The Growing Crisis of Sectionalism in Antebellum America: A House Dividing

Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.
Photo caption

Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.

"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.

Guiding Questions

How did the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Nullification Crisis a decade later illustrate the widening divide between northern and southern states?

What were the leading arguments against slavery in the antebellum era and how did slaveholders defend the "peculiar institution"?

How did Senator Stephen Douglas try to reduce the growing sectionalism of America over the slavery controversy through the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and its policy of popular sovereignty?


In the 1860 presidential election, what political options regarding the spread of slavery did the American people face, and how did Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party differ from advocates of immediate abolition, popular sovereignty, and national slavery?

Learning Objectives

Use maps of the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act to understand political and economic changes in the U.S. and why those changes provoked a debate over the expansion of slavery in America

List the main provisions of the 1820 Missouri Compromise and 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act

Highlight the basic economic differences between the commerce of the North and the South

Explain John Calhoun's theory of nullification, Andrew Jackson's view of national sovereignty, Stephen Douglas's policy of popular sovereignty, and Lincoln's understanding of constitutional self-government

Identify influential opponents and defenders of American slavery

Explain the reasons given for and against the morality and legitimacy of slavery under the U.S. Constitution

Articulate the different solutions to the controversy over slavery in the territories proposed by Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and William Lowndes Yancey

Distinguish the priorities of the Republican Party from those of the two factions of the Democratic Party and the Constitutional Union Party during the 1860 election

Explain how the differing views regarding slavery in the territories eventually produced a southern secession and a civil war

Discuss whether or not the American Civil War was an avoidable war or "an irrepressible conflict"