Robert Kennedy's  United States History Class

Subtitle

Discuss the background leading to and the causes of the Civil War. In your discussion, you must incorporate the problems of new territory, sectional conflicts, and slave revolts. Give examples. You must also discuss the interrelationship between the role of the press, slave revolts, and there effect at that time on the emotional, psychological, and political make up of the country.

Learning Objective One:  Discuss the problems created by the acquisition of new territory as a result of the Mexican-American War.

The results of the war with Mexico between 1846-47 (new territory was acquired by the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February of 1848) posed a question which the Americans of the next decade could not evade. "Would it be the destiny of the United States to spread slavery or freedom?"


As a result of the war and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the desire the United  States had for Manifest Destiny had been realized.  

John C. Calhoun and Ralph Waldo Emerson had little else in common, but both men sensed in the Mexican War the omens of a great disaster.

Calhoun warned that Mexico was "the forbidden fruit; the penalty of eating it would be to subject our institutions to political death."


"The United States will conquer Mexico," Emerson conceded, "but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic.... Mexico will poison us." Wars, as both men knew, have a way of breeding new wars, often in unforeseen ways.


Thus the winning of the Southwest gave rise to quarrels over newly acquired lands. In each case the quarrels set in motion a series of disputes which would continue to pull at the emotional. psychological. and political seams of the country until it exploded into civil war.


It is ironic that when the antislavery movement concentrated on the states where slavery existed, it made little headway; but when the focus shifted to the territories where slavery did not yet exist, the is.sue became so explosive that it eventually split the nation. There are several reasons for this.


First, the Constitution clearly denied Congress the authority to abolish slavery in the states. But the territories were a different matter: they belonged to the nation. The precedents of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 seemed to give Congress the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.


Second, during the 1850s the question of slavery in the territories divorced race from the issue of slavery and made the "slavery issue" a matter of fundamental principle, far removed from the reality of America's black slaves.

Northerners were no more eager than Southerners to have blacks as free and equal members of their society. To them, abolitionism threatened to tum millions of blacks loose on white society, a prospect that during the 1830s provoked dozens of northern mobs to attack abolitionists and free blacks.


Nonetheless, many Northerners had become convinced that slavery was the direct antithesis of all that they associated with freedom. In its essence, slavery robbed people of their labor, the very instrument by which free men and women determined their own destinies.

For Northerners and Southerners alike, the territories represented the future. The conflict over slavery in the territories became a struggle for control of the future. Most slave holders believed that their way of life could endure and thrive only if they had full freedom to take their slave property into the open territories. To deny them that right, they believed, was to subject them to a tyranny that deprived them of the foundation of their present prosperity and their dreams for the future.


To the Northerners the open territories also symbolized an open future, full of potential and opportunity. But many now considered the expansion of slavery to be incompatible with their own freedom to make the best life their talent and labor would allow. They feared that slavery would jeopardize their future if it was permitted to enter the territories they themselves might want to go into. Slavery seemed to give slave holders an unfair advantage in "the race of life": with only their own labor, how could they possibly compete with the labor and capital the planter could extract from his slaves? The debate over the expansion of slavery would become the "key issue" during the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s.

Learning Objective Two:  Discuss the impact of slave revolts on the emotional and psychological make-up of the South.

Since the 1790s when slaves had successfully rebelled in Santo Domingo and slaughtered 60,000 people, Southerners realized that their own slaves might rise up against them. From 1820 to 1831 many slave revolt conspiracies developed, especially along the coast where blacks outnumbered whites; of these, Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 created the most emotional and psychological stress among Southern whites.


In August of 1831, Nat Turner and six other slaves attacked and killed Turner's owner and family, gathered arms and ammunition as they could find them, and set out to gain support from other slaves. Turner felt, when the slaves saw their owners actually lying dead and felt themselves masterless, they would join his liberation army. And since the slaves in Southampton County outnumbered the whites (9,501 blacks to 6,574 whites), the county would belong to them .

In order to "strike terror and alarm" in hopes that they would receive less resistance from the whites, Turner decided that no white person in their path-- man, woman, or child--could be spared. At the Waller homestead, for example, one woman and a total of 10 children were killed. It was the bloodiest single raid of the campaign . Turner also decided that the killings must be brutal in order to intensify the general terror. Thus the heads of some victims were severed, and the bodies of others dismembered.



Although not as successful as he desired, Turner was able to recruit between 60 to 70 slaves who ended up killing at least 55 whites.

The immediate effect of the rebellion on the whites was the institution of a reign of terror of their own which resulted in the murder of a large number of innocent blacks. In order to stop Turner's Rebellion, local and state militia joined by federal troops, had orders to capture or kill any insurrectionists. 


But Nat's men had worn no uniforms. No one could tell who had been part of the terror and who had not. There were even rumors among the whites that a huge slave army of more than a thousand was still moving .around the country . The whites' fear and rae had few limits. Blacks were murdered at random all over the county and down into North Carolina. Some were lynched, others shot or beheaded. One company of cavalry killed forty blacks in two days, then put the heads of 15 on poles "as a warning to all who should undertake a similar plot."


As a result of the rebellion, the psychological and emotional make-up of the South became apparent during a debate that occurred in the Virginia legislature over the continued use of slavery in the state.   The Governor, John Floyd, came to the conclusion that slavery must end. Floyd was joined by many members of the Virginia legislature who also shared his foresight. Some of them however, were only interested in creating a more modern commercial and industrial South; they were convinced that slavery kept them in bondage to economic underdevelopment.


Nonetheless, one legislator drew a conclusion that was clearly in the minds of many Virginians : every slave was a potential Nat Turner. This legislator asked: could a "deluded and drunken handful" of rebels like Nat Turner's band possibly have created panic throughout Virginia? "No," came his answer. "It was the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself, the suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed could be re-enacted at any time in any place, that the materials for it were spread throughout the land, and always ready for a like explosion." The only solution, he argued, was to abolish slavery and send the freed slaves back to Africa.


The result of Nat Turner's Rebellion and the ensuing debate pointed up what became a critical fact. A point of crisis had been reached, and white Southerners had to choose which way to tum. If they did not do something to end slavery. they had to do something to make it more secure and profitable . The choice was made without much hesitation: the white South fastened slavery on the blacks and themselves much more firmly than ever before .  


Consequently, more stringent slave laws and more vigorous enforcement of existing statutes became the order of the day. And any attempt by, Northern abolitionists, or Whigs, or Republicans to interfere with the existence or expansion of slavery was seen as a threat to the very soul of the South. Thus, "the more violently the winds of Northern abolitionism blew, the more tightly the South wrapped the black cloak of slavery about itself, and the more savagely it struck back at its tormentors ." It is in light of this emotional and psychological make-up and the fact that blacks made up over 44% of the population in six of the 15 slave states that the Southern reactions to the above mentioned sectional conflicts should be understood. As the South resisted its tormentors, the North became more determined to bring an end to the embarrassing institution. In 1850, most Northerners thought of slavery merely as an unfortunate fact of life in the South. But by 1860 they had come to feel it to be an intolerable stain on the entire nation as well as a possible threat to their economic future.


Learning Objective Three:  Discuss how the emotional and psychological make-up of BOTH the North and South were turned into political hysteria by the press as the "key issue" of slavery was debated during the numerous sectional conflicts. Also discuss one of the sectional conflicts that developed over the "key issue" and show how it helped lead to the end of a NATIONAL two party system.

The press played a major role in bringing about the Civil War: It exploited sectional stories, creating stereotype views for both the North and South. These were unrealistic and very damaging to the political process since they made it impossible for either side to settle their differences. This can best be exemplified by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  

The most celebrated publication during the period was Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" published in an antislavery magazine over a 10-month period between June 1851 and April 1852. Later that same year it was published in book form (due to popular demand). Its net effect was to inflame one-half of the nation against the other; it helped produce disunion and civil war by giving people an image of slavery which was not universally correct but irp.plied it was. The book did so by using the emotions of different heart-breaking episodes of slavery.

The fact that Mrs. Stowe had never personally observed slavery did not harm the sale of the novel. The importance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin " lay not in whether it was an accurate account of the institution of slavery. Rather the novel was important because it supplied Northerners with concrete stereotypes.



In October 1859 John Brown's attempt to incite a slave rebellion at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, was portrayed by Southern newspapers as an intolerable Northern attack on Southern property and lives. The raid became even more reprehensible when Southerners learned that Brown had been financed by Northern abolitionists and businessmen. Southern newspapers blamed the Republican party for the outrage even though conservative Republicans condemned Brown's harebrained scheme. This fiasco, which should have been looked upon as an isolated local disturbance and the act of a misguided mad man, was important in destroying the last bonds of sentiment holding the Union together as Southern emotions reached a new high.


The end result of these false stereotypes, which each side developed of the other, was hostility in the form of intense sectional conflict. This led to the major means of communication between the North and South, a nationally integrated two-party system, being destroyed. THIS LEFT THE SECTIONS WITH NO WAY OF COMMUNICATING WITH EACH OTHER IN ORDER TO SETTLE THEIR DIFFERENCES.

The first conflict centered around the Wilmot Proviso which was introduced in August of 1846 by a Representative from Pennsylvania, David Wilmot. Soon after the Mexican War began, President James K. Polk requested $2 million from Congress with which to negotiate a peace and the purchase of territory from Mexico that he assumed would follow the war. When the appropriation bill got to the House of Representatives, it was amended by Wilmot using words taken verbatim from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The proviso stated that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of ' the territories that might be acquired from Mexico . Although the proviso was never passed, the debates over it aroused the country. Sectional animosity was heightened as state legislatures and other public bodies debated the principle incorporated in the proviso. It should be noted that at this time most Northerners were still perfectly content to let slavery--and hence the blacks--remain unmolested in the states where it already existed.

The next major sectional conflict was the Compromise of 1850. By 1849 the politics of avoidance was no longer-possible when nearly 80,000 "forty-niners" flocked to California after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill . The California gold rush forced President Taylor to deal with the territorial issue as California needed some kind of civil organization. Consequently, he advocated a straightforward plan to skip the territorial stage and have the people of the territories won from Mexico adopt constitutions and apply directly for statehood .


Southern leaders were shocked. If the antislavery forces were permitted to keep slavery out of California and New Mexico, how could they be stopped from keeping it out of all future territories? If California and New Mexico came into the Union as free states, power might shift so decisively to the North that slavery in the South itself might be endangered. All over the South, alarmed Southerners held rallies denouncing the attack on their institutions and rights. The vehemence of the Southern response alarmed Unionists everywhere, one of which was the aging Senator Henry Clay.


Consequently, Clay offered to the Senate a series of resolutions that he hoped all sides could agree on. From these resolutions eventually came the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 is a collective term of later origin applied to the five laws enacted from September 9-20. The resolutions involved (1) admitting California as a free state on the grounds that is what it wanted, (2) organizing New Mexico as a territory without restrictions on slavery and adjusting the Texas-New Mexico boundary, (3) organizing the territorial government of Utah with identical provisions, (4) passing a strict new fugitive slave law which the south had desired, and (5) barring the slave trade from Washington, D.C., but not slavery itself. The net effect of the Compromise was that it prevented the threatened secession of the South until war finally broke out in April of 1861. Another important effect of the Compromise was that it hastened the breakup of the Whig party. Northern and Southern Whigs were so alienated from each other that they were unable to stand together in the election of 1852. For the nation the decay of this major party was a sign of things to come. Since its beginning, the Whig party had been an organization within which spokesmen of some of the most influential business interests of the North had been able to sit down with the richest planters of the Border states and the Deep South and discuss, in a spirit of moderation, the ยทยท major problems of politics. Now this major link between the sections was cracking and, with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Whig party disappeared and the Republican party came into being.


The issue of the extension of slavery into the territories was reopened in January of 1854 with the introduction by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of a bill for organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The measure incorporated the principle of "popular sovereignty." (This concept said residents of each state or territory should be allowed to vote for or against slavery.) This measure also permitted the admission of the territories with or without slavery. The bill repealed the Missouri Compromise and thus formally established the doctrine of congressional nonintervention in the territories. Passed after three months of bitter debate, the bill ended up antagonizing both parties. Republicans were vehement because they felt the act was a plot by slave holders to spread slavery into all the territories of the Union, and Democrats saw no reason to put slavery to a vote over and over again.


Another major conflict came as a result of the Dred Scott decision in 1857. The basic judgment was that Scott, because he was a slave, was neither a citizen of Missouri nor a citizen of the United States and had.no constitutional right to sue in the federal courts. The decision also established that black slaves were a species of property protected by the Constitution and, hence, Congress had no authority to abolish slavery in the territories and the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Finally the decision held that Scott's temporary residence in free territory had not made him free upon his return to Missouri, since his status was determined by the laws of the state in which he resided when the question of his freedom was raised . In reaching this decision, the Court discussed several highly controversial slavery issues about which sectional hostility had long been aroused.


Rather than settle these issues, the decision accelerated the polarization which resulted in the Civil War. The final crisis before the results of the election of 1860 led to the dismantling of the Union was John Brown's raid. Brown considered himself God's instrument for the destruction of slavery. In October 1859 he led his band of 18 men, including two of his sons and five blacks, in an assault on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown captured the armory easily, but there was no slave uprising--only a few slaves lived in the area, and none of them had been told about the raid.

State and federal troops quickly forced Brown to retreat to an engine house near the arsenal. The next day U.S. Marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the engine house, killing 10 of Brown's men and capturing Brown and most of the others. Brown was quickly tried by a Virginia court, condemned for treason, and executed on December 2, 1859. However, his eloquent defense during the trial convinced many Northerners that the abolition of slavery was a noble cause that required drastic, possibly violent, action.


At his sentencing Brown delivered one of the classic American speeches: "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice , and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done."

From the moment of his capture to his execution Brown conducted himself with a fortitude and dignity that commanded the respect of the judge and his captors.  

To all questions regarding his motives he had only one answer: he had desired to free the slaves--he believed himself an instrument in the hands of God to this end.   Thus Brown became something of a martyr as his actions and death inspired the words to a marching song that was the unofficial  anthem of the Union troops, "John Brown's Body Lies A' mouldering in the Grave."



Brown's raid had as powerful an effect on Southerners as Uncle Tom's Cabin had had on Northerners. The novel had seemed to expose the awful reality of slavery; the raid seemed to expose the terrifying reality of the Northern threat to the South and its peculiar institution. Thus to many Southerners the "crimes of John Brown" were simply the "practical illustratim,ls of the doctrines of the Republican Party," while to many Northerners because of the publicity received at his trial and subsequent hanging, Brown became a noble martyr in a great cause.



Learning Objective Four:
  1. Discuss the impact of the Presidential election of 1860 on the two party system and the nation.

By 1860 the Democratic party was the only national political institution left. But it was bitterly divided when it met in April of 1860 to select its nominee. A majority of the delegates came from the North and favored Douglas.   Douglas' stand on the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, and the position he had taken in his 1858 campaign and debate against Lincoln for the Senate, had made him unacceptable to the South.


At Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln had pointedly asked Douglas if the people of a territory could exclude slavery before a state constitution was established.

If Douglas answered no, he would repudiate popular sovereignty and alienate the North; if he said yes, he would repudiate the Dred Scott decision and alienate the South.  Douglas took the middle of the road by suggesting that people could evade Dred Scott if they used "local police regulations" to keep slave holders from coming into a territory .   For Southerners, Dred Scott was the test of a Northern candidate's acceptability; with his "Freeport heresy" as they dubbed it, Douglas had failed the test


The Southern Democrats demanded a platform that denied Congress or territorial legislatures the authority to exclude slavery from a territory, and they called for federal protection of slavery in the territories. When the Northern Democrats refused to go along and nominated Douglas, the delegates from the seven states of the lower South walked out of the convention and held their own nominating convention .


The Southern Democrats nominated John Brekinridge of Kentucky as their candidate. Consequently the last of the NATIONAL two parties had been destroyed by the "key issue." The formal break-up of the Democratic party was an event of sweeping importance not only for the Democrats but for the country as a whole. Thus the last link in the Union--a great political party with a powerful following in both the North and South--had been snapped and any hopes of avoiding a civil war had vanished .   The prospects for a Republican victory were very good, even though it was purely a sectional party. When they gathered in Chicago, party leaders were determined not to squander the advantage that the Democrats' split had given them.


Hence, they adopted a broad, carefully worded platform, hoping to counter the notion that they were a bunch of one-idea fanatics. They called for a homestead act, a transcontinental railroad, and a protective tariff.


They also indicated that they would not interfere with slavery where it existed but would remain adamantly opposed to the extension of slavery.

On the third ballot, the convention nominated Abraham Lincoln, the

ex-Whig from Illinois who had fought Douglas so well in 1858. Lincoln had few enemies, was firm on slavery and other issues, and had achieved national prominence in his 1858 debate with Douglas against the expansion of slavery.


By 1860 the two sections had become so deeply alienated, that when Lincoln and, in particular the Republican Party, won the election, the South felt it had no way to make its needs effectively known or .. represented within the federal system. Its only recourse was secession.

However, the country had problems of unprecedented magnitude and complexity. With the collapse of the NATIONAL two-party system (Whig and Democratic), there was no political machinery left to solve these problems .