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15: The Impending Crisis (1848-1861)

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    Learning Outcomes

    After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

    • Discuss the different solutions proposed to deal with the issue of slavery in the territories and the major terms of the Compromise of 1850.
    • Describe the major events in the movement toward secession after the Compromise of 1850.
    • Describe and analyze the major political developments of this period, especially the emergence of new political parties and the presidential contests.

    Most Americans rejoiced in their country’s victory over Mexico when the U.S. Senate approved the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. However, the acquisition of new territory in the West raised questions about the expansion of slavery in the United States. Southerners believed the government should allow slavery in places like California and New Mexico. Northerners disagreed. Their differences had very little to do with humanitarian concerns about slavery. Rather, they centered on the economic and political implications of the so-called peculiar institution. National political leaders tried to quiet the division with the Compromise of 1850. However, sectional tensions mounted throughout the remainder of the decade. With each passing year, a new crisis drove the wedge deeper. The Fugitive Slave Act, Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and other events increased sectional hostilities and left leaders with little hope for compromise. While the North and the South shared many intellectual, social, political, and economic beliefs, they seemed unable to come to an agreement about whether the nation should be slave or free. Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 ultimately led to the secession of several southern states and paved the way for a civil war.

    • 15.1: The Sectional Balance Begins to Unravel
      New territories raised new questions about the extension of slavery that political leaders could not easily answer in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The Wilmot Proviso, proposing to bar slavery in territories acquired from the war. The gold rush forced a quick decision on the slave issue because California petitioned for statehood in 1849 as a free state. Many southerners stood aghast at the real possibility of the Senate tilting in favor of the free states. Southerners threatened secession.
    • 15.2: The Collapse of the Second Party System
      Many Americans believed Franklin Pierce’s presidency would help lessen the sectional divide, but the opposite happened. From 1853 to 1856, a series of events stemming from the southern desire to expand slavery and the northern desire to curb slavery made the resentment worse. Southerners, with the backing of the Young America movement, promoted the expansion to the South—looking to Cuba and Mexico. Their attempts raised concerns in the North.
    • 15.3: The Sectional Balance Becomes Undone
      After James Buchanan took office, the United States continued down the road to disunion. While the country dealt with a financial crisis and the ongoing question of Kansas, the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter of slavery in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision. Much to the delight of southerners, the Court asserted the right of slave owners to transport their slaves anywhere within the territories, whether that territory was free or permitted slavery.
    • 15.4: Conclusion
    • 15.5: Critical Thinking Exercises
    • 15.6: Key Terms
    • 15.7: Chronology
    • 15.8: Bibliography

    This page titled 15: The Impending Crisis (1848-1861) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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