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The Road to Civil War
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Thinking Questions

Countdown to the Civil War


Imagine that one morning you open up the New York Times and there on the front page is a story giving you instructions to go into the neighboring state and open fire on a crowd of innocent people.         


In the good ol’ days of the 19th Century, newspapers were filled with that sort of nut-jobbery. Take, for example, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer who instructed his readers to prepare for violence against the people of Northern border states; warning that “just as the people of the Southern borders had slaughtered the Indians who stole their cattle, they (should) shoot the Yankees who steal their negroes”. That guy’s one class act that’s for sure. He then proceeded to follow up his rant by suggesting that a mob go out and burn “a few towns such as Harrisburg”. Now, you might be thinking to yourself ‘typical wartime hate speech’, except that this advertisement for murder was written in 1850-- ten years before the first shots of the Civil War had even been fired!


The decade leading up to the Civil War was filled with more violence and mob retaliation than a Grand Theft Auto sequel. By 1850, the evidence that the United States was plunging head first towards war were everywhere. The country was being torn apart like the last jelly donut in a roomful of cops. And the irony of all of this violence and hate was that only 5% of Americans even owned slaves! But people are funny like that, they are willing to get physical to defend an idea-- even if that idea is totally improbable.


Pro and anti-slavery mobs-- armed with knives and guns-- began literally attacking one another. And nowhere in America was this Civil War dress rehearsal more obvious than in the border states where the Free States and the Slave States met like awkward uncles at a family reunion. Here, an invisible boundary that separates the border-free states of Pennsylvania, Ohio,  Indiana, and Illinois from the border slave states of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. The Countdown to the Civil War had begun...

Expansion of Slavery Map

Attention readers:


abolitionists are using their right to free speech and we don't like it.... go kill them!

Abolitionis Printing Press

Storming a warehouse in Alton, Illinois, a pro-slavery mob destroyed Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press and killed the abolitionist newspaper editor. News of the murder is spreading, convincing more Americans that slavery not only deprives blacks of their freedom, but threatens all American liberties.

Missouri Compromise of 1820


Since 1776, slavery had been the bullet that every politician was eager to dodge-- after all election year was just around the corner. The Founding Father's were aware that the promises of equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence were totally hypocritical to a nation that owned slaves. But if anyone even thought of mentioning abolition, threats of secession were thrown around. The Constitution almost didn't pass because early drafts abolished slavery, it wasn't until the 3/5ths compromise was included that the slaveholding states agreed to sign. Until the Civil War slavery just hung in the air like a guillotine blade. Nobody wanted to look up and see what was coming.


To keep everyone happy new states were admitted alternately; free, slave, free, slave. By 1820, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had joined the Union as free states. Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana had joined as slave states. The balance was a nice 11 to 11 ratio.


Then the Louisiana Purchase created a whole new crisis. In 1803, the size of the country doubled literally with the swipe of a pen. It would take Americans another 20 years to move into the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River and by 1819, enough pioneering people had crossed over the Mississippi River to give Missouri the population it needed to apply for statehood.


In Congress, northern representatives wanted to keep slavery out of the western territories. Southern representatives saw the North growing in population and wealth. They were already outnumbered in the House of Representatives, which was determined by population. It was only a matter of time before the south was outnumbered in the Senate as well. The fears of the pro-slavery forces were confirmed when New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment that agreed to allow Missouri into the country as a slave state only if slavery was gradually abolished in that state. Under the Tallmadge Amendment, no new slaves could be brought into Missouri and children of slaves would be considered to be free. If this amendment passed, Missouri would be a free state in a generation. The Senate, with an equal number of slave and free state representatives, refused to allow Missouri into the Union if the Tallmadge Amendment was a part of the deal.


In 1820, a compromise was reached (snappily called the Missouri Compromise) which drew an imaginary line across the western territories at the 36 parallel (line of latitude). North of that line would be closed to slavery, south of the line would be open to slavery. Well, anyone with a map could see that the northern territories were much, much larger than the southern ones.


In 1821, Missouri became the newest slave state; and in 1820, Maine--which was carved out of Massachusetts (which really ticked off the people there) became the newest free state. No new states would be admitted until 1836 and 1837 when Michigan and Arkansas would join the union.  Texas and Iowa would follow in 1845 and 1846.




Fight Over California- 1850


The American win in the Mexican War brought new territory that would one day include all or part of the states we call California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. The U.S. had acquired a chunk of desert real estate the size of Western Europe. Immediately, would-be settlers began wondering ‘when do I move in?’ And the bigger question on the mind of southerners was ‘...and can I bring my slaves?’


But by far this new land was a vast wilderness sparsely populated by Indians and a few Spanish missions. That is until James Marshall found gold one January day in 1848 at a little place called Sutter's Mill. This sparked one of the biggest land rushes in human history as tens of thousands of people, some from as far away as China, came to catch the gold fever. By 1850, so many people had moved to California that it applied-- and was accepted into the Union-- as a free state.


New problems arose over the California "issue". Technically, most of the state lay south of the 34th parallel laid down in the Missouri Compromise- by law it should be a slave state. But the Missouri Compromise only applied to lands within the Louisiana Purchase. No one knew quite what to do about balancing slavery in the new territories gained from Mexico.


Admitting California to the Union as a free state would not threaten slavery as many southerners claimed. The current president, Zachary Taylor, was a southern slave owner; half of the Supreme Court justices were from the South and sympathetic to slavery. Even though southern politicians were outnumbered in the House they still had an even number in the Senate. If any constitutional amendment had been written to abolish slavery in the United States it would have been defeated by the Senate and vetoed by the President.


California was a symbolic struggle. California was about the Southerner's feelings that their way of life was under attack. Slavery was dying out around the world. Great Britain banned the practice in 1807. By 1850, Mexico, Canada, most of South America, and most of Europe had outlawed slavery. In 1804, Haitian slaves rose up and violently gained freedom from their French masters.  The South felt that it was only a matter of time before their old way of life came to an end but they weren't giving in without a fight. Radical conservatives in the South, called fire eaters stirred the flames. Southern states like Tennessee and South Carolina were threatening to secede from the Union if California came in as a free state.

Free and Slave States
"I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down... but I bite my lip and keep quiet."


- Abraham Lincoln on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law

Compromise of 1850 & The Fugitive Slave Act


Again, a compromise was needed to save the Union and once more Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky- now 73 years old and nearing retirement- stepped in to save the day. Or at least the decade, because that's how long the Compromise of 1850 lasted until the nation was plunged into civil war.


One of the biggest gripes that southern plantation owners had was that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 wasn't working because northern states refused to enforce it. The law was supposed to require runaway slaves to be returned to their masters, but the police often looked the other way or sometimes anti-slavery mobs prevented slave catchers from doing their jobs.


John Calhoun, that staunchly pro-slavery Senator from South Carolina, even proposed that the United States have two presidents- one from the North and one from the South. This idea was turned down.


Slave catching was big business and the loss of runaway slaves was costing the South millions of dollars. Nearly one thousand slaves ran away every year-- many via the Underground Railroad that spirited slaves to freedom using a series of safe houses and clever disguises.


Southerners demanded a tougher fugitive slave act or no California statehood. And they got it. The new and improved Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime for anyone to help a runaway slave.  The local police were forced to arrest runaways, effectively making them slave catchers.  Northerners were outraged.Not because most of them were bleeding heart abolitionists. Far from it. The majority of northerners didn't give two hoots about the plight of slaves. They objected because the new law made them active participants in helping some rich plantation owner secure his property.


The real outcome of the Compromise of 1850 is that Missouri Compromise was dead. All new territories would now be allowed to choose for themselves whether slavery would be allowed and whether they would eventually join the Union as a free or slave state. If anyone thought that this would happen with a fair and democratic election, think again, you only had to look at the territory of Kansas to see how bloody this fight was about to become.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Bleeding Kansas-1853-1857

Stephen Douglas, Senator from Illinois (the man who would lose to Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860)  almost single-handedly moved the North and South towards civil war. Of course, Douglas didn't know this at the time.



What did Douglas do that changed history? He saw a business opportunity and being a businessman he jumped on it. Douglas grew rich through land speculation. This is a fancy way of saying that Douglas bought western land cheap and sold it to settlers who were pouring into Illinois and elsewhere in the mid-1800s. When Douglas heard talk of a transcontinental railroad that would one day stretch from coast to coast, Douglas naturally wanted that railroad to pass through his land. Secretary of State Jefferson Davis had other ideas for the route this future railroad would take. Naturally, he saw a more southerly route through Texas and onto California.



Douglas' plan to build a  railroad that connected Chicago to San Fransisco would have to cross through a vast unorganized territory that was leftover from the Louisiana Purchase. Douglas introduced a bill to Congress that would organize a land reserved for Indians into a formal (the first step to statehood) where settlers could buy land and set up farms and towns. The climate of the Great Plains was too dry, and the winters too cold for plantation agriculture. Like California,  this battle was purely symbolic.



In Kansas, pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces rushed into the new territory. Urged on by politicians in their home states, the new territory would become a real battleground over the future of slavery. Most whites, whether for or against slavery, carried deeply racist views and wanted nothing more than to keep free blacks out of Kansas.


When an election was called to set up a territorial government in 1855, pro-slavery forces from Missouri surged across the border to cast fraudulent votes. Despite cries of fraud, Kansas elected a pro-slavery legislature. Violence quickly broke out as pro-slavery forces marched into the anti-slavery town of Lawrence and smashed the printing press where an abolitionist newspaper was printed.


The sack of Lawrence would not go unpunished. John Brown, a radical abolitionist,  gathered a posse and marched on Pottawatomie Creek, a pro-slavery town where they "drug five men from their houses and hacked them to death in front of their screaming wives and children..."



The two attacks led to a guerrilla war throughout 1856 and by the time the dust settled 200 people were dead and over $2 million dollars in property was destroyed.


In Congress, the debate naturally turned into a fight over slavery and states' rights. Pro-slavery forces in Congress refused to vote for the creation of the Nebraska Territory unless slavery was allowed to expand there too. Of course, this land was north of the 36th parallel established by the Missouri Compromise and therefore off limits to slavery. The only solution was to get rid of the Missouri Compromise. One southern radical, Senator David Atchison put it this way, Nebraska would "sink in hell" rather organize it as a free state.


That's what Congress did. (not the sink in hell part). They decided to organize the leftover land into two territories Nebraska and Kansas under an act of Congress called- you guessed it- the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These two territories would eventually be carved into 7 different states. Anyone could bring their slaves into these two territories and eventually, once the necessary population had been achieved, each state would decide for themselves whether they wanted to be slave or free. At the time many people felt that popular sovereignty was the best way to keep the peace.


The plan backfired, big time... Northerners were outraged. In Boston people openly defied the Fugitive Slave Act by trying to rescue a slave being arrested by slave catchers. The issue became so heated that the President had to call in the National Guard. A letter directed at President Franklin Pierce threatened to murder him.

Bleeding Kansas

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