Causes of the Civil War Timeline
How It All Went Down
Second Continental Congress Ends Slave Trade
The Second Continental Congress resolves "that no slaves be imported into any of the thirteen United Colonies."5
Declaration Ignores Slaves
The Declaration of Independence declares that "all men are created equal."6 It does not deal with slavery explicitly but contains a clause attacking the king for emancipating slaves and arming them to fight against the colonists.
Vermont Outlaws Slavery
The Vermont state constitution outlaws slavery.
Massachusetts Outlaws Slavery
The Massachusetts state constitution outlaws slavery.
Gradual Emancipation in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania adopts the first "gradual emancipation" law. Under this statute, no new slaves can be brought into the state, and the children of all existing slaves will be freed when they turn 28 (a far longer period of service than indentured servitude had required for whites). Slaves born before the passage of this act are condemned to a lifetime of servitude. Only those born after 4 July 1780 will be born free.
Gradual Emancipation in Connecticut and Rhode Island
The Continental Congress enacts the Northwest Ordinance, prohibiting slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River.
The Constitutional Convention settles on the three-fifths compromise; it will count three-fifths of a state's slave population in apportioning Congressional representation. Congress is also forbidden from ending the slave trade until 1808. Fugitive slaves who cross state lines must be turned over to their owners.
Slave Trade Forbidden
New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania forbid their citizens from participating in the slave trade.
Haitian Civil War
Civil war erupts in the French colony of St. Domingue, a Caribbean island (modern-day Haiti). Slaves of the north province rise in mass revolt under the leadership of fellow black bondsman Toussaint L'Ouverture.
Kentucky Joins With Slaves
Kentucky is admitted as the first new slave state.
Fugitive Slave Law
Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Law. The statute enforces a measure in the Constitution that denies a jury trial to an alleged fugitive slave and authorizes any federal or state judge to decide that individual's fate. Many northern leaders oppose the law, which they interpret as a direct assault on personal liberty.
Eli Whitney Invents Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, which allows for the cultivation of short- staple cotton and revolutionizes the industry, dramatically increasing its profitability and the land areas that can be utilized for growing the crop. This dictates the westward spread of cotton growing and its backbone: slave labor.
New York Gradual Emancipation
New York passes a gradual emancipation statute.
Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
Legislators from Virginia and Kentucky adopt a series of resolutions in an act of protest against the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798. The resolutions, written by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison, denounce the Acts as unconstitutional, and assert the right of states to reject any federal law that violates the Constitution. In later years, South Carolina will interpret these resolutions as an affirmation of state power to nullify federal law.
Gabriel Prosser Plot
Gabriel Prosser conspires to seize Richmond, Virginia with a large force of perhaps 1,000 armed slaves and then proceed with a general slaughter of whites. The plot is uncovered; 25 of the conspirators are executed and ten others deported to the West Indies.
Louisiana Purchase Sets Slave Debate
Ohio Enters As Free
Ohio enters the Union as a free state.
New Jersey Gradual Emancipation
New Jersey passes a gradual emancipation statute. This is the last northern state to pass legislation for a long-term end to slavery.
Slave Trade Ban
Congress passes a law prohibiting Americans from participating in the African slave trade. The ban, which goes into effect in 1808, will be inconsistently enforced until 1861.
A group of New England Federalists gathers in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss long-held grievances regarding the power of slaveholders in the federal government. Known as the "Hartford Convention," the group calls for several amendments to the Constitution, including a requirement for a two-thirds vote of Congress for the admission of new states and the elimination of the three-fifths clause, which gives an advantage to slave-holding states in congressional representation and presidential elections. The Hartford Convention fails in its endeavors and its bold moves prove to be a deathblow to the party, which cannot shake charges that it is unpatriotic. It is later erroneously rumored that the Hartford Convention represents the first group to call for secession; this is not true. The Convention only contends that states have the right to interpose their authority if the federal government violates the Constitution.
New York Emancipation
New York State enacts a law, effective 4 July 1827, freeing all blacks who would not have been freed before then by the gradual emancipation act of 1799.
Missouri Compromise of 1820
The House and Senate are deadlocked over the question of whether to admit Missouri as a slave state. There is some fear of civil war. As a compromise, Congress adopts an amendment that there shall be no restriction on slavery in Missouri, but the institution will be prohibited from Louisiana Territory north of 36º30' latitude. Protests continue as critics seek to refuse Missouri's admission unless the state passes legislation to provide for gradual emancipation.
Slave Trade as Piracy
Congress defines the slave trade as piracy.
Slave and Free States Equal
Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state, but Congress agrees to forbid slavery in all other territory north of Missouri's southern border. With the addition of Missouri, the Union consists of twelve slave states and twelve free.
Denmark Vesey, a free African-American, is convicted for plotting a slave rebellion in South Carolina. He and 35 others are hanged in Charleston.
South Carolina Arrests Free Blacks
Concerned about plots to overthrow slavery in Charleston, South Carolina authorities arrest and jail free blacks who enter the state, despite objections from federal courts that say such actions violate the Constitution. Leaders in South Carolina assert that such incarcerations are necessary in order to protect slavery in the state.
Democrat Andrew Jackson (a slaveowner) is elected president of the United States. He is the seventh president elected; every president thus far, with the exception of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, has been a slaveowner.
David Walker’s Appeal
A free black man and a self-taught clothes dealer publishes his self-titled, 76- page David Walker's Appeal. The Appeal is a call to militant action for blacks that alarms the white reading public.
Garrison Publishes Liberator
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison begins to publish his newspaper, The Liberator.
Nat Turner Rebellion
Virginia Debates Slavery
On the heels of Nat Turner's violent rebellion, the Virginia legislature debates and rejects a bill to consider the gradual abolition of slavery. Some southern whites worry that the uprising is a sign that slavery will only lead to bloodshed and is, therefore, not worth the danger. On the other hand, a majority of Virginians—and southerners—seek to maintain slavery and aggressively regulate and discipline slaves to suppress any attempt at future rebellion.
Democrat Andrew Jackson is re-elected president of the United States.
Garrison Organizes Against Slavery
William Lloyd Garrison, along with other whites and blacks, organizes the New England Antislavery Society.
Compromise Tariff of 1833
Congress adopts the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which is proposed by Senators Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun as a resolution to the Nullification Crisis. Calhoun has developed a theory that states have the right to nullify federal legislation if it runs counter to their interests. He proposes this step in response to ever steeper congressional tariffs passed in 1828 and 1832. To avoid the impending crisis between President Jackson and South Carolina, Senator Henry Clay spearheads a successful compromise measure in Congress to lower the 1832 tariff.
Mob Torches Abolitionist Lit
A mob in Charleston, South Carolina torches abolitionist literature. Abolitionist writers are expelled from the state.
Congress Passes Gag Rule
Congress votes to table antislavery petitions, prohibit their publication, and censor any discussion or even mention of them on the floor. This is otherwise known as the gag rule. It passes by the overwhelming margin of 117 to 68. Most northern Whigs vote against it, but most northern Democrats vote for it.
Texas Declares Independence
The Texas Declaration of Independence is enacted, creating the Republic of Texas (otherwise known as the "Lone Star Republic"). The U.S. government refuses to recognize Texas because it does not want to agitate sectional strife; abolitionists oppose Texas's admission to the Union because they know it will become a slave state. But the U.S. does commence secret negotiations with Texas on annexation in 1843.
Massachusetts Supreme Court Frees Slaves
The Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that any slave brought into the state by a master is free.
Van Buren Election
Martin Van Buren is elected president of the United States.
Positive Good of Slavery
Following months of increasing inflation, an economic panic begins, causing widespread unemployment.
Wendell Phillips Begins Abolitionist Career
Harvard law graduate Wendell Phillips begins his career as an abolitionist orator.
William Henry Harrison wins the presidential election, defeating incumbent Martin Van Buren. The Liberty Party, which campaigns for abolition and black equality, wins only 7,000 votes. (The Party will fare much better in the next presidential election, winning over nine times as many votes.)
President Harrison Dies
President William Henry Harrison dies of pneumonia exactly one month after his inauguration. His vice president John Tyler is sworn in as president.
Prigg v. Pennsylvania
In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court upholds the federal fugitive slave law of 1793 and states that no state can pass legislation attempting to prevent the removal of runaway slaves.
Calhoun Associates Texas and Slavery
A letter written by Secretary of State John C. Calhoun is leaked to the press. In it, Calhoun links the annexation of Texas to the goal of strengthening slavery in the United States.
James Polk Elected
James K. Polk wins the presidency by a margin of just 1.4% of the popular vote; the antislavery Liberty Party wins 65,000 votes in the presidential election. It is hardly close to a popular majority, but it is enough to deprive the Whigs of taking the state of New York, and that determines the election of Democrat James K. Polk instead of the Whig candidate, Henry Clay.
John Quincy Adams Repeals Gag Rule
RANGEEND_GAG_RULE Representative John Quincy Adams calls for a repeal of the gag rule. All the northern Whigs and four southern Whigs support Adams, as do 78% of northern Democrats. The gag rule is dead.
Texas Offered Statehood
The Congress passes a joint resolution offering to admit Texas to statehood after a long and bitter debate over the question of slavery. The vote is 120 to 98 in the House and 27 to 25 in the Senate.
Texas Enters US
RANGEEND_LONE_STAR_REPUBLIC Texas formally enters the United States.
Potato Famine Immigration
The great potato famine in Ireland forces large numbers of Irish to emigrate. Many seek to begin a new life in the United States.
US Declares War on Mexico
The United States declares war on Mexico.
Certain of success in the war against Mexico, political leaders once again debate the question of slavery's expansion. Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot suggests the institution be banned in all new territory acquired from Mexico. Traditional political party lines crumble as nearly all northerners support the "Wilmot Proviso," while most southerners oppose it. The Proviso fails in the Senate.
Iowa as Free State
Iowa enters the Union as a free state.
Popular Sovereignty Suggested
Senator Lewis Cass suggests to Congress that residents in territories be allowed to decide whether the region will allow slavery or prohibit the institution.
Gold is discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Migrants from within the United States and from abroad pour into California seeking wealth.
Mexican-American War Ends
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexican-American War. California, Nevada, Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and the disputed regions of Texas are all obtained by the United States in the largest single land acquisition since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Free Soil Party
Antislavery members of the Whig and Liberty parties join to form the Free Soil Party, which opposes the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired western territories. The party platform also calls for the federal government to provide free land to settlers in the West.
Zachary Taylor Elected
Whig Zachary Taylor is elected president of the United States. Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren wins 10% of the vote, splitting the Democratic base and facilitating the election of Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero.8
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who has settled in the North, begins helping other slaves flee captivity. By the start of the Civil War, Tubman will have aided at least 300 slaves in securing their freedom.
Millard Fillmore Elected
President Zachary Taylor dies. His vice president, Millard Fillmore, assumes the presidency.
Fugitive Slave Act
As a portion of the Compromise of 1850, a new—and much harsher—Fugitive Slave Act is passed. It strengthens the enforcement of the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution (Art. IV, sec. 2), makes the federal government responsible for the apprehension and return of all escaped slaves, and facilitates the job for slave catchers. The fugitives in question are denied a jury trial.
Last Compromise of 1850
The last of the Compromise of 1850 measures is passed. The Compromise admits California as a free state, while voters in New Mexico and Utah territories are granted the right to decide whether to allow slavery.
Know-Nothings Against Catholics and Immigrants
In the presidential election campaign, the Know-Nothing Party asserts its anti- Catholic and anti-immigrant position.
Franklin Pierce Elected
Democrat Franklin Pierce is elected president of the United States. After the election, the Free Soil Party flounders and the Whig Party dissolves. Many Whigs cross over into the Free Democrat wing. The two-party system is in disarray.
Uncle Tom Published
Uncle Tom's Cabin is published in complete form (initially, it was printed as a series of articles in an abolitionist paper). It infuriates the South, where most states ban its sale. Still, some one million copies are sold within the first year of publication. During the Civil War, President Lincoln will meet Stowe in the White House and reportedly say to her (in so many words): "So you're the little lady that caused this great big war."
Anthony Burns Uproar
Abolitionist Wendell Phillips and other antislavery advocates attack a federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts where Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, is held. Local residents make several unsuccessful attempts to rescue Burns, who is ultimately returned to his Virginia master. President Pierce orders Burns's return as an example to others that he will enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Kansas-Nebraska Bill passes, largely thanks to Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois. In effect the bill repeals the Missouri Compromise and its prohibition of slavery in the Northwest by authorizing settlers to determine for themselves the status of slavery in their communities. Controversy over the bill will drive a wedge into the Democratic Party, shatter Whig unity, and spur the creation of the Republican Party in the North.
Capitol Statue Controversy
American sculptor Thomas Crawford is asked to design a work of art to crown the Capitol's dome in Washington, D.C. He proposes a female figure wearing a liberty cap. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a slaveholder from Mississippi, objects to the idea because the image, he says, may imply a connection between slaves' desire for freedom and the liberty of free-born Americans. A feathered helmet replaces the liberty cap.
David Christy publishes the proslavery volume Cotton Is King.
Escaped slave Margaret Garner reaches Ohio with her three children. Fearing capture, Garner attempts to kill her two sons and her daughter to save them from life as slaves. She succeeds in murdering her daughter; her sons are only injured. Despite efforts by abolitionists to prevent Garner's return to Kentucky, she is re-enslaved under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Sumner on Crime Against Kansas
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner delivers his antislavery speech, "The Crime Against Kansas" and verbally attacks South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler.
John Brown Kills
During an antislavery uprising in Kansas, abolitionist John Brown kills five proslavery activists. He escapes capture. The event is one in a series of bloody attacks and counterattacks between free soil and pro slavery vigilantes throughout the territory. It will inspire some to deem the region "Bleeding Kansas."
Pierce Wins Big
Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce wins the presidential election with an electoral college majority of 254, a landslide victory over his Whig opponent Winfield Scott. Still, Pierce earns just 50.8% of the popular vote, while Scott secures 43.9%.9
Dred Scott v. Sandford
The U.S. Supreme Court rules (7 to 2) in Dred Scott v. Sandford that slavery is protected by the Constitution, and that a ban on slavery in the territories is unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney writes the majority opinion; every Justice who sides with Taney (who is from Maryland) is a southerner.
Business Failures Amid Panic
A new economic panic begins leading to business failures and widespread unemployment.
Debate Over Kansas
President James Buchanan tries and fails to admit Kansas as a slave state. The Democratic Party begins to split over the issue of popular sovereignty and thus party leaders in Congress are in dispute over whether to allow the territorial legislature to adopt a proslavery constitution. The admission bill stalls in the House. Kansas will finally be admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861.
Lincoln Douglas Debates
During the Illinois senatorial race, Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas and Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln engage in a series of fiery debates. For four months, the two men travel all across the state, speaking before thousands of spectators. They argue primarily about whether, in Lincoln's words, "a house divided against itself cannot stand" and whether slavery ought to be placed "in the course of ultimate extinction"; that is, if the Wilmot Proviso should be revived and slavery should forevermore be banned from all U.S. territories. Lincoln will ultimately lose the election, but his fierce attacks on the Democratic agenda will gain him national fame. Two years later, the Republican Party will nominate him for the highest office in the land.
John Brown Raid on Harpers Ferry
Under the cover of darkness, radical abolitionist John Brown crosses the Potomac River with twenty-one men, including five blacks. They plan to incite a massive insurrection by arming local slaves with weapons from the federal arsenal. The plan backfires and ten of Brown's men are ultimately killed; his forces kill four, including a Marine. Brown and six others are apprehended.
John Brown Trial
John Brown is quickly tried and convicted of conspiracy to incite insurrection and treason against the state of Virginia. At his sentencing, he declares, "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done."10
John Brown Executed
RANGEEND_JOHNBROWNRAID Radical abolitionist John Brown is hanged in Charlestown, Virginia (modern-day Charles Town, West Virginia). Six of his associates, two of them black, follow at a later date. Brown becomes an antislavery martyr and his attempted insurrection creates panic in the South.
Lincoln Asserts Prerogative on Slavery
In a speech delivered in New York, Republican Abraham Lincoln states that the federal government has the power to halt the spread of slavery.
New Haven Address
Republican Abraham Lincoln delivers a speech in New Haven, Connecticut. "Wrong as we think Slavery is," he says, "we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?"11
Republicans Nominate Lincoln
The Republican Party nominates Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.
The Democratic Party splits as many southern delegations withdraw from the June Democratic Convention.
Alexander Stephens Cautions Georgia
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, former Representative Alexander Stephens delivers a speech before the Georgia legislature cautioning Georgia leaders against voting in haste to secede from the Union.
The Crittenden Compromise is offered in Congress as one of several last-ditch efforts to resolve the secession crisis.
South Caroline Secedes
The South Carolina legislature votes to secede from the Union.
Mississippi secedes from the Union.
Florida secedes from the Union.
Alabama secedes from the Union
Georgia secedes from the Union.
Louisiana secedes from the Union.
Texas secedes from the Union.
The Confederacy is created with the adoption of a provisional constitution in Montgomery, Alabama.
Jefferson Davis Elected
Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as the first (and last) president of the Confederacy.
Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as president of the United States.
Cornerstone of Confederacy
Alexander Stephens, the appointed vice president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, delivers his "Cornerstone" speech. The "cornerstone" of the Confederacy, Stephens announces, is "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."12