Conclusion: The Increasing Inevitability of War

Conclusion: The Increasing Inevitability of War

The sectional balance in U.S. politics became increasingly polarized, leading to tensions that escalated into civil war.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the events that made civil war in the United States increasingly inevitable

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A number of events caused a breakdown of sectional balance in the 1850s.
  • The Compromise of 1850, designed to appease both Northern and Southern Congressman, led to ballot rigging, violence, and conflict, culminating in “Bleeding Kansas,” a low intensity civil war.
  • Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, won the 1852 election. During his years in office, his support of the Compromise of 1850—particularly his rigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act —appalled and alienated many Northerners.
  • The Republican Party formed out of a loose coalition of Northern ex-Whigs who resented Southern political power. Republicans supported western expansion (for independent non-slave owning farmers), the development of infrastructure and Northern industry, and the restriction of slavery in new territories.
  • Democratic-nominated James Buchanan won the election of 1856, but the electoral results indicated that the Republican Party could succeed in the next election if they won two more states.
  • In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. The Court also ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit the expansion of slavery in new federal territories, nullifying the Missouri Compromise.
  • In 1860, sectional conflicts over the expansion of slavery into the territories exploded when the Democratic Party officially splintered into Northern and Southern factions.
  •  In the face of divided opposition, the Republican Party secured enough electoral votes to put Lincoln in the White House.
  • Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 in the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election. Declaring themselves the Confederate States of America, these seven states elected Jefferson Davis as the provisional president and began raising an army

Breakdown of Sectional Balance

A number of events contributed to the breakdown of sectional balance in the 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, caused controversy and contributed to Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy.” Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Because no suspected slave was permitted trial, this led to many free African Americans being forced into slavery.

The Wilmot Proviso sparked sectarian debate in Congress that forced political leaders to make numerous compromises to determine the slave issue in U.S. territories. Southerners argued that the federal government had no constitutional grounds to legislate against the expansion of slavery, whereas Northerners claimed the ban on the expansion of slavery was necessary in order to protect the interests of yeoman farmers and prevent Southern agriculture from dominating the U.S. agrarian economy.

Meanwhile, California applied for entry into the Union as a free state, tipping the balance power in the Senate. This prompted a series of measures, known popularly as the “Compromise of 1850,” designed to appease both Northern and Southern congressmen and establish a more equitable balance of power. These measures, although they solved the dispute regarding California’s status, did not provide any long-term guidance on the sectional balance of territories. The Compromise of 1850 was tested when a mass influx of settlers arrived in Kansas and Nebraska territories to determine through popular sovereignty whether or not slavery would be permitted in each region. Ballot rigging, violence, and conflict ensued in the territory, leading to a low-intensity civil war referred to as “Bleeding Kansas.” In 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. Nebraska was not admitted to the Union until 1867, after the Civil War.

In the realm of foreign affairs, the Ostend Manifesto claimed that the threat of a possible Haiti-type slave revolt in Cuba meant the United States would be “justified in wresting” Cuba from Spain. Annexation was a policy aggressively pursued by Southern expansionists in the wake of California’s admission to the Union as a free state, but Northerners decried the document as an attempt to unconstitutionally spread slavery to other territories. The political backlash against the Ostend Manifesto and the Pierce administration effectively terminated any discussions of Cuban annexation until after the American Civil War.

Realignment of the Party System

The presidential election of 1852 was the last time the Whig party nominated a candidate—the party collapsed shortly thereafter. Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, won the 1852 election, serving as a testament to the sectional and organizational weaknesses in the Whig Party. During his years in office, his support of the Compromise of 1850—particularly his rigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act—appalled and alienated many Northerners.

The Republican Party formed out of a loose coalition of Northern ex-Whigs who resented Southern political power. Republicans supported western expansion (for independent non-slave owning farmers), the development of infrastructure and Northern industry, and the restriction of slavery in new territories. However, mainstream Republicans were not an abolitionist faction. They simply opposed the spread of slavery into western territories and new states.

The Whigs and Democrats were at odds from 1840 to 1861, but both encountered intraparty sectionalism over slavery. After the Compromise of 1850, the Whigs were unable to develop a cohesive, unified response to the slavery issue, leading to their eventual demise. Democrats also were split over the slave question, with Southern Democrats arguing that slavery was central to the American national economy and society, and Northern Democrats feeling alienated under the growing Southern Democratic Party platform.

The election of 1856 demonstrated the extremity of sectional polarization in U.S. national politics. Republicans nominated John C. Frémont, who publicly criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. Democratic-nominated James Buchanan won the election and Frémont received fewer than 600 votes in all slave states. The electoral results indicated that the Republican Party could succeed in the next election if they won two more states.

Deepening of the Crisis

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. The Court also ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit the expansion of slavery in new federal territories, nullifying the Missouri Compromise, an agreement passed in 1820 between proslavery and antislavery factions in Congress. For many Northerners, the Dred Scott decision implied that slavery could move, unhindered, into the North, whereas Southerners viewed the decision as a justification of their position.

In 1857, settlers in Kansas were faced with voting on a constitution that outlined a government for the territory. The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas. The Lecompton Constitution guaranteed the protection of slavery in the region and received the support of President Buchanan and the Southern Democrats. Northern Democrats, however, opposed the Lecompton Constitution after it was voted down by the majority of Kansas settlers, believing that passage of the Lecompton Constitution would violate popular sovereignty.

The Panic of 1857 began after the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company in September 1857 and lasted until the Civil War. Many Northerners blamed the Panic of 1857 on the South’s aggressive proslavery agenda. The Dred Scott decision contributed to the Panic because many Northern financiers found it risky to invest in western territory with the possibility of slavery extending into new U.S. territories. The Southern economy suffered little while the Northern economy made a slow recovery.

In 1858, in an effort to win Northern support for the popular sovereignty argument, incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas entered into a series of debates with Abraham Lincoln, who was challenging him for the Illinois congressional seat. The main theme of all seven Lincoln-Douglas debates was slavery and its expansion into the territories. The widespread media coverage of the debates raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable nominee for the Republican Party in the presidential election of 1860.

Increasing sectional polarization pushed Americans into two distinct political camps on the eve of the 1860 presidential election. The Republicans became the party of the North, promoting industry and business while also attracting antislavery factions by opposing the expansion of slavery into new territories. The Democrats were split between North and South, with separate election tickets in 1860.

The Impending Crisis

John Brown, a radical abolitionist from the North, led an attack on the federal arsenal Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Brown believed that through violence and bloodshed, he could purge the South of its wickedness and eradicate American slavery. Although this revolt was quickly suppressed by U.S. Marines, the South viewed the attack as an act of abolitionist terrorism and feared future aggression from the North. The raid deepened the growing psychological rift between the two regions.

In 1860, sectional conflicts over the expansion of slavery into the territories exploded when the Democratic Party officially splintered into Northern and Southern factions. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, whose campaign emphasized compromise in order to prevent disunion. Southern Democrats, on the other hand, nominated secessionist John C. Breckinridge. Republicans backed Abraham Lincoln, who ran on a platform that sought to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories and to implement several economic policies designed to stimulate Northern industry. In the face of divided opposition, the Republican Party secured enough electoral votes to put Lincoln in the White House.

Seven Deep South states passed secession ordinances by February 1861 in the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election. Declaring themselves the Confederate States of America, these seven states elected Jefferson Davis as the provisional president and began raising an army. As part of its efforts to assert independence, the Confederacy appointed several ministers to European nations and refused to surrender U.S. federal arsenals or properties to Washington, precipitating the events that led to the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861.