The American Civil War Museum will launch a major exhibition at its Tredegar location in Richmond, Virginia in 2024. Titled The Impending Crisis, this exhibit will delve into the events, individuals, and topics that led to the division of the United States on the verge of civil war.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1858

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From the beginning, Black Americans challenged slavery. Enslaved men and women defied enslavers by building families, communities, and faiths. Refugees from the south carried their determination northward where they joined free Black people who argued that the American ideal of political equality should be theirs as well.

At first, few listened. Eventually, their cause pushed the nation toward war…

White southerners viewed slavery as essential not only to national “greatness” but also to domestic peace and safety. They saw attacks on slavery as attacks on their own status as equals in the Union. Anti-slavery momentum and the Republican victory was the first real challenge to “The Slave Power.”

Southerners became convinced that if slavery ended, war between the races, instigated by Republicans, lay ahead…

American political culture changed in the 1850s. The suppression of revolutions in Europe reinforced the idea that democracy was fragile. Abolitionist activism and slaveholder overreach made anti-slavery sentiment acceptable.

A political movement emerged that celebrated ordinary citizens’ ability to improve themselves and to create communities free from the influence of “The Slave Power.” It coalesced under the slogan of “Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men” and became the Republican party. Northerners did not passively observe events. A critical mass became enthusiastic— even militant— partisans of a political vision for the nation’s future, a future worth fighting for.

A future without slavery…