American History Lecture Five

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Lecture - Questions

More test-taking tips:

  • Understand the question first. Students are missing points for not completely understanding the question. Pause a moment after you read a question. Read it twice. Ask yourself, what is the point of the question?
  • Don't waste all your time on one difficult question. But when taking an exam on paper rather than on a computer, if you decide to skip a question then be sure to leave a corresponding gap in your answer sheet.

More tips in learning history:

  • Avoid procrastination! Tasks are completed more easily -- and with far higher quality -- if you start sooner. Set goals for yourself, such as finishing a certain amount of work before noon, and then again before 6pm. Another way to overcome procrastination is to delay the next meal until after work is completed.
  • Learn a little history each day. The material is easier to understand in pieces. Do you try to survive by eating only one meal each day? No, we eat three meals each day and the food is easier to digest that way. The same is true with learning history. One hour each day for five days is much easier than five hours in one day. Also, you'll retain the information better if you spread it out over the week.

Now ponder the following riddle. Consider this sequence: 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, ??, ??, ??, ??. What goes in the question marks? The answer is below.[1]

Why are there so many 1's (one-term presidents who failed to win reelection) as we approach the Civil War? Imagine riding the raging bull at the rodeo. It's hard to stay on beyond a few seconds. Before the Civil War, the United States was like the bull, and it was nearly impossible for a president to be reelected amid that turmoil. No president could ride the raging bull of a divided country for more than one term as the Civil War approached. The more divided a nation is, the more difficult it becomes for a president to be reelected.


This week, practice memorizing all of the presidents we have learned about. Which ones have we covered so far?[2]

Last week we learned about Andrew Jackson, who represented the common man. He was a "Democrat". The masses elected their military hero. The Whig Party arose just to oppose Jackson, and before long nominated and won with war heroes of its own.

In accordance with Jackson's image as a common man, he was against a national bank. He was also cruel to the Indians.

Although Jackson was a Democrat, which was then the most popular political party in the South, Jackson opposed nullification by any southern states of federal law, and also opposed talk of secession.

The "Accidental Presidency"

Recall that the Whig Party developed in opposition to Andrew Jackson. By 1840 this anti-Jackson Whig Party was strong, and clever. Moreover, the Whig Party did not have to face Andrew Jackson, who had already retired.

To win its first presidential election, the Whig Party ran the war hero William Henry Harrison (who had won a key battle against the Indians much earlier). The Whig Party exploited the financial panic of 1837 and utilized some clever slogans. The Whig Party also pulled another trick: it nominated the Democrat John Tyler for Vice President. That was one of only two times since 1800 that one party has nominated as its vice president a member of the other political party (the other time was when Abraham Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson as his vice president to try to avoid the Civil War). In 2008, the Republican presidential nominee John McCain reportedly wanted to choose the former Democrat Joe Lieberman as his vice president, but chose Sarah Palin after learning that many within the Republican Party wanted a Republican vice presidential nominee.

Historians say that the outcome in virtually every presidential election can be predicted by looking at how the economy is doing. When the economy is struggling, the incumbent loses. When the economy is thriving, the incumbent wins. Van Buren was hurt by a poor economy, with many voters out-of-work. Watch out for all those farmers and unemployed factory workers on Election Day!

William Harrison became the first Whig candidate to win the presidency (in 1840). But as an arrogant man, he insisted on participating in his inauguration without a coat or hat, despite the frigid temperatures, and he pompously spoke for over an hour to an outdoor crowd. He caught pneumonia and died a month later.

A president had never died in office before, and uncertainty followed. The Constitution states that "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President." "Devolve" the powers did onto John Tyler, the Democrat who had long been opposed to what the Whig Party stood for. (Only with ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967 was it fully clarified that the vice president would actually become president, rather than merely exercise the powers of the presidency).

Tyler showed his true colors as a Democrat once he became "President" Tyler: he vetoed the national bank. This infuriated the Whig Party, which had been formed in order to establish a national bank after Jackson vetoed it. In fact, Tyler vetoed the entire Whig agenda. Within months, the Whig Party retaliated by officially expelling him from the Whig Party, and referring to him derisively as "the man without a party" or "His Accidency." Harrison's entire Cabinet, except for Daniel Webster (who was finishing his negotiations of an important treaty with Canada), resigned. Henry Clay from Kentucky was one of those who resigned in disgust.

But Tyler did not care. In 1842 he vetoed a tariff, which infuriated the Whigs further. Eventually John Quincy Adams, the former president who was again in the House of Representatives, led an impeachment effort against Tyler based on his veto. That effort failed, but it illustrated how little some congressmen thought of him. No one had tried to impeach a president before. Congress even overrode one of Tyler's vetoes with a 2/3rd majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which was the first time that ever happened.

Tyler was only a "one-termer", meaning he was not reelected after his first term was over. In fact, every president from Van Buren until the Civil War lasted only one term, as the nation became increasingly divided. The more divided the nation is, the more difficult it is for a president to win reelection because so many people are unhappy with him.

The Battle (Massacre) of the Alamo

America continued to expand, and eventually this caused conflict with Mexico, which had become free from Spain in 1821. Texas (an area much larger than the State of Texas today) was part of Mexico's territory.

Susanna Dickinson was one of the few survivors, along with her infant child, of the massacre at the Alamo. Her husband was killed.

Mexico began to give American citizens free land if they became Mexican citizens and encouraged their friends to do the same. As a result, thousands of settlers left the United States to become Mexican citizens.

But in 1836, settlers in what is now Texas revolted against Mexico. They declared that Texas was independent from Mexico, and drafted their own constitution.

In the famous Battle of the Alamo, a few thousand soldiers from Mexico defeated just 165 or so Texans at the Alamo (including Davey Crockett, a former congressman from Tennessee), and massacred all of the men. This battle became famous, as did the cry "Remember the Alamo!" to inspire fighting back against Mexico. The remains of the Alamo mission where the massacre of Texans by Mexicans can be visited today in San Antonio.

Shortly thereafter, Texas wrote a formal declaration of independence. Eager to gain land and fame, many Americans moved to Texas and helped defeat the Mexicans. Texas became the independent "Lone Star Republic."

Many of the citizens in Texas wished to become part of the United States, and Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, also supported the annexation of Texas. Nevertheless, opposition by Mexico prevented Texas from being annexed.

The Whigs did not want to annex Texas, and Jackson was afraid that if he annexed Texas, then his successor, Martin Van Buren, would not be elected. Abolitionists were also upset because Texas would be another slave state - its constitution permitted slavery.

Tyler was the first president to attempt to annex Texas. But Tyler ruined his chances by declaring that slavery would be good for Texas, which the northern states opposed. When the treaty to add Texas to the United States came to the Senate, it did not initially pass.

Manifest Destiny

The 1840s was a decade of expansion and social change for the growing United States. Counting California, which joined the Union in 1850, five new states were added to the United States: Florida, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin and California. This included the two largest states in area in the continental United States (California and Texas), and what are now three of the four largest in population (California, Texas and Florida). This was the greatest addition of new states since the 1810s. The nation as we know it today was taking shape.

A widespread belief in "Manifest Destiny" was driving this growth. Manifest Destiny was the concept that westward expansion was part of God's plan for the United States to spread out over the continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Americans believed that exploration and expansion was a mission from God.

In 1842, the United States resolved some minor disputes with Canada (then still a British colony) over the location of the U.S.-Canadian border. Known as the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, this resolved the location of the northern border of Maine, agreed on the location of the border in the Great Lakes (and shared use of those Lakes), and affirmed the use of the 49 degrees latitude as the border heading west. Daniel Webster, then the Secretary of State (who otherwise was a prominent Senator), signed the Treaty for the United States and the U.S. Senate ratified it as required by the Constitution.

Oregon territory in 1848

Around the same time settlers began to move westward in large groups, traveling on the Oregon Trail. Beginning in 1843, Americans became fascinated with the Oregon territory, and 1000 pioneers traveled all the way from Missouri to Willamette Valley (a trip that took 4 to 6 months then). The Oregon Trail stretched for 2000 miles and many settlers spent a full six months traveling along it. Missionaries traveled in order to minister to the Indians far and wide.

Others went westward in a search for gold, and the "gold rush" that began in 1848 and hit a fever pitch in 1849, attracting many to California (the football team the "San Francisco 49ers" is named after those settlers).

Half of the Oregon territory, which included the current states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and a bit of Montana and Wyoming, was controlled by the British. In 1846 the Oregon Treaty settled the disputes between America and Britain, giving most of the Oregon territory to the United States.

Utopian Communities

Along with the expansion and migration came great social change in the older portions of the United States. Utopian communities thrived in the 1840s to pursue idealistic societies, often based on common religious beliefs and sharing homes and property. The homeschooling movement today could be compared with the movements in the 1840s, though homeschooling is more of a concept than a centralized community having shared property. Examples of Utopian communities in the 1840s (and earlier) were the Shakers, Brook Farm, the Rappites, and the Oneida Community:[3]

  • The Shakers, whose formal name was the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, believed in communal living (people sharing each other's homes and property), productive labor, pacifism, simplicity, and ritualistic dancing and shaking during services. It was founded by an Englishwoman in 1758, split off from the Quakers in 1772, and grew to 6,000 members in America before the Civil War. The Shakers rejected slavery and other aspects of American life, and had thriving communities in Enfield, Connecticut and in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Other Shaker communities existed in Kentucky, New Hampshire, New York (New Lebanon) ... and Maine (near the towns of New Gloucester and Poland), where there are still a few Shakers to this day!
  • Brook Farm was a Utopian community based on "transcendentalism" - a philosophy started by Immanuel Kant in the late 1700s that emphasized man's ability to "transcend" experience and pursue a lifestyle of simple living, self-reliance, and rejection of industrialization. This movement took inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was the leading American proponent of this philosophy (without himself living in a Utopian community), and his friend Henry David Thoreau, who did spend some time living in simplicity on "Walden's Pond." (Occasionally he would sneak over to his friend Emerson's house to enjoy a good meal and better surroundings!) Thoreau also became famous for his book advocating "civil disobedience" to laws and authority. Brook Farm itself was located in Suffolk County, Massachusetts and was led by a former Unitarian minister. The community provided to all members, their children and family dependents the following: housing, fuel, wages, clothing and food. It also had schools at all levels before college. This project ended in failure due to financial difficulties and even a bitter lawsuit by investors attempting to recover their money. This community never exceeded 120 persons, making it smaller than most homeschooling communities today.
  • The Rappites, also known as The Harmony Society, were founded by Johann Georg Rapp and first consisted of immigrants from Germany seeking religious freedom in America. They settled in Butler County, Pennsylvania, called Harmony, and believed that the Bible was humanity's sole authority. Similar to the Shakers, the Rappites required led a communal life without individual possessions. Frederick Rapp, George Rapp's adopted son, transformed the economy of Harmony from subsistence agriculture to gradual diversified manufacturing, and by 1814 the Society was thriving with 700 members and a town of 130 homes and factories. The products they produced, ranging from textiles to woolens to wine and whiskey, were highly valued by other Americans for their quality. The Rappites continued to succeed economically, and repeatedly outgrew their towns, moving to Indiana (after selling their first town for $100,000 to Mennonites) and later back to Pennsylvania. They peaked in 1866 and, after several schisms, disbanded in 1905. Their sturdy buildings remain to this day.
  • The Oneida Community in Madison County, New York, was an abolitionist movement founded by the minister John Humphreys Noyes. He preached the radical view that perfection was attainable in this life, and his followers became known as "Perfectionists". Unfortunately, he also preached a concept of "complex marriage," whereby men and women married in groups such that every man in the group was married to every woman in the group, and children were raised by everyone. "Bible communism" resulted in no individual property. A 1879 meeting of ministers in Syracuse, New York, condemned the settlement, and the turmoil caused Noyes to flee to Canada.

The decline of all the Utopian communities has been attributed to increased industrialization and hostility by a broader public to the concept. Inflammatory newspaper articles played a role as the public became reliant on secular sources for information. But historians have concluded that "religious utopian colonies possessed a longer life then their secular counterparts."[3] Most of the Utopian communities have remnants that are preserved today and can be visited.

Social and Religious Movements

In addition to the Utopian communities, there were key social and religious movements in or around the 1840s that resulted from the culmination of the Second Great Awakening, which swept America from 1790 to 1840:

  • the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church), the only major church founded in America, was established in 1830 by Joseph Smith in western New York. He then moved to Ohio, and then Nauvoo, Illinois, where it thrived so much that it became the largest town in Illinois in 1844 (even bigger than Chicago). The movement banned alcohol and emphasized hard work and entrepreneurship. But in 1844 an anti-Mormon newspaper (the "Nauvoo Expositor") began harshly criticizing the church, and city council responded by shutting down the newspaper, which in turn led to a backlash causing the imprisonment of Mayor Joseph Smith. While in jail, Joseph Smith (and his brother) was killed by a mob that was unlawfully allowed to enter the prison. Brigham Young became the next leader of this church within a few years, and led the 70,000-person Mormon community on a 1,300-mile migration to establish a new state in the west, then part of Mexico but now Utah. Today the Mormon Church is the fourth largest church denomination in the United States, after Catholics, Baptists and Methodists.[4] One of its spectacular temples is located just north of D.C., visible from the "Beltway" (highway 495 that loops around D.C.).
  • The Seventh Day Adventist Church began 1844, when a prediction of the end of the world based on a biblical interpretation did not happen (the so-called "Great Disappointment"). This new Christian religion emphasizes observance of the Sabbath on Saturday (hence its name), adherence to the Bible, and preparation for the second coming of Christ. The Seventh Day Adventists also developed an approach to good health that included building hospitals, such as a medical school in southern California and hospitals throughout the United States.
  • Women's rights began as a social movement in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first women's rights convention was held. The assembly drafted a Declaration of Sentiments that called for granting women the right to vote, which they did not have at the time. Separately, in 1849, the English-born Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in America, which she obtained from Geneva College in New York.
  • In 1840, the first anti-slavery party (called the "Liberty Party") formed. It lasted until 1848, when it merged with opponents of slavery in the Whig and Democratic Parties in order to form another anti-slavery party, the stronger Free-Soil Party. Later it would be replaced by the Republican Party.
  • In 1842, the union workers' movement obtained a key court ruling in their favor from the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in Commonwealth v. Hunt. That decision held that it was legal for workers to organize a union and to strike. Union power was greatly increased by this ability to strike (and shut down a factory) when the employer does not give into union demands. Some blame the collapse of the American automobile industry today and the resultant depression in Michigan on abuse by unions of their great power. The unionization of government workers has also become a national controversy in recent years, and in 2011 the governor of Wisconsin Governor signed into law limitations on the power of "collective bargaining" for its government workers.

James K. Polk and War with Mexico

The Democrats officially won back the presidency with James Polk, who was supported by the still-popular but retired Andrew Jackson. Polk was the hardest-working president ever, and even died from exhaustion soon after leaving office despite serving only one term. He was also the first "dark horse" candidate, which means that no one expected him to win even the nomination of his Democratic Party. He was nominated to run for president only after the leading contenders were all rejected by the delegates to the Democratic National Convention. In fact, Polk had gone to the convention hoping at most to be the vice presidential candidate for Martin Van Buren, but the former President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party favored Polk instead of renominating Van Buren.

Polk's opponent in the presidential race was the Whig Party leader Henry Clay, who scoffed at how little-known Polk was. Clay and his supporters even made a campaign slogan of the rhetorical question, "Who is Polk?"[5] Polk responded to the criticism by championing Manifest Destiny (and expansion of the nation's territory). He supported both annexing Texas (which would become a slave state), in order to obtain support by southerners, adding Oregon as a free state, in order to gain northern votes. The issue of Texas had become so important to Americans that Polk won on a platform of annexing Texas to the United States, and more generally on his pro-expansion position.

Polk's presidency had these achievements:

  • instigated, fought and won the Mexican War (also called the Mexican-American War) (ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo)
  • annexed Texas (1845)
  • settled a dispute with British (Canada) by establishing the northwest boundary in Oregon Treaty (1846)
  • reduced tariffs
  • reestablished an independent treasury (bank)
  • admitted Iowa as a free state in 1846 (under the Missouri Compromise), with Iowa having the highest percentage of farmland of any State
  • set off the gold rush by announcing there was gold in California (1849)

To Polk's credit, he really did what he said he would, unlike most politicians. He achieved the greatest territorial expansion of the United States (excluding the later acquisition of Alaska). Polk acquired the territory covered by the future states of Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Washington, and Oregon, and portions of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana.

Even though Texas won its own independence from Mexico in 1836, President Martin Van Buren had not annexed Texas to the United States because Mexico had threatened war against the United States if it ever annexed Texas. President John Tyler negotiated a Treaty of Annexation, but that caused Mexico to cut off diplomatic relations. The Senate refused to ratify this Treaty. Only after Polk won the presidential election of 1844 by promising to annex Texas was the Senate willing to ratify the Treaty, which the Senate did just prior to Polk's inauguration. Texas then joined the United States on December 29, 1845.

Mexico did not declare war as it threatened, but the relationship remained very tense and the border between Texas and Mexico was hotly disputed. Texas claimed that its territory included much of (what is today) New Mexico and Colorado, and the western and southern portions of (what is today) Texas itself. Mexico claimed that Texas was much smaller, with its border on the Nueces River slightly north of the Rio Grande.

President Polk wanted all the land for the United States. In July 1845, he sent the commander of the U.S. Army in Texas, Zachary Taylor, to take his troops into the disputed land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. In November, Polk sent Congressman John Slidell to Mexico in order to purchase the disputed area, and acquire (what is now) New Mexico and California. This effort, known as the Slidell mission, had failed by May 1846.

Mexican-American War

Mexican-American War.png

Following the failure of Slidell's mission in May 1846, Polk tried a different approach: find a reason to declare a war. Polk told Congress that Mexico had attacked Taylor's army on American (Texas) soil, shedding American blood there. Congress reacted by giving Polk the declaration of war Polk sought, on May 13, 1846. Ever since, it has been disputed where the American blood was actually shed, making this one of the big mysteries of American history. Was the first conflict on undisputed American soil, meaning that Mexico was wrong, or on Mexican soil, meaning that Americans were the aggressor? The official account of the United States Department of State blames ... the United States:[6]

The President neglected to inform Congress, however, that the Mexicans had used force only after Taylor's troops had positioned themselves on the banks of the Rio Grande River, which was effectively Mexican territory.

But that account is debatable, and may simply reflect a modern tendency of some United States officials to apologize for everything. Truth be told, President Polk was not known to be a liar, so it is doubtful he lied about this. However, a congressman at the time, Abraham Lincoln, who was a Whig (and thus opposed to Polk), also questioned whether the blood had really been shed on American soil. In December 1847, Lincoln introduced the "Spot Resolutions" into Congress to challenge the "spot" claimed by Polk to start the war.

The Whigs opposed the Mexican War throughout its two-year duration; so did leading intellectuals in Massachusetts like Henry David Thoreau.

Mystery: Where was the American blood shed that started the Mexican War, on American or Mexican soil?

Debate: Is it ever justified for a President to lie to Congress to accomplish a goal sought by Americans?

To win the Mexican War, the U.S. Army pushed far into Mexico territory. In September 1847, the United States captured Mexico City. Then Nicholas Trist, chief clerk of the Department of State and Polk's emissary to negotiate a peace treaty, began discussions with the Mexican Government just as Slidell had done the prior year. President Polk grew angry with Trist, however, for offering terms of peace that Polk thought were too generous to Mexico. Meanwhile, Trist had become a close friend of General Winfield Scott, who was a member of the opposite Whig Party and thought to be planning to run against Polk for the presidency. Worse, the war caused the Democrats (who wanted to expand slavery) to demand complete annexation to the United States of Mexico itself!

Polk fired Trist in October by telling him to return to Washington, D.C. But Trist ignored this "recall order" and entered into the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signing it with Mexico in Mexico City on February 2, 1848. This Treaty provided that:

  • the Texas-Mexico border would be set at the Rio Grande River as Polk originally sought
  • Mexico would grant to the United States about 525,000 square miles (55% of its prewar territory)
  • the United States would pay Mexico $15 million
  • the United States government would pay off up to $3.25 million worth of debts owed by Mexico to U.S. citizens, relieving Mexico of those obligations

Polk was unhappy with the terms of this Treaty. He wanted even more Mexican territory. But he felt he had no choice other than submit this Treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification, which it did on March 10, 1848 by a margin of 38 to 14. The 2/3rd minimum required for ratification was 2/3rd of 52, or 35. The Treaty was ratified by a margin of only 4 votes.

In August 1846, soon after the war began, Congressman David Wilmot introduced a "rider" (unrelated amendment) to an appropriations bill stipulating that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist" in any territory acquired from this war. Southern senators (especially South Carolina Senator John Calhoun) blocked this "Wilmot Proviso" and it did not pass, but its concept was so powerful that it inspired the abolitionists all the way through the Civil War. The Wilmot Proviso to stop slavery became as influential as the movement to stop abortion is today.

In addition to all of Polk's accomplishments in adding territory, he also had a habit if seeing every single visitor, no matter who he was, who came to the White House! No wonder it exhausted him. Still a young man, Polk died shortly after leaving office of an exhaustion-induced illness.

Taylor, Fillmore and the Compromise of 1850

When 1848 rolled around, Americans were ready to elect another war hero: Zachary Taylor. The Whig Party, hurting from its defeat in 1844, figured it could win in 1848 by nominating a popular general who had fought the Mexicans. General Zachary Taylor was the man, and he won.

The Whig Party was helped in the election of 1848 by a split in the Democratic Party over the slavery issue. Voters who opposed slavery had abandoned the otherwise pro-slavery Democrats. The anti-slavery Democrats were known as the "Barnburners" (i.e., burning down their own "barn" or political party by leaving), while the loyal Democrats were known as "Hunkers" (i.e., their mindset was to "hunker down" and stay the pro-slavery course).

Zachary Taylor did not last long. He died after only one year in office. His sole contribution was to encourage New Mexico and California to apply for admission to the United States as free (rather than slave) states. Remember that Taylor was a Whig, and the Whig Party tended to side with the northerners and against slavery.

Taylor's vice president, Millard Fillmore, succeeded him in office, the second time in American history that a vice president replaced a president due to his death. Fillmore, who was from New York, was an average American who had been born in a log cabin, and who succeeded through hard work.[7] He then played a key part in passing the Compromise of 1850, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the entire 19th century.

The Compromise of 1850 admitted California into the United States, and established that the South had the right to bring slaves into the United State's Southwest Territories. The Compromise also abolished the slave trade in D.C., although slavery itself was allowed to continue. Specifically, this Compromise enacted the following in a series of separate laws:

  • admitted California as a free state
  • the South had the right to bring slaves into the Southwest territories
  • slave trade was abolished in D.C., but slavery was not
  • enacted tougher federal fugitive slave laws and strictly enforced them (Clay pushed this through the Senate)
  • Texas received $10M to pay off its debt in return for accepting a narrower western boundary and give up claims to New Mexico and territory that became other states

Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Stephen Douglas argued for this Compromise; South Carolina (and pro-slavery) Senator John Calhoun opposed it.[8] This was the last great issue for the elderly Senators Calhoun, Clay and Webster, each of whom was near the end of their long careers in the Senate. Calhoun died a few weeks later.

The Fugitive Slave Act was particularly offensive to northerners and especially outrageous to abolitionists. It amended the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 in order to appoint federal commissioners to catch slaves who fled to northern states, without giving them due process.

In unrelated achievements during the Fillmore Administration, President Fillmore also:

  • sent Matthew Perry to Japan to negotiate a treaty allowing open borders. The mission was successful.
  • signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850, in which the United States agreed with Britain that neither nation would obtain exclusive control over an inter-oceanic canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
  • saw the development of a new type of ship called the Clipper. These ships were longer and faster than their predecessors. They greatly enhanced shipping and increased the trade in port cities.

American Literature in the 1850s

There were three classics of American literature written in the 1850s:

  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, considered the finest novel ever written in the English language
  • The Scarlet Letter by ‎Nathaniel Hawthorne, considered an influential work of historical fiction
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, considered the finest book of poetry published in America

Each of these works were part of the "American Renaissance," which was a flowering of excellence in literature built upon ordinary life and themes common to Jacksonian democracy.

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick was not initially successful, and praise for Leaves of Grass was less initially than later. Today a much-traveled bridge connecting Philadelphia to New Jersey across the Delaware River is named after Walt Whitman, and Melville's classic novel is a popular assignment in many English literature courses.

President Franklin Pierce and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The slavery issue had become so divisive by the election of 1852 that it was almost impossible for a political party even to nominate anyone for president who had strong views about it. Instead, political parties turned more to "dark horse" nominees whose positions on slavery were unknown, and thus not so objectionable to one side or the other. That enabled them to appear to be more electable because they had not announced their positions on slavery.

The Whig Party, with its concentration in the North, collapsed over disagreement about the slavery issue, as the pro- and anti-slavery members went in different directions. The Democratic Party, which was more the party of the South, nominated the dark horse candidate Franklin Pierce in 1852. He had been quietly pro-slavery, and he won the presidential election because the Whig Party was no longer strong enough to oppose him.

The Compromise of 1850 resulted in a brief respite from the divisive conflict. In 1853, when Pierce became president, he tried hard to prevent further conflict from breaking out, but he could not control the conflict any better than anyone else.

In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas pushed through the Senate the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Historians consider this ill-advised law to be the single greatest step towards Civil War. It replaced Missouri Compromise with Douglas's concept of "popular sovereignty" for new territories, whereby each new region could decide for itself whether to allow slavery. This caused mini-wars over the issue, especially in Kansas. This Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West, particularly Kansas.

Furious, anti-slavery activists founded the Republican Party in 1854 in order to:

  • stop the expansion of slavery
  • repeal the Kansas-Nebraska Act
  • repeal the Fugitive Slave Law
  • end slavery in D.C.
  • abolish polygamy (the practice of having multiple wives)

Above all, the Republican Party of today was founded in 1854 on the moral grounds of ending slavery. Early leaders of the Republican Party included the abolitionists Charles Sumner and George Julian, the Free-Soiler Salmon Chase, and conservative members of the Whig Party.

Pierce would only last one term as president. In 1854 the future President James Buchanan was working as a diplomat (which enabled him to avoid speaking out about the slavery issue). As a diplomat Buchanan issued the Ostend Manifesto, in which he told Spain to sell Cuba to the United States or lose it by force. This was a failure and caused negative feelings, but Buchanan later became president anyway.

"Bleeding Kansas"

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 in a reaction and opposition to the concept of "popular sovereignty" pushed into law by Douglas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. "Popular sovereignty" meant that each new territory should make its own decision, by popular vote, whether to allow slavery. The new Republican Party took its name from Jefferson's Republican Party because, like Jefferson, the new Republican Party opposed slavery in the new territories. The Republican Party brought in Whigs and members of the small "Free Soil Party," which had been based on the Wilmot Proviso (which passed the House but not the Senate). The Wilmot Proviso stated that none of the territory acquired from Mexico should be opened to slavery.

Almost immediately after enactment of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), it was put to the test in 1855 in Kansas. Civil war in Kansas broke out between free and slave forces. In early 1856, pro-slavery forces burned down the "Free State Hotel" and destroyed the offices and presses of antislavery newspapers. A man was killed.

In retaliation, a fanatical white man named John Brown took four of his sons and two others and went to Pottawatomie in Kansas, and executed five (5) pro-slavery colonists. This event became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Unlike most abolitionists, Brown supported violent action against slavery. As time went on, more and more blood was shed in Kansas. Some prominent anti-slavery activists and intellectuals in the northeast, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, even praised John Brown.

In the "Crime against Kansas" speech, an abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner described the slave oligarchy and insulted and humiliated the elderly Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina (who was not there during Sumner's speech). In retaliation, Butler's nephew, Preston Butler, who was a congressman, went into Sumner's chambers and beat him senseless with a cane. Sumner never fully recovered from this beating. Preston Butler immediately resigned but became such a hero to the South that he was virtually unanimously reelected by his district. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Boston writer who opposed slavery, reacted to this incident by saying, "I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom."

This entire conflict in Kansas over slavery in the 1850s was called "Bleeding Kansas" because of the violence that occurred on both sides. As an example of "history repeating itself," more than 120 years later Kansas became the center of national attention based on its internal conflict over the abortion issue.

The never-ratified Lecompton Constitution of Kansas was an unsuccessful attempt to stop the violence in Kansas. This pro-slavery document was designed as a response to the positions of the abolitionists. The Lecompton Constitution never took effect as it was first rejected by Congress and then defeated by a referendum (vote) in the state of Kansas.

By the end of his Administration, Pierce could claim "a peaceful condition of things in Kansas." But the Democrats refused to renominate him for a campaign for a second term, turning to the less controversial James Buchanan. Pierce returned to New Hampshire, leaving his successor to face the rising fury of the sectional whirlwind. Pierce died in 1869.

Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln: Irreconcilably Different

Real leaders were arising outside of the presidency: Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was the Jacksonian Democrat, while Lincoln was initially the anti-Jackson Whig. Everything between President Jackson (1836) and the Civil War (1861) can be understood through the eyes of Douglas and Lincoln. Both were from Illinois, a state that was ideologically in the middle between the North and the South.

Illinois was a key state because it was just across the Mississippi river from Missouri, which was a slave state under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. There was a good deal of violence there leading up to the Civil War.

Elijah Lovejoy was a pastor in St. Louis, and in 1837 he started a newspaper called the St. Louis Observer, which published articles against slavery. The opposition to his paper was so great that he had to move to Alton, Illinois. There, he kept publishing articles against slavery.

But the opposition didn't cease, and Lovejoy's printing press was thrown into the river three times. The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society gave him a new printing press, and local slave owners decided to destroy it. A mob came over from St. Louis and Lovejoy was killed as he tried to protect his press. This violence shocked the North.

From this history arose the political rivalry of Lincoln and Douglas, one of the greatest rivalries in all of American history. Lincoln and Douglas were opposites in every possible way. Lincoln was very tall, while Douglas was very short. Lincoln had lots of dark hair,[9] while Douglas's hair was thinning. Lincoln was initially a Whig, Douglas was a Democrat. Lincoln was a wealthy attorney for the powerful railroad companies. Douglas was a government attorney for the State. Both were extremely ambitious, constantly running for public office. Both were smarter than most in politics, and both were superb public speakers (unlike, for example, Jefferson, who avoided public speaking). Truth be told, Douglas was an even better public speaker than Lincoln; Douglas was more compelling in style, and funnier.

Originally inspired by President Andrew Jackson, Douglas quickly became leader of the Illinois Democratic Party. Douglas was elected at the young age of 22 to be the state's top attorney. By age 28 he became an Illinois Supreme Court Justice; by age 29 he was elected to the House of Representatives in Congress. At age 34 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and won every reelection to the U.S. Senate until he died in office. In the U.S. Senate, he became very powerful and earned the nickname "Little Giant." His speeches would attract huge crowds in the galleries of the Senate. Politically, he was virtually unbeatable.

As a Jacksonian Democrat, Douglas favored Manifest Destiny and acquiring as much property westward as possible. The Mexican War was a way to obtain more property, so he favored it in the mid-1840s.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln was rising as a Whig in Illinois. While Douglas won virtually every election he was in, Lincoln lost virtually every election he entered. But he kept trying, again and again. Unlike Douglas, Lincoln opposed the Mexican War because the Whigs saw it as a way for the South to gain more slave territory. Lincoln disputed the claim that Mexicans had shed American blood on American soil, and introduced the "Spot Resolutions" in Congress disputing where the bloodshed occurred.

On economic issues, Lincoln sought national unity (remember, he represented railroads, which make more money from a united nation than a divided one). Douglas did not care much for economic issues, but also wanted to keep the nation together.

Consider for yourself which person, Lincoln or Douglas, was likely to be more sympathetic to slavery? Is either going to be entirely pro-slave or abolitionist? No, both were in the middle on the slavery issue, neither entirely for nor against slavery.

Both Lincoln and Douglas looked for ways to avoid the coming Civil War. Many Americans, beginning with Jefferson, started to worry about how slavery was ripping the country apart. Jefferson used to wake up in a cold sweat after having nightmares about the tragic future that the United States faced over the issue.

In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas ran against each another for Senate. Their debates that year became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and they dealt primarily with slavery. In the end, Douglas won the race by a vote in the legislature (prior to the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, U.S. Senators were picked by state legislatures, not by the public). But Lincoln gained valuable publicity that helped him succeed later. The presidential debates that are held today were inspired by the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The Debate over Slavery

The debate over slavery was a prolonged battle involving writers and judges as well as politicians.

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel that criticizes slavery by painting a very unfavorable picture of life as a slave. The book had an enormous impact on public sentiment and the Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe was the white daughter of a prominent New England congregational minister. When Abraham Lincoln later met her in 1862, he described her as "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"[10] Then southerners criticized (and banned) the book by claiming it was horribly exaggerated; today the book is criticized for its racist stereotypes about African Americans.[10] But no one doubts its huge impact on America, and Europe. It may have been the best-selling book of the entire 19th century, second only to the Bible.[10]

Dred Scott v. Sanford was a Supreme Court decision in 1857, and (along with Roe v. Wade a century later) the most notorious Supreme Court case in history. The Dred Scott decision ruled that blacks have no rights and cannot sue, and are not even real citizens. It also established that Congress cannot grant freedom to slaves, because slaves are the "property" of slave owners. With this decision, the Court sought to put an end to the questions about slavery, but the exact opposite occurred. The Dred Scott ruling greatly heightened conflict and outrage about slavery. Historians speculate that President James Buchanan secretly played a role in the pro-slavery outcome by communicating with Justices on the Supreme Court.

The Dred Scott decision played a part in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. At the debate in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln asked Douglas if a territory could exclude slavery under the decision. Douglas said that a territory could exclude slavery if it created laws that made it impossible to enforce slavery. This was consistent with his idea of "popular sovereignty," but Douglas' "Freeport Doctrine" caused the South to turn against Douglas because it meant that slaves could be freed from slave owners if a majority voted that way.

Others resorted to violent means to end the disagreement over slavery. In 1859, John Brown[11] led a raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown hoped that his actions would spark a slave rebellion in Virginia. But Brown was caught and tried and hanged. At all times he remained defiant, refusing attempts to characterize him as insane.

Which brings us to the biggest debate question of the entire course: Could the Civil War have been avoided? Historians just took a poll on the biggest presidential blunders. At the top of the list is the failure of President James Buchanan for keeping the Union together just prior to the Civil War. What do you think?

The Whig Party completely broke up and disintegrated over slavery: the northern, abolitionist Whigs founded the Republican Party, and the southern, pro-slavery Whigs (such as wealthy plantation owners) joined the Democratic Party.

James Buchanan

In 1857, the new Democratic President Buchanan deferred to popular sovereignty, and tried to get Kansas admitted as a slave state. He hoped the Dred Scott decision would help, because it held that African-Americans have no rights in the United States anyway. Northerners accused him of agreeing secretly with Supreme Court Justices to render a decision in favor of the South. Buchanan was not up to solving the difficult challenge that faced him, and his approach was all wrong.

The Panic of 1857 caused financial panic throughout the United States when the New York City branch of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Co. failed. That caused a sudden recession in the economy, but recovery came quickly afterward.

In 1858, Lincoln said in a speech before the Republican state convention: "a house divided against itself cannot stand," quoting the Bible. He copied the application of this concept to slavery from many others who had used it previously. Lincoln's words were prophetic. But Douglas, a wittier and more effective public speaker than Lincoln was, elicited a chuckle from another crowd when he said he would speak without claiming to have special authority from God.

Meanwhile, two new states were added to the Union while Buchanan served as president: Minnesota was admitted in 1858, and Oregon was admitted in 1859.

The first transatlantic cable/telegraph joining the United States to Britain was laid across the ocean floor in 1858, but high voltage damaged it. In 1866, a better cable was completed and it transmitted many messages between the nations.

The Election of 1860

Lincoln became the "Rail Candidate" for president in 1860 because he opposed slavery in the territories but accepted it (as the Constitution did) in the South. He "rode the rail" of that principle right to the White House. As a former attorney for the wealthy railroads (which depended on keeping the Union together), the image stuck to him. Recall that in 1856 Lincoln had switched from the Whig Party to the Republican Party.

Douglas lost the support of both the North and South due to his "Freeport Doctrine," described above. After the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that a slave is property who cannot be taken away from the slave owner, Lincoln asked Douglas, "Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?" In his answer, Douglas adopted a position in the middle between Lincoln's view that slavery should not be allowed in territories and the Supreme Court's view that slavery must be protected everywhere as pure property. Douglas said that the people in each territory can decide whether to allow slavery, and if they prohibited it then as a practical matter the slave owner could not keep a slave there. This angered the South, which became afraid that a popular vote could deprive them of their slaves (each slave was worth $30,000 in today's money, and slave owners often had many slaves). Douglas's position also cost him votes in the North. By trying to take a middle position, Douglas lost support on both sides and could win only one "border" state, Missouri (which bordered the North and the South), in the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln coasted to victory in the presidential election.

But within 5 years of the election of 1860, both Lincoln and Douglas had passed away. The task of rebuilding the nation would fall on others.

The North and South: Strengths and Weaknesses

The South had a feeling of invincibility from its tremendous economy, which was based on high prices for "King Cotton" and other crops, such as tobacco and sugar cane. The South also felt that the North lacked a will to fight and, if it did, Britain and France would recognize and help the South due to their dependence on its exports like cotton, tobacco, rice and sugar cane. But the South miscalculated about Britain: it had already purchased a surplus of cotton by 1860, and in 1860-1862 it had bad crop failures in basic foods. Britain needed the North to export its wheat and corn crops to them. Also, the North was increasingly exporting lard and beef to Britain, which it needed.

The South had strategic advantages: it controlled the mouth of the Mississippi and needed only to defend rather than conquer. The South considered its men, who spent more time outdoors, to be in much better condition to fight. The South had better generals, and but its most effective general (Stonewall Jackson) died halfway through the Civil War.

The South was wealthy, but primarily due to slavery. The estimated economic value of the slaves in the South exceeded the total of all investments in the railroads, banks, and factories in the North combined. Cotton prices soared in 1860, but by then Britain also had India as a new source of cotton.

The North benefited from the railroad system, heavy immigration and a much more balanced economy. German and Irish immigrants came in large numbers before and during the 1850s, and in the 1850 census, 10% of the male population over 23 was foreign born, mostly from Ireland and Germany. In response, the "Know-Nothing" or American Party arose as anti-immigration, anti-Catholic organization (most of the Irish were Catholics), given its name because its members would pretend not to "Know Nothing" when asked about their views.[12] Most of the immigrants ended up helping the North in the war, as large numbers of immigrants fought for the North against the South. Overall, the population of the North was 22 million compared with only 9 million in the South, 3.5 million of whom were slaves whom the South were reluctant to arm. The North also had control of the United States Navy, which proved to be useful in the war.

Finally, the North was politically successful in keeping border slave states from joining the Confederacy to fight against the North. The border states included Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and the northwestern portion of Virginia, which split off to become the new state of West Virginia. Abraham Lincoln said about Kentucky, "Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol."[13] Had those border states sided with the South, as it expected, the outcome may have been different.

Debate: Do you think the South could have won the Civil War, or at least fought off the North enough to secede?

Antebellum (pre-Civil War) State Admissions


Sequence of states joining the United States:
1-11. Colonies ratifying the Constitution before George Washington became president
12. North Carolina: November 21, 1789
13. Rhode Island: May 29, 1790
14. Vermont: March 4, 1791
15. Kentucky: June 1, 1792
16. Tennessee: June 1, 1796
17. Ohio: March 1, 1803
18. Louisiana: April 30, 1812
19. Indiana: December 11, 1816
20. Mississippi: December 10, 1817
21. Illinois: December 3, 1818
22. Alabama: December 14, 1819
23. Maine: March 15, 1820
24. Missouri: August 10, 1821
25. Arkansas: June 15, 1836
26. Michigan: Jan 26, 1837
27. Florida: March 3, 1845
28. Texas: December 29, 1845
29. Iowa: December 28, 1846
30. Wisconsin: May 29, 1848
31. California: September 9, 1850
32. Minnesota: May 11, 1858
33. Oregon: February 14, 1859
34. Kansas: January 29, 1861
Note that West Virginia did not become a state until it broke away from Virginia during the Civil War, with West Virginia joining the North and Virginia joining the South.


  1. The next items in the sequence (replacing the question marks) are: 1, 1, 1, 1. The overall sequence, beginning with "2, 1, 2, ...," represents the number of terms that each president (including his vice president if he died) served, starting with George Washington.
  2. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren.
  3. 3.0 3.1
  9. "In 1860, eleven-year-old Grace Bedell wrote to Lincoln suggesting he grow a beard to 'look a great deal better.' Lincoln replied that he thought people would think it was silly, but later changed his mind. He met her on his way to Washington, giving her a hearty kiss to thank her for her idea."[1]
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2
  11. John Brown had previously killed 5 men in Kansas, as explained in our section on "Bleeding Kansas."
  12. In 1855 the Know-Nothing Party successfully elected its candidate for mayor of Chicago, who then banned immigrants from city jobs. The Know-Nothing Party was most successful statewide in Ohio, before disappearing everywhere before 1860.