As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Unit IV: Crumbling Loyalties and Dividing the Nation

"The Straws that 'Broke the Camel's Back' - Exacerbating Sectional Issues"

Poster "Union is Dissolved"

Introduction: Over the past month, we examined the geopolitical, economic, and political growth of the U.S. during the era of Manifest Destiny when Euro-Americans marched westward and conquered the North American Continent. Today, we begin to take a different look at these very same years – the first six decades of the 19th Century – but from a different angle. Our final unit, Crumbling Loyalties: Dividing and Reconstructing the Nation, will examine the issues that increasingly divided Americans during this era of Manifest Destiny and led Americans to fight Americans in the most destructive war in our history.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To study each of the divisive issues that led to the "straws that broke the camel's back" - the incidents that led Americans into the Civil War.
  2. To examine the road to Secession and Civil War.

Goal #1: To study each of the divisive issues that led to the "straws that broke the camel's back" - the incidents that led Americans into the Civil War.

In general, six huge issues made up the final "straws that broke the camel's back" - the issues that tore the nation apart and brought us into a civil war: Political cartoon - slavery splitting the nation in half

  1. The political compromises over slavery
  2. The moral issues of slavery
  3. The economic issues of the "Slave Power"
  4. Shifting political alliances and parties
  5. Popular sovereignty in action
  6. John Brown and Harper's Ferry

The first three issues were directly related to slavery. Thus, we will argue today that slavery was one of the primary causes of the Civil War. But why use the verb "argue" - don't all Americans agree that slavery was a major cause of the war? The answer is complicated.

The above political cartoon, published in the British Magazine Punch on November 8, 1856 accurately predicted, as many in Americans were beginning to realize, that the business of slavery was tearing the nation apart. Here, a slave, standing between a southern armed and rough-clothed planter and a solemn businessman from the North, tears apart a map of the United States, seeming to follow the Mason-Dixon Line - the boundary showing a geographic, if not political, dividing line between North and South.

So let's look closely at each of the six "Straws that broke the camel's back:"

First "Straw" - The Political compromises over slavery. As we enter this discussion about the politics of slavery, you should remember that from the beginning of the first debates about slavery - Map showing the Mason Dixon Linein colonial legislatures, and after the Revolution, in state assemblies and Congress - the issue was rarely about the morality or immorality of slavery. More often, it was about maintaining the political and economic status quo!

Second "Straw" -The Moral issues of slavery. Slavery was more than a political problem that divided the north from the south. It was also a moral problem that divided the regions. By the early 1800s, strong moral arguments were created for both sides.

Slavery, in short, was a danger to a democratic nation. The South had to be tamed and slavery had to be abolished.

Third "Straw" -The Economic issues of the "Slave Power". As we learned weeks ago, slavery was always a huge economic issue during the first 250 years of our history. By the turn of the 19th Century, Southerners believed slavery was essential to the profitable production of cotton which was its primary export and major source of wealth. Indeed, what little manufacturing and mercantile economic activities that developed in the South arose largely to serve the needs of a plantation economy.

In short, despite the political compromises, the anti-slavery moral arguments, and the northern insistence that a "slave power" existed, slavery continued to dominate the political discussion during the era of Manifest Destiny.

Fourth "Straw" - Shifting Political Alliances and Parties. What we see beginning in the 1850s is that people were beginning to form political alliances and join parties based upon the political beliefs of the majority of people in their particular section of the country.

Map of the 1860 Presidential Election

Fifth "Straw" - Popular Sovereignty in Action. After passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thousands of Americans fled to Kansas to test the strength of popular sovereignty and to determine of it would be a free or slave state. The violence that ensued resulted in the phrase "Bleeding Kansas."Image about Popular Sovereignty

Sixth "Straw" - John Brown and Harper's Ferry. John Brown PaintingJohn Brown, a vehement abolitionist, was convinced that God wanted him "to break the jaws of the wicked." After leading the massacre at Pottawatomie Creek near Lawrence, Kansas, Brown shifted his direction and began planning for a major event - attacking the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

Goal #2: To examine the road to Secession and Civil War.

November 1860  - Lincoln was elected President

December 1860 - On December 20th, South Carolina seceded from the Union after meeting in a special convention that unanimously voted to secede. Charts showing dates of secession

January 1861 - On January 9th, Mississippi seceded; on January 10th, Florida seceded; on January 11th, Alabama seceded; on January 19th, Georgia seceded; and on January 26th, Louisiana seceded.

February 1861 - On February 1st, Texas seceded.

March 1861 - On March 4th, Lincoln was inaugurated.  Only 26 states remained in the union. Lincoln's address made it clear that he would respect the institution of slavery as it currently existed, that the union was perpetual and could not be broken, that states that attempted to break the union were embarking upon an illegal revolution, and that secession was but a form of anarchy:

April 1861 - The CSA demanded that Fort Sumter - Painting of Fort Sumter inhabited by troops from the Union Army - surrender. President Lincoln dispatched a relief expedition to Fort Sumter which urgently needed supplies. He informed South Carolina that he would not land troops unless the delivery of food and medicine was disrupted.

May 1861 - On May 3rd, Lincoln called for volunteers to join the army for a three-year term

June 1861 - Despite their acceptance of slavery, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri did not join the Confederacy. Although divided in their loyalties, a combination of political maneuvering and Union military pressure kept these states from seceding.

Map of free and slave states in 1860

"The Straws That 'Broke the Camel's Back'"
  1. At least six politically divisive issues led directly to the secession of the southern states: 
  2. Beginning in 1820, the U.S. government entered into a four-decade long battle to fashion a political compromise that would prevent the issue of slavery from disrupting the political process. 
  3. While American society had always been characterized by diversity and divisiveness, what was new about the two decades between 1840 and 1860 was the degree to which conflict became directly related to sectional issues.  No longer could Democratic southerners and Democratic northerners - or Whig southerners and Whig northerners - agree on political, social, and economic issues.  Rather, the issues became distinctly sectional - either southern or northern in nature.
  4. Northerners were correct - by 1860, an economically strong Slave Power did exist in the South.
  5. By 1860, compromise was dead. American society was divided in several ways:
  6. Any real understanding of American history must be based upon an understanding of three things: 

    If we understand these things, we can also understand that the Civil War helped to define us as Americans, as well as to explain what we became.