The Great Divide of the 1850's

Third Floor Exhibit in the Warner Jones Gallery

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The sectional tensions that brought on the Civil War and the efforts of prominent Kentuckians to hold the Union together are among the significant stories that The Filson’s collections tell.

Throughout much of the antebellum period, Americans turned to Kentucky’s political leaders, symbolized by Henry Clay, to help diffuse threats to national harmony.

During the 1850s, however, the Ohio River Valley, which had united the Border States as a river system of commerce and migrations, increasingly was viewed as the great divide between North and South, slavery and freedom.

Ironically another Kentuckian, Zachary Taylor, as a general and President, was a leader in the movement to annex new territories in the southwest, which renewed the national debate over expansion of slavery and increased sectional tensions. The middle ground was eroding.

Henry Clay’s death in 1852 symbolized this widening divide. His Compromise of 1850, which many hoped would settle sectional differences, began to unravel. His beloved Whig party died. Open warfare broke out in Kansas. The publication in 1852 of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Underground Railroad, and John Brown’s raid—all of these polarized the region’s people.

Kentuckians of varied political stripes attempted to defuse the situation. Know-Nothing and Unionist George Prentice sought to divert attention from the internal issue of slavery to the external threat of foreign immigration. Democrat and Unionist James Guthrie led the National Peace Conference of 1861. And Constitutional Unionist John J. Crittenden offered his Crittenden Compromise to avert war. All failed.

The presidential election of 1860 reflected the political disruptions. Abraham Lincoln (Republican) and John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) were born in Kentucky. John Bell (Constitutional Union) was from Tennessee and Stephen A. Douglas (Northern Democrat) from Illinois. Lincoln finished last in Kentucky, but won the election. He watched from the White House as the national family was divided by war.

Volume 7, Number 4

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