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Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s

Paul Finkelman

Publication Year: 2012

During the long decade from 1848 to 1861 America was like a train speeding down the track, without an engineer or brakes. The new territories acquired from Mexico had vastly increased the size of the nation, but debate over their status—and more importantly the status of slavery within them—paralyzed the nation. Southerners gained access to the territories and a draconian fugitive slave law in the Compromise of 1850, but this only exacerbated sectional tensions. Virtually all northerners, even those who supported the law because they believed that it would preserve the union, despised being turned into slave catchers. In 1854, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress repealed the ban on slavery in the remaining unorganized territories. In 1857, in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court held that all bans on slavery in the territories were unconstitutional. Meanwhile, northern whites, free blacks, and fugitive slaves resisted the enforcement of the 1850 fugitive slave law. In Congress members carried weapons and Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him. This was the decade of the 1850s and these were the issues Congress grappled with. This volume of new essays examines many of these issues, helping us better understand the failure of political leadership in the decade that led to the Civil War. 

Published by: Ohio University Press


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pp. c-c

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-viii

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Introduction: A Disastrous Decade

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pp. 1-17

It was a remarkable period, unlike any other in American history. It was the long decade of the 1850s. It began in 1848 with the end of the Mexican War and the presidential election. It ended in 1860 with the election of Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina. It began in crisis and ended in catastrophe. The crisis was rooted in the dramatic success of American forces in the Mexican War (1846–48). The war added massive amounts of...

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Politics, Patronage, and Public Policy

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pp. 18-35

Worked out in fractious debates and seemingly endless roll call votes that lasted from early December 1849 until late September 1850, passage of the Compromise of 1850 is one of the most famous episodes in congressional history. It was necessitated by and helped resolve an increasingly rancorous sectional quarrel about whether slavery could be extended to the lands acquired from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War....

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The Appeasement of 1850

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pp. 36-79

The Compromise of 1850 has always been seen as a classic moment of American political history. Historians wax eloquent about the brilliance of the debate, the selfless dedication to the Union of some of the participants, and particularly the heroic role of Henry Clay in coming out of retirement to craft a compromise in 1850, as he had done in 1820. The traditional works also acknowledge the other “heroic” men of the age who...

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Beyond the Balance Rule

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pp. 80-96

In February 1859 the U.S. House of Representatives voted on S. 239, an Act to Admit Oregon to the Union, which had passed the Senate the previous March by a vote of 35 to 17.1 At the time of the vote, members of the House knew one crucial piece of information: Oregon was going to be a free state.2 As part of the referendum on their new constitution in November 1857 and in accordance with the general principles of the Kansas-Nebraska...

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Manifest Destiny’s Hangover

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pp. 97-119

How much land is too much land? In the course of a short but devastating war in the late 1840s, Mexico lost about half her territory to the United States. One might imagine that the Mexican Cession, over half a million square miles of land, would satisfy Americans and would satiate the seemingly unquenchable expansionist desire that had governed American international relations since at least the 1830s. How after dismembering...

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“When the Victims of Oppression Stand Up Manfully for Themselves”

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pp. 120-142

The opening months of 1850 were a time of challenge for the nation and for the Thirty-First Congress. The successful war against Mexico and the acquisition of new lands once again raised the issue of the place of slavery in the nation. These were issues similar to those that had appeared with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which also dramatically increased the size of the country. Southerners wanted assurances that they...

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“Agitation Is as Necessaryas Tranquility Is Dangerous”

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pp. 143-158

On December 6, 1847, in the midst of a controversial war with neighboring Mexico, the Thirtieth Congress of the United States gathered together in Washington, D.C., for the Wrst time. Among the 230 congressmen assembled that day were 110 Democrats, 116 Whigs, two members from the new state of Wisconsin, and a handful of freshman members, among them Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a Whig, and Kinsley Bingham, a Democrat from Michigan....

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Dred, Panic, War

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pp. 159-202

In eerily familiar ways, the Wnancial panic of 1857 preWgures the current subprime mortgage crisis. Then as now, lightly regulated institutions eagerly extended credit based on exciting new Wnancial instruments, speculators assumed that real property values would continue to climb indeWnitely, and the reverberations from the inevitable collapse echoed round the world. The words of one pundit seem apt: History repeats itself because...

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“Hit Him Again”

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pp. 203-222

“We have before us a long season of excitement and ribald debate.” So wrote Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner (Wg. 1) in March 1856.1 Events two months later validated his prediction. Indeed, it would be Sumner’s own speech, “The Crime against Kansas,” delivered in May 1856, on the eve of the escalation of political violence in Kansas, that sparked a retort that would leave its mark on American politics as well as on...


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pp. 223-224


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pp. 225-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443996

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 809317796
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Subject Headings

  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States. Congress -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Extension to the territories.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Legal status of slaves in free states.
  • Fugitive slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States.
  • Slavery -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1815-1861.
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