Sectional tension in the 1850s
Sectional conflict: Regional differences
Unit 5: Learning Objective F
- [Instructor] From the very beginning of English settlement in North America, the contrast between the Southern Colonies and the Northern Colonies was stark. Things didn't improve much when the 13 Colonies rebelled in 1776 and became an independent nation. Tensions over slavery flared during the crafting of the U.S. Constitution, and repeatedly during the 19th Century, when compromises in 1820 and 1850 barely maintained the fragile balance between Northern and Southern states. But in 1860, the wheels finally came off, and the Southern states seceded from the Union, starting the Civil War. After more than 80 years of compromise, why did the differences between the North and the South finally become irreconcilable in the 1850s? In other videos we've traced the differences and similarities between the North and South from the Colonial Era until the late 1840s in terms of economics, social structure, and commonly held ideas about slavery. Let's revisit those comparisons for the years immediately leading up to the Civil War and see if we can identify why the conflict intensified in the 1850s. The difference between the economies of the North and South began way back at the outset of colonization in North America when the cold climate of the North prevented large scale plantation agriculture. Instead the Northern economy centered on trade and manufacturing. The first and second Industrial Revolution turned the Northern economy into one based on factories, where men, women and children worked for long hours, sometimes in dangerous conditions. In the 1840s the potato famine in Ireland and revolutions in Europe prompted many Irish and German immigrants to come to Northern cities in search of factory jobs. But even though most factory workers in the North struggled to make ends meet, there was some opportunity for social mobility, to climb the economic ladder. Therefore, the North also had a growing middle class in the mid-19th Century. Many in the lower class held out hope that they could move out West and start a small family farm in order to become financially stable. So to recap, the class structure in the North looked kind of like this. A large working class of laborers, many of them immigrants, a middle class of managers and small business owners, and a small upper class of factory owners, bankers and successful merchants. In the South, cultivating valuable cash crops to sell on the national and international markets had always been the center of the economy. Cotton had slowly replaced tobacco as the number one crop in the South, and American cotton plantations were producing nearly 70 percent of the world's cotton supply by 1860. With agriculture working out so well for plantation owners, there was no need to industrialize as in the North. All the labor on plantations was done by enslaved people, who had no hope of improving their lot in life except by running away. There was also a large number of poor white farmers who owned no slaves, and a few modest planters that owned fewer than 10 enslaved people. Despite the popular myth of gigantic plantations across the South, only one-tenth of a percent of slaveholders owned more than 100 people. The class system in the South was extremely rigid and aristocratic, not far off from a medieval feudal society, with a handful of wealthy white families dominating in each Southern sate. Wealth was measured in the South by the number of enslaved people a planter owned. Poorer whites aspired to buy enslaved people and become plantation owners themselves, but their prospects of doing so were pretty slim by the 1850s. Growing cotton quickly depleted the soil, and so both large plantation owners and whites who dreamed of becoming large plantation owners looked to the West for new lands to cultivate in order to expand the cotton kingdom. In short, the class structure in the South looked a little like this. A large permanent under class of enslaved laborers, with non-slaveholding whites above them in rights and in economic power. Then there was a small number of planters who owned a few enslaved people. And at the very top was a tiny fraction of large planters who owned more than 100 enslaved people. So how did these economic differences lead to tension? Well first, there were tensions over whether the economic policy of the Federal Government promoted agriculture or manufacturing. Things like tariffs and the expansion of the railroad turned into bitter fights over whether the government was prioritizing the needs of one section or the other. And then there was westward expansion. Both Northerners and Southerners looked to the West for their future economic opportunities, and both sides suspected the other of trying to suppress their paths to social mobility. The ideologies of the North and South also diverged sharply in the 1850s. In the North, most whites didn't object to slavery as it existed in the South, but worried about the potential expansion of slavery to the West. The Free Soil Movement aimed to preserve Western lands for small white farmers. There was also a growing sense among Northerners that the South had too much power in the Federal Government thanks to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which granted Southern states representation in Congress for 60 percent of its disenfranchised enslaved population in addition to its white population. This was a fair charge to make. Many events of the 1850s like the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled Northern whites to assist in capturing runaway slaves, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reopened the possibility of allowing slavery north of the Missouri Compromise line, and the Supreme Court's decision in the case Dred Scott versus Sandford, which claimed that African-Americans weren't citizens, convinced Northerners that what they called the slave power, had come to dominate government. Consequently, the abolition movement, which called for the immediate end of slavery everywhere, grew considerably more mainstream in the 1850s. Writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the influential abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, activists like Frederick Douglas, who had escaped from slavery and toured the North lecturing about its evils, and vigilantes like John Brown, who led deadly raids on slaveholders, dramatized the moral evil of slavery to a growing audience in this time period. In contrast to the North, white Southerners believed they had the Constitution on their side, and that Northern attempts to limit the expansion of slavery constituted an assault on their liberty. In addition, white Southerners began to craft a proactive defense of the institution of slavery in the 1850s. Instead of treating slavery like the South's embarrassing, but necessary, peculiar institution as they had in the past, Southern commentators began to frame slavery as a positive good. They pointed to the conditions of immigrants in Northern factories, who might be injured in an accident at work, and then be fired for no longer being productive. Slave owners argued that they treated their enslaved laborers better than Northern factory owners treated their wage slaves. Southern sociologist George Fitzhugh wrote two books arguing that slavery was preferable to the kill or be killed environment of unbridled capitalism, and that poor whites should be enslaved in addition to people of African descent in order to protect them from being eaten alive in the free market. In looking at these economic, social, and ideological differences between the North and South, it's clear that by the 1850s there was really a clash of cultures going on. Would the United Stated be an agricultural nation, or an industrial one? One where anyone, no matter their color or place or birth, could climb the social ladder, or one where just a few deserved to enjoy all the blessings of liberty? In 1860, these questions would propel the country into civil war.