Possible thesis statement: By 1850, the South and North failed to agree on many political, social, and economic issues. Inextricably entwined with every disagreement was the issue over the extension of slavery into the new territories. In the decade before the war, every attempt at compromise eventually ended in a stalemate largely due to several major events.
Transcontinental Railroad. While both northerners and southerners agreed that better transportation was needed to facilitate westward expansion, differences emerged over the route of a transcontinental railroad. Northerners preferred an eastern terminus through Chicago, while southerners argued for St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans.
Kansas-Nebraska Act. In his plan to get the South to agree to the Chicago terminus, Stephen Douglas proposed a compromise bill to repeal the Missouri Compromise outlawing slavery in the northern territory and to organize two new territories Nebraska, where the status of slavery would be determined by popular sovereignty, and Kansas, which would be open to slavery. The consequences of this Act were enormous: it divided and destroyed the Whig Party, divided the northern Democrats, and encouraged the creation of a new, clearly sectional party, the Republicans.
“Bleeding Kansas.” The promise of popular sovereignty brought anti-slavery and pro-slavery supporters into Kansas, each with their own agenda. One of the fiercest was that of John Brown, a religious zealot who believed it was God’s will that he destroy slavery. After he and his sons murdered five pro-slavery settlers, he fled the area. Nonetheless, “Bleeding Kansas” became symbolic of the inability of political compromise to bring the nation together.
Free Soil and Free Labor. In the North, many believed that slavery must be abolished because it threatened northerners’ chances for jobs in the territories. They viewed the South as engaged in a “slave power conspiracy” designed to destroy northern capitalism and replace it with their closed, aristocratic system. The South argued that slave labor was a “good a positive good” for the slaves who enjoyed better conditions than did free blacks in the North, and that slavery was the basis for the southern way of life, which was superior to any other way o f life in the U.S., perhaps in the entire world.
Dred Scott Decision. This 1856 Supreme Court decision found that Scott, a slave, could not bring a suit in federal courts because he was not a citizen; that blacks were property, and as such, had no claim to citizenship and virtually no rights under the Constitution; and that Congress had no right to pass a law depriving persons of their slave property in the territories. This statement that the federal government was powerless to act on the issue of slavery further split the North and the South.
John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. While Brown’s effort to begin a slave rebellion failed and he was tried, convicted, and hung for treason, the raid incorrectly convinced many white southerners that Brown was supported by the Republicans and they could no longer live safely in the Union.
The Election of Lincoln in 1860. The Republican nomination of Lincoln and the splintering of the Democrats between southerners who demanded a strong endorsement of slavery and westerners who supported popular sovereignty led to a contentious and historic election. Lincoln’s election was the final straw for many white southerners who began the process of secession within weeks after the election.
Possible conclusion: While political compromise opened the decade in 1850, compromise was dead ten years later. Each of the above events drew a clearer line between the North and the South and where they stood on the issue of slavery in the western territories.
Historians, Historical Detection, and DBQs The following DBQ and its supportive primary documents will help students gain a better understanding of the “impending crisis” the complex issues that characterized America prior to the Civil War. Remind your students that when scoring the AP exams, the readers will expect to see a coherent essay that includes two required components: key pieces of evidence from all or most of the documents and a well-organized narrative drawing on knowledge from textbook readings and classroom discussion.
DBQ: Using the documents below, analyze how the issues contributing to the Mexican War, as well as the War’s consequences, contributed to the divisions in America.
“Corpus Christi Landing,” Lithograph, October 1845. ("Birds-eye view, of the camp of the 'Army of Occupation,' near Corpus Christi, Texas as in October 1845." Fenderich, no. 241. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. ID: LC-USZ62-58542.)