Like most of you, I’ve suddenly found myself teaching online social studies classes. Good thing there’s a whole library of free lessons at Openendedsocialstudies.org, just ready and waiting to support your middle and high school world and US history needs. Please browse and share widely in your social circles.
Here’s a look at some lessons my own home-bound students will see in the twilight days of this school year, preempted so abruptly by our national quarantine. We’re trying to keep it light, airy, and most of all relevant.
Most to the point, we’re trying to teach these kids something about how to be a good, well-rounded person. Wasn’t that why you got into this business in the first place?
So, get your kids away from the computer screen as much as possible – that is where they’re going to be for math and ELA.
Everything below is written to apply to the town where I teach, but can easily be adapted to your hometown.
Good luck and be good to each other.
Day 1 – Map Your World
Make a hand drawn map of your home and your yard (if you have one.) Use a measuring tape (or improvise one if you don’t have a measuring tape.)
Your map should be to scale – 1 inch equals 5 feet. Include and label all rooms, windows, doors, and major trees and landscaping. Also include a compass rose and a key, if necessary.
Scan/take a photo of your map.
Day 2 – Plant Life
Pick a tree or plant in your yard. Take a photo of its leaves. Figure out what it is and write a brief report (in your own words). Address questions about: the conditions under which it thrives, its relationship to humans, whether it is native to our state, whether your family planted it/had it planted or it was growing there when you moved in.
Day 3 – Ask an Adult
Ask an adult to tell you about their neighborhood when they were your age. Think of at least two related follow up questions. Record/document the answers in interview format.
Day 4 – Read This
Read the following quote and respond to it in a five to eight sentence paragraph:
“Adults, in their dealing with children, are insane, and children know it too. Adults lay down rules they would not think of following, speak truths they do not believe. And yet they expect children to obey the rules, believe the truths, and admire and respect their parents for this nonsense. Children must be very wise and secret to tolerate adults at all. And the greatest nonsense of all that adults expect children to believe is that people learn by experience. No greater lie was ever revered. And its falseness is immediately discerned by children since their parents obviously have not learned anything by experience. Far from learning, adults simply become set in a maze of prejudices and dreams and sets of rules whose origins they do not know and would not dare inspect for fear the whole structure might topple over on them. I think children instinctively know this. Intelligent children learn to conceal their knowledge and keep free of this howling mania.”
― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
Day 5 – Dig a Hole
1.Find an out of the way space. Dig a hole at around a foot in depth. To provide a sense of scale, take a picture of your hole with a ruler or some other object in it.
2. Answer the following survey on your own sheet of paper:
Teacher Who Made Me Do This and Their Email Address:
What’s Going on in the World Right Now:
Advice to My Future Self:
3. Place you answers in a carefully sealed Ziploc bag, along with anything else you might want to bury in your time capsule.
4. Throw it in the hole, cover the hole, and dig it all up on April 1st in the year 2025 (or, before you move from your current house – whichever comes first). Write me a note when you do, and let me know how you’re doing!
Try to go easy on the grass – if you must dig through grass, you can usually cut a piece by getting your shovel up underneath it and levering it up. You can then replace it when you are done by dropping it back into place. If you are totally not allowed to dig, place this under a big rock, a paving stone, or somewhere else hidden.
Day 6 – Estimate your Impact
Use this tool – https://ei.lehigh.edu/learners/cc/carboncalc.html – to estimate your carbon footprint. Summarize the “Analysis” tab – what your biggest impacts? Were there any sources of carbon that you hadn’t consider before taking this survey?
Day 7 – Eat a Piece of Fruit
Find a piece of fruit in your house. If you don’t have any, find something fruit flavored. Write a brief report on that piece of fruit, including information about its history and where it is cultivated.
3. How many sales are recorded for your home/when were they?
4. How has the value of your home changed over time?
Day 9 – Ask an Adult
Ask your adult to show you some photographs of his or her self when they were your age. Ask them three questions inspired by the photo. Record/document the answers in interview format.
Day 10 – Smoke Detectors
Find all the smoke detectors in your home. Get up on a chair and press the test button. They should make a loud noise. If they don’t, you need new batteries. You’re welcome. Send a photo of yourself up on the chair.
Day 11 – Record a Podcast
Using your phone or computer, record a short podcast (minimum two minutes) – on the theme “What is my life like while I’m stuck at home because of the Coronavirus?”
Day 12 – Make a Meal
Make or help to make breakfast, lunch, or dinner today for the members of your family. Submit a selfie of you in the kitchen/doing the work.
Day 13 – Native America
What Native American group occupied the land where you live now? Figure it out, give me a paragraph about them, and tell where I could can go to see some of their artifacts or the ruins of their towns.
Find something outside and sketch it. Your artwork doesn’t have to be “good” – but it must demonstrate effort. This shouldn’t take less than five minutes. Take a photo of yourself holding your sketch and upload it.
Day 16 – Your Officials
Who is your mayor? What is one thing he has done for the city? Who is your deputy mayor? Where is city hall?
Day 17 – In the Shade
Find a shady spot outside and read a book there for at least ten minutes. Take a selfie in your spot, with your book, and submit it.
Day 18 – Your Parks
Use Google Maps to help you pick a park or nature preserve. Write a one paragraph history of that place OR, if applicable, a one paragraph biography of the person it is named after.
Day 19 – Read This
Read the following quote and respond to it in a five to eight sentence paragraph:
‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’
Surprise me with your own act of creativity or whimsy – a hobby, a piece of art, an act of kindness, etc. It can be anything. Tell me about it/share a photo of it here, and tell me why you are proud of this thing.
Day 20 – Surprise
Surprise me with your own act of creativity or whimsy – a hobby, a piece of art, an act of kindness, etc. It can be anything. Tell me about it/share a photo of it here, and tell me why you are proud of this thing.
The United States: An Open Ended History is a free online history textbook adapted and expanded upon from open sources. Its chapters are designed to address most state standards, splitting the difference between overarching themes, concise summary, and the kinds of vivid, personal details that make history memorable to the average student. Please use and share freely – to supplement or replace what you have at hand.
One – A Not So-Distant Past: Native America (Until 1600)
What is the leading theory for how Native Americans populated the Americas? Why can’t modern people be sure?
What are the Three Sisters? Why do they work so well together?
What evidence do we have for the complexity of ancient Native American societies?Is it meaningful to say that Native Americans were more primitive than Europeans of the same time period?
Write a brief paragraph about the Native American group that once (or currently) occupied the land that is now your town.
Settlement of the Americas
During recent ice ages, as large amounts of water were trapped on land as glaciers, ocean levels around the world were much lower than they are today. The narrow, shallow channel between Alaska and Siberia – known today as the Bering Strait – was a dry, grassland steppe. Asian nomads are thought to have entered the Americas via this Bering Land Bridge (Beringia), and possibly along the coast via canoes or other boats. These nomads were the ancestors of the first Native Americans – the indigenous peoples of the Americas, also known as Amerindians.
Exactly how and when Native Americans arrived in the Americas may never be known with certainty. This process may have included more than one migration event from Asia, but the fact of the matter is that no Native American group had a system of writing at the time of their migration. This means that the Americas were populated in prehistoric times – a time before written records. Instead, what we know about this ancient past comes from genetics – the study of how DNA varies between groups, linguistics – the study of how language varies between groups, and archeology – the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.
Genetic evidence found in Native Americans’ mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – distinctive genetic markers passed from mother to child, down through generations – supports the theory of multiple genetic populations migrating from Asia. Over the course of millennia, Paleo-Indians spread throughout North and South America. Exactly when the first people migrated into the Americas is the subject of much debate. One of the earliest identifiable cultures was the Clovis culture, with sites dating from some 13,000 years ago. However, older sites dating back to 20,000 years ago have been claimed. Some genetic studies estimate the colonization of the Americas dates from between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to 14,000 years ago, and accordingly humans have been proposed to have reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time. In that case, the Eskimo peoples would have arrived separately and at a much later date, probably no more than 2,000 years ago, moving across the ice from Siberia into Alaska.
The North American climate was unstable as the ice age receded. It finally stabilized by about 10,000 years ago; climatic conditions were then very similar to today’s. Within this time frame, roughly pertaining to the Archaic Period, numerous archaeological cultures have been identified.
The unstable climate led to widespread migration, with early Native Americans soon spreading throughout the Americas, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct tribes. These early Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, likely characterized by small, mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. These groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. During much of this Paleo-Indian period, bands are thought to have subsisted primarily through hunting now-extinct giant land animals such as mastodon and ancient bison. Paleo-Indian groups carried a variety of tools, including distinctive projectile points and knives (the Clovis point), as well as less distinctive butchering and hide-scraping implements.
The vastness of the North American continent, and the variety of its climates, ecology, vegetation, fauna, and landforms, led ancient peoples to coalesce into many distinct linguistic and cultural groups. This is reflected in the oral histories of the indigenous peoples, described by a wide range of traditional creation stories which often say that a given people have been living in a certain territory since the creation of the world.
The Three Sisters
Over the course of thousands of years, Native American people domesticated, bred, and cultivated a number of plant species, including crops which now constitute 50–60% of worldwide agriculture, most notably the Three Sisters – maize (corn), squash, and beans.
In a technique known as companion planting the three crops are planted close together. Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops. Each mound is about 12 inches high and 20 inches wide. Several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound. When the maize is 6 inches tall, beans and squash are planted around the maize, alternating between the two kinds of seeds. The development of this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years. Squash was domesticated first, around 8,000-10,000 years ago, with maize second (at first consumed primarily in the form of popcorn), and then beans.
The three crops benefit from each other. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles or lattices which are more commonly used today. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use, and the squash plant spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch,” creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests.
Not only do these the Three Sisters grow symbiotically, they provide an almost complete nutritional package. Maize, beans, and squash contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and all eight essential amino acids, allowing most Native Americans tribes to thrive on a plant-based diet. Author Charles C. Mann explains, “Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;…. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan…. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats.”
In general, Arctic, Subarctic, and coastal peoples continued to live as hunters and gatherers, while agriculture was adopted in more temperate and sheltered regions, permitting a dramatic rise in population.
Most Native Americans shaped their environment with fire, employing slash-and-burn techniques to create grasslands for cultivation and to encourage the abundance of game animals. Native Americans domesticated fewer animals and cultivated plant life differently from their European counterparts, but did so quite intensively.
After the migration or migrations from Asia, it was several thousand years before the first complex societies arose, the earliest emerging possibly seven to eight thousand years ago. As early as 6500 BCE, people in the Lower Mississippi Valley were building complex earthwork mounds, probably for religious purposes.
Since the late twentieth century, archeologists have explored and dated these sites. They have found that they were built by hunter-gatherer societies, whose people occupied the sites on a seasonal basis, and who had not yet developed ceramics. Watson Brake, a large complex of eleven platform mounds in modern day Louisiana, was constructed beginning 3400 BCE and added to over 500 years. This has changed earlier assumptions that complex construction arose only after societies had adopted agriculture, become sedentary, with stratified hierarchy and usually ceramics. These ancient people had organized to build complex mound projects under a different social structure.
Mound building was continued by succeeding cultures, who built numerous sites in the middle Mississippi and Ohio River valleys as well, adding effigy mounds, conical and ridge mounds and other shapes.
Native Americans built monumental earthwork architecture and established continent-spanning trade networks – systems of waterways, paths, and meeting points (markets) that allow different regions and societies to exchange goods.
The Mississippian culture was spread across the Southeast and Midwest from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the plains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Midwest, although most intensively in the area along the Mississippi River and Ohio River. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of complexes of large earthen mounds and grand plazas, continuing the moundbuilding traditions of earlier cultures. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network and had a complex stratified society. The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 CE.
The largest urban site of this people, Cahokia—located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois—may have reached a population of over 20,000. Other chiefdoms were constructed throughout the Southeast, and its trade networks reached to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America. (Larger cities did exist in Mesoamerica and South America.) Monk’s Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric Americas. The culture reached its peak in about 1200–1400 CE, and in most places, it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of Europeans.
Many Mississippian peoples were encountered by the expedition of Spaniard Hernando de Soto in the 1540s, mostly with disastrous results for both sides. Unlike the Spanish expeditions in Mesoamerica, which conquered vast empires with relatively few men, the de Soto expedition wandered the American Southeast for four years, becoming more bedraggled, losing more men and equipment, and eventually arriving in Mexico at a fraction of its original size. The local people fared much worse though, as the fatalities of diseases introduced by the expedition devastated the populations and produced much social disruption. By the time Europeans returned a hundred years later, nearly all of the Mississippian groups had vanished, and vast swaths of their territory were virtually uninhabited.
It is important to remember that while these Native American societies were ancient, it would be a mistake to regard them as simple or primitive. Their technologies and techniques were well-adapted to their environment. They developed over time. There is a popular idea that European technologies of the 1500s were inherently superior to those of Native Americans, but it is probably more useful to think of them as suited to different purposes.
For example, Native Americans considered early European guns to be little more than “noisemakers”, and concluded they were more difficult to aim than arrows. Noted colonist John Smith of the southern Jamestown colony noted that “the awful truth … it [a gun] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly”. Moccasins were more comfortable and sturdy than the boots Europeans wore, and were preferred by most during that era because their padding offered a more silent approach to warfare and hunting; canoes could be paddled faster and were more maneuverable on rivers and lakes than any European boats, which were better suited to ocean travel.
From May 1804 to September 1806, the Corps of Discovery under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark, was the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States. Also along for the mission was York, Clark’s slave, who who carried a gun and hunted on behalf of the expedition and was also accorded a vote during group decisions, more than half a century before African Americans could actually participate in American democracy. Along the way, the Corps picked up they met a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, and his teenage Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who had purchased as a slave and who was pregnant with their child. The Shoshone lived in the Rocky Mountains, and Sacagawea’s knowledge of nature, geography, language, and culture proved to be invaluable to the expedition. (Excerpted from The United States: An Open Ended History)
The primary goals of the Lewis and Clark expedition were:
Map the Missouri River and related tributaries.
Find the easiest possible route across the continent.
Make detailed observations of the natural resources and geography of the west.
Pretend that you are Lewis and Clark. President Thomas Jefferson has asked you to the White House to deliver a detailed report about your expedition. In particular, Jefferson wants to see evidence that you have made a good effort to achieve each of your four goals.
A good presentation will document and describe all of the following: the major events of the assigned portion of the journey, the members of the expedition who provided indispensable contributions to its success, what tools and techniques they used, the people Lewis and Clark met during this segment, and the wildlife they encountered. Use these details as evidence to show how Lewis and Clark worked toward the four goals that Jefferson assigned to them.
In order to present your findings, you can make a webpage, a mock up of Lewis’s journal, a song, a rap, a comic, a Prezi, a WeExplore, or anything else you can imagine. Aside from this, the main requirement is – DON’T BE BORING!! You should also supply some enticing visuals to supplement your report.
A Starting Point for Your Research: A Timeline of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
June 28–29: First trial in new territory. Pvt. John Collins is on guard duty and breaks into the supplies and gets drunk. Collins invites Pvt. Hugh Hall to drink also. Collins receives 100 lashes, Hall receives 50 lashes.
July 11–12: Second trial in new territory. Pvt. Alexander Hamilton Willard is on guard duty. Is charged with lying down and sleeping at his post whilst a sentinel. Punishable by death. He receives 100 lashes for four straight days.
August 3: The Corps of Discovery holds the first official council between representatives of the United States and the Oto and Missouri tribes at Council Bluffs, Iowa. They hand out peace medals, 15-star flags and other gifts, parade men and show off technology.
August 4: Moses Reed said he was returning to a previous camp to retrieve a knife but deserted to St. Louis.
August 18: George Drouillard returns to camp with Reed and Otos’ Chief Little Thief. Reed is sentenced to run the gauntlet (500 lashes) and is discharged from the permanent party.
August 18: Captain Meriwether Lewis’s 30th birthday.
August 20: Sergeant Charles Floyd dies. He dies from bilious chorlick (ruptured appendix). He is the only member lost during the expedition.
September 7: The expedition drives a prairie dog out of its den (by pouring water into it) to send back to Jefferson.
September 14: Hunters kill and describe prairie goat (antelope).
September 25–29: A band of Lakota Sioux demand one of the boats as a toll for moving further upriver. Meet with Teton Sioux. Close order drill, air gun demo, gifts of medals, military coat, hats, tobacco. Hard to communicate language problems. Invite chiefs on board keelboat, give each 1⁄2 glass whiskey, acted drunk wanted more. Two armed confrontations with Sioux. Some of the chiefs sleep on boat, move up river to another village, meet in lodge, hold scalp dance.
October 8–11: Pass Grand River home of the Arikara people, 2,000+. Joseph Gravelins trader, lived with Arikara for 13 yrs. Pierre Antoine Tabeau lived in another village was from Quebec.
October 13: Pvt. John Newman tried for insubordination (who was prompted by Reed) and received 75 lashes. Newman was discarded from the permanent party.
October 24: Met their first Mandan Chief, Big White. Joseph Gravelins acted as interpreter.
Winter at Fort Mandan
For Geography, Narrative, and More Information, Check Out – Fort Mandan
October 24: Expedition reaches the earth-log villages of the Mandans and the Hidatsas. The captains decide to build Fort Mandan across the river from the main village.
October 26: Rene Jessaume lived with Mandan for more than a decade, hired as Mandan interpreter. Hugh McCracken a trader with the North West Company. Francois-Antoine Larocque, Charles MacKenzie also visited L&C.
November–December: Constructed Fort Mandan.
November 2: Hired Baptiste La Page to replace Newman.
December 24: Fort Mandan is considered complete. Expedition moves in for the winter season.
January 1: The Corps of Discovery celebrates the New Year by “Two discharges of cannon and Musick—a fiddle, tambereen and a sounden horn.”
February 9: Thomas Howard scaled the fort wall and a native American followed his example. “Setting a pernicious example to the savages” 50 lashes—only trial at Fort Mandan and last on expedition. Lashes remitted by Lewis.
February 11: Sacagawea gives birth to Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the youngest member of the expedition. Jean Baptiste is nicknamed “Pompy” by Clark. Lewis aided in the delivery of Sacagawea’s baby, used rattle of rattlesnake to aid delivery (Jessaume’s idea).
April 7: The permanent party of the Corps of Discovery leaves Fort Mandan. The keelboat is sent down river. Left Fort Mandan in six canoes and two pirogues. Thomas Howard received a letter from his wife Natalia.
April 25: Reached Yellowstone River Roche Jaune—sent Joseph Field up river to find Yellowstone. He saw Big Horn Sheep and brought back horns. Lewis searched area thought it would be a good area for fort. Future forts were built, Fort Union and Fort Buford.
May 14: A sudden storm tips a pirogue (boat) and many items, such as supplies and the Corps’ journals, spill over into the river. Sacagawea calmly recovers most of the items; Clark later credits her with quick thinking.
May 8: Milk river. Called because of its milky white appearance. Natives called it “a river which scolds all others”.
June 3–20: Marias River to the Great Falls.
June 3: The mouth of the Marias River is reached. Camp Deposit is established. Cached blacksmith bellows and tools, bear skins, axes, auger, files, two kegs of parched corn, two kegs of pork, a keg of salt, chisels, tin cups, two rifles, beaver traps. Twenty-four lb of powder in lead kegs in separate caches. Hid red pirogue. Natives did not tell them of this river. Unable to immediately determine which river is the Missouri, a scouting party is sent to explore each branch, North fork (Marias), South fork (Missouri). Sgt. Gass and two others go up south fork. Sgt. Pryor and two others go up north fork. Can’t decide which river is Missouri. Clark, Gass, Shannon, York and Fields brothers go up south fork. Lewis, Drouillard, Shields, Windsor Pryor, Cruzatte, Lepage go up north fork. Most men in expedition believe north fork is the Missouri. Lewis and Clark believe south fork is Missouri and followed that fork.
June 13: Scouting ahead of the expedition, Lewis and four companions sight the Great Falls of the Missouri River, confirming that they were heading in the right direction. Lewis writes when he discovers the Great Falls of the Missouri. “When my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arise above the plain like a column of smoke…..began to make a roaring too tremendous to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri.”
August 13: Lewis meets Cameahwait, leader of a band of Shoshone
August 15–17: Lewis returns across Lemhi Pass with Cameahwait and sets up Camp Fortunate.
August 17: A council meets with the Shoshone, during which Sacagawea learns the fate of her family and reveals that Cameahwait is her brother. Lewis and Clark successfully negotiate for horses for passage over the Rocky Mountains. They buy 29 horses for packing or eating with uniforms, rifles, powder, balls, and a pistol. They also hire Shoshone guide Old Toby.
August 18: Captain Lewis’s 31st birthday. In his journal, he scolds himself for being “indolent”, or lazy, and vows to spend the rest of his life helping people.
August 26: Lewis and the main party cross the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass. They thereby leave the newly purchased United States territory into disputed Oregon Country.
For Geography, Narrative, and More Information, Check Out – At the Pacific
November 24: The Corps takes the matter of where to spend the winter to a vote. York, a slave, and Sacagawea, a woman, were allowed to vote. It was decided to camp on the south side of the Columbia River.
December 7 – March 23, 1806: Fort Clatsop sewed 338 pairs of moccasins.
December 25: Fort Clatsop, the Corps’ winter residence, is completed.
January 1: Discharged a volley of small arms to usher in the new year. Several Corps members build a salt-making cairn near present-day Seaside, Oregon.
The Return Home
For Geography, Narrative, and More Information, Check Out – The Return Home
March 22: Corps of Discovery leave Fort Clatsop for the return voyage east.
July 13: Reached White Bear Island. Opened cache and many items were ruined. The iron frame of the boat had not suffered materially.
July 15: Lewis explores Marias river, separates from Gass to meet at Mouth of Marias between Aug. 5 and no later than Sept 1. Marias River expedition includes M. Lewis, R. Fields, J. Fields, G. Drouillard.
July 15–26: Camp Disappointment. Marias River does not go far enough north. Natives finally discovered.
July 20: Sgt. Ordway’s party (from Clark’s party) meets Sgt. Gass’s party at the Great Falls of the Missouri.
July 27: Piikani Nation tribe members (“Blackfeet”) try to steal Lewis’s group’s rifles. A fight broke out and two natives Americans were killed in the only hostile and violent encounter with a tribe.
July 28: Lewis meets Ordway and Gass.
July 3: Clark explores Yellowstone—leaves for Three Forks and Yellowstone. Sgt. Pryor, G. Gibson, H. Hall, R. Windsor. Sgt. Ordway, J. Colter, J. Colter, P. Cruzatte, F. LaBiche, T. Howard, J. Shields, B. LaPage, G. Shannon, J. Potts, W. Brattan, P. Wiser, P. Willard, J. Whitehouse, T. Charboneau, Sacagawea & Pomp, York.
July 6: Clark’s group crosses the Continental Divide at Gibbons Pass.
July 8: Reached Camp Fortunate dug up cache from year before—tobacco most prized.
July 13: Sgt. Ordway splits from Clark to travel up Missouri River to meet Lewis and Gass.
August 3: Clark arrives at confluence of Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers—moves down river because of mosquitoes.
August 8: Pryor and party reached Clark. Pryor and party (Sgt. Pryor, G. Gibson, H. Hall, R. Windsor) left Clark with horses and a letter to Hugh Henry to get Sioux to go to Washington and make peace with other natives. Horses stolen, had to make bull boats to get across and down river.
August 11: Lewis is accidentally shot by a member of his own party.
August 12: The two groups rejoin on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota.
August 18: Capt. Lewis’s 32nd birthday.
August 14: Reached Mandan Village. Charbonneau and Sacagawea stayed. John Colter went back up river with trappers Hancock and Dickson provided rest of company stay with expedition all the way to St. Louis.
September 23: The Corps arrives in St. Louis, ending their journey after two years, four months, and ten days.
Based on his words in the Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural Address, what purpose did Lincoln see in the Civil War?
Why did Sherman march to the sea?
What did the Freedman’s Bureau do?
What were Black Codes?
What do the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments do?
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee scored numerous tactical victories. Like his distant relation George Washington who was over-matched by the British during the Revolutionary War, Lee was most skilled at ensuring that no single Confederate defeat was decisive. On the other hand, the much more populous Union simply mustered new armies and tried again after each battle. Believing that the North’s crushing defeat at Chancellorsville gave him his chance to go on the offensive, Lee struck northward into Pennsylvania at the beginning of July 1863, almost reaching the state capital at Harrisburg. A strong Union force intercepted him at Gettysburg, where, in a titanic three‑day battle—the largest of the Civil War—the Confederates made a valiant effort to break the Union lines. They failed, and on July 4 Lee’s army, after crippling losses, retreated behind the Potomac. The Battle of Gettysburg would be the last serious Southern offensive of the war. From that time onward, the war was entirely defensive on their part.
More than 3,000 Union soldiers and almost 4,000 Confederates died at Gettysburg; wounded and missing totaled more than 20,000 on each side. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln dedicated a new national cemetery there with perhaps the most famous address in U.S. history, his so-called Gettysburg Address, running approximately 250 words. This speech elevated the symbolic meaning of the war, serving as a reaffirmation of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln speak of “a new birth of freedom” – a second chance to actually live up to the promise that all men are created equal, not in Jefferson’s limited sense of those words, but in a more modern sense that you and I would recognize:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
On the Mississippi, Union control had been blocked at Vicksburg, where the Confederates had strongly fortified themselves on bluffs too high for naval attack. In early 1863 Grant began to move below and around Vicksburg, subjecting it to a six‑week siege. On July 4, he captured the town, together with the strongest Confederate Army in the West. The river was now entirely in Union hands. The Confederacy was broken in two, and it became almost impossible to bring supplies from Texas and Arkansas.
The Northern victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the turning point of the war, although the bloodshed continued unabated for more than a year-and-a-half.
Lincoln brought Grant east and made him commander-in-chief of all Union forces. In May 1864 Grant advanced deep into Virginia and met Lee’s Confederate Army in the three-day Battle of the Wilderness. Losses on both sides were heavy, but unlike other Union commanders, Grant refused to retreat.
In the West, Union forces gained control of Tennessee in the fall of 1863 with victories at Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Mountain, opening the way for General William T. Sherman to invade Georgia – his so-called March to the Sea. Sherman outmaneuvered several smaller Confederate armies, occupied the state capital of Atlanta, then marched to the Atlantic coast, systematically destroying railroads, factories, warehouses, and other facilities in his path. He also liberated slaves under the authority of the Emancipation Proclamation – all of this reduced Southern capacity to feed and supply itself and brought the destruction of war to its homefront. Sherman said, “I will make Georgia howl!” His men, cut off from their normal supply lines, ravaged the countryside for food. From the coast, Sherman marched northward; by February 1865, he had taken Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. Sherman, more than any other Union general, understood that destroying the will and morale of the South was as important as defeating its armies.
With Malice Toward None
For the North, the war produced a still greater hero in Abraham Lincoln—a man eager, above all else, to weld the Union together again, not by force and repression but by warmth and generosity. In 1864 he had been elected for a second term as president, defeating his Democratic opponent, George McClellan, the general he had dismissed after Antietam.
At a time when victory over secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery in all of the Union was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness. He sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated South by reminding his listeners of how wrong both sides had been in imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier. Lincoln balanced that rejection of triumphalism, however, with recognition of the unmistakable evil of slavery, envisioning the war as the nation’s penance. Lincoln’s second inaugural address closed with these words:
“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”. With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Peace at Last
Grant, meanwhile, lay siege to Petersburg, Virginia for nine months, before Lee, in March 1865, knew that he had to abandon both Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond in an attempt to retreat south. But it was too late. On April 9, 1865, surrounded by huge Union armies, Lee surrendered to Grant at the town of Appomattox Courthouse. Although scattered fighting continued elsewhere for several months, the Civil War was over.
The terms of surrender at Appomattox were magnanimous, and on his return from his meeting with Lee, Grant quieted the noisy demonstrations of his soldiers by reminding them: “The rebels are our countrymen again.” The war for Southern independence had become the “lost cause,” whose hero, Robert E. Lee, had won wide admiration through the brilliance of his leadership and his greatness in defeat.
Two days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln delivered his last public address, in which he unfolded a generous reconstruction policy. On April 14, 1865, the president held what was to be his last Cabinet meeting. That evening—with his wife and a young couple who were his guests—he attended a performance at Ford’s Theater. There, as he sat in the presidential box, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Virginia actor embittered by the South’s defeat. Booth was killed in a shootout two weeks later in a barn in the Virginia countryside. His accomplices were captured and later executed.
Lincoln died in a downstairs bedroom of a house across the street from Ford’s Theater on the morning of April 15.
The first great task confronting the victorious North—now under the leadership of Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union—was to determine the status of the states that had seceded. Lincoln had already set the stage. In his view, the people of the Southern states had never legally seceded; they had been misled by some disloyal citizens into a defiance of federal authority. And since the war was the act of individuals, the federal government would have to deal with these individuals and not with the states. Thus, in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed that if in any state 10 percent of the voters of record in 1860 would form a government loyal to the U.S. Constitution and would acknowledge obedience to the laws of the Congress and the proclamations of the president, he would recognize the government so created as the state’s legal government.
Congress rejected this plan. Many Republicans feared it would simply entrench former rebels in power; they challenged Lincoln’s right to deal with the rebel states without consultation. Some members of Congress advocated severe punishment for all the seceded states; others simply felt the war would have been in vain if the old Southern establishment was restored to power. Yet even before the war was wholly over, new governments had been set up in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
To deal with one of its major concerns—the condition of former slaves—Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865 to act as guardian over African Americans and guide them toward self-support. And in December of that year, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery except as punishment for a crime.
Throughout the summer of 1865 Johnson proceeded to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction program, with minor modifications. By presidential proclamation he appointed a governor for each of the former Confederate states and freely restored political rights to many Southerners through use of presidential pardons.
In due time conventions were held in each of the former Confederate states to repeal the ordinances of secession and draft new state constitutions. Johnson called upon each convention to invalidate the secession, free all slaves within their borders, and ratify the 13th Amendment.
Wide public support in the North gradually developed for those members of Congress who believed that African Americans should be given full citizenship. Congress passed a 14th Amendment to the Constitution, stating that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This repudiated the Dred Scott ruling, which had denied slaves their right of citizenship.
All the Southern state legislatures, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendment, some voting against it unanimously. In addition, Southern state legislatures passed “Black Codes” to regulate the African-American freedmen. The codes differed from state to state, but some provisions were common. African Americans across the South were required to enter into annual labor contracts with white landowners, often their former masters, with penalties of jail imposed in case of violation; children were subject to compulsory apprenticeship and corporal punishments by masters; vagrants could be sold into private service if they could not pay severe fines.
Many Northerners interpreted the Southern response as an attempt to reestablish slavery and repudiate the hard-won Union victory in the Civil War. It did not help that Johnson, although a Unionist, was a Southern Democrat with an addiction to intemperate rhetoric and an aversion to political compromise. Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866. Firmly in power, the Radicals imposed their own vision of Reconstruction.
In the Reconstruction Act of March 1867, Congress, ignoring the governments that had been established in the Southern states, divided the South into five military districts, each administered by a Union general. Escape from permanent military government was open to those states that established civil governments, ratified the 14th Amendment, and adopted African-American suffrage. Supporters of the Confederacy who had not taken oaths of loyalty to the United States generally could not vote. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. The 15th Amendment, passed by Congress the following year and ratified in 1870 by state legislatures, provided that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The word slavery would die with the 13th Amendment, but the practice would continue – barely altered – using tools like Black Codes, tenant farming, debt, segregation, lynching, police intimidation, mass incarceration, and other forms of extralegal violence well into the 1960s and beyond. Slavery had ended, but institutional racism would live on into the modern day.
What is Uncle Tom’s Cabin and why is it significant?
Who is Stephen Douglas, and how do his plans lead to the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
What is the key issue that unites the early Republican Party?
What is “Bleeding Kansas?”
What decision does the Supreme Court reach in the Dred Scott case?
Citing specific examples, how do John Brown’s methods differ from those of other abolitionists?
A Divided Nation
During the 1850s, the issue of slavery severed the political bonds that had held the United States together. It ate away at the country’s two great political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, destroying the first and irrevocably dividing the second. It produced weak presidents whose irresolution mirrored that of their parties. It eventually discredited even the Supreme Court.
The moral fervor of abolitionist feeling grew steadily. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. More than 300,000 copies were sold the first year. Presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand. Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and posited a fundamental conflict between free and slave societies. It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the antislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions—indignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation.
In 1854 the issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter. The region that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establishment of territorial, and eventually, state governments.
Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire region was closed to slavery. Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas) and might be forced to become a free state as well. Their congressional delegation, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region.
At this point, Stephen A. Douglas enraged all free-soil supporters. Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850, having left Utah and New Mexico free to resolve the slavery issue for themselves, superseded the Missouri Compromise. His plan called for two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. It permitted settlers to carry slaves into them and eventually to determine whether they should enter the Union as free or slave states.
Douglas’s opponents accused him of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856. The free-soil movement, which had seemed to be in decline, reemerged with greater momentum than ever. Yet in May 1854, Douglas’s plan, in the form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed Congress to be signed by President Franklin Pierce. Southern enthusiasts celebrated with cannon fire. But when Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor lowered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour, and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard.
The immediate results of Douglas’s ill-starred measure were momentous. The Whig Party, which had avoided taking a strong stand on the question of slavery expansion, sank to its death, and in its stead a powerful new organization arose in the North – the Republican Party, whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown. Fremont lost the election, but the new party swept a great part of the North. Such free-soil leaders as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward exerted greater influence than ever. Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the flow of both Southern slave holders and antislavery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict. Each hoped to win popular sovereignty at the ballot box when it came to vote on the question of slavery, but this potent mix of those with the most passionate pro- and antislavery – the people who cared enough about the issue to move halfway across the country to influence a vote on the matter – meant that soon the territory was being called Bleeding Kansas. A simmering, low-intensity civil war had erupted that would continue for years – the federal government seemed powerless to stop the tit-for-tat violence between free-soilers and proslavery forces.
In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called “The Crime against Kansas”) Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler’s pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms. The next day, Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.
The violence continued to increase. Abolitionist John Brown – who believed that God himself had commanded his holy mission – led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection with financial support from Boston abolitionists.
In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in “Bleeding Kansas” history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act had other horrifying consequences. Prior to the organization of the Kansas–Nebraska territory in 1854, the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were consolidated as part of the Indian Territory. Throughout the 1830s, large-scale relocations of Native American tribes to the Indian Territory took place, with many Southeastern nations removed to present-day Oklahoma, a process ordered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and known as the Trail of Tears, and many Midwestern nations removed by way of treaty to present-day Kansas. The passing of the Kansas–Nebraska Act came into direct conflict with the relocations as white American settlers from both the free-soil North and pro-slavery South flooded lands promised by treaty to these Native American groups. Once again, they were forced by squatting settlers and the U.S. government – through violence, uneven treaties, and forced land sales – to surrender their homes for the second time in as many generations, with many groups moving south into present-day Oklahoma.
Then the Supreme Court struck another blow against the antislavery movement with its infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.
Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been taken by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory; in both places, slavery was banned. Returning to Missouri and becoming discontented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil. A majority of the Supreme Court—dominated by Southerners—decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resident of a slave state (Missouri); and that slave holders had the right to take their “property” anywhere in the federal territories. Thus, Congress could not restrict the expansion of slavery – in effect, slavery was now legal everywhere.
Lincoln, Douglas, and Brown
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, a fierce critic of the expansion of slavery, opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in the ensuing months of 1858. Senator Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty. In the end, Douglas won the election by a small margin, but Lincoln had achieved stature as a national figure.
By then events were spinning out of control. On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his sons made their next divinely-inspired move, leading a band of followers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (in what is now West Virginia). Brown’s goal was to use the weapons seized to lead a slave uprising – creating a vast army that would liberate the South.
Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman.
News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown’s men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building at the armory’s entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury.
After two days of fighting, Brown and his surviving men were taken prisoner by a force of U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.
Virginia put Brown on trial for conspiracy, treason, and murder. On December 2, 1859, he was hanged. Although most Northerners had initially condemned him, increasing numbers were coming to accept his view that he had been an instrument in the hand of God. Brown’s attempt confirmed the worst fears of many Southerners. Antislavery activists, on the other hand, generally hailed Brown as a martyr to a great cause.
The 1860 Election
In 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president. The Republican platform declared that slavery could spread no farther, promised a tariff for the protection of industry, and pledged the enactment of a law granting free homesteads to settlers who would help in the opening of the West. Southern Democrats, unwilling in the wake of the Dred Scott case to accept Douglas’s popular sovereignty, split from the party and nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for president. Stephen A. Douglas was the nominee of northern Democrats. Diehard Whigs from the border states, formed into the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John C. Bell of Tennessee.
Sectionalism had officially divided presidential politics to the point of no return. Lincoln and Douglas competed in the North, Breckenridge and Bell in the South. Lincoln won only 39 percent of the popular vote, but thanks to the larger population of the North, swollen from decades of immigration and urbanization driven by its rapid industrialization, this was enough. The Republican platform had won a clear majority of 180 electoral votes, carrying all 18 free states. Despite minimal support in the South, Lincoln was now president, a party hostile to slavery was in control of the nation.
Define sectionalism. Describe each of the three sections and their goals.
What are the terms of the Compromise of 1850? What about those terms does the North like? What does the South like?
What is the Underground Railroad, and which part of the Compromise of 1850 is designed to shut it down?
What is popular sovereignty in the context of the Compromise?
By the mid-1800s, the United States could be considered to have three main sections – the North, the South, and the West. Increasingly connected economically, they were at the same time divided politically and philosophically. This division is referred to as sectionalism – that is, loyalty to one’s own region or section of the country, rather than to the country as a whole.
Sectionalism increased steadily in 1800–1850 as the North industrialized, urbanized and built prosperous factories, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor, together with subsistence farming for poor whites who owned no slaves. Southerners defended slavery in part by claiming that Northern factory workers toiled under worse conditions and were not cared for by their employers. Defenders of slavery referred to factory workers as the “white slaves of the North.”
In the South, wealthy men owned most of the quality land, leaving poor white farmers with marginal lands of low productivity. Fears of slave revolts and abolitionist propaganda made the South militantly hostile to suspicious ideas. Members and politicians of the newly formed Republican Party were extremely critical of Southern society and argued that the system of free labor in place in the North resulted in much more prosperity. Republicans criticizing the Southern system of slavery would commonly cite the larger population growth of the Northern states, alongside their rapid growth in factories, farms, and schools as evidence of the superiority of a free labor system.
George Fitzhugh, a prominent apologist for slavery, argued:
“The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. ‘Tis happiness in itself—and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty and not a single right. . . . “
By the 1850s, the North held the nine of the ten largest cities in America, most of its immigrants, almost all of its factories, and almost all of its railroads. It was becoming a modern, industrial place – one that a student from the twenty-first century might vaguely recognize. Southerners argued that it was the North that was changing, betraying American traditions with its industrialization and its many reform movement, while the South remained true to the historic republican values of the Founding Fathers (many of whom owned slaves, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison.)
Frederick Douglass responded to these types of arguments with one of the most incendiary speeches of the era:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
The West, with its boundless prairies and swiftly growing population, flourished. Europe and the older settled parts of America demanded its wheat and meat products. The introduction of labor-saving implements—notably the McCormick reaper (a machine to cut and harvest grain)—made possible an unparalleled increase in grain production.
An important stimulus to the country’s prosperity was the great improvement in transportation facilities; from 1850 to 1857 the Appalachian Mountain barrier was pierced by five railway trunk lines linking the Midwest and the Northeast. These links established the economic interests that would undergird the political alliance of the Union from 1861 to 1865. The South lagged behind. It was not until the late 1850s that a continuous line ran through the mountains connecting the lower Mississippi River area with the southern Atlantic seaboard.
Slavery and Sectionalism
One overriding issue exacerbated the regional and economic differences between North and South: slavery. Resenting the large profits amassed by Northern businessmen from marketing the cotton crop, many Southerners attributed the backwardness of their own section to Northern aggrandizement. Many Northerners, on the other hand, declared that slavery—the “peculiar institution” that the South regarded as essential to its economy—was largely responsible for the region’s relative financial and industrial backwardness.
As far back as the Missouri Compromise in 1819, sectional lines had been steadily hardening on the slavery question. In the North, sentiment for outright abolition grew increasingly powerful. Southerners in general felt little guilt about slavery and defended it vehemently. In some seaboard areas, slavery by 1850 was well over 200 years old; it was an integral part of the basic economy of the region.
Although the 1860 census showed that there were nearly four million slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the 15 slave states, only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves. There were some 385,000 slave owners out of about 1.5 million white families. Fifty percent of these slave owners owned no more than five slaves. Twelve percent owned 20 or more slaves, the number defined as turning a farmer into a planter. Three-quarters of Southern white families, including the “poor whites,” those on the lowest rung of Southern society, owned no slaves.
It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that, if freed, blacks would compete with them economically and challenge their higher social status. Southern whites defended slavery not simply on the basis of economic necessity but out of a visceral dedication to white supremacy.
As they fought the weight of Northern opinion, political leaders of the South, the professional classes, and most of the clergy now no longer apologized for slavery but championed it. Southern publicists insisted, for example, that the relationship between capital and labor was more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system of the North.
In the end, however, the most stinging criticism of slavery was not the behavior of individual masters and overseers. Abolitionists pointed out that by systematically treating African-American laborers as if they were domestic animals, slavery violated every human being’s inalienable right to be free.
The Compromise of 1850
Until 1845, it had seemed likely that slavery would be confined to the areas where it already existed. It had been given limits by the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and had no opportunity to overstep them. The new territories made renewed expansion of slavery a real likelihood.
Many Northerners believed that if not allowed to spread, slavery would ultimately decline and die. To justify their opposition to adding new slave states, they pointed to the statements of Washington and Jefferson, and to the Ordinance of 1787, which forbade the extension of slavery into the Northwest. Texas, which already permitted slavery, naturally entered the Union as a slave state. But the California, New Mexico, and Utah territories did not have slavery. From the beginning, there were strongly conflicting opinions on whether they should.
Southerners urged that all the lands acquired from Mexico should be thrown open to slave holders. Antislavery Northerners demanded that all the new regions be closed to slavery. One group of moderates suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific with free states north of it and slave states to the south. Another group proposed that the question be left to “popular sovereignty.” The government should permit settlers to enter the new territory with or without slaves as they pleased. When the time came to organize the region into states, the people themselves could decide.
In January 1848 the discovery of gold in California precipitated a headlong rush of settlers, more than 80,000 in the single year of 1849. Congress had to determine the status of this new region quickly in order to establish an organized government. The venerable Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who twice before in times of crisis had come forward with compromise arrangements, advanced a complicated and carefully balanced plan. His old Massachusetts rival, Daniel Webster, supported it. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the leading advocate of popular sovereignty, did much of the work in guiding it through Congress.
The Compromise of 1850 contained the following provisions: (1) California was admitted to the Union as a free state; (2) the remainder of the Mexican cession was divided into the two territories of New Mexico and Utah and organized without mention of slavery; (3) the claim of Texas to a portion of New Mexico was satisfied by a payment of $10 million; (4) new legislation (the Fugitive Slave Act) was passed to apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their masters; and (5) the buying and selling of slaves (but not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia.
The country breathed a sigh of relief, even as the Compromise of 1850 left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. The new Fugitive Slave Law, in particular, was an immediate source of tension, but was essential to meet Southern demands.
It required federal judicial officials in all states and federal territories, including in those states and territories in which slavery was prohibited, to assist with the return of escaped slaves to their masters actively in the states and territories permitting slavery. Any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave was liable to a fine of $1000. Law enforcement everywhere in the US had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. Suspected slaves could neither ask for a jury trial nor testify on their own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.
In addition to federal officials, the ordinary citizens of free states could be summoned to join a posse and be required to assist in the capture, custody, and/or transportation of the alleged escaped slave.
The law was so rigorously pro-slavery as to prohibit the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence at the judicial hearing to determine the status of the accused escaped slave. Thus, if a freedman were claimed to be an escaped slave, they could not resist their return to slavery by truthfully telling their own actual history.
In terms of public opinion in the North, the critical provision was that ordinary citizens were required to aid slave catchers. This deeply offended many Northerners, who refused to have any part in catching slaves. Some actively and violently obstructed its enforcement. The Underground Railroad became more efficient and daring than ever.