Previous to the American Civil War in 1810, there was another significant military event that greatly impacted the United States: the Mexican-American War. This war took place from 1846 to1848 and was caused by the same two main reasons that led to the Civil War: sectionalism and the slavery question. The Mexican-American War made people pay attention to these situations that they had long since ignored. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexico received $15 million when it seceded some of its land to the American government, including parts of current California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as shown in the map in Document 1. The North and the South disputed over whether slavery should be permitted in these areas, meeting deadlocks when sectional tension rose, which lead to the beginning of the Civil War.
The cultural differences between the North and the South stemmed from the South’s dependence of slavery to uphold its economy. In Document 4, Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters, George Fitzhugh portrayed a very Southern viewpoint of slavery: that this “peculiar institution” is a very paternal relationship where the slaveholders are loving father figures that see it their responsibility to take care of their children, their slaves. He continues by saying that “The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world” who “have all the comforts and necessities of life provided for them” and “enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor.” The Southern image of the slave was that of a person who was not capable of taking care of him or herself and was content with and thoroughly enjoyed the hard physical labor that he or she was put through. This Southern idealist viewpoint is in stark contrast to the brutally realistic viewpoint presented in the controversial novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (presented in Document 3), in which slavery is portrayed as a Northerner would see it: a degrading, horrible experience in which the slaveholder treats the slave as nothing more than property to be bought, sold, traded, and abused. The main motivation behind this difference in opinion over slavery was the South’s claim that they needed slavery to survive economically, which does hold some truth, as the Southern economy was very dependent of slaves to work on plantations that grew cash crops like cotton. This was the claim that the South clung to when the Mexican Cession was under consideration to be a free state that prohibited slavery. Tensions grew as legislation that favored free statehood, such as the Wilmot Proviso (which was backed by northern Whigs who favored the “rights of white freemen without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings on white labor”) but specifically Henry’s Clay Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850, written 2 years after the Mexican-American War, proposed California be admitted as a free state but the rest of the Mexican Cession have no explicit ban on slavery, rather it should allow a policy of popular sovereignty to be instituted. In addition to dealing with the question of the practice of slavery in the new lands, the Compromise also banned the buying and selling of slaves in Washington, D.C. and instituted stricter Fugitive Slave Laws that removes a slave’s right to a testify on their own behalf. Following Clay’s Compromise of 1850 was the equally significant Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act would affect the areas shown in the map in Document 9 by permitting slavery above the Missouri Compromise line. This is probably the most impactful of the due to the reactions it invoked. As a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the pro-slavery Southern Democratic Party split while the anti-slavery Northern Whig Party disappeared completely and the “Anti-Kansas” Party, which would eventually become the Republican Party, rose to power. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had an unintentional negative impact as it inspired many to fight in violent uprisings like the “bleeding Kansas” movement that took place in skirmishes along the borders of states. John Brown is one of the most well-known anti-Kansas-Nebraska Act activists because of his massacre of pro-slavery settlers that caused his execution (as picture The Last Moments of John Brown in Document 10). Even slaves became active in the sectionalist politics of the time. One slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that his master moved him to a territory that was above the Missouri Compromise Line and therefore banned slavery. His court case, Dred Scott v Sanford, became significant because of its outcome determined by Chief Justice Taney. Taney declared in Document 5 (“Opinion of the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v Sanford, 1857”) that “in the Declaration of Independence…the negro race [was classified] as a separate class of persons, and [that it]show[s] clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the government then formed” and that “upon full and careful consideration of the subject, the court is of opinion, that, upon the facts states,…Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the constitution of the United States and not entitles as such to sue in its courts.” With this verdict, Taney concluded that (1) Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States because he was a slave, (2) because of this, he could not access the court system, (3) even after this fact, Scott would have lost due to his residence in Wisconsin, an area that was not under Congress’ control due to its territory status and (4) all this combined made the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
With all these factors, it’s easy to see why civil war was seen on the horizon. As Abraham Lincoln said in his “A House Divided” speech (seen in Document 6) in 1858, “In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’…Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all states, old as well as new – North as well as South.” Lincoln’s main point in this speech is that slavery is an issue that must be dealt with. Whether it is all slavery or no slavery, the outcome must produce a standardized Union. The cultural sectionalism must stop as soon as possible, which it does, but only after the American Civil War which Lincoln tried so hard to avoid.
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