Primary Source Images: The Sectional Crisis


Slavery had long divided the politics of the United States. In time, these divisions became both sectional and irreconcilable. As westward expansion continued, these fault lines grew unstable, particularly as the United States seized more lands from its war with Mexico. Violence in Kansas and in the United States capitol demonstrated how dangerous these divisions had become. However, as the country seemed to teeter ever closer to a full-throated endorsement of slavery, an antislavery coalition arose in the middle 1850s calling itself the Republican Party. Eager to cordon off slavery and confine it to where it already existed, the Republicans won the presidential election of 1860 and threw the nation on the path to war. By 1861 all bets were off, and the fate of slavery and the Union depended upon war. These sources offer glimpses into a nation on the verge of collapse.

Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law

Lithograph showing four black men being hunted by white men with guns.

This lithograph imagines the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850.  Four well-dressed Black men are being hunted by a party of White men, seen in the background.  There are a number of ambiguities in the image – are the Black men enslaved or free?  Are they trying to escape or not?  Where exactly are they?  These ambiguities speak to the concerns many abolitionists had about the law, which required free citizens to return self-emancipated enslaved people to their enslavers.

Sectional Crisis Map

Republican propaganda map from the 1856 election makes clear distinctions between free states, slave states, and territories

This piece of Republican propaganda from the 1856 election makes clear distinctions between free states, slave states, and territories. Featured at the top of the page are engravings of John C. Fremont and his running mate, William C. Dayton. A vibrant red sets off the free states. The chart, “Freedom vs. Slavery,” demonstrates the North’s economic and cultural superiority over slave states in terms of everything from population per square mile, capital in manufactures, miles of railroad, the number of newspapers and public libraries, and value of churches.