Lesson Plans

Civil War & Reconstruction

The Collapse of Compromise and a Nation
Author: Tiferet Reilly
School: Parkland Magnet Middle
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 3 days (90 minute periods)

Enduring Understanding

Following the controversies and resulting compromises regarding slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the issue lay dormant until 1819 when national tension over slavery was aroused due to westward expansion. Most Americans took it for granted that slavery would exist in the original southern states; however, as the nation expanded westward many Americans resisted the spread of slavery to the new territories. In 1819 Missouri applied for statehood after creating a pro-slavery state constitution. Many northerners in Congress wanted to reject Missouri's application for statehood because it would upset the balance between free and slave states in the Senate. If Missouri was admitted there would be twelve slave states and only eleven free states. There were serious threats of secession until Henry Clay, a congressman from Kentucky, proposed what would come to be known as the Missouri Compromise. The terms of the compromise were that: Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, Maine would separate from Massachusetts to be admitted as a free state thus keeping the balance of power, and slavery would be prohibited above 36°30' or the southern border of Missouri. This compromise passed and averted the crisis of disunion.

For the next thirty years the Missouri Compromise maintained peace and order. Conflict next erupted in 1850 due to the Mexican Cession, which re-opened the issue of the expansion of slavery, which was put to rest by the Missouri Compromise. In 1850 California requested admission to the union as a free state. California's admission would again upset the balance of power in the Senate. California would be the 16th Free State if it was admitted and there would only be 15 slave states. An aging Henry Clay came up with his last union preserving compromise. This Compromise had many components, which were passed separately due to the efforts of Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. The following are terms of the Compromise of 1850: admission of California as a free state, an end to the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia, passage of a strict federal law which enforced the fugitive slave clause from the Constitution, payment to Texas for a reduction in its territory, and organization of New Mexico and Utah as territories with popular sovereignty. This last term set a precedent that placed a nail in the coffin of the principles of the Missouri Compromise.

Popular Sovereignty was a principle favored by Stephen Douglas, which removed the issue of slavery from the national Congress and relinquished it to local control. Settlers living in a territory would vote on whether to allow slavery in their constitution before requesting admission to the Union. Douglas believed popular sovereignty was the answer to the nation's troubles as it would end the national debate over the extension of slavery in the territories and uphold the most basic republican principle of personal and local liberty. Douglas was eager to promote the settlement of the Northern part of the Louisiana Purchase, known as Nebraska Territory, as he hoped to build the terminal for the transcontinental railroad in Chicago. To accomplish his goals, Douglas proposed the Kansas and Nebraska Act in 1854. This piece of legislation divided the Nebraska Territory into two parts, Kansas and Nebraska, and stated that the principle of popular sovereignty would be used to decide the questions of slavery in these two territories. Douglas grossly miscalculated the reaction his northern colleagues would have to the bill. Senators like Charles Sumner of Massachusetts were outraged. The Nebraska Territory was completely north of 36°30' and allowing slavery to spread there through the principle of popular sovereignty would nullify the Missouri Compromise, which northerners saw as a sacred compact between the states. Southerners supported the Kansas Nebraska Act as it gave them a shot at spreading slavery to Kansas that they never would have had without the Bill.

When the Kansas Nebraska Bill passed it started a race between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces to settle their supporters in Kansas to ensure that the outcome of the popular sovereignty principle would be to their liking. Not surprisingly the Kansas Nebraska Act led to conflict in Kansas which was dubbed "bleeding Kansas." Pro-slavery forces moved across the border from Missouri into Kansas to ensure the spread of slavery. New England abolitionists like John Brown moved to Kansas with the support of men like Henry Ward Stowe who sent "Beecher's bibles" which were actually guns to Kansas. This violence foreshadowed the more extensive civil war that was yet to come. By late 1856 more than 200 people had been killed and there were two parallel governments and constitutions in Kansas, one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner gave a speech called "The Crime Against Kansas" which condemned the role of pro-slavery forces in the violence. He was beaten by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in retaliation for insulting Brooks' uncle Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. It took Sumner three years to recover from his injuries.

In 1857 the Supreme Court published their opinion in regard to the case Scott v. Sandford. Scott was a slave who sued his owner for his freedom by virtue of the fact that residing in a free territory and state made him free. The Supreme Court declared that Scott was not a citizen because he was black and therefore had no standing to sue in a federal court. Instead of just throwing out the case due to lack of jurisdiction, the Supreme Court went on and ruled that Congress could not prohibit the spread of slavery into the territories, thus declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. This was a major setback for the North and a great victory for the South – the highest tribunal in the land had unequivocally ruled on their side. Northerners would not accept the Dred Scott ruling and saw in it evidence of a slave power conspiracy.

Tension over slavery after the Mexican American War had a colossal impact on the American Political system. The conflict over slavery was responsible for the creation of new political parties and the demise of established political parties. In 1848 the Free Soil Party was formed in response to the failure of the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit slavery from all territory gained in the Mexican American War, to pass the Senate. In the 1848 presidential election Van Buren, the Free Soil Party candidate, won 14 percent of the vote. In addition to Kansas, the Whig Party was a casualty of the Kansas Nebraska Act. As the tension over slavery increased the national political parties had a hard time ignoring the issue. After the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act most Northerners abandoned the Whig Party, which hastened its demise. In 1856 the remaining Whigs became part of the Know Nothing Party. Bleeding Kansas and anger over the Fugitive Slave Act contributed to the creation of another anti-slavery political party, the Republicans, which fielded their first presidential candidate in 1856. Tension over slavery divided the Democratic Party so bitterly that the Northern and Southern Democrats ended up having two separate conventions and supporting two different candidates.

The Northern Democrats supported Stephan Douglas for president along with his platform of popular sovereignty. Vice President John Breckinridge was the Southern Democratic candidate who ran on the Alabama platform, which called for a federal slave code including federal protection of all types of property. In addition to Douglas and Breckinridge, two other candidates competed in the election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln represented the Republican Party and an end to the expansion of slavery and John Bell represented another new party, the Constitutional Union Party, which attempted to ignore slavery in favor of the Constitution, the laws, and preserving the Union. Through this extended lesson plan students will discover how the demise of the Missouri Compromise resulted in disunion and civil war. Students will follow the evolution of the political system as the parties reacted to the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision culminating in each party's 1860 platform and the outcome of the election. The fragmentation of the political system represents a microcosm of the increased division between the north and the south.


Students will analyze primary sources to identify the perspectives of various political parties regarding the Kansas Nebraska Act and Scott v. Sandford in order to write an ECR (multi-paragraph essay) which determines the impact these events had on national political unity.


Unit 8.4: "A Nation Divided & Rebuilt"

Lesson 2.4: Beyond Compromise



Day 1: Background

1. Activating prior knowledge: Warm up Questions

  • What compromises over slavery had the US made in the past?
  • Were these compromises successful?
  • Take the time to review the Missouri Compromise using an interactive map available online at http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/neh/interactives/sectionalism/lesson1/ Guiding Questions include:
      How did the North and South react when Missouri wanted to become a state?
    • What was the Missouri Compromise?
    • How did the Missouri Compromise solve the problem of keeping the balance of power in the Senate between free and slave states?
    • What territory was added to the slave side? What territory was to be kept free of slavery?
    • Why would the South look to the land to the west of the borders of the U.S., in what was then part of Spain?
    • Do you think this was a long term or temporary solution? Why?

2. Focus Question:

  • How did the collapse of the Missouri Compromise lead to secession and the coming of the Civil War?
  • Discuss the focus question with the students. Explain that they will discover what happened when the Missouri Compromise was overturned.

3. Main Activity: Overview of the Kansas Nebraska Act & the Dred Scott decision

Day 2: Primary Source Research

1. Activator:

  • What was the Kansas Nebraska Act? What was the outcome of this act?
  • What was the Supreme Court's decision in Scott v. Sandford?

2. Main Activity: Political Party Research

  • Students will be divided into four groups: the four political parties that fielded a candidate in the election of 1860 – Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, Republicans, and Constitutional Union Party.
  • Each group will analyze primary sources related to their party's position on the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case in order to determine how the collapse of the Missouri Compromise led to Division, Secession, and Civil War.
  • The group for each political party will come together and share what they learned and read their party's 1860 platform in order to create a presentation for their classmates that explains their party's platform and views on the Kansas Nebraska Act & Dred Scott Decision.

Day 3: Assessment/Presentations

1. Activator:

  • What was your party's position on the Kansas Nebraska Act?
  • What was your party's position on the Dred Scott case?

2. Presentations/1860 Election Debate

  • Each group will give a "stump speech" that presents their party's view on the issues they researched.
  • The rest of the class will act as reporters/voters and will take notes on each party's position and ask clarifying questions.
  • Students will discuss who the likely supporters of each party would be and which party's positions/platform were the most persuasive or beneficial to the interests of the US as a whole.
  • Go over the outcome of the election of 1860 and its impact. (Secession etc.)

3. Extended Constructed Response (ECR / muti-paragraph essay)

  • Using their knowledge of the Kansas Nebraska Act, Dred Scott decision, and the positions of each political party students will write an ECR that answers the following question:
    How did the collapse of the Missouri Compromise lead to secession and the coming of the civil war?
    • Explain the different opinions each Political party had regarding the Kansas Nebraska Act OR the Dred Scott decision.
    • Explain how the event contributed to division in American culture, secession, and the coming of the Civil War.


The assignment of homework is up to the instructor's discretion. If you are short on time have students who are comfortable with primary source analysis read and analyze their source at home or write the ECR (multi-paragraph essay) at home. If you have ample time you can conduct the entire extended lesson in class.


In its current form this lesson is designed for gifted and talented or advanced classes. You may decrease the number of documents used with the students, shorten the documents, or define difficult words in parentheses as they appear in the text to differentiate for and accommodate LEP students or students with less developed skills.


This lesson contains both an oral and written assessment. Students will be assessed on their stump speech – their presentation of their political party's platform, and the ECR (multi-paragraph essay) they will write in response to the focus question.

References: Web

Republican Party Documents

U.S. History Survey Course, "Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Crime Against Kansas; Senate, May 19-20, 1856"
Republican Senator Charles Sumner expresses his opposition to slavery and the slave power which seeks to take over and pollute Kansas in violation of all our rights. This is an appeal by Sumner to the people of the country to halt the crime of slavery which has led to civil war in Kansas by voting for the Republican candidate in 1856. Sumner specifically denounces the actions of Senator Butler of South Carolina, accusing him of being a mouthpiece for that vile harlot slavery.
Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, "Compromises," Hartford, Connecticut, Daily Courant [Whig] (16 May 1854)
This northern Whig editorial discusses the serious nature of compromises and how our government has been built upon them. If the south breaches the Missouri Compromise by passing the Kansas Nebraska Act the north will never be able to trust the south again. It might lead to the destruction of the greatest compromise, the Constitution, and the dissolution of the Union.
Digitization Projects, Northern Illinois University Libraries, Lincoln, Abraham; Nicolay, John G., ed; Hay, John, ed. "Speech at Peoria in Reply to Senator Douglas, October 16, 1854" in The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, v. 2 . New York: Francis D. Tandy Company, 1894, 1854.
In this speech Lincoln explains his opposition to the Kansas Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise. Lincoln clearly explains his views regarding slavery, African Americans, the Fugitive Slave law, and the Kansas Nebraska Act.
Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gazette [Republican] (7 March 1857)
This editorial from a Republican Newspaper disregards the Supreme Court's decision in Scott v. Sandford as an utter nullity devoid of all legal force due to lack of jurisdiction. The author also states that the Dred Scott case is mere opinion that can be disregarded just as Jackson disregarded Marshall's decision affirming the constitutionality of the bank. The editorial believes and hopes that the Republican Party will repudiate the ruling and that the people will affirm this belief when they go to the polls.
TeachingAmericanHistory.org, The Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, Ashland University, Abraham Lincoln, "Speech on the Dred Scott Decision," June 26, 1857
In the opening of this speech Lincoln states his opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He believes it was an erroneous decision that should be overturned because it is based on historical inaccuracies, was decided on a partisan basis, and did not receive unanimous consent from the justices.
An American Time Capsule, Library of Congress, American Memory, "National Republican Platform Adopted by the National Republican Convention, Held in Chicago, May 17, 1860"
Platform agreed upon by the Republican Party which opposes popular sovereignty and the Kansas Nebraska Act among other things.
The Presidential Elections: 1860-1912, HarpWeek, "The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved" (c.1860) Cartoonist: Unknown, Source: Library of Congress
This is a campaign banner for the Republican Party that expresses their platform.

Northern Democratic Party Documents

Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, "Nebraska - Mr. Douglas's Report," New Haven, Connecticut, Register [Democratic] (16 January 1854)
This Democratic editorial supports the Kansas Nebraska Act as a measure that can preserve the unity of the Democratic Party.
Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, "The Question Settled. -- Black Republicanism vs. the Constitution." Concord, New Hampshire, New Hampshire Patriot [Democratic] (18 March 1857)
This editorial declares that the Supreme Court ruling in regard to the Dred Scott case is the supreme law of the land, on the same level as the Constitution, and that it can only be opposed by force. According to the author this ruling puts an end to all agitation regarding the slavery question and proves that, "the black republican creed and purposes are at war with the constitution, are treasonable, and contemplate the overthrow of the Union."
The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals, Library of Congress, American Memory, "Popular Sovereignty In The Territories," Stephen A. Douglas, Harper's new monthly magazine. Volume 19, Issue 112, September 1859, Page(s) 519-537
In this article, Stephen Douglas explains how the principles of popular sovereignty are not at odds with the Supreme Court's ruling in the Dred Scott case.
The Avalon Project Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, "Democratic Party Platform; June 18, 1860" (Stephen A. Douglas and the Northern Democrats, Baltimore Convention)
This platform is based on the 1856 platform of the Democratic Party along with a few alterations. The platform defers to the Supreme Court's rulings regarding any matter to do with slavery, opposes states that do not uphold the Fugitive slave law, and supports the acquisition of Cuba.
The Presidential Elections: 1860-1912, HarpWeek, "Our Portrait Gallery – No. 16" Cartoonist: Unknown Source: The Rail Splitter, Chicago, October 6, 1860
This cartoon shows Douglas struggling to ride two horses at the same time – one is labeled "popular sovereignty" and the other is labeled "Dred Scott." This cartoon is an allegory for the paradoxical position Douglas took in regards to his support of popular sovereignty and the Dred Scott ruling, an attempt at appeasing Northerners and southerners.

Southern Democratic Party Documents

Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, "The Nebraska Bill Passed." Milledgeville, Georgia, Federal Union [Democratic] (30 May 1854)
This Southern Democratic editorial rejoices at the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act and praises Douglas' role in its adoption. The editorial is hopeful for the future of the country in light of the support some northerners have granted the south.
Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, "The Dread Scott Case" Richmond, Virginia, Enquirer [Democratic] (10 March 1857)
Secession Era Editorials Project, Furman University Department of History, "Supreme Court vs. The Abolitionists." Richmond, Virginia, Enquirer [Democratic] (13 March 1857)
Both the previous editorials from the Virginia Enquirer on the Dred Scott case express satisfaction at the just decision of the Court and state that this decision is finality and it would be treasonous not to adhere to it.
Nineteenth Century Documents Project, Dr. T. Lloyd Benson, Furman University, "Democratic Party Platform; June 18, 1860" (John C. Breckenridge and the Southern Democrats, Richmond Convention)
The southern Democratic platform is very similar to the Northern Democratic platform except for its insistence that Congress cannot restrict slavery in the territories, that slavery in the territories is to be decided by the citizens of the territory when they request admission in to the Union and write a state constitution.
Valley of the Shadow Project, Virginia Center for Digital History, UVA, "For the Vindicator--Middlebrook, VA, Sept. 4th, '60" Staunton Vindicator, 1860-09-07, Page 03
This letter to the editor states that Breckinridge's views regarding slavery in the territories has been misrepresented and seeks to correct the record.
Internet Archive, "Speech of Hon. John C. Breckinridge, Vice-President of the United States, at Ashland, Kentucky, 09/05/1860"
Breckinridge attacks Douglas for inconsistencies on his position regarding popular sovereignty and the ruling in the Dred Scott Case. According to Breckinridge there is no difference between slaves and any other type of property. Breckinridge asserts that he always said a territorial government could not exclude slavery and now that the Supreme Court has affirmed this belief Douglas should concur. Breckinridge believes that his faction of the Democratic Party is the constitutional party which seeks to uphold the Constitution, unlike the other parties.
An American Time Capsule, Library of Congress, American Memory, "Democratic ticket. Our principals the constitution. For President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky For Vice President Joseph Lane of Oregon. Electors...Election on Tuesday, November 6th, 1860. Lith of Hoyer & Ludwig, Richmond, Va.
This is the Southern Democratic ticket for the election of 1860. It calls for the repeal of the Missouri "Restriction" and protection for "every species of property."

Constitutional Union Party Documents

Valley of the Shadow Project, Virginia Center for Digital History, UVA, "The Constitutional Union Party--Address of the National Central Executive Committee," Staunton Spectator, February 28, 1860.
This is the address that unveiled the principles of the Constitutional Union Party and the reasons behind its creation. It was designed to be an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties whom the founders of the Constitutional Union Party blame for bringing the divisive issue of slavery into national politics thereby jeopardizing the Union.
Valley of the Shadow Project, Virginia Center for Digital History, UVA, "The Convention and the Ticket," Staunton Spectator, 1860-05-15, Page 02
In this article, the Staunton Spectator offers the Constitutional Union Party its full support. The author believes that the victory of this anti-sectional party is the only way to save the Union.
Valley of the Shadow Project, Virginia Center for Digital History, UVA, "The Four Great Parties--Their Relative Position and Policy," Staunton Spectator, July 31, 1860
This editorial offers unequivocal support to the Constitutional Union Party because in the author's estimation it is the only national party. The author encourages supporters of Douglas and Bell to work together to ensure that the sectional parties that promote disunion led by Lincoln and Breckinridge aren't victorious in the election.
The Presidential Elections: 1860-1912, HarpWeek, "Grand National Union Banner for 1860"
This is the campaign banner for the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. This banner depicts the ticket – Bell and Everett, along with their platform that is encapsulated by the phrase, "Liberty and Union Now and Forever One and Inseperable. No North, No South, No East, No West, Nothing but the Union."
The Presidential Elections: 1860-1912, HarpWeek, "[Dividing the] National [Map]" Cartoon, Library of Congress, c. 1860
This cartoon demonstrates how the Republican, Northern Democratic, and Southern Democratic parties are regional not national. The cartoonist depicts the Constitutional Union Party candidate as the only one who will preserve the Union.
Internet Archive, "Address of the national executive committee of the Constitutional union party to the people of the United States" (1860)
This address of the Constitutional Union Party explains why the election of a candidate from any other party would be perilous to the Union. They look disfavorably upon the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and blame the Democratic Party for its demise. The Constitutional Union Party believed that the question of slavery in the territories is a mere abstract question which has already been decided by geographic and economic factors and is outside the political arena.