School Improvement in Maryland
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Standard 5.0 History

Topic C. Conflict between Ideas and Institutions

Indicator 5. Analyze factors affecting the outcome of the Civil War

Objective b. Analyze the ideological breakdown that resulted from different events and issues, such as Virginia-Kentucky resolutions, the Hartford Convention, nullification/states' rights, political party division, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown raids


When drafting of the Constitution, the founders struggled to create a political system that could balance the interests of all the Union’s diverse regions and perspectives. They feared the damage that factionalism and sectionalism might do to the young nation. In the first decades following ratification of the Constitution, these fears were realized as a series of events and issues ripped at the national fabric throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

The first major ideological breakdown was fueled by a debate over the power of the federal government. Despite the founding fathers’ warnings about factions, political parties soon emerged and assumed different stances on the role of the federal government. The Federalists favored a strong federal government that took an active role in regulating and promoting the economy and controlling unbridled individualism. The Republicans, on the other hand, feared a strong central government and believed government should preserve the power of the individual. In response to the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Republicans James Madison and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. The resolutions declared that, since the Constitution was a compact among the several states that delegated limited authority to the central government, the states had the right to intercede and “nullify” laws when Congress had exceeded its authority.

Sectional tensions also led to early challenges to federal power. In 1814, delegates from New England states gathered in Hartford, Connecticut to protest the War of 1812 and the South’s political power. After rejecting some delegates’ call for secession, the Hartford Convention proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would limit the power of the Republican party and the South. Victory in the War of 1812, achieved immediately after the Hartford Convention, prevented the Federalists from pursuing their agenda farther. The South also contested federal authority. Angry that the tariff of 1828 protected Northern manufacturers while increasing prices on goods, Southern politicians argued that any state or group of states has the right to nullify, or cancel, any federal law, and they raised the possibility of secession. The crisis ended when Congress lowered the tariff, but the incident helped crystallize the Southern states’ rights theory that would help carry the nation into civil war.

Of course, the issue of slavery also contributed to the ideological breakdown that precipitated the Civil War. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 declared not only that African Americans were not and could not be citizens of the United States but also that, under the Constitution, the federal government could not ban slavery from any territory. The decision implied that the principle of popular sovereignty was unconstitutional as well. The ideological divisions over slavery were cemented by John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Although the raid was a dramatic failure, but antislavery advocates’ praise of Brown enraged Southerners.

Together, these events and many more like them increasingly divided the nation over both the issue of the federal government’s power over the states and the issue of slavery.

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