Sectionalism in U.S. History: Definition & Conflict

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  • 0:02 Antebellum U.S.
  • 1:07 North vs. South
  • 2:09 The Issue of Slavery
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How did the United States end up in a bloody civil war? In this lesson, we are going to explore the rising sectionalism that divided the nation in almost every way possible across the 40 years leading up to the Civil War.

The Antebellum United States

People don't often realize this, but Abraham Lincoln was a genius architect. I mean, wasn't it Lincoln who said 'A house divided cannot stand?' That's good architectural advice. Your house should not be broken. Okay, obviously Lincoln wasn't talking about actual houses. He was talking about the nation as a whole.

The Civil War, or what caused it, actually has its beginnings in the antebellum period, the era between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. This was a time of immense change for American society. The only problem was that all of American society was not changing in the same way. As different regions of the United States began to develop very different ideas about lots of things, a crisis of sectionalism arose in which the nation became divided politically, ideologically, economically, and even geographically. The house was dividing, and we all know what comes next.

North vs. South

The market revolution of the early 19th century introduced a new reliance on technology, factories, and wage labor in the North. The Northern states had a diverse economy based largely on industrial products, but the Southern states were still firmly dedicated to the agrarian ideologies of American revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson.

Not only did the Southern economy rely almost entirely on agriculture, it was actually extremely successful. Americans called the main Southern export 'King Cotton' because it dominated national and international markets and was responsible for much of the nation's economic growth.

Now, this division in economies was just the beginning. Northern states developed new ideologies about education and gender, with the first women's rights convention being held at Seneca Falls in New York in 1848. Meanwhile, the South remained committed to ideas of honor, a strict division of men's work and women's work, and of course, the indefatigable values of hospitality.

The Issue of Slavery

Now, I know what you've been thinking: Aren't we missing something sort of important? Yes, yes we are. Of the contradicting ideologies between Northern and Southern states, perhaps none was as divisive as the issue of slavery. Northerners professed to hate it, although they generally tolerated it as long as it stayed in the South. Southerners in the antebellum period went from viewing slavery as a necessary evil to a good and venerable institution. It was the backbone of their extensive cotton industry; it was the basis of their class system; it defined their ideas about gender and honor. Frankly, slavery defined the South.

Now, where this became an issue wasn't actually in the main Southern states: It was in the Western states and territories. Northerners could abide slavery in the South, but not the territories. At the heart of this issue was the conflict over representation. Each state receives representation in Congress, and throughout the antebellum period, the Northern and Southern states fought to maintain a balance of power. Slave states didn't want the free states to have more representation in Congress for fear that the legislature would ban slavery, and free states had the same concern about slave states. The results could get pretty heated, and at times even deadly.

The Missouri Compromise

First, we'll look at the Missouri Compromise. The first major time we saw this issue arise was when Missouri applied for statehood. Missouri wanted to allow slavery, but if it were admitted to the union, there would be more slave states than free states. The Northern representatives couldn't allow that. So, in 1820 they struck a compromise. According to the Missouri Compromise, Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, but the state of Maine would be created as a free state to maintain the balance of power. Any new states below the new dividing line would allow slavery, and those above would not. Yes, they managed to reach a compromise, but now the issue of slavery had physically drawn a line dividing the nation.

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