An injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us.
Black lives matter.
But here’s a sobering thought – at various early points in the history of our nation, certain people decided very consciously that they absolutely should not. And many of our modern institutions – from the police to the courts to the schools – were built on this cracked foundation.
The historical decisions that have shaped our moment are often invisible to us – like water to fish, we swim in the choices our ancestors have made.
But we when we realize that this is the case – that our reality is not set, but a sum total of historical choices – we become responsible for our own actions.
And then, we are truly free.
Here are a selection of free history lessons from our archives – suitable for middle or high school classrooms – that shed a light on our current moment. If you aren’t teaching lessons like these in your social studies classes, ask yourself – why not?
Comparing Slavery and Factory Life – Apologists for slavery often argued that, in their day at least, their system of slavery was better than free market capitalism. Let’s put that to the test… (primary source analysis with guided questions)
Were the Freedmen Really Free? – After the Civil War, Southerners sought to reconstruct slavery in everything but name. We are the direct inheritors of this system, which was only partly deconstructed in the 1950s and 60s. (primary source analysis with guided questions)
Social Reform Movements – Who Should Be the New Face of the $20 Bill? – Progress has always been earned, never granted. Give students the change to reimagine our national pantheon to include the social reformers and progressives who are often more responsible than any president or general for the way of life we cherish today. (research activity)
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)
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. You can see an example of a student infographic here and here.
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.)
William Lloyd Garrison
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony
Henry David Thoreau
Spiritual Leaders and Communalists
Charles G. Finney
John Humphrey Noyes
You will compose a persuasive essay – including a brief biographical overview, an explanation of the reformer’s accomplishments/lasting legacy, a direct quote from your reformer’s writings (if available), and a clear argument for why this person deserves to be the face of the 20 dollar bill. You should also create a physical life-size mock up of your new 20 dollar bill (it can be creative, colorful, and impressionistic). Make sure you cite your 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.”
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.
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
Compare and Contrast: Consider factors like cost, weather, topography, efficiency — what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of toll roads, railroads, and canals?
Why is it important for the government to invest in these kinds of infrastructure? In what ways does it impact your daily life?
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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