Divisions between North and South
The central issue after 1848 was the expansion of slavery, pitting the anti-slavery elements that were a majority in the North, against the pro-slavery elements that overwhelmingly dominated the white South. A small number of very active Northerners were abolitionists who declared that ownership of slaves was a sin (in terms of Protestant theology) and demanded its immediate abolition. Much larger numbers were against the expansion of slavery, seeking to put it on the path to extinction so that America would be committed to free land (as in low-cost farms owned and cultivated by a family), free labor (no slaves), and free speech (as opposed to censorship rampant in the South). Southern whites insisted that slavery was of economic, social, and cultural benefit to all whites (and even to the slaves themselves), and denounced all anti-slavery spokesmen as “abolitionists.”
Religious activists split on slavery, with the Methodists and Baptists dividing into northern and southern denominations. In the North, the Methodists, Congregationalists, and Quakers included many abolitionists, especially among women activists. (The Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran denominations largely ignored the slavery issue.)
The issue of slavery in the new territories was seemingly settled by the Compromise of 1850, brokered by Whig Henry Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas; the Compromise included the admission of California as a free state. The point of contention was the Fugitive Slave Act, which increased federal enforcement and required even free states to cooperate in turning over fugitive slaves to their owners. Abolitionists pounced on the Act to attack slavery, as in the best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The Compromise of 1820 was repealed in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, promoted by Senator Douglas in the name of “popular sovereignty” and democracy. It permitted voters to decide on slavery in each territory, and allowed Douglas to say he was neutral on the slavery issue. Anti-slavery forces rose in anger and alarm, forming the new Republican Party. Pro- and anti- contingents rushed to Kansas to vote slavery up or down, resulting in a miniature civil war called Bleeding Kansas. By the late 1850s, the young Republican Party dominated nearly all northern states and thus the electoral college. It insisted that slavery would never be allowed to expand (and thus would slowly die out).
The Southern slavery-based societies had become wealthy based on their cotton and other agricultural commodity production, and some particularly profited from the internal slave trade. Northern cities such as Boston and New York, and regional industries, were tied economically to slavery by banking, shipping, and manufacturing, including textile mills. By 1860, there were four million slaves in the South, nearly eight times as many as there were nationwide in 1790. The plantations were highly profitable, because of the heavy European demand for raw cotton. Most of the profits were invested in new lands and in purchasing more slaves (largely drawn from the declining tobacco regions).
For 50 of the nation’s first 72 years, a slaveholder served as President of the United States and, during that period, only slaveholding presidents were re-elected to second terms. In addition, southern states benefited by their increased apportionment in Congress due to the partial counting of slaves in their populations.
Slave rebellions were planned or actually took place – including by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), Nat Turner (1831), and John Brown (1859) – but they only involved dozens of people and all failed. They caused fear in the white South, which imposed tighter slave oversight and reduced the rights of free blacks. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required the states to cooperate with slave owners when attempting to recover escaped slaves, which outraged Northerners. Formerly, an escaped slave, having reached a non-slave state, was presumed to have attained sanctuary and freedom. The Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; angry Republicans said this decision threatened to make slavery a national institution.
After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, seven Southern states seceded from the union and set up a new nation, the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.), on February 8, 1861. It attacked Fort Sumter, a U.S. Army fort in South Carolina, thus igniting the war. When Lincoln called for troops to suppress the Confederacy in April 1861, four more states seceded and joined the Confederacy. A few of the (northernmost) “slave states” did not secede and became known as the border states; these were Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Main article: Origins of the American Civil War
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In response to the attack, on April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and “preserve the Union”, which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states. The two armies had their first major clash at the First Battle of Bull Run, ending in a Union defeat, but, more importantly, proved to both the Union and Confederacy that the war would be much longer and bloodier than originally anticipated.
The war soon divided into two theaters: Eastern and Western. In the western theater, the Union was quite successful, with major battles, such as Perryville and Shiloh, producing strategic Union victories and destroying major Confederate operations.
Warfare in the Eastern theater started poorly for the Union as the Confederates won at Manassas Junction (Bull Run), just outside Washington. Major General George B. McClellan was put in charge of the Union armies. After reorganizing the new Army of the Potomac, McClellan failed to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in his Peninsula Campaign and retreated after attacks from newly appointed Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Feeling confident in his army after defeating the Union at Second Bull Run, Lee embarked on an invasion of the north that was stopped by McClellan at the bloody Battle of Antietam. Despite this, McClellan was relieved from command for refusing to pursue Lee’s crippled army. The next commander, General Ambrose Burnside, suffered a humiliating defeat by Lee’s smaller army at the Battle of Fredericksburg late in 1862, causing yet another change in commanders. Lee won again at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, while losing his top aide, Stonewall Jackson. But Lee pushed too hard and ignored the Union threat in the west. Lee invaded Pennsylvania in search of supplies and to cause war-weariness in the North. In perhaps the turning point of the war, Lee’s army was badly beaten at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, and barely made it back to Virginia.
Simultaneously on July 4, 1863, Union forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant gained control of the Mississippi River at the Battle of Vicksburg, thereby splitting the Confederacy. Lincoln made General Grant commander of all Union armies.
The last two years of the war were bloody for both sides, with Grant launching a war of attrition against General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This war of attrition was divided into three main campaigns. The first of these, the Overland Campaign forced Lee to retreat into the city of Petersburg where Grant launched his second major offensive, the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign in which he besieged Petersburg. After a near ten-month siege, Petersburg surrendered. However, the defense of Fort Gregg allowed Lee to move his army out of Petersburg. Grant pursued and launched the final, Appomattox Campaign which resulted in Lee surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Other Confederate armies followed suit and the war ended with no postwar insurgency.
Based on 1860 census figures, about 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% from the North and 18% from the South, establishing the American Civil War as the deadliest war in American history. Its legacy includes ending slavery in the United States, restoring the Union, and strengthening the role of the federal government.
Main article: American Civil War
The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. In a single stroke it changed the legal status, as recognized by the U.S. government, of 3 million slaves in designated areas of the Confederacy from “slave” to “free.” It had the practical effect that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the slave became legally and actually free. The owners were never compensated. Plantation owners, realizing that emancipation would destroy their economic system, sometimes moved their slaves as far as possible out of reach of the Union army. By June 1865, the Union Army controlled all of the Confederacy and liberated all of the designated slaves. Large numbers moved into camps run by the Freedmen’s Bureau, where they were given food, shelter, medical care, and arrangements for their employment were made.
The severe dislocations of war and Reconstruction had a large negative impact on the black population, with a large amount of sickness and death.
The major issues faced by Lincoln were the status of the ex-slaves (called “Freedmen”), the loyalty and civil rights of ex-rebels, the status of the 11 ex-Confederate states, the powers of the federal government needed to prevent a future civil war, and the question of whether Congress or the President would make the major decisions.
The severe threats of starvation and displacement of the unemployed Freedmen were met by the first major federal relief agency, the Freedmen’s Bureau, operated by the Army.
Three “Reconstruction Amendments” were passed to expand civil rights for black Americans: the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal rights for all and citizenship for blacks; the Fifteenth Amendment prevented race from being used to disfranchise men.
Ex-Confederates remained in control of most Southern states for over two years, but that changed when the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1866 elections. President Andrew Johnson, who sought easy terms for reunions with ex-rebels, was virtually powerless; he escaped by one vote removal through impeachment. Congress enfranchised black men and temporarily stripped many ex-Confederate leaders of the right to hold office. New Republican governments came to power based on a coalition of Freedmen made up of Carpetbaggers (new arrivals from the North), and Scalawags (native white Southerners). They were backed by the US Army. Opponents said they were corrupt and violated the rights of whites. State by state they lost power to a conservative-Democratic coalition, which gained control of the entire South by 1877. In response to Radical Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged in 1867 as a white-supremacist organization opposed to black civil rights and Republican rule. President Ulysses Grant’s vigorous enforcement of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 shut down the Klan, and it disbanded. Paramilitary groups, such as the White League and Red Shirts emerged about 1874 that worked openly to use intimidation and violence to suppress black voting to regain white political power in states across the South during the 1870s. Rable described them as the military arm of the Democratic Party.
Reconstruction ended after the disputed 1876 election between Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. With a compromise Hayes won the White House, the federal government withdrew its troops from the South, and Southern Democrats re-entered the national political scene. From 1890 to 1908, southern states effectively disfranchised most black voters and many poor whites by making voter registration more difficult through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other arbitrary devices. They passed segregation laws and imposed second-class status on blacks in a system known as Jim Crow that lasted until the successes of the Civil Rights movement in 1964-65.
Deeply religious Southerners saw the hand of God in history, which demonstrated His wrath at their sinfulness, or His rewards for their suffering. Historian Wilson Fallin has examined the sermons of white and black Baptist preachers after the War. Southern white preachers said:
- God had chastised them and given them a special mission – to maintain orthodoxy, strict biblicism, personal piety, and traditional race relations. Slavery, they insisted, had not been sinful. Rather, emancipation was a historical tragedy and the end of Reconstruction was a clear sign of God’s favor.
In sharp contrast, Black preachers interpreted the Civil War as:
- God’s gift of freedom. They appreciated opportunities to exercise their independence, to worship in their own way, to affirm their worth and dignity, and to proclaim the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Most of all, they could form their own churches, associations, and conventions. These institutions offered self-help and racial uplift, and provided places where the gospel of liberation could be proclaimed. As a result, black preachers continued to insist that God would protect and help him; God would be their rock in a stormy land.
The West and the Gilded Age
The latter half of the nineteenth century was marked by the rapid development and settlement of the far West, first by wagon trains and riverboats and then aided by the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Large numbers of European immigrants (especially from Germany and Scandinavia) took up low-cost or free farms in the Prairie States. Mining for silver and copper opened up the Mountain West. The United States Army fought frequent small-scale wars with Native Americans as settlers encroached on their traditional lands. Gradually the US purchased the Native American tribal lands and extinguished their claims, forcing most tribes onto subsidized reservations. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1894), from 1789 to 1894:
The Indian wars under the government of the United States have been more than 40 in number. They have cost the lives of about 19,000 white men, women and children, including those killed in individual combats, and the lives of about 30,000 Indians. The actual number of killed and wounded Indians must be very much higher than the given… Fifty percent additional would be a safe estimate…
The “Gilded Age” was a term that Mark Twain used to describe the period of the late 19th century when there had been a dramatic expansion of American wealth and prosperity. Reform of the Age included the Civil Service Act, which mandated a competitive examination for applicants for government jobs. Other important legislation included the Interstate Commerce Act, which ended railroads’ discrimination against small shippers, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed monopolies in business. Twain believed that this age was corrupted by such elements as land speculators, scandalous politics, and unethical business practices. Since the days of Charles A. Beard and Matthew Josephson, some historians have argued that the United States was effectively plutocratic for at least part of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. As financiers and industrialists such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller began to amass vast fortunes, many US observers were concerned that the nation was losing its pioneering egalitarian spirit.
By 1890 American industrial production and per capita income exceeded those of all other world nations. In response to heavy debts and decreasing farm prices, wheat and cotton farmers joined the Populist Party. An unprecedented wave of immigration from Europe served to both provide the labor for American industry and create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas. From 1880 to 1914, peak years of immigration, more than 22 million people migrated to the United States. Most were unskilled workers who quickly found jobs in mines, mills, factories. Many immigrants were craftsmen (especially from Britain and Germany) bringing human skills, and others were farmers (especially from Germany and Scandinavia) who purchased inexpensive land on the Prairies from railroads who sent agents to Europe. Poverty, growing inequality and dangerous working conditions, along with socialist and anarchist ideas diffusing from European immigrants, led to the rise of the labor movement, which often included violent strikes.
Skilled workers banded together to control their crafts and raise wages by forming labor unions in industrial areas of the Northeast. Before the 1930s few factory workers joined the unions in the labor movement. Samuel Gompers led the American Federation of Labor 1886-1924, coordinating multiple unions. Industrial growth was very rapid, led by John D. Rockefeller in oil and Andrew Carnegie in steel; both became leaders of philanthropy, giving away their fortunes to create the modern system of hospitals, universities, libraries, and foundations.
A severe nationwide depression broke out in 1893; it was called the Panic of 1893 and impacted farmers, workers, and businessmen who saw prices, wages, and profits fall. Many railroads went bankrupt. The resultant political reaction fell on the Democratic Party, whose leader President Grover Cleveland shouldered much of the blame. Labor unrest involved numerous strikes, most notably the violent Pullman Strike of 1894, which was shut down by federal troops under Cleveland’s orders. The Populist Party gained strength among cotton and wheat farmers, as well as coal miners, but was overtaken by the even more popular Free Silver movement, which demanded using silver to enlarge the money supply, leading to inflation that the silverites promised would end the depression.
The financial, railroad, and business communities fought back hard, arguing that only the gold standard would save the economy. In the most intense election in the nation’s history, conservative Republican William McKinley defeated silverite William Jennings Bryan, who ran on the Democratic, Populist, and Silver Republican tickets. Bryan swept the South and West, but McKinley ran up landslides among the middle class, industrial workers, cities, and among upscale farmers in the Midwest.
Prosperity returned under McKinley, the gold standard was enacted, and the tariff was raised. By 1900 the US had the strongest economy on the globe. Apart from two short recessions (in 1907 and 1920) the overall economy remained prosperous and growing until 1929. Republicans, citing McKinley’s policies, took the credit.
Main article: Gilded Age