Antebellum America

The following notes will help you prepare for questions about the U.S. in the years leading up to the Civil War on the AP U.S. History Exam.

  • The years leading up to the Civil War were tumultuous, with slavery as the focal point. The newly formed Republican Party was perceived as hostile to slavery and with a presidential election looming in 1860, southern leaders states that the southern states would secede if any Republican won. They kept their promise when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. South Carolina was the first state to secede, filing its secession ordinance just weeks after Lincoln's victory.

  • Abolitionists led the fight to end slavery and pressured Lincoln to take a stance against it. Lincoln, whose views of slavery evolved over the course of his presidency, would not call for and end to slavery until the war was underway.

  • Meanwhile, women's rights were tied closely to abolition with many female activists supporting both causes. However, many women found that with the country's focus on slavery, women's rights were not a national priority.

antebellum : period of time in the U.S. before the Civil War

cotton gin : a machine that sped up the process of separating cottonseed from fibers; the increased ability to process cotton led to an increased desire for slaves

Bleeding Kansas : violence in Kansas that began in 1856 between the free-soilers and pro-slavery advocates

Dred Scott Decision : Supreme Court decision of 1857 that said neither slaves nor any descendants of slaves could ever be U.S. citizens

Fugitive Slave Law : federal enforcement of fugitive slave laws increased and it became a federal crime to assist a runaway slave; many free African Americans were taken as slaves and had no right to defend themselves and no right to a trial

Harper's Ferry : the site of a federal arsenal in Virginia where John Brown, a white abolitionist, attempted to lead an armed slave revolt

Kansas-Nebraska Act : created the territories of Nebraska and Kansas, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820

popular sovereignty : the policy of allowing voters to determine if slavery was to be permitted in their state

Seneca Falls Convention : the first women's rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848

Underground Railroad : a loosely organized system of abolitionists assisting runaway slaves in their efforts to escape from their owners in the South


John Brown : a white abolitionist who was arrested after a failed attempt to raid the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859; he hoped to lead an armed slave revolt but was hanged in Virginia on December 2

Stephen Douglas : Democratic nominee for president in 1860; he and Lincoln engaged in a series of well-known debates during the Senate elections in 1858

Frederick Douglass : an escaped slave turned abolitionist and orator

Abraham Lincoln : elected president in 1860 and guided the nation through the Civil War; assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865

William Lloyd Garrison : fiery white abolitionist and publisher of the newspaper, "The Liberator"

Lucretia Mott : abolitionist, organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention

Elizabeth Cady Stanton : abolitionist, organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention

Harriet Beecher Stowe : author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

Charles Sumner : abolitionist, senator from Massachusetts who survived a brutal attack by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in 1856

Harriet Tubman : escaped slave who became a conductor for the Underground Railroad; nicknamed "Moses"

Related Links:
Antebellum America Quiz
AP US History Quizzes
AP US History Notes
Civil War
Expansion and Manifest Destiny