U.S. History
Material Type:
Ohio Open Ed Collaborative
  • History
  • Ohs0432
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial
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    The Tumultuous 1850s

    The Tumultuous 1850s


    With the war with Mexico ending in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the entire country saw an opportunity to expand into this new territory. However, should this new territory be slave or free?  The South wanted new soil for cotton and tobacco, which would require slavery.  Northerners saw economic opportunities in the creation of farmland to relieve the overcrowding in the East. The Compromise of 1850 was thought to quiet the debate, but new crisis drove the wedge between North and South deeper and deeper.  Finally, with the election of Lincoln in 1860, the South seceded.

    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this module students should be able to write or converse about the following topics:

    • Describe the increasing tensions between North and South after the Mexican American War.
    • What impact did the 3rd parties have on sectional balance?
    • Analyze the impact of anti-immigration sentiment on the increasing divide between North and South.
    • Describe the 4 bills that make up the Compromise of 1850. 
    • Analyze how the Fugitive Slave Act impacted Northern and Southern economies.
    • Compare the land and climate of the Nebraska and Kansas territories.  Why was Kansas the more hotly contested territory between pro-slavery and free state supporters?
    • Describe the different political parties that joined together to form the new Republican party.
    • Analyze how the elections of 1852 and 1856 strengthened growing sectionalism and the anti-slavery platform of the Republican party.
    • Evaluate how the Lincoln-Douglas debates made Lincoln the Republican candidate for president.
    • Compare the South’s argument for secession and the North’s reaction to secession.

    Module Supplemental Readings/Videos

    Glossary of Key Terms

    Bleeding Kansas: Civil war in Kansas over the issue of slavery in the territory.

    border ruffians:  pro‑slavery activists from the slave‑state of Missouri that crossed the state border into Kansas Territory to force the acceptance of slavery there.

    Compromise of 1850: Admitted California as a free state, opened New Mexico and Utah to popular sovereignty, ended the slave trade in Washington D.C., and introduced a more stringent fugitive slave law.

    Dred Scott v. Stanford: Supreme Court decision that extended federal protection to slavery by ruling that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in any territory. Also declared that slaves, as property, were not citizens of the United States.

    Fire-Eaters: extremist pro‑slavery politicians who urged the secession of the southern states,   

    Fugitive Slave Law: Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, it set high penalties for anyone who aided escaped slaves and compelled all law enforcement officers to participate in retrieving runaways.

    Harpers Ferry: Federal arsenal in Virginia seized by abolitionist John Brown in 1859.

    Know-Nothing party: Nativist political party which emerged in response to an influx of immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics.

    Lecompton Constitution: Proposed Kansas constitution, whose ratification was rigged so as to guarantee slavery in the territory.

    Lincoln-Douglas debates: Series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass during the U.S. Senate race in Illinois.

    miscegenation:  a mixture of races, marriage or cohabitation between a white person and a member of another race.

    New England Emigrant Aid Company: Organization created to facilitate the migration of free laborers to Kansas in order to prevent the establishment of slavery in the territory.

    popular sovereignty:  the right of the people living in a newly organized territory to decide by vote of their territorial legislature whether or not slavery would be permitted there.

    Instructor Resources

    Divide the class into groups and ask each group to create a chart in which they place the various items.  Ask each group to be prepared to defend their placement with facts, not just opinions. 

    Create a chart that places the following in one of 3 categories and be prepared to defend your placement of each:

    Pro Slavery                                          Compromise                                                 Abolition


    Wilmot Proviso

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin

    Fugitive Slave Act

    The Northwest Ordinance

    The gag rule

    Popular Sovereignty

    The Missouri Compromise

    Dred Scott Decision

    Lecompton Constitution

    The Compromise of 1850

    Kansas Nebraska Act

    Bleeding Kansas

    Leavenworth Constitution