Historical Context



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The Antebellum Period
Historical Context:

No time in America’s history has seen greater efforts to reform society than the four decades preceding the Civil War. During those years, a variety of social problems came under attack. Many thousands of Americans worked tirelessly to establish public schooling, reform the criminal justice system, improve care of the infirm and mentally ill, promote women’s rights, and battle poverty and drunkenness. By the 1840’s and 1850’s, abolitionism, the attempts to end slavery, had become the greatest of these antebellum reform movements. (Antebellum literally means “before the war.” In America’s history it marks the decades before the Civil War.) There was, it seemed, almost frantic efforts during the antebellum years to perfect America and its people, to right wrongs and eradicate evils. Mark Hopkins, the president of Williams College, confidently predicted that this huge effort to reform society would soon result in the destruction of “wars, and intemperance, and licentiousness, and fraud, and slavery, and all oppression through the transforming influence of Christianity.”


Directions: The following question is based on the accompanying documents (1-7). As you analyze the documents, take into account both the source of the document and the author’s point of view. Be sure to:

  1. Carefully read the document-based question. Consider what you already know about this topic. How would you answer the question if you had no documents to examine?

  2. Now read each document carefully, underlining key phrases and words that address the document-based question. You may also wish to use the margin to make brief notes. Answer the questions which follow each document.

  3. Based on your own knowledge and on the information found in the documents, formulate a thesis that directly answers the question.

  4. Organize supportive and relevant information into a brief outline.

  5. Write a well-organized essay providing your thesis. The essay should be logically presented and should include information both from the documents and from your own knowledge outside of the documents. Don’t forget to include a setting the scene paragraph.




Question: How did national political issues, economic differences, and diverse societies lead to the decision for the Southern states to secede from the Union?


Part A. Examine each document carefully, and answer the question or questions that follow.

Document 1


William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator in 1831, only two years before founding the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison quickly became the most prominent and uncompromising abolitionist in America. The following excerpts come from the first issue of The Liberator, in which he publicly vowed to oppose slavery until slavery’s “chains are burst… SO HELP ME GOD!” He begins by explaining why he decided to establish this abolitionist newspaper in Boston.


I determined… to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of Bunker Hill and in the birthplace of liberty.

Assenting to the “self evident truth” maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, “ that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right – among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement [right to vote] of the slave population.


What factors were primarily motivations for Garrison in establishing The Liberator in Boston?

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Document 2

As the abolitionist movement gained steam and escape programs for slaves such as the Underground Railroad expanded, so did the backlash of negrophobia among white laborers in the north. During his 1830's visit to the United States Alexis de Tocqueville reacted in disgust at the discriminatory practices northern society imposed against free blacks. He described the inequalities they faced in detail:




"It is true that in the North of the Union marriages may be legally contracted between Negroes and whites; but public opinion would stigmatize as infamous a man who should connect himself with a Negress, and it would be difficult to cite a single instance of such a union. The electoral franchise has been conferred upon the Negroes in almost all the states in which slavery has been abolished, but if they come forward to vote, their lives are in danger.”

Why does the North continue to covertly segregate the Black population?

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Document 3

In 1854 Stephen A. Douglas introduced his Kansas-Nebraska bill to the Senate. These states could now enter the Union with or without slavery. Frederick Douglas warned that the bill was "an open invitation to a fierce and bitter strife".


What does Frederick Douglas mean by “an open invitation to a fierce and bitter strife”?
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Document 4

Missouri Compromise of 1820




What issue was the North and the South compromising over? ____________________________________
Why was this issue so important to either side? ____________________________________________________________
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Document 5


From Jackson, Edwin L., et.al. The Georgia Studies Book: Our State and the Union, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, The University of Georgia, 2001.)

Occupations of White Georgians, 1860

Farmers 67,718

Farm Laborers 19,567

Laborers 11,272

Servants 5,337

Overseers 4,909

Clerks 3,626

Merchants 3,195

Planters 2,858

Factory Hands 2,454

Seamstresses 2,411

Teachers 2,123

Physicians 2,004

What type of economic work is prevalent in Georgia, but also the South? ________________________________________



Document 6

This excerpt is from a speech given by Albert Gallatin Brown, a Mississippi politician, on September 26, 1860. (From Samuel P. McCutchen, “The Political Career of Albert Gallatin Brown,” Doctoral Thesis, University of Chicago, 1930; quoted from Dorothy S. Arnof, A Sense of the Past, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973, p. 222.)




[The Northerners] hate us now, and they teach their children in their schools, and churches to hate our children… The John Brown raid, the burning of Texas, the stealthy tread of abolitionists among us, tell the tale… The North is accumulating power, and it means to use that power to emancipate your slaves. When that is done, no pen can describe… the horrors that will overspread this country… Disunion is a fearful thing, but emancipating is worse. Better to leave the Union in the open face of day, than to be lighted from it at midnight by the [arsonist’s] torch.

Why did the Mississippi politician advocate secession? ___________________________________________________________


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How does this statement help to explain the distrust of the Northerners and Abolitionists by the Southerners? ________________
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Document 7

Cited in Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, p. 37




But if all men are 'BORN EQUAL,' and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- then there can be no just reason, as a cause, why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion, and private judgment.

How does Christianity play in the conflict over slavery? ___________________________________________________________


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Part B Essay: How did national political issues, economic differences, and diverse societies lead to the decision for the Southern states to secede from the Union?

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