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The United States Of America, Part Four

This is the story of how the American Republic developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European explorers arrived, until modern times.


History of the United States: Continued, Page Four

JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY   A Transforming Democracy  
After 1815 Americans transformed the republic of the Founding Fathers into a democracy. State after state revoked property qualifications for voting and holding office—thus transforming Jefferson’s republic of property holders into Andrew Jackson’s mass democracy. Democracy, however, was not for everyone. While states extended political rights to all white men, they often withdrew or limited such rights for blacks. As part of the same trend, the state of New Jersey took the vote away from propertied women, who formerly had possessed that right. Thus the democratization of citizenship applied exclusively to white men. In the mid–19th century, these men went to the polls in record numbers. The election of 1828 attracted 1.2 million voters; that number jumped to 1.5 million in 1836 and to 2.4 million in 1840. Turnout of eligible voters by 1840 was well over 60 percent—higher than it had ever been, and much higher than it is now.

At the same time, however, popular political activity other than voting declined. Judging by available evidence, state and national governments received fewer petitions than in the past, and they paid less attention to the ones they received. In the 1830s, when Congress received hundreds of antislavery petitions, it simply refused to read them. Petitioning, parading, and mobbing (each of which included Americans who were not white males) had all been crucial to the American Revolutionary movement, and they had continued to play important roles in Jeffersonian America. By the 1830s and 1840s, spontaneous parades and mob actions played smaller roles in political life, and more-respectable citizens viewed such activities as disorderly and criminal. Popular participation in politics was more and more limited to voting.

Furthermore, voting was organized not by the voice of the citizenry, but by a national two–party system staffed by disciplined professionals. These professionals included candidates, appointed officeholders, newspaper editors, and local leaders who organized voters, wrote party platforms, and developed party ideologies in ways that only partially and indirectly reflected popular wishes. Thus political participation was democratized by the 1830s. But democracy included only white men, and even they were transformed from citizens to spectators.

Origins of the Party System  Neither the Jeffersonians nor their Federalist opponents admitted to being a political party. To them the term "party" meant the same as "faction." It also meant the victory of selfishness and contention over the selfless unanimity they felt a republic needed.

However, two events caused important politicians to reconsider the value of parties. First, the Panic of 1819, an economic downturn, introduced Americans to a cycle of booming economy followed by bust, a cycle that would come to characterize the new market economy during the 19th century. Some Jeffersonians blamed the panic on the Bank of the United States, which had been rechartered in 1816. They argued that if the disciplined coalition of Southern and Western farmers that had elected Jefferson had still been in place in 1816, Congress would not have rechartered the bank and the panic would not have happened.

The second event that caused politicians to reconsider the value of political parties was Missouri Territory’s application for admission to the Union in 1818. Missouri’s proposed constitution allowed slavery, and that provision caused heated argument in Congress, revealing angry differences between representatives of slave states and free states. Congress ultimately compromised, balancing the new slave state of Missouri by admitting Maine as a free state (see Missouri Compromise). Congress then declared that slavery would be allowed in the Louisiana Purchase territories south of a line drawn west from the southern border of Missouri. Slavery would be banned north of that line. The immediate crisis was solved, but the fault line between slave and free states remained open.

The same politicians (Martin Van Buren of New York was the most active of them) who opposed the Bank of the United States also argued that Jefferson’s coalition of slaveholding and nonslaveholding farmers would never have permitted the dangerous, divisive question of slavery to get into congressional debate. They organized a disciplined coalition for states’ rights and limited government that supported Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1828. That coalition became the Democratic Party.

In the 1820s, many politicians had come to believe that organized parties were essential to democracy. Parties gave ordinary men the power to compete with the wealth, education, and social connections of traditional leaders. Parties also created disciplined organizations that could control political debate.

Democrats and Whigs  
Beginning with Jackson’s administration, the Democrats were opposed by the Whig Party. The Whigs were led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and others who called for an active national government and who had a nationalist answer to the growing problem of slavery.

The Whigs proposed what they called the American System. They wanted a high tariff that would protect Northeastern factories from European competition while it generated revenue for the national government. They proposed high prices for government land in the West—a policy that would slow westward movement and that also would increase federal revenue. They insisted that the Bank of the United States be maintained to stabilize currency and to discipline smaller banks. And they wanted to use the money that tariffs and the sale of lands would give the government to built and maintain roads and other internal improvements.

The result, they promised, would be a society with a national market under a government that fostered prosperity and order. At the same time, the national character of the Whig economy would discourage arguments among the three sections of the nation—the Northeast, the South, and the West. The Northeast would manufacture goods for the South and West. The South would supply cotton to Northeastern factories, and the West would provide food for both the South and Northeast. The prosperity of each section would depend on friendly relations with the other two, and none of them would want to bring up the divisive question of slavery.

Andrew Jackson and his Democratic successors proposed to limit the role of government in the market revolution and in resolving the tensions among the sections. They wanted to abolish the Bank of the United States, set tariffs at low levels, sell government land at low rates, and leave the question of internal improvements to the states.

Democrats hoped to create a national government that never meddled in local affairs (one of the most important of those affairs being slavery), that played no favorites, and that kept taxes low. On the question of slavery and states’ rights, Jacksonians favored minimal central government within a permanent union. When South Carolina threatened the Union by attempting to nullify the protective tariff of 1828 (Southerners termed it the Tariff of Abominations because it penalized Southern states that exported cotton and imported Old World manufactured goods), Jackson threatened South Carolina with a federal invasion (see Nullification). At the same time, he let Southerners know that slavery was safe as long as a Democratic Party committed to states’ rights was in power. Even more than the Whigs, the Democrats were committed to avoiding any congressional debate that could possibly affect slavery.

In the 1830s and 1840s Democrats and Whigs built the most completely national two–party system that Americans have ever had—both parties relied on support from all sections of the country, and both were evenly matched in most states. Within that system, politicians knew that arguments between the North and South must be avoided. Such arguments would, first of all, split the Whig and Democratic parties in which politicians were making their careers. Second, and more dangerous, the breakdown of the national two–party system could realign the parties along North–South lines and focus national politics on the differences between the North and South. Political leaders feared that such a breakdown could lead ultimately to disunion and perhaps civil war. Most historians agree that the national party system’s eventual breakdown was a crucial cause of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Social Reforms  In the second quarter of the 19th century Americans built a number of institutions and social movements dedicated to improving the morals of individuals and of society in general. The most prominent reformers were Northern, middle–class Whigs who had been influenced by evangelical revivals in the 1820s and 1830s. Those revivals taught an ethic of improvement: Sin and disorder, they said, were not inevitable results of Adam’s fall (as described in the Bible). They were the results of bad choices made by free and morally accountable men and women. Beginning in the 1820s, these middle–class evangelicals proposed reforms that would teach Americans to make good moral choices and thus, one individual at a time, improve society and perhaps make it perfect.

The most pervasive and enduring result of these movements was a system of tax–supported public schools. The great school reformers were Northern Whigs such as Horace Mann of Massachusetts and Calvin Stowe of Ohio (husband of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe). They proposed public school systems that were centralized at the state level and that made attendance mandatory. These schools were geared to teaching patriotism, manners, and civility, along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Among Whig reformers, the goal of public schools was to build character in individual students. Ultimately, reformers wished to make a perfect society by filling it with perfect individuals. Democrats supported the schools, but saw them as a means of providing equal opportunity to all whites. Democrats, and Southerners from both parties, also tended to support local control over schools, to favor shorter school years, and to make efforts to keep taxes low.

Prisons  A second institutional reform was concerned with prisons and asylums. Northern Whig evangelicals proposed new forms of prisons that were meant less to punish the bodies of criminals (through whippings, incarceration, and execution) than to improve their souls. Pennsylvania built a prison in which convicts sat alone in their cells with only Bibles to keep them company. Most other states adopted the Auburn System, which took its name from a pioneering prison in New York. Under this system, prisoners slept in solitary cells but worked in groups—though a policy of absolute silence was enforced. The products of prison workshops were sold to outside markets. Whigs favored this system because it promised to rehabilitate criminals by teaching them personal discipline and respect for work, property, and other people.

Temperance  The largest and most sustained organized social movement in American history was the temperance crusade against the use of alcohol that began in the 1820s. Again, Northern Whig evangelicals took the lead. They argued that alcohol abuse as well as the violence and personal and social disintegration associated with it had gotten out of control. In fact, per capita alcohol consumption, which had grown steadily since the 1790s, was at an all–time high in the 1820s.

Middle–class evangelicals assumed that poverty, crime, family violence, poor child rearing, and almost every other social ill was traceable to heavy drinking. A sober citizenry, they argued, would result in a society free of crime and violence, filled with happy homes and quiet streets. In the 1840s working people formed their own temperance movement—first through the Washingtonian Temperance Society, and then through temperance lodges. Members of both groups turned in the 1850s to campaigns for statewide prohibition. Beginning with Maine in 1851, 13 states adopted legislation that outlawed alcohol by 1855. Of those states, all but Delaware were in the North.

Radical Reform  The great belief of Northern middle–class evangelicalism—a belief behind most middle–class reform—was that human nature was not irreparably damaged by original sin. In the 17th and 18th centuries Protestants had been certain that nearly all of mankind was damned. Only a few would be saved, they believed, and those only by the arbitrary grace of God, not by their own efforts. These Protestants also thought that most human beings were incapable of correct moral behavior unless they were coerced.

In the first half of the 19th century, most Americans—including nearly all Southern whites—continued to believe that people were morally defective. Coercive institutions, such as the patriarchal family and slavery, were necessary to impose order on naturally disorderly people. Northern middle-class evangelicalism promoted the belief that human beings could change. Evangelists preached that women and men were moral free agents who could give themselves to God and thus escape a life of sin.

In this view of human nature, institutions that hindered individual freedom were unnecessary. Such institutions prevented men and women from assuming responsibility for themselves, thus making it impossible for them to freely give themselves to God and to a life of Christian love and moral improvement. The implications of this view were individualistic and anti–institutional. Some rejected all human government. A few who believed in no government joined utopian communities such as one at Oneida, New York, which practiced a form of free love to remove elements of power from relations between men and women (see Oneida Community). Others, including many utopians, became radical feminists and abolitionists.

Women’s Rights  
The delegates to the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 were veterans of other reforms. They were members of missionary societies, of the temperance movement, and of the moral reform crusade (a movement to end prostitution, obscenity, and lewdness). Most of all, they were veterans of an antislavery movement that attacked patriarchy and hierarchy in all forms. Many applied the logic of social reform to themselves, and they began to think of themselves as human beings first and as women second. See also Women’s Rights:
Early Struggles for Equal Rights in the United States

Noting that Jesus made no distinction between the proper duties of women and men, delegates to the Seneca Falls convention attacked the subordinate status of women. Beginning with a manifesto based on the Declaration of Independence, women at Seneca Falls demanded civil and legal equality for women. In particular, they wanted the right to vote. In the American republic, political participation, they argued, separated people who counted from those who did not.

The logic of Northern social reform applied more clearly to slavery than to nearly any other habit or institution. From the beginning, slaves resisted their own enslavement. In the 18th century, Quakers and a few other whites opposed the institution. The American Revolution, with its rhetoric of universal natural rights, called slavery into serious question. Northern states abolished it, and Southern evangelicals, along with some of the leading slaveholders of the upper South, thought about liberating the slaves. After 1816 the American Colonization Society proposed to "repatriate" freed slaves to Africa, though the intent of this organization was less to liberate slaves than to deport free blacks. Free blacks understood that, and most of them opposed returning to Africa.

But it was not until the 1830s that significant numbers of middle–class Northerners began to agitate for the immediate emancipation of slaves and for their incorporation as equals into the republic. Like other social reforms, abolitionism took root among the most radical Northern Whigs, and it was based in the middle–class revivals of the 1820s and 1830s.

In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison, a Boston abolitionist, published the first issue of The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper. In 1833 Garrison helped form the American Anti–Slavery Society. The new movement included Northeastern Quakers and Unitarians and Northern blacks.

Abolitionism’s largest base of support, however, was among the evangelical middle class of New England, upstate New York, and the Old Northwest (the former Northwest Territory). These people lived in a reform culture that saw moral free will and Christian love as pitted against brutality and power. As the New England Anti–Slavery Society put it in 1833, antislavery "means, finally, that right shall take the supremacy over wrong, principle over brute force, humanity over cruelty, honesty over theft, purity over lust, honor over baseness, love over hatred, and religion over heathenism." It was in such stark opposites that evangelical reformers viewed the world.

Sometimes working with white abolitionists, sometimes working independently, Northern free blacks also demanded freedom for the slaves. Hundreds of anonymous women and men operated an Underground Railroad that hid escaped slaves, often smuggling them to Canada. Along with pamphleteer David Walker, orator and editor Frederick Douglass, and uncompromising mystic Sojourner Truth, they formed a dedicated wing of the antislavery movement.

Abolitionists knew that they were a minority. They also knew that the two parties—Democrats in particular—wanted to keep moral and sectional questions out of politics and would try to ignore the abolition movement. They decided to attack the party system as well as slavery. They organized a postal campaign in 1835, sending massive amounts of antislavery literature through the mails. Southerners and most Northerners branded this literature as dangerous, and the Democratic administration could not avoid the issue.

In the next year, abolitionists began sending hundreds of petitions to Congress. Some of the petitions were against annexation of slaveholding Texas; others demanded the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia or the end of the interstate slave trade. Each of these issues was within the constitutional sphere assigned to Congress.

In the process of building these campaigns, abolitionists turned themselves into an organized movement. They also urged the national government to debate slavery—something that most congressmen from both sections and both parties wanted to avoid. President Andrew Jackson, rather than formally censor the mail, simply allowed local postmasters to destroy mail that they considered dangerous. And Democrats in Congress, with help from Southern Whigs, devised a gag rule whereby Congress tabled antislavery petitions without reading them. At the same time, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists and their sympathizers as threats to racial purity and social order.

These measures gave abolitionists what many of them had wanted: They tied the defense of slavery to assaults on free speech and the right of petition. No less a figure than ex-president John Quincy Adams, who had returned to government as a congressman from Massachusetts, led the fight against the gag rule. It was a fight that convinced many Northerners that Southern slavery corrupted republican government and threatened Northern civil liberties. Beginning as a tiny radical minority, abolitionists had helped force the nation to confront the troublesome problem of slavery.

As early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, American leaders had known that they could not settle the differences between the states committed to slavery and those that were not. The three–fifths rule, the constitutional promise not to halt the international slave trade until 1808, and the banning of slavery in the Northwest Territory were all attempts to avoid confronting differences between the North and South.

Some Northerners thought Southerners would recognize the inefficiency of slavery and end it voluntarily—a hope that was dashed by the cotton boom and the South’s recommitment to slavery. Many Southerners thought that an agrarian coalition uniting the South and West could keep Northeastern commercial interests from running the country. They realized that hope when a South–West coalition elected Thomas Jefferson president in 1800.

But by the 1830s the market revolution had tied Northeastern factories and Northwestern farms into a roughly unified, commercialized North. Most Northerners were committed to free–market capitalism, individual opportunity, and free labor, and many contrasted what they believed to be the civilizing effects of hard work and commerce with the supposed laziness and barbarism of the slave South. For their part, white Southerners began to see themselves as a beleaguered minority.

Following the 1819 crisis over statehood for Missouri, a national two–party system developed, and both parties worked to prevent sectional differences from becoming the focus of politics. They were successful until the Mexican War gave the United States huge new territories. Territorial questions had to be handled by Congress, and the question of whether slavery would be allowed into lands ceded by Mexico immediately became the all–consuming issue in national politics. By the mid–1850s the old party system was in ruins. An antislavery Republican Party became dominant in the North and elected Abraham Lincoln president in 1860. With an antislavery party in control of the White House, slave states seceded beginning in December 1860. The Union refused to let them go, and the Civil War began.

Both the North and the South saw the issue of slavery in the territories as a simple question of right and wrong, but the issue traveled through elaborate twists and turns from 1846 through the beginning of the Civil War.

Many Northern Democrats in Congress were disappointed with President James K. Polk (1845-1849). Some represented market–oriented constituencies that supported a moderately protective tariff and federal internal improvements. Polk was a Southerner and an old Jacksonian, and he opposed both of those measures. Northern Democrats also disliked Polk’s willingness to compromise with the British on expansion into Oregon, while he went to war with Mexico over Texas. It looked to many Democratic Northerners as though the Democratic Party was less interested in the expansion of the agrarian republic than in the expansion of slavery.

Among these Democrats was Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania. In 1846, during the war with Mexico, he proposed what became known as the Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery from all territory taken from Mexico. In subsequent years the proviso was repeatedly attached to territorial legislation. In the House, combinations of Northern Whigs and Democrats passed it several times, but the proviso was always stopped in the Senate. The Wilmot Proviso would become the principal plank in the platform of the Republican Party.

President Polk and his cabinet favored extending the Missouri Compromise line west to the Pacific, a solution that would allow slavery in the New Mexico Territory and in Southern California, but ban it from Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Northern California. Neither the North nor the South favored Polk’s solution. In 1849 President Zachary Taylor proposed allowing the residents of individual territories to decide the question of slavery for themselves—a solution that became known as popular sovereignty. Again, there was too little support. While the Wilmot Proviso stood as the extreme Northern position, John C. Calhoun, a senator for South Carolina, staked out an extreme position for the South. Slaves, he said, were property, and masters could carry their slaves into any territory of the United States.

The Compromise of 1850  
Although no proposed solution was acceptable to all sides, the question of slavery in the territories could not be postponed. In 1848 gold was discovered in California, and thousands of Americans rushed to the region (see Gold Rush of 1849). The previous year, Brigham Young had led Mormon settlers to the Salt Lake Valley, in what became the northeastern corner of the Mexican Cession in 1848. At the same time, slaveholding Texas claimed half of New Mexico. It was at this point that politicians proposed a series of measures that became known as the Compromise of 1850. California was admitted as a free state. The remainder of the land taken from Mexico was divided into Utah and New Mexico territories and organized under popular sovereignty. The Texas claims in New Mexico were denied. The slave trade (but not slavery) was banned in the District of Columbia, and a stronger fugitive slave law went into effect. These measures resolved the question of slavery in the territories in ways that tended to favor the North, then enacted additional measures important to both antislavery and proslavery forces. The compromise was less a permanent solution than an answer to an immediate crisis. It would satisfy neither section. One historian has called it the Armistice of 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Law  
The one element of the Compromise of 1850 that explicitly favored the South was the Fugitive Slave Law. A federal law of 1793 required that slaves who escaped to a free state be returned if the master could offer proof of ownership to a state court. The new law turned these cases over to federal commissioners, and it denied a captured slave the right to testify in his or her own behalf or to be tried before a jury. The law violated Northerners’ notions of states’ rights, it infringed on civil liberties in the North, and it turned Northerners into direct participants in Southern slavery. Northern citizens, even those who had not previously opposed slavery, refused to support the law. While some hid fugitives or helped spirit them into Canada, nine Northern states passed personal liberty laws that forbade state officials from helping to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published a sentimental antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a direct challenge to slavery in general and the Fugitive Slave Law in particular. It sold 300,000 copies that year, and 1.2 million by summer 1853.

The Kansas–Nebraska Act  
The Compromise of 1850 created a smoldering truce that lasted only a few years. By 1853 settlers had moved west of Missouri into what is now Kansas. Congress drew up legislation organizing the remaining federal lands in the Louisiana Purchase into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Under the Missouri Compromise, none of this land was open to slavery. But Southerners, along with 15 of 20 Northern Democrats in the Senate, organized the new territories under popular sovereignty: The new states could decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The Kansas–Nebraska Act thus abolished the Missouri Compromise line and enacted popular sovereignty—a measure that was becoming the Democratic Party’s answer to the question of slavery in the territories.

Northern Whigs in Congress all voted against the act, leading Southern Whigs to leave the party and join the Democrats. At the same time, many Northern Democrats openly opposed the legislation. Thus the Democratic Party shifted and became more overtly Southern, while Northern Whigs and many Northern Democrats joined coalitions that in 1854 became the Republican Party, exclusively Northern and antislavery. Political parties were reorganizing along sectional lines.

Bleeding Kansas  
With the territory organized under popular sovereignty, voters would decide the question of slavery in Kansas. Antislavery settlers flooded the territory, and in response, proslavery Missourians moved in. When elections were held for the territorial legislature in 1854, about 5,000 Missourians crossed the border to vote illegally for proslavery candidates. The resulting legislature legalized slavery in Kansas. Antislavery forces refused to accept these results. They organized a convention that wrote an antislavery constitution and they elected their own legislature.

While this controversy raged in Kansas, Charles Sumner, an antislavery senator from Massachusetts, gave an impassioned antislavery speech in which he insulted a number of Southern senators. He said that one of them, Andrew Butler, "had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows…the harlot, Slavery." Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina was Butler’s nephew. He was determined to punish Sumner’s attack upon his family’s honor. He walked onto the floor of the Senate, found Sumner at his desk, and beat him unconscious with a cane. White Southerners almost unanimously applauded Brooks, while Northerners ranted against Southern savagery. At almost the same time as the attack on Sumner, in May 1856, proslavery Kansans attacked an antislavery stronghold at Lawrence. In retribution, an antislavery fanatic named John Brown murdered five proslavery settlers in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. A small–scale civil war was being fought in Kansas.

The Dred Scott Case  
At this point the Supreme Court, with a Southern majority among the justices, tried to settle the problem of slavery in the territories. It chose the Dred Scott case to do so. Scott was a slave owned by a U.S. Army doctor who had brought him to the free state of Illinois and the Territory of Wisconsin, which was free under the Missouri Compromise. Scott sued for his freedom on that basis.

The Supreme Court answered with a powerful proslavery decision in 1857. First, the majority stated that blacks (whether free or slaves) could not be citizens of the United States. As a result, Dred Scott’s case should never have entered the federal courts. The court went on to declare that the Missouri Compromise was invalid because Congress had no right to exclude slaves (who were legal property and therefore protected under the Constitution) from any territory. With that, the Supreme Court had adopted the extreme Southern position on the question of slavery in the territories, and declared the policy of the Republican Party and of a majority of Northerners unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Kansas submitted two constitutions in its application for statehood—one that permitted slavery and one that did not. President James Buchanan, a Northern Democrat and a solid supporter of the South, sent the Lecompton (proslavery) Constitution to Congress with a strong recommendation that it be accepted. In a congressional debate that at one point broke into a fistfight, enough Northern Democrats finally defected from their party to reject the Lecompton Constitution. The controversy deeply divided the Democratic Party in the North and made the election of an antislavery Republican as president in 1860 very likely.

The Election of 1860  
The breakup of the party system produced four presidential candidates in the election of 1860. The Democratic Party split angrily into Northern and Southern wings. Southern Democrats nominated Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, while Northern Democrats chose Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. What remained of the Whigs renamed themselves Constitutional Unionists and nominated Senator John Bell of Tennessee (see Constitutional Union Party). Republicans passed over better–known candidates and nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

Lincoln had become known nationally when he staked out the Republican position on slavery in the territories and held his own in a series of public debates in a Senate race with Douglas in 1858. He was also known for a speech in which he stated that the United States could not long endure as a "house divided" between Northern free–labor capitalism and Southern slavery. On the crucial question of slavery in the territories, Lincoln assured the South that no president could constitutionally dismantle the institution in the states. But he would preserve the territories for free labor, thus putting slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction."

The election results were starkly sectional. Breckinridge carried 11 states in the Deep South. Bell carried a few Upper South states. Douglas, while coming in second in the popular vote, won only in Missouri and a part of New Jersey. Lincoln carried every Northern state and thus won an overwhelming victory in the Electoral College—and he did so without a single electoral vote from a slave state. The Republican Party, with an antislavery platform and an entirely Northern constituency, had elected a president of the United States. No possible new coalition would enable the South to keep that from happening repeatedly.

THE CIVIL WAR   A The South Secedes  
White Southerners fully realized what had happened: National politics now pitted the North against the South, and the North had a solid and growing majority. The South would never again control the federal government or see it controlled by friendly Northerners. Many saw no alternative to seceding from the Union.

Southerners justified secession with what was called the compact theory. This theory held that the Constitution had created not a perpetual union but a compact between independent states that retained their sovereignty. The compact could be broken in the same way that it had been created: with state conventions called for that purpose. By this means South Carolina seceded from the Union in late December 1860. By February 1 (before Lincoln’s inauguration) six more states from the Deep South had left the Union.

Northerners—including President Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, and other Democrats—denied the right of secession. The more lawyerly among them reminded the South that the Constitution was written "to form a more perfect Union" than the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution had stated that "the union shall be perpetual." Thus secession was a legal impossibility. And in practical terms, Northerners argued, secession would be a fatal disaster to the American republic. Republics had a history of splitting into smaller parts and descending into anarchy. Secession, Lincoln argued, was revolution. Many Southerners agreed and claimed that they were exercising their sacred right to revolt against oppressive government.

Congress tried to come up with compromise measures in early 1861, but there was no way of compromising in the argument over secession. The seven states of the lower South (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) formed themselves into the Confederate States of America. Their Constitution was nearly identical to the Constitution of the United States, though it affirmed state sovereignty, guaranteed slavery, and limited the president to a single six–year term.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln was conciliatory without compromising on secession. He also hinted that the national government would use force to protect military garrisons in the Confederate states—in particular, Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. When he tried to resupply the garrison (which had moved to the stronger Fort Sumter), the South Carolina militia fired thousands of artillery rounds into the fort, forcing its surrender. With that, the Civil War began.

With the beginning of the war, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded and joined the Confederacy. Unionist legislative majorities kept the remaining slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri from joining the rebel states. Meanwhile the western counties of Virginia seceded from that state when Virginia seceded from the Union and became the new state of West Virginia. Thousands of men from these border states, however, traveled south and joined the Confederate Army.

North vs. South  
On paper, the North possessed overwhelming military superiority over the South. The North had a free population of about 22 million. The South had a population of 9 million, including almost 4 million slaves. The North was a modern industrial power; the South was overwhelmingly rural. The North possessed nine–tenths of the nation’s industrial capacity, four–fifths of its bank capital, and three–fourths of its taxable wealth. The North financed 60 percent of its war effort through the sale of bonds in its prosperous region. Its paper currency inflated by only 80 percent during the whole war. The South, on the other hand, had to finance the war by printing paper money that inflated 9,000 percent in four years.

Yet the South had advantages as well. To succeed, the South did not have to invade and conquer the North. The South had only to prevent the North from invading and conquering the Confederacy. In a similar situation during the American Revolution, the British had far greater military superiority over the Americans than the Union possessed over the Confederacy, but the British failed to subdue the American revolutionaries. Many predicted that the Union would fail as well. The South had only to prolong the war until the North gave up and went home. In addition, the South’s economic backwardness was an advantage: Northern armies had to operate in hostile territory in which transportation and communications were very difficult. Finally, improved weapons (most notably rifled muskets that were accurate at more than 300 yards) gave a lethal advantage to entrenched defenders over opponents who attacked them across open ground. Union soldiers did most of the attacking.

Differing objectives of North and South and the topography of the contested ground helped determine the nature of the war. In the west, Northern armies used the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers (navigable streams that ran into the South) to capture Confederate territory and to control the river system. By the spring of 1863 the Union controlled all of the Mississippi River except a Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. That city fell in July, and the Confederacy was cut in half (see Campaign of Vicksburg).

In northern Virginia, however, the South defended land with Chesapeake inlets and east–west rivers that the Union had to cross. In this theater the South also had General Robert E. Lee, an almost mystically skilled commander who constantly outthought his attackers and forced them to assault him under bad conditions. On two occasions, Lee invaded Northern territory. He suffered defeats at the Battle of Antietam (in Maryland) in 1862 and the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. For the remainder of the war he fought defensively. General Ulysses S. Grant took control of the Union Army opposed to Lee in early 1864 and attacked Lee that spring. In horrific battles at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor (all in northern Virginia), Grant took heavy casualties before trapping and besieging Lee at Petersburg, south of Richmond, Virginia.

At the same time, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia. After a monthlong siege, he captured and burned Atlanta. While Atlanta and Petersburg were besieged, Northern voters reelected Lincoln in 1864 in an election that was regarded as a referendum on the war. The South had succeeded in avoiding defeat and in turning the contest into a war of attrition. But it had not, as Southerners had hoped, broken the North’s will to continue fighting.

While Grant and Lee faced each other at Petersburg, Sherman left Atlanta and set out across country to Savannah, Georgia, destroying everything in his path that was of military value and much that was not (see Sherman’s March to the Sea). Sherman then turned north, burned the South Carolina capital at Columbia and kept moving into North Carolina. Before Sherman could join Grant, Lee’s army fled Petersburg. Grant caught him at Appomattox, and Lee surrendered. At a cost of 360,000 Union dead and 260,000 Confederate dead, the United States had been preserved.

The Emancipation Proclamation  
At first, the Union and the Confederacy fought only over the question of secession. The leaders of both sides wanted to avoid talking about slavery—which all of them knew was the root cause of the war. Southerners did not present the war as a defense of slavery for two reasons. First, most white Southerners owned no slaves and might not fight to protect slavery. Second, the South was trying to win recognition and help from Britain and France—neither of which would have supported a war for slavery. The North included many abolitionists, but it also included Democrats and border–state slaveholders who would fight for the Union but not for abolition.

As the war dragged on, however, even Northern anti–abolitionists came to see slaves as a great economic and military asset for the South. Slaves grew most of the South’s food and performed work that freed white Southerners for military service. At the same time, thousands of slaves made the issue of slavery unavoidable by abandoning their masters—even those in the border states who were Unionists—and fleeing to Union lines. Union Army commanders called these escaped slaves contrabands (captured property). As the number of contrabands grew, President Lincoln proposed a gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves in border states. Lincoln hated slavery on moral grounds. But he could justify emancipation only as a military necessity in the war to save the Union.

In a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued after the Northern victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln declared that slaves in all states that remained in rebellion on January 1, 1863, would be "forever free." The proclamation exempted pro–Union border states and parts of the Confederacy already under Union occupation, and it was carefully worded as a measure to assist the North in preserving the Union. But it transformed the Union Army into an army of liberation—fighting to end slavery as well as to preserve the Union.

Blacks confirmed their emancipation by enlisting in the Union Army. The North resorted to conscription in 1863 and gladly accepted volunteers from among freed slaves. Blacks were first used as support troops and were paid less than white soldiers, but beginning in 1864 they became combatants serving at equal pay. In January 1865 Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery forever. It was ratified and became part of the Constitution in December 1865.

Results of the Civil War  The Civil War finally established the United States as a nation–state. Secession and state veto power had been recurring questions from the beginning of government under the Constitution. Americans before the Civil War spoke of the United States as a plural noun. Walt Whitman, the great poet of the Union, declared in the prewar years that "the United States need poets." Since the Civil War the United States has been a singular noun (The United States is ...). Thus at the highest constitutional levels, the Founders’ Latin motto E Pluribus Unum ("From many, one") finally became a reality.

However, the unification of the country went further than most Northerners had wanted. The enormous government debt incurred during the war, followed by the postwar occupation of the South, created a central government more powerful than even the most nationalistic Americans had imagined before the war. The many had indeed become one, but only under a national government that would have frightened most of the Founding Fathers.

The Civil War had long-term economic and social results as well. The South was the theater of war, and the physical destruction of that region was enormous. White Southerners lost their plantation labor system and their huge investment in slaves. Egyptian and Indian cotton had entered world markets during the war, and American cotton never regained its prewar dominance. The South remained the poorest region of the United States for a very long time.

The Northeast’s economic dominance was secured by the war, and—though historians debate this point—the war seems to have sped Northern economic development. Finally, the status of the trans–Mississippi West (the great prize in the argument between North and South) was settled on Northern terms. In 1862 Republicans and Northern Democrats passed the Homestead Act, which gave free government land to settlers if they turned the land into farms (see Homestead Laws). In the same year Congress subsidized private companies that built a railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. The same Congress, in the Morrill Land–Grant College Act, gave huge amounts of federal land to state governments for the purpose of establishing state universities. Southerners had blocked similar bills for many years. With the South out of Congress, Northerners imposed their blueprint for Northern–style family farms, public education, and market society upon the West.

Disfranchised groups often saw their positions improve as a result of the war. Irish and German immigrants had experienced (and returned) the hostility of native–born Americans in the decades before the war. About one in four Union soldiers was an immigrant, and their help in defeating the South temporarily eased anti–immigrant feeling.

Northern women saw new possibilities open up during and after the war. In wartime they often took jobs previously done by men on farms and in factories, and thousands served in the Union nursing corps. Partly as a result, postwar women’s political and reform groups were larger and more militant than the groups that preceded them.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Civil War was a watershed in the history of African Americans. The war permanently ended slavery. At the same time, it raised questions about the economic, social, and political place of African Americans in the United States. Those questions have been near the center of American public life ever since, providing the strongest evidence that E Pluribus Unum is a contested possibility and not an established fact of American history.

As the Civil War ended, the United States faced unprecedented tasks: to bring the defeated Confederate states back into the Union and to determine the status in American society of almost four million former slaves. These goals dominated the years from 1865 to 1877, the era known as Reconstruction. During these years, Congress imposed a legislative revolution that transformed the South. Republican legislators passed ambitious laws, approved major constitutional amendments, overhauled Southern state governments, and spurred extensive change in the former Confederacy. The most significant change that Congress made was to enfranchise African American men. The pivot of reconstruction policy, black suffrage was the era’s major achievement. For more information, see African American History: Reconstruction.

Congress vs. Johnson  
The process of reconstruction (the process by which the divided nation was reunited) had in fact begun in 1863 when President Lincoln announced a plan to restore the Southern states to the Union. Radical Republicans in Congress opposed Lincoln’s plan. After Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, they turned hopefully to President Andrew Johnson. In May 1865 Johnson announced his restoration plan, called Presidential Reconstruction. His plan disqualified former Confederate civil and military officers from holding office but brought the ex-Confederate states back into the Union on undemanding terms.

Presidential Reconstruction took effect in the summer of 1865. Johnson gave pardons to thousands of Southerners, and former Confederate states passed "black codes" that curtailed the freed slaves’ rights. Enraged Republicans united in opposition to Johnson, denouncing the black codes and the president. When the 39th Congress, dominated by Republicans, convened in December 1865, Republicans planned to revoke the black codes and to replace Johnson's program.

In 1866 they passed two laws over the president's vetoes: the Civil Rights Act to protect the rights of freed slaves and an act that extended the life of the Freedmen's Bureau. The bureau was designed as a relief organization for blacks and whites who were left destitute by the war. It also helped blacks by establishing schools, supervising labor relations, and protecting them from violence and intimidation.

Johnson’s vetoes provoked Republicans to pass the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed the civil rights of all citizens, whatever their race, and restricted the political power of former Confederates. Johnson denounced the proposed amendment because he believed it was an unconstitutional invasion of states’ rights. After the congressional elections of 1866, Republicans maintained enough power to pass their own reconstruction program.

In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, followed by three supplemental acts passed later the same year and in 1868. These acts invalidated the state governments formed under Lincoln's and Johnson's plans and divided the ex-Confederacy into five military districts. The acts also provided that voters—all black men and white men not disqualified by the 14th Amendment—could elect delegates to write new state constitutions that ensured black male suffrage. A state could be readmitted to the Union once it had met a series of requirements, including ratification of the 14th Amendment. Black enfranchisement made Congressional Reconstruction more radical than Johnson's plan. Still, even Congressional Reconstruction provided only a temporary period of military rule, and it did not take property away from former Confederates or punish them for treason.

When President Johnson tried to block the new Reconstruction laws, Republicans again united, this time in order to remove him from office. The House approved 11 charges of impeachment, but Johnson escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote. Congress then passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed black suffrage. Women's rights advocates complained that the new amendment ignored their demands for enfranchising women, but to Republican leaders, the woman suffrage issue was not vital. Black suffrage, in contrast, was imperative: Only with the votes of African Americans could Republicans control the former Confederate states.

Political Developments in the South  
With Congressional Reconstruction in place, the Southern states, supervised by federal troops, formed new state governments that were dominated by Republicans. By the end of March 1870 all of the former Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union. Black male suffrage was vital to the Congressional plan. By giving 700,000 former slaves the right to vote, Congressional Reconstruction created a new electorate in the South; blacks held voting majorities in five states.

Reconstruction-era voters provided support for a Southern Republican Party, a fragile coalition made up of carpetbaggers (Northerners who moved south after the war), scalawags (Southerners, usually former Whigs who joined the Republicans), and African Americans. Under Republican rule, Southern states built roads and bridges, promoted railroad development, funded state institutions, started state school systems, enlarged state government, and increased state budgets. Republican rule, however, was brief, less than five years in most states.

Southern Democrats, white landowners, and white voters generally opposed Republican rule. They tried to dismantle Republican power by terrorizing blacks to prevent them from voting. Without black votes, the Democrats would be able to defeat the Republican Party and reclaim their power. The best-known terrorist group was the Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866 to suppress black suffrage and restore white supremacy. Klan members attacked Freedmen's Bureau officers, white Republicans, and black voters. Republicans in Congress tried to combat terrorism with three "enforcement acts" of 1870 and 1871. The acts sought to protect voters, supervise elections, and punish those who impeded black suffrage. Federal efforts virtually suppressed the Ku Klux Klan, but violence and intimidation continued, and ex-Confederate hostility to emancipation seethed.

Freedom for Blacks  
Emancipation was a momentous experience; to former slaves, it represented autonomy and freedom from white control. Freedom brought waves of migration within the former Confederacy. Newly freed peoples moved to cities or to other plantations, sought out family members from whom they had been separated, and secured legal marriages, sometimes in mass ceremonies. They also formed new institutions. Black churches provided former slaves with spiritual support. Seeking literacy for themselves and their children, former slaves started freedmen's schools. The Freedmen's Bureau and Northern philanthropy helped establish more than 4,000 African American schools and some advanced institutions, such as Howard University in Washington, D.C. In several locales, blacks strove for integrated public facilities. In 1875 Congress passed a Civil Rights Act to bar segregation in public places. Typically, former slaves sought not integration with whites but freedom from white interference.

A paramount black goal was to own land, which signified independence, but Southern whites retained control over the land. Reconstruction did not redistribute land in the South, and most former slaves lacked the resources to buy it. From 1865 to 1866, newly freed African Americans began to sign labor contacts with planters to do field work in exchange for wages, housing, food, and clothing. But they found the new system too similar to slavery, and planters disliked it, too. The labor system that evolved, sharecropping, seemed preferable. Under this system, landowners divided plantations into small units and rented them to blacks for a portion of the crop, usually one-third or one-half. Former slaves favored the new sharecropping system, which provided more independence than the wage system. Planters also appreciated the sharecropping system because they retained control of their land and split the risk of planting with sharecroppers. Owners of large plantations held on to their powerful positions in society.

A major depression in 1873 drove many white farmers into sharecropping as well. By 1880 sharecroppers, black and white, farmed four-fifths of the land in the cotton states. Many sharecroppers were forced into a cycle of debt; rural merchants who loaned money to buy supplies charged high interest rates for the loans and secured them with liens or claims on the next year's crop. Frequently the loans could not be repaid, and sharecroppers fell into debt.

Sharecropping bound the South to easily marketable cash crops that brought in the most income. Southerners did not diversify their crops or protect their land against soil depletion. As a result, the productivity of Southern agriculture declined over the years.

Political Developments in the North  
While Southern Republicans struggled to keep Reconstruction afloat, their Northern counterparts faced a changing economy and other problems. During the Reconstruction years, the North industrialized rapidly and also endured a massive depression. At the same time, political corruption became commonplace. These problems distracted Northerners from the goals of Reconstruction.

The administration of Ulysses S. Grant, who won the presidential election of 1868 on the votes of newly enfranchised freedmen, was ridden with scandal. But fraud, bribery, and corruption in office were not limited to the Grant administration. In New York City, Democratic boss William M. Tweed looted the city treasury. In the election of 1872 the Republican Party split over corruption in the Grant administration, and some Republicans formed the Liberal Republican Party. The split failed to dislodge Grant, but it meant dwindling support for Reconstruction policy.

A devastating five-year depression that began with the panic of 1873 also shifted the focus of Republicans in the North. Banks closed, jobs were destroyed, and businesses went bankrupt. Labor protests multiplied, and violent incidents occurred; industrial conflict began to replace regional conflict. Disputes also arose over currency, notably over inflationary greenbacks, first issued during the Civil War. As a result of the depression, prices for farm products fell. Forced to take on more debt, farmers began to call for an increase in the amount of money in circulation. They believed that a larger money supply would cause prices to rise, increase the price of their crops, and raise their incomes. Those who favored a stable currency, in contrast, urged withdrawal of greenbacks from circulation.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court began to roll back Reconstruction policy. In the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment did not give the federal government control over the entire domain of civil rights. The cases are historically important because they first posed the problem of defining how state citizenship related to U.S. citizenship.

The Supreme Court of the 1870s and 1880s discarded other Reconstruction policies. In 1876 and 1883, the Court upset two out of three of the enforcement acts. The Court also ruled in 1883 that Congress could not impose a national ban on discrimination in public accommodations, thus overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court's decisions reinforced Republican willingness to shed the obligations of Reconstruction, which many now considered a political liability.


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