The Real Oregon Trail

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.
The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile, historic East–West, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon.From the early to mid-1830s (and particularly through the years 1846–69) the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners and their families. 

The Oregon Trail is a computer game developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and first released in 1985. It was designed to teach students about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail.  In the game, the player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon‘s Willamette Valley via a covered wagon in 1848.

Play several rounds of the game, embedded below.  While you play, devise a research question about the real life Oregon Trail. For example, what was the leading cause of death for pioneers traveling west?  Are there many grave markers left along the old route of the trail, and if so, what do they say? What was hunting like in the 1800s, and what impact did it have on animals like American Bison?  What were covered wagons really like, and did settlers actually carry spare parts for them?

Create an infographic with facts, figures, images, and at least three paragraphs worth of information on the realities of some aspect of the game.  Be sure to include information about your sources at the bottom of your infographic.

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Who should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill?

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

All of these fighters have monuments – why not someone else?

Imagine that our class is a committee appointed by Congress to select one reformer from the Antebellum (pre-Civil War) era to replace nasty old Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill and to simultaneously celebrate the US’s rich history of forward-thinking individuals.  You should base your decision on your knowledge of what these people accomplished in their lifetimes, as well as the lasting impact they have had on our overall society.  You will need to research what these people did using your textbook or the Internet.  You may use whatever criteria for inclusion that you choose, however, you may not just say you’re voting for some guy because he’s rich or fat or some such reason that lacks historical substance.  (Remember this is a history class.)

Abolitionists

William Lloyd Garrison

David Walker

Frederick Douglass

Nat Turner

Harriet Beecher Stowe

 

Transcendentalists

Margaret Fuller

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau

 

Women’s Rights

Sarah Grimke

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Catherine Beecher

Other Reformers

Dorothea Dix

Horace Mann

Neal S. Dow

 

Religious Leaders and Communalists

Charles G. Finney

Brigham Young

Mother Ann Lee Stanley

John Humphrey Noyes

Robert Owen

 

You will compose a brief 3 paragraph essay – a brief biographical overview, an explanation of their accomplishments, and an argument about why this person deserves to be the face of the 20 dollar bill – supporting your opinion with facts as well as a suitable portrait for use on the bill.  Make sure you cite your sources!

Build Your Own American System

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

The American System was an economic plan that played an important role in American policy during the first half of the 19th century. Rooted in the “American School” ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the plan “consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other ‘internal improvements’ to develop profitable markets for agriculture.” Congressman Henry Clay was the plan’s foremost proponent and the first to refer to it as the “American System.”

state outlines Fresh United States America USA Free Maps Blank In Us Map State
Right click to download.

Use this map to plan infrastructure improvements to 19th Century United States.  Link different regions to improve economic connections between different regions – remember, you have to sell your plan to Congress, so you need to make it profitable to as many states as possible in order to secure their votes.

Label:

  • the borders of the United States circa 1840
  • The most important big cities circa 1840: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh
  • The rivers: Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac
  • The mountain ranges
  • The Great Lakes (by name)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three canals linking various regions (naming at least one commodity that will travel in each direction – find out what resources/products come from the cities you’re linking)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three railroads linking various regions (name the commodities)
  • Proposals for the routes of three toll roads (name the commodities)

The Bottom Line

  1. Compare and Contrast: Consider factors like cost, weather, topography, efficiency — what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of toll roads, railroads, and canals?
  2. Why is it important for the government to invest in these kinds of infrastructure?  In what ways does it impact your daily life?
  3. We often refer to the United States as a capitalistic country, successful because the government’s lack of intervention in the economy.  Does the existence of the American System support or refute this label?

How I Spent My Voyage of Discovery

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

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A page from Lewis’s journal.

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:

  1. Map the Missouri River and related tributaries.
  2. Find the easiest possible route across the continent.
  3. Make detailed observations of the natural resources and geography of the west.
  4. Establish good relations with native groups.

Your group will be assigned to document one of the following segments of the Lewis and Clark journey, which in total lasted from 1803-1806 – 

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.

1024px-Carte_Lewis_and_Clark_Expedition

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

American Revolutionary War Screenplay

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Choose one of the following events from the Revolutionary War.  Pretend you have been hired to adapt this historical event into a big budget Hollywood blockbuster.  Script a key scene for this film, including scenic directions and dialogue.

Remember that in film, images tell much of the story, serving to evoke the emotions and thoughts of the viewer.  Integrate dialogue into the action of the scene. Rather than have characters deliver speeches, for example, let them talk while they are moving or doing something that will add visual interest to the scene.  Your scene can be dramatic, humorous, even musical, feel free to subvert gender roles – but it should be based firmly on the facts with plenty of references to identifiable historical individuals and situations.  It should also give your audience a sense – through dialogue, symbolism, or narration – of the significance of the event they are witnessing.  Why was is this scene important – to the story of the war and/or to future generations?

Check here for an explanation of how a screenplay is written.

Battles of Lexington and Concord

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The statue that now stands on Lexington green commemorating the service and sacrifice of colonial Minutemen. Some argue that this likeness is based on Captain John Parker, though that claim has never been proven.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War.  About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot leaders had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. On the night before the battle, warning of the British expedition had been rapidly sent from Boston to militias in the area by several riders, including Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott, with information about British plans. The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington.  The British pushed on to Concord. The Americans had taken away most of the munitions, but they destroyed whatever was left. In the meantime, American forces in the countryside had mobilized to harass the British on their long return to Boston. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses, militiamen from “every Middlesex village and farm” made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time Gage’s weary detachment stumbled into Boston, it had suffered more than 250 killed and wounded. The Americans lost 93 men.

Characters to include: John Parker

Adoption of the Declaration of Independence

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From left to right, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia represented the three major regions of the colonies and were the three most prominent members of the committee appointed to write the Declaration of Independence. The final product, while containing contributions from the group as a whole, was largely the work of Jefferson.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, not only announced the birth of a new nation, but also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become a dynamic force throughout the entire world. The Declaration drew upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, but one influence in particular stands out: John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke took conceptions of the traditional rights of Englishmen and universalized them into the natural rights of all humankind. The Declaration’s familiar opening passage echoes Locke’s social-contract theory of government:

We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Characters to include: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin

Winter at Valley Forge

valleyforge-vignette

Valley Forge in Pennsylvania was the site of the military camp of the American Continental Army over the winter of 1777–1778 during the American Revolutionary War. It is approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  Starvation, disease, malnutrition, and exposure killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.

With winter almost setting in, and with the prospects for campaigning greatly diminishing, General George Washington sought quarters for his men. Washington and his troops had fought what was to be the last major engagement of 1777 at the Battle of White Marsh (or Edge Hill) in early December. He devised to pull his troops from their present encampment in the White Marsh area (now Fort Washington State Park) and move to a more secure location for the coming winter.  Though no battle was fought here from December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778, a struggle against the elements and low morale was overcome on this sacred ground.

“Naked and starving as they are we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.” –General George Washington at Valley Forge, February 16, 1778.

Characters to Include: George Washington, Baron von Steuben

The Service of Deborah Sampson

DeborahSampson
Engraved portrait of Deborah Sampson, female American Revolutionary War soldier.

Deborah Sampson wore men’s clothes and joined an Army unit in Massachusetts under the name “Robert Shirtliff” (also spelled in some sources as “Shirtliffe” or “Shurtleff”). She joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, under the command of Captain George Webb (1740–1825). This unit, consisting of 50 to 60 men, was first quartered in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and later mustered at Worcester with the rest of the regiment commanded by Colonel William Shepard. Light Infantry Companies were elite troops, specially picked because they were taller and stronger than average. Their job was to provide rapid flank coverage for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties for units on the move. Because she joined an elite unit, Sampson’s disguise was more likely to succeed, since no one was likely to look for a woman among soldiers who were specially chosen for their above average size and superior physical ability.

Sampson fought in several skirmishes. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers to let her die and not take her to a doctor, but a soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital. The doctors treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before they could attend to her leg. Fearful that her identity would be discovered, she removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other one was too deep for her to reach. Her leg never fully healed. 

Characters to Include: Deborah Sampson

Surrender at Yorktown

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, depicts the British surrendering to Benjamin Lincoln, flanked by French (left) and American troops. Oil on canvas, 1820.

A series of battles left British General Cornwallis’s armies in retreat toward Yorktown, Virginia, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up, but so did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet retreated out to sea after a brief battle, leaving Cornwallis trapped between the American and French armies on land and the French fleet at sea. Finally, on October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 British soldiers.

Characters to Include: Washington, Lafayette, Cornwallis

George Washington resigns as commander in chief

By the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, Washington formally bade his officers farewell and he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief on December 23, 1783, to the Continental Congress in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md. “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.” Historian Gordon Wood concludes that the greatest act in his life was his resignation as commander of the armies.  King George III called Washington “the greatest character of the age” because of this.

Washington later submitted a formal account of the expenses that he had personally advanced the army over the eight-year conflict of about $450,000. It is said to have been detailed regarding small items and vague concerning large ones, and included the expenses incurred from Martha’s visits to his headquarters, as well as his compensation for service—none of which had been drawn during the war.

Characters to Include: Washington

Massachusetts Bay Comix

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Use the following article to create a 2-3 page comic about the history of Massachusetts, the second English colony in America:

  1. Massachusetts: Church and State in the Land of the Wamanoag
You can go big and tell a general history of the colony, or you can focus in something more specific – relations with the Natives, the Puritan ideology, or the Witch Trials. 
Your comic should include at least 10 facts about the colony and its history.  It should also mention/show at least 2 important people named in the article.  Your comic does not have to be colored, and you will not be graded on the quality of your art, per se – but it should be neat and legible!
 
Extra credit for the best two comics in each class, which will be displayed in the classroom/on my website!

Sectionalism in the Fractured 1850s

This lesson was reported from:

A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Two Americas

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.

sectionlaismmap
Sectionalism in 1800s America refers to the different lifestyles, social structures, customs, and the political values of the North, the South, and questions over the future development of the West.

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.

800px-Scourged_back_by_McPherson_&_Oliver,_1863,_retouched
Gordon was an enslaved African American who escaped from a Louisiana plantation in March 1863. He became known as the subject of photographs documenting the extensive scarring of his back from whippings received in slavery. Abolitionists distributed these photographs of Gordon throughout the United States and internationally to show the abuses of slavery.

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. . . . “

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An abolitionist cartoon, mocking Fitzhugh’s arguments in defense of slavery.

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.”

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Frederick Douglass, one of the most famous writers and orators of the 1800s, was born a slave in a time when it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read or write.  Nonetheless, when he was twelve, his master’s wife taught him the alphabet.  When the master put a stop to this, Douglass began secretly saving his share of bread to trade with poor white children in the street in exchange for reading lessons.

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.

Railroads1
Map of railroads in the United States in 1860. Notice how densely packed these lines are in the North, and how relatively unconnected the South is – an indicator of its overall lack of industrial development. This would prove to be a decisive factor during the Civil War.

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.

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The largest cities in the United States in 1860. The promise of industrial jobs brought immigrants to the North in great numbers. By contrast, there were few factories in the South and most menial jobs were performed by slaves – meaning there was little motivation for immigrants to move there.

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.

slaves_1860

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

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A slave market, notorious to abolitionists, stood within sight of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

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.

00080486The 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.

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An April 24, 1851 poster warning the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers.

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.

Cartoon_Supporting_the_Fugitive_Slave_Act_(1851)
Print by E. W. Clay, an artist who published many proslavery cartoons, supports the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In the cartoon, a Southerner mocks a Northerner who claims his goods, several bolts of fabric, have been stolen. “They are fugitives from you, are they?” asks the slaveholder. Adopting the rhetoric of abolitionists, he continues, “As to the law of the land, I have a higher law of my own, and possession is nine points in the law.”

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.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny
  2. Sectional Conflict
  3. The Compromise of 1850