May 30th 1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act passed


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (source:


On this day in 1854, the US President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. This controversial law was designed to settle the question of whether the remaining unorganised land gained from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 would enter the Union as slave or free states. Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois – who would gain later fame for his Senate race against Abraham Lincoln in 1858 which gave rise to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates – was the architect of the law. It provided that the slavery question would be settled by the principle of popular sovereignty – the settlers themselves would determine slavery’s fate. The act therefore repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which many Americans considered a ‘sacred pledge’, by allowing slavery above the line established by the compromise. Douglas pushed the law as he wanted to secure a Transcontinental Railroad which would have its Eastern terminus in Chicago, and did not think slavery would be able to take root in the less fertile land of the West. He failed to foresee the problems over popular sovereignty that would arise, such as how and when to determine the slavery question.



Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1813 – 1861)


The bill passed Congress after a sharply sectional vote, with most Northerners voting against it and most Southerners for it, before it was approved by Pierce. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was immediately controversial, contributing to the collapse of the Whig party, the birth of the Republican party, the entrance of Abraham Lincoln into politics, the rise of fear of the ‘Slave Power’ conspiracy in the North and the rush of settlers to Kansas which resulted in the bloody warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. Due to these sectional animosities stirred by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it is considered a pivotal moment on the road to the Civil War.



Republican cartoon from the 1856 election depicting the violence during Bleeding Kansas as Missourians crossed the border into Kansas to cast fraudulent pro-slavery ballots. Note the way Douglas on the far left is scalping a freesoil settler – evoking imagery of the supposed savagery of Native Americans (source:


“This will raise one hell of a storm”
– Douglas’s prescient comment after deciding his Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal the Missouri Compromise


May 26th 1868: President Johnson acquitted


Senate trial of Johnson – Theodore Davis


On this day in 1868 President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial ended, finding him not guilty by one vote. Johnson became President in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and was thus in power during the crucial stage of Reconstruction after the Civil War. However, Johnson did little to support the newly emancipated slaves, and opposed measures like the Fourteenth Amendment which granted them citizenship. A Tennesseean, chosen as Lincoln’s running-mate to give the impression of national unity, Johnson was more sympathetic to the former Confederate states than a Northern counterpart may have been.



Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)


The unpopular President was impeached in February by the House of Representatives, with the main charge being that he violated the Tenure of Office Act by attempting to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Johnson was then put on trial in the Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding. He was tried by two articles of impeachment, and both fell short – by just one vote – of the required two thirds majority needed to find him guilty and remove him from office. Whilst Congress gave specific reasons for the impeachment, many still consider the affair a mostly political retaliation by Radical Republicans against the President’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson and Bill Clinton in 1998 remain the only two Presidents to have been impeached.



The affair became a national scandal – tickets were sold for the trial

May 22nd 1856: Caning of Charles Sumner


The Caning of Charles Sumner – note the inactivity (and sometimes glee) of the bystanders, Sumner’s noble poise, and the facelessness of Brooks (this way he could stand in for the whole South)


On this day in 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death by Representative Preston Brooks. Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, had recently made a speech in the Senate entitled ‘The Crime Against Kansas’. In this impressive six hour speech, Sumner decried the violence in Kansas between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers (who were fighting over the future of slavery in the territory) and specifically targeted slavery itself and Southerners. One character he singled out was South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, who Sumner openly accused of taking one of his black slaves as a mistress. This was considered an affront against his honour, and his relative Preston Brooks sought revenge. Brooks considered challenging Sumner to an Old-South style duel, but felt that this would be to imply that they were social equals. Brooks instead resolved to try to kill the abolitionist, marching into his office two days after the speech and repeatedly striking the senator with a cane until Sumner was beaten unconscious and Brooks’s cane shattered. Several other Southern Congressmen were present and prevented anyone from helping Sumner.


“Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine”
– Brooks to Sumner before beating him unconscious



Preston Brooks (1819 – 1857)


The attack sharply divided national opinion; Northerners called Brooks barbaric and suggested the incident represented how slaveholders treat everyone like slaves, whereas in the South Brooks became a hero, with pieces of his cane being honoured like relics and people sending him a cane inscribed with the words ‘Hit him again!’. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years, and the Massachusetts legislature decided to leave his seat empty – a poignant symbol of the brutality of slaveholders. Brooks meanwhile, was fined $300 and resigned from the House after a motion to expel him failed, but he was soon re-elected anyway.



Charles Sumner (1811 – 1874)


The caning of Charles Sumner was a pivotal moment on the road to Civil War. The violence in Kansas – known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ – stretched sectional violence all the way from the Western frontier to the nation’s capital. These events were capitalised on by the fledgling Republican Party in the 1856 presidential election. They used the imagery of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and ‘Bleeding Sumner’, even handing out copies of Sumner’s Kansas speech, to rally Northern anti-slavery voters to their cause by invoking the idea of a Southern ‘Slave Power’ conspiracy to spread slavery across the whole country. Whilst the Republican candidate John C. Fremont lost to the Democrat James Buchanan, the election was considered a ‘victorious defeat’ for the young party as it firmly established the Republicans as the main rival to the Democrats – besting its next closest rivals the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. Sectional tension over slavery only continued after 1856, with the infamous Dred Scott decision the next year prompting outrage from Northerners and support from Southerners. Tensions came to a head in the 1860 election, which saw a final sectional split of the political parties and culminated in the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The Southern states were horrified by his election, fearing an attack on slavery, and soon seceded from the Union. Once Confederate forces fired upon the Union Fort Sumter in South Carolina, war broke out. And the rest, they say, is history.

May 19th 1848: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo


The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo


On this day in 1848 Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus ending the Mexican-American War. The war broke out in 1846 after the United States, as a last act of outgoing President John Tyler, annexed Texas from Mexico in 1845. Texas was Mexican territory but had declared itself independent in 1836 and requested to join the United States. The American debate over Texas revolved mostly around the slavery issue, as the admission of Texas (a slaveholding region) to the Union would once again flare sectional tensions over the divisive issue of slavery in the United States. The annexation heightened tensions between Mexico and the United States, and war eventually broke out in 1846 when a Mexican cavalry unit killed some American soldiers. The war lasted for almost two years, ending with a resounding victory for the United States.



The Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War



The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war but also provided for the sale of a huge portion of Mexican land to America – the ‘Mexican Cession’ – for $15 million. This new area of land encompassed modern California, Nevada, Utah, much of Arizona and New Mexico and small parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Many Americans, especially the Democratic administration of James K. Polk, celebrated the expansion of America to the Pacific coast. However the acquisition raised further problems over the slavery issue which were eventually settled by the controversial Compromise of 1850, often considered a mere armistice which eventually led the nation into civil war. In fact, one historian (Gary Kornblith) has argued that no Mexican War, no Civil War. He pinpoints the ‘point of no return’ as the expansionist Polk’s election in 1844 over the more moderate Whig Henry Clay. Without this popular endorsement of Manifest Destiny – the idea that America’s destiny is to expand across the continent – Tyler would have been unable to push annexation through Congress. There would thus have been no war, no Mexican Cession to debate slavery over, no Compromise of 1850 which enflared sectional tensions, and thus no secession and no war. It is an interesting argument and while many may disagree, shows just how important the Mexican War, and the treaty that ended it, is to American history.



Map showing the Mexican Cession


“The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prescient warning over war with Mexico as it would incite the slavery debate

May 16th 1801: William Seward born


William H. Seward (1801 – 1872)


On this day in 1801, the prominent 19th-century American politician William Henry Seward was born in the town of Florida, New York. Seward was first elected to political office in 1839, when aged 38 he became Governor of New York. Ten years later Seward gained federal office as a US Senator, and it was here that he first made a prominent name for himself as an anti-slavery advocate. He was one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, but the task of representing the fledgling Northern, anti-slavery party went to Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The President-elect chose his former rival as Secretary of State, leading historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin to term the Lincoln cabinet ‘a team of rivals’. Seward served the State Department loyally throughout the American Civil War, where he worked to prevent foreign nations recognising the Confederacy. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 (when Seward himself was also unsuccessfully targeted), Seward continued in his role under the presidency of Andrew Johnson. It was in this period that Seward made his most lasting contribution to the American nation – orchestrating the acquisition of Alaska in 1867. Seward retired from public life with the beleaguered outgoing Johnson administration, and died in 1872 in Auburn, New York.



Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation”
– Seward’s prescient 1858 speech regarding the sectional struggle over slavery



Statue of Seward in Madison Square Garden, New York City – Seward was the first New Yorker to be honoured with a statue in the city.


Seward’s famous “irrepressible conflict” speech really highlights the key debate that abounds between historians who study the years preceding the Civil War. Without getting too marred in historiographical detail, the debate generally splits between fundamentalists (who argue that by a certain point, war was inevitable – with some even suggesting the Constitutional Convention, which avoided settling the slavery issue), and the revisionists (who believe that there were numerous points at which war could have been avoided e.g. the Mexican War, or that the war was the result of actions of blundering politicians). Beyond this very historically-driven perspective, Seward was an important figure in his own right. It is often in the careers of the ‘what-if’ candidates for the presidency, figures like Seward and Henry Clay who came close to the presidency, that we can see the inner workings of politics. Seward served his country admirably during a very difficult time, and even remained in office as he became increasingly isolated within the Johnson administration that became unsupportive of Reconstruction policies to help the newly freed African-American population.

May 10th 1849: Astor Place Riot


On this day in 1849 a riot broke out at the Astor Opera House in New York City. The incident was initially sparked by a long-running dispute between two leading actors of the day – William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest – over who was a better Shakespearean performer. However, tensions heightened as the two actors became proxies for the opposing classes in New York – the British Macready represented the upper class and the American Forrest the lower classes.



William Charles Macready as Macbeth (1793 – 1873) source:


The brewing animosity came to a head on the night of May 10th when Macready’s performance of Macbeth, which had been cancelled due to protests at the first attempt, was rescheduled for. A militia company, expecting there to be violence at the rescheduled play, was stationed nearby. As predicted, violence broke out which prompted the troops to fire into the crowd, with around 25 being killed and hundreds injured.



Edwin Forrest as Macbeth (1806 – 1872) source:


The riot is mainly remembered today for the way it pitted immigrants against nativists, a divide which was arguably a key factor in the lead up to Civil War. Whilst slavery was indeed a key division in American society that enflared the sectional tensions that led to war, the importance of nativism should not be overlooked. Prior to the rise of the Republican party in 1856, the other main party that opposed the conservative Southern Democrats were the Know-Nothings, a primarily anti-Catholic party. The virulence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the antebellum years almost rivaled that of slavery. This is not to say that the Civil War was fought over immigration, far from it, but nativism and events like the Astor riot play an important part in the narrative of the road to disunion.

May 3rd 1855: Walker departs for Nicaragua


William Walker (1824 – 1860)


On this day in 1855 the American adventurer William Walker, with an entourage of around sixty men, left to conquer Nicaragua. Walker is well known for these ‘filibustering’ missions where private armies tried to claim Latin American countries for themselves and establish colonies. Prior to the Nicaragua expedition, the Tennessean travelled to Mexico with the intention of creating an American colony there. To attract supporters, Walker expounded the principles of Manifest Destiny – that American has a divine duty to expand across the continent – and appealed to those keen on the expansion of slavery. Walker’s mission to Mexico was ultimately unsuccessful and when he returned was put on trial for his illegal war but the sympathetic Southern jury took just eight minutes to acquit him. Spurred by this, Walker set his sights on Nicaragua, which was in the midst of a civil war; the Democratic government gave Walker permission to come support them. Upon arrival, the Walker group joined with local and foreign groups, boosting their numbers and allowing them to defeat the other side. Walker then took personal control of Nicaragua, declaring himself President in 1856; his government was formally recognised by US President Franklin Pierce. He then began enacting his vision of a colony, reinstating slavery, making English the official language and reorganising Nicaragua’s entire financial system. He faced military challenges from surrounding countries, including Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which feared conquest and succeeded in forcing Walker to flee. Before they fled, Walker’s generals had the ancient capital of Granada burned, where they left the words ‘Here was Granada’. Walker died soon after, in 1860, when he was executed by Honduran authorities.



Map of Walker’s operation in Nicaragua (source:

The filibustering missions of antebellum America played a key role in the world to civil war. If one agrees with the basic assumption that the American Civil War was primarily fought over the expansion of slavery, you can see how these attempts by Southern adventurers to expand slavery south into Latin America would have alarmed the anti-slavery North. Southerners felt that the institution that was so integral to their economy and way of life was under threat, and in danger of becoming increasingly isolated in the Southern states; a ‘peculiar institution’ which would soon die out. They thus fought to expand slavery into the Western territories and even into Central America. At the same time that William Walker was seizing control of Nicaragua, a bloody civil war was taking place on the border of Missouri and the Kansas territory, as settlers fought amongst themselves over whether Kansas would ultimately be a slave or a free state. To Northerners, the filibustering missions represented another ploy by the Southern Slave Power who conspired to spread their evil institution throughout the American continent.

April 12th 1861: Firing on Fort Sumter



The attack on Fort Sumter, April 12th 1861 (source:


On this day in 1861, the American Civil War began when the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter. Several Southern states had already seceded from the United States when this conflict occurred. The Southern slaveholding states had long been at odds with the anti-slavery agenda of the North, but secession was immediately preciptated by the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860.



Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)


Fort Sumter was a Union base in South Carolina, which was the first state to secede and thus its government demanded Union forces leave their state. The moment the siege became a battle and the fort was fired upon by Confederate forces, it seemed clear to all that civil war had begun. No one was killed in the conflict, perhaps a false omen that the civil war which became the bloodiest in American history would not be a costly one. The Union forces at the fort eventually surrendered, thus making it a victory for the Confederates. In the aftermath of the struggle each side called for troops and war soon broke out in full force. The American Civil War saw the defeat of the Southern secessionists and the end of slavery – the ‘peculiar institution’ – in the United States.



Commemorative stamp marking the centenary of the Battle of Fort Sumter


I recently – for my university module on the origins of the Civil War – wrote an essay about ‘the start of the war’. It was an interesting exercise as it gave me the opportunity to look beyond the traditional start date of April 12th 1861. My paper focused on the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ struggle of 1856 when pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed to claim Kansas for themselves which resulted in violence. However this was but one event on the long road to civil war, and some historians would point even further back to other points where war was inevitable. Some argue that at the nation’s founding, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution contained such fundamental hypocrises over the slavery issue, conflict over the institution was bound to happen. The Declaration proclaimed all men are created equal while the Constitution claimed slaves as being worth 3/5 of a human being. This so-called ‘fundamentalist’ work is very interesting to read but personally I believe war was not inevitable until Fort Sumter.  The contradictions of 1776 and the years after, and the repeated conflicts like over Texas annexation, Bleeding Kansas, and the Wilmot Proviso all contributed to the war that began in 1861; but antebellum American history is no grand teleological narrative of the road to civil war. The American Civil War only began where there were no other options – the Confederacy had used military force on Union soldiers and there was no other recourse but total war.

March 20th 1852: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published

I just noticed that the schedule function didn’t work yesterday so failed to post what I had set for the 20th. Sorry it’s late but here it is anyway!



Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896)


On this day in 1852, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was published. Previously published as a serial in the anti-slavery periodical the National Era, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ tells the story of a black slave and recounts the harsh reality of his enslavement. Stowe was an ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery, and wrote the novel in response to the passage of the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act ordered Northern citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves from the South, thus forcing the generally anti-slavery North to become complicit in the continuance of the ‘peculiar institution’. Northerners resented the influence of the Southern ‘Slave Power’, especially their continued victories in Congress. The Fugitive Slave Act was seen as just another example of the South trying to spread slavery, which many Northerners saw as a threat to white liberty. Thus the popular discontent over the slavery issue helped make ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and saw its translation into sixty languages.



Original 1852 novel version of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’


The novel helped keep the flames of anti-slavery sentiment alive, and is therefore sometimes attributed with helping start the American Civil War. The war had no singular cause, and whilst the debate over slavery is often considered a primary reason, a variety of economic and political factors were at play as well. For example, some see the war as a battle between an emerging industrial, capitalist North and a rural South. However, at least in my opinion, all of these other concerns came down to the primary division between Northern and Southern society – slavery. Thus ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, with its critique of slavery, helped fan these tensions which eventually resulted in the bloodiest war in American history. However, whilst still hailed as a great anti-slavery work of its day, the novel falls short of modern expectations with its stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans.


“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
– what, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe in 1862

March 17th 1777: Roger Taney born


Roger B. Taney (1777 – 1864)

On this day in 1777, Roger B. Taney was born in Maryland. Taney went on to become the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1836. The Taney Court has gone down in infamy as the Court which issued the controversial ruling Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). This ruling declared that African-Americans did not count as United States citizens and thus could not sue in federal courts. The case originated when Dred Scott, a slave, claimed that because his master took him to a free state, he was thus a free man. The Court’s complete rejection of African-American rights evoked outrage from Northern anti-slavery forces, and support from Southern slaveowners. The decision, which Taney wrote, is thus often considered one of the causes of the American Civil War as it flared sectional tensions.


Dred Scott (1795 – 1858)

Taney’s tenure ended with his death towards the end of the Civil War in 1864, but due to his role in the Dred Scott decision, he has gone down in history as one of the worst Chief Justices in history. His critics have maintained that the decision in Dred Scott was cowardly, and Taney could have helped ease sectional tensions and further the cause of civil rights but instead chose to forbid all future petitions from African-Americans.