Brief Timeline of American Literature and Events

Pre-1650 1650 1700 1750 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840
  1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920
Literature, Music, and Movies 1890s 1900s 1910s 1920s
Political and Social History Literature
  • 3 June. At the Nashville Convention, delegates from nine Southern states gather and agree to defend the rights of slaveholders and to adopt what they consider a moderate position by extending the 36' 30" dividing line of the Missouri Compromise, actions rendered moot by the Compromise of 1850 and, later, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
  • 18 September. Fugitive Slave Act provides for the return of slaves brought to free states.(Interview with historian Eric Foner about its effects.)
  • Vice President Millard Fillmore becomes president after Zachary Taylor dies on 9 July 1850.
  • Compromise of 1850 admits California as a free state; New Mexico and Utah territories are organized with no restrictions on slavery until they apply for statehood. Under the principle of "popular sovereignty," voters in those territories will decide for themselves whether slavery is permitted. Other laws "prohibited the public sale of slaves in the District of Columbia; included the new Fugitive Slave Act; and federalized Texas's pre-annexation debt in exchange for Texas's relinquishment of its substantial territorial claims upon New Mexico Territory."
  • National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts.
  • U. S. population: 23,191,876
  • Hawthorne publishes The Scarlet Letter, which sells 4,000 copies in the first 10 days and becomes a best seller. 
  • Emerson, Representative Men 
  • Melville, White-Jacket 
  • Susan Warner (1818-85), The Wide, Wide World (domestic fiction)

  • 15 February. Shadrach Minkins,an African American working as a waiter,  is seized by slavecatchers in Boston; Richard Henry Dana, Jr., tries to free him by legal means, but first Shadrach is rescued by a group of African Americans. 
  • Sioux sign Treaty of Traverse des Sioux giving up land in Iowa and Minnesota. 
  • According to HarpWeek, Horace Greeley did not originate the phrase but "gave wide exposure to Indiana editor John Soule's counsel to 'Go west, young man, go west.'" 
  • Congress passes the Land Act of 1851, an attempt to sort out competing land claims by Mexican Americans, called Californios, who were longtime settlers in California, and the immigrants, often from other areas of the United States, who contested their claims. The net result was a loss of land by the Californios, as depicted in María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's novel The Squatter and the Don (1885).
  • Melville, Moby-Dick 
  • Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables 
  • Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Indian Tribes (1851-57) 
  • Birth of Kate Chopin (d. 1904)
  • 1852
  • Democrat Franklin Pierce, a friend of Hawthorne's, defeats General Winfield Scott for the presidency and affirms his support for the Compromise of 1850. 
  • "Know-Nothing" Party opposes Catholics and immigrants.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin sells one million copies within the year. 
  • Melville, Pierre 
  • Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance 

  • Birth of Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman) (d. 1930)
  • 30 December. Gadsden Purchase gives the U.S. a strip of land in what is now southern New Mexico and Arizona. (Map)
  • Abba Alcott and 73 other women petition the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention to urge suffrage for women.
  • Hawthorne,Tanglewood Tales 
  • Birth of Thomas Nelson Page (d. 1922) 
  • William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, published in England, is the first novel by an African American.
  • Putnam's Monthly Magazine (1853-1922)
  • 1854
  • Emigrant Aid Society encourages anti-slavery settlers to move to Kansas 
  • 24 May. Wendell Phillips and others lead anti-slavery mob to attack a Federal court house in Boston that holds Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave. 
  • 30 May. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passes, allowing "popular sovereignty"; the net effect was to negate the Missouri Compromise (1820).
  • Abraham Lincoln gives a speech condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
  • 18 October. Minister to Great Britain James Buchanan, Minister to France John Y. Mason, and Minister to Spain Pierre Soulé meet in Ostand, Belgium and Aix-le-Chapelle to draw up the Ostend Manifesto, an attempt to purchase Cuba from Spain that emphasizes Cuba's strategic importance and threatens to take it by force should negotiations fail. The public reaction to this move, which would presumably have added Cuba as a slave state, forces its chief supporter, Secretary of State William Marcy, to repudiate the manifesto.
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden 
  • Melville, "The Encantadas" 
  • Thomas Bangs Thorpe, The Hive of the Bee Hunter 
  • Maria Cummins, The Lamplighter
  • John Rollin Ridge, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (first novel by a Native American)
  • 1855
  • March. After pro-slavery Missourians cross the Kansas border to elect a territorial legislature, Free State Kansans vote to outlaw slavery and set up their own capital at Topeka. 
  • Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom 
  • Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 
  • Longfellow, Hiawatha 
  • Melville, "The Paradise of Bachelors" and "The Tartarus of Maids"; "Benito Cereno"; Israel Potter
  • 1856
    • 18 February. "Know-Nothing" nativist party opposing immigration and Catholics endorses the Kansas-Nebraska act at its convention in Philadelphia and nominates former president Millard Fillmore as its candidate. (Link to statement of its principles)
    • Winter. Margaret Garner, a woman escaping from slavery with her children, reaches Cincinnati, Ohio, and is about to be recaptured when she tries to kill her children rather than have them live as slaves. She kills her daughter, but her sons are only injured. Abolitionists seek to have her tried in Ohio so as to prevent her return to slavery, but with the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law she is returned to Kentucky. The incident later becomes the basis for Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. (Read an 1891 account of the incident compiled from abolitionist sources.)
    • 19-20 May. After delivering his anti-slavery speech "The Crime Against Kansas" and attacking Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina by name, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner is attacked and beaten with a cane by Preston S. Brooks, Butler's nephew, two days later on the floor of the Senate.
    • 21 May. After the burning of the Free State Hotel and the looting of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces, abolitionist John Brown kills 5 pro-slavery men at Pottawotamie Creek on May 24, executing them with broadswords. Kansas becomes known as "Bleeding Kansas" because of clashes between pro- and anti-slavery forces.(Timeline of John Brown's life) (More Kansas history: original maps, pictures, and documents)
    • James Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, defeats Republican John C. Frémont and Americanist ("Know-Nothing") party candidate Millard Fillmore for the presidency.
  • Melville, The Piazza Tales, and "Bartleby, the Scrivener" 
  • 1857
  • 6 March. Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court. After being brought to free territory by his owner, Scott sued for his freedom, but the court ruled that he had never ceased to be a slave, denied that he was a citizen, and denied him the right to sue. 
  • 23 March. First elevator installed by Elisha P. Otis in New York City.
  • 24 August. Panic of 1857 begins when the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company fails, preceding a number of other business failures.
  • 11 September. On September 7, the Fancher party, a wagon train of 120 emigrants traveling to Santa Fe, is attacked by Piutes or members of the LDS church (Mormons) dressed as Piutes. On Friday morning, September 11, LDS leader John D. Lee persuades them to disarm and accept the protection of the Mormon militia. All but 17 young children are shot in what has become known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. Although he claims to be a scapegoat for others in the organization, Lee is later executed for the crime. (Wikipedia account) (LDS account)
  • Melville,The Confidence Man 
  • Atlantic Monthly (1857- ) 
  • Harper's Weekly (1857-1916)
  • Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton), Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio
  • Frank J. Webb, The Garies and their Friends, "second novel published by an African American"
  • 1858
  • President Buchanan asks that Kansas be admitted as a slave state, a request rejected. 
  • Lincoln is nominated to oppose Stephen Douglas for the Senate;Lincoln-Douglas debates.
  • Charles W. Chesnutt born (d. 1932) 
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
  • 1859
  • 16 October. John Brown leads an armed group of 21 to seize the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, is captured, and is executed. 
  • Georgia passes a law forbidding owners from manumitting slaves in their wills.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Minister's Wooing
  • Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig: or, Sketches in the Life of a Free Black, first novel by an African American woman
  • Martin Delany, Blake or The Huts of America: A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States (serialized in 1859 in The Anglo African Magazine )
  • 12 August. Birth of Katherine Lee Bates, author of "America, the Beautiful"
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