In the early nineteenth century, the United States was predominantly an agrarian society. Land was fundamental to freedom, self-sufficiency, and independence. Most Americans believed that owning land and tilling the soil nurtured freedom and independence, and that those without land, engaged primarily in manufacturing, posed the greatest threat to that freedom. So long as land was plentiful. Americans believed, they could maintain the virtues granted them as the rightful beneficiaries of republican liberties. They could therefore escape poverty, dependency on others, and overpopulation produced by a manufacturing society. Thus, the desire to own land was at the core of the initial republican vision, as conceived by revolutionary leaders such as Thomas Jefferson.
Few Americans of Jefferson's generation, however, could have imagined that the quest for land that sparked the settlement of the west would actually accelerate rather than deter urban and industrial development. The very nature of the migration west was as much a cause as it was a consequence of the ideological differences and sectionalism that prevailed in the decades before the Civil War. Significantly, the migration and settlement of the west transformed an agrarian society that defined itself as a virtuous farming republic into an industrial society that came to accept the free-labor ideology as paramount in achieving republican dreams of a truly free and democratic society.
Beginning in the 1820s, westward expansion flowed along America's natural arteries, such as the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries, which allowed western farmers to channel goods south to New Orleans. After the 1830s, however, steamboats, canals, and railroads redirected western trade to the flourishing urban markets of the northeast. By the 1850s, over 60 percent of western foodstuffs were being shipped to the east. The cumulative impact ot more effective transportation resulted in widening market opportunities. Simultaneously, the small manufacturing initiatives shifted from artisan shops to small factories, and merchant capitalists in the northeastern cities assumed the lead in organizing production for the expanding markets. In the four decades before the Civil War, urbanization and manufacturing reinforced each other in their growth patterns and came to shape the character of the North.
Although Southern whites moved west for basically the same reasons that Northerners did, the consequences of their move were different because of the presence of slavery. The cotton industry was directly linked to the size and substance of slave plantations. Between 1790 and 1860, cotton production exploded from 3,000 bales to 4,500,000
bales. Like the farmers of the Old Northwest who responded optimistically to market opportunities, planters and ambitious slaveholders responded to market incentives. Still, the slaveholder had little incentive to invest in labor-saving machinery and instead invested in land and slaves.
The antebellum wests, North and South, played integral roles in the economic
Like the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers had been arteries of economic exchange in the decades before the Civil War, but the outbreak of war changed them into routes of military invasion. (Harper's Weekly, public domain)
development of the nation because they were linked to eastern markets. By the 1840s, the west had become a principal market for eastern manufactured goods and provided the cheap foodstuffs that fed the increasing numbers of factory workers who were being pulled to northern cities by employment. Cotton accounted tor over 50 percent of the value of all American exports after the mid-1830s. More than any other commodity, cotton paid for American imports and served as the basis for national credit. Still, as the northeastern economy continued to develop and diversify, the economy of the South remained predominantly agrarian.
These east-west connections brought about by economic changes galvanized and shaped antebellum American culture and spawned a transportation revolution that brought not only numerous Americans into the market place, but also new expectations. The revolution in transport encouraged economic diversification, ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on free labor, These gave rise to an American middle class characterized by a materialism and moralism that sought to democratize the market place. Middle-class ideals harmonized with the Protestant work ethic to shape an environment conducive to capitalist
expansion. This Protestant ethic prompted many Northerners to embrace reform movements that sought to regulate society by helping persons who lacked self-control. By the 1850s, they had targeted the containment of slavery as one of their primary interests.
The South was largely untouched by the social and ideological consequences of the market revolution that spawned a middle class and its reforming zeal in the North. Though there was a small aspiring middle class of merchants, professionals, and tradesmen in the South, the region was bound to an agricultural slave society that repudiated the concepts of self-restraint and the celebration of the wage earner.
In a republic that lacked any uniform concept of citizenship, an interpretive consensus of the Constitution, and a large standing army and navy, and where liberty and slavery coexisted, perhaps the only clearly defined aspect was that states possessed the exclusive rights to regulate slavery within their jurisdiction. By 1820, however, even those rights were being challenged. The congressional sessions of 1819 and 1820 concerning Missouri's admission to the Union as a slave state attested to the unsettling aspects of territorial expansion. The debates over slavery brought Northern frustrations about the institution to a climax and for the first time disclosed a bipartisan Northern majority determined to contain the institution. The conclusion of the debates produced the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Still, Missouri's southern boundary, the infamous 36-30 line, was extended westward through the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Above the imaginary line slavery was prohibited and below it the institution was permitted.
The combination of the financial panic of 1819 and the Missouri Compromise forced
The antebellum South was a land of prosperous cotton plantations. Even after the war, cotton remained king of agriculture. (Edimedia)
the fracture of line Republican Party. What emerged in its place was a Democratic Party that spoke to those who considered themselves victims of the ever-changing market place, and a Whig Party that spoke to those who considered themselves the winners or benefactors of the changing market place. By and large, Democrats, largely rural, championed a negative use of the government in the economy, attacked banks, opposed tariffs, and wanted to be left alone in their manners and morals. Whigs promoted a favorable and progressive use of the government in promoting economic change, and endorsed banks, higher tariffs, and free labor.
Ironically, in the pre-Civil War decades, these conflicting beliefs formed a strong concept of Union by averting the problems that threatened to dissolve it. However, they also allowed a significant degree of sectional strife to emerge. In 1832-33, in response to the tariff of 1828, South Carolina Planters led by John C. Calhoun forced a theory of nullification on the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whereby an individual state could nullify a federal law: that is, declare the law void within its borders. A crisis was averted as both sides compromised and claimed victory, but the significance of nullification was that Southerners came to believe they were a permanent minority. On the heels of Nat Turner's bloody slave uprising in Southampton, Virginia, in the summer of 1831, Southerners convinced themselves that their worst fears were before them. In the context of the Missouri Crisis, the Southern populace came to believe that the horror of losing independence could not be escaped. Concern over economic decline, combined with alarm over slave uprisings and the rise of abolition in the North, encouraged several Southern states to tighten slave codes and pass laws to suppress abolitionist speeches in the South.
The expansionist impulses of Americans, or 'Manifest Destiny' as it came to be known,
continued in the 1840s with the admission of Florida and Texas as slave states. The crisis over Texas's admission erupted in a war with Mexico that lasted two years and ended with the acquisition of Mexican territory. By gaining a land mass that nearly doubled the size of the United States, Americans faced the continuing dilemma of making the federal government responsible for protecting the baggage of slavery that accompanied expansion.
By mid-century, American republicanism was facing a national crisis. The acquisition of Mexican land forced Americans to consider whether the newly expanded Union would be one with or without slavery. Land was losing its value in terms of promising
freedom and self-sufficiency because the freedom to earn a wage was gaining national prominence. Because the Democrats were the primary spokesmen for the original definition of freedom and advocates of the farmers, they came to the defense of Southern traditions. Whigs, on the other hand, came to view property as something earned in competition and supported free labor. As a prewar Whig, Abraham Lincoln espoused the virtues of free labor, remarking that 'There is no such thing as a man being bound down in a free country through his life as a laborer.'
In general, beginning in the l840s. Northerners viewed the South as an impediment to realizing the full democratic principles that the market had to offer. Most anti-slavery Northerners opposed slavery not because of its effect on blacks, but because of the institution's effect on whites. It degraded the value of free labor. Southerners, however, came to believe that their fundamental rights were being usurped because they were a political minority. The Wilmot Proviso, which in 1846 unsuccessfully attempted to prohibit slavery in the territories, confirmed Southern fears that individual rights were no longer a constitutional matter, but a political matter. The emergence of the Free-Soil Party in the election of 1848, which promoted the containment of slavery, also helped to confirm these fears.
By the 1850s, Americans were searching for common ground that no longer existed in their political culture. Such a center had deteriorated through the accelerated pace of economic and social change after 1815 and the emotionally charged reactions to that change as a series of threatening conspiracies. The Compromise of 1850 was representative of the nature of congressional responses, attempting to placate both Northerners and Southerners. Although it admitted California as a free state, which offset the balance in the Senate in favor of Northern states, it also imposed a tougher Fugitive Slave Act. In many respects the Compromise of 1850 was at best an armistice to an American political culture attempting to wrest itself from permanent divisions along sectional lines.
The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a best-selling anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, further intensified the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding slavery. It hardened Northern middle-class attitudes regarding slavery's incompatibility with the nation's democratic-principles. So popular and offensive was the book that, at one point during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln finally met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he referred to her as 'the little lady who made this big war.'
Sectional tensions erupted in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed the ambiguous concept of 'popular sovereignty' (let the people of the territories decide) to settle the question of whether or not slavery-would exist. When it passed, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas prophesied that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would 'raise a hell of a storm.' Although it opened the landscape for the construction of a transcontinental railroad, it signaled the collapse of the Whig Party, served as a catalyst for the new Republican Party, and was instrumental in the growth of the one-party Democratic South.
In 1857, the Supreme Court attempted to settle the issue that Congress had failed to solve. By ruling in the Dred Scott case that Congress had no right to single out slave property for prohibition in the territories (areas owned by the US government but not yet divided into states), the Court endorsed what Southerners had believed ail along -slavery was protected by the Constitution. Many Northerners concluded that politically a slave power did exist and that it had won a triumphant victory over the forces of free soil and free labor.
The issue of the territories was so central to the future of the republic and had become so politicized that the religious culture divided into factions. Church members came to believe in an anti-slavery God in the North and a pro-slavery God in the South. As institutional centers fragmented, the election of 1856 signaled a departure from an American culture forced to compromise repeatedly on issues of vital significance to the nation's future. Although James Buchanan won, the Democrats became unavoidably divided. Republicans employed the rhetoric of complete prohibition of slavery in the territories, and many white Southerners interpreted this as simply a disguise for the true intentions of the party to eventually abolish the institution.
In the debate over the territories, both parties claimed to be defending republican standards of individual freedom, liberty, honor, and moral righteousness. Yet, such fundamental disagreements, whether moral or political, over how these standards should be applied to the problems confronting the nation gave rise to hardening perceptions both of themselves and of each other by Northerners and Southerners. They became consumed by seeing one another as enemies.
By the end of the 1850s, hardened perceptions, emotionally charged legislative disputes, and vicious recriminations cast a mold of uncompromising attitude. In 1858, running for the Illinois senate, Lincoln perhaps best summed up the young republic's crisis in his famous 'House Divided' speech. 'I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slaves and half free,' he concluded. The Civil War that erupted in 1861 revealed that Southerners and Northerners were fighting to preserve the fundamental patterns and practices of their economic and social life. What
Americans had failed to solve during peacetime, they would now settle by war.
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