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Causes of the Civil War Terms

Abolitionist, Abolitionists

A radical reformer who demanded immediate emancipation (an end to slavery). Usually associated with the post-1831 period, although one could argue that certain groups or individuals qualified as "abolitionists" long before 1831.


Different from "abolitionist," this term usually indicates a more moderate or theoretical objection to slavery.

Bleeding Kansas

Violence between proslavery and antislavery settlers in the Kansas Territory in 1856.

Compromise Of 1850

A negotiated settlement devised by Senator Henry Clay to defuse tensions building between proslavery and antislavery political leaders. It included the admission of California into the Union as a free state, a strengthened fugitive slave law, and a motion to delay the determination of the slave status of the New Mexico and Utah territories.

Fifty-four Forty Or Fight, 54-40 Or Fight, 54º40' Or Fight

The Democratic Party campaign slogan in the 1844 presidential election in which the party sought to fix the northern border of Oregon at 54º40' north latitude.

Free Soil, Free Soiler, Free So

The political position dedicated to banning slavery from all newly acquired western territory, but also referring to the demand that federal government provide free homesteads to western settlers. This was a much more popular position than abolitionism (that called for an end to slavery everywhere in America and equal rights for all races). Most northern voters were quite racist, but they gravitated toward the free soil concept because they envisioned the lands and opportunities of the West as a chance for their own economic betterment, and they wanted to be able to live and work there free from the competition of slave labor.

Free Soil Party, Free Soiler, Free Soilers

Formed in 1848, this political party was based on two key principles: open land in the West for Americans seeking economic betterment, and the opportunity to live and work there free from the competition of slave labor. In the presidential campaign of 1848, the Free Soil Party nominated Martin Van Buren for president and Charles Francis Adams (John Quincy Adams's son) for vice president. They polled 14% of all northern votes in the election. Most Free Soilers were later absorbed into the Republican Party when it formed in 1854.

Fugitive Slave Act Of 1850

Strengthened from its original 1793 form, this act was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. It gave the federal government authority—and in many ways forced federal agents—to capture escaped slaves and prosecute anyone aiding runaways. The Act was profoundly controversial in the North and aroused resentment among those who believed it solidified the political power of southern slaveholders.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

A 1854 law sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. It allowed settlers in newly organized territories north of Missouri to decide amongst themselves whether slavery would be allowed. It ultimately resulted in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which heightened political tensions and led to the creation of the Republican Party.

Know-Nothing Party, American Party, Know-Nothing (American) Party

A nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant political party organized in 1854 as a reaction to a large influx of German and Irish immigration. The party dissolved after the 1856 presidential election, and the newly created Republican Party absorbed many of its members.

Liberty Party

A political party founded in the 1830s by abolitionists; it merged with the Free Soil Party in 1848.

Manifest Destiny

The concept, popular in the nineteenth century, that the United States was ordained by God to conquer the entire North American continent.

This phrase was first coined in 1845 by those who advocated the annexation of Texas. Thereafter it became the calling card for western expansion and, ultimately, a rallying cry for those who sought to justify American imperialism.

First used by those who supported the annexation of Texas in 1845, the term later justified American settlement of the Great Plains and the West (and then the broadening of the American empire).

The idea, popular in the mid-nineteenth century, that the United States was ordained by God to spread across the entire North American continent.

Missouri Compromise

Kentucky Senator Henry Clay proposed this deal in 1820 to resolve disputes between proslavery and antislavery advocates in Congress. It granted admission to Missouri as a slave state, but to offset this, Maine entered the Union as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in all territory north of the southern border of Missouri. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, in practice, repealed this compromise.

Nativism, Nativist, Nativists

Opposition to immigration on the grounds that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment most prevalent during the decades leading up to the Civil War, when large numbers of Irish and German immigrants poured into the U.S.

A xenophobic policy (or ideology) which stresses the interests of a country's native inhabitants over those of immigrants. Many (though not all) white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of nineteenth-century America became embodiments of this philosophy, to varying degrees. Those most concerned about foreign immigration joined nativist political parties. The most prominent of these parties was the American Party (a.k.a. the Native American Party, a.k.a. the Know Nothings), which began in 1843 and called for a 25-year residency qualification for citizenship and sought to elect only native-born Americans to political office. The Know Nothings enjoyed political victories on state and local levels, notably in Massachusetts and Delaware in 1854 (the pinnacle-year of their success). But the slavery issue eclipsed the nativists in importance and public attention, and ultimately divided their membership along sectional lines.

Opposition to immigration based on fears that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers.

Panic Of 1837

A major economic depression caused by falling cotton prices and bank failures; it lasted about six years.

Panic Of 1857

An economic depression that hit the American North and the developing Northwest hardest; the South escaped the worst of this two-year panic due to its production of cotton and international demand for the product.

Republican Party, Republicans

A political party created in 1854 by anti-slavery Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, and Know-Nothings in response to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Forgive us. We're still giggling about "Free Soilers."

A political party founded in 1854 by antislavery Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, and Know-Nothings in response to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Underground Railroad

The "railroad" was a system of secret passages and safe houses through which slaves escaped from the South to freedom in the North; it operated in the decades before to the Civil War.

Whig Party, Whigs

The Whig Party emerged in the 1830s in opposition to the Democratic policies originating with President Andrew Jackson. Whigs drew support from nativist, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant citizens who feared and felt threatened by increasing immigration from countries beyond England, where inhabitants were deemed racially inferior and susceptible to corruption or dependency because of their Catholic religion. The Whigs also promoted social reforms such as temperance and, to some extent, abolitionism.

Wilmot Proviso

South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun successfully defeated this proposal to prohibit slavery in land acquired in the Mexican-American War.

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