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In the 1850s, the conflict over slavery brought the United States to the brink of destruction.
In the course of that decade, the debate over slavery raged in the nation’s political institutions and its public places. Congress enacted new policies related to slavery. The courts ruled on cases related to slavery. Abolitionists continued their efforts to end the institution. Political parties, also affected by issues related to slavery, realigned and reformed. Newspapers, novelists, activists, and reformers joined the debate, all responding to the crisis—or even trying to inflame it—in their own way. All of these events were important in the decade preceding Abraham Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of Civil War.
The timeline below highlights some of the most important events of the tumultuous decade:
In an attempt to prevent a civil war, Congress enacted a series of laws that became known as the Compromise of 1850. These included an enhanced Fugitive Slave Law. This law required law enforcement officials throughout the country to aid in the arrest of alleged runaway slaves. It provoked a national controversy and many Northerners refused to enforce the law’s provisions.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. It sold 300,000 copies in the United States in the first year of its publication, spurring on the work of abolitionists and enraging those who defended slavery. It also spawned several other plays and musicals, some carrying on the theme of the book, others taking a pro-slavery approach. While Stowe’s book was strongly anti-slavery, it also created and reinforced stereotypes about African Americans.
Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed settlers in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether they would allow slavery. The Republican Party was formed in response to opening the Northern territories to slavery.
Anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians clashed in Kansas. The violence, which lasted for several years, became known as the Border War, or Bleeding Kansas.
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision (Scott v. Sandford). The ruling stated that no one of African descent could qualify for U.S. citizenship. This decision further outraged abolitionists.
John Brown led a band of about 20 radical abolitionists in a raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown hoped to set off a slave revolt, but then plan failed. Brown and several other men were caught and executed.
Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president, running against the Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas. Even before Lincoln won the election, Southern states began threatening to secede if the Republican candidate won. Following Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20.
The documents in this set are arranged in chronological order and, taken together, give an idea of some of the critical events in the decade before the outbreak of the Civil War.