Daniel Webster (Library of Congress)
As a result of the War with Mexico, the United States acquired a large area of western land, and at once controversy arose over whether the states organized in these territories would enter the union as “freesoil” or slave-holding. Southern states were anxious to maintain the equivalence between free and slave states and territories that obtained after the admission of the Oregon Territory, in which slavery was prohibited. But California was applying for admission as a free state, and the New Mexico and Utah territories were yet to be organized. Southerners began to talk of a Northern intent to restrict slavery and eventually abolish it; some went so far as to threaten secession. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, as he had done in 1820, fashioned a compromise; he offered a number of resolutions designed to appease both sides while arranging for the admission of California as a state and setting terms for the organization of the other territories acquired from Mexico. While free states would now outnumber slave states, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to stiffen existing requirements that slaves who had escaped to the north be returned to the south.
Joining Clay, another aged statesman who spoke out at this time to encourage compromise and denounce talk of secession was Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. His “Constitution and Union” speech covered wide ground. Continue reading
Our friends at the Bill of Rights Institute have introduced a new documentary resource written by teachers for use in K-12 classrooms. Documents of Freedom: History, Government, & Economics through Primary Sources is designed to be used as a supplement (or even as a substitute) for traditional government, civics, and economics textbooks. Each lesson unit highlights key primary sources and is indexed to the standards of many states, the Common Core, and the College Board. Best of all, it works equally well across all platforms: Windows, Mac, tablets, smartphones, and other devices.
Access to Documents of Freedom is free (registration is required).
When Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.
The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.
How Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union is the focus of the EDSITEment lesson The Gettysburg Address: Defining the American Union. The lesson, part of a curriculum unit on the political thought of Lincoln, will deepen student understanding of the momentous themes of freedom, equality, and emancipation so central to any strong understanding of the Civil War experience. Continue reading
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a milestone in building support for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act; but it also marks the 120th anniversary of an earlier demonstration for racial equality under the law. On October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court issued a single ruling on five cases involving civil rights protections that had been brought to it from a range of state courts. With one sweeping decision, the Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This action alarmed African American citizens, and within a week black leaders had organized a “Civil Rights Mass-Meeting” at Lincoln Hall in Washington, DC. Frederick Douglass addressed the meeting on October 22, deploring and critiquing the decision.
The 1875 act had barred discrimination in public accommodations for black people, imposing fines and moderate prison terms on those who denied services. The law had not been consistently respected, and the five cases represented refusals of service in hotels, at theaters, and on a passenger train, in localities from the North to the South to the West. The court dispensed with the plaintiffs’ suits by ruling that the 13th and 14th amendments did not mandate equal accommodations for freed slaves; they did not require private citizens to treat African Americans on terms of “social equality.” They only prohibited the enactment of state laws that would deny minorities such rights as those to vote or hold property. In effect, the 1883 ruling gave a stamp of approval to segregationist practices that had become the norm in many parts of the country, but especially in the post-Reconstruction South. Continue reading
Abraham Lincoln in 1858
One hundred and fifty years ago, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But only five years prior, he was locked in an Illinois Senate race with Stephen Douglas, maintaining a position midway between those who would abolish slavery at once and those who would allow the “peculiar institution” to become a permanent feature of the expanding nation. While Douglas would allow the electorate in each newly forming western state to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, Lincoln argued forcefully against allowing slavery into the new states.
Given the unique logical clarity Lincoln brought to his critique of slavery, students of history in our day often find Lincoln’s reluctance to embrace the abolitionist position confusing. Apparently certain of Lincoln’s contemporaries were also confused. In a short letter Lincoln wrote on October 18, 1858, he strove to clarify his position, by responding to an Illinois politician who had evidently asked Lincoln to explain whether his anti-slavery views implied support for “social and political equality between the black and white races.”
Lincoln penned a draft of the letter in a small notebook he carried about with him during the senate campaign, in which he affixed newspaper clippings reporting on his debates with Douglas, along with notes to himself to be reworked into speeches. It is interesting to compare the letter to J. N. Brown to other entries Lincoln made in his notebook during the fall of 1858, as well as to notes he wrote in 1854 and 1859. In these, Lincoln’s explanation of the principle of human equality admits none of the contradictions seen in the 1858 letter.
Read Lincoln’s notes on slavery:
Fragments on Slavery, April 1, 1854
Fragment: Notes for Speeches, October 1, 1858
Fragment: On Slavery, December 1, 1858
Fragment on Slavery, 1859
William Lloyd Garrison, an early spokesman for and eventual leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society
The American Anti-Slavery society was founded in Philadelphia 180 years ago, in December of 1833. The group agreed to a simple “constitution,” prefaced by a brief but eloquent “manifesto” that quoted both the Biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself and the central idea of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Arthur Tappan became the society’s first president, while William Lloyd Garrison, who had already founded his abolitionist weekly The Liberator, was asked to write a “Declaration of Sentiments” expressing the organization’s aims.
Although the American Anti-Slavery Society was the first national organization of its kind, similar state organizations had already formed. Most of the earliest of these were organized by the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The very first one, The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, had formed in 1774 and helped to pass Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, the first anti-slavery legislation in the United States. Continue reading
For those working through a survey of American history and reaching the Jacksonian era, we reprint here a document introduction by Professor Dan Monroe (Millikin University), one of the Honored Visiting Faculty in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program at Ashland University. Monroe captures the personality of our seventh president and the impact he made on the expanding American republic. Jackson’s comments on the Bank raise issues still disputed in our politics.
An Early Dispute over Federal Involvement in American Finance: Andrew Jackson Vetoes Re-Chartering the Bank of the United States
Andrew Jackson despised debt, banks, and the paper notes that banks issued with all the passion and fury for which he was justifiably renowned and feared. He had nearly been financially ruined early in his career in land speculation ventures that were a tangled web of dubious deeds, bad paper notes, and shady partners. Continue reading
The northern theater of the War of 1812 (Wikimedia Commons)
The War of 1812 can be understood as a conflict in which the United States reasserted its independence from Great Britain, her former colonial master, who after the War of Independence continued to assert prerogatives it had ceded to the new nation by the treaty of 1783. President Madison emphasized American maritime rights in his war message; the British had been stopping American merchant ships to impress sailors into the Royal Navy and had seized goods from American merchant ships bound for non-British ports, refusing to respect American neutrality in its war with Napoleonic France. But Madison acknowledged another motive for declaring war: concern that Britain, operating from her colony in Canada, was stirring up Native American resistance to frontier settlements. Historians have argued that this motive out-weighed others, particularly with southern and western members of Congress, who feared British efforts to control navigation of the Mississippi and prevent the young nation’s westward expansion. In this mix of motives one can foresee the sectional conflict that would come to dominate the politics of the first half of the nineteenth century, especially since Southerners called more loudly for war with Britain than did those in the northeastern states who conducted most of America’s maritime trade.
This collection of newspaper editorials, most from the months leading up to the Congressional declaration of War on June 18, 1812, displays the sectional difference. The New York Evening Post and the Boston-based Colombian Sentinel attack the pretense that the war will be fought to protect American maritime trade, and point to the financial losses resulting from disruption of a profitable trade with Britain. Continue reading
On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a brief but deeply revealing note to himself. At a dispiriting moment in the Civil War, Lincoln struggled to make sense of the ultimately unknowable will of God.
Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the week prior, Lincoln had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in states still in rebellion against the Union would be declared free. Although the proclamation technically freed no slave, since only slaves in areas beyond Union control were included, it proclaimed the freedom of any slave who managed to reach the Union lines, and it issued a promise that freedom would come with the ultimate Union victory. In so doing it changed Union war aims, making the fight not simply an attempt to prevent secession, but also a fight against the slave-holding power, a distinction that would undermine the Confederate attempt to win foreign support for its cause.
Yet in September 1862, Union victory did not seem inevitable. Lincoln had communicated his worries to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin on September 28. Responding to Hamlin’s congratulations on the issuance of the proclamation—a move Hamlin had long urged—Lincoln noted a disturbing attrition rate in Union troops.
So on September 30, Lincoln began to accept a difficult possibility. Both sides in the war effort were praying to God for victory, but God could not favorably answer the prayers of both. Perhaps what God intended was an outcome neither side wished—that is, not a speedy victory, but a long, bloody, punishing struggle for both sides. Lincoln’s thoughts here flesh out an idea he would render eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address.
Read Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will.” You may wish to compare the provisions of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to those of the final proclamation.
From our friends at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), we’ve learned that Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle, a special initiative of the NEH, was launched in mid-September to provide free access to documentary films on the civil rights movement. The documentaries, made with NEH support, have been gathered here to mark the anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington in 2013. There are four outstanding films:
- The Abolitionists
One of the films in the “Created Equal” collection
- Slavery By Another Name (on the “Black Code” laws enacted as Reconstruction ended)
- Freedom Riders (on the interracial group who in the summer of 1961 challenged segregation by travelling through the deep South on interstate buses)
- The Loving Story (on the couple who challenged Virginia’s racial intermarriage laws)
The website also offers scholars’ essays, questions for classroom discussion, and lesson plans. You can find there a lesson plan co-written by MAHG professor Lucas Morel: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance.
During the summer of 1893, a young historian presented a paper to the American Historical Society on the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” pointedly noted an announcement by the Census Bureau in 1890 that a western frontier as such no longer existed in the United States, since the entire continent had now been settled. Turner went on to explore what the fact of an expanding frontier had meant in the first century of the republic’s development, drawing large conclusions about the frontier’s effect in shaping a distinctly American individualism. Turner argued that the virtually free land of the west had provided opportunity and diffused social discontent; that in traveling west, Americans had shed many European cultural traits and shaped new ones, partly borrowed from native Americans; and that the necessary self-sufficiency of westward-moving settlers inclined them to devalue central governmental authority. He left open the question of how the nation would adapt to the closing of this frontier.
Turner’s essay—published in the Report of the American Historical Association for 1893 and later incorporated in his 1920 book, the Frontier in American History—profoundly influenced American historiography in the early 20th century. Many of Turner’s claims are currently disputed (for example, his claim that the long struggle to resolve the problem of slavery did less to shape the nation than did the frontier). Nevertheless, the essay still provides an informative summary of the process of western settlement, while raising interesting questions about American self-understanding. Continue reading
President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law
(image courtesy of Library of Congress).
By 1798, those who a decade before had collaborated in the Founding were staking rival claims for the national future. Federalists saw America’s prosperity and security best ensured with an imitation of the fiscal policies of Britain, the former colonial master, while Republicans favored the alliance with France that had helped secure independence. With Britain now at war with a revolutionary France, either alliance had consequences. Meanwhile, the majority Federalist faction in Congress, viewing French and Irish immigrants as threats, passed acts extending the period of residence needed before naturalization and giving the president power to deport aliens he deemed dangerous. These Acts were followed by a Sedition Act aimed at American citizens who criticized federal officials and policies.
Jefferson and Madison, rallying Republican opposition to acts they saw as unconstitutional, secretly drafted resolutions they offered to the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures that would call for the acts’ repeal. Jefferson’s draft cited in detail those portions of the Constitution and Bill of rights that the acts violated, while Madison’s more succinct and respectfully worded resolution deplored acts contrary to “the general principles of free government.” Kentucky and Virginia sent modified versions of these resolutions to Congress, but did not win support for repeal of the acts, which at any rate were set to expire at the end of President Adams’ term.
Read documents related to the Sedition Act:
The Sedition Act
The Kentucky Resolutions
The Virginia Resolutions
A lithograph of President George Washington based on a painting of Gilbert Stuart (Library of Congress)
On September 19, 1796, Washington’s Farewell Address was published in the major newspaper of what was then the national capitol, Philadelphia. After announcing his resolve not to run for a third term as president, Washington proceeded to advise his countrymen of what he felt were the best ways to retain their national unity. The letter, parts of which had been drafted by Madison and Hamilton–who were now on opposite sides of a growing factional divide–shows Washington’s concern to forestall dissensions that could weaken the young nation before it gained the prosperity and maturity to endure. For years, Washington’s character-driven leadership had helped to unite diverse views in a common purpose. Yet Washington understood that a critical early milestone for the new nation would be the peaceful transfer of executive power.
Read Washington’s Farewell Address, with Professor Christopher Burkett’s summary.
Last week we posted links to a number of representative documents in the debate between “federalists” and “anti-federalists” over whether to ratify the Constitution. One was Federalist 51. In the last part of Federalist 51, Madison returns to the argument he made in Federalist 10, explaining more fully why a majority faction that oppressed a minority would be unlikely to develop in an “extended republic.” Professor David Foster of Ashland University analyzes Madison’s argument, hailing it as a unique contribution to the history of political thought.
For a lesson plan suggesting ways of teaching this key Federalist paper, see “Federalist 51 – Protecting the Rights of the People?” by Professor Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University and high school teacher Natalie Bolton.
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, photographed by John Morse (Wikimedia Commons).
In the early fall of 1963, a climactic year in the civil rights struggle, an event in Birmingham, Alabama shocked the national conscience: the bombing on September 15 of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Four young girls who were walking into Sunday school class were killed by a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members near the basement assembly room. The targeted church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities that had led to an agreement with city leaders in the late spring to begin integration of public places.
Martin Luther King delivered the eulogy at the funeral service for three of the girls on September 18. He opened with words that shifted the moral emphasis away from outrage at the terrorists who set the bomb and toward a general examination of conscience, as he called on all Americans, ordinary citizens and officials, blacks and whites, to abandon passivity in the face of racial injustice—beginning with “every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows” (the bomb blast had blown out all but one of the stained glass windows in the church).
Read “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” Martin Luther King, Jr.,September 18, 1963.