1850s America: A Precursor to the American Civil War

Teacher Guide By Richard Cleggett

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1850s America Lesson Plans

Student Activities for 1850s America Include:

The 1850s were a troubled period in American history, filled with internal strife. Geographic and political divides were widening, and attempts to resolve these differences in a peaceful manner seemed doomed to failure. The events of this decade set the stage for the terrible conflict of the American Civil War.

1850s America Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Growing Tensions Between the North and the South

For this activity, have students use a T-Chart to compare and contrast the differences between the Northern states and Southern states. This chart will incorporate various facets of life, including economics, production, social life, and everyday activities. Students will first depict life in the North, detailing the industrious activity that defined the Northern economy. Students will detail daily life, including viewpoints on the morality and constitutionality of slavery as an institution. The second part of the T-Chart will do the same for the South, its economy, and daily life there.

North and South Comparison

North South
Economy Northern economies were bustling. With a rise in industry, factory work, and technologies, the North experienced tremendous growth as the manufacturing hub of the United States. Manufactured goods and services were readily available in the North. The Southern economies were rural and mostly agricultural. Although industry did exist in the South, it was sparse and not nearly as productive as its Northern counterparts. However, cotton, farm goods, and a slave based economy powered the South to economic prosperity.
Life Everyday life in the North revolved around its bustling industries. Although farmers still dominated the landscape, many began a great migration to factory work and production. Goods and services were easily obtainable, and cities grew continually larger. Southern daily life revolved around their agricultural prowess. With an institutionalized slave-based economy, southerners relied heavily on slave work to produce their goods and incomes. This also helped develop a racist bias against blacks, and furthered a sense of racial superiority that shaped everyday life.
Views on Slavery Northern views on slavery varied greatly. But among them was an ever-growing abolitionist movement that called for an outright end to slavery. By utilizing industry as a mean of production, many Northerners increasingly frowned upon the slave based economies of the South. These sentiments would soon play a pivotal role in the Civil War. Southern views on slavery mostly revolved around several ideas. Foremost, slaves were the driving force of their economy. Without them, the production of the South would be weakened. These sentiments were backed by ideas, sometimes religious, that slavery was actually good for Blacks, and that it was the rightful social hierarchy.
Reform Movements Many reform movements took a strong hold in the Northern states throughout the mid and late 1800s. Among them, the temperance movement, which aimed at preventing alcoholism. Others included utopian movements, women's rights, and the abolitionist movement. The Southern United States also experienced and reacted to these reform movements. Many, however, turned to religion as a means of supporting slavery. Reform movements did not take nearly as strong a hold as it did in the North, as a more conservative mindset existed throughout the South.

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5 Ws for the Compromise of 1850

Using a spider map, have students detail the components of the Compromise of 1850. They should include who proposed it, how it was received socially and politically, and incorporate the separate laws that made up the Compromise. Students should include the debate over passing the Compromise, and how it aimed to solve the question of slavery and its place in (or out of) the new territories.

Compromise of 1850 5 Ws

WHO proposed the Compromise of 1850?

The Compromise of 1850 was proposed by U.S. Senator Henry Clay. It was further supported by U.S. Senator Daniel Webster. However, it did receive opposition from notable politicians, such as Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.

WHAT controversy surrounded the Compromise of 1850?

Many controversies surrounded the creation and passing of the Compromise of 1850. Neither the South nor the North were willing to compromise on many issues, such as slavery in the nation's capital. Slavery was increasingly becoming debated among politicians, civilians, and reformers alike.

WHERE did the Compromise of 1850 effect?

Geographically, the Compromise of 1850 affected many different regions of the United States. Specifically, boundary disputes were solved between Texas and New Mexico. California was admitted as the 31st state and a free state.

WHEN was the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was was a collection of laws that were discussed and passed during 1850. Henry Clay first proposed a compromise on January 29, 1850.

WHY was the Compromise of 1850 important?

The Compromise of 1850 was created to settle disputes between Northern and Southern politicians on how to deal with slavery and its expansion into newly acquired western territories. However, it merely served as a 'quick fix' to the impending Civil War.

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Its Aims and How it Worsened Sectional Tensions

For this activity, students will detail the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, along with the events that followed from it. Students will utilize a Frayer Model graphic organizer to help centralize the aim of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the effects and events that resulted from it. Students should include events such as Bleeding Kansas, The Dred Scott decision, popular sovereignty in action, and the Lecompton Constitution. Students may also include John Brown and the Pottawattamie Massacre, and how it exemplified the violence and tensions between pro-slavers and free-soilers aiming for control of the area.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Aims and Compromises

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, supported by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, was proposed to bring the Nebraska territory under control. Northern interests sought the territory for a transcontinental railroad, while the South wanted to expand slave territory.

Supporters / Opposers

The Kansas-Nebraska Act immediately created political divides and rifts. With support of the bill coming from Douglas, a prominent member of the Whig Party, a divide quickly occurred between Northern and Southern Whigs. Northern Whig opposers soon joined the newly formed Republican Party while Southerners found loyalties with the Democrats.

Bloody Kansas

'Bloody Kansas' refers to the violence resulting from immediate attempts to settle the Kansas-Nebraska territory by both Pro-slavers and Free-soilers. By settling the area, each group aimed to influence the law of the land as to whether each state would enter the Union as free or slave. This majority choice of the people is known as popular sovereignty.

Pottawatomie Massacre

The Pottawatomie Massacre is one example of the extreme violence that occurred during the attempted settlement of the Kansas-Nebraska territory. John Brown, a devout religious abolitionist, murdered five pro-slavers in revenge for the pro-slave attack on the Free-soiler town of Lawrence, KS.

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Reform and Abolition Movements: A Social Perspective

Using a grid storyboard, have students detail, compare, and contrast the aims of the various abolition and reform movements of the mid- to late 1800s. Groups include those advocating for abolition, women’s rights, or increasing immigration, along with the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism.

Students can utilize the grid creatively, but it is recommended they label the rows “Reform Movements” and “Effects”, and list the groups across the columns (see the storyboard example below). This will help foster better understanding of the groups, their role in the mid-late 1800s, and their overall role in the question of slavery.

Social Changes in 1850s America

Reform Movement Effects on Society
Transcendentalism Transcendentalism revolved around the idea of addressing and escaping the many ills of society that resulted from industrialization, slavery, and poverty. Led by major reformers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalists believed people should trust themselves, their own ideas, and imagination. By doing so they could 'transcend', or go beyond what they can see or feel. The Transcendentalism movement produced some of the greatest literary figures of America. With popular poets and essayists like Emerson and Walt Whitman, people began questioning the goals and purpose of life, and examined their relation to industry, poverty, and slavery. They helped change the way Americans thought, created, and addressed the prevailing issues of the time.
Women’s Rights Women experienced a great push for reformed rights. With expansion of working opportunities, political influence, and increased social roles, women continued to progress in the civil rights arena. Events including the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 highlight women's push for rights, with leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton emerging as a strong voice for women. The women's rights movements of the late-mid 1800s had tremendous influence on later progress. Women would gain the right to vote in 1920. Work experience in factories and industry allowed women autonomy in arguing for better wages and conditions. Women's fight for civil rights closely coincided with the message of abolitionists.
Abolitionism Abolitionism was one of the most important reform movements of the mid and late 1800s. It called for the complete end of slavery. Although the idea of abolitionism had existed since the institution of American government, it particularly expanded throughout the mid-1800s, as the threat slavery spread to new territory and the 'slave power' expanded. The abolitionist movement had a tremendous effect on the social, political, and eventual war stage throughout the mid-1800s. With the release of popular novels such as 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', the newly strengthened Fugitive Slave Law, and a growing resistance to the expansion of political slave powers, the abolitionist movement was crucial in the overall fight against slavery and its expansion.

Extended Activity

Have students research and create a grid for current day reform movements. A multitude of groups and movements could be used and explained on current day issues. Again, promote cause/definitions with that of the effects in which the groups have on the social fabric of America and what their potential roles are in legislation and government actions concerning their respective social movements.

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The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1854

For this activity, students will outline and define the arguments made by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their famous debates in Illinois’ senatorial election of 1854. Students will use a T-Chart to list, define, and explain the arguments each candidate made, which will help further define the political divide created by “the slave question”. Students should research and understand the several arguments Lincoln makes against slavery’s expansion and Douglas’s arguments for the extension of slavery, based off popular sovereignty and individual/state rights. Students should make note of Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech and Douglas’s “Freeport Doctrine”, both instrumental in understanding the gravity of the debates.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Abraham Lincoln Stephen Douglas
Lincoln emerged in the Illinois senatorial debates as a young, bold politician. Hailing from Kentucky, Lincoln began his legal practices as a traveling lawyer. Lincoln took a staunch anti-slave position, in particular, its expansion into newly acquired territories of the west. Soon, he was an instrumental figure in the recently formed Republican Party, which primarily held this perspective. Stephan Douglas, commonly referred to as the "Little Giant" for his short stature but strong positions and speaking abilities, also served as a Senator for Illinois. A member of the Democratic Party, Douglas strongly advocated for ideas of popular sovereignty, where the people chose whether or not their states would lawfully allow slavery. This would be his notable attempt at solving the "slave question".
Lincoln’s Position Douglas’s Position
Abraham Lincoln's position as a Northern Republican was anti-slave. Lincoln was adamantly against the expansion or continuation of slavery as an institution. Lincoln saw the resolution of the slave question as imperative to preventing the dissolution of the Union. Furthermore, Lincoln believed slaves fell under the words and ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, i.e. "all men are created equal". Stephan Douglas held a strong position as an advocate of "popular sovereignty". This belief was connected to the idea that the citizens of a territory or state should have the ultimate power to decide any laws that apply to their state. Unlike Lincoln, he did not believe slaves fell under the words of the Declaration, as they were considered property, not citizens.
Lincoln’s Big Arguments Douglas’s Big Arguments
Lincoln's main arguments were that slavery should not expand as the nation did, and if it were allowed to do so, the slave power would soon overrun the Union in all regards. In addition, he believed that slavery should be held to where it currently existed in the hopes that it would ultimately cease. Therefore, he argued, the nation could not exist half free and half slave. Douglas's main arguments adhered to the idea that the people's will, and democratic vote, should decide the slave question. Falling back on principles of choice and power, the people, he argued, were to have the ultimate say. In addition, Douglas believed this idea was an extension of not only individual rights, but states rights as well.
Lincoln’s “A House Divided” Speech Douglas’s “Freeport Doctrine”
Throughout the several debates that constituted the Lincoln-Douglas series, Lincoln often referred to what has become known as his "A House Divided" speech. In it, Lincoln argues that the Union could, and would not, survive as a half free, half slave nation. "It will become all one thing, or all the other", Lincoln remarked, going on to say that "its advocates will push [slavery] forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South". Douglas rebutted Lincoln's arguments in what would become known as his "Freeport Doctrine", named after the Illinois town in which he delivered his words. In it, Douglas remarked that "the people have the lawful means to introduce [slavery] or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations". He also added that "those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature".
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The Eve of Civil War – Important Figures and Events

In this activity, students will use a timeline storyboard to portray the major events that precede the Civil War. By examining John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, the election of 1860, the eventual secession of South Carolina, and the bombing of Fort Sumter, students will understand and analyze the events that lead to the outbreak of the Civil War. Other events that can be used include: the Dred Scott decision, the several acts and legislations previously mentioned, or the Election of 1856. This will allow students to understand, in a more literal sense, how and why the Civil War finally came about.

Example Timeline Leading to the Civil War

January 29, 1850

Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 is the first major attempt to settle the dispute between Northerners and Southerners. Both the North and the South receive satisfying terms; however, it demonstrates how difficult the slave question actually is.
May 30, 1854

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 again serves as an attempted compromise between pro-slavers and anti-slavers. By allowing the people to decide the fate of newly acquired territories through popular sovereignty, the act leads to violence and further strains tensions between the North and the South.
August 21 - October 15, 1858

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Throughout 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate for the position of U.S Senator of Illinois. The debates highlight the growing divide between Free Soilers and Pro-slavers, as both candidates present fierce positions on the subject. Douglas will go on to win the race.
October 16, 1859

John Brown Raids Harpers Ferry

On October 16th, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown, along with 18 other men, raid the Virginian ammunition stockade at Harpers Ferry, in an attempt to begin a race war and slave uprising. John Brown is unsuccessful and eventually sentenced to death. The North views him as a martyr, while the South views him as a traitor.
November 9, 1860

Presidential Election of 1860

The presidential election year of 1860 was both crucial and very telling of things to come. Abraham Lincoln ran as the Republican candidate against Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and Constitutional Party candidate John Bell. Lincoln emerged victorious.
December 20, 1860

South Carolina Secedes

On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina officially secedes from the Union, marking the beginning of secession by the southern states. The election of Abraham Lincoln triggers more to secede, highlighting the beginning of a very divided America for the next five years.
April 12, 1961

The Firing on Fort Sumter

On April 12th, 1861, the Civil War officially begins when Confederate forces fire upon a Union controlled Fort Sumter. Claiming lay to the fort and demanding Union soldiers retreat from it, the Confederate States decide it is time to take action. Although no casualties are suffered on either side, the attack marks the beginning of the bloodiest American war ever.

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In the 1850s, America experienced great tribulations. The “slave question” and its application to newly organized and acquired territories split the country apart. America had grown exponentially in terms of territory and power. Differences between the North and the South were more evident than ever. As the North experienced great industrial growth and expansion, the South remained a mostly agricultural and slave-based economy. The country divided politically as well. With growing abolition and reform movements, social divisions became sharp and fierce.

The 1850s was a decade of unsuccessful attempts to resolve these differences. Events made the possibility of civil war more realistic than ever, but the country aimed first to resolve these growing divisions democratically.

The central question proved to be how new territories and lands would take on the controversial issue of slavery. Through compromises, law, and upheaval, America attempted to tackle this question. By examining 1850s America, one can truly understand what thrust the United States into civil war, a war many deemed inevitable.

Essential Questions for 1850s America

  1. What divisions existed between the North and the South? How did such divisions increase tensions between these regions?
  2. What were the roles of abolition and reform movements? How did they exemplify the increasing divisions and tensions between social classes, politics, and views from the North and the South?
  3. What legislation and compromises were enacted in an attempt to solve the “slave question” and its expansion?
  4. How were the Lincoln-Douglas debates an example of increasing political divisions and tensions? How did they typify the views of both Southern Democrats and the newly founded Republican Party?
  5. How did events like John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and the election of President Lincoln in 1860 serve as sparks to the inevitable Civil War?
  6. What was the role of morality vs. practicality throughout this time period?

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