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Rise of Sectionalism: 1815–1859

Sectionalism before the American Civil War and the States' Rights Doctrine

Rise of Sectionalism

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.

Sectionalism in the United States, 1850

Distinct socioeconomic sections emerged in the United States during the first half of the 19th century.
The War of 1812 ended in 1815, and the United States—in the relief of peacetime—entered a period known as the "Era of Good Feelings." Americans experienced a new sense of nationalism and took pride in their country. Defeating Great Britain a second time had boosted national morale and proved to other countries that the United States was a legitimately independent country. Beneath this glowing facade of national unity, however, was an underlying tension that would contribute to the outbreak of the Civil War.

In addition to their postwar feelings of unity, many Americans felt a loyalty to the region—or section—of the country they lived in. This loyalty was accompanied by resentment toward other geographical areas and the socioeconomic and cultural differences defining those areas from their own. The tensions generated by this regional resentment became known as sectionalism.

The two most distinct sections of the country at the time were the North and the South. The economy of the North was rooted in small-scale farming, banking, trade, and manufacturing, and the North was home to the country's largest banks and wealthiest businesspeople. The South, on the other hand, was largely an agricultural region. Its economy relied almost entirely on farming, including large plantations, and on the institution of slavery.

Significant differences between regions of the country had existed since colonial times but became more pronounced through the early to mid-19th century. This was largely because of divergent views on the issue of slavery. The abolitionist movement—the campaign to abolish or end slavery—became more popular in the North. At the same time, Southerners increasingly embraced the practice of slavery.

Influence of the States' Rights Doctrine on Sectionalism

The South embraced the states' rights doctrine—governmental policy avowing Constitutional protection for the rights of individual states—to justify the preservation of slavery.

A prominent influence on sectionalism was the states' rights doctrine—a governmental policy stating that the Constitution protects the rights of individual states from federal government interference. The doctrine was based on the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, ratified in 1791, emphasized the limited nature of the powers given to the federal government. It stated that powers not granted to the United States were "reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This ensured the states would retain sovereignty—or autonomy—to govern themselves in most matters.

Many Southerners believed slavery was an issue to be governed at the state level and that the federal government should not have jurisdiction over it. For states' rights advocates in the South, preserving slavery became synonymous with protecting all the region's interests. Some people went so far as to justify the institution on moral grounds. Because the civilizations of ancient Rome and Greece kept slaves, advocates reasoned it was appropriate for them to do so as well. As the North and South moved further apart on this issue, sectionalism grew more deeply rooted in the country.

Rapid expansion into and settlement of the West intensified the issues. Antislavery advocates in the North wanted to prevent the spread of slavery into the unorganized territories of the Louisiana Purchase. Southerners wanted the exact opposite. They insisted slavery be permitted in the Western territories. Meanwhile, the West began to take on an identity all its own, further contributing to the country's sectionalism.

The tensions engendered by sectionalism ultimately shaped political debate in the United States for much of the 19th century. New political parties emerged that reflected distinct regional ideals. While compromise between regions over slavery was possible in the beginning, it did little to prevent the deepening divisions across the country.