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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

The Crisis of Union - Document Overview

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During the 1850s sectional interests and identities battered national ones. There was a contentiousness that threatened to tear the country apart, so many American politicians, reflecting the concerns of their constituents, proposed compromises to divert, if not stop, the conflicts. Unfortunately for the nation, however, compromise did not work as it had in the past: it now acted as a catalyst to crisis. Compromise worked when the parties involved were each willing to relinquish some demands to gain others, and when there was an underlying agreement on what issues were most important. Such a consensus had earlier existed when the majority of all the states' citizens held that maintaining the union took precedence over regional interests, but when that consensus crumbled there was but a weak foundation for a common, long-lasting solution.

The crisis had been building for some time. A few contemporaries traced its origins to the constitutional compromises, while others thought the first true signs of danger appeared in the nullification controversy of the 1830s. Certainly many acknowledged that tempers had been roiling for quite a while as people argued over individuals' and states' rights, issues raised by the institution of slavery. Americans contested a person's right to property versus an individual's right to him—or herself. They debated whether the federal government could limit people's choices in the territories—as in the expansion of slavery—in ways it could not in the states. The Missouri Compromise had been an early effort to cap this volcano of public sentiment, the gag rule in Congress another, but as these measures were rescinded and new ones failed, Americans grappled with the possibility that there would be an eruption that could destroy the union.

Secession was not a new concept created in the 1850s, but receptivity to the idea had grown over the previous decades. In December 1844, for example, James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter and politician, wrote in his diary about his state's resolutions that denounced the repeal of the gag rule "as a flagrant outrage infringing on the Fed[eral] Compact" and which declared that congressional legislation restricting slavery would amount to a dissolution of the Union. Hammond believed the resolutions more openly threatened separation than any ever passed—harking back to the nullification controversy—before. He went on to pen, "Nothing in my opinion but Dis-union now or very shortly can [save us]. Those who are for delaying this event for the sake of peace are taking the surest steps to render war inevitable. If passions are excited and the thing is done in extreme heat, it will be done in blood." Almost six years later, in May 1850, he criticized Clay's compromise as presupposing "a desire on both sides to be at peace, when such is not the fact and, if it were, no compromise would be necessary." He thought the compromise would weaken the South while only temporarily suspending abolition agitation. He wanted the South to unite in its resistance to any and all limits on its rights and be ready for action. It took the South ten years.

Over that decade politicians tried various measures to stop the fissures that had appeared from becoming so wide and so deep that they split the nation apart. The first of these was the Compromise of 1850. Questions about the establishment of states and the expansion of slavery in the country's vast territories rocked the nation. While a few old masters, such as John C. Calhoun, and their accolytes, one being Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, argued that the only way to halt the widening schism was through an acknowledgement of southern rights, others, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, sought to mend the rift through concessions to both sides of the divide. When Clay's package deal was defeated, a rising young leader in the Democratic Party, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, took on the task of getting the resolutions passed. He broke down Clay's program into five measures so that the lack of consensus on the sum of these issues would not prevent majorities from voting for each of them. Douglas's strategy worked: Congress admitted California as a free state, set the Texas state boundary and established the New Mexico territory, set up the Utah territory with (as in the New Mexico case) the issue of slavery left to the territorial legislatures, passed a new Fugitive Slave Act, and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

Most Americans accepted the compromise with relief if not joy. That relief was short-lived, for the question of slavery in the territories—and by extension, in the states—came up again when Douglas sought to organize the Nebraska territory and build a transcontinental railroad through it. To get southerners to vote for his bill, Douglas accommodated them on the slavery issue. He made "popular sovereignty," which enabled the people of the territories and new states to decide for themselves whether to include slavery, a part of his bill, and then supported the repeal of the Missouri Compromise's exclusion of slavery north of 36º30'. He also agreed to organize two territories: Kansas and Nebraska. Douglas got what he wanted, but at great personal and national expense. He ruined his chances for the presidency and further undermined the union.

The controversy over Kansas became the conflict in Kansas, as settlers and their supporters battled one another over the inclusion or exclusion of slavery in their territory. As Kansans bled, other Americans continued to exchange verbal punches over the nation's great problem. They fought it out within and between the political parties. They argued over it within the judiciary. And they kept electing different presidents in their search for strong executive guidance. One thing followed another so rapidly that the union could not recover its equilibrium between blows. It reeled and staggered into war.


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