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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
Topic: America in 1850
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: America 1850
Text 1. John C. Calhoun
Text 2. Daniel Webster
Text 3. William Henry Seward
Text 4. Henry Clay
Text 5. Henry David Thoreau
Text 6. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Text 7. Frederick Douglass

Topic Framing Questions
From the perspective of an American in 1850, either Northern or Southern (remember, you don't know what's going to happen over the next 15 years):
   ·  How volatile is America in 1850?
   ·  What holds the nation together? What is pulling it apart?
   ·  How serious is the Southern threat to leave the Union?
   ·  Is the Compromise of 1850 a triumph of nationalism or sectionalism?
   ·  Will the Union survive?

The Compromise of 1850
A Summary
  1. California admitted to the Union as a free state.
  2. Land acquired in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, organized into the territories of New Mexico and Utah with no federal prohibition of slavery.
  3. Boundary between Texas and New Mexico adjusted.
  4. Texas awarded $10 million to compensate for land given to New Mexico.
  5. Slave trading but not slavery itself prohibited in the District of Columbia.
  6. Fugitive slave law vigorously enforced.

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1.  John C. Calhoun on the Clay Compromise Measures, U.S. Senate, March 4, 1850
John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina and the preeminent spokesperson for Southern exclusionism, was so ill at the time of this speech he had to ask someone else to deliver it. He died in Washington on March 31, 1850. Here he offers his version of “the nature and character of the cause by which the Union is endangered.” Calhoun asserts that the South’s long-standing “almost universal discontent” over the “agitation of the slavery question” is only one of the causes that have endangered the unity of the nation. The “great and primary cause” is a sort of Original Sin, the North’s deliberate destruction of the balance of power between the two regions enshrined in the Constitution at the nation’s birth. With that equilibrium gone, the South is left weak and vulnerable and cannot “with honor and safety” remain in the Union. Could be used with students. 5 pages.

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2.  Daniel Webster, Speech to the United States Senate, March 7, 1850
In the 1830s Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, established himself as the champion of American nationalism. Responding to Calhoun, he speaks for the "preservation of the Union," for "the restoration of quiet and harmonious harmony." This latter point is one of the major themes of his speech. Citing what he sees as the unwarranted split of the Methodist Episcopal Church into Northern and Southern branches over the question of slavery, he denounces "impatient" men who are unyielding and fanatic in their efforts to enforce their view of what is right. Such people lead the abolition movement, which, in his view, has "produced nothing good or valuable" and, indeed, has actually retarded the progress of race relations in the South. He criticizes the North for its failure to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Finally, he storms against "peaceable secession," marshalling practical reasons why it would not work. 7 pages.

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3.  William Henry Seward, Speech to the United States Senate, March 11, 1850
This speech marks a generational shift in American politics. In March of 1850 Calhoun was sixty-eight and in the final month of his life. Webster, also sixty-eight, and Clay, seventy-three, would both die in 1852. Seward, on the other hand, was only forty-nine. His speech shows that a new generation of Northern politicians was unwilling to reaffirm the compromises over slavery that had enabled the Union to be established. In his very controversial speech Seward shifts the argument from constitutional to moral terms. He places slavery squarely in the foreground of the debate and, fervently opposed to it, forthrightly proclaims his opposition to the Compromise of 1850, which would have accommodated it in certain locales. He attacks Clay's position, condemning virtually all legislative compromises as "radically wrong and essentially vicious," and fires at Calhoun, asserting that a restoration of constitutional equilibrium is "totally impracticable." In fact, he argues, such an equilibrium never existed in the first place. Although his oratory is heated and he draws stark lines, in the end he comes to what seems an almost placid conclusion. "[T]here will be no disunion and no secession." The Union will muddle through. The South need not even worry that slavery will soon be abolished. This text provoked much discussion in the summer seminar. 16 pages.

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4.  Henry Clay, "A General Review of the Debate on the Compromise Bills," U.S. Senate, July 22, 1850
If Calhoun wants to restore the original purity of the Constitution, Clay argues for living in a fallen world. Arguing for the specifics of the Compromise of 1850, he vividly depicts what might happen if the dispute between Texas and New Mexico is left unresolved. There could be two civil wars, he asserts, one along the banks of the Rio Grande and another that would stretch to the Potomac. He concludes with a powerful endorsement of the Union and its benefits. 4 pages.

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5.  Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience," 1848
To the tensions bred by conflict between sectionalism and nationalism, Thoreau adds the force of the resolute individual. In this piece Thoreau explores how an individual should respond to a state that acts unjustly—specifically to a state that supports slavery, invades Mexico, and implicates every citizen in these acts through the imposition of taxes. His perspective on these issues is completely different from those of Calhoun, Webster, Clay, and Seward. Implicit in their arguments is the assumption that government, while it may function badly at times, is nonetheless legitimate and valuable. Thoreau disagrees. He calls into question the very idea of government. He rails against the expediency that directs the actions of government and claims that, a machine itself, government reduces men to machines. According to Thoreau, when the machine of government produces injustice, it is the citizen's duty not simply to petition for change but to act. "Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine." 19 pages.

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6.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, "The Two Altars, or Two Pictures in One," 1851
This story appeared just as Uncle Tom's Cabinwas beginning its serialization. As she did in the novel, Stowe puts flesh on the abstractions of the statesmen's debate and infuses them with emotion. Written in response to the Fugitive Slave Law, the story—simple, obvious, and sentimental—consists of two parallel parts, "The Altar of Liberty, or 1776" and "The Altar of _______, or 1850." In both officials of the state interrupt a family's snug domestic routine on a chilly night. In the contrast between the two intrusions Stowe suggests the distance the country has traveled from 1776 to 1850. In a sense this story dramatizes all the readings of this Topic. Could also be included in a discussion on the culture of domesticity. Could be used with students. 22 pages (wide margins).

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7.  Frederick Douglass, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?," July 5, 1852
A powerful, moving speech that will color your view of the Fourth of July even today. At the outset Douglass strikes a hopeful note: the country is young and may yet grow into wisdom. He then recounts the national creation saga celebrated on the Fourth, focusing special attention on the Founding Fathers. Even though the point from which he sees them "is not, certainly, the most favorable," he "cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration." When his attention turns to the present and its celebrations, he tells his audience, "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine." He then warms to his topic. For him the evil of slavery and the humanity of the slave are beyond dispute. What is needed now is "scorching irony" not "convincing argument." He depicts the reality of slavery in America in 1852 and denounces the Fugitive Slave Law. He vigorously condemns American Christianity for its toleration of and support for slavery, comparing it unfavorably with the English variety and announces that slavery represents "the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union." Could be used with students. 23 pages (wide margins).

Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man| Cult of Domesticity| Religion| Expansion| America in 1850

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