Part 7. Antebellum America

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

Part 7. Antebellum America

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War
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Paperback 13/01/2000 ISBN13: 9780195116700 ISBN10: 0195116704 Drawing on a gold mine of primary documents--including letters, diary entries, personal narratives, political speeches, broadsides, trial transcripts, and contemporary newspaper articles--The Boisterous Sea of Liberty brings the past to life in a way few histories ever do.
Here is a panoramic look at early American history as captured in the words of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many other historical figures, both famous and obscure. In these pieces, the living voices of the past speak to us from opposing viewpoints--from the vantage point of loyalists as well as patriots, slaves as well as masters. The documents collected here provide a fuller understanding of such historical issues as Columbus's dealings with Native Americans, the Stamp Act Crisis, the Declaration of Independence, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Missouri Crisis, the Mexican War, and Harpers Ferry, to name but a few.
Compiled by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz, and accompanied by extensive illustrations of original documents, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty brings the reader back in time, to meet the men and women who lived through the momentous events that shaped our nation.

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      Throughout the Western world, the end of the Napoleonic Wars brought an end to a period of global war and revolution and the start of a new era of rapid economic growth. For Americans, the end of the War of 1812 unleashed the rapid growth of cities and industry and a torrent of expansion westward. The years following the war also marked a notable advance of democracy in American politics. Property qualifications for voting and office holding were abolished; voters began to directly elect presidential electors, state judges, and governors; and voting participation skyrocketed. In addition, the antebellum era saw a great surge in collective efforts to improve society through reform. Unprecedented campaigns sought to outlaw alcohol, guarantee women's rights, and abolish slavery.

      Rapid territorial expansion also marked the antebellum period. Between 1845 and 1853, the nation expanded its boundaries to include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The United States annexed Texas in 1845; partitioned the Oregon country in 1846 following negotiations with Britain; wrested California and the great Southwest from Mexico in 1848 after the Mexican War; and acquired the Gadsden Purchase in southern Arizona from Mexico in 1853.

      The period's most fateful development was a deepening sectional conflict that brought the country to the brink of civil war. The addition of new land from Mexico raised the question that would dominate American politics during the 1850s: whether slavery would be permitted in the western territories. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle this issue by admitting California as a free state but allowing slavery in the rest of the Mexican cession. But enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law as part of the compromise exacerbated sectional tensions. The question of slavery in the territories was revived by the 1854 decision to open Kansas and Nebraska territories to white settlement and decide the status of slavery according to the principle of popular sovereignty. Sectional conflict was intensified by the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which declared that Congress could not exclude slavery from the western territories; by John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry; and by Abraham Lincoln's election as president in 1860.


    Between the French Revolution and World War I, the American Civil War was the most violent conflict in the Western world. No topic has aroused deeper disagreement among American historians than the causes of the Civil War. James Ford Rhodes argued that the conflict's causes lay in the issue of slavery. Charles Beard and Frank Owsley emphasized the economic conflict between an agrarian South and an industrializing North. Charles Ramsdale and James Randall blamed the conflict on irresponsible agitators and blundering politicians operating in an atmosphere of whipped-up emotions and false propaganda.

    Today, the debate continues. Michael Holt stresses the importance of the breakdown of the party system, due in part to a massive influx of foreign immigrants into the country. Eric Foner and James McPherson maintain that there were irreconcilable ideological differences between North and South.

    Recent explanations of the coming of the Civil War stress three factors. One is contingency--the notion that the conflict was not inevitable, but was the result of a complex set of actions, decisions, and reactions. A second factor is the importance of ideology, the notion that the North and South embraced distinct and mutually antagonistic outlooks and sets of values. The North's "free labor" ideology portrayed the region as a land of unprecedented equality and opportunity, free of rigid class divisions and glaring extremes of wealth and poverty. The South, in turn, regarded its society as the true preserve of America's revolutionary traditions, which had been betrayed by an industrializing, urbanizing North.

    The third factor is the significance of perception--of how Northerners and Southerners understood the critical events of the antebellum era. Many Northerners came to believe that an aggressive Slave Power had seized control of the federal government, subverted civil liberties, fomented revolution in Texas and war with Mexico in order to expand the South's slave empire, and wanted to reduce all laborers--white as well as black--to a state of virtual slavery. At the same time, an increasing number of Southerners began to believe that antislavery radicals dominated Northern society and would rejoice in the ultimate consequences of abolition--race war and racial amalgamation.

    The antebellum era--the period stretching from the War of 1812 to the Civil War--was an era of political democratization, unprecedented reform energies, and explosive territorial and economic growth. But it also saw the emergence of bitter sectionalism and political conflicts, as the North and South developed along diverging lines. The great question haunting the period was whether the spirit of sectional or the spirit of nationalism would triumph.

    1. Why did the first reform movements in American history arise during the early nineteenth century?
        Certain religious developments made Americans more sensitive to sin and increased their faith in peoples' ability to cure social problems. The liberal revolt against Calvinism convinced many reformers that people were basically good and that only a flawed environment caused social evils. The evangelical revival defined sin and concrete terms and encouraged reformers to address social problems. At the same time, in an increasingly urban society, some problems had become more visible. But reformers also had a heightened faith in peoples' ability to cure social problems.

    2. Why was the antislavery movement, which was nearly as unpopular in the North as the South in the early 1830s, able to persuade a growing number of Northerners that slavery was an intolerable moral evil?

    3. What changes made the American political system more democratic between 1820 and 1840?
        The elimination of property qualifications for voting; direct election of judges, governors, and presidential electors; the emergence of political nominating conventions; the elimination of voting by voice; and popular campaigning.

    4. The doctrine of "manifest destiny" makes westward expansion seem like a noble thing to do. Why did Americans move westward between 1820 and 1850. Were they motivated mainly by national pride and a desire to spread American institutions or by lust for land and resources?
        Motives varied widely. Some were motivated by land hunger. Others sought to preempt settlement by other nations. The Mormons were motivated by a desire for religious freedom.

    5. On the eve of the Civil War, a growing number of Northerners had come to believe that an aggressive southern Slave Power had seized control of the federal government and threatened to subvert republican ideals of liberty, equality, and self-government. Why had many Northerners come to hold this view?
        The debate over the Gag Rule, the Amistad case, Texas annexation, the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Law, the defeat of the Wilmot Proviso, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision convinced many Northerners that slavery threatened their civil liberties and that the Slave Power had seized control of the federal government.

    6. Why did John Brown's raid and Lincoln's election as president convince slaveholders that they needed to secede from the Union?
        Because they were convinced that the South was losing the ability to shape national decisions; that the North was unified in opposition to slavery; and that an antislavery president could take steps to weaken the institution of slavery.

    WHAT IF?

    How would American history have been different if:

    1. Texas had remained an independent republic and had not been annexed by the United States?

    2. James Knox Polk had not been elected president in 1844?

    3. President Zachary Taylor, who opposed the Compromise of 1850, had not died in that year?


    1. Did the United States rob Mexico of its territory? If so, in what way, if any, should the United States compensate Mexico for its loss of territory?

    2. Suppose you learned of Thoreau's refusal to pay a government tax. Like Thoreau, you oppose slavery and the war with Mexico. Would you join Thoreau in his refusal to pay the tax?

    3. John Brown believed that the only effective way to fight slavery was through violence. "We must fight fire with fire," he said. Does Brown's goal--slavery's abolition--justify his means? Do you approve or disapprove of John Brown's raid and his resort to violence, bloodshed, and an attack on a federal arsenal? Are freedom fighters justified in killing civilians in order to overcome oppression?


      Ask your students to locate the Missouri Compromise line, north latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes. Have them determine how many states were created out of the area north of the compromise line, within the Louisiana Purchase, and how many states were created south of that line.

      Ask your students to identify the states acquired from Mexico.


    The American Revolution did far more than simply win American independence. It also popularized a set of values emphasizing liberty and equality. This ideology has represented an ideal against which later generations of Americans have measured the imperfections of their society. It has inspired reformers to seek to expose and correct abuses, like slavery, that contradicted the nation's fundamental principles.

    The theory of natural rights embodied in the Declaration of Independence--that "all Men are created equal," that they are endowed with certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights--would serve as a powerful stimulus for later reformers. Proponents of women's rights, world peace, temperance, public schools, and abolition all drafted Declarations of Sentiments modeled on the wording of the Declaration of Independence. America's pre-civil ware reformers saw their own crusades as attempts to realize the republican ideals enshrined in the Declaration and as the fulfillment of the political struggles begun during the Revolution.

    Document 7.

      What were schools like before the introduction of public school systems?
        School terms were short; the tenure of teachers was brief; classes were very large and included some very young students; and the school houses themselves were poorly maintained.

    Document 16.

      Was President James Monroe justified in sending Major General Andrew Jackson into Florida and demanding that Spain cede the area to the United States?
        Monroe contends that Spain had failed to properly govern Florida, and that the area had become "the theater, of every species of lawless adventure."

    Document 31.

      In his "Proclamation to the People of South Carolina," President Jackson affirmed the supremacy of the federal government over the states, declared nullification illegal, and became the first president to declare the Union indissoluble. Why did Jackson oppose nullification?
        Because the doctrine violates the Constitution and threatens the existence of the Union.

    Document 32.

      On what grounds did South Carolina Governor Robert Y. Hayne defend nullification?
        He claimed that the federal government had exceeded its constitutional powers, violated the rights of the states, and threatened to reduce South Carolina to "a condition of 'Colonial vassalage.'"

    Documents 42.

      How does the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison compare and contrast his experience in jail to a slave's experience in bondage?
        He sees one parallel--that both are confined to a limited geographical area. But he says his food is better and more abundant; he can freely choose his activities; he can read and write; and he eventually will be freed.

    Documents 46, 47, and 48.

      Nat Turner's insurrection was the most violent antebellum slavery revolt and marked a major turning point in attitudes about slavery. In the South, slave codes were made stricter and after a debate about abolishing slavery in the Virginia legislature, serious discussions of emancipation ended. In the North, abolitionists became more vocal in their attacks on slavery. What do each of the following have to say about the significance of Turner's insurrection and what this incident has to say about the nature of southern slavery: Samuel Warner? The Liberator? Thomas R. Dew?
        Warner argues that the slaves revolted because of the discrepancy between American ideals of liberty and the reality of perpetual bondage. The Liberator contends that the revolt was the result of the sinful way slaves were treated--whipped, denied adequate food, and kept in ignorance--while whites celebrate liberty. Dew claims that Turner suffered from a mental aberration.

    Documents 50-56.

      What was it like to be a slave? How well were slaves fed, clothed, and housed? What kinds of punishment did slaves face? What was the impact of slavery on family life? How do you think that slaves were able to endure the hardships and oppressions of slavery?

    Document 59.

      On what grounds does Elizabeth Cady Stanton demand equal rights for women?
        Like the American revolutionaries, she protests against a government that exists without the consent of the governed. Even though women pay taxes and are citizens, they are denied the vote and the right to change unjust laws that give husbands authority over their wives.

    Document 100.

      What did the Supreme Court rule in the Dred Scott decision and why do you think the decision is significant?
        The Supreme Court overturned the Missouri Compromise; ruled that African Americans, both free and enslaved, had no right to citizenship; and prohibited Congress from restricting slavery in the territories. The decision made war almost certain because it placed resolution of the slavery issue outside of Congress and the courts.

    Document 101.

      How, according to Hinton Rowan Helper, had slavery harmed poor Southern whites?
        Slavery discouraged commerce, left many southerners in poverty and ignorance, and made the South economically dependent on the North.

    Document 124.

      On what grounds did South Carolina justify its decision to secede from the Union?
        Because northern states have refused to fulfill their constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves; have denounced slavery as sinful; have given African Americans citizenship rights; and elected a president opposed to slavery.