Secession and Civil War

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What key events and individuals in the 1850s propelled the U.S. towards Civil War?

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The most significant factor in propelling the nation toward disunion was the Mexican War. Concluded in 1848, it, as Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted, "poisoned" the politics of the United States by pushing the expansion of slavery to the forefront. The Compromise of 1850 was one significant event that helped to propel the nation toward civil war, primarily because a more robust Fugitive Slave Act, included as a concession to southern slaveholders, outraged Northerners, intensifying the justifiable belief that a "slave power" controlled national politics.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was another event that pushed the nation toward disunion. Its sponsor, Stephen Douglas, was a key figure in this process by urging the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the use of popular sovereignty as a means to resolve the issue of slavery in the territories encompassed by the Louisiana Purchase. This led to the emergence of the Republican Party, which was devoted to halting the spread of slavery to the western territories, and was seen as an existential threat by southern proslavery forces. It also created a crisis in Kansas, which erupted into civil war—"Bleeding Kansas"—as antislavery forces battled "border ruffians" determined to establish a proslavery government there. In the presidential election of 1856, the collapse of the second two-party system became a reality as the Republicans, loathed by Southern slaveholders, replaced the Whigs in opposition to the Democrats.

In 1857, a Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, a case involving an enslaved man suing for his freedom after living in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was illegal, divided the nation even further. One year later, a Senate campaign in Illinois between Douglas, a Democrat, and a Republican named Abraham Lincoln brought the latter into national prominence. It also fatally divided the Democratic Party, enabling the decisive event in the collapse of the Union, the election of Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. Seven states in the Deep South reacted to the election by seceding from the Union, a decision that brought the nation to the brink of war when Abraham Lincoln took office in March of 1861.

There were many more events that contributed to the collapse of the Union in 1860, but these national political events were undoubtedly central to the process.

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Even in the very beginning of this decade, the crisis of the 1850s was already underway with the debates surrounding California's application for statehood, which was only managed by the Compromise of 1850. However, this compromise would prove unable to calm the rising tensions emerging between North and South over the issue of slavery. Just consider the impact of 1850s Fugitive Slave Act which incited outrage throughout the North.

As an earlier contributor has already noted, one of the key moments in this history came with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which caused sectarian violence to arise in Kansas, as abolitionists—John Brown among them—came into armed conflict with slavery's supporters). Later, in 1859, John Brown would lead a raid at Harpers Ferry, attempting to start a slave revolt.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln would challenge Stephen Douglas for his Senate seat. While Douglas would win that contest, these debates would have the lasting effect of bringing Lincoln into national awareness. He would later be selected as the Republican candidate for president in the election of 1860, running against opponents Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge. This earlier political encounter (between Douglas and Lincoln) would thus play a key role in influencing that later presidential election, the results of which would prove so critical in shaping the crisis of secession.

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Several interlinked factors in the 1850s accelerated the advance of the United States towards Civil War, a process that effectively began with the Nullification Crisis of thirty years prior.

The first of these was the presidency of James Buchanan. Buchanan was personally opposed to slavery but believed that ownership of slaves was protected by the U.S. Constitution. In fact, during his inaugural address, Buchanan even called slavery "a matter of little practical importance." The president's misreading of this key national issue, combined with the general weakness and ineffectiveness of his administration, helped decay the central strength of the United States federal government.

Another factor was the collapse of the Whig Party and the consolidation of the political opposition in the stalwartly abolitionist Republican Party. This provoked a panicked reaction from Democrats and southern political leaders who saw in the ascendant Republicans a threat to their economic way of life.

A third major factor was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This led to the civil unrest known as "Bleeding Kansas" which foreshadowed the national civil conflict that began in 1861.

Other critical events and personages of the 1850s that helped propel the United States to Civil War included the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.

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