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Notice: You are currently previewing Unit 7: Antebellum America

Unit Overview

“Mexico will poison us,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many Americans, including a young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, opposed the United States’ aggressive war against its southern neighbor. Most Americans, however, celebrated the realization of America’s “Manifest Destiny” to conquer the entire North American continent, which supposedly would extend the glories of Anglo-Saxon Protestant civilization to the Pacific.

Victory in the War with Mexico resulted in the acquisition of a massive swath of new territory that would have to be organized as slave or free states. These decisions would stir the pot of sectional tensions that had been brewing throughout the nineteenth century and threaten to upset the precarious balance of political power in Congress.

At the same time that Americans were trying to extend their empire westward and southward, the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture was being challenged by an influx of immigrants, primarily Roman Catholics, from places such as Ireland and Germany. Americans who opposed this immigration and who sought to deny rights to immigrants were known as “nativists”; some of them formed the American Party (also called “The Know Nothings”) and became a force in American politics.

But by the end of the decades of the 1850s, the issue of the extension of slavery into the western territories had decisively fractured the country and the Second Party System, leaving the Whigs and Democrats split into Northern and Southern wings and paving the way for the rise of a new party, the Republicans, who championed “free labor, free soil, and free men.”  

The title to this unit includes the word antebellum, a Latin term that means before war.


Though it is often thought of as a Southern phenomenon, American slavery touched every region of the country. In colonial times, New York, for example, had a large slave population, with slaves constituting perhaps twenty percent of the total population. More than forty percent of New York households owned at least one slave. Among the American colonies, only South Carolina compared with New York in terms of the number of white residents who were invested in slavery.

In the heady days after the American Revolution, however, the contagion of liberty spread throughout the land. A number of slaves had fought for the Patriot cause during the war, with freedom as their reward. Many leaders of the new nation had taken to heart the idealistic promise of the equality of all men, as it was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Even in the southern state of Maryland, for instance, noted lawyer Luther Martin founded an anti-slavery society.

Soon after independence was won, only New Jersey and New York among the northern states still allowed slavery. In 1784, a bill providing for the gradual emancipation of slavery was introduced in the New York legislature. Though the bill failed, fifteen years later Governor John Jay signed into law an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. This act declared that children born to slaves would be freed after a period of indentured servitude. By 1827, all slaves in New York had been freed.

Some white owners voluntarily manumitted their slaves, either in their own lifetimes or after their deaths. Included in this number are George Washington, who stipulated in his will that his slaves would be freed upon his wife Martha’s death (out of fear of her slaves killing her, Martha freed them a few months after her husband’s death); John Dickinson, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Delaware; and most significantly, Robert Carter III of Virginia, whose freeing of his 452 slaves because of his Christian religious principles constituted the single largest act of voluntary, individual emancipation in American history. Southerners voluntarily freed 100,000 slaves without monetary compensation between the end of the American Revolution and the Civil War; Northerners freed some 60,000, usually with monetary compensation.

The course of slavery’s decline in America was reversed, however, by the 1830s, as the “peculiar institution” became more deeply ingrained into the Southern economy and culture. Once referred to as a “necessary evil,” slavery was increasingly defended as a “positive good” by Southerners (an argument that was first made by New England ministers in the wake of the French Revolution). Many Southerners pointed to the poor conditions in Northern factories and argued that the condition of the slave was generally better than that of the Yankee laborer.

In the North a tiny minority of abolitionists began to agitate for emancipation. Among the first leaders of this movement were David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison. A free black from North Carolina, Walker opened a used-clothing store in Boston during the 1820s and published his Appeal in 1829. “America is more our country, than it is the whites — we have enriched it with our blood and tears,” Walker proclaimed. “Had you not rather be killed than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little children?” Walker's Appeal drew national attention; several Southern states banned the booklet, and some politicians called for the author’s death. In August 1830, a passerby found David Walker dead in his shop. Rumors circulated that he had been poisoned.

William Lloyd Garrison championed the idea of nonviolent political change based on “moral persuasion.” A Massachusetts newspaperman, Garrison believed that slavery was an evil condemned by Christianity and that it could not be justified by economic or political conditions. In 1831 he became nationally famous by publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. In his first issue Garrison set the tone he would follow throughout his career: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. ... I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.” In 1844 Garrison publicly burned a copy of the United States Constitution. As the document burned, he denounced it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.”

The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816, its purpose being to encourage free African Americans to migrate to settlements in Africa or Central America. Some members of the Society were overt racists who wanted America to be rid of its black population; others sincerely and paternalistically believed that colonization was the in the best interest of African Americans as well as whites. Among the Society’s most famous supporters were James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln. In 1821, the Society purchased a tract of land on the west African coast that would form the colony of Liberia. The colony numbered only 2,600 inhabitants a decade after its founding. In 1847, Liberia became an independent republic, but it never became the large settlement and “solution” to the supposed problem of a bi-racial America, as envisioned by its white creators.

Among abolitionists, there were many varieties. Their ranks included Sarah and Angelina Grimké, daughters of the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, author Theodore Dwight Weld, and escaped slave Frederick Douglass. A minority were immediatists, who wanted an immediate end to the institution, whereas others favored gradual emancipation. Some advocated compensation for slaveowners in return for the property they surrendered. Many, and perhaps most, abolitionists coupled the idea of colonization with emancipation. Fearing a multi-racial country, they sought to deport all African Americans to colonies in Central America or Africa, an idea that met with a generally chilly reception from blacks themselves (an attempt to put the idea into practice in Liberia initially met with disastrous results - see sidebar on the American Colonization Society).

Abolitionism remained on the radical fringe on the eve of the Civil War. A greater number of Yankees began to support the more moderate antislavery cause, which opposed the expansion of slavery in the western territories and the return of runaway slaves to their masters, as mandated in the federal fugitive slave law. Much of Northern antislavery sentiment was at its core anti-black sentiment. Racism was indeed a national phenomenon. Northerners enforced racial order through Negro codes, which provided for racial segregation. Northern states denied free blacks basic rights, such as voting and possessing firearms, and some even banned African Americans from entering their borders. Free blacks were few in number in many Northern states; they were particularly scarce in New England. The states with the largest free black populations were the slave states of Maryland and Virginia.

On the eve of the Civil War, some four million slaves lived in the South. Only one in three Southerners were slave owners, though most Southerners supported the institution as it was a key to the region’s prosperity and an intrinsic part of the social order. Many poorer white Southerners also hoped to own slaves one day. The vast majority of Southern slaveowners owned only a few slaves. Less than one percent of Southerners owned more than fifty slaves, and a fifth of these owned more than 100. This relative handful of white Southerners owned most of the region’s four million slaves. In South Carolina, enslaved blacks outnumbered the white population, which was a prime factor in making the state the fiercest defender of Southern rights and the peculiar institution.

The conditions of slavery in the antebellum South differed from region to region. In general, it was harsher in the deep South, where large cotton and rice plantations were worked by slaves organized into gangs and supervised by often harsh white (and sometimes black) overseers. In the upper South, conditions were milder, and owners there usually owned only a handful of slaves.

Of course, a slave’s quality of life differed from state to state and owner to owner. Some masters treated their slaves relatively well, refusing to separate families through the selling of individual slaves and even allowing them to lend their labor out so as to earn their own money (there were instances of slaves purchasing their own freedom by acquiring enough money in this manner). There were undoubtedly situations in which slaves were considered part of the white owner’s family, and mutual affection existed on both sides. In other instances, however, particularly in situations in which many slaves worked in the fields of large plantations, slaves harbored deep resentments, and owners were not reluctant to use the whip and to separate slave families. Slaves responded to their enslavement in various ways, ranging from open revolt and murder of their masters, to peaceful and subtle disobedience to orders, to running away. Accounts of the horrors of slavery appeared in print, most influentially in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s 1853 account of his kidnapping and being sold into slavery, Twelve Years a Slave.

As the issue of slavery became more heated, violence became increasingly common. In 1844 Henry Highland Garnet, an escaped slave and ordained minister, called for “War to the knife,” urging slaves, “Let your motto be ‘resistance’!” On the floor of the United States Senate in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina brutally beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane as punishment for a speech made by Sumner in which the Senator had insulted Brooks’ relative. Radical abolitionist John Brown killed slaveholders and their families in Kansas during the 1850s and in 1859 led an unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, hoping to spark a slave insurrection.

In 1820, in the debate over the “Missouri question,” Thomas Jefferson had said the sectional conflict over slavery “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence." As the election of 1860 approached, the period of reprieve for America was coming to an end.


As the nation split North and South, industry was changing the country, especially in the North. Factories, railroads, and other technologies were centered in the cities. Millions of immigrants came to the United States seeking jobs, prosperity, and the “American Dream.” Many during this time were Irish and German Catholics. The influx of new people created a diverse and multi-talented population. These newcomers caused many Protestant Americans who had arrived generations earlier to feel threatened or challenged. To many Protestants, Catholics were primitive, superstitious and subservient to a “foreign prince,” the Pope. They believed Catholics could never participate in a democratic republic, while they also claimed dual loyalty to a European power. Prejudice, discrimination, and at times, fierce urban violence accompanied urbanization and prosperity. Nativists burned down Catholic churches, convents and schools in attempts to deny Catholics the right to vote, participate in the democracy, or have certain protections in public schools.

From these nativist feelings against newcomers came political movements. Major political parties, such as the Native American Party and the American Party formed during the 1840s and 1850s to stop immigration and deny citizenship to Catholic immigrants. These parties were able to win governorships and mayoral seats, along with control of state and major city legislators. In 1856, the American Party even ran a former United States President, Millard Fillmore for President. His running mate was Andrew Jackson Donelson, President Jackson's nephew. In the election, the American Party finished third, winning only the 8 electoral votes from Maryland. However, Fillmore and Donelson won 21.6% of the popular vote, one of the best showings in American Presidential history for a third-party candidate. 

Despite their success, the prominence of immigration and Catholicism as major issues in national politics was short-lived. As the issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories became more volatile, the immigration issue temporarily faded and the American Party disbanded. Most of the Nativists joined the new Republican Party. Discord about ethnicity, religion, wealth, power, poverty, and privilege, however, continued to be debated in the war’s aftermath. The conflicts these ideas generated remain serious issues in modern America.

Kansas and Nebraska

In 1854, the expansion of slavery in the Western territories became a heated issue once again, as the issue of admitting the Nebraska Territory into the Union arose. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who was considering running for the White House, chaired the Senate Committee on Territories. Douglas was a strong supporter of Manifest Destiny. He believed it was the God-given right of the United States to expand its territory as much as possible. Douglas envisioned the construction of a transcontinental railroad that would unite east and west and make the United States an empire that dominated the American continent. Douglas knew in order for this railroad to become a reality, the Nebraska Territory must be organized and the Indians who occupied it forcibly removed from the land.

Douglas proposed dividing the Nebraska Territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and letting the principle of “popular sovereignty” prevail in both. Popular sovereignty entailed allowing the citizens of the territory to decide whether they would allow slavery within the territory. After pushing the bill through Congress, Douglas thought he had achieved a middle way on the issue of slavery expansion. He envisioned Nebraska entering as a free state and Kansas as a slave state, thereby preserving the delicate political balance in the country. His plan, however, rendered the Missouri Compromise of 1820 void and only inflamed tensions throughout the country and helped set into motion a series of events that would lead to the Civil War.

Since voting would decide the issue, both sides of the debate tried to swing the election by bringing in more people as settlers to vote. Supporters and opponents of slavery began recruiting people who supported their respective viewpoints on slavery to settle in Kansas or Nebraska. Some of these people were families, but many were well-armed single males, who had been recruited and sometimes paid to go to Kansas and Nebraska to swing the vote in favor of the abolitionists’ point of view or the slave owners’ side.

It was not long before the debate over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska turned violent. When a pro-slavery group attacked the new town of Lawrence, Kansas, in the summer of 1856, they killed five abolitionists. In response, John Brown, an abolitionist from New York, launched a raid on the pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek; Brown’s men killed the first five people they encountered in the settlement. Conditions worsened. Violence continued and political stability deteriorated to the point that Kansas had two rival territorial governments at the same time. The pro-slavery faction passed a new constitution in an obviously fraudulent election, which President James Buchanan approved, but the Congress rejected. Another constitutional convention was held; and an anti-slavery constitution was passed and approved, making Kansas a free state. However, the fighting and killing continued in “Bleeding Kansas.”

Violence even occurred in the United States Congress. When abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts insulted Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina in a speech in the Senate in May 1854, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks viciously attacked Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Brooks’ cane broke into bits as he repeatedly smashed Sumner’s head with it. Sumner was left with brain damage, and it took him three years to recover from his injuries. Hundreds of jubilant Southerners rewarded Brooks by sending him new canes. In the end, Kansas and Nebraska entered the Union as free states.

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who had travelled to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory where slavery was forbidden before returning to Missouri with his master. Upon his return, Scott sued for his freedom based on a Missouri law that held that any slave residing for a time in a free state or territory was considered freed. The law was created to prevent such slaves from inciting the slave population in their native state with tales of freedom elsewhere; Scott was using it as a vehicle to challenge the legality of slavery.

In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the majority opinion of the Court. He first explained that since Scott was not a citizen, he had no legal right to sue before the Court. While this justified a dismissal of the case, the Chief Justice, a Marylander and a strong supporter of slavery, took this opportunity to expound on the majority’s views on the “peculiar institution.” Declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional for its prohibition of slavery in the Northern states and territories, Taney claimed the framers of the Constitution never envisioned any limitation on African slavery. Consequently, he observed Africans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” He further declared, “that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people of the United States.”

The Dred Scott decision alarmed abolitionists in the North and fueled anew fears that a “slave power conspiracy” dominated the American government.

Birth of the Republicans

In the wake of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the demise of the Whig Party, the Republican Party was founded in the Northern free states by anti-slavery activists, free market businessmen, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free Soilers. The Republican Party quickly stood as the alternative to the Democratic Party, which favored slavery in the South and advocated popular sovereignty in the Northern territories. The Republicans were a pro-business party that fought against the expansion of slavery in the territories. 

After a failed Presidential campaign in 1856, in 1860 the Republican Party ran Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Lincoln had earned a reputation during his now famous debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois race for United States Senate. In 1860 he ran in a four-way race for the presidency with Stephen Douglas of the Democratic Party, John C. Breckinridge, representing the Southern Democrats, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. Despite not campaigning in any Southern state, and without winning a majority of the popular vote, Lincoln was elected President of the United States.

  • a document that states that Britain no longer rules the American colonies and lists the reasons the colonies were separating with Britain; this statement was written mostly by Thomas Jefferson and was approved by the Second Continental Congress in 1776
  • a meeting of delegates from May 25 to September 17, 1787 aimed at addressing the problems in governing the United States which resulted in the creation of the United States Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation
  • this landmark Supreme Court case, also known as the Dred Scott Decision, determined that slaves were not citizens of the United States and were therefore not protected under the Consittution. It also declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in any territory
  • an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political party in the 1840s-1850s, which was replaced in the mid-1850s by the Know Nothings.
  • the political doctrine that the government is created and sustained by the will of the people
  • law passed in 1820 that prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line
  • act passed on May 30, 1854 which repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska to the expansion of slavery
  • War between American colonists and Great Britain in which the colonists gained their independence.
  • Supreme Court decision that determined slaves and their children could never be citizens of the United States, slaves could not sue for freedom, and Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories.
  • extending or reaching from one side of a continent to the other
  • A belief in the 19th century that it was the destiny of the United States to expand its territory across the North American continent.
  • a member of the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere
  • A series of violent battles between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers to influence Kansas’ admission to the Union as a slave state or a free state .
  • the official name of the nativist political party of the mid-1850s, which was more commonly known as the Know Nothing Party
  • the act of treating of some people worse than others because they are different in some way
  • A position of attitude from which something is observed or considered.
  • the belief that slavery should be outlawed
  • a person who wanted to end slavery
  • something given or received that is equivalent to a service or debt
  • a document which establishes the fundamental rights and political principals of a nation
  • the act of freeing someone from the control of another, such as a slave being granted freedom or a child reaching adulthood
  • freedom from the control, influence, or support of another person or group
  • the formation and growth of cities that occurs when more and more people begin to live and work in central areas
  • opposed to the practice of slavery
  • members of the Free Soil Party, a minor political party in the 1840s-1850s which opposed the expansion of slavery in the United States
  • officially elected body of people who hold the power to make laws for a state or nation
  • a region in the northeastern United States where the first English settlers lived in the 17th century
  • the separation of a people based on race, class, religion or ethnic group in public places
  • a state which had legalized slavery
  • a settlement of differences reached by mutual concessioins
  • a formal meeting of people with a shared interest
  • a state in the Union in which slavery was illegal before the outbreak of the American Civil War
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • a member of one of the Christian groups that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century
  • a person who favors a republic as the best form of government; a member of the Republican Party
  • a sudden and drastic change; the often violent attempt to end the rule of one government and replace it with a completely new government
  • Released from slavery
  • Before war, specifically references the time period before the American Civil War.
  • a war between the northern United States (known as the Union) and southern slave states (known as the Confederate States of America) over the issue of slavery which was fought from 1861 - 1865
  • a group of people delegated to perform a certain function such as investigating an issue or taking action for a specific cause
  • any of the Earth's seven largest bodies of land
  • a government run by the majority where the people hold the power and have equal rights and privlidges
  • affiliation with a group that possess the same traits and characteristics
  • a list of goods or passengers carried by a ship or plane, made for the use of customs agents and other officials
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • the act of formally withdrawing from a federation
  • all of the land and waters that belong to or are controlled by a particular country; an area of land claimed by the United States, but not officially recognized as a state 
  • a disagreement; opposition
  • the main lawmaking body in the United States that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • an agreement between two or more people to engage in or refrain from a specific action
  • a person chosen to voice the opinion of or act on behalf of an entire group; a representative
  • a person who runs away or flees from the law
  • a governing official who exercises influence over an organized body; a person who governs
  • the production and sale of goods, in general; a group of businesses that make a particular good or provide a particular service (the automobile industry, the tourist industry)
  • a state of concern or attention; curiosity
  • the greater quantity; more than half the total number
  • the lesser quantity; less than half the total quantity
  • political position favoring the established inhabitants of a nation over that of immigrants; opposition to immigration in order to preserve an established culture
  • a person who favors the policies of nativism; someone who opposes immigration
  • a person who has ministerial qualities conferred upon them
  • a form of government where the head of state is not a monarch and officials are elected into office rather than inheriting their position
  • a formal speech, usually delivered on an important occasion or to a special audience
  • a period of one hundred years
  • a person who is a legal resident of a city, state, or nation and therefore is given the rights and protection of the government
  • a culmination of knowledge, beliefs, and values developed through an individual's experiences in the world
  • several; various; assorted
  • the way people use what they have in order to get what they need or want
  • coming from or related to a place outside of one's own country
  • a judge; to bring in accordance with the law
  • freedom from the control, coercion, interference, or restriction of others; independence
  • to move from one place to another in search of better living conditions
  • extremely different; straying from the usual or traditional
  • the process of withdrawing back from something dangerous or difficult
  • the legal ownership of one person by another; the condition of a person who is legally owned by another
  • a place that is ruled by a far away country; a group of people sent by their country to build settlements in such a place
  • to discuss or examine an important topic or issue by presenting and considering opposing points of view
  • a period of ten years
  • one very large area or many separate areas under the control of one person or government
  • having the same relationship, feelings or circumstances as another; reciprocal
  • the belief that human beings are divided into different races, that certain races are naturally better than others, and that the better races have a right to rule over the others
  • a large continuous and usually indefinite part of the Earth's surface
  • the highest house of Congress in the United States consisting of two representatives from each state who are elected by the people to serve a six year term
  • a name that refers to all of the states that did not secede from the United States during the American Civil War
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • the thing or person responsible for a specific change or result
  • the person with the highest rank or most power in a group
  • land along a sea or ocean
  • physical or mental effort; work; a task
  • a phrase that summarizes the motivation or intent of a certain organization or group
  • command; authoritative instruction
  • a person held in servidtude who is the property of another
  • from, in, or like the city
  • a proposed law
  • something that is greater in excellence (better) or higher in quality; favorable
  • a rule established by custom or authority
  • an often customary method of achieving an end
  • (American history) colonists who supported independence during the American Revolution
  • the point on a compass that is directly opposite from east; the direction of sunset
  • James Farmer established the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 to improve race relations and to end racial discrimination.
  • a law