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1787 - 1860 // 1861 - 1862 // 1863 - 1864 // 1865


Northwest Ordinance:
On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which created a territorial government in the Northwest Territory and a system of establishing new states from it (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin).  Article 6 banned slavery or involuntary servitude in the Northwest Territory, except as punishment for crime.  It mandated the return of fugitive slaves.  The Northwest Ordinance was one of the last acts of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, which would soon be replaced by the U.S. Constitution.


United States Constitution:
On September 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the proposed constitution and sent it to the states for ratification.  On June 21, 1788, the Constitution met the ratification requirement of approval by three-quarters of the states.  The first congressional and presidential elections under the new constitution were held that fall.  The inauguration of George Washington as president and the swearing in of members of the First Congress occurred on March 4, 1789.   

In order to avoid controversy between the North and South, the institution of slavery was not directly mentioned in the text of the original Constitution.  However, the document allowed 3/5 of the number of slaves in a state to count toward that state’s population for purposes of taxation and representation in the U.S. House.  It prohibited Congress from outlawing the importation of slaves from abroad until 1808 (at which time Congress enacted such a ban).  It mandated the return of escaped slaves (“Persons held to Service or Labour”).

1820-1821 Missouri Compromise:
Under its terms, Missouri entered the Union as a slave state and Maine entered as a free state in order to keep the slave-free state balance even in the U.S. Senate.  The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) north of the latitude 36° 30'.  The territory covered by the law ranged from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.  Speaker of the House Henry Clay was primarily responsible for the successful adoption of the Missouri Compromise by Congress.
1850 Compromise of 1850:
This legislation was designed to settle disputes arising from War with Mexico (1846-1848), particularly those concerning slavery.  Senator Henry Clay drafted a bill addressing all aspects of the controversy, but it was unable to gain passage.  Senator Stephen Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, divided the measure into separate bills in order to secure congressional majorities on each.  Under the Compromise of 1850, California entered the Union as a free state; the Utah Territory and New Mexico Territories were opened to slavery on the basis of popular sovereignty (i.e., territorial voters were allowed to decide the issue); the slave trade (but not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.); the fugitive slave law was strengthened; and the slave state of Texas gave up its claim to land in the New Mexico Territory in return for the federal government assuming debts incurred by Texas before it was annexed as a state (1845).
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act:
In an attempt to spur population growth in the western territories in advance of a transcontinental railroad, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill to establish the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.  In order to gain Southern support, the bill stipulated that slavery in the territories would be decided by the voters in each territory (“popular sovereignty”).  Therefore, the law repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30' in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 put the question of slavery in the territories at the center of public debate, which led to the collapse of the Whig Party, gave rise to the anti-slavery-expansion Republican Party, and eventually divided the Democratic Party in 1860.
1857 Dred Scott Case:
The case of Dred Scott v. Sandford involved a slave, Dred Scott, who traveled with his master for several years, first in the free state of Illinois and then in the free territory of Wisconsin.  After his master’s death, Scott sued for his freedom, arguing that his temporary stay in free territory had made him free.  On March 6, 1857, two days after the inauguration of President James Buchanan, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision.  Writing for the 7-2 majority, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that Scott was still a slave with no standing to sue; that black Americans (slave or free) were not citizens and did not have civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution; and that neither territorial governments nor the federal government could ban slavery in the territories.  Under the reasoning of Dred Scott, the central plank of the Republican Party platform—that the federal government should ban slavery in the territories—and the Missouri Compromise line (had it not been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act) were not constitutionally permissible.
November 1860

Election Results:
On November 6, 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president with an Electoral College majority greater than the combined total of his three opponents:  180 for Lincoln to 72 for Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, 39 for Constitutional Unionist John Bell, and 12 for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas.  Lincoln won a plurality of the popular vote, 40% to Douglas’s 30%, Breckinridge’s 18%, and Bell’s 12%.

December 1860

On November 10, 1860, the South Carolina legislature became the first to call for a convention to consider seceding from the Union.  Delegates were elected on December 6, and the convention opened on December 17.  On December 20, 1860, delegates unanimously approved a secession resolution, making South Carolina the first of 11 Southern slave states to leave the Union. 

Crittenden Compromise:
On December 18, 1860, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky, proposed six constitutional amendments and four congressional resolutions aimed at appeasing and keeping the slave states in the Union.  The proposed constitutional amendments would have:  (1) extended the old Missouri Compromise line to California, allowing slavery below and banning it above the line, and protecting slavery from congressional interference; (2) forbidden Congress from banning slavery on federal property in slave states (e.g., military posts); (3) prevented Congress from abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia as long as it was legal in Maryland and Virginia; (4) prohibited Congress from interfering with the interstate slave trade; (5) mandated Congress to compensate directly the owners of runaway slaves; and, (6) made the other five amendments and the 3/5 and fugitive slave clauses of the Constitution unrepealable.  His congressional resolutions offered stronger protection of the Fugitive Slave Law.  The Crittenden Compromise was not acceptable to President-elect Lincoln and most Republicans because it would have expanded slavery into the Western territories and given perpetual protection to the institution. 


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