Topic: Slavery and Secession Theme: Pre-War Politics and Secession Background

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Argumentative Essay #1 – Fall 2013 Rappoccio

Topic: Slavery and Secession
Theme: Pre-War Politics and Secession
Background: In April 1861, less than a month after his inauguration, President Abraham Lincoln attempted to send provisions to Fort Sumter in South Carolina, part of the newly formed Confederate States of America. Southern troops under the command of General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the fort, forcing its surrender on April 14. The American Civil War had begun.

Numerous explanations have been offered for the cause of this “war between the states.” Many contemporaries and some historians saw the conflict as the product of a conspiracy housed either in the North or South, depending upon one’s regional perspective. For many in the northern states, the chief culprits were the planters and their political allies who were willing to defend southern institutions at all costs. South of the Mason-Dixon line, blame was laid at the feet of the fanatical abolitionists, like John Brown and the free-soil architects of the Republican Party. Some viewed secession and war as the consequence of a constitutional struggle between states-rights advocates and the defenders of the federal government, whereas others focused upon the economic rivalries or the cultural differences between North and South. Embedded in each of these interpretations, however, is the powerful influence of the institution of slavery.

In the 85 years between the start of the American Revolution and the coming of the Civil War, Americans made the necessary political compromises on the slavery issue in order not to split the nation apart. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery from spreading into those designated territories under its control, and the new Constitution written in the same year held out the possibility that the Atlantic slave trade would be prohibited after 1808.

There was some hope in the early nineteenth century that slavery might die from natural causes. The Revolutionary generation was well aware of the contradiction between the values of an egalitarian society and the practices of a slaveholding aristocracy. Philosophically, slavery was viewed as a necessary evil, not a positive good. The northern states were well on their way to abolishing slavery by 1800, and the erosion of the tobacco lands in Virginia and Maryland contributed to the lessening importance of a slave labor system.

Unfortunately, two factors- territorial expansion and the market economy – made slavery the key to the South’s wealth in the 35 years before the Civil War. First, new slave states were created out of a population expanding into lands ceded to the United States as a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Second, slaves were sold from the upper to the lower regions of the South because the invention of the cotton gin made it possible to harvest large quantities of cotton, ship it to the textile mills in New England and the British Isles, and turn it into cloth and finished clothing as part of the new, specialized market economy.

The slavery issue came to the forefront in 1819 when some northern congressmen proposed that slavery be banned from the states being carved out of the Louisiana Purchase. A heated debate ensued, but the Missouri Compromise drew a line that preserved the balance between free and slave states and that (with the exception of Missouri) prohibited slavery north of the 3630’ latitude.

The annexation of Texas in 1845 and the acquisition of New Mexico, Utah, and California, as a result of the Mexican-American War, reopened the slavery question. Attempts at compromises in 1850 and 1854 only accelerated the conflict. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, allowed citizens in the new territories to decide whether they wanted slavery on the basis of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. As the second party system of Whigs and Democrats fell apart, the Republican Party, who held to confine slavery to existing slave states, mounted a successful challenge against the Democrats and in 1860 elected Abraham Lincoln as president.
Inquiry Question: Was Slavery the Key Issue in the Sectional Conflict leading to the Civil War?

Part I
Directions: Review and read each of the following documents numbered 1 and 2. Annotate each document to assist in the writing tasks in Parts II and III. Remember to read and look at the documents carefully so that you can refer to specific facts and evidence in the text to support your answer. Pay attention to whether each document is a primary or secondary source. Also notice how the documents compare and contrast with each other.
Document_1__Source'>Document 1

Source: Charles B. Dew, from Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2001)
Slavery, States’ Rights and Secession Commissioners

  1. What key claim does the author make?


  1. What evidence from the document supports this claim?



Document 2

Source: Marc Egnal, from “Rethinking the Secession of the Lower South: The Clash of Two Groups,” Civil War History 50 (September 2004): 261-90

  1. What key claim does the author make?


  1. What evidence from the document supports this claim?



Part II

Directions: Use the chart below to plan how you will compare and contrast different views on the topic in the primary and secondary sources presented (in this handout and throughout the unit). You will be assessed on the completion of the chart.

  • Source Type and Publication Year: Identify whether the document is a primary or secondary source, and the year in which the document was written.

  • Claim: What claim is the author making in the document?

  • Corroboration: Indicate which other documents affirm or refute the identified claim. (If applicable)


Source Type and Publication Year





Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

“Rethinking the Secession of the Lower South: The Clash of Two Groups”

Missouri Compromise

Compromise of 1850

Fugitive Slave Act

Kansas-Nebraska Act

Dred Scott v Sanford

John Brown’s Last Speech

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln’s Letter to Mary Speed

A House Divided” Speech

Fragment on Slavery

Speech at Chicago

Lincoln’s Letter to Joshua Speed

Part III
Inquiry Question: Was Slavery the Key Issue in the Sectional Conflict leading to the Civil War?
Directions: Using the information from the documents, you will now write an argument answering the inquiry question with regards to the time period of early America. Please type your essay in 2-3 pages, Times New Roman font, size 12, double-spaced.
Be sure to:

  • Introduce your topic, creating an argument in response to the inquiry question.

  • Develop your argument with textual evidence while attending to the strengths and limitations of that evidence.

    • Accurately identify all primary and secondary sources using evidence, including the date and source of the information.

    • Make connections between the documents by comparing information and noting discrepancies in the documents.

    • Use evidence from the documents to support both claim(s) and counterclaim(s).

  • Provide an accurate summary of relevant historical information, including outside information on the topic not found in the documents.

  • Provide a concluding statement supporting your arguments.

  • Maintain a formal style and objective tone in your writing.

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