 : Bank run on the Seamen’s Savings Bank during the Panic of 1857.

Numerous western railroad companies began to fail—further decreasing the value of railroad securities, stocks, and bonds. The prices of grain also decreased significantly, and farmers experienced a loss in revenue, resulting in many foreclosures on recently purchased lands. For instance, grain prices in 1855 had skyrocketed to $2.19 a bushel, so farmers had begun to purchase land to increase their crop supply (and profits). However, by 1858, grain prices dropped severely to $0.80 a bushel, and as a result, land sales declined and westward expansion essentially halted until the Panic ended.

The Panic of 1857 was set into motion with the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, which had large mortgage holdings and ties to national investment banks. The failure of Ohio Life brought attention to the financial state of the railroad industry and land markets and brought the financial panic to the forefront of public issues. Another event that precipitated the Panic was the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case, which opened all western territories to slavery. Soon after the Dred Scott case, it became evident that the ruling would have drastic financial and political effects as railroad securities and land values began to decrease. As a result, many Americans began to view the West as a risky investment where previously they considered it a symbol of prosperity and development.

3.4.3 – Results of the Panic

In the aftermath of the Panic, the Southern economy suffered little while the Northern economy made a slow recovery. Urban riots became common in the North and West as laborers and wealthier factions clashed over the financial crisis. Blame for the Panic, however, was leveled at the South, which was seen as responsible for undermining the stability and security of western industrial development by pushing its proslavery agenda. Southerners, however, saw the temporary collapse of Northern industry as validation of the plantation economy and proof that a proslavery society was a superior system to wage labor and continued to push for more political concessions from Congress. As a result, by 1859, tensions between North and South were heightened with agitation coalescing around the slavery issue on both sides.

3.5 – The Emergence of Abraham Lincoln

3.5.1 – The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and the incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. At the time, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; therefore, Lincoln and Douglas were campaigning for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature. All seven debates primarily discussed the slavery issue, and for Lincoln, the debates provided an opportunity to articulate his position against the expansion of slavery into the territories, which bolstered his popularity with the Republicans and helped him secure the party’s nomination in the 1860 presidential election.

U.S. Postage, 1958 issue, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates

As the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas’s aim in the debates was to defend his position that popular sovereignty was the best method to legislate on the expansion of slavery, regardless of the Dred Scott decision. Douglas argued that, while the Dred Scott case prohibited Congress from legislating on the expansion of slavery, citizens in the territories could effectively legislate against it by refusing to create the structures and enforcements to protect slave owners’ interests within the territory (this position later became known as the Freeport Doctrine). By refusing to enact slave codes, Douglas claimed, territories could remain “free” in every way but a technical sense. In the aftermath of the debates, the Freeport Doctrine effectively alienated Southern Democrats from Douglas and the Northern faction of the Democratic Party.

Lincoln, who had served as the only Whig representative from Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, had most recently practiced law in Springfield and only returned to politics in order to oppose the proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln argued that legislating slavery based on popular sovereignty would nationalize and perpetuate slavery in both the territories and in the Northern states. Lincoln asserted that United States policy had always been to legislate against slavery, citing the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from a large part of what is now the Midwest. Therefore, popular sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision were departures from policies of the past.

Addressing Douglas’s accusations that he was an abolitionist, Lincoln countered that popular sovereignty and Dred Scott set dangerous precedents and that the nation could not exist perpetually as half slave and half free. Lincoln’s vehement opposition to the expansion of slavery in the territories did not mean that he supported emancipation or social equality among races. Indeed many historians argue that while Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery, he occupied a moderate position on the subject, and was primarily concerned with how the institution interfered with the republican principles of the Founding Fathers rather than with taking a moral stance against it. Although Lincoln claimed that African Americans had an equal right to liberty and labor, he remained ambiguous on the matter of emancipation and denied that they were entitled to equal social and civic rights.

3.5.2 – Results

After the debates, Southern politicians demanded the establishment of slave codes in territories such as Kansas in order to challenge Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine. These demands further splintered the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party and strengthened the Republican Party in the upcoming election of 1860.

On election day, Democrats won a narrow majority of seats in the Illinois General Assembly, despite getting slightly less than half the votes. The legislature then reelected Douglas. However, the widespread media coverage of the debates raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable nominee as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election.

4 – The Impending Crisis

4.1 – The Raid on Harper’s Ferry

John Brown, a radical abolitionist, instigated an armed slave revolt by seizing a U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859. Brown’s raid was quickly defeated by a detachment of U.S. Marines (led by Col. Robert E. Lee), but his actions convinced Southerners that their society was under attack by Northern abolitionists, inciting support for secession.

Brown, a failed business entrepreneur, had been raised in a deeply religious and antislavery family in Connecticut. However, Brown’s vision of abolitionism was radically distinct from the more dominant antislavery sentiments in the North in that he believed that slavery was an unjustifiable state of war conducted by one group of people against another. Relying on stories in the Old Testament, Brown believed that violence against slavery and slave owners was a righteous, almost holy, act that would bring justice to black slaves and purify the wicked South. For Brown, the destruction of slavery required revolutionary force and violence as well as the shedding of blood.

Brown justified his beliefs using the biblical passage Hebrews 9:22: “Without shedding of blood there is no remission” of sin. Moments before he was hanged, Brown handed a prophetic note to a guard, which said, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”

Brown had proven himself willing to use violence to attain his ends in the past: He had been involved in a murderous raid on some slavery supporters in Bleeding Kansas on Pottawatomie Creek in the Kansas Territory. Because of Brown’s willingness to shed blood (including his own) for the cause, Frederick Douglass was later to comment that Brown’s devotion to ending slavery was like a “burning sun” compared to his own candlelight. Douglass had prudently turned down Brown’s invitation to take part in the raid.

By 1859, Brown had formulated a strategy for achieving his aim of defeating slavery through violence. He planned to use rifles, pikes, and other weapons that he seized at Harper’s Ferry to arm Virginian slaves and lead them in an attack against slaveholders in the region, and from there, march South.

Raid on Harper’s Ferry: Harper’s Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown’s “Fort.”

However, although Brown and a small group of his supporters sacked the federal arsenal on October 16, 1859, a massive slave uprising did not occur, and a U.S. Marine force quickly captured Brown. He was taken to nearby Charles Town for trial where he was found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia and hanged on December 2. Six other raiders who joined the revolt were also executed.

Many Northern reactions to John Brown’s raid are best characterized as baffled reproach. William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent leader of the antislavery movement, called Harper’s raid a “misguided” and “insane” act. However, after Brown’s execution (and the escalation of Southern hysteria over the incident), many Northerners came to believe that, although “insane,” Brown’s attempts to liberate the slave population reflected moral intentions.

Several prominent writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau even praised Brown as a martyr for the abolitionist cause. For Southerners, on the other hand, John Brown’s raid was an act of terrorism perpetrated by Northern abolitionists, an act that spurred Southern state legislatures to pass emergency measures to arm and train volunteer militias to prepare for future conflict with Northern aggressors.

The psychological significance of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry cannot be overestimated. Brown had hoped to lead armed slaves to insurrection. Slave revolts, especially armed ones, were especially terrifying for the South where some families lived on isolated farms and plantations and were outnumbered by their slaves. The South found the North’s ambivalent attitude toward John Brown’s raid flabbergasting. The raid and its repercussions led to deeper psychological rifts between the two regions of the country. A Southern newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, stated, “The day of compromise is past. . . . There is no peace for the South in the Union.”

4.2 – Lincoln and Republican Victory in 1860

4.2.1 – Overview

Historians have long considered the presidential election of 1860 as the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the Civil War. The nation had been divided throughout the 1850s on questions surrounding the expansion of slavery and the rights of slave owners. In 1860, these issues exploded when the Democratic Party officially splintered into Northern and Southern factions, and, in the face of a divided and dispirited opposition, the Republican Party secured enough electoral votes to put Abraham Lincoln in the White House with very little support from the South. Within a few months of the election, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina, responded with declarations of secession.

4.2.2 – Conventions and Nominations

By 1860, the Democratic Party had officially split into Northern and Southern factions with tensions erupting in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision. Southern Democrats resented the Northern Democrats’ continued support of popular sovereignty as the best method to determine a territory’s free or slave status in spite of Dred Scott. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for president, but Southern Democrats responded by convening separately and nominating John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their candidate.

The Republican National Convention met in mid-May. With the Democrats in disarray, and with a sweep of the Northern states possible, the Republicans were confident going into their convention in Chicago. Because it was essential to carry the West, and because Lincoln had a national reputation from previous debates and speeches as the party’s most articulate moderate, he won the party’s nomination for president on the third ballot on May 18, 1860. The Republican Party platform stated that slavery would not be allowed to spread any further into the territories. The Republicans also promised to support tariffs that protected Northern industry, a Homestead Act granting free farmland in the West to settlers, and the funding of a transcontinental railroad. All of these political issues alienated the South.

4.2.3 – Campaign and Results

In the North, there were hundreds of Republican speakers, a deluge of campaign posters and leaflets, and thousands of newspaper editorials. While the campaign propaganda concentrated on disseminating the party platform, it also drew attention to Lincoln’s life story, making the most of his boyhood poverty, his pioneer background, his innate genius, and his rise from obscurity. His nicknames, “Honest Abe” and “The Railsplitter,” were exploited to the fullest. The goal was to emphasize the superior power of “free labor,” whereby a common farm boy could work his way to the top by his own efforts and industry. In 1860, many observers noted that the Republicans had an almost unbeatable advantage in the Electoral College because they dominated almost every Northern state.

Lincoln won in the Electoral College with less than 40 percent of the popular vote nationwide, leading contemporaries to cite the split in the Democratic Party as a contributing factor to Lincoln’s victory. Like Lincoln in the North, Southern Democrat Breckinridge won no electoral votes outside of the South. He finished second in the Electoral College with 72 votes, carrying 11 of 15 slave states. Douglas was the only candidate to win electoral votes in both the North and the South (in New Jersey and Missouri), but he finished last in the Electoral College.

4.2.4 – Election for Disunion

Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln was the Republican candidate for U.S. president in 1860.

Although Lincoln and his advisors dismissed Southern alarm over the possibility of Republican victory, many observers recognized that Lincoln’s election could result in disunion. Both John Bell of Tennessee (the Constitutional Union Party candidate) and Douglas had campaigned on a platform stating that they could save the Union from secession, warning Americans that a vote for Lincoln was a vote for disunion. Meanwhile, in the South, secessionists threw their support behind Breckinridge in an attempt to contest the election in the House of Representatives (where the selection of president would be made by the representatives elected in 1858), while Southern state military preparations were underway in the event of war.

In 10 of the 11 states that would later declare secession, Lincoln’s ticket did not even appear on the ballot; in Virginia, he received only 1 percent of the popular vote. In the four slave states that did not secede (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), Lincoln came in third or fourth. Therefore, the 1860 election was not just sectionally divided—it indicated that the South would never accept any Republican candidate who promised to curtail the territorial expansion of slavery. The early nineteenth-century period of compromise and evasion on the slave issue was officially at an end.

4.3 – Secession of the South

Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 in the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election.

4.3.1 – Introduction

Jefferson Davis: Davis became the provisional president of the Confederate States of America following secession.

As part of their justification for leaving the Union after the election of 1860, secessionists argued that the Constitution was a compact among states that could be abandoned at any time without consultation, and that each state reserved the right to secede from the compact. South Carolina invoked the Declaration of Independence to defend their right to secede from the Union, seeing their declaration of secession as a comparable document. Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 prior to Abraham Lincoln acceding to office. Declaring themselves the Confederate States of America, these seven states elected Jefferson Davis as their provisional president; declared Montgomery, Alabama, the nation’s capital; and began raising an army.

4.3.2 – Responses to Secession

In the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election, sitting President Buchanan did little to halt the wave of Southern secession. Believing that the key to good government was restraint, he refused to deploy troops or additional artillery to federal properties under threat. Paradoxically, in his final address to Congress, Buchanan denied that states had a right to secede from the Union, but also held that the federal government could not prevent secession from happening through the use of force. Instead, Buchanan proposed a constitutional amendment reaffirming slavery as a protected American institution, strengthening existing fugitive slave laws, and preventing Congress from legislating against the expansion of slavery into federal territories.

In Congress, many proposals were drafted in an attempt to appease the Southern seceding states. The Crittenden Compromise of December 1860 proposed that the old Missouri Compromise latitude boundary line be extended west to the Pacific. Unfortunately, this proposal was in direct conflict with the stated policies of the Republican Party and president-elect Lincoln, and Southern leaders refused to agree to the compromise without a full endorsement from Republicans. This resulted in a stalemate between both sides, and the Crittenden Compromise was ultimately voted down in the Senate.

Davis’s inauguration, 1861: Jefferson Davis’s inauguration, Montgomery, Alabama.

On February 4, 1861, a Peace Conference convened in Washington, D.C., comprised of more than 100 of the leading politicians of the antebellum period.

Many attended with the belief that they could avert the crisis toward which secession was heading, whereas some attended in order to safeguard their own sectional interests in what they believed to be an unstoppable escalation of hostilities. Delegations from Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and all of the Deep South states were not present at the conference.

Lincoln also initially tried to pacify the seceding states in his presidential inaugural address, in which he explicitly promised to preserve slavery in the states it already existed in and implied support for the proposed Corwin Amendment, which would have given further protections to slavery in the Constitution. However, efforts by the Confederate States to forcibly remove U.S. troops and federal presence from its territory, culminating in the Battle of Fort Sumter, pushed the two factions irreversibly toward war.

4.3.3 – Progression of Hostilities

After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Lincoln’s subsequent call for troops on April 15, four more states declared their secession. By spring 1861, the Confederacy was composed of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Although slaveholding Delaware and Maryland did not secede, citizens from those states exhibited divided loyalties, and Lincoln implemented a system of compensated emancipation and slave confiscation from “disloyal citizens” in these border states during the Civil War.

The U.S. government did not declare war on the Confederate States, but it did conduct military efforts beginning with a presidential proclamation issued April 15, 1861, which called for troops to recapture Southern forts and suppress a Southern rebellion. Immediately following Fort Sumter, the Confederate Congress declared war against the United States and the Civil War officially began.

During the four years of its wartime existence, the Confederacy asserted its independence by appointing dozens of diplomatic agents abroad. The U.S. government, on the other hand, regarded the organization of Confederate states a rebellion and refused any formal recognition of their government. The United States issued warnings to Europe (particularly Britain) that threatened hostile relations if the Confederacy was recognized internationally. Throughout the early years of the war, British foreign secretary Lord John Russell, Napoleon III of France, and other foreign leaders showed interest in recognizing the Confederacy, or at least in a mediation in the war. However, Europe remained largely neutral in the Civil War, unwilling to lose trading relations with the United States. At the same time, foreign governments curiously watched the political evolution of the Confederacy and sent military observers to assess Confederate autonomy in the event that the South prevailed in its fight for nationhood.

5 – Conclusion: The Increasing Inevitability of War

5.1 – Breakdown of Sectional Balance

A number of events contributed to the breakdown of sectional balance in the 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, caused controversy and contributed to Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy.” Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Because no suspected slave was permitted trial, this led to many free African Americans being forced into slavery.

The Wilmot Proviso sparked sectarian debate in Congress that forced political leaders to make numerous compromises to determine the slave issue in U.S. territories. Southerners argued that the federal government had no constitutional grounds to legislate against the expansion of slavery, whereas Northerners claimed the ban on the expansion of slavery was necessary in order to protect the interests of yeoman farmers and prevent Southern agriculture from dominating the U.S. agrarian economy.

Meanwhile, California applied for entry into the Union as a free state, tipping the balance power in the Senate. This prompted a series of measures, known popularly as the “Compromise of 1850,” designed to appease both Northern and Southern congressmen and establish a more equitable balance of power. These measures, although they solved the dispute regarding California’s status, did not provide any long-term guidance on the sectional balance of territories. The Compromise of 1850 was tested when a mass influx of settlers arrived in Kansas and Nebraska territories to determine through popular sovereignty whether or not slavery would be permitted in each region. Ballot rigging, violence, and conflict ensued in the territory, leading to a low-intensity civil war referred to as “Bleeding Kansas.” In 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. Nebraska was not admitted to the Union until 1867, after the Civil War.

In the realm of foreign affairs, the Ostend Manifesto claimed that the threat of a possible Haiti-type slave revolt in Cuba meant the United States would be “justified in wresting” Cuba from Spain. Annexation was a policy aggressively pursued by Southern expansionists in the wake of California’s admission to the Union as a free state, but Northerners decried the document as an attempt to unconstitutionally spread slavery to other territories. The political backlash against the Ostend Manifesto and the Pierce administration effectively terminated any discussions of Cuban annexation until after the American Civil War.

5.2 – Realignment of the Party System

The presidential election of 1852 was the last time the Whig party nominated a candidate—the party collapsed shortly thereafter. Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, won the 1852 election, serving as a testament to the sectional and organizational weaknesses in the Whig Party. During his years in office, his support of the Compromise of 1850—particularly his rigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act—appalled and alienated many Northerners.

The Republican Party formed out of a loose coalition of Northern ex-Whigs who resented Southern political power. Republicans supported western expansion (for independent non-slave owning farmers), the development of infrastructure and Northern industry, and the restriction of slavery in new territories. However, mainstream Republicans were not an abolitionist faction. They simply opposed the spread of slavery into western territories and new states.

The Whigs and Democrats were at odds from 1840 to 1861, but both encountered intraparty sectionalism over slavery. After the Compromise of 1850, the Whigs were unable to develop a cohesive, unified response to the slavery issue, leading to their eventual demise. Democrats also were split over the slave question, with Southern Democrats arguing that slavery was central to the American national economy and society, and Northern Democrats feeling alienated under the growing Southern Democratic Party platform.

The election of 1856 demonstrated the extremity of sectional polarization in U.S. national politics. Republicans nominated John C. Frémont, who publicly criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. Democratic-nominated James Buchanan won the election and Frémont received fewer than 600 votes in all slave states. The electoral results indicated that the Republican Party could succeed in the next election if they won two more states.

5.3 – Deepening of the Crisis

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. The Court also ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit the expansion of slavery in new federal territories, nullifying the Missouri Compromise, an agreement passed in 1820 between proslavery and antislavery factions in Congress. For many Northerners, the Dred Scott decision implied that slavery could move, unhindered, into the North, whereas Southerners viewed the decision as a justification of their position.

In 1857, settlers in Kansas were faced with voting on a constitution that outlined a government for the territory. The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas. The Lecompton Constitution guaranteed the protection of slavery in the region and received the support of President Buchanan and the Southern Democrats. Northern Democrats, however, opposed the Lecompton Constitution after it was voted down by the majority of Kansas settlers, believing that passage of the Lecompton Constitution would violate popular sovereignty.

The Panic of 1857 began after the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company in September 1857 and lasted until the Civil War. Many Northerners blamed the Panic of 1857 on the South’s aggressive proslavery agenda. The Dred Scott decision contributed to the Panic because many Northern financiers found it risky to invest in western territory with the possibility of slavery extending into new U.S. territories. The Southern economy suffered little while the Northern economy made a slow recovery.

In 1858, in an effort to win Northern support for the popular sovereignty argument, incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas entered into a series of debates with Abraham Lincoln, who was challenging him for the Illinois congressional seat. The main theme of all seven Lincoln-Douglas debates was slavery and its expansion into the territories. The widespread media coverage of the debates raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable nominee for the Republican Party in the presidential election of 1860.

Increasing sectional polarization pushed Americans into two distinct political camps on the eve of the 1860 presidential election. The Republicans became the party of the North, promoting industry and business while also attracting antislavery factions by opposing the expansion of slavery into new territories. The Democrats were split between North and South, with separate election tickets in 1860.

5.4 – The Impending Crisis

John Brown, a radical abolitionist from the North, led an attack on the federal arsenal Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Brown believed that through violence and bloodshed, he could purge the South of its wickedness and eradicate American slavery. Although this revolt was quickly suppressed by U.S. Marines, the South viewed the attack as an act of abolitionist terrorism and feared future aggression from the North. The raid deepened the growing psychological rift between the two regions.

In 1860, sectional conflicts over the expansion of slavery into the territories exploded when the Democratic Party officially splintered into Northern and Southern factions. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, whose campaign emphasized compromise in order to prevent disunion. Southern Democrats, on the other hand, nominated secessionist John C. Breckinridge. Republicans backed Abraham Lincoln, who ran on a platform that sought to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories and to implement several economic policies designed to stimulate Northern industry. In the face of divided opposition, the Republican Party secured enough electoral votes to put Lincoln in the White House.

Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 in the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election. Declaring themselves the Confederate States of America, these seven states elected Jefferson Davis as the provisional president and began raising an army. As part of its efforts to assert independence, the Confederacy appointed several ministers to European nations and refused to surrender U.S. federal arsenals or properties to Washington, precipitating the events that led to the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless U.S. History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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