History of the United States
The irrepressible conflict (1850-1869)

The long dispute between the North and South over the issue of slavery came to a head after the Mexican War ended in 1848. The vast new area the United States had acquired in the West during the 1840's created a problem Americans could not evade. It was obvious that the new land would sooner or later be split up into territories, and then into states. Proslavery Americans--chiefly Southerners--argued against any restraints on slavery in the new territories and states. Antislavery Americans--mainly Northerners--wanted the federal government to outlaw slavery in the newly acquired lands. Still others proposed the doctrine of popular sovereignty. That is, they said the people of the territories and states should decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

At first, the sides tried to settle their differences through debate and compromise. But the dispute over slavery proved to be an "irrepressible conflict," as Senator William H. Seward of New York termed it. On April 12, 1861, the American Civil War broke out between the North and South. In this tragic chapter of United States history, Americans faced Americans in bloody battle.

The North won the Civil War in 1865. The North's victory preserved the Union. And, soon after the war, slavery was outlawed throughout the United States.

Debate and compromise

California applied for statehood in 1849. The application triggered debate over whether California should be admitted as a free state or a slave state. It also heightened the long-standing argument over how to deal with the slavery question.

The Compromise of 1850 succeeded in bringing about agreement on the California slavery question. The Compromise was a series of laws that made concessions to both the North and South. Measures designed to satisfy the North included the admission of California to the Union as a free state and the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. To try to satisfy Southerners, Congress ruled that when the new territories of New Mexico and Utah became states, the residents would decide whether or not to allow slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In the early 1850's, Congress began considering the creation of new territories in the area roughly between Missouri and present-day Idaho. Bitter debate flared up over whether the territories should ban or allow slavery. Those who called for a ban cited the Missouri Compromise to back their position. The land under consideration was part of the area in which the Compromise had "forever prohibited" slavery. But on May 25, 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a law that changed this provision. The law created two territories west of Missouri--Kansas and Nebraska. It provided that the people of Kansas and Nebraska would decide whether or not to allow slavery.

Nationwide turmoil

Few, if any, American laws have had more far-reaching effects than the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Furious antislavery Americans denounced both Northerners and Southerners who had supported the act. Others staunchly defended the act. Everywhere, attitudes toward the slavery question hardened, and capacity for further compromise diminished.

Political and institutional splits.
Angered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a group of antislavery Americans formed the Republican Party in 1854. Many Democrats and Whigs who opposed slavery left their parties and became Republicans. The stability of the two main political parties before 1854 had helped keep the nation together. Thus, the political divisions deprived the country of an important unifying force. Beginning in the 1840's, large church groups also split along sectional lines and another unifying institution was lost.

Social disorder.
After 1854, Southerners increasingly referred to themselves as a separate national group. In the North, abolitionists stepped up their campaign against slavery. On Oct. 17, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a small band of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown intended the action as the first step in a general slave uprising. But federal troops easily captured him, and--after a trial--he was hanged.

The election of 1860 also reflected the nation's division. The Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern wings. Only the Republicans remained united. They nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. The Republican unity helped Lincoln win the election.

Lincoln had earned a reputation as an opponent of slavery, and his election was unacceptable to the South. Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.

The Civil War and Reconstruction

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter, a military post in Charleston Harbor. Both sides quickly prepared for battle after the Fort Sumter clash. The North had superior financial and industrial strength, and a larger population than the South. But the South fought valiantly to defend its cause. The South gained the upper hand at first, but the North gradually turned the tide. Finally, Confederate resistance wore down, and Union armies swept through the South. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee--the commander of the Confederate Army--surrendered to the Union commander General Ulysses S. Grant.

The four years of bloody fighting between the North and South had staggering effects on the nation. No other war in history has taken so many American lives.

The Emancipation Proclamation.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for slaves in all areas of the Confederacy that were still in rebellion against the Union.

Toward the end of the Civil War, the North set out to establish terms under which Confederate States would be readmitted to the Union. The process through which the South returned, as well as the period following the war, is called Reconstruction.

Northerners divided into two groups over Reconstruction policy. The moderates wanted to end the bitterness between the North and South, and the radicals believed the South should be punished. President Lincoln might have worked out a compromise. But assassin John Wilkes Booth shot him on April 14, 1865. Lincoln died the next day. Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. He tried to carry out Lincoln's policy, but he was unable to overcome radical opposition.

The Reconstruction programme drafted by Congress included laws to further the rights of blacks. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865) outlawed slavery throughout the United States. The 14th Amendment (1868) confirmed the citizenship of blacks, and the 15th Amendment (1870) made it illegal to deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

White Southerners loyal to their old traditions bitterly resented the new political system. Many joined the Ku Klux Klan, a secret society that used violence to keep blacks from voting and trying to achieve equality.

Congress insisted that the Confederate States agree to follow all federal laws before being readmitted to the Union. Between 1866 and 1870, all the Confederate States returned to the Union.

Reconstruction had limited success.
It expanded the legal rights of blacks and set up public school systems. But the old social order, based on white supremacy, soon returned to the South. The fundamental problem of the black's place in society remained to haunt future generations.