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The Fight over Slavery: 1855-1865

The Civil War involved four years of brutal fighting for a clear cause with tremendous bravery on each side. The first cuts of the Civil War were delivered with medieval broadswords near a peaceful river in Kansas, a thousand miles from the debates in Washington. The political decision that made the war inevitable came not from the divided Congress or the compromising president, but from the one place where the South had complete control: the Supreme Court.

When John Brown and his sons hacked five Southern slavery advocates to death in Kansas in 1856, Northerners showed that at least some of them would shed blood to defeat slavery. A few months later, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision blew the lid off the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and all the other compromises which had temporarily bought time by dividing the country into slave and non-slave sections (see Chapter 10). With the 1857 Dred Scott decision, middle-of-the-road peacemakers no longer had a place to meet. When the new Republican Party elected a worried-but-determined antislavery president in 1860, Southern guns were already being moved into position.


Although the political, economic, and social focus of the AP exam limits your need to know the Civil War's specific battles, you may be asked about the causes of the Civil War. While the South talked about states' rights and the North talked about keeping the Union together, the real cause was clearly slavery. Also be sure to mention the political impact of the polarizing 1860 election, the economic influence of cotton profits, and the social dynamic of Northern immigrants wanting more free land in the West. Most of all, the growing Northern population threatened to swamp the South with more voters and more free states.

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