For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence

By Alexander Tsesis | Go to book overview

8
THE UNRAVELING BONDS
OF UNION

IN THE DECADE AND A HALF LEADING UP TO THE CIVIL WAR, THE nation experienced a series of intense internal struggles. The United States incorporated an enormous amount of land to the west after victory in the Mexican American War. Heated debates in Congress, the press, and public then arose about governance of the newly acquired territories. Slavery was the most divisive issue of them all. On one side were those who argued that the Declaration of Independence and its principle of liberal equality prohibited expansion of so inhumane an institution. In the other corner were polemicists who asserted that slaves were not protected by the Declaration’s statement of inalienable rights. The latter group argued that the Declaration was meant to protect only whites, their property, and their right to legal self-determination.

A political movement arose to protect laborers from being treated like slaves, and to defend U.S. territories against encroachment by the South’s peculiar institution. With the ascent of the Republican Party, a variety of reform causes, ranging from abolitionism to women’s rights, were absorbed into the mainstream in the North but were greeted violently in the South. Reformers regarded the Declaration of Independence to be the anchor for

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