After the debacle of the one-party presidential campaign of 1824, a new two-party system began to emerge. Strong public reaction to perceived corruption in the vote in the House of Representatives, as well as the popularity of Andrew Jackson, allowed Martin Van Buren to organize a Democratic Party that resurrected a Jeffersonian philosophy of minimalism in the federal government. This new party opposed the tendencies of National Republicans such as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to invest more power in the federal government. Van Buren built a political machine to support Jackson in the 1828 election. Van Buren's skills helped give the Democrats a head start on modern-style campaigning and a clear advantage in organization. The Democrats and Jackson defeated the National Republicans in 1828 and 1832 and maintained their hold on the presidency when they bested the Whigs—a union of former National Republicans, Antimasons, and some states' rights advocates—in 1836. But a major economic depression in 1837 finally gave the Whigs their best chance to occupy the White House. They faced Andrew Jackson's political organizer, vice president, and handpicked successor, President Martin Van Buren, vying for a second term in the midst of hard times.
As they prepared for the election of 1840, both Democrats and Whigs were organized for campaigning on a national scale. In an election that would turn out an astounding 80 percent of a greatly expanded electorate, campaigners sought to appeal to a wide range of voters in a variety of voting blocks. The contest between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison marked the first truly modern presidential campaign, with methods today's students are sure to recognize.
Lessons in this unit allow students to become familiar with the issues and personalities and to review an assortment of primary documents. As students analyze them, they reflect on the presidential campaign of 1840. How was it conducted? What was the role of campaign advertising? How crucial were issues to the election of William Henry Harrison? How crucial was image?
Whether the United States shall continue passive under these … accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events, … is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government. In recommending it to their early deliberations I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free, and a powerful nation.
—President James Madison, War Message to Congress Washington, June 1, 1812
According to the essay James Madison, 'Creating the Balance' on the EDSITEment resource The American President, "Madison's presidency was dominated by a crisis with Great Britain, which for years had been grossly violating American shipping rights." This crisis over U.S. shipping rights actually began while George Washington was president and grew during Thomas Jefferson's term in office (1800-1808), when Madison served as Secretary of State. Between 1805-07, a large number of American ships were seized and impressments of American sailors into service on British ships increased, leading Congress to pass an extreme measure, the Embargo Act of 1807. The act restricted trade with foreign nations. A state of war that began in 1803 and would continue until after Napoleon's abdication in 1814 resulted in a loss of commerce that devastated the American economy while doing little to change the policies of France and Britain.
Abuses to American commerce on the part of Britain and France continued. But in 1810 Napoleon's announcement that France would no longer seize American ships convinced President Madison to allow trade with France. The announcement had conditions attached, and France continued to interfere with American shipping. In the end, however, the U.S. declared war only on Great Britain.
The decision to go to war is one of the most serious an American president faces. On June 1, 1812, President Madison sent a letter—later dubbed his war message—to both houses of Congress. In it, he listed a series of transgressions Great Britain had committed against the U.S. He also explained his decision not to recommend war with France at that time. EDSITEment resources offer primary documents that illuminate key points in President Madison's War Message. Help your students understand the reasons the president gave for going to war, while heightening their appreciation of the value of archival sources.
Our political problem now is “Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?” The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.
—Abraham Lincoln to George Robertson, August 15, 1855
In this unit, students will trace the development of sectionalism in the United States as it was driven by the growing dependence upon, and defense of, black slavery in the southern states. Initially seen as contrary to freedom but tolerated in order to produce the U.S. Constitution, by the 1830s the "peculiar institution" found advocates who saw it as a "positive good." Its expansion into Missouri, southern outrage over federal tariffs, and westward expansion into new territory produced a volatile and persistent debate over slavery that increasingly threatened to divide the American union. By 1860, the nation found an old Democratic Party split over the right to extend slavery into federal territory, and a new Republican Party nominating an anti-slavery, though not abolitionist, president. When Abraham Lincoln's election produced no national consensus to settle the matter of slavery's future, a southern "secession" sealed the fate of the Union.
What characterized the debates over American slavery and the power of the federal government for the first half of the 19th century? How did regional economies and political events produce a widening split between free and slaveholding states in antebellum America? Who were the key figures and what were their arguments regarding the legitimacy of slavery and the proper role of the national government in resolving its future in the American republic? This unit of study will equip students to answer these questions through the use of interactive maps, primary texts, and comparative biographies.
Upon completing the lessons in this unit, students should be able to do the following:
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
Download the blackline masters for this lesson, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
Each activity in this unit of study is designed for use as a stand-alone lesson, comprising three forty-five minute class periods. Taken all together, the lessons provide an overview of the causes of sectionalism that led to the American Civil War. Since available time and curriculum needs vary by classroom, the following guidelines for use are provided:
Another approach you can use is to skim each lesson plan to see what specific activities each offers and choose only those that suit specific course objectives and content. Each lesson plan indicates how best to streamline that lesson's content and will suggest essential versus more rigorous treatment of a given subject.