Period 5 Overview

Period 5 Overview2022-02-05T22:54:51+00:00

Period 5 Overview

A Divided Nation Grows Again

Between 1844 and 1877 the United States emerged from the “Early National Period,” experiencing tremendous population, territorial, and commercial growth, all of which heightened sectional tension.  Regional political, economic, and cultural differences, augmented by the ongoing debate of slavery, ultimately led to the fracturing of the Union and a great Civil War.  The ensuing period of Reconstruction granted additional rights to freed black men (though often not  enforced), permanently resolved the issue of the nature of the Union, and left a lingering bitterness between the North and South.

Westward Migration

The 1840s and 1850s witnessed not only westward migration but a great increase in Irish and German immigration, spurring nationalist sentiments.  The American, or Know Nothing Party, emerged as an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant third party demonstrating considerable political clout.  On the West Coast, opposition grew to increased Chinese immigration due to the Gold Rush and transcontinental railroad construction, and also against recently absorbed Mexican-Americans as a result of the Mexican-American War.  Nevertheless, increased U.S. presence on the West Coast and technological advances in sailing vessels helped foster increased commercial ties with both China and Japan.

Manifest Destiny

The dominant theme of the 1840s was the optimistic spirit of Manifest Destiny – the God-given right to expand across the continent – and the United States witnessed massive territorial gains.  The acquisition of Texas and Oregon, the Mexican Cession, the Gadsden Purchase and Alaska Purchase all carried with them the exhilarating hope of vast new territories open for settlement.  However, that spirit was tempered by the increasingly hostile and volatile controversy over slavery entering those newly acquired regions.

The Compromise of 1850 was a futile attempt to ease sectional tensions by allowing California to enter the Union as a free state while enacting a tougher Fugitive Slave Act.  The organization of additional territory prompted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which attempted to end strife over slavery by instituting popular sovereignty (the right of the people of a territory to decide their state’s slavery stance for themselves), only to see the process devolve into an armed confrontation known as “Bleeding Kansas.”  The Kansas issue also led to the emergence of the Republican Party, which from the outset opposed legalized slavery in the territories and ushered in the beginning of a Third American Party System.  Subsequently, the Dred Scott case further emotionalized the dispute, intensifying sectional tension.  A growing abolitionist movement further polarized pro-slavery and anti-slavery proponents, bringing the country closer to war.  Abraham Lincoln’s election as President served as the final motivator for the secession of South Carolina, the dissolution of the Union and The Civil War.

Civil War: The Nation Divided

The American Civil War began in 1861 and was, in contrast to what many authorities predicted, a prolonged and bloody war.  From the outset, the Union had the advantages of a functioning government and army, superior manufacturing and finances, a superior navy, and a larger population, augmented by continued immigration.   The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 gave the Union a stronger moral foundation, thwarting the possibility of a European alliance with the Confederacy.  Despite early setbacks, Union forces ultimately prevailed, leaving southern society and infrastructure devastated. Union victory preceded the daunting task of reconstructing the Union, economically rebuilding the South, and remaking a unified society.


Reconstruction solidified once and for all that the United States was an enduring union.  Southern states were readmitted conditionally upon ratifying the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments; abolishing slavery, providing equal protection all races under the law, and granting black male suffrage, respectively.  The women’s rights movement, whose members were a mainstay of slavery abolition, was dismayed at the 15th amendment’s failure to include women’s suffrage, subsequently dividing over how to pursue women’s’ right to vote.  While former enslaved people gained additional rights during the Reconstruction Era, many proved to be unenforceable as southern whites regained control of state and local governments and sought to rebuild antebellum social structure in wake of the Civil War.  Meanwhile, as the economy boomed in the North, the public lost interest in the cause of equal rights for African-Americans as and courts largely turned a deaf ear to the protests of freedmen, creating a segregated society with African-Americans as second-class citizens.  Economically, while some experienced increased economic opportunities, many freedmen and poor whites fell victim to the debt peonage system created by sharecropping in the South.


Between 1844 and 1877 the nation witnessed tremendous territory, economic, and population growth, all of which pushed the country to splinter into regional factions. Abolitionists scrutinized slavery as the greatest moral evil facing the country, contradicting southern apologists who saw the institution as a “positive good.” The debate on slavery and its extension into the territories polarized public opinion, making compromise impossible.  Ultimately, the sporadic bloodshed of the 1850s tied to the fight over slavery blossomed to full-fledged Civil War in the following decade, leaving the nation shattered.  While Reconstruction ostensibly reunited the country, many of the optimistic hopes of freedmen were left unfulfilled, and a lingering bitterness between the two sided persisted for decades.

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.