1850s

By 1850 the debate over the topic of slavery had been a recurring feature of American life for decades. The compromise of 1820 was one step on the path, another was the rise of the abolitionist movement, and still another evolved from the implications of the Mexican-American War and the territory acquired as a result of that conflict. Debates in the House of Representatives and the Senate had gotten so intense that gag rules were put in place to prevent the subject from being raised, last tempers be heated beyond control. Something had to be done. The resolution of the issue of slavery in the territories, including those in the South and West recently acquired under the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, fostered a lengthy debate in the Senate.

All those issues Leading up to 1850 were decided without recourse to war. Going back to the period immediately following the revolution, strong divisions worked against the principle of unity that the Constitution was an attempt to resolve. The politics of the 1790s between Federalists and Republicans were as bitter as any in many decades since. A rebellion in the New England states against what they referred to as "the Virginia dynasty" led to talk of secession during the period surrounding the War of 1812. But thanks to some skillful politicians and sometimes playing good fortune, those issues were resolved. But there was one topic that wouldn't go away: slavery. The year 1850 was a turning point because the great debate leading to the 1850 Compromise was believed to have resolved the issue once and for all. Unfortunately, it didn't last. This section discusses the fateful events of that decade and how the country slid perilously closer and closer to armed conflict.

SUMMARY. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina troops fired on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston. That momentous event, however, was but one important milestone in the conflict over slavery in America. It is probably safe to say that the struggle began in 1619 when the first slaves were offloaded from a Spanish ship in the Jamestown, Virginia colony. The fate of those early slaves remains obscure, but we do know that within 50 years, permanent lifetime slavery for African-Americans brought to America was established. Protests against slavery began in the late 1600s when the Quaker church condemned slavery, yet the practice continued through the American Revolution. After 1776, as many of the states considered the meaning of Jefferson's words that “all men are created equal,” however, the elimination of slavery began in the North. Slavery was also prohibited in territories belonging to the new nation under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

After 1800 the cotton economy in the South gave new life to the institution of slavery as slave labor became ever more valuable. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 up held the balance between slave states and free states while prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30' parallel. That compromise limited debate at the national level for 30 years. By 1830, however, the growing abolitionist movement gave pause to defenders of slavery in the southern states, and they sought ways to inhibit the federal power to outlaw the practice. The nullification crisis of 1832, ostensibly over tariffs, had a hidden agenda, namely, the ability of states to nullify federal laws that might be applied to slavery. When the tariff effort failed, it became apparent that the next logical defensive measure would be secession.

While discussion of the slavery issue in the United States Congress was muted by various gag laws, the conflict simply would not disappear. The accession of Texas prompted more debate over slavery, and when the annexation of Texas triggered war with Mexico, the resulting addition of a huge new block of territory in the Southwest opened the issue yet again. In anticipation of attempts to block slavery in the new Territories, delegates of southern states met in Nashville in 1850 to discuss secession. Although moderate voices prevailed, the idea of secession was now a distinct possibility, openly discussed. When the California gold rush made that territory ready for admission as a state, Congress was required to formally address the issue of slavery, thus instituting one of the great debates in American history, debate over the Compromise of 1850.

To this day, there are those who claim that the American Civil War was not about slavery. They say was about tariffs, or states' rights, or something to do with the industrial North and the agricultural South, or immigration patterns that differed significantly between the northern and southern states. That issue has been addressed in detail by historians, and it is safe to say that the consensus has concluded that without slavery, there would have been no Civil War. The documentary evidence to support that conclusion, including the Constitution of the Confederate States of America written in 1861, makes it clear that the purpose of secession, which triggered the war, had the purpose of preserving slavery in the South. And if the issue was states' rights, the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession shows clearly that South Carolina, the first southern state to secede, was on the opposite side of that issue.

SUMMARY. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina troops fired on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston. That momentous event, however, was but one important milestone in the conflict over slavery in America. It is probably safe to say that the struggle began in 1619 when the first slaves were offloaded from a Spanish ship in the Jamestown, Virginia colony. The fate of those early slaves remains obscure, but we do know that within 50 years, permanent lifetime slavery for African-Americans brought to America was established. Protests against slavery began in the late 1600s when the Quaker church condemned slavery, yet the practice continued through the American Revolution. After 1776, as many of the states considered the meaning of Jefferson's words that “all men are created equal,” however, the elimination of slavery began in the North. Slavery was also prohibited in territories belonging to the new nation under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

After 1800 the cotton economy in the South gave new life to the institution of slavery as slave labor became ever more valuable. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 up held the balance between slave states and free states while prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30' parallel. That compromise limited debate at the national level for 30 years. By 1830, however, the growing abolitionist movement gave pause to defenders of slavery in the southern states, and they sought ways to inhibit the federal power to outlaw the practice. The nullification crisis of 1832, ostensibly over tariffs, had a hidden agenda, namely, the ability of states to nullify federal laws that might be applied to slavery. When the tariff effort failed, it became apparent that the next logical defensive measure would be secession.

While discussion of the slavery issue in the United States Congress was muted by various gag laws, the conflict simply would not disappear. The accession of Texas prompted more debate over slavery, and when the annexation of Texas triggered war with Mexico, the resulting addition of a huge new block of territory in the Southwest opened the issue yet again. In anticipation of attempts to block slavery in the new Territories, delegates of southern states met in Nashville in 1850 to discuss secession. Although moderate voices prevailed, the idea of secession was now a distinct possibility, openly discussed. When the California gold rush made that territory ready for admission as a state, Congress was required to formally address the issue of slavery, thus instituting one of the great debates in American history, debate over the Compromise of 1850.

To this day, there are those who claim that the American Civil War was not about slavery. They say was about tariffs, or states' rights, or something to do with the industrial North and the agricultural South, or immigration patterns that differed significantly between the northern and southern states. That issue has been addressed in detail by historians, and it is safe to say that the consensus has concluded that without slavery, there would have been no Civil War. The documentary evidence to support that conclusion, including the Constitution of the Confederate States of America written in 1861, makes it clear that the purpose of secession, which triggered the war, had the purpose of preserving slavery in the South. And if the issue was states' rights, the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession shows clearly that South Carolina, the first southern state to secede, was on the opposite side of that issue.

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