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[Detail] Millions of acres, Iowa and Nebraska, 1872

Slavery and the Civil War

Slavery had long been a divisive issue. While abolitionism gained momentum in the 1830s, support for slavery was still strong.  In 1835, Angelina Grimké wrote to William Lloyd Garrison to express her deep concern over opposition to the abolitionist cause in Boston, where there had recently been a pro-slavery riot.  In her letter, Grimké urged Garrison to continue his struggle to abolish slavery despite the hostility directed towards him in Massachusetts.

"...I thanked God, and took courage, earnestly desiring that thousands may adopt thy language, and be prepared to meet the Martyr's doom, rather than give up the principles you (i.e. Abolitionists) have adopted.  The ground upon which you stand is holy ground:  never — never surrender it.  If you surrender it, the hope of the slave is extinguished, and the chains of his servitude will be strengthened a hundred fold."

From "Slavery and the Boston Riot"

Stories of daring escapes from slavery were circulated as a means of winning support for the abolitionist crusade.  The story of "Box Brown," who shipped himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in a box, was but one of many tales of heroic efforts to achieve freedom.  The collection includes a song Brown is reported to have sung as he stepped from his confinement upon arrival at Philadelphia

In 1856, controversy over the admission of Kansas to the union divided the nation and led to what was commonly known as "Bleeding Kansas."  Read "Who Are the Ruffians, Murderers, and Robbers in Kansas?" for information on rival factions in the territory.  A Keyword Search using the term free Kansas will produce a number of documents relating to the issue of Kansas's admission to the union. 

The sectional crisis erupted in another episode of violence at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.  John Brown, intending to promote a slave uprising, was captured and tried for treason.  When sentenced to death, Brown addressed the court:

"...I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I have done no wrong, but RIGHT.

Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life, for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and MINGLE MY BLOOD FURTHER WITH THE BLOOD OF MY CHILDREN, and with the blood of millions in this Slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, — I say, LET IT BE DONE.... (32)"

From "Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court"

The American Anti-Slavery Society, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, passed a resolution calling upon abolitionists to show support for Brown and conduct a "moral demonstration" against slavery on the day set aside for his execution.

As the nation appeared on the verge of a war, senator John Crittenden of Kentucky proposed what came to be known as the Crittenden Compromise. The proposal called for a series of amendments to the Constitution that would have reinstated the Missouri Compromise line, prohibited the abolition of slavery on federal land, insured the interstate transportation of slaves, and secured the right of the government to acquire territory in Africa or South America for the colonization of free Blacks.  The collection also presents a letter critical of a compromise to insure the continuation of slavery.  Conducting a Keyword Search using secession will produce documents both for and against secession from the Union.

  • Based on the documents you have read, what were the arguments for abolition of slavery? What seemed to be the primary motives of the abolitionists?
  • What evidence does the collection provide that opposition to abolition remained high?
  • Do you think the Crittenden Compromise was a good option for avoiding war? Why or why not?
  • Given the events that had occurred between 1830 and 1860 and the divisions that existed in the nation, do you think civil war was inevitable? Explain your answer.

The collection also includes a number of documents on the Civil War. Conduct a Keyword Search using Civil War as your search term; such a search will identify a variety of broadsides, songs, and pamphlets on the war including announcements for a bounty paid for enlistment, recruitment posters, and a call for patriotic women to meet to devise a plan to give comfort to soldiers.

The headline of an extra edition of the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald on April 15, 1865, announced, "Appalling Circumstance! The President Dead! Escape of the Murderer! Attempt on the life of Secretary Seward. J. Wilkes Booth, the Actor, the Assassin." At left is a poster circulated by the War Department. The department offered a $100,000 reward for the capture of the Lincoln conspirators, John Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, and David Herold, whose photographs were shown on the poster.

New President Andrew Johnson, following Lincoln's lead, called for the readmission of the former Confederate states to the Union.  The provisional governor of North Carolina issued a proclamation calling for a state convention, one of the prerequisites for readmission.  Read the proclamation and pay particular attention to the part of the proclamation he addresses "To the colored people of the State," which is excerpted below.

"To the colored people of the State I would say, you are now free. Providence has willed that the very means adopted to render your servitude perpetual, should be His instruments for releasing you from bondage. It now remains for you, aided as you will be by the superior intelligence of the white race, and cheered by the sympathies of all good people, to decide whether the freedom thus suddenly bestowed upon you, will be a blessing to you or a source of injury....I have no prejudice against you.  On the contrary, while I am a white man, and while my lot is with my own color, yet I sympathize with you as the weaker race. . ."

From "Proclamation of William W. Holden, Provisional Governor, to the People of North Carolina"

  • What  tone did the governor take in addressing the African Americans of North Carolina?
  • According to the provisional governor, who was responsible for ending slavery?
  • What can you infer from this proclamation regarding how former slaves were likely to be treated in the reconstructed state of North Carolina?

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