The Sectional Struggle, Reborn: 1848-1854

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APUSH Study Guide 17
The Sectional Struggle, Reborn, 1848-1854


The sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery that erupted after the Mexican War was temporarily silenced by the Compromise of 1850, but Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 re-ignited the issue again.

In the 1850s American expansion in the West and the Caribbean was extremely controversial because it was tied to the slavery question.

The acquisition of territory from Mexico created acute new dilemmas concerning the expansion of slavery, especially for the two major parties, which had long tried to avoid the issue. The antislavery Free Soil Party pushed the issue into the election of 1848. The application of gold-rich California for admission to the Union forced the controversy into the Senate, which engaged in stormy debate over slavery and the Union.

After the untimely death of President Taylor, who had blocked a settlement, Congress resolved the crisis by passing the delicate Compromise of 1850. The compromise eased sectional tension for the moment, although the Fugitive Slave Law aroused opposition in the North.

As the Whig Party died, the Democratic Pierce administration became the tool of proslavery expansionists. Controversies over Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Gadsden Purchase showed that expansionism was closely linked to the slavery issue.

The desire for a northern railroad route led Stephen Douglas to ram the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress in 1854. By repealing the Missouri Compromise and making new territory subject to “popular sovereignty” on slavery, this act aroused the fury of the North, sparked the rise of the Republican Party, and set the stage for the Civil War.


Gen. Lewis Cas
‘popular sovereignty’
Zachary Taylor
Free Soil Party
‘conscious Whigs’
Martin Van Buren
Election of 1848
‘gold fever’
California Constitution (1849)
Texas boundary dispute
Underground Railroad‘stations’‘passengers’ ‘conductors’ Harriet Tubman ‘Immortal Trio’—Clay, Calhoun, Webster
“Great Pacificator”“Great Nullifier”
Millard Fillmore
Nashville Convention
Compromise of 1850
Fugitive Slave Law (1850)
Franklin Pierce—‘second dark horse’
Winfield Scott (Whig)
Election of 1852
Jefferson Davis—Secretary of War
William Walker
Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850)
Cuban “filibustering expeditions”
Ostend Manifesto
Crimean War
Gadsden Purchase (1853)
Stephen A. Douglas
Repeal of the Missouri Compromise
Kansas-Nebraska Bill (1854)
The new Republican Party

Past APUSH essay questions from this area of study:

1. Although historically represented as distinct parties, the Federalists and Whigs, in fact, shared a common political ideology, represented many of the same interest groups, and proposed similar programs and policies. Assess the validity of this statement. (FRQ, 1991)

2. Discuss the impact of territorial expansion on national unity between 1800 and 1850. (FRQ, 1997)

APUSH Study Guide 18
The Road to War, 1854-1861

Historian’s view:

James McPherson, from Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (1992)

“The social and political strains produced by rapid growth provoked repeated crises that threatened to destroy the republic. From the beginning, these strains were associated mainly with slavery. The geographical division of the country into free and slave states ensured that the crisis would take the form of sectional conflict. Each section evolved institutions and values based on its labor system. These values in turn generated ideologies that justified each section’s institutions and condemned those of the other.”

“For three-quarters of a century the two sections [North and South] coexisted under one flag because the centripetal forces of nationalism—the shared memories of a common struggle for nationhood—proved stronger than the centrifugal forces of sectionalism. But as early as 1787, conflict over slavery at the...
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