The Constitutional Dimensions of the Slavery Controversy:

 Although it was a cultural, economic, and moral crisis, the secession crisis was significantly a constitutional crisis--its form and outcome was partly driven by the invocation of constitutional principles, separately from the cultural, economic, and moral issues. Most notably, the slavery crisis became a crisis over federal powers over territories.

Arthur Bestor, "The American Civil War as a Constitutional Crisis," The American Historical Review

Assignment: Determine the following:

In what sense did the dispute over slavery during the first half of the 19th century become a constitutional issue? What impact did this have on the slave controversy? What does this reveal about the role of the constitution in American politics?


Task: With your partner use the collected documents to determine the constitutional dimensions of the slave controversy. You need to decide how to break up the document reading and analysis. You each must read all of the documents so that you can brainstorm, reflect and analyze the content and meaning. You may look for background information on any of the incidents or topics listed below, but the emphasis of your efforts should be on deciphering the primary sources indexed below.

1787 Northwest Ordinance:

Question: Is the Constitution a pro slave document? How do you know?

1798 Three-Fifths Compromise:

Question: Why was the inclusion of slaves in the population count of a state a concern for northern and southern states? How does this foreshadow 19th century slavery crisis over federal powers over territories.

1820 Missouri Compromise

Q: Why is the balance of free/slave states such an issue in the Senate?

Note: 1819 Missouri application for statehood; a NY Senator introduced an amendment prohibiting slavery in the new state. Compromise: admit both Missouri as slave and Maine as free, and henceforth disallow slavery north of Missouri's southern boundary (36 30' north latitude).

Note: The "fugitive slave" issue present before the Compromise of 1850 (esp., 1830s)

1846 Wilmot proviso:

Q: Can the issue of slavery in the territories be resolved without damaging the validity of our Constitution?

Note: 1845 Texas annexation; Mexican War (1846-48)

Compromise of 1850:

Q:  What does the Compromise of 1850 reveal about the ability to as well as legality of  balancing free/slave states in the 19th century? Why is the Fugitive Slave Law controversial?

Precipitated by California petition for statehood

  1. admission of California as a free state (division now 16-15)
  2. organization of Utah and NM territories, with slavery to be determined by popular sovereignty
  3. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850: created federal enforcement officials to legally oversee the return of fugitive slaves, with minimal requirements of proof or trial. Required all citizens to assist in apprehending runaways on pain of imprisonment and fines. (Nevertheless, northern state governments continued to try to interfere.)
  4. end the slave trade in DC
  5. settle Texas-NM boundary dispute in Texas's favor




1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act

Q: How does this ignore the Northwest Ordinance? Is this legal?

Precipitated by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas to facilitate transcontinental RR through Nebraska (and through a part of Illinois). Attempt to Divide & organize the Nebraska territory into two territories.


1857 Dred Scott decision

Q: How does Taney use the Constitution to uphold slavery?

Supreme Court tries to settle the issue of slavery in the territories.

Docs attached

Washington University:




1858 Lincoln Douglass Debates:  (you can use secondary source as well)


Q: What are the key arguments? Which of the men better represent the American Ideal? Why?


Note: The 1860 Election and the Secession Crisis


popular vote %

electoral vote

Lincoln (R)



Douglas (ND)



Breckinridge (SD)



Bell (CU)