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Politics and regional interests


  • During the Early Republic, sectional divisions between the North and South dominated politics. Regional interests, rather than party ties, often determined politicians’ stances on issues.
  • Northerners and Westerners tended to favor tariffs, banking, and internal improvements, while Southerners tended to oppose them as measures that disadvantaged their section and gave too much power to the federal government.
  • Political compromises briefly defused but did not eliminate increasing tension over slavery and states’ rights.

Politics and regional interests

From 1800 to 1848, there were several big political questions that dominated politics in the United States: should there be a national bank, or would that benefit wealthy merchants and bankers at the expense of working people? Should there be protective tariffs on American industry, or would they benefit factory owners at the expense of farmers? Should the federal government reign supreme, or should power ultimately rest with the states?
These questions can be a little hard for us to relate to: controversy over tariffs, the national bank, and the expansion of canals and railroads seems kind of quaint to us now. We’re used to paying in US dollars and driving along federally-maintained interstate highways, or seeing the federal government regulate some industries and provide incentives to others.
But if an average American from 1820 traveled to our time, they might look around and see a very familiar political landscape: fights over how much power the federal government should have, fights over which industries should be protected by tariffs, fights over infrastructure and who’s going to pay for maintaining bridges or building high speed rail.
These fights, then as now, relate to bigger questions about which kinds of people and industries American political decisions will benefit. Workers or business owners? The rich or the poor? People living in cities or in rural areas? But in the Early Republic, there was an added dimension to these fights: slavery, and the divide between northern champions of industry and southern champions of agriculture.

The American System

The War of 1812 exposed some glaring weaknesses in the organization of the United States: without a national bank (the First Bank of the United States’s charter lapsed in 1811) or reliable means of internal transportation, it was difficult to raise money for the war effort or move men and supplies to the battlefield.
In 1815, President James Madison, along with fellow Republican politicians Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, called for a program of internal improvements to jumpstart the American economy known as the American System. The program had three parts: first, the creation of a new national bank; second, federal financing to improve and construct roads and canals; and third, a protective tariff to shield American industries. This protective tariff would raise the price of imported goods to entice American consumers to purchase the cheaper, American-made version of those goods.
Portrait of James Madison.
Portrait of James Madison. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Congress enacted two of the three provisions of the American System, passing the Tariff of 1816 and creating the Second Bank of the United States, also in 1816. Ironically, although Congress passed a bill to improve roads and canals, Madison himself vetoed it. Although he had originally pushed for the American System, Madison had come to oppose permitting the federal government to exercise powers not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. A more powerful federal government, he believed, would jeopardize the sovereignty of states and put the South at a disadvantage.
Madison’s change of heart mirrored the broader political transformation during his time in government. The Era of Good Feelings, a time of single-party rule for the Republicans, revealed simmering sectional tensions. White southerners like Madison feared that the federal government’s intervention to promote banking and industry would benefit the North at the expense of the South. Moreover, a strong federal government might interfere with the institution of slavery.
In this era, regional interests came to dominate national politics. Like Madison, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun moved away from his earlier nationalist stance to take up the mantel of the South, slavery, and states’ rights. Henry Clay represented the West. John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster represented the North.

Clashes and compromises

Westward expansion brought the growing tension between the North and South to a head. In 1819, the citizens in the territory of Missouri requested admission to the Union as a new state, formed on land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Since white settlers had already transported thousands of enslaved people to the region, Missouri was likely to enter the Union as a slave state. New York Congressman James Tallmadge attached an amendment to the request for statehood prohibiting slavery in the new state and providing for the emancipation of the children of the enslaved at 25 years of age.
The Tallmadge Amendment set off a firestorm in Congress, where representatives voted along sectional lines, threatening disunion and civil war. The admission of Missouri as a slave state would upset the balance of power between free and slave states, tilting the advantage toward the South.
Ultimately, to avoid disunion, Henry Clay helped to pass the Missouri Compromise. The Compromise admitted Missouri as a slave state at the same time that it admitted Maine as a free state, maintaining the balance of power between North and South. In addition, the Compromise established a line along the 36°30′ north line of latitude (the southern boundary of Missouri). Above this line, Congress agreed, new western states would not permit slavery, while below it, slavery could continue to expand westward.
Map showing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As part of the agreement, the United States admitted Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and established a compromise line along 36°30′, forbidding slavery in any new western states north of this line. Slavery could expand westward to states south of this line.
The Missouri Compromise maintained the balance of free and slave states in the United States.
The Missouri Compromise held the Union together, but it didn’t prevent further squabbles between the sections. In another example of regional interests taking precedence over national politics, the state of South Carolina announced its intention to nullify (declare null and void) the protective tariffs of 1828 and 1832. Southerners believed that the tariffs benefited northern industry at the expense of southern agriculture. Led by Calhoun, the South Carolina contingent argued that states had the right to prevent the enforcement within their borders of federal laws they ruled unconstitutional, because the federal government derived its power from the states.
When the tariff went into effect in 1832, the resulting Nullification Crisis nearly ended in military conflict between the federal government and South Carolina. Jackson persuaded Congress to authorize the Force Bill, which gave him the power to use the army and navy to enforce the tariffs in South Carolina. Clay, the Great Compromiser, once again stepped in to prevent catastrophe. He negotiated a new tariff that the South Carolina legislature approved. It dropped the nullification ordinance against the tariff . . . but voted to nullify the Force Bill, just to prove its point.

What do you think?

What were the arguments for and against the American System?
Why were opinions about tariffs, banking, and internal improvements tied to sectional differences?
What is nullification? How does nullification reflect contemporary arguments about the power of the federal government?

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