Early History of the United States and Canada
history has always been connected with geography, as America has always
been a place that was explored, expanded, and settled in recent
*One of the most influential American historians was Frederick Jackson
Turner, who, in 1893, posited his famous Frontier Thesis in ‘The
Significance of the Frontier in American History.’
*According to Turner, the Frontier was what made America different and
special. Turner said that, in America, the frontier was where
democracy was created, and where it was born anew every time the
frontier advanced. As the edge of settlement moved westward,
people were obliged to start anew, but without the trappings and
conveniences of the settled world, they had to work side by side and
discovered equality. These newly democratised men, in turn, came
back to the old seats of power and renewed and invigorated them with
democratic ideals all over again.
*Scientists believe that the first people to come to America were the
ancestors of the American Indians, and that they came across the Bering
Strait land bridge about 12,000 years ago, during the last ice age,
when the water was lower. Some scientists have suggested, though,
that they might have come during a previous ice age, 37,000 years ago.
*A few scientists claim that there is evidence of human settlement in
the Americas 50,000 years ago, at least on the West Coast, although
no-one knows how anyone got there at that time.
*Others have suggested that at least some (and maybe all) American
Indians came across the Pacific in canoes and catamarans from Polynesia
(experiments have shown that this was possible).
*Legends say that the Irish may have visited America, particularly St
Brendan, who would have been there around 530 AD (experiments have
shown that this was possible, although perhaps not likely). Other
legends say that the Welsh prince Madoc explored Mobile Bay around 1170
AD, and may have even set up settlements there. Some historians
believe the Chinese may have visited California in the 1400s (or
earlier), but it is still up for debate. Other legends persist of
other early explorers.
*The oldest known European settlement in North America was in what is
now Newfoundland. It was established by the Vikings around 1000
AD, and called Vinland. It apparently did not last long, and
there are records of other failed attempts to found Viking settlements
in North America about the same time, as well as mentions of
expeditions to the area to cut timber for centuries afterwards.
*Of course, in 1492, Columbus discovered islands of the Caribbean Sea
and claimed them for Spain, and the New World was opened for
exploration and exploitation ever afterwards. Europeans came to
America for God, Glory, and Gold. They were also looking for the
mythical Northwest Passage, an all-water route to Asia.
*In 1534, Jacques Cartier explored the St Lawrence and named the land New France.
*In 1586, the English tried to found colony called Roanoke on the coast
of North Carolina (which they named Virginia, after the Virgin
Queen). However, the colony vanished, and remains famous as the
*In 1607, the English founded Jamestown in Virginia, and in 1608 Samuel
de Champlain founded Quebec City. In 1620, the Pilgrims landed in
New England, and in 1630 the Puritans followed. By 1733 all 13 of
the original colonies existed.
*Europeans came to America for God, Glory, and Gold, but they never
found gold in North America. Instead, they found tobacco and furs.
*In search of furs, the French (particularly Marquette, Joliete, and la
Sieur de la Salle) explored the Mississippi River and its tributaries,
claiming it all as Louisiana, after King Louis XIV. They largely
befriended the Indians, and never made a great effort to settle the New
World, outside a few cities as trade centres at Quebec, Montreal, and
*The English, in addition to growing tobacco (and later sugar and rice
in the Carolinas), also hunted and traded for furs. They also
came to the New World to farm on land no-one had ever claimed (and
commercial farming became important in the middle colonies), and many,
especially in New England and in Maryland, came to practise religion
the way they thought best (and in New England, to keep anyone else from
practising otherwise; in Maryland, the Catholics eventually passed laws
of religious toleration because they knew they would one day be
outnumbered). Fishing and lumbering were also important in New
*There were a few problems. First, most of the colonies in the
New World existed to export raw materials back to Europe.
However, the southern colonies (Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia)
mostly grew crops for export, and tobacco, rice, and sugar were all
very labour intensive. They had meant to enslave the local
Indians, but found that they tended to either escape pretty quickly, or
die of exhaustion. So, in 1619, Virginians bought their first
African slaves, thus creating social problems that would last for the
rest of American history.
*Second, the French found it hard to populate the New World. They
had very restrictive policies on immigration, so very few people
(relatively speaking) could come and claim land. The English had
few such restrictions, and by the mid-1700s, the English outnumbered
the French about 1,500,000 to 50,000, but their colonies only stretched
to the Appalachian Mountains.
*Finally, as the English colonies became crowded, they demanded more
land. The English and the French fought a number of wars in the
New World in the late 1600s and early 1700s, although usually they were
just extensions of wars being fought in Europe already. During
one of these, the English captured the French colony of Acadia, and it
became part of Nova Scotia.
*In 1754, Lawrence and Augustus Washington, along with Governor
Dinwiddie, hatched a plan to settle the Ohio River Valley.
Accordingly, they sent their little brother George to run the French
*This started the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years
War, which lasted from 1754-1763 in the New World, and a little less
everywhere else. It was arguably the first world-wide war, and it
was fought over land in America.
*During the war, many French Acadians refused to support the British,
and their homes were burnt. Many were exiled or fled, and of
these, many ended up in Louisiana, where their descendents are known as
*The English eventually won the war, signing the Peace of Paris in
1763, and laid claim to everything east of the Mississippi River
(except parts of Florida), including Canada (except the islands of St.
Pierre and Miquelon. This should have been a great victory for
the British Empire, but instead it was the start of one of its greatest
*Two things happened in 1763, as the War drew to a close. First,
even as the French were defeated, certain groups of Indians were rising
up again, especially as the British often were not as generous with
them as the French had been. One group of Indians were led by
Chief Pontiac in Pontiac’s rebellion, which began in 1763.
Second, the British started to realise just how much the war had cost
*To deal with the Indians, who were, in part, angry over European
encroachment on their lands, King George III issued the Royal
Proclamation of 1763, which drew a line down the crest of the
Appalachian Mountains, forbidding any white settlement beyond it
(although this line was adjusted from time to time afterwards).
This angered many of the colonists, because they felt they had been
fighting for the land across the mountains.
*To pay for the costs of the war (and for the costs of maintaining
troops in America to deal with the Indians), the English parliament
raised taxes on the American colonies.
*In Britain (and America) at this time, it was believed that liberty
was based on property. Consequently, a just government could not
take anyone’s property. Taxes were, at least in theory, a gift
from the people to the government. Therefore, taxes could only be
levied by Parliament (or another representative body) because it
represented the property-owners.
*A theoretical division, at least in America, was drawn between
internal (on property, for revenue) and external (on trade, to regulate
commerce and the Empire as a whole) taxes. Most British people
felt this was silly.
*A theoretical division, at least in Britain, was drawn between actual
and virtual representation. Actual representation occurred when a
man voted for a MP, but the MPs also virtually represented all
Englishmen, with whom they naturally had certain sympathies. Many
Americans felt this was silly, at least across the Atlantic.
*There were a number of external taxes in place before the 1760s (such
as the Molasses Act), but most were not enforced, or at least not
enforced well. Men (like John Hancock) grew rich off smuggling.
*Taxes like this were acceptable in part because they were easy to get
around and because they were part of the mercantilist system. The
idea behind the mercantilist system (which all imperial powers used)
was that the colonies ought to supply raw materials to Europe, who
would in turn sell manufactured goods to the colonies. Each set
of colonies only supplied and bought from the mother country. The
idea was that each empire would be self-sufficient. Indirect
taxes that promoted this were seen as a reasonable part of keeping the
empire running. They also often helped the colonies, as products
like tobacco were essentially subsidised by this system, which made
sure Virginia tobacco could be sold in London.
*Thanks to the French and Indian War, however, Britain is deep
(£125 million to £140 million) in debt, and also needs to
police the Proclamation Line. Parliament will soon need to raise
taxes, and will irritate many people in the process, ultimately leading
*People did not even follow the rules of the Proclamation of 1763;
Tennessee was first settled in 1769 or 1770, and the Watauga
Association was formed in 1772—the first free and independent white
government in North America.
*During the 1760s and 1770s, Britain will pass an unpopular law or tax,
then remove it under pressure, thus reinforcing the colonial tendency
to vigorously protest Parliament’s policies. A whole series of
items will be taxes at different points, and each tax will be
*Eventually all the taxes were removed, except one on tea, just to
prove that Parliament could tax anything they wanted to (in fact,
Parliament even arranged to lower the price of tea, but the colonists
figured this was just a trick).
*Many colonists boycotted tea, and eventually Bostonians rioted and threw a shipload of tea in the harbour on 16 December, 1773.
*There are other tea parties like this up and down the coast, and
Parliament is not pleased. In response, passes the Coercive Acts,
or Intolerable Acts (1774).
Coercive Acts (1774)
Boston Port Act (1)
Massachusetts Governor Act (2)
Imperial Administration of Justice Act (3)
Quartering Act (4)
Quebec Act (1774)
*These (1) shut down Boston Harbour until all the taxes were paid and
the tea itself was paid for, (2) removed the governor from office and
replaced him with General Thomas Gage who had the power to appoint a
council and forbade town meetings, (3) ensured that royal officials
charged with any crime would be tried in England (not the colonies),
and (4) introduced more troops to enforce the laws, who had to be
supported any way the military say fit (even in private homes).
Parliament also passed the Quebec Act, which preserved Catholicism, the
French language, and other traditions in Quebec while extending its
borders down to the Ohio River.
*The Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg called for a day of
prayer for Massachusetts and was disbanded by the governor.
Reconvening in the nearby Raleigh Tavern, they call for a meeting of
all the colonies to decide what to do next.
*Twelve colonies (all but Georgia) sent a total of 55 delegates to
Philadelphia, where they constituted the First Continental Congress (5
September, 1774-26 October, 1774).
*Congress supports non-importation, non-exportation, and
non-consumption agreements (except for rice, in order to get SC’s
*Congress creates Committees on Public Safety, one per colony, to
enforce boycotts, pass out fliers, protect people, and beat up folks
they didn’t like.
*Relatively satisfied with their accomplishments, Congress adjourn, but decide to do it again next year, in May, 1775.
*May, 1775, the Second Continental Congress convenes, but by this
point, the country is at war, after New England militiamen defended
themselves from English troops sent to seize their supplies of
gunpowder and ammunition.
*After over a year of warfare, the Continental Congress declared
Independence from Great Britain on 4 July, 1776, but the war for
independence ran until 1783.
*Not everyone supported the Revolution. John Adams estimated that
“We were about one-third Tories, and one-third timid, and one-third
true blue.” The Tories, of course, were those who had supported
the King, and although the 1783 Peace of Paris required that the United
States respect their property and other rights, they were often
mistreated. About 40,000 of these people, also known as
Loyalists, went to Canada.
*The United States experimented with the Articles of Confederation
throughout the 1780s, but found them too weak to manage internal
affairs or to conduct foreign diplomacy.
*Most of the states claimed lands west of the Appalachian
Mountains. When the Confederation government tried to get NC to
give theirs up, the State of Franklin was formed in the disputed land
*In 1787, the USA created a new Constitution for a federal
government. It was adopted in 1789, and is still in use
today. It created a mixed government, employing a monarchy,
aristocracy, and democracy.
*Partially in response to this, Quebec was divided into Upper and Lower
Canada in 1791, with most French speakers in Lower Canada and most
English speakers in Upper Canada.
*The war freed the United States from the Proclamation of 1763,
although it had often been ignored anyway. In fact, Tennessee was
settled in the 1770s by people who ignored it. They mostly came
down the Great Valley from Pennsylvania and Virginia, but some came
over the mountains from North Carolina, and they helped win the
Revolution when they went back over the mountains to fight the British
as King’s Mountain in 1780. In Canada, however, some parts of the
Proclamation of 1763 are still used in dealings with the First Nations
*One of the last things done under the Articles of Confederation was
the creation of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 that described how land
would be sold, settled, and made into states in the Territory of the
United States North of the River Ohio.
*After the Revolution, the USA went to the Mississippi River, but the
Spanish would not let the USA trade through New Orleans, nor would the
*One of America’s first accomplishments as a nation was the purchase,
in 1803, of Louisiana for $15 million. Mr Jefferson immediately
dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore the newly purchased territory in
*Less than 30 years after the Revolution ended, however, the United
States and Britain were back at war. There were several reasons
for this. First, the British still maintained forts in the
Northwest. Second, they still encouraged the Indians to attack
American settlers, hoping to keep the west unsettled. Third, the
Royal Navy was impressing sailors on American ships to use against
France in the Napoleonic Wars. Finally, many Americans simply
wanted more land in Canada. Although some fighting took place in
1811 between Governor Harrison and Tecumseh, the war did not really
begin until 1812.
*Overall, the war was a disaster. Despite some victories at sea
that protected America’s boundaries, all the American invasions of
Canada failed and the British actually burnt Washington, D.C.
They also bombarded Baltimore harbour, and in the process inspired ‘The
*America’s partial success at sea convinced Britain to make peace in
1815 largely on the terms of returning to the status quo ante bellum,
and this actually stuck after Andrew Jackson defeated a major British
army at New Orleans after the treaty was signed (but before news had
gotten to America).
*Throughout the 1800s, the United States would expand westward (and, in
a slower way, so would the Canadas). However, there was a major
area of controversy in American expansion.
*By the time the US Constitution was ratified, it looked as if slavery
might slowly die out in the United States. Many people were
opposed to it on moral grounds, and it was increasingly seen as
economically inefficient, especially without the British market to sell
lots and lots of exported crops through. However, in 1793, Eli
Whitney made it profitable with the invention of the cotton gin.
*Before the cotton gin was invented, cotton took too much work to
produce. Except for a select variety that could be grown by the
coast, most cotton had short fibres that were full of seeds that took a
long time to pick out. The cotton gin made it possible to process
cotton very quickly, and made it worth growing in vast
quantities. Unfortunately, this also required vast amounts of
*Slavery was slowly made illegal throughout the northern United States
in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the Northwest Ordinance
(theoretically) outlawed slavery in the states formed out of the
Northwest Territory. As the years passed, more northerners became
opposed to slavery, and also found that they were generally opposed to
Southern economic interests as well.
*More and more of the northern cities began to build factories in the
early 1800s. These factories could produce cloth and other
finished goods, but could not do so as cheaply as was possible in
England (because in America, anyone who did not feel like working could
always go west to find cheap land, whereas in England, people were
pretty much stuck).
*Therefore, northern factory owners demanded that the government put
tariffs on imports to make them more expensive—sort of like the
external taxes that Britain had imposed to regulate commerce.
Southerners opposed this, because it encouraged the English to place
high tariffs on American exports, and the South still did more business
with England than with the north.
*Because the Senate has the same number of Senators from each state,
the existence of more Southern states would give the South an advantage
in the government. Therefore, for both economic reasons and out
of moral opposition to slavery, the North opposed the expansion of
slavery. The South demanded it, of course, to maintain parity in
*Eventually, in 1820, an agreement was made that let Missouri into the
Union and a slave state and Maine in as a free state, and agreed that
no future slave states would be created north of the southern boundary
of Missouri. This was known as the Missouri Compromise.
*This compromise kept the Union together for a while. However, many people still wanted to expand.
*One such place was Florida, still controlled by Spain. In 1817,
Andrew Jackson led part of the US Army into the state, supposedly
chasing Seminole Indians who had attacked settlements in Georgia.
On the way, he happened to capture St. Mark’s and Pensacola, and to
hang a couple of Englishmen who had supposedly stirred up the
Seminole. In 1821 Spain agreed to sell Florida to the USA.
*Sadly, another place where people wanted to live and work was the
Cherokee country of northern Georgia and surrounding areas. In
1829, gold was discovered there, and Georgians wanted to move in to
mine it. Despite winning their case in the Supreme Court, the
Cherokee were removed in the 1830s, with the largest group going on the
Trail of Tears in 1838 (2,000-8,000 deaths; 4,000 most likely). A
few Cherokee escaped; to-day they are the Eastern Band, live in North
Carolina, and don’t always get along with the Western Band.
*Another attractive place was Texas, but it was still part of
Mexico. Some Americans settled there anyway, although to do so
they had to swear loyalty to Mexico and promise to free their slaves
and convert to Roman Catholicism. Most did not, and did not plan
*Some of the early Texans were famous Tennesseans. Samuel
Houston, a former governor, went there to make a new life after
divorcing his wife and turning to drink. After failing of
re-election after opposing Indian Removal, Davy Crocket left Tennessee
hoping to make a new political career in the West. He told his
constituents ‘You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.’
*There was always a certain amount of tension between the Texans—both
Anglo-American and Hispanic—and the Mexican government in Mexico
City. The Texans resented being told what to do by a distant and
largely unconcerned government, and Mexico City became increasingly
worried and annoyed by American immigration and the continued
importation and enslavement of blacks. They tried to stop this,
but only too late. Things came to a head around 1833, when
General Antonio López de Santa Anna became dictator of Mexico
and abolished local governments in Texas, or tried to. With both
their liberty and property under threat, the American settlers in Texas
declared independence and Santa Anna marched his army north and the
Texas War for Independence began.
*Early in 1836 Texas declared its independence, and Santa Anna
invaded. He first laid siege to the Texan defenders of the Alamo,
led by Colonels William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett.
Knowing it was a poor position, Samuel Houston, recently made commander
of Texan forces, told them to withdraw, but they refused. Travis,
according to legend, drew a line in the sand with his sword, and told
all those who were willing to die defending Texas to cross over it and
stand with him. All but one did, leaving 189 men to fend of 3,000
*Santa Anna laid siege to the Alamo for thirteen days (23 February to 6
March, 1836). Eventually he broke into the walls around the old
mission station. Travis was killed defending the walls.
Bowie, injuring in a fall from the walls, was killed in his
sickbed. The events of Crockett’s death are controversial, but he
certainly did not survive the Alamo, either. Although tragic,
their deaths delayed Santa Anna’s invasion, and let Houston gather his
*Santa Anna marched on to Goliad, where he captured, executed, and burnt to bodies of about 400 Texans.
*These massacres, especially that at the Alamo, inspired Houston’s men
to greater courage and determination. Ultimately, they came upon
a large detachment of the Mexican Army, with Santa Anna commanding,
taking their siesta by the San Jacinto River on 21 April, 1836.
The Mexican army was surprised, attacked, and defeated but Texan
soldiers shouting ‘remember the Alamo,’ with almost no loss of life for
the Texans. Santa Anna was captured and forced to sign a document
recognizing Texan independence.
*Most Texans wanted to join the US, but because Texas permitted slavery
and that was a controversial issue, Jackson, who wanted to annex the
state, not only could not do so, he could not even give diplomatic
recognition to the Republic of Texas until the last day of his
*Let to themselves, Texans formed their own Republic, made treaties
with foreign nations, and conducted their own business for almost ten
*In the 1840s, many Americans began to move West, including some to the
Oregon Territory and California, which were still part of Britain and
California (respectively). Many people had already settled there,
especially in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. By 1846, over
5,000 Americans had travelled there along the Oregon Trail (and only
about 700 British subjects lived in the Territory).
*In the 1840s, many Americans wanted to expand the nation to match the
ambitions of these settlers. Most politicians opposed this,
though, out of fear of the slavery issue, and the balance in the Senate.
*In 1844, the Democrats were split on the issue, until a dark horse
candidate from Tennessee was chosen. He was James K Polk, and he
promised to fulfil American’s Manifest Destiny. Polk was also a
friend and neighbour of Andrew Jackson, still alive and offering
direction to the Democratic Party, and so Polk was presented as ‘Young
Hickory,’ the natural successor to Jackson.
*Polk was elected, after promising to annex Texas and Mexico, and to get all of Oregon to 54°40’ or Fight!
*Unlike any other president, Polk actually did all he promised (or
pretty close). In fact, his election was seen as a mandate by
Tyler, who annexed Texas before Polk was inaugurated. Polk then
sent troops into disputed land between the Rio Nueces and the Rio
Grande. The Mexicans attacked them, and Polk responded with war.
*Santa Anna, Samuel Houston’s old adversary, had been exiled to Cuba
shortly after signing away Texas ten years before. He let it be
known that if the US would get him back into Mexico, he would betray
the country to the US. Instead, he betrayed the US, when he once
again took command of the Mexican Army and led it against that of the
*In the war that followed, the US captured Northern Mexico, California,
and eventually Mexico City. When the war ended in 1848, the
United States had nearly reached its present continental size (although
we later bought a small piece of Arizona) because while the Mexican War
was going on, Polk was also dealing with Britain.
*Despite the promise of 54°40’ or Fight, Polk knew the US could not
make war on Great Britain, too, although he sort of threatened it, and
the decision was made to divide the Oregon Country in two, continuing
the old border to the sea. This angered some of Polk’s
supporters, but most people viewed it as a great victory. Just to
make sure some southerners were angry, too, slavery was banned in all
the new territories.
*Flush with success and overwork, Polk went home and died.
*In 1848, gold was discovered at John Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento,
California. Soon more and more gold was found throughout Northern
California. A few men made fortunes mining, and many more made
fortunes exploiting the miners—among them Levi Strauss, who sold his
first blue jeans there. Although the total number of migrants
during the gold rush years is uncertain, the non-Indian population in
California increased from 14,000 in 1848 to 223,856 by 1852. This
was more than enough to form a state, and in 1849, a group of
Californians, wanting order in their settlement, drafted at President
Taylor’s suggestion a state constitution that excluded slavery, and
applied for admission to the Union. The South was outraged, and,
if it was accepted, the Senate would be unbalanced.
*A compromise was suggested: California was admitted as a free
state, the slave trade was abolished (only the sale of slaves, not
slavery) in the District of Columbia; these were concessions to the
North. New Mexico (then including present-day Arizona) and Utah
were organized without any prohibition of slavery (each being left free
to decide for or against, on admission to statehood), The Fugitive
Slave Act was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the
return of runaway slaves, was enacted; these were concessions to the
South. This was the Compromise of 1850, and passed after the
unexpected death of President Taylor.
*Aside from political problems, the United States also faced more
practical difficulties in dealing with her new western
acquisitions. The sea routes from the east coast to the west were
too long, and the overland route was too slow. Some people feared
that without adequate communication between the East and West, the
Pacific territories might break away from the Union.
*Some suggested using camels for transportation, and some were
imported, but most people felt the only way to manage it was with a
*Once again, there was sectional competition—would the route of this
great railroad benefit the North or the South, or would multiple
railroads have to be built? Southerners, feeling pressured by the
industrial North, wanted a southern route. However, the best
route, it turned out, passed through northern Mexico. To get the
good passes through the southern Rockies, Pierce appointed James
Gadsden of South Carolina minister to Mexico, where he offered Santa
Anna, dictator for the sixth and last time, $10 million for the small
strip of land now known as the Gadsden Purchase.
*Northerners saw this as a waste of money, but the Senate confirmed it,
in part because this southern route really was the best place to build
the railroad at the time. Not only was the terrain less difficult
than farther north, but the proposed line would run through Texas,
California, and the organised New Mexico Territory, whereas the most
popular northern route would go through the wilds of Nebraska.
Some Northerners wanted to organise this territory so the railroad
could be safely run through it, but Southerners did not want another
free territory or a profitable railroad line in the hands of
*From Illinois came Stephen Douglas, who thought of himself more as a
Westerner than a Northerner or a Southerner, and as a Union man above
all. To help spur western growth and to promote the interests of
railroads and real estate in which he had financial interests, he
supported the creation of a northern transcontinental railroad.
To get this done, he had a plan, proposed in 1854.
*The Nebraska Territory would be organised and divided into two
territories: Kansas and Nebraska. Douglas would completely
throw out the old Missouri Compromise and the 36° 30’ line and open
both territories to popular sovereignty, thus letting the people decide
if their land would be free of slave.
*Many Southerners were excited. At last they had a chance for
more slave states in the existing lands of the United States.
Northerners bitterly opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, in part because
it would abolish the almost-sacred Missouri Compromise, and because it
might allow the spread of slavery. Many Northerners regarded
Douglas as a traitor. He did not personally care one way or the
other about slavery, but many of his countrymen did. Congressmen
came near to shedding blood, and many members of Congress carried
pistols or knives for self-defence. There was enough support for
the bill, including that of President Pierce, that it was passed in
*When Kansas and Nebraska voted on whether to be free or slave states,
supporters of both sides came to the region and began killing each
other. A sort of Civil War raged through Kansas for years, and
was called Bleeding Kansas. This would keep Kansas from becoming
a state until 1861.
*In 1857, an apparently simple court case shattered 37 years of
compromises. This was the case of Dred Scott v. John
Sanford. Scott had been born in Virginia around 1799, but in 1830
his master’s family moved to Missouri. When his master died in
1832, Scott was sold to an Army surgeon named Emerson, who subsequently
was posted to several places in free states and territories. In
1843 Emerson died. In 1846, he sued for his freedom on the
grounds that he had lived for many years in free states and
territories, but the Missouri courts found against him. He tried
to take it the Supreme Court, and in 1857, he presented his case
against John Sanford, brother of the widow Emerson and executor of her
*The Supreme Court ruled that Scott was not a citizen and therefore
could not sue in a court, and that could have ended it. However,
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Jackson appointee, wanted to prove a
point. In his majority opinion, blacks were not citizens at all,
and ‘the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to
respect.’ Furthermore, even if Scott could sue, he still would
have lost, because the federal government, thanks to the V Amendment,
cannot deprive citizens of their property without due process of
law. That meant that simply living in or travelling through a
free state did not automatically make a slave free. Finally, the
Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise, already repealed by the
Kansas-Nebraska Act, was unconstitutional because Congress had no power
to ban slavery anywhere, even if the new territories wanted it banned.
*Southerners were pleased. Popular sovereignty men were
irritated—this was one more point of contention between the already
fractious fire-eaters and abolitionists. Free-soilers and
abolitionists were outraged. They claimed that the Court had not
issued a decision, only an opinion, and dismissed the Court as a
‘southern debating society.’ They accused the Court of putting
sectional politics above legality. Southerners, in turn, were
offended by these further attacks against the South and even, it
seemed, against the Constitution which guaranteed the rights of the
*In October 1859 John Brown, the murderer of Pottawatomie, appeared in
Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with twenty-one other men including three of
his many sons (he had twenty children of his own in total, as well as
an adopted black child). His plan was to seize the Federal arsenal in
the town, and take the weapons to create an army of freed blacks.
Initially they would form a nation in the mountains of Western Virginia
from which they would raid the enslaved areas around them, freeing
slaves and attracting runaways as they did so. Eventually this
would develop into a full-scale slave insurrection in the South, ending
the peculiar institution forever.
*Brown and his men quickly seized the arsenal and took control of the
town, killing seven civilians in the process, including one free black,
and injuring ten more innocent bystanders. Despite Brown’s hopes,
Southern blacks did not rise to support him, largely because most did
not know about it, although doubtless they remembered other attempts to
start servile insurrections, and the failure of said revolts.
*A company of local militia tried to take the arsenal, and killed or
mortally wounded eight of Brown’s followers, separated five more from
the main group, and caused two more to give up and flee. Brown,
however, who still had the power to escape, chose to remain.
*The next day, a detachment of US Marines arrived under the command of
Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who happened to be at his home near Washington
on leave. They surrounded the arsenal and sent the young
Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart under a white flag to offer Brown the chance
to surrender. He refused and the Marines stormed the
building. Brown was beaten unconscious and arrested.
*Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia for
trying to lead a revolution within the borders of the state. and
Brown was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 2
December 1859. A few opponents of slavery, notably Harriet
Tubman, considered him a hero for what he had done. Others, such
as Frederick Douglas (who knew of Brown’s plan before he tried it and
advised him against it) considered Brown’s motives and dedication
admirable, but his actions unwise and illegal, and Abraham Lincoln felt
Brown was a lunatic who had done the cause of ending slavery far more
harm than good by giving it a bad name through his violence.
*Other Northerners, who did not know Brown as well as these men, saw
his execution as barely better than murder. Some, though, agreed
with his execution—whatever his ends, leading a rebellion and provoking
the South were not admirable methods for achieving them.
*Nonetheless, to many Brown became a martyr, and in the coming years his soul would go marching on.
*At the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston, southern delegates
walked out, effectively ending the convention before a candidate could
be chosen. Northern Democrats then met in Baltimore and
nominated Stephen Douglas. Feeling that their fellow Democrats
had gone behind their back, Southern Democrats convened a rival
convention in the same city, and nominated John C. Breckinridge of
Kentucky, a future Confederate general.
*Another group, composed mostly of Southerners who wanted to save the
Union but who did not fit into the northern Republican Party, created
the Constitutional Union Party hoping to elect a compromise
candidate. Also meeting in Baltimore, they chose John Bell of
Tennessee, the state’s largest slave-owner.
*At the Republican convention in Chicago, Lincoln was definitely second
choice, but he had few enemies in national politics, and was chosen on
the third ballot.
*Lincoln won the election overall. Furthermore, he did it
entirely through Northern support. This showed the South that the
numerical superiority of the North was such that the North would be
able to bully the south whenever it wanted.
*Lincoln was elected in November 1860. On 20 December, at 1.15 in
the afternoon, South Carolina dissolved her bonds with the Union.
The rationale was that South Carolina had always been a free state and
sovereign state, only allied with the other United States as long as it
was mutually beneficial to do so. With the election of Lincoln,
it was obvious the North had turned against the South and, even if
Lincoln did not have evil designs on the South, the next Republican
*In the long period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration,
six more states seceded. In January, Mississippi, Florida,
Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana left the Union (in that order), and in
February, Texas did so as well.
*The Deep South left the Union for many reasons. Economic issues
were important—the South was one of the largest importers and exporters
of goods, and slaves were valuable property. The South felt
threatened by such things as the rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. The
failure to comply with—indeed, the wilful violation of—the Fugitive
Slave Act was a constant insult to Southerners, as was Northern
treatment of John Brown the traitor as a martyr. Cotton was so
profitable that Southerners began to feel that they could make it on
their own, and no longer needed the North, which passed tariffs and
other laws Southerners claims were meant to hurt them.
*Ostensibly the war would be about states’ rights, tariffs, and the
expansion of slavery. In a deeper sense, the disagreement over
these issues was caused by the different systems (slave labour and free
labour) of the South and North. Slavery was always an economic
threat to both northern factory owners and northern factory workers,
especially once Southerners began using slaves in factories in the
South. Alternately, the South may have read too many novels by
Sir Walter Scott. Regardless of the reason, two ways of life
would go to war with one another in America between 1861 and 1865,
killing 2% of the population in the process.