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Rise of Sectionalism: 1815–1859



Following the War of 1812, the United States entered a period known as the "Era of Good Feelings." This phrase described the swell of nationalism across the country. Beneath these "good feelings," however, sectional differences and tensions generated by the issue of slavery were forming and deepening between the North, South, and West. The spread of slavery into the West became central to public and political debate as politicians such as Henry Clay desperately sought compromises to preserve the Union. The abolitionist movement, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the conflicts of Bleeding Kansas all pushed the country closer to the brink of civil war.

At A Glance

  • Sectionalism—or tensions between regions in the United States—stemmed from the vastly different economies of the North and South and increasingly divergent views over the issue of slavery.
  • The South embraced the states' rights doctrine—governmental policy avowing Constitutional protection for the rights of individual states—to justify the preservation of slavery.
  • Enslaved African Americans were defined as chattel, or property, which led to onerous treatment: families were sometimes separated, and living conditions and punishments were often inhumane, causing many enslaved workers to try to escape, lead uprisings, or even end their own lives.
  • In addition to more direct forms of resistance, enslaved African Americans resisted the hardships of their lives through their families, religion, folklore, and music—creating a rich culture supportive of human dignity.
  • The abolitionist movement grew in the North, as activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin exposed the evils of slavery.
  • The women's movement grew out of the abolitionist movement but was not immediately successful. Public sentiment at the time was concentrated on the antislavery campaign and had little thought for other causes.
  • The Missouri Compromise was struck in 1820 to maintain a balance of free and slave states in the Senate.
  • The Compromise of 1850 permitted California to enter the Union as a free state, established Utah and New Mexico as territories with the right to determine whether to allow slavery, passed the Fugitive Slave Act, and abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C.
  • Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act granted popular sovereignty in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The act ultimately led to violent conflict between pro- and antislavery factions in Kansas.
  • Enslaved African American Dred Scott attempted to gain his freedom through the court system. Dred Scott v. Sandford became a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional law in 1857.
  • Three years after his involvement in Bleeding Kansas, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry in an effort to incite a slave rebellion.