Thirteen colonies banded together to become an independent nation from Great Britain in 1776. Northern and southern colonies formed a union of States, united together for independence. Two different societies developed the industrialized north and the rural south, both with a common goal. After their revolution from Great Britain, these United States expanded westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Their territory increased and new states were admitted to the Union. These United States coexisted peacefully as northern free states and southern slave states, however the admittance of new states threatened the peace. The expansion of the United States and the addition of new states disrupted the sectional divide between the two regions plunging the nation into civil war.
Aside from the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by the Continental Congress. The ordinance established how our nation would expand westward, creating territories that would form new states and be admitted to the Union. The ordinance also banned slavery in the Great Lakes region, which established the regional divide between northern free states above the Ohio River and the southern slave states below the river. This political divide played out in the United States Senate as new states formed, with southern senators fearful that their “peculiar institution” of slavery would be destroyed.
The young nation expanded in the 1790s in both the northern and southern regions always maintaining that equal balance of power. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase. This allowed for the addition of new states to form and join the Union once the vast expanse of land was filled by westward moving Americans. This westward movement created the sectional crisis, as the expansion of slavery into the new territories came into question.
Missouri emerged as a state from the Louisiana Purchase. With the admittance of Missouri into the Union the balance between free and slave states began to tip. To balance the power in the Union, Maine was admitted as a free state. Maine was a non-contiguous part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This compromise of admitting one slave state and one free state stabilized the balance of power between the two regions. Another part of the compromise was the prohibition of slavery in the remaining northern territory of the Louisiana Purchase. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 maintained order in the Union, but the nation continued to expand.
The expansion of the nation and the admittance of new states threatened the balance of power. If the north out numbered the south in the senate then the way of life in the southern states might be threatened. The south did not want to lose their right to have slaves and did not believe that the federal government could abolish it. Maintaining an equal number of states in both regions protected them against the threat of the federal government interfering with their “peculiar institution.” The south felt the issue was a states’ rights issue. However slavery would not be the first issue that the southern states felt the federal government was threatening their states’ right.
In 1828 the sectional divide heated up not over slavery, but another states’ right issue. The southern economy, which slavery was a part of, relied on trade with foreign countries. The imposition of a tariff, or a tax, on foreign trade threatened the southern economy. Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina supported the idea of nullification proposed by his home state, which would allow states to null and void legislation passed by the federal government. It was a states’ right to do so. President Andrew Jackson thought nullification to be unconstitutional. Jackson loved the Union and wanted nothing more than to preserve the Union. Jackson threatened South Carolina with military force and believed nullification a treasonous act. In the end the state backed down and the Union was preserved, however the nullification crisis foreshadowed events to come.
By the late 1830s citizens of the United States were venturing westward filling and occupying the land purchased from France. Although one region in particular that was not apart of the Louisiana Purchase drew numerous citizens of the United States and that was Texas. Texas became an independent nation from Mexico in 1836 populated by an overwhelming amount of Americans. Texans fought for their independence and after winning sought annexation by the United States. If the United States were to admit Texas then the balance between free and slave states would be disrupted. Northern states did not want Texas admitted to the Union because they feared it would expand slavery, while the southern states welcomed the state. Just a few days before leaving office in March of 1845, President John Tyler signed the resolution annexing Texas as a state.
While Texas was a hotly debated topic for almost a decade, the issue of admitting it into the Union no longer became an issue by the time James K. Polk assumed the presidency in 1845. Aside from limiting himself to a single term in office, he committed himself to achieving four goals during his administration. Two of the goals were connected to the expansion of the Union, acquiring the Oregon territory from Great Britain as well as California and New Mexico from Mexico. Polk set out to turn the United States into a continental power, establishing a “manifest destiny.”
To achieve the manifest destiny of our nation Polk took us to war. Obtaining Oregon from Great Britain did not require a fight, but obtaining California and New Mexico would not be as simple. The Mexican-U.S. War lasted from 1846 to 1848. The Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo ended the war and expanded the nation all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The new territory gained from the treaty created the question of whether to admit states into the Union as free or slave.
The new territories which emerged from the war brought the balance of power between the two regions to a boil. Once again a compromise was needed. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed a number of measures which included admitting California as a free state; the territory of New Mexico would be organized without the prohibition of slavery; the slave trade was prohibited in the District of Columbia, while slavery was not abolished; and fugitive slave laws were strengthened. The compromise was opposed by President Zachary Taylor, however he died in 1850 and his successor Millard Fillmore supported it. This Compromise of 1850 tempered the crisis brewing between the north and the south.
While the start of the decade attempted to put the sectional crisis to rest it became just a stepping stone to the impending crisis. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an important part the abolitionist cause and 19th Century American literature. The novel had an affect on attitudes toward slavery and the slaves themselves. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which attempted to quench the slavery issue was repealed two years after Stowe’s novel was published.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise which sought to end the debate on the expansion of slavery. Now through popular sovereignty the settlers of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were to determine if they were a free state or a slave state. The settlers of Kansas turned to bloodshed as northerners moved in to claim the territory as a free state, while southerners did the same but for pro-slavery reasons. The anti-slavery side eventually triumphed over the pro-slavery side, but once again this event was another foreshadow of things to come but on a larger scale.
As the nation expanded and the expansion of slavery grew with it, a political party emerged in 1854 in opposition to its expansion. The Republican Party formed in 1854 and by the presidential election of 1856 had its first presidential candidate on the ballot. However in the end John Fremont was defeated by Democratic candidate James Buchanan. President Buchanan continued the disorder that was maintained by the previous administration of Franklin Pierce. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled on the Dred Scott case, stating that a slave was not a citizen and thus had no rights under the Constitution. The ruling intensified northern opposition to the expansion of slavery.
In 1858 an Illinois seat in the United States Senate gained attention as the two competitors for that seat debated for their party’s dominance in the Illinois state legislature, which appointed United State Senators at the time. Democrat Stephen Douglas debated Republican Abraham Lincoln. In the debates Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The house represented the country and its sectional division of free and slave states. The Democrats won the election in Illinois returning Douglas to the United States Senate, while Lincoln gained national attention. The house divide was on the verge of collapsing.
In 1859 John Brown attempted to start a slave rebellion. Brown led an attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He seized the federal armory and held the citizens hostage. The rebellion was squashed and Brown was hung. Rebellion was in the air, but not from the anti-slavery side.
Lincoln’s prominence in the senatorial debates propelled him to the Republican nomination for president in 1860 defeating party heavy weight William Seward of New York. The election of 1860 pitted Republican Lincoln against, against a fractured Democratic party. The southern pro-slavery Democrats nominated the incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge, while the northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. A fourth candidacy came from the Constitutional Union Party, a party comprised of former Whigs and Know-Nothings. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell. With the lowest popular vote percentage of any president ever and with only the electoral votes of the northern states, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States.
With Lincoln’s election, the south believed the anti-slavery party would abolish their “peculiar institution.” Before the year of 1860 was out the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union, an act deemed unconstitutional by President Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln. However Buchanan felt there was nothing he could do. Lincoln attempted to heal the wounds with his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. The south ignored Lincoln and on April 12th attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Fort Sumter in Lincoln’s eyes was Union property; the war between the states had begun.
Two different regions, one free and the other slave holding, fought together to overthrow a tyrannical king. These United States expanded their territorial reach over the North American continent. Their expanse disrupted the peaceful sectionalism which existed in revolution. Compromises were made to maintain the peace as the nation grew. However expansion turned these United States into a house divided, long preventing it from becoming a more perfect union as the United States.