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Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

The Civil War (1861-1865) was perhaps the most momentous event in American history. The survival of the United States as one nation was at risk, and on the outcome of the war depended the nation's ability to bring to reality the ideals of liberty, equality, human dignity, and justice.

Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 brought to a climax the long festering debate about the relative powers of the federal and the state governments. By the time of his inauguration, six southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, soon to be followed by five more. The war that followed between North and South put constitutional government to its severest test. After four bloody years of war, the Union was preserved, four million African American slaves were freed, and an entire nation was released from the oppressive weight of slavery. The war can be viewed in several different ways: as the final, violent phase in a conflict of two regional subcultures; as the breakdown of a democratic political system; as the climax of several decades of social reform; or as a pivotal chapter in American racial history. However interpreted, the Civil War stands as a story of great heroism, sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy.

As important as the war itself was the tangled problem of how to reconstruct the defeated South. Encouraged by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, African Americans at last nourished hopes for full equality. Their hopes were to be dashed. By 1877, Southern white resistance and the withdrawal of federal supervision brought about the "redemption" of the South and African Americans were disenfranchised. The redemption measures enforced greater racial separation and increased white intimidation and violence.



Long-standing economic, social, and political issues divided North and South. The North's economy was merchant and manufacturing, based on free labor; the South's was agrarian, based on slavery. The cotton gin and the emergence of cotton culture made the South still more dependent on the low-cost labor of slaves; the South also needed low-cost manufactured imports to maintain profits. The North generally favored strong central government; the South championed the supremacy of states' rights.

These differences were checked by equal distribution of power in Congress between northern and southern states, but the admission of new states threatened to upset the free-slave state balance. In 1820 conflict was avoided by Clay's Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as slave and Maine as free. In 1832 South Carolina declared a national tariff "null and void" and threatened secession because it eliminated her access to cheap foreign manufactured goods and harmed her economy. The tariff was later reduced, but Congress authorized President Jackson to use the army to put down resistance if necessary.

Expansion of slavery continued to embitter both sections. The Compromise of 1850, admitting California as free, angered the South, and provision for a stringent fugitive slave law inflamed the North. Lincoln's election was seen as the ultimate threat to southern interests. During the five months between Lincoln's election and inauguration, southern states called a convention in Montgomery, Alabama; set up a separate government of the Confederate States of America; wrote their own constitution; and elected Jefferson Davis President. When Lincoln sought to resupply a federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Confederate forces fired on the fort, beginning the Civil War.

From "We the People: The American People and Their Government" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975) 65.


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