Study Guide

Causes of the Civil War Timeline

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Apr 6, 1776

Second Continental Congress Ends Slave Trade

The Second Continental Congress resolves "that no slaves be imported into any of the thirteen United Colonies."

Jul 4, 1776

Declaration Ignores Slaves

The Declaration of Independence declares that "all men are created equal." 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.

Dec 19, 1777

Vermont Outlaws Slavery

The Vermont state constitution outlaws slavery.

Dec 19, 1780

Massachusetts Outlaws Slavery

The Massachusetts state constitution outlaws slavery.

Mar 1, 1780

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 July 4th, 1780 will be born free.

Dec 19, 1784

Gradual Emancipation in Connecticut and Rhode Island

Connecticut and Rhode Island enact gradual emancipation laws.

Jul 13, 1787

Northwest Ordinance

The Continental Congress enacts the Northwest Ordinance, prohibiting slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River.

Sep 1, 1787

Three-Fifths Compromise

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.

Dec 19, 1788

Slave Trade Forbidden

New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania forbid their citizens from participating in the slave trade.

Dec 19, 1791

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.

Dec 19, 1792

Kentucky Joins with Slaves

Kentucky is admitted as the first new slave state.

Dec 19, 1793

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.

May 1, 1793

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.

Dec 19, 1799

Gradual Emancipation in New York

New York passes a gradual emancipation statute.

Dec 19, 1799

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.

Jan 1, 1800

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.

Apr 30, 1803

Louisiana Purchase Sets Slave Debate

The United States purchases Louisiana from France for $15 million. The large acquisition will set the stage for future debates over slavery in the territories.

Dec 19, 2019

Ohio Enters As Free

Ohio enters the Union as a free state.

Dec 19, 2019

Gradual Emancipation in New Jersey

New Jersey passes a gradual emancipation statute. This is the last northern state to pass legislation for a long-term end to slavery.

Mar 2, 1807

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.

Dec 15, 1814

Hartford Convention

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.

Dec 19, 2019

New York Emancipation

New York State enacts a law, effective July 4th, 1827, freeing all Blacks who would not have been freed before then by the gradual emancipation act of 1799.

Mar 2, 1820

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.

Dec 19, 2019

Slave Trade as Piracy

Congress defines the slave trade as piracy.

Aug 10, 1821

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.

Dec 19, 2019

Denmark Conviction

Denmark Vesey, a free African-American, is convicted for plotting a slave rebellion in South Carolina. He and 35 others are hanged in Charleston.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Nov 1, 1828

Jackson Election

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.

Sep 1, 1829

David Walker's Appeal Published

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.

Oct 1, 1831

Garrison Publishes Liberator

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison begins to publish his newspaper, The Liberator.

Aug 21, 1831

Nat Turner Rebellion

Nat Turner, a Virginia slave, leads the bloodiest slave rebellion in United States history; 70 whites are killed in the uprising. In the hunt for Turner, 100 Blacks are killed.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Nov 1, 1832

Jackson Re-elected

Democrat Andrew Jackson is re-elected president of the United States.

Jan 1, 1832

Garrison Organizes Against Slavery

William Lloyd Garrison, along with other whites and Blacks, organizes the New England Antislavery Society.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

May 1, 1835

Mob Torches Abolitionist Lit

A mob in Charleston, South Carolina torches abolitionist literature. Abolitionist writers are expelled from the state.

Feb 1, 1836

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.

Mar 2, 1836

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.

Dec 19, 2019

Massachusetts Supreme Court Frees Slaves

The Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that any slave brought into the state by a master is free.

Nov 1, 1836

Van Buren Election

Martin Van Buren is elected president of the United States.

Feb 6, 1837

Positive Good of Slavery

John C. Calhoun asserts that slavery is a "positive good" on the floor of the Senate.

May 10, 1837

Widespread Unemployment

Following months of increasing inflation, an economic panic begins, causing widespread unemployment.

Dec 8, 1837

Wendell Phillips Begins Abolitionist Career

Harvard law graduate Wendell Phillips begins his career as an abolitionist orator.

Nov 1, 1840

Harrison Elected

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.)

Apr 4, 1841

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.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Apr 1, 1844

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.

Nov 1, 1844

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.

Dec 1, 1844

John Quincy Adams Repeals 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.

Feb 1, 1845

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.

Dec 29, 1845

Texas Enters U.S.

Texas formally enters the United States.

Jun 1, 1845

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.

May 13, 1846

U.S. Declares War on Mexico

The United States declares war on Mexico.

Aug 15, 1846

Wilmot Proviso

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.

Dec 28, 1846

Iowa as Free State

Iowa enters the Union as a free state.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Jan 24, 1848

Gold Discovered

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.

Feb 2, 1848

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.

Aug 1, 1848

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.

Nov 1, 1848

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.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Jul 9, 1850

Millard Fillmore Elected

President Zachary Taylor dies. His vice president, Millard Fillmore, assumes the presidency.

Sep 18, 1850

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.

Jun 1, 1845 - Dec 1, 1851

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.

Dec 19, 2019

Know-Nothings Against Catholics and Immigrants

In the presidential election campaign, the Know-Nothing Party asserts its anti- Catholic and anti-immigrant position.

Nov 6, 1852

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.

Mar 20, 1852

Uncle Tom's Cabin 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."

May 24, 1854

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.

Dec 19, 2019

Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act 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.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Dec 19, 2019

King Cotton

David Christy publishes the proslavery volume Cotton Is King.

Dec 19, 2019

Garner Case

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.

May 19, 1856

Sumner and "The Crime Against Kansas"

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner delivers his antislavery speech, "The Crime Against Kansas" and verbally attacks South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler.

May 24, 1856

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."

Nov 1, 1856

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%.

Mar 6, 1857

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.

Aug 24, 1857

Business Failures Amid Panic

A new economic panic begins leading to business failures and widespread unemployment.

Dec 19, 2019

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.

Aug 21, 1858 - Oct 15, 1858

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 presidency.

Oct 16, 1859

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.

Oct 31, 1859

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."

Dec 2, 1859

John Brown Executed

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.

Feb 27, 1860

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.

Mar 6, 1860

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?"

May 18, 1860

Republicans Nominate Lincoln

The Republican Party nominates Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.

Jun 22, 1860

Democrats Split

The Democratic Party splits as many southern delegations withdraw from the June Democratic Convention.

Nov 6, 1860

Lincoln Elected

Abraham Lincoln is elected president of the United States, defeating both Democratic candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge, and the Constitutional Union Party candidate, John Bell.

Nov 14, 1860

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.

Dec 18, 1860

Crittenden Compromise

The Crittenden Compromise is offered in Congress as one of several last-ditch efforts to resolve the secession crisis.

Dec 20, 1860

South Carolina Secedes

The South Carolina legislature votes to secede from the Union. 

Now sit back and get comfy. There are going to be a lot of these. 

Jan 9, 1861

Mississippi Secedes

Mississippi secedes from the Union.

Jan 10, 1861

Florida Secedes

Florida secedes from the Union.

Jan 11, 1861

Alabama Secedes

Alabama secedes from the Union

Jan 19, 1861

Georgia Secedes

Georgia secedes from the Union.

Jan 26, 1861

Louisiana Secedes

Louisiana secedes from the Union.

Feb 1, 1861

Texas Secedes

Texas secedes from the Union.

Feb 8, 1861

Confederacy Begins

The Confederacy is created with the adoption of a provisional constitution in Montgomery, Alabama.

Feb 18, 1861

Jefferson Davis Elected

Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as the first (and last) president of the Confederacy.

Mar 4, 1861

Lincoln Inaugurated

Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as president of the United States.

Mar 21, 1861

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 n**** is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

Confederates Attack

Confederate forces attack Union troops stationed at Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The Civil War begins.

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