Sectional tensions divide the United States 18201860

Sectional tensions simmered and periodically erupted into violent controversy in the United States during the four decades preceding the outbreak of war in April 1861. If viewed retrospectively with knowledge of the enormous slaughter of 1861-65 in mind, the years between 1820 and 1860 can appear as a time when Americans watched almost helplessly as their nation drifted towards disaster. Yet most Americans of this period did not wake up every morning eager to focus on the ways in which the North and South differed. They pursued their mundane activities without knowing that a gigantic war lurked in the years ahead. Lacking a sense that time was ticking away for a young republic destined to undergo a trauma of unimagined proportion, they typically concentrated on local or state, rather than national, political issues.

Historians have debated whether the free states of the North and the slaveholding states of the South had developed into significantly different societies by the late 1850s. Some have described two essentially different civilizations divided across a fault line delineated by the institution of slavery. Others point to a common language, a joint history dominated by the revolutionary struggle against Great Britain, and other shared characteristics to insist that differences were minor when compared to commonalities.

Much of this debate fails to emphasize the crucial point that many, and perhaps most, northerners and white southerners believed that major differences divided them.

In the four decades before the Civil War the North moved rapidly towards a more urban society with a powerful manufacturing sector By I860, 15 of the nation's 16 largest cities were in states that remained loyal to the Union. George Inness's The Lackawanna Valley captures this transformation, with its lone figure gazing across a largely pastoral Pennsylvania landscape towards a puffing locomotive and factories sending spirals of smoke into the air (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

George Inness Shenandoah Valley

Northerners looked south and saw a white population profoundly influenced by slavery. Many white southerners, in turn, considered northerners an almost alien people bent on interfering with the slave-based southern society. It makes little difference whether a true gulf separated northern and southern society. If people believed there were differences, they acted accordingly, behaved as if the two sections had developed differently, and thus stood at odds in many ways.

Economic and social developments

Although broad generalizations about the two sections can obscure almost as much as they reveal, some trends in northern and southern development between the establishment of the Constitution and the close of the ante bellum (pre-war) period help set up the final sectional crisis. The North's population grew far more rapidly, allowing the free states to gain an increasingly lopsided majority in the national House of Representatives and to win control of Senate in 1850. The North attracted most of the nation's new immigrants, many of whom settled in rapidly growing cities. Far more urban than the slaveholding South (one-quarter of northerners lived in urban areas in 1860, one-tenth of southerners), the North also possessed most of the nation's industrial, commercial and financial strength. Yet a substantial agricultural sector employed roughly 40 percent of the region's workers in 1860. Yeoman farmers with relatively small holdings dominated northern agriculture.

Religion helped shape northern economic and social life. A vibrant form of Yankee Protestantism trumpeted the virtues of hard work and thrift, while warning against abuse of alcohol or excess of any type. This religious strain helped create an environment conducive to capitalist expansion and the creation of an American industrial and commercial colossus. The same Protestant ethic prompted many

Early American Sectional Loyalty

Abraham Lincoln in May 1860, just before growing the whiskers he would wear for the rest of his life. He had entered the national stage during the 1858 senatorial race in Illinois. Although he lost that contest to Stephen A. Douglas, a series of debates between the candidates had brought Lincoln to the attention of Republicans across the nation. (Author's collection)

Abraham Lincoln in May 1860, just before growing the whiskers he would wear for the rest of his life. He had entered the national stage during the 1858 senatorial race in Illinois. Although he lost that contest to Stephen A. Douglas, a series of debates between the candidates had brought Lincoln to the attention of Republicans across the nation. (Author's collection)

northerners to embrace reform movements that sought to curb drinking, enhance public education, improve conditions in prisons and asylums for the mentally ill and, most importantly in terms of sectional relations, end the institution of slavery. Significant elements of the northern populace resisted the models of reform, purposeful labor and material acquisition - including many Democrats, urban Catholics and residents of the lower sections of the midwestem states who looked south across the Ohio river for many of their economic, familial and social ties. But the North's political and economic leadership tended to subscribe to the Yankee Protestant ethic, thereby setting a standard for the entire section.

By the mid-1850s, the freelab or ideology had taken firm root across much of the North. It insisted that labor and capital need not be at odds. According to Whigs and later Republicans who espoused the free labor ideology, every man in the Untied States (only men could vote, and women occupied a distinctly disadvantaged legal position)

possessed almost limitless potential. Poorer men could use their own labor to acquire capital, ascend from the ranks of workers to become property owners, and create a comfortable and rewarding life for themselves and their families. Harsh inequalities of wealth among northerners suggested that this ideal remained far from assured, but political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, himself a remarkable example of how a poor man could rise, painted a picture of glorious capitalist development. 'The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile,' stated Lincoln in 1859, 'saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.' This was 'free labor - the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all - gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.'

Many northerners looked south and saw a land of lazy, cruel, poorly educated, violent people stained by the taint of slavery and opposed to the ideas that would allow the United States to fulfill its capitalist destiny. Because slavery closed opportunities to white working-class men in the South, and degraded them by forcing them to compete with chattels, the free labor ideology could not flourish below the Mason-Dixon Line, which symbolized the division between the free North and the slave South. (In fact, the Mason-Dixon Line formed the boundary between Pennsylvania, a free state, and Maryland, a slave state.) The failure of the free labor ideology to flourish, believed its advocates, in turn compromised the future of the nation.

The South did present a striking contrast in many ways. Steadily losing ground in terms of comparative population, its networks of roads, railroads and canals lagged far behind those of the North. Roughly 80 percent of its population labored in agriculture, and the overwhelming bulk of southern wealth was invested in slaves and land. Wealthy slaveholders dominated the region politically and socially, producing cash crops of cotton, sugar, tobacco and rice. Southern cotton fed northern and European textile mills, as well as contributing enormously to the nation's favourable balance of trade. Cities were fewer and smaller than in the North, white southerners were on average less well educated, and southern religion, though predominantly Protestant as in the North, was more concerned with personal salvation than with

This painting of a cotton plantation reinforces an image of the ante bellum South as a place of vast plantations and powerful slaveholders. Such estates did exist, and their owners wielded enormous economic and political power But the large majority of white southerners lived on small farms with no slaves. (Hulton Getty)

Sectional Tensions1860 Arkansas Wagon Makers

reforming or improving society. Reform movements found little fertile ground in the South, and by the 1850s most white southerners had adopted a stance affirming slavery as a 'positive good' for both masters and those held in bondage.

Slavery served not only as a form of labor control, but also as the key to the South's social order. Only about one-third of white southern families owned slaves, and most of those held fewer than five. Just 12 percent of the slaveholders owned 12 or more slaves, the dividing line often given between a plantation and a farm. But all white southerners had a stake in the system of slavery because, as white people, they belonged to the region's controlling class. No matter how wretched their condition, they were superior, in their minds and according to the social and legal structure of southern society, to the millions of enslaved black people. White southerners, regardless of economic status, were made equal by the fact of black slavery. For this reason, and because of genuine fear of what would happen should large numbers of free black people be loosed upon the South, white southerners saw slavery as a necessary and generally beneficent institution, and reacted very defensively to criticism from the North.

By the late ante bellum years, many white southerners had developed a strong set of stereotypes about the North. They

Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Free Soilers and supporters of slavery contended for control of the territory. Several years of violence claimed hundreds of casualties and presaged the much larger sectional strife that soon engulfed the nation. In this photograph, Free Soilers stand beside a small cannon. Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861. (Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas)

considered northerners a cold, grasping people who cared little about family and subordinated everything to the pursuit of money and material goods. They also believed northerners too quick to judge others, insistent on forcing their reforming beliefs on all Americans, and intent on meddling with a southern society dependent on slavery to exert social and economic control over black people.

Sectional crisis looms

The sectional crisis assumed its most aggravated form in connection with territorial expansion. Aware of its growing inferiority in population, the South believed it necessary to match the North state for state. This would maintain parity in the United States Senate, where each state had two representatives regardless of population. The North, equally cognisant of its edge in population, insisted that it should wield greater influence in government. White southerners also asserted that their 'peculiar institution', as slavery was called, must be able to expand into the new-areas lest their economy stagnate. Beginning in the late 1840s, large numbers of northerners supported a free soil movement that sought to prevent slavery's introduction into federal territories. Many of those calling for free soil in the West, it should be noted, were as racist as any southern slaveholder. They envisioned territories reserved for free white men and their families.

A number of mileposts marked the road of sectional friction. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise restricted slavery in the Louisiana Purchase country to land below latitude 36° 30' N . Missouri entered the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thereby preserving the balance of power in the Senate and setting a precedent for admitting free and slave states in pairs that would hold for the next 30 years. Alarmed by hot congressional debates over Missouri, the aged Thomas Jefferson likened the issue to a 'firebell in the night' and 'considered it at once as the knell of the Union.' In 1831, Nat Turner's bloody slave uprising in Southside Virginia and the founding of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator spawned concern among white southerners. The admission of Texas as a slave state in 1845 and the war with Mexico in 1846-48 brought vast new western lands into the Union. The North staked out its position in 1846 with the Wilmot Proviso, which called for excluding slavery from all territory taken from Mexico. The Proviso, which passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate, served warning to the South that a good part of the North meant to bar slavery from all new territories.

Crisis followed crisis rapidly after 1848, a year in which the Free Soil Party mounted a major ticket for the presidency. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state, ending the South's parity in the Senate, and forced a tough fugitive slave law on the North. Two years later, publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin reached a huge audience in the North and in England, winning untold converts to the abolitionist cause. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 sought to apply the doctrine of 'popular sovereignty', which allowed the people of a territory, rather than the federal government, to decide whether they would accept slavery. Northerners argued that this violated the Missouri Compromise by reopening to slavery parts of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Virtual civil war erupted in Kansas, as slaveholders and free-staters fought to gain control of the area. More ominously for the North, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 seemingly guaranteed a slaveholder's right to take chattels anywhere in the territories and possibly anywhere in the free states. Outraged northerners denounced the Dred Scott outcome as proof that a 'slave power conspiracy' in government gave the South clout far out of proportion to its population.

In the 1840s and 1850s, crucial national institutions failed to cope with increasing sectional tensions. Several Protestant denominations, including the Baptists and Methodists, split into northern and southern wings over the issue of slavery. The Whig Party broke apart in the early 1850s, its southern and northern wings hopelessly at odds. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party became in effect a southern-dominated sectional party. The Republican Party first ran a presidential candidate in 1856, its platform calling for a total ban on slavery in the territories. White southerners quickly associated Republicans with abolitionists -though the two were by no means synonymous. In the minds of many in the North, the Democratic Party served as a mere tool of the slaveocracy, its northern members, such as presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, derisively called 'doughfaces' who did the bidding of their southern masters.

Perceptions on each side had reached a point by the mid-1850s that scarcely allowed many northerners or southerners to view the other section sympathetically or even realistically. Each side expected the worst from the other. The white South looked north and saw a nation of abolitionists intent on killing the institution that lay at the foundation of southern economics and society. The North looked south and saw a land of aggressive slaveholders who used the national courts and doughface allies in the presidency and Congress to frustrate the nation's progress towards greatness as a free labor, capitalist state. By 1859, a great many people in the North and the South had formed opinions that would make compromise difficult if another major crisis should arise. When the presidential election of 1860 propelled into power a party that had called for closing the territories to slavery, just such a crisis had arrived.


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