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The 1850s Prelude To Civil War Essay

We have reached a point with our writing where we need to take the next big step. As part of your final exam, you are going to be completing a DBQ on the decade of the 1850s. You have the question ahead of time so you have plenty of time for analysis. The difference in this round is that you will be writing the essay in the classroom under some time pressure. Again, we are working on a set of complex skills here. Here’s the question you will be writing on for your final exam:

“By the 1850s the Constitution, originally framed as an instrument of national unity, had become a source of sectional discord and tension and ultimately contributed to the failure of the union it had created.”

Using the documents and your knowledge of the period 1850-1861, assess the validity of this statement.

OK, here are some coaching points for you as you approach your preparation — work your way through these prior to the Final Exam day. First, underline the KEY WORDS in the question itself — what are words you need to know in order to have a strong understanding of the question? Notice the phrase “assess the validity” in the question — that’s important.

Second, how would you answer this question IF YOU DID NOT HAVE DOCUMENTS to deal with? Start with that question because that will force you to think about OUTSIDE INFORMATION. Brainstorm everything you know about the decade of the 1850s (we have covered it pretty extensively in class and, of course, you have plenty of resources on it for further study). Write down notes for yourself in that regard — names, laws, court cases, social or cultural developments, etc. THINK BROADLY!

Third, determine a working thesis for the question. Remember that you have three options with this type of question. What are they? Remember that you are being asked to “assess the validity” of the given premise: was it true? was it false? was it both? If it’s true, which I suspect many historians would affirm, then how do you explain this? I mean, isn’t it “one thing or the other?” What’s the problem? Once you have settled on a thesis (although it may still be “in process”), think about how you will defend your position. Then . . . .

Fourth, MAP OUT YOUR ANSWER. What points of support will you use to support the thesis? Make a visual of this and add enough detail so you are “picturing” the answer. This “mapping out” process is important because later you will want to formulate where various documents will naturally support what you are saying.

THEN . . . . GO TO THE DOCUMENTS AND UTILIZE YOUR “CLOSE READING” SKILLS! You should be doing a healthy “mark-up” on the documents — you will hand those in to me the day of the test with your answer. Here are a few comments on the 9 documents from my end: First, realize they have given you a broad range of documents here — different types of things, not just textual. As you look at them, think of different interpretations of the Constitution and how those may weave their way into your response.

Document A: Compromise of 1850 Map

A map like this gives you all kinds of openings for outside information. Think about prior Constitutional crises prior to 1850 (like the Missouri Compromise situation) and how this legislation changed that. The notion of popular sovereignty, of course, is a great one for thinking about Constitutional principles related to people having a “voice” in their government. Document B: Words from an anonymous Georgian to the “north” This guy is voicing the classic Southern position on the relationship between the States and the Union (which he, of course, envisions as a Confederation where states have the greater authority).

The fact that slavery has been allowed to exist (as a state decision) seems to further validate his view, as does the enactment of Fugitive Slave Laws by the Federal Government with the recognition of the “right” of people to practice slavery and to have their “property” protected. Document C: A Handbill from Boston warning Blacks concerning slave-catchers Note the date on the Handbill (1851). Again, this gives you a great opportunity to bring in outside information about the Compromise of 1850. Remember that one of the provisions strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law. This handbill is typical of what one might have seen throughout the North during this period — certainly true in Wisconsin which had some Underground RR connections.

Document D: Emerson talking about the Fugitive Slave Law

This is really a great document for illustrating the moral position on the Fugitive Slave Act. And just think who and what you can connect Emerson to here? (Think Walden Pond and a particular religious revival as well!). Also, note his reference to the stoppage of the Slave Trade in 1807 (remember that provision that was decided at the Constitutional Convention regarding the slave trade!).

Document E: Garrison talking about the US Constitution
Garrison, of course, represents a more radical view. His condemnation of the Constitution itself was routinely part of his attack when he spoke. Like document D, this one gives you the “moral” position.

Document F: Political Cartoon regarding Kansas
Boy, there is a lot in this cartoon! I’ll let you play around with that one and see what you can come up with! Be conscious of the names as you do it.
Document G: Buchanan’s 4th Annual Message to Congress
This is an excellent document to use because it is the “voice of the President” who was dealing with the secession issue and the South. Not surprisingly, Buchanan takes a weak position on the issue and was a “waffling” politician if ever there was one.

Document H: Jefferson Davis addressing the
Confederate Congress
Again, Davis voices the Southern view of the Constitution. Great opportunity for you to bring in the Nullification Theory (remember Jefferson and Madison) and to connect to Document B as well. The last section of the document is really the key to understanding it, I believe. Document I: Lincoln’s message to Congress (same year)

Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 (remember — as a completely sectional candidate) and this statement from him is from July of 1861. He would have been in office for about 5 months at this point and had watched the South secede and seen the outbreak of fighting. An important part of this document is to realize that he sees the 10th Amendment as important (he doesn’t say that, but he makes reference to the “reserved powers.” I challenge you to look that up for some deeper understanding.

To RECAP and REFLECT:

To get the longer view of things, I definitely recommend that you look up and think about the debates over slavery at the time of the Constitutional Convention — those are important for the context of this question. You need to think of it in the long view. You’re getting views from Garrison, Emerson, Lincoln, Buchanan, Davis, and an anonymous Georgian here. Do these documents “line up” in any particular way? Northern perspective? Southern perspective? Are there natural groupings? One thing that always helps your answer is if you can show interactions between the documents. The shows more complexity in your thinking.

Finally, what interpretations of the Constitution are you getting here? There are definitely two pretty clear perspectives (check Davis and Lincoln from 1861). There is also a 3rd perspective, I believe, with William Lloyd Garrison.

To conclude, think about HOW the Constitution is often used to either justify a position we might hold, or condemn a contrary position. WHY is it possible to do this with the US Constitution? As President, Lincoln had taken an oath to “protect and defend” the Constitution — and that’s what he believed he was doing in 1861 when he resupplied Fort Sumter — the action that prompted Southern rage. From the Southern view, Lincoln, in fact, was violating the Constitution itself when

he did this. If you understand the “gulf” in the understanding between the two sides, you will understand the Civil War much better than you have to this point in your life. ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS . . . .

So something else that comes to mind here with this question is WHY each side would see the Constitution as their “ally” in the struggle over slavery — let’s take them one at a time: TO NORTHERNERS . . . . Their arguments would revolve around the idea that the Framers had destined slavery to be gone with the “sunset” of the slave trade (1807) — check Article I, Section 9, Clause 1. And, by the way, northerners did have a problem here because the Constitution does seem to sanction slavery. On the other hand, they may argue that rights guaranteed in the first 10 amendments needed to be broadly applied to all people — that becomes a moral question.

TO SOUTHERNERS . . . Their arguments could be drawn from several places in the Constitution. Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 — the so-called 3/5 clause — seemed to accept slavery as a given because it allowed southern states to count a portion of slaves toward population. Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 also could be used — that’s the Fugitive Slave Clause. Remember that Fugitive Slave Laws were a huge deal at this time and Southerners argued that northerners had violated the Constitution (and subsequent laws) by not honoring the Fugitive Slave Clause. Again, you have two different “world views” here and each could use the document to their ends during the lead-up to the war. The Constitution is tricky that way. That’s what I have for now! I’m still thinking, however!


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