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[Detail] Preface from Punchinello 1, no.1 (1870).

Civil War and Reconstruction

Soon after the Gold Rush, California's population was large enough to qualify for statehood. As had been the case with other new states' admission to the union, Northerners and Southerners disagreed about whether to admit California as a free or slave state. This division was just one of the many tensions over slavery. In an attempt to resolve these tensions, Congress passed a series of laws known as the Compromise of 1850. One part of this compromise provided that California would be admitted as a free state. Another part was a very strict Fugitive Slave Law.

A July 1850, article printed in The United States Democratic Review one month before the Senate and two months before the House of Representatives passed the act argued in support of the Fugitive Slave Law. Although the act became law in 1850, the debate continued, as evidenced by a May 1851, article in The American Whig Review. Scan the two articles:

  • What do the articles suggest about the positions of the two major political parties on this issue?
  • Based on these two articles, how do you think the Compromise of 1850 affected the regional tensions over slavery?

The decision of the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford likewise enflamed passions in the antebellum period. Conduct a keyword search using the term Dred Scott to locate appraisals of the Supreme Court decision written within a few months of the ruling and later appraisals of Chief Justice Taney. The North American Review, October 1857, printed a detailed discussion by Benjamin Howard of the opinions in the Dred Scott case. After a careful examination of the multiple separate opinions in the case, Howard expressed his contempt of the judicial decision:

. . . Verily, it is the opinion of these men, that this free government was established on purpose to extend the blessings of the glorious institution of slavery. The preamble should be altered. . . . The country will feel the consequences of the decision more deeply and more permanently, in the loss of confidence in the sound judicial integrity and strictly legal character of their tribunals, than in anything beside; and this perhaps may well be accounted the greatest political calamity that this country, under our forms of government, could sustain.

From "The Dred Scott Case," The North American Review, Volume 85, Issue 177, October 1857, pages 407, 415

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The Century, June 1887, in a serial publication of Abraham Lincoln: A History, written by two of his secretaries, J. J. Nicolay and John Hay, also included a lengthy discussion of the case from Lincoln's perspective.

  • What arguments did Benjamin Howard use to justify his belief that Chief Justice Taney's decision was improper?
  • What did Howard mean by the statement "the preamble should be altered"?
  • What were Lincoln's views of the Dred Scott decision? How did the decision affect the Lincoln-Douglas Debates?
  • How do historians and political scientists today regard the decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford?

Many articles in the collection include recollections of the Civil War. A keyword search using the term Civil War or the names of specific events of the war will yield numerous articles of interest. Of considerable importance among these articles is an account of what was known as the Trent Affair. A key player, Gideon Wells, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, explained the capture and release of two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, the event that precipitated the Trent Affair in 1861, in an article published in The Galaxy, May 1873.

A search using the names of important figures in the Civil War will also yield many articles, often with conflicting views on those figures. For example, an Atlantic Monthly article of November 1862 on the Emancipation Proclamation reveals some of the outpouring of support for Lincoln, who had often been criticized for not taking a stand against slavery. In contrast, the April 1865 issue of The Old Guard condemned Lincoln and accused him of usurping his constitutional powers and marching the country "toward national suicide."

. . . Against all timorous counsels he had the courage to seize the moment; and such was his position, and such the felicity attending the action, that he has replaced Government in the good graces of mankind. . . . A day which most of us dared not hope to see, an event worth the dreadful war, worth its cost and uncertainties, seems now to be close before us. October, November, December will have passed over beating hearts and plotting brains: then the hour will strike, and all men of African descent who have faculty enough to find their way to our lines are assured of the protection of American law.

From "The President's Proclamation," The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, Issue 61, November 1862, pages 639-640

If Abraham Lincoln and Co. could know beyond doubt or question that "abolition of slavery" was impossible, and as absolutely and everlastingly beyond the scope of human power to compass, as to breathe without atmospheric air, or, indeed, to restore life to the dead, they would doubtless halt at once in their awful march towards national suicide, and repent in sackcloth and ashes for the enormous crimes they are blindly committing.

From "Abolition of Slavery Forever Impossible," The Old Guard, Volume 3, Issue 4, April 1865, page 176

  • What did the author mean by the statement, "he has replaced Government in the good graces of mankind"?
  • Under the Emancipation Proclamation, who was assured freedom on January 1, 1863?
  • What was the tone of the article in opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • To what degree does this article reflect commonly held attitudes of the day?

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