The Sectional Crisis, 1841-1861


Several forces that paved the road to war in the period between 1845 and 1861. Two of the forces, territorial expansion and slavery, might at first glance seem separate, but in fact the two became inseparably intertwined because of the addition of a third force the perceptions (frames of reference) of the two antagonists, North and South, toward each other: [The Republican party] charged that southerners were taking over the federal government and planning to make slavery legal throughout the Union. Southern leaders defended slavery and charged the North with unconstitutional efforts to destroy it.The application of such perceptions to the twin forces of territorial expansion and slavery provided the catalyst necessary to produce sectional polarization, disunion, and war.

The Mexican War heightened northern fear of a Slave Power. This fear, present in the North since passage of the gag rule in 1836, was caused by the belief that southern power and the expansion of slavery were jeopardizing the liberties of whites. Northerners began to see a Slave-Power conspiracy behind most of the events of the era, and, as a result, they became more and more antislavery in sentiment. The nature of northern fears and analysis of the Wilmot Proviso demonstrate that northern antislavery sentiment was racist and, in the sense that northerners wanted the territories for the expansion of their economic system (based on the free-wage labor system) as opposed to a slave-labor system of the South, self-serving in its orientation.

Furthermore, the Mexican War, through introduction of the Wilmot Proviso into the House of Representatives, heightened southern fear that a hostile North was attempting to undermine and eventually abolish the institution of slavery. Southerners began to see an antislavery conspiracy behind most of the events of the era, and since such a conspiracy seemed tied to the northern abolitionist movement, southerners began to defend slavery more vociferously and, through John C. Calhoun's state-sovereignty theory, claimed slaveowners rights were constitutionally protected.

Acquisition of territory from Mexico caused slavery expansion to become the overriding issue in the presidential election of 1848. The Democrats and the Whigs began to fragment as a result of sectional antagonisms, and the presence of the Free-Soil party was partially responsible for Zachary Taylor's election as president. Between 1848 and 1850 several other issues emerged and caused further dissension. The most troublesome matter was the rights of settlers in the territories. The Compromise of 1850, rather than settling this and other issues, became a source of argument, which was further fueled by publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

As southern leaders began to feel more and more threatened by the antislavery arguments coming from the North, they published proslavery tracts and novels to justify slavery and to counter the moral arguments against it. Furthermore, to prevent congressional action, the South continued to advance states rights constitutional theories.

The election of Franklin Pierce to the presidency and the domestic and foreign policy decisions of his administration had the effect of further feeding northern fear that the Slave Power had captured control of the national government. Northerners saw passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as a proslavery act inspired by the Slave Power. The shock waves from passage of this act brought the destruction of the Whig party, the birth of the Republican and American Parties, and a complete realignment of the political system in the United States. In this realignment, the Republican Party, by appealing to groups interested in the economic development of the West and by expounding an ideology based on the dignity of labor, became the dominant party in the North. Concurrently, the Democratic Party, by arguing that slavery elevated the status of all whites, appealing to racism, and emphasizing the rights of southerners, became the party of the South. In addition, northerners linked Democrats with the Slave Power, while southerners linked Republicans with radical abolitionists.

Events now came in rapid succession, Bleeding Kansas, the Sumner-Brooks affair, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, the splintering of the Democratic party, and Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. Each drove the wedge more deeply between the two sections and served to harden opinions. However, analysis of the 1860 election results indicates that the electorate did not vote in favor of extreme action. Compromise was made impossible first by Lincoln's refusal to soften his party's stand on the expansion of slavery into the territories. The situation was exacerbated by the adoption of the separate-state secession strategy by southern extremists, which led to the secession of seven southern states between the time of Lincoln's election and his inauguration. Lincoln's subsequent decision as president to reprovision the federal fort in the Charleston harbor brought the first shots of what was to be the Civil War.

A House Dividing 1851-1860

1838-42 Lieutenant Charles Wilkes's United States Exploring Expedition.

1848 American Association for the Advancement of Science founded in Philadelphia.

1848-61 Federal government surveys the West in "The Great Reconnaissance."

1850 Compromise of 1850. Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (Know-Nothings) founded in New York.

1851 London's Crystal Palace exhibition.

1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin. Franklin Pierce defeats Winfield Scott in the presidential election. Whig Party begins disintegrating.

1854 Ostend Manifesto divulges American plans to seize Cuba from Spain.
Gadsden Purchase from Mexico provides a route for a southern railroad.
Commodore Matthew Perry undertakes diplomatic mission to Japan. Kansas-Nebraska Act reopens Louisiana Territory to slavery. Republican Party founded on antislavery platform.

1855-60 Thirteen-volume Pacific Railroad Reports published.

1856 John Brown commits the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas. Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner in the Senate. Know-Nothing Party divides into "North Americans" and "South Americans." James Buchanan defeats John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore in presidential election.

1857 Dred Scott decision undermines free-soil movement. Panic of 1857 begins.

1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates win support for Republican cause and Abraham Lincoln.

1859 John Brown launches raid on national armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

1860 Lincoln is elected president in four-way race with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.

Digital History

Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

Until 1821, Spain ruled the area that now includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. The Mexican war for independence opened the region to American economic penetration. Government explorers, traders, and trappers helped to open the West to white settlement. In the 1820s, thousands of Americans moved into Texas, and during the 1840s, thousands of pioneers headed westward toward Oregon and California , seeking land and inspired by manifest destiny, the idea that America had a special destiny to stretch across the continent. Between 1844 and 1848 the United States expanded its boundaries into Texas, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest . It acquired Texas by annexation; Oregon and Washington by negotiation with Britain; and Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming as a result of war with Mexico.

Sectionalism and The Impending Crisis

For forty years, attempts were made to resolve conflicts between North and South. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase. The acquisition of vast new territories during the 1840s reignited the question of slavery in the western territories. The Compromise of 1850 was an attempt to solve this problem by admitting California as a free state but allowing slavery in the rest of the Southwest. But the compromise included a fugitive slave law opposed by many Northerners. The Kansas-Nebraska Act proposed to solve the problem of status there by popular sovereignty. But this led to violent conflict in Kansas and the rise of the Republican party. The Dred Scott decision eliminated possible compromise solutions to the sectional conflict and John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry convinced many Southerners that a majority of Northerners wanted to free the slaves and incite race war.

Biography of America

The Coming of the Civil War (series 10)

Simmering regional differences ignite an all-out crisis in the 1850s. Professor Martin teams with Professor Miller and historian Stephen Ambrose to chart the succession of incidents, from 'Bloody Kansas' to the shots on Fort Sumter, that inflame the conflict between North and South to the point of civil war. 

Lecture Outlines

Decade of Controversy 1850s


The Failure to Compromise

Student Assignments

The Coming of the Civil War 1820-1860 DBQ

The Coming of the Civil War notes