U.S. History: From Jackson to Lincoln (1829-1861)

This image is a formal portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. The portrait showcases Jackson from the waist up, with a serious and contemplative expression on his face. His hair is white and styled in a characteristic fashion of the era, swept back and voluminous, adding to his distinguished appearance. Jackson is dressed in formal attire, typical of the early 19th century. He wears a high-collared white shirt, over which a black cravat is tied. His outer garment appears to be a dark-colored coat with a large, rich, burgundy shawl or cloak draped over his shoulders. The texture of his attire is finely detailed, suggesting high-quality fabrics. The background of the portrait is dark and muted, focusing attention on Jackson. Subtle hints of color and shading in the backdrop give depth without drawing attention away from the subject. The overall tone of the painting is somber and dignified, reflecting Jackson's prominence and serious demeanor.
A portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph Earl. Public domain image.

In 1824, John Quincy Adams secured the presidency with the help of a “corrupt bargain” articulated in Congress, despite losing the popular vote to Andrew Jackson. Four years later, Jackson would finally rise to power in the 1828 elections, with widespread popular support. His time in office marked the beginning of the Jacksonian Democracy, which embraced a series of principles that made the United States stronger and more democratic, to the detriment of Native Americans. It also marked the apogee of the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement with profound social changes. Following Jackson’s presidency, those of John Tyler and James Polk reinforced American expansionism, culminating in the Mexican War and the doubling of the territory of the country. However, territorial expansion meant that new states could join the U.S. either as free states or slave states, and the debate over slavery soon proved to be an insurmountable reality. In the end, the rise of Abraham Lincoln made America move towards a bloody Civil War, which would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery and the dominance of Northern interests in the country.

The Jacksonian Era

Andrew Jackson’s election reflected the growing sentiment that governance should be by the people, not traditional elites. It marked the beginning of populism in American history, with the establishment of the Jacksonian Democracy. This political philosophy proclaimed certain principles that guided American politics in the 1830s and that are still relevant:

  • Equality: Unlike Jefferson, who prioritized the yeomen (farmers with small rural properties), Jackson believed in the power of all citizens, whether from urban or from rural areas. Of course, the notion of citizenship at the time applied mostly for white men over 21 years old, thus excluding women, Blacks and Native Americans.
  • Access to education: It became clear that universal suffrage required a literate electorate. Workingmen’s organizations demanded free, tax-supported schools for all children. Thanks to the efforts of politicians like Horace Mann in Massachusetts, legislation for free education was gradually enacted. This led to the establishment of public schools throughout country, particularly in the North.
  • Rotation in public office: Jackson believed that government jobs should not be indefinitely assigned to someone, in order to combat patronage.
  • Strong federal government: The President earned the nickname “King Andrew” because he expanded the powers of the executive. For instance, he created the president’s power to veto laws, and, in 1831, even demanded the resignations of all members of his cabinet, except one. He was not afraid of exercising his powers autonomously.
  • Strong military: Jackson valued the Armed Forces and sent troops to expel Native Americans from their territories, paving the way for further expansion of American settlements to the West.

American population and territorial expansion brought conflicts with Native Americans. Jackson wanted to forcibly move them to the West of the Mississippi River, because gold was discovered near their lands. However, evangelical groups and even the Supreme Court stood in the way of the administration’s plans. The former were hoping to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and the latter attempted to prevent the government from encroaching on the tribal lands.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act provided funds to relocate the Cherokees and the Seminoles. The following year, Chief Justice John Marshall determined that Native Americans were “domestic dependent nations” — that is, they had custody of their lands much like a guardian had the custody of a ward. In theory, the Supreme Court’s decision established political autonomy for native tribes. In practice, however, Andrew Jackson blatantly ignored these provisions and ordered the displacement of Native Americans, who suffered greatly on the “Trail of Tears” to the Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma. This marked a dark chapter in the American history, highlighting the cost of westward expansion for indigenous communities.

This image is a map illustrating the routes taken during the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native American tribes in the United States. The map covers a broad geographical area, including parts of several states: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. The map is color-coded to indicate different routes: land routes are marked with dashed blue lines, water routes with solid blue lines, and other major routes with green lines. Key locations are marked with dots and labeled with names such as Tahlequah, Springfield, Cape Girardeau, Hopkinsville, Nashville, Charleston, Memphis, Fort Smith, Evansville, and Little Rock. The routes converge from various starting points, leading westward towards Oklahoma, highlighting the arduous journey faced by the displaced Native American tribes. The background of the map is a muted tan color, providing a clear contrast to the route lines. The map also includes major rivers like the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers, which are crucial landmarks in understanding the journey. The text at the bottom reads "Trail of Tears National Historic Trail", emphasizing the historical significance of these routes. This map serves as a stark reminder of the displacement and suffering endured by the Native American communities during this period.
A map of the various routes that comprised the Trail of Tears. Water routes are shown in blue lines, land routes are shown in dotted blue lines, and other major routes are shown in green lines. Public domain image.

Another significant issue during Jackson’s presidency was the struggle over the existence of the Second Bank of the United States. Established in 1791 and re-chartered in 1816, the bank was a private corporation with public functions, such as stabilizing the currency. However, it was unpopular in newer states and among Southerners and Westerners who believed it represented wealthy interests. Jackson believed the bank held a monopoly over the financial system and was opposed to its powerful influence in the economy. For this reason, in 1832, he vetoed an early renewal of the bank’s charter and ordered the withdrawal of government funds from the bank. These funds were then distributed to state banks, known as “pet banks”, for they were associated with Jackson’s friends and political allies.

Over the following years, this arrangement left the nation with an unregulated economic system. It was vulnerable to instability and prone to speculation — something that would not be solved until the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1913. As a way to escape worsening economic conditions, many more Americans migrated to the West.

Towards the end of his first term, in 1832, Jackson clashed with his own vice-president, John Calhoun, in what came to be known as the Nullification Crisis. Calhoun, a Democratic-Republican from South Carolina, and the business and farming interests that he represented were vehemently opposed to certain tariffs, which they saw as favoring Northern manufacturers at their expense. They hoped Jackson would modify them. Despite a downward revision of the protectionist tariffs, South Carolina declared that they were null and void within the state, and raised a military force in defiance of the federal government.

Jackson responded by sending naval vessels to Charleston and issuing a strong proclamation against nullification, asserting that South Carolina was on the brink of insurrection and treason. He threatened to lead the U.S. Army himself if necessary. Senator Henry Clay, a devoted Unionist, proposed a compromise tariff that gradually reduced duties, alongside a Force Act authorizing military enforcement. Isolated from other Southern states, South Carolina eventually rescinded its nullification, claiming victory for obtaining many of its demands.

Because of his disagreements with Calhoun, Andrew Jackson held a party convention in which Martin Van Buren was chosen as his running mate for the 1832 presidential elections. They easily won this contest against Henry Clay.

Starting in 1833, the United States transitioned to its second party system. It was characterized by the rivalry between Democrats and Whigs, both of which adopted populist and evangelical tendencies:

  • The Democratic Party was created by Andrew Jackson as a dissidence of the Democratic-Republicans.
  • The Whig Party was created by Jackson’s opponents, such as John Quincy Adams. The only thing that united them was their opposition to the president.

Meanwhile, territorial expansion was creating problems in Texas, where American cotton producers were settling. Because Mexico was unwilling to welcome them in its territory, they rebelled against the Mexican government and declared the independence of Texas in 1836. Their appointed president, Sam Houston, wanted to secure admission in the U.S., but his appeals were in vain. At that time, Jackson’s administration was reluctant to provoke a war with Mexico and there were concerns about Texas joining the Union as a slave state.

In 1836, Jackson chose Martin Van Buren as his successor. At the time, despite organizing quickly, the Whigs were too divided to present a strong candidate to the presidency, leading to Buren’s victory.

The new administration had to deal the Panic of 1837: a massive economic crisis precipitated by the deregulation of the banking system by Jackson. In order to face a Jacksonian crisis, a Jacksonian solution was chosen. Martin Van Buren democratized the protections against bankruptcy and abolished debtors’ prisons. On the long run, this fostered a risk-taking culture in America, with enduring consequences for the economy. On the short run, however, the government was unable to contain the crisis, and the president was nicknamed “Van Ruin”. Predictably, he failed to secure re-election, losing the presidency to William Henry Harrison in 1840. Exactly a month into his term, Harrison died of pneumonia, so vice-president John Tyler took his place.

The Second Great Awakening

By the end of the 18th century, many educated Americans no longer adhered to traditional Christian beliefs. In response to this secularism, a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening spread westward in the first half of the 19th century, and reached its climax during the Jacksonian Era. This revival manifested in different ways across the country. In New England, it inspired social activism. In western New York, it led to the rise of new denominations. In Kentucky and Tennessee, it strengthened the Methodists and Baptists and introduced the camp meeting.

Unlike the emotional fervor of the Great Awakening in the 1730s, the revivals in the East during the Second Great Awakening were marked by calm and respectful silence. This evangelical enthusiasm led to the formation of interdenominational missionary societies aimed at spreading the faith in the West. These societies also promoted education and social reform, such as the American Bible Society, which was founded in 1816. The revival inspired movements opposing the sale and use of alcohol, advocating for the reform of prisons and proposing to care for the mentally ill and handicapped. In addition, these movements were essential to highlighting the role of women in society.

The temperance movement preached abstinence from alcohol and the end of wage payments through alcoholic beverages. It emerged from concerns about alcohol’s impact on workers, as well as the violence and suffering caused by heavy drinking. At that time, women were confined to their homes and suffered great abuse from drunken husbands. In 1826, Boston ministers organized the Society for the Promotion of Temperance. In 1833, the American Temperance Union was formed, calling for the prohibition of alcohol. By 1855, thirteen states had banned alcohol, though these laws were often challenged in court. The movement significantly reduced alcohol consumption between 1830 and 1860.

Reformers also addressed issues in prisons and care for the mentally ill. Efforts shifted from punishment to rehabilitation in prisons. Dorothea Dix led a campaign to improve conditions for the insane, who were often confined in poor conditions. Her efforts led to the establishment of hospitals for the insane in nine Southern states between 1845 and 1852.

These social reforms helped women realize their own unequal status. Unmarried women had some legal rights, but married women lost their separate identities under the law. They were not allowed to vote, and their education was limited. The women’s rights movement began with Frances Wright, a Scottish lecturer, who promoted women’s rights, including access to information on birth control and divorce. Elizabeth Cady Stanton emerged as a leading figure, organizing the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The convention produced the “Declaration of Sentiments”, calling for equality, the right to vote, and equal opportunities. Stanton’s prominence grew as she advocated for women’s suffrage, recognizing that without the right to vote, women would never achieve equality.

Western New York, known as the “Burned-Over District” due to frequent religious revivals, saw the rise of Charles Grandison Finney, a lawyer turned preacher. His carefully planned and advertised revivals throughout the 1820s and 1830s led to his position at Oberlin College in Ohio. The Burned-Over District also gave rise to the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists.

In the Appalachian region, the revival took on characteristics similar to the Great Awakening, centered around camp meetings where people gathered for several days of religious services. These meetings provided a refuge from frontier life and featured dancing, shouting, and singing. The largest camp meeting, at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801, drew between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

This image illustrates a Methodist camp meeting, a common event during the Second Great Awakening in the United States. The scene is set outdoors, in a wooded area, with a large gathering of people attending the meeting. In the center, there is a wooden stage or platform, elevated and covered with a simple roof. On this platform, several preachers or speakers are visible, addressing the crowd. Some are standing and gesturing passionately, indicating the fervent nature of the preaching. The structure is rudimentary, emphasizing the grassroots nature of these gatherings. The audience is diverse, with men, women, and children of various ages. They are dressed in period attire, with women in long dresses and bonnets, and men in trousers, jackets, and hats. The crowd is seated on benches or standing, with many listening intently to the speakers. The expressions on their faces reflect a range of emotions, from solemnity to enthusiasm. Surrounding the main area are numerous tents, indicating that this is an extended event where attendees camp out. The trees are lush and green, providing a natural canopy over the scene. The overall colors are earthy and natural, with greens from the trees and browns from the ground and tents. The image captures a moment of religious fervor and community gathering in a serene natural setting.
A camp meeting of the American Methodists during the Second Great Awakening. Public domain engraving by Dubourg.

The revival spread through Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio, benefiting the Methodists and Baptists. The Methodists had an efficient organization with circuit riders who sought out people in remote areas. The Baptists, without formal organization, relied on farmer-preachers who felt a divine call and founded churches. These methods allowed the Baptists to dominate the border states and much of the South.

The Second Great Awakening had a profound impact on American history. The Baptists and Methodists grew in numerical strength, surpassing the denominations dominant during the colonial period. The increasing diversity within American Protestantism reflected the growth of an expanding nation. Nevertheless, the strengthening of Protestantism also increased American animosity towards immigrants who competed for jobs and political influence. Back then, Europeans were fleeing liberal revolutions in their continent, and many of them came to the United States — particularly Germans and Irish.

These immigrants faced hostility from organizations like the secretive Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, known as the “Know-Nothings”. They sought to extend naturalization periods and exclude immigrants and Catholics from public office. The Irish were the main targets of xenophobia, because they were Catholics. They were paid less than their counterparts and were practically forced to live in separate neighborhoods. In spite of these challenges, they attempted to maintain their culture, seeking protection from the Democrats. Although the Know-Nothings gained some political power, ultimately the party split over disagreements about slavery.

Tyler, Polk and the Mexican War

In April 1841, John Tyler, a Whig from Virginia, assumed the presidency after the sudden death of William Henry Harrison. Because he was not meant to be president and his political power was weak, he was nicknamed “His Accidency”. The Whigs, including those within his own cabinet, abandoned him after he vetoed a bill to create a national bank and raise tariffs. As a staunch defender of states’ rights, the president opposed anything that of “national” scope (including a bank). Because of his political isolation, he managed to achieve little during his term.

One of Tyler’s goals was to add to the United States both Texas and Oregon, which remained, respectively, Mexican and English territories, despite being occupied by Americans. He believed Texas could join as a slave state, while Oregon as a free state. In order to implement his plan, he counted on the support of John Calhoun, the Secretary of State, who was enthusiastic about expanding slavery to the West. The president ran for re-election under the slogan “Tyler and Texas”, but withdrew his candidacy after Andrew Jackson orchestrated for James Polk to be the Democratic candidate.

Much like Tyler, Polk was also a strong proponent of American expansionism. First, his administration offered to buy Cuba from Spain — but the English objected to this, for the island would become another slave state, and the Spanish refused to sell it. Then, the administration acquired Oregon from England, in 1846. Finally, Polk set his eyes on Texas. He offered to buy both New Mexico and California. When the Mexicans declined this proposal, he sent the military to the region as a provocation. When some American troops were killed by Mexicans, he found a pretext to launch an attack against the Mexican government.

As a congressman, Abraham Lincoln opposed Polk’s provocative maneuvers. He demanded that the government clarify if the soldiers were really killed within American territory, as Polk claimed. Lincoln’s “spot resolutions”, asking for the exact location of the deaths, earned him the nickname “spotty Lincoln”. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s actions were unable to prevent the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

The war was politically divisive, because many people believed it was a war of aggression and its goal was the expansion of slavery. John Quincy Adams, for example, publicly denounced the attempt to add more slave states to the Union. Also, the conflict was a training ground for officers that would later fight the Civil War.

News from the frontlines arrived in American cities in record time, thanks to a news-gathering network involving boats, stagecoaches and early telegraph operators. This consortium of press entities would later form the Associated Press.

This painting depicts the Battle of Río San Gabriel, a significant engagement during the Mexican-American War. The scene is dynamic and chaotic, capturing the intensity of the battle. In the foreground, a group of American soldiers, dressed in blue military uniforms, are seen advancing and firing their rifles. Their uniforms are detailed with elements such as belts, bags, and hats, showcasing the typical attire of soldiers during this period. The soldiers are in various poses, some standing and aiming, others crouching or fallen, indicating the chaos and danger of the battle. To the right, mounted Mexican soldiers in distinctive uniforms are engaged in close combat with the advancing American forces. The horses are depicted in mid-motion, adding to the sense of action. The Mexican soldiers' attire features bright colors and intricate details, differentiating them from the American troops. The middle ground shows more soldiers, both American and Mexican, engaged in the conflict, with smoke from gunfire and cannons filling the air. Trees and natural elements in the background provide a sense of location, suggesting a rural setting with distant mountains under a partly cloudy sky. The colors are vivid, with a mix of blues, greens, and earth tones, highlighting the dramatic and violent nature of the battle.
The Battle of Río San Gabriel, in which American troops won a decisive victory over Mexico. Public domain painting by James Walker.

In 1847, U.S. troops defeated Mexico and forced peace negotiations. They resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed the following year, which had the following provisions:

  • All territories above the 36th parallel would be transferred to the United States. This represented more than half of all Mexican territories, which would become the American states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.
  • In exchange for these territories, the United States would pay 15 million dollars to the Mexican government.
  • Mexicans who still lived in the affected regions had the option to relocate to Mexico or become American citizens. About 100,000 of them stayed where they were. However, over the following years, they suffered great prejudice and had difficulties integrating their agrarian practices to the industrial and commercial economy of the United States.

As the United States acquired Mexican territories, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to a rush of settlers. Because of this, Congress acted quickly to establish governance and to collect duties in the region.

The Struggles over Slavery before the Civil War

The conclusion of the Mexican-American reignited debates over whether new American states would permit slavery or not, intensifying the tensions that would lead to the Civil War. Southerners wanted all lands acquired from Mexico to allow slavery, while antislavery Northerners demanded the establishment of free territories. Some moderates proposed extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, while others suggested “popular sovereignty” — that is, letting settlers themselves decide whether or not to allow slavery.

In 1846, congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania had proposed the Wilmot Proviso, according to which slavery would be banned in all territories acquired from Mexico. However, his proposal was ultimately rejected. Texas, for instance, joined the Union as a slave state.

In 1848, Polk decided not to run for re-election, and the presidency was disputed by two candidates who supported the extension of slavery: Lewis Cass, a Democrat, and Zachary Taylor, a Whig. While Taylor was elected, dissidents of both parties who did not want to extend slavery gathered in the Free Soil Party, led by Martin Van Buren. Their motto was “Free soil, free land, free speech, free labor, and free men”. They earned the support of urban workers in the East, farmers in the West, free blacks, and women, receiving nearly 300,000 votes in the 1848 election. Southerners attempted to discredit the Free Soil Party by alluding to the exploitation of workers in Northern industries, claiming that Black people were supposedly inferior, and asserting that slavery was essential to generating wealth.

After Taylor died in office, Millard Fillmore took over at a time when politicians were grappling with the issue of slavery in recently-acquired territories from Mexico. California had just been formed as a free state and wished to join the U.S. as such, what would alter the balance between slave and free states. In order to deal with this issue, Henry Clay once again proposed a middle ground: the Compromise of 1850. It consisted of the following elements:

  • California would be admitted as a free state.
  • In exchange for 10 million dollars, Texas would cede part of its territory to the state of New Mexico.
  • The states of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah would be politically organized without any mention of slavery in their respective constitutions. In accordance with the notion of “popular sovereignty”, each of them could decide, individually, whether or not to allow slavery under their jurisdictions.
  • The slave trade was to be abolished in Washington, D.C.
  • So as to prevent slaves from running away from their owners, the Fugitive Slave Law determined that runaway slaves were to be captured and returned to their places of origin, without the right to appealing to the judiciary. In practice, even free blacks would end up being captured as if they were fugitives.

In the 1850s, the slavery issue divided the Whigs and Democrats, leading to weak presidencies and even discrediting the Supreme Court. During the presidency of Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, the government wanted to end the Indian Territory and transform it into the states of Kansas and Nebraska, in order to build a transcontinental railroad in the region. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), put forward by Stephen Douglas, determined that these states’ respective populations could decide whether or not to accept slavery. In practice, this arrangement invalidated the Missouri Compromise, because both states were located above Missouri’s latitude, thus were supposed to ban slavery.

Following the passage of this law, Nebraska was peacefully incorporated as a free state within the United States, because there was no slavery there. However, something quite different took place in Kansas: a violent confrontation ensued, involving pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates, in what came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Ultimately, Kansas was incorporated as a free state, but tensions remained high.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act marked a shift in U.S. politics:

  • The Democratic Party became the party of slavery.
  • In opposition to the Democrats, the Republican Party emerged as a broad coalition of politicians who were opposed to slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, such as Abraham Lincoln.
  • The American Party, which congregated the Know-Nothings, simply disappeared, as its members split into Northerners and Southerners, based on their stance on slavery.
U.S. History: From Jackson to Lincoln (1829-1861)
A map of the United States in 1856. Free states are shown in pink, slave states are shown in gray, Kansas is in white and American territories are in green.

In the 1856 presidential elections, Millard Fillmore attempted to regain power, running for the Whigs, but his campaign marked the effective end of the party. Many Whigs have simply become Republicans, who presented John Frémont as a candidate. With the slogan “Free Speech, Free Soil, and Frémont”, he advocated for not expanding slavery, not even under the individual wishes of new states. Both Fillmore and Frémont were defeated by James Buchanan, a Democrat who espoused Southern interests (including slavery). His argument for being elected was that he could prevent Americans from engaging in a civil war. Needless to say, his presidency ended up being just an interlude until the outbreak of the conflict.

In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled over the case of Dred Scott, a slave that had been taken to a free state and decided to petition the judiciary for his freedom. First, the Court decided that the Constitution of the United States had been written by men who viewed Blacks as inferior. Therefore, the drafters of the Constitution had not had any intention of assigning citizenship to African-Americans. Dred Scott was considered not a citizen, thus he was deprived of rights. Besides that, the Court ruled that Congress did not have the power to restrict slavery on states, what amounted to declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. This judgement was celebrated by Southern Democrats but condemned in the North, where many common people united in opposition to the Court.

In 1859, John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry aimed to incite a slave uprising. Brown was captured, tried, and hanged, thus becoming a martyr to the anti-slavery cause. This event heightened Southern fears and Northern support for abolition.

In the 1860 presidential election, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the spread of slavery. Southern Democrats, rejecting the notion of popular sovereignty, nominated John Breckenridge. The Constitutional Union Party, which congregated those who refused to become either Republicans or Democrats, nominated John Bell. Lincoln won the election with 39% of the popular vote and a majority of electoral votes, carrying all 18 free states, but having few votes in the South. His victory led South Carolina to secede from the U.S., plunging the divided country in a bloody civil war.


Before the Civil War, the United States experienced profound transformations and escalating tensions. Andrew Jackson’s presidency reinforced populist principles and expanded federal authority, yet some of his policies, particularly those regarding Native Americans and the economy, sparked considerable controversy. The Second Great Awakening catalyzed social reforms and highlighted the role of women in American Society. Meanwhile, territorial expansion, culminating in the Mexican-American War, intensified the debate over slavery. On the eve of the Civil War, the United States found itself clearly divided between Southerners, who defended slavery as essential to the economy, and Northerners, who despised it as something inhumane. These rifts would set the stage for devastating confrontations between the two groups, which forever altered the trajectory of the United States as an independent country.




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