A House Divided

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Time Line

1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
1850 Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Franklin Pierce elected president


Kansas-Nebraska Act

Republican Party formed

1855 Kansas elections

Pottawatomie Massacre

James Buchanan elected president

1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford
1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates
1859 Raid on Harpers Ferry

Abraham Lincoln elected president

South Carolina secedes from the United States


A House Divided

The issue of slavery continued to divide the nation. None of Henry Clay’s famous compromises had altered the basic situation—that in the South, there was a system of enforced labor, based on racial discrimination, in which the workers were paid no wages and had no rights. The northerners were deter- mined to end slavery throughout the nation; the southerners were equally determined to expand slavery into the West.

West coast states banned slavery absolutely; both California and Oregon insisted on entering the Union as free states. When Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed that the Kansas and Nebraska Territories be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be slaveholding or free, he provoked outraged reactions on all sides. Northerners were furious because the Kansas- Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery in the territories. Southerners were angry because they thought Douglas should have fought to make Kansas a slave territory.

In 1857, the Supreme Court declared that a slave was a slave no matter where he traveled, even into free territory. The Court also stated that since slaves were property and the Fifth Amendment protected property rights, any law prohibiting slavery anywhere was unconstitutional.

Americans on both sides of the issue took action. Missouri “Border Ruffians” stormed into Kansas Territory before an election and illegally voted a proslavery legislature into office. John Brown and his supporters tried unsuccessfully to start an armed slave uprising in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a dramatic story that opened northern eyes to the corrupting influence of slavery on everyone it touched. And in Illinois, a self- educated lawyer named Abraham Lincoln decided to run for national office.

To southerners, Lincoln’s election to the White House in 1860 was the final straw. Seven southern states rapidly seceded from the Union, declaring them- selves the Confederate States of America.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

A House Divided Practice Test

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