During the long decade from 1848 to 1861 America was like a train speeding down the track, without an engineer or brakes. The new territories acquired from Mexico had vastly increased the size of the nation, but debate over their status—and more importantly the status of slavery within them—paralyzed the nation. Southerners gained access to the territories and a draconian fugitive slave law in the Compromise of 1850, but this only exacerbated sectional tensions. Virtually all northerners, even those who supported the law because they believed that it would preserve the union, despised being turned into slave catchers. In 1854, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress repealed the ban on slavery in the remaining unorganized territories. In 1857, in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court held that all bans on slavery in the territories were unconstitutional. Meanwhile, northern whites, free blacks, and fugitive slaves resisted the enforcement of the 1850 fugitive slave law. In Congress members carried weapons and Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him. This was the decade of the 1850s and these were the issues Congress grappled with. This volume of new essays examines many of these issues, helping us better understand the failure of political leadership in the decade that led to the Civil War.
Contributors Spencer R. Crew Paul Finkelman Matthew Glassman Amy S. Greenberg Martin J. Hershock Michael F. Holt Brooks D. Simpson Jenny Wahl
Paul Finkelman is an expert on constitutional history, the law of slavery, and the American Civil War. He coedits the Ohio University Press series New Approaches to Midwestern Studies and is the president of Gratz College.
Donald R. Kennon is the former chief historian and vice president of the United States Capitol Historical Society. He is editor of the Ohio University Press series Perspectives on the History of Congress, 1789–1801.
“Anyone looking for a summary of the Compromise and its impact on antebellum politics would be hard-pressed to do better than these two chapters from two of its best and most celebrated historians (Michael Holt and Paul Finkelman).”
— Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
“Paul Finkelman—perhaps the foremost legal historian of slavery and U.S. politics during this period—wrote the introduction, one of the essays, and coedited this impressive volume with the series editor, Donald R. Kennon…. I recommend this volume for those teaching classes that cover the origins of America’s bloodiest and, arguably, most important war.”
— Journal of American History
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