Religion and American Slavery

Lesson III. Religious Influences on Tensions Leading to the Civil War

Step 2. Sectional Crisis



In this video, you will how westward expansion upset the delicate balance between slave states and non-slave states. Non-slave states feared that they would lose power in Congress if too many states in the West allowed slavery. This triggered a sectional crisis that led to the Civil War

Slavery and Westward Expansion

In a real sense the path to Civil War was as much about the conflict over the future of slavery in the West as it was a conflict between Northern and Southern states. The problem was one of political representation in the federal government. Northern states profited from Southern slavery, but the expansion of slavery in the West threatened to upset the delicate balance in Congress that had existed since the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution.

3/5 Clause and Representation in Congress

The 3/5 clause in the Constitution was a compromise over how to count enslaved people for representation in Congress. Since representation in the House of Representatives was based on population, the greater the population, the more representatives a state could send to Congress. Northern states did not want slaves counted at all and southern states wanted to count them fully. The delegates agreed to counting 3/5 of the slave population in each state.

At the coming of the Civil War, the 3/5 clause meant that every new territory added to the Union as a “slave state” would be able to count three fifths of their enslaved population, helping them gain more representatives in Congress, and therefore would have more political power. Moreover, while Northern banks profited from Southern slavery, many white Americans who migrated to the West to start small farms were too poor to own slaves. These settlers did not want to compete economically with wealthy slave owning planters. They also did not want to compete for jobs with African Americans, whether they were free or enslaved.

Sectional Crisis: Bleeding Kansas

The political and economic struggle over the fate of slavery in the Western territories, then, triggered a “sectional crisis” that eventually led to the Civil War. In 1820, antislavery and proslavery factions in Congress attempted to strike a balance by admitting Missouri as a slave state, and Maine as a “free” state, where slavery would be banned. Crucially, slavery would also be allowed south of the Missouri border, in the Arkansas territory and Texas, which the United States acquired by force from Mexico following the Mexican American War (1846-48).  The so-called Missouri Compromise was in fact a compromise in favor of slavery. Subsequent attempts at finding a “sectional balance” in the West also failed. In 1850, California was admitted as a “free state,” but proslavery factions in Congress also passed a law declaring that the status of slavery in future territories would be decided locally – a decision that sparked a mini civil war in Kansas in 1854, as proslavery settlers from Missouri battled abolitionist “Jayhawkers” from the Northeast. Over 100 people were killed in the conflict; each faction set up their own rival territorial governments. This became known as Bleeding Kansas. Kansas entered the Union as a “free state” in 1861, but by then, the sectional crisis had already been decided in favor of slavery.

Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court Decision

With the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the Supreme Court slammed the door shut on abolitionist hopes, by ruling that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, could not be citizens of the United States. Crucially, the Supreme Court also ruled that Congress had no power to ban slavery in any future territory. Ironically, then, on the eve of the Civil War, slavery in the United States was more secure than it had ever been.


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Lesson I. Step 2 of 7