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The Pre-Civil War Era Timeline, Digital History ID 2932


January 8: Unaware of a peace treaty signed two weeks earlier, General Andrew Jackson stops a British attack at the Battle of New Orleans. British forces suffer 2036 casualties; U.S. forces suffer 8 killed and 13 wounded.

July 3: Algiers releases American captives and agrees to end its demand for tribute payments.1816

Richard Allen forms the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The American Bible Society is founded.

April 10: Congress charters the Second Bank of the United States.

December: The American Colonization Society was established to transport free blacks to Africa.


Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founds a free public school for the deaf in Hartford, Conn.

April 28-29: The Rush-Bagot Convention begins the process of disarmament along the U.S. Canadian boundary.

July 4: Construction of the Erie Canal begins. The canal, designed to connect the Great Lakes to Albany, officially opened in 1825.

December 27: Andrew Jackson marches into Florida in order to stop raids by Indians, fugitive slaves, and white outlaws on American territory.


U.S. population: 9,638,453.

The financial Panic of 1819, the country’s first major economic depression, produces political division and calls for the democratization of state constitutions and an end to imprisonment for debt.

McCulloch v. Maryland. The Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States and rules that a state cannot tax an agency authorized by the federal government.

Dartmouth v. Woodward. The Supreme Court bars states from unilaterally altering contracts.

William Ellery Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” sermon lays out the principles of liberal Protestantism.

February 13. A Firebell in the Night. A political crisis arises when Rep. James Tallmadge of N.Y. proposes an amendment to a bill granting statehood to Missouri. He proposes that all slave children be freed when they reach their 25th birthday and that any further introduction of slaves be barred.


U.S. population: 9,638,453.

English writer Sydney Smith asks: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”

March 3: The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude. Missouri is admitted as a slave state, and Maine (up to then a part of Massachusetts) is admitted as a free state.

April 24: The Land Act of 1820 reduces the price of land to $1.25 an acre for a minimum of 80 acres (down from $1.64 per acre for a minimum of 160 acres).


Emma Hart Willard opens the Troy Female Seminary, the first institution in the United States to offer a high school education for girls.

Benjamin Lundy publishes an early antislavery newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation.


Stephen F. Austin establishes an American colony in Texas.

The American Colonization Society founds Liberia as a colony for free blacks from the United States.

May-June: Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom after winning a lottery, organizes an insurrection in Charleston, S.C. After several slaves informed their masters of the plot, 131 blacks were arrested and 35 were hanged.


December 2: Responding to a fear that Russia would seize control of the Pacific Coast and that European powers would assist Spain in reclaiming its New World colonies, President James Monroe announces what has become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He declares that the Western Hemisphere is closed to further European colonization and threatens to use force to stop further European interventions in the Americas.


“The Red Harlot of Infidelity,” Frances Wright, arrives from Scotland, and lectures publicly on birth control, women’s rights, and abolition.


January 3: In Indiana, Robert Owen establishes New Harmony, the first secular utopian community.


The Anti-Masonic Party was founded after William Morgan of Batavia, N.Y., was kidnapped and presumably murdered after he threatens to publish a book revealing the secrets of the Masonic Order.

July 4: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams die on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.


Samuel E. Cornish and John Brown Russwurm publish the first African American newspapers, Freedom’s Journal.

Massachusetts enacts the first law requiring every community with 500 or more families to establish a high school.


David Walker, a free black living in Boston, issues his militant Appeal, demanding the abolition of slavery and an end to racial discrimination.

April 6: Mexico forbids further U.S. immigration into Texas and reconfirms its constitutional prohibition on slavery.


U.S. population: 12,866,020.

January 27: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” In his celebrated debate with Sen. Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina over federal land policy, Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts rejected the idea that the states could nullify federal laws.

April 6: Joseph Smith founds the Mormon Church.

April 13: At a Jefferson day dinner, Jackson expresses his opposition to the doctrine of nullification, proposing a toast: “Our Union: It must be preserved.” Vice President John C. Calhoun responded: “The Union, next to our liberty, most dear!”

May 28: President Jackson signs the Indian Removal Acts, which promises financial compensation to Indian tribes that agree to resettle on lands west of the Mississippi River.

September 25: The first national Negro convention is held in Philadelphia.


January 1: A 25-year-old Bostonian, William Lloyd Garrison, publishes the first issue of the Liberator, the first publication dedicated to immediate emancipation of slaves without compensation to their owners. He promises: “I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

August: William Miller predicts that the second coming of Christ was imminent and that “cleansing by fire” would occur between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.

August 21: Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher, leads a slave insurrection in southern Virginia, which provokes a debate in the Virginia legislature about whether slavery should be abolished.


John Kaspar Spurzheim of Vienna introduces phrenology into America. Phrenology, an early example of the science of human behavior, taught that a person’s character could be determined by studying the shape of a person’s skull.

January 21: Sen. William Marcy of New York defends the Spoils System of party patronage with the phrase, “To the victor belong the spoils.”

April 6: The Black Hawk War begins when Black Hawk, chief of the Sauk Indians, crosses the Mississippi River to plant corn on the tribe’s old fields in Illinois. The Sauks had ceded their lands in exchange for new land in Iowa, but were unable to support themselves there. Capt. Abraham Lincoln and Lieut. Jefferson Davis took part in the conflict. The Sauk surrendered in August, after many older men, women, and children were massacred in Wisconsin while carrying white flags.

August: The United States’ first school for the blind opens under the direction of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.

November 24: South Carolina declares the federal tariff null and void.

December 28: John C. Calhoun becomes the first Vice President to resign, after he is elected as a Senator from South Carolina.


Samuel Colt introduces the “six-shooter,” the first handgun with a revolving barrel.

Massachusetts becomes the last state to end tax support for churches.

March 2: President Andrew Jackson signs Henry Clay’s compromise Tariff of 1833, which reduces duties on imported goods, and the Force Act, authorizing him to use military force enforce the federal tariff.

March 15: South Carolina revokes its Ordinance of Nullification. Three days later, it nullifies the Force Act.

September 23: Andrew Jackson fires his Secretary of the Treasury for refusing to withdraw government deposits from the Second Bank of the United States and place them in state banks.

December 3: The first coeducational college in the United States, Oberlin, opens, with a class of 29 men and 15 women. In 1835, Oberlin became the first college to admit African Americans.

December 4: The American Anti-Slavery Society is founded in Philadelphia.


Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna overthrows Mexico’s constitutional government.

March 28: The U.S. Senate votes to censure Andrew Jackson for removing government deposits from the Bank of the United States, accusing the President of having “assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws.” The Senate expunged the censure in 1837.


American colonists in Texas revolt against Mexican rule.

January: For the only time in American history, the United States was free from debt; the Treasury had a surplus of $400,000.

January 30: The first attempt on the life of a president occurs. In the U.S. Capitol, Richard Lawrence fired two pistols at the president at point blank range. Miraculously, both pistols misfire. Lawrence was later found to be insane.

July 8: The Liberty Bell cracks as it tolls the death of Chief Justice John Marshall.

October 21: A Boston crowd mobs William Lloyd Garrison and almost lynches him. He is placed in a jail for his own safety.


The viciously anti-Catholic novel appears, Awful Disclosure of Maria Monkas Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Suffering during a Residence of Five Years as a Novice, and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal. .

March 2: Texas declares its independence from Mexico.

March 6: Mexican troops storm the Texans at the Alamo, a former San Antonio mission defended by 182 Texans, including the frontier heroes David Crockett and James Bowie. The Alamo’s defenders included a number of Tejanos.

March 27: Santa Anna orders 330 Texas prisoners executed at Goliad.

April 21: East of present-day Houston, Gen. Sam Houston’s troops defeat the Mexican Army and capture Santa Anna, forcing him to recognize Texas independence.

May 25: The House of Representatives adopts the Gag Rule, voting to table all antislavery petitions without discussion.

July 4: Marcus and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Henry H. and Eliza Hart Spalding establish a mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington.

July 11: The Treasury Department issues the Species Circular, requiring payment in gold or silver for public lands. President Jackson’s critics blamed the Species Circular for the Panic of 1837.


John Deere introduces a plow with a steel blade.

March: The Panic of 1837 begins and lasts until 1843.

August 31: Ralph Waldo Emerson delivers his “American Scholar” address, in which he calls for a distinctive national literature rooted in American experience.

November 7: Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy becomes the abolitionist movement’s first martyr when he is murdered by a proslavery mob in Alton, Illinois, across from slaveholding St. Louis.

November: Mary Lyon opens the first woman’s college, Mount Holyoke, in South Hadley, Massachusetts.


Samuel F.B. Mores develops an alphabet of dots and dashes, making communication with the telegraph possible.

December: 14,000 Cherokees are forcibly removed from western Georgia and southeastern Tennessee and marched down the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Some 4,000 died in route.


Enslaved Africans aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad revolt. After their capture off Long Island, the Van Buren administration tried to have the captives returned to Spain. In 1841, the Supreme Court ruled that the Amistad captives had been illegally enslaved and set them free.


U.S. population: 17,069,453.

March 31: President Martin Van Buren institutes a 10-hour work day for federal employees.


The first wagon train arrives in California.

March: Dorothea Dix is shocked when she enters the East Cambridge, Mass., House of Correction and observes the ill-treatment of the mentally ill. After a two-year investigation, she submits a Memorial to the Massachusetts legislation, describing the mentally ill confined “in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens--chained naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.”

April 1: Brook Farm, a utopian community near Boston inspired by American Transcendentalism, seeks to combine manual labor and intellectual pursuits.

April 4: President William Henry Harrison dies after 30 days in office.

October 27: Creole Affair. Slaves on the brig Creole revolt and sail to the Bahamas. Britain refused to return the slaves, but the U.S. won financial compensation.

1842The Massachusetts Supreme Court upholds the right of workers to organize in the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt.

May: The Dorr War. To protest Rhode Island’s outdated charter of 1663 which restricted voting rights to property holders and their oldest sons, Thomas Dorr and his supporters unsuccessfully attempted to capture the armory at Providence. A new Constitution was subsequently adopted that granted the vote to citizens who paid a $1 poll tax or owned at least $134 in real estate.


August 23: Mexico warns that American annexation of Texas would be “equivalent to a declaration of war against the Mexican government."


May 3: Rioting erupts in Philadelphia when anti-Catholic “Native Americans try to hold a street meeting in the heavily Irish Kensington district.

May 24: Samuel F.B. Morse sends the first message by telegraph: “What hath God wrought.” He sent the message from Washington to Baltimore.

June 27: A mob storms a Carthage, Ill., jail, and murders Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and his brother. Smith was being held for destroying the printing press of a dissident who had attacked the practice of polygamy.

December 3: The House of Representatives lifts the Gag Rule.


The Baptist Church splits over the slavery issue.

July: John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of the U.S. Magazine and Democratic Review, declares that the United States has a “manifest destiny” to occupy the North American continent. Manifest destiny became one of the most influential slogans in American history.

August: Blight devastates the Irish potato crop. Over 1 million people die and 2 million emigrate (1.3 million to the United States).

December 29: Texas is admitted to the Union as a slave state.


January: President James K. Polk orders Gen. Zachary Taylor to march southward from Corpus Christi and occupy position near the Rio Grande River, 150 miles south of the Texas border as defined by the Spanish and Mexican authorities.

May 4: Michigan becomes the first state to abolish capital punishment.

May 13: President Polk tells Congress that Mexico has “invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil.” Congress then declares war on Mexico.

June 15: The United States accepts the 49th parallel as the boundary between the United States and Canada west of the Great Lakes.

July 23: Henry David Thoreau, living in a cabin at Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass., was arrested for refusing to pay a $1 poll tax, his protest against slavery and the Mexican War. This incident inspired him to write the essay Civil Disobedience, in which he argued in behalf of non-violent protest against unjust government policies. He wrote: “Any man more right than his neighbor constitutes a majority of one.”

August: Rep. David Wilmot submits an amendment to a military appropriations bill prohibiting slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. The proviso passes the house twice but is defeated in the Senate.

October: A party of pioneers headed by George Donner is trapped in the Sierras by early snows. In April 1847, 47 survivors of the original party of 82 finally reached California.


July 24: The first Mormons reach the Great Salt Lake.

September 13-14: Mexico City falls to a U.S. army under Gen. Winfield Scott.


Alexander T. Stewart opens the first department store on Broadway in New York. The Free Soil party is formed, opposing the expansion of slavery into the western territories. New York State grants married women the right to own property apart from their husbands.

January 24: James Marshall discovers gold at John Sutter’s sawmill near Sacramento, Calif.

February 2: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexico War. The American negotiator, Nicholas Trist, had been ordered home four months earlier, but had continued the negotiations. The United States acquired California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming for $15 million and assumption of $3.25 million in debts owned by Mexico to Americans.

July 19-20: The first Woman’s Rights Convention in history is held in Seneca Falls, New York. The convention called for women’s suffrage. Only two participants lived to see the 19th amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.


80,000 people migrate to California; about 55,000 overland and 25,000 by sea. Only about 700 are women.

Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the United States’ first women to receive a medical degree.


U.S. population: 23,191,876.The U.S. navy and merchant marine outlaw flogging.

August: Congress adopts the Compromise of 1850, which admits California to the Union as a free state, but does not forbid slavery in other territories acquired from Mexico. It also prohibits the sale of slaves in Washington, D.C. and includes a strict law requiring the return of runaway slaves to their masters.

October 23-24: The first national women’s rights convention, held in Worcester, Mass., attracts delegates from nine states.


Feb. 18: A Boston crowd rescues Shadrack, a fugitive slave, from court custody.

June 2: Maine adopts a law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, leading future prohibition statutes to be called Maine laws.


Mar. 20: Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sells 300,000 copies in a year and a million copies in 16 months. When Stowe met President Lincoln at the White House, he reportedly asked her: “Is this the little woman whose book made such a great war?”


Dec. 30: Gadsden Purchase. Mexico sells the United States 29,640 square miles of territory south of the Gila River (in what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico) for $10 million.


Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burns a copy of the Constitution, calling it “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.”

Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden, which is based on his experiences living beside Walden Pond near Concord, Mass. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he writes.

Jan. 23: Sen. Stephen Douglas introduces the Kansas Nebraska Act, which repeals the Missouri Compromises and opens Kansas and Nebraska to white settlement.

Feb. 4: Alvan Bovay, a Ripon, Wisconsin, attorney, proposes that opponents of slavery organize a new political party, the Republican Party.

Mar. 31: Commodore Matthew C. Perry negotiates the Treaty of Kanagawa, opening up Japan to the West.

Apr. 26: Eli Thayer founds the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society to encourage opponents of slavery to move to Kansas.

June 2: In Boston, the U.S. government returns Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, to slavery.

Oct. 18: Ostend Manifesto. American ministers James Buchanan, John Y. Mason, and Pierre Soulé, meeting in Belgium, urge the United States to seize Cuba militarily if Spain refuses to sell the island. Many Northerners regarded this as a plot to extend slavery.


Walt Whitman publishes Leaves of Grass.

Abraham Lincoln writes: “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal except Negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Mar. 30: Pro-slavery forces win the territorial elections in Kansas. Some 6000 votes are cast even though only 2000 voters are registered, many by pro-slavery “border ruffians” from Missouri. The pro-slavery government passes laws imposing the death penalty for aiding a fugitive slave and two years hard labor for questioning the legality of slavery. Antislavery forces respond by setting up an opposing government in Topeka.


May 19: Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts denounces “The Crime Against Kansas,” which he describes as the rape of a virgin territory by pro-slavery forces. In his speech, Sumner accuses a South Carolina Senator of taking “the harlot Slavery” for his mistress.”

May 21: The “Sack of Lawrence.” Pro-slavery forces in Kansas burn a hotel and other buildings in Lawrence, Kansas.

May 22: Sen. Butler’s nephew, Representative Preston Brooks, beats Sen. Sumner with a cane, leaving him disabled for three years.

May 25: In reprisal for the “Sack of Lawrence” and the attack on Sumner, John Brown and six companions murder five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. A war of reprisals left 200 dead in “Bleeding Kansas.”


Mar. 6: In the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court rules that the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights were not intended to apply to African Americans and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The decision also denied Congress and territorial legislatures the right to exclude slavery from the western territories.

Mar. 23: Elisha Otis installs the first passenger elevator in a New York department store.

Aug. 24: The Financial Panic of 1857 begins; 4,932 businesses fail by year’s end.


June 16: Abraham Lincoln accepts the Republican nomination for US Senate with the famous phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Aug. 21 to Oct. 15: Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, candidates for the US Senate from Illinois, hold seven debates. The Democratic majority in the Illinois legislature reelected Douglas to the Senate.

Oct. 25: Senator William Seward of New York declares that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between the free North and the slave South.


Daniel Decatur Emmett, a Northerner from Ohio, composes Dixie for a New York minstrel show.

May 12: A commercial convention in Vicksburg, Miss., calls for the African slave trade to be reopened.

Aug. 27: “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake strikes oil at Titusville, Pa. This was the first deliberate attempt to drill for oil underground.

Oct. 16: John Brown and some 21 followers seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. He is taken prisoner two days later, US Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee.

Oct. 31: Refusing to plead insanity as a defense, John Brown is put on trial and is convicted of treason, criminal conspiracy, and murder. He is hanged Dec. 2. Ralph Waldo Emerson hails Brown as a “new saint” who “will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”


US population: 31,443,321.

Publisher Erastus Beadle issues the first dime novels, which actually sell for a nickel.

Apr. 3: The Pony Express inaugurates overland mail service between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif.

Apr. 23: Southern delegates walk out of the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, S.C. The convention adjourns without nominating a presidential candidate.

June 18-23: Northern Democrats, convening in Baltimore, nominate Stephen Douglas for the presidency. On June 28, Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge as their presidential candidate.

Nov. 6: Abraham Lincoln tops a four-candidate field to be elected president. Although he received less than 40 percent of the vote, and no votes in the South, he won an overwhelming Electoral College victory.

Dec. 20: South Carolina, voting 169-0, secedes from the Union.


Yale University confers the U.S.’s first Ph.D.

Jan. 9: South Carolina blocks a federal ship, the Star of the West, from resupplying Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

Feb. 4: Representatives from six seceding states adopt a Confederate constitution in Montgomery, Alabama. Five days later, they elect Jefferson Davis, a former US Senator from Mississippi, the president of the Confederate States of America.

Apr. 12: At 4:30 a.m., Confederate guns fire on Fort Sumter, a federal installation in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor. The fort surrendered after 34 hours of bombardment.

Apr. 19: President Lincoln orders a blockade of Confederate ports.

July 18: At the first battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Va., Confederate forces rout a Union army.

Aug. 5: To help finance the Civil War, Congress enacts taxes on real estate and personal income.

Oct. 24: President Abraham Lincoln receives the first transcontinental telegraph message.

Nov. 7: Union forces capture Port Royal Island on the South Carolina coast.