America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink


It was a year packed with unsettling events. The Panic of 1857 closed every bank in New York City, ruined thousands of businesses, and caused widespread unemployment among industrial workers. The Mormons in Utah Territory threatened rebellion when federal troops approached with a non-Mormon governor to replace Brigham Young. The Supreme Court outraged northern Republicans and abolitionists with the Dred Scott decision ("a breathtaking example of judicial activism"). And when a proslavery minority in Kansas Territory tried to foist a proslavery constitution on a large antislavery majority, President Buchanan reneged on a crucial commitment and supported the minority, a disastrous miscalculation which ultimately split the Democratic party in two. In America in 1857, eminent American historian Kenneth Stampp offers a sweeping narrative of this eventful year, covering all the major crises while providing readers with a vivid portrait of America at mid-century. Stampp gives us a fascinating account of the attempt by William Walker and his band of filibusters to conquer Nicaragua and make it a slave state, of crime and corruption, and of street riots by urban gangs such as New York's Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys and Baltimore's Plug Uglies and Blood Tubs. But the focus continually returns to Kansas. He examines the outrageous political frauds perpetrated by proslavery Kansans, Buchanan's calamitous response and Stephen Douglas's break with the President (a rare event in American politics, a major party leader repudiating the president he helped elect), and the whirl of congressional votes and dramatic debates that led to a settlement humiliating to Buchanan--and devastating to the Democrats. 1857 marked a turning point, at which sectional conflict spun out of control and the country moved rapidly toward the final violent resolution in the Civil War. Stampp's intensely focused look at this pivotal year illuminates the forces at work and the mood of the nation as it plummeted toward disaster.


This book is about a crucial year in the antebellum American sectional conflict. History, of course, does not usually divide itself neatly into twelve-month segments, but, as a time frame, a year is no more artificial than a decade, or an "age" (of Jefferson or of Jackson), or a century. In a way, it is perhaps less artificial, for it is a span of time imposed not by some human decimal contrivance but by the inexorable mechanics of the solar system. The rhythm of the seasons, to some degree, regulates the lives of nations as well as individuals. Each new year marks a new beginning with its fresh hopes and brave resolutions. At year's end each winter solstice brings its coda, recapitulating gains and losses, successes and failures.

In 1856 three events had worsened the already strained relations between the North and South: first, a violent struggle between proslavery and free-state parties for control of Kansas Territory; second, a bitter controversy over the question of congressional authority to exclude slavery from the western territories; third, an exciting presidential campaign during which numerous Southerners threatened secession if the young Republican party, with its antislavery platform, should elect its first presidential candidate. In the autumn, the political crisis dissipated when peace was restored in Kansas and when the national Democratic party won the presidential election and control of both houses of Congress.

The year 1857 dawned with widespread expectations of a diminution of sectional tensions. On March 4, James Buchanan began his administration with a commitment to resolve the Kansas question and restore harmony between the sections. Most Northerners and Southerners were relieved that a secession crisis had been averted and hoped once more for a durable political settlement. All that was required, many believed, was to permit the qualified voters of Kansas Territory to elect delegates to a constitutional convention, to authorize that body to frame a state constitution acceptable to the majority, and to provide for its submission to popular ratification. With Kansas admitted to statehood, peace between the sections would be restored. All remaining sectional issues, the optimists claimed, were manageable, for a conflict over slavery in any of the other territories seemed unlikely.

These were the fair promises that produced a general mood of optimism in . . .

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