A Gold Rush Leads to War

A Gold Rush Leads
to War

The American Civil War (1861-1865) and
the Reconstruction period that followed were the bloodiest chapters of

American history to date. Brother fought brother as the population was
split along sectional lines. The issue of slavery divided the nation's
people and the political parties that represented them in Washington. The
tension which snapped the uneasy truce between north and south began building
over slavery and statehood debates in California.

In 1848, settlers discovered gold at Sutter's

Mill, starting a mass migration. By 1849, California had enough citizens
to apply for statehood. However, the debate over whether the large western
state would or would not allow slavery delayed its admittance. Delegates
from the south threatened to secede if California was admitted as a free
state. Meanwhile, tempers also flared in New Mexico and Texas over border
disputes, and abolitionists fought pro-slavery advocates over the issue
of slave trading within the District of Columbia. Southern political leaders,
mostly Democrats, proposed a convention in Nashville to discuss secession.

In 1850, Henry Clay proposed the Compromise of 1850 to Congress. The Compromise
contained the following provisions:

California would enter the union as free

New Mexico territory would be divided
into New Mexico and Utah, and offered popular sovereignty.

Texas must yield disputed territory to

New Mexico in return for federal assumption of its state debt.

Trading, but not possession, of slaves
would be banned from the District of Columbia.

Fugitive slave laws would be enhanced.

Zachary Taylor, who was president at the
time, was prepared to veto the bills, but died suddenly. His successor,

Millard Fillmore, allowed the provisions to pass one at a time with the
help of Stephen Douglas. The Nashville Convention met soon afterwards and
denounced the plan, but took no decisive action.

This uneasy truce would last for only four
years. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act makes further compromise practically
impossible. It granted popular sovereignty to both states, in the hopes
that they would split on the slavery issue and continue the shaky equality
between slave and free states. Nebraska quickly adopted an free-soil constitution
and was admitted as a free state. Kansas, however, was badly split along
sectional lines, and opposing political forces ratified both a free and
a slave constitution in 1855. Riots broke out everywhere, and "Bleeding

Kansas" fell into chaos. John Brown, an infamous and rebellious abolitionist,
killed five pro-slavery activists in 1856 in retaliation for the murder
of five abolitionists. This "Pottawatomie Massacre" further heightened
a feeling of an impending war over slavery.

The peace between abolitionists and slaveowners
was not helped by three events which occurred in 1857. One was an economic"panic" which threw support to the newly formed Republican party. The Republicans
had promised high protective tariffs, against the lowering of import duties
imposed by the Democrats. However, they also maintained a strongly abolitionist
platform. The support they gained from the tariff issue also brought increased
support to their abolitionist aims. Second, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin,
responding to violent mobs protesting slavery, decided in favor of the
abolitionists. Third was the Dred Scott decision.

In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the slave Dred

Scott and his wife, Harriett, sued for their freedom from their master,
because he had taken them into Michigan, which was a free state. They insisted
that since they had lived on free soil, their bonds of slavery were no
longer valid. The Supreme Court decided in a shocking decision that not
only was the Scotts' claim invalid, but the entire case had been unconstitutional,
because blacks, according to their claims, had no right to sue whites in
any court, much less the United States Supreme Court. This total denial
of blacks' rights ignited a violent fury in abolitionists everywhere, and
inspired an equally defiant spirit among pro-slavery activists.

In 1859, John Brown again made headlines
by raiding an armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown apparently hoped
to gain control of the arms magazine and distribute weapons to free and
enslaved blacks in the area. His ill-devised plan failed miserably. Brown
was convicted of treason in a Virginia court and hanged. The animosity
between the two sides of the slavery argument continued to intensify.

Sectionalism had grown so prevalent throughout
the states that the election of 1860 saw two opposing candidates, both
from the Democratic party: Stephen Douglas from the north, and John C.

Breckinridge from the south. The Republicans, confident after their success
in 1856, nominated Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of Douglas's in the Illinois
senate race. The Constitutional Union Party, consisting largely of displaced
and elderly Whigs, tried to downplay sectionalism, and spoke only of preserving
the Union and the Constitution. They nominated John Bell.

The race became