A Nation Divided: Catalysts of the Civil War

The Civil War, a division within nation, is recognized as not only one of the bloodiest but also one of the most complicated wars in history. While the details of its events are interesting, what makes it so unique and fascinating are the events that caused a split between a nation that prided itself on its patriotism. In this timeline, we explore several events that were influential in sparking this conflict.

1820-03-23 00:00:00

Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was a legal decision proposed by Congress in which they agreed only to allow Missouri (a slave state) into the Union as long as Maine (a free state) was also admitted, therefore preserving the balance between slave and free states; it also created a boundary across the continental U.S that would disallow slavery north of the established line. This was intended to quell growing conflict in the U.S over the question of slavery, but instead drew criticism from those in the South (who believed that Congress did not have the power to make decisions regarding slaves, a.k.a property) and the North (who were critical of any expansion of what they saw as an immoral practice). The Missouri Compromise decision mostly stemmed from heated debates over the morality of slavery and the rights of the government to regulate it at the time, and ultimately accentuated the principles and ideas within the U.S that would serve to dictate later, more drastic events; therefore, the Missouri Compromise is generally more connected to a cultural theme than any other.

1830-01-19 00:00:00

Haynes-Webster Debate

A debate originating in the Senate between Sen. Robert Hayne and Sen. Henry Webster in which Webster proposed the idea of the U.S as one tightly integrated/unified country, rather than Hayne’s view that the Constitution represented a sort of contract between the states but ultimately loyalty and rights belonged to and could vary from state to state. Ultimately Webster, a senator from New Hampshire, was introducing the eventual idea that the Union would embody, while Haynes (from South Carolina, also the first state to secede) presented an idea that would eventually lead to the formation of the Confederate States of America: that any deviation from this “contract” of the Constitution was grounds for noncompliance and even secession. Because this debate stemmed from debates over liberty and rights and the influence of government, and especially because its topic centered around regional identity, this debate has elements that tie mostly into the theme of identity.

1831-08-21 00:00:00

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Nat Turner was an African-American preacher who convinced other slaves to rise up and rebel against their oppressors, ultimately leading around 75 slaves in a terror campaign across the Virginian South (murdering around 50 whites) that led to his eventual capture and execution. While Turner was punished for his crime, the event served to terrify whites in the U.S (especially the South) and sparked a response from both ordinary southerners-- who led several retaliation campaigns against other innocent blacks-- and the government (who passed much stricter laws against slaves), ultimately setting the stage for the sort of general anti-black sentiment that would bolster the South into fighting for their right to control slaves in the Civil War. Turner’s rebellion was not only caused by personal sentiments existing within oppressed slaves, but also was a major cause in defining the motivations for those who fought to further oppress blacks; the involvement of perceptions and personal attitudes in this event serve to make it tie into the theme of culture.

1836-05-26 00:00:00

Gag Resolution of 1836

The Gag Resolution was a rule passed by the House of Representatives in Congress that agreed to immediately table any anti-slavery bills or initiatives in response to increasing demands from abolitionists; the decision was met with criticism from those (especially John Quincy Adams) who accused it of violating the Constitutional rule of free speech. While this resolution was intended to draw attention away from or even quell the slavery debate, it instead served to allow the buildup of a negative dynamic between those in favor of slavery and those against it, clearly tying into one of the main causes of the Civil War. The use of federal power in an attempt to silence the issue of slavery, an issue that would eventually explode into conflict, is not only an example of the early government’s poor handling of the issue but is part of a political theme.

1840-02-24 00:00:00

U.S vs. The Amistad

This was a court case in which illegally enslaved Africans were put on trial in America for their murder of two crew members on the ship they were being transported on (the Amistad); the eventual outcome determined that their mutiny was justified as they had been enslaved illegally, and they were determined to be freed. This was an example of those with abolitionist sympathies uniting in order to bring about change on a political and national level, which was essential in the eventual development of two definite sides in the Civil War. Overall, this reflects the cultural beliefs of those in the north and determined an abolitionist ideology--of treating African Americans as people-- that would be challenged years later in the court case Dred Scott v. Sanford.

1844-11-05 00:00:00

Election of 1844

The Election of 1844 was dominated by political questions of expansion, which tied into the highly debated topic of the expansion of slavery; while Whig candidate Henry Clay was more anti-annexation, ultimately a third party candidate earned just enough of his votes to ensure that James K. Polk-- a “dark horse” candidate strongly in favor of U.S expansion-- became President. This election was significant because, although the eventual winner of the election was not an abolitionist, it did spark heated conflict especially between pro-slavery expansionist advocates and the emerging abolitionist movement in the North, ultimately highlighting and bringing to light the issues that the country would eventually split over. While this event did reflect many cultural beliefs held by citizens, it’s significance lies in the fact that these beliefs were so hotly debated on a more political platform, in a way giving authority to those challenging formerly dogmatic ideas held in the U.S (and so therefore the theme that this event most represents is that of politics).

1849-10-16 00:00:00

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

John Brown launched a raid against the town of Harper’s Ferry with the goal of inspiring a slave rebellion and therefore achieving his ultimate goal (as an abolitionist) of ending slavery. While Brown was not successful, his attack served to increase the tension between antislavery and proslavery advocates (and the North and the South) and make reconciliation much more difficult in the upcoming 1860 election. This event attempted to widen divisions between slaves and their owners and inspire an organized movement against the latter, and did eventually create distinctions between those in the North and South, making this event tie mostly into the theme of identity.

1850-01-19 00:00:00

Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was a series of resolutions proposed with the goal of preventing further conflict over questions of expansion and slavery (especially over lands gained from the treaty of the Mexican-American war); the compromise had elements that favored both sides, including making it easier to retrieve runaway states, admitting California as a free state and allowing some states to determine their status as a slave or free state depending on a process known as popular sovereignty. Much like the earlier Missouri Compromise, this act only served to prolong an inevitable conflict and sparked controversy and debate surrounding the hot-button issues that would soon divide the country. This compromise relates mostly to the theme of people/migration, as it was necessary because of the migration caused by the newly acquired lands and served to leave decisions (and, ultimately, the outcome of the U.S) up to the people through ideas like popular sovereignty.

1857-03-06 00:00:00

Dred Scott v. Sanford

This was a court case in which Dred Scott (a slave who attempted to go through the courts after his relocation from a free state to a state in which slavery was legal) was denied the classification as a free black because the Chief Justice ruled that slaves did not have the legal right to go through the court system as they were not citizens. This decision is widely unpopular even today, and back then was so offensive to abolitionists that it served to increase the malaise between the North and the South. This court case is one of the best examples we can find for the theme of identity, as it involves an attempt at assimilation that was ultimately denied because of class (and race) differences, serving to increase a feeling of division between two national identities (pro-slavery South and abolitionist North).

1858-01-04 00:00:00

Rejection of the Lecompton Constitution

The Lecompton Constitution was a legal document drawn up by members of Congress who had a pro-slavery agenda (subsequently, the contract included clauses that favored slavery); when the territory appealed to be a state and the President approved, many were scandalized as most in Kansas were anti-slavery (and the constitution had only been passed because of skewed voting); when Kansas was eventually admitted, it was as a free state, therefore rejecting the Lecompton Constitution. Debate over this issue caused controversy, first when Buchanan approved Kansas’s admittance into the Union (angering anti-slavery advocates and those who felt the Constitution did not accurately represent Kansas), and again when the House refused to recognize their constitution; this issue, while affecting a smaller populace, was an important and controversial issue nationwide as the 1860 election approached, making it one more tipping point in the Civil War. This decision, while charged with emotional and ideological elements, ties more into the theme of politics as it involves different interpretations of a constitution and interactions between the federal government and those in Kansas.

A Nation Divided: Catalysts of the Civil War

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