The years between 1830 and 1870 were marked, in the western world, by the triumph of nationalism in three important areas—Italy (chs. IX and XXI), Germany (chs. IX and XIX) and the United States. In Italy, nationalism could not achieve its fulfilment until it overcame the obstacles of universalism—the universalism of both church and empire. In Germany, Bismarckian nationalism reached its goal by breaking down the forces of German particularism and by sacrificing the democratic values of 1848. In America, the alignment of forces was different: the ideals of nationalism and democracy were fused and the force which resisted nationalism was sectionalism within the United States. The sequence of development was also different, for nationalism seemed to gain a quick and easy triumph in America during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, and then belatedly encountered the disruptive force of sectionalism which grew in strength until the tension between the two forces culminated in the Civil War of 1861-5.
At the time when Andrew Jackson came to the American Presidency in 1829, Italy was still split into minor principalities, largely under the domination of the Habsburgs, and Germany as yet remained a loose confederation of thirty-eight autonomous states. By contrast, the triumph of nationalism in the United States already appeared, at least outwardly, to be complete. During the forty years of the republic’s existence, no other country had grown so rapidly and no other people were so proud of their national growth. The population, which stood at 12,800,000 in 1830, was more than three times as great as in 1790. The area of the country had more than doubled, reaching a total of 1,754,000 square miles. The western frontier had been pushed from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and the southern limits, which had originally lain along the Georgia-Florida boundary, now extended to the Gulf of Mexico. The union of thirteen states had increased to twenty-four.
These physical gains, moreover, had been accompanied by political developments that seemed steadily to augment the strength of the central government. For twenty-eight years political control had been in the hands of a party which was theoretically committed to the states-rights philosophy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, but in operative terms Jefferson’s followers had swung over to measures of a kind previously advocated by that arch-nationalist Alexander Hamilton. Among such measures were the acquisition (through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) of an immense area under national rather than state authority, the waging of a nationalist war against Great Britain in 1812, the chartering of a national financial institution (the Second Bank of the United States) in 1816, the adoption of a protective tariff as a measure of economic nationalism in 1816, the construction at Federal expense of a national, highway to link east and west (the Cumberland Pike, completed 1818), and the bold enunciation in 1823 of a foreign policy (the Monroe Doctrine) which claimed an entire hemisphere for national guardianship by the United States. While these strides towards nationalism were being taken by Congress and the Executive, John Marshall, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was giving a strongly national character to the constitutional law of the United States by a series of decisions holding that acts of the states were void whenever they encroached upon the sphere of action assigned by the constitution to the central government; it was Marshall who declared in 1821 that ‘the United States form, for many and for most important purposes, a single nation’.
In economic terms, also, the republic was becoming more genuinely a unit. In colonial times, adjoining colonies had often been quite isolated from one another, while ocean-borne trade—the only significant form of commerce—had bound them closely to their markets across the Atlantic. But the development of turnpikes, the construction of canals, and the advent of the steamboat had all contributed to the growth of a domestic commerce which created closer ties between the states and eventually overshadowed foreign trade. While this was happening, the potentialities of economic nationalism had received political recognition. Henry Clay of Kentucky had advocated an ‘American System’, which would encourage agriculture in the west by providing roads or other transport facilities (known as ‘internal improvements’) for taking crops to market, and would encourage industry in the east by means of a protective tariff. As Clay planned it, industrial areas would serve as markets for western agriculture, and the western farming regions would provide a market for eastern industry. Each would supplement the other economically and support the other politically, and a national economy would result. Although such measures of economic nationalism continued to encounter opposition for reasons which will appear presently, the fact was that a national economy was growing rapidly by 1830, supported by the banking and tariff and highway legislation mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
To modem students of nationalism, however, neither the physical growth of the United States nor the political and economic manifestations of national development will count for as much as the essential, underlying homogeneity of the American people, who were bound together by a common culture, common ideals, and common institutions. By all these criteria the Americans appeared to be very much one nation. Their religious and moral tradition was overwhelmingly Protestant; their Old World origin still remained primarily British; and their speech, for all its regional variations, did not vary as much as did dialects within the mother country. But even when they came of diverse stocks with diverse tongues, their economic and social origin was fairly uniform, for most Americans originated from a class in the Old World that had lived by manual labour applied to cultivation of the earth. In their New World environment they still practised a large measure of self-sufficiency in their economy and held to a strong belief in the necessity and dignity of work. Personally, they were committed to ideals of individual self-reliance, and socially to ideals of equalitarianism. Finding these ideals embodied in the American political and legal system, with its broad suffrage, its easy access to education, its freehold tenure in land, and its emphasis upon equality before the law, they took immense and invidious pride in their ‘institutions’. Apparently no people in the world were more patriotically devoted to their country than the Americans.
But though this nationalism seemed triumphant, there remained two serious obstacles to its continued ascendancy. One of these was the unresolved discrepancy between democracy as Jefferson had planned it and nationalism as Hamilton had planned it. Hamilton had visualised the national government as an anti-democratic device for protecting the interests of the elite and keeping the populace in order; while Jefferson, fearing just such a central authority, had looked to the states to resist national power and to protect democracy at the local level. So long as these philosophies prevailed, with their implication that the American people must choose between nationalism and democracy, the future of nationalism remained in doubt. A second obstacle lay in the physical, economic, and social diversities between various sections within the United States, which were potentially so strong that, if developed, they might offset the features in common which bound all the American people together, and might elevate the section rather than the nation to a supreme position as the focus of loyalty. Both of these obstacles came conspicuously into evidence during Jackson’s administration and it was at that time, therefore, that the history of American nationalism entered a new phase.
In some respects Jackson himself seemed to represent southern and western sectional interests. As a slaveholder and cotton planter, he showed a Southerner’s respect for the rights of the states. As a fighting Westerner, whose own life was a long, bitter struggle against a privileged social and political inner circle, he was instinctively hostile to the Federalist concept of nationalism. He won the election of 1828 by carrying every state (except Maryland) west of the Delaware and the Hudson and losing every state east of these rivers. But in other ways he was the very symbol of nationalism. As a Tennessee frontiersman he shared the devotion of the west to the Union; as hero of the battle of New Orleans he embodied national military glory; as the invader of Florida he had been the aggressive champion of American territorial growth. But despite the complexities of his position a close scrutiny of his attitude on any given question will usually show that his stand was nationalistic in substance, even when not consistent with the overt forms of nationalism. Thus, when Georgia began to remove the Indians from state lands in violation of Federal treaties with the tribes, Jackson approved, but his approbation rested upon a belief that Indian removal was sound national policy, even though being pursued through the instrumentality of the state. Similarly, when Congress voted Federal funds for the construction of a turnpike between Maysville and Lexington in Kentucky, Jackson vetoed the measure (1830), and thus gave great comfort to the advocates of states-rights; yet his action was based not so much upon opposition to Federal support for a national transportation system as upon the conviction that the Maysville project was essentially local. Other more thoroughly national projects, such as the extension of the Cumberland Pike and the building of roads in the territories, received his firm support.
The distinctive character of Jackson’s nationalism, however, showed most clearly in the two major struggles of his administration—the contest over the recharter of the Bank of the United States and the conflict with South Carolina on the issue of Nullification. The first of these struggles involved the reconciliation of nationalism and democracy, the second involved the problem of nationalism and sectionalism.
The bank was a corporation chartered by the United States but owned and controlled by private stockholders. It served as the sole bank of deposit for the government, and thus was exclusively privileged to use the Federal funds. Also, it was authorised to issue notes which were acceptable in payment of government obligations, and which thus enjoyed a governmental sanction as money. It did not hold an exclusive power to issue notes, for many banks were chartered by the states with this power, and a substantial volume of the state banks’ notes was in circulation. But the Bank of the United States exercised immense influence over other banks, for the large scale of its operations enabled it to accumulate the notes of any state bank and to present these notes for redemption in specie if it distrusted the policies of the bank in question. Thus the Bank of the United States held controlling authority over almost all other banks, and while the existence of such a co-ordinating power may have been desirable, the wisdom of vesting it in a privately controlled corporation was far less clear. Alexander Hamilton had deliberately chosen to create an alliance between government and the monied interests by conferring such a power upon the First Bank of the United States and this kind of alliance still persisted in the successor bank, whose charter was due to expire in 1837. The president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia, a proud and somewhat overbearing aristocrat, let himself be persuaded to press for a renewal of the charter before the presidential election of 1832. Henry Clay sponsored the measure in Congress, and easily secured the passage of a bill to recharter. Thus the question came squarely before Andrew Jackson.
Without hesitation, Jackson vetoed the bill. His opposition rested partly upon a states-rights denial of the constitutional power of the central government to charter a bank, and partly upon western resentment against the stringent credit policies of the bank (though Jackson was by no means a champion of loose credit policies). But, above all, he disliked the privilege inherent in a grant of public power to private beneficiaries. He believed that the power alternately to expand and to contract credit could be used by financial manipulators to expropriate the value of the earnings of productive workers. To his mind the government ought to divorce itself from any such operations, and ought to conduct its own financial transactions with ‘hard money’. Thus it would help to protect honest earnings by promoting a monetary system based upon specie and therefore safe from manipulation. In short, his opposition rested upon democratic grounds and he appealed to the democratic masses to support him. Unlike the democracy of Jefferson, his democracy was not primarily one of farmers, for it embraced all the productive classes and thus it marked a vital step in the adjustment of democratic philosophy for a republic which was already ceasing to be agrarian.
Jackson’s veto precipitated the kind of political battle in which he was at his best. His adversaries first attempted to override the veto, and failing in this, united in choosing Clay as the candidate to oppose him for the Presidency in 1832. Both sides appealed strenuously to the people, and Jackson won by heavy majorities. Having beaten off the attack he now assumed the offensive at once, and instead of waiting for the bank’s charter to expire he caused the Secretary of the Treasury to withdraw all Federal funds without further delay.
This destroyed the power of the bank and seemed to complete Jackson’s triumph. But it soon became apparent that he had not devised any satisfactory alternative to the bank, and his only recourse was to deposit the funds in various state-chartered banks which became known as ‘pet banks’. With new funds in hand and with no central bank to restrain them, the pet banks expanded their credit recklessly, departing farther and farther from the President’s hard-money ideals. When Jackson, too late, attempted to curb their inflationary practices by placing the sale of public lands on a specie basis, the only result was to precipitate a panic (1837) in which most of the banks failed and the government lost its deposits. By this time, Jackson’s term was over, but his successors now adopted the policy of keeping government funds in an ‘independent treasury’, and leaving the banks to their own devices. The result was that from this time until the Civil War the circulating medium of the country consisted primarily of miscellaneous bank-notes, issued by many different state-chartered banks and varying in the extent to which their exchange value deviated from their face value. In short, the monetary system was almost completely decentralised.
In a formal sense, Jackson’s policy seemed an absolute negation of nationalism. He had denied the national power to charter a bank, and by destroying the only central banking institution in the country he left the United States for a generation without a national financial system or a national monetary supply. Yet, paradoxically, it was during the bank contest that Jackson gave to American nationalism the strength through popular support which it had previously lacked.
The very alignment of forces in the bank contest itself contributed to nationalism, for this was the first time that a public issue had been carried directly to the voters for a decision by the American people collectively. Also, Jackson’s bold policy began to transform the nature of the presidential office. Jackson conceived of himself not as the chairman of an administrative organ, but as a tribune of the people; hence he used the neglected power of veto with vigour for the first time, and by appealing directly to public opinion to sustain him against Congressional opposition, he imparted to his office a function of national leadership which had previously been lacking in the American political system. The modem American Presidency, as an office of power, originated with Andrew Jackson. Moreover, the fierceness of the bank controversy fostered the development of two highly organised political parties—Democratic and Whig—and the fact that these national parties maintained local organisations in each of the states tended to nationalise American politics.
Over and above these concrete developments loomed the general fact that Jackson had begun to fuse nationalism and democracy by asserting the protection of democratic values as an objective of national policy. By his support of universal, free manhood suffrage, rotation in office, nomination of candidates by party convention rather than by Congressional caucus, and the general principle of popular rule, he, more than anyone else, established government by the people in place of government by a class of recognisable gentlemen. With a concept of national power very unlike that of the Federalists, he asserted that the ‘true strength’ of the general government ‘consists in... making itself felt, not in its power but in its beneficence; not in its control, but in its protection’. This insistence that national strength would increase more by being placed upon a democratic basis than by the sheer exercise of power freed nationalism of its Federalist stigma and brought into conjunction for the first time the twin forces of nationalism and democracy. A generation later Abraham Lincoln brought the country successfully through the crisis of Civil War by his steadfast insistence that the maintenance of this conjunction transcended all other goals.
Thus, Jackson successfully cleared away the first of the two major obstacles to nationalism. The second major obstacle—the sectional obstacle —also came to the fore during his administration, in the form of Nullification, and Jackson dealt with it also, but not with such conclusive success.
The Nullification crisis arose from the opposition, in the South, and especially in South Carolina, to protective tariff legislation, which had first been adopted in 1816 without clear-cut sectional opposition and which had been reinforced by subsequent acts in 1824 and 1828. During the decade of the ’twenties South Carolina suffered a prolonged economic depression for which she blamed the tariff, and when relief was not forthcoming under a new tariff act in 1832 she invoked a constitutional defence which had been developed by her senator, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, who was to rank as the great spokesman of the South and the foremost American political theorist of his generation, had worked out a defensive theory known as the doctrine of Nullification. Beginning with the generally accepted premise that the states had originally been co-parties in an agreement (the constitution) which limited the central government to certain functions, Calhoun argued that when, in the judgment of one of the states, the central government exceeded its powers, the state in question, as one of the co-parties, could restrain the agent of the co-parties (that is, the central government) by suspending or ‘nullifying’ the exercise of the disputed function, and could maintain this suspension until the dispute had been resolved by constitutional amendment. In short, he regarded the individual state as the final arbiter of the limits of constitutional power and denied such a role to the Supreme Court on the ground that, as a branch of the central government, it could not legitimately decide the limits of power of the government of which it was a part. He did not advocate the withdrawal of states from the Union—indeed he insisted that his corrective would prevent disunion—but his theory of the unimpaired sovereignty of the states provided a basis for the later doctrine of secession.
South Carolina brought Calhoun’s doctrine into play by calling a state convention which in 1832 adopted an Ordinance of Nullification to suspend the collection of duties. Jackson responded by warning the people of South Carolina in a solemn address that ‘The laws of the United States must be executed’, and that ‘Disunion by armed force is treason’, and he secured the adoption of a Force Act, giving him authority to use the army and the navy to enforce the laws. Conflict appeared imminent, but the crisis was averted. The nullifiers agreed to suspend their ordinance pending the reconsideration of the tariff by Congress; Congress promptly adopted a measure, introduced by Clay, for the gradual reduction of duties; South Carolina thereupon repealed her ordinance, and though she defiantly ‘nullified’ the Force Act, the controversy subsided. Carolina claimed a victory, but when Jackson left the Presidency in 1837 he remained, in the eyes of the American people, a triumphant champion of the Union.
Jackson owed his success in dealing with Nullification partly to the firmness of his own Unionism and partly to the prompt redress of Carolina’s grievances. He deferred the sectional crisis until a time when the Union would be better able to meet it, and he provided an encouraging example for later Unionists. But the compromise of 1833 did not go to the roots of sectional unrest, and the only reason that Jackson was able to control the situation was because other Southern states, although sharing Carolina’s opposition to the tariff, were not prepared to support her extreme measures. In short, sectional solidarity had not yet developed.
In fact, the sectional pattern was so complex that its background requires some examination. As early as the seventeenth century, conspicuous contrasts had developed between the colonies from Pennsylvania northward and those from Maryland southward. The Southern colonies were physically distinctive in their rich soil, their warm climate with its long growing season, and their low coastal plain which was penetrated by tidal rivers. All of these factors proved favourable to an economy of staple crops (tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, rice and indigo in Carolina), and these crops, in turn, were conducive to the development of the plantation as the unit of production and to the utilisation of negro slaves as labour. Such an economy also entailed a large export trade and a reliance upon overseas markets both as an outlet for crops and as a source of supplies. Plantation slavery produced a patriarchal type of society, with a markedly conservative temper and with a well-articulated stratification of social classes. Also, the rather formal Anglicanism of the planters did not interfere with a certain hedonism in their way of life.
The New England and middle Atlantic colonies, on the other hand, lacked the physical conditions which would support staple crops, and they adopted a basic economy of subsistence farming, but the middle colonies escaped the restrictions of pure subsistence by producing grain for the southern and West Indian markets, while New England developed extensive fisheries and ocean-borne commerce. Where the sources of wealth were largely commercial, the merchant, rather than the planter, became the dominant social figure, and free workers rather than slaves were needed in the labour force. The chronic shortage of export products with which to buy imports prompted the Northern colonies to practise the crafts and to diversify their production. Extremes of wealth were less conspicuous than in the South and social demarcations were less sharp. Society was more competitive and more responsive to change. The Puritanism of New England and the Quaker influence in Pennsylvania produced a stronger emphasis upon piety in everyday life.
These striking contrasts between North and South were clearly recognised at the time, and they were the basis for a certain amount of antagonism. Therefore some later historians have depicted the two sections as seats of irreconcilable civilisations, destined from the beginning to clash in inevitable war. Yet, with full allowance for the reality of this cleavage, there was another sectional dualism in America which at times seemed more basic than the North/South dichotomy. This was the antagonism between older, more or less densely populated, economically mature, socially stratified settlements along the coast, on the one hand, and the newer, sparsely populated, economically undeveloped, socially undifferentiated settlements in the interior, on the other. In sectional terms, these differences tended to polarise on an East-versus-West or seaboard-versus-frontier axis. The position of the West as a region of insufficient capital, prone to fall into a debtor status and susceptible to economic exploitation, led to a chronic situation of conflict beginning as early as Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 and continuing as late as the Populist movement of the 1890’s. Frequently this East/West cleavage seemed to overshadow the North/South dualism, and to become the primary sectional demarcation. Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the physically isolated, politically under-represented, economically debt-ridden subsistence farmers in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia and the up-country of Carolina seemed to have far more in common with the similarly circumstanced settlers in the interior of Massachusetts and the backwoods of Pennsylvania than either group had with the grandees of the coastal area—whether merchant princes in Boston or planter aristocrats along the James and the Ashley.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Western districts had not only developed points of contrast with and antagonism to the Eastern areas; they had also given promise of growing until they would overwhelm the distinctively Northern and Southern coastal districts. Neither the rice and tobacco culture of the Southern tidewater areas nor the maritime commerce of the Northern coastal strip seemed likely to penetrate very far into the interior, and it appeared that all of the frontier settlements, which were pushing out so rapidly toward the west, would remain, north and south alike, regions of subsistence agriculture, populated by an increasing body of small farmers whose rapid growth would confine both the mercantile society of the northern coast and the plantation society of the southern coast within petty local enclaves. The geographical unity of the Mississippi valley, and the economic ties provided by the river system would enhance the homogeneity of the West and would further promote the solidarity of the agrarian interest. This was, in a sense, what Thomas Jefferson had foreseen as the basis of American democracy, and his dream had seemed in the process of fulfilment when, in 1804, the interior districts overthrew Federalist control in every north-eastern state except Connecticut, and when the non-slaveholding farmers of the up-country districts in the South challenged the political power of the planters and even questioned the institution of slavery within their own states. In 1831 the western counties forced a serious debate on slavery in the Virginia legislature.
Thus the deepening division between East and West became, for a time, the major sectional cleavage. But at its very height, when it seemed destined to overshadow and localise the distinctions between North and South, a double transformation began to take place—a transformation in both North and South—which altered the factors of sectional alignment and re-established the primacy of the dualism between North and South. This transformation, occurring over a period of several decades, had begun prior to Jackson’s presidency but had not developed far enough to make the sectional crisis of 1832 acute. Between 1830 and 1860, however, its further development made the problem of harmony between the sections increasingly difficult.
In the North, this transformation resulted from the rapid growth of industry and the development of a vast domestic market. Historically, the north-east, with its diversified economy, had long engaged in a limited amount of handicraft production. But the extensive development of industry had been inhibited by the free influx of British goods, by the absorption of New England’s capital in oceanic trade, and most of all by the lack of a sizeable market—a lack resulting both from the physical inaccessibility of many districts, especially in the west, and from the inability of subsistence farmers to purchase goods. During the period of Jefferson’s embargo and the war of 1812, however, the paralysis of the merchant marine forced north-eastern capitalists to seek new forms of enterprise, and at the same time the stoppage of imports from Britain created a lively demand for native manufactures. These circumstances hastened the growth of industry, but the determining factor in its longterm development was the revolution in transportation which made the American domestic market the largest unobstructed field of commerce in the world. A whole series of developments—the successful operation of steamboats after 1807, the adaptation of the steamboat to Mississippi River traffic in 1817, the Federally financed construction of the Cumberland Pike across the Alleghenies in 1818, the state-financed digging of the Erie Canal to link the Great Lakes with New York in 1825, and the privately financed development of railroads after 1828—all made it possible to create an exchange economy in which industrial north and agricultural west would reciprocally serve as markets and as sources of supply, each for the other. The development of this East/West alliance was the basis of Clay’s American System as early as 1824 and of Abraham Lincoln’s support of both the free homestead policy and the protective tariff as late as 1860. So effectively did the new, artificial ties of turnpike, canal, and railroad do their work, that the north-west was economically drawn almost entirely away from her natural, geographical orientation toward the mouth of the Mississippi and was linked instead to the north-east. In 1852 the volume of grain which passed eastward from the Mississippi valley through Buffalo to eastern ports was two-and-a-half times as great as that which went down the river to New Orleans. The upper valley and the north-eastern states had subordinated their differences, by 1860, to so great an extent that in the sectional crisis they constituted practically a single North.
While this economic revolution was in progress in the North, a parallel revolution, which followed upon Eli Whitney’s invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, was giving new vigour to the southern plantation economy. Whitney’s invention made economically practicable the cultivation of a new staple crop, more profitable than rice or tobacco. Unlike them, cotton could be cultivated under varied soil conditions, and in large units or small. But like them, it could make profitable use of the gang labour of slaves. Hence cotton gave slavery a new lease of life; the plantation system quickly expanded out of the coastal districts and into the interior; the plain farmers of the southern uplands turned from their subsistence economy to the staple economy of cotton; and in less than five decades after Whitney’s invention, cotton advanced a thousand miles across the lower south, all the way to the Brazos River bottoms of Texas, drawing slavery and the plantation with it. At the termination of this advance the new crop had become king for a South whose former internal differences were now sunk in the fact that it was ‘the land of cotton’.
This newly homogeneous South presented sharper contrasts than ever before to the newly homogeneous North. As the South became committed to a plantation pattern of life and to slave labour, it placed increasing stress upon the values of social stability and conservatism, upon the maintenance of a stratified society, and upon the ideals of leisure and honour that are associated with a gentry class. (Much of the South, still remaining in a raw and boisterous frontier phase, fell absurdly short of these ideals, but all of the South accepted them to some degree as ideals.) As the North grew steadily more urban and more heavily involved in industrial enterprise, it embraced the values of ‘progress’ and social change, insisted upon the importance of social mobility, and upheld middle-class ideals of prudence, hard work, and practicality.
These developments not only accentuated the dissimilarities between the sections but also destroyed the equilibrium which had existed in 1790 when the two regions were roughly equal in wealth and population. This disparity itself placed the Union under severe strains, for the North naturally expected its increasing physical preponderance to be reflected by a predominant share in the political control, while the South tenaciously insisted upon the maintenance of a sectional equilibrium in government as its right under the constitution.
Clearly sectional problems were an acute reality, and yet it remains very important to distinguish between sectional dissimilarities and sectional antagonisms. Despite the deterministic assumption of many historians that sectional diversities would automatically lead to sectional conflict, history presents many instances of diverse regions that are bound together in national unity because their diversity leads to reciprocal dependence. In fact, national self-sufficiency rests upon internal diversity. To explain sectional animosities, therefore, it is not enough merely to demonstrate the existence of diverse ways of life; specific issues of conflict must arise, and the more completely the division on these issues follows sectional lines, the more likely is acute sectional hostility to result.
At the time when industry and commerce were creating a new, more closely articulated North, and cotton was diminishing the former tidewater-versus-frontier divisions within the South, a number of matters of public policy arose on which North and South came, to some extent, into conflict. One of these was the question how far the Federal government should go in subsidising internal improvements. The North, in general, desired maximum support for projects which would link northeastern industry with north-western agriculture, while the South jealously resisted a development which might nullify the natural orientation of the whole Mississippi valley southward to the port of New Orleans, and which could not effectively include South Atlantic ports because of the existence of an Appalachian mountain barrier between seaboard and interior. A second issue on which alignments were to a considerable extent sectional was that of the central bank which Jackson destroyed. The north-east, as the centre of capital, was also the centre of ownership of bank shares; in addition, its preoccupation with commerce made it aware of the advantages of a firmly controlled monetary system. Hence it tended to support the bank. The South, by contrast, with its agrarian and debtor status, responded with hostility to an institution which was operated in the creditor interest for the advantage of owners in another region.
A third issue which tended to become sectional was that of the opening to settlement of lands owned by the government. Eastern industrial interests opposed any distribution of public lands which would make such property cheap enough to draw workers away from the factory at a time when expanding industry needed a supply of labour. The South and West, with their growing commitment to agriculture, were far more ready to encourage rapid distribution of lands as a stimulus to agricultural expansion. This clash of interests, which recurred constantly during the ’thirties and ’forties, led to a famous debate in the Senate in 1830 in which Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina put forward the doctrine of Nullification and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts delivered a classic oration in defence of national union.
Still a fourth issue, full of dangerous sectional potentialities which the Nullification crisis had exposed, was that of the tariff. The North regarded a protective system as essential to the development of industry, which was vitally needed to secure the prosperity, the national self-sufficiency, and the economic independence of the republic. The South, selling its cotton on the world market, resented restrictions which prevented it from buying in the same market, and felt that it, as a section, was being forced to subsidise the economy of a rival section. Since the South could not make its purchases abroad, it was forced to sell twice—first to sell its cotton for foreign credits, and then to sell its foreign credits in the northern money market. Constant losses through this process embittered the South against the tariff.
An important factor of safety, however, operated to prevent sectional tension from reaching a breaking-point on any of these issues. This factor was the absence of complete sectional unity on any one of the questions which were being contested. True, the South opposed a restrictive land policy and internal improvements, but some planters already perceived that cheap land would give small farmers an advantage over slaveholders in the race to occupy new areas, and backwoods Alabama and Mississippi were as eager as backwoods Indiana and Illinois for Federal aid in overcoming their frontier isolation. Conversely, while the North as a whole favoured these policies, Northern farmers refused to be guided by Northern industrialists on the land question, and a city like Boston resisted measures which were designed to aid her commercial rivals like New York and Philadelphia.
It was the same with the bank and the tariff. Working-class elements in New York and Pennsylvania went against their section to oppose the bank, while mercantile interests in Charleston went against theirs to support it. Though Northern industry demanded a protected market, Yankee merchants fought a vigorous rear-guard action to safeguard their ocean-borne trade; though Southern cotton demanded a free market, ambitious men in the South dreamed of a Southern textile industry which would need protection. As late as 1816 Calhoun had been the foremost advocate of a tariff measure and Webster had been its leading opponent. As late as 1832, South Carolina, attempting to unite the South on this issue, had found herself unsupported and alone under the banner of Nullification.
The fact that alignments on these questions did not totally coincide with geographical boundaries was of great importance in restraining the disruptive forces of sectionalism. So long as the protectionist and the free-trader, or the supporter of the bank and the advocate of hard money, lived in the same community, personal contact inhibited them from forming stereotyped or unreal images of one another, while local political leaders felt the necessity of seeking common ground for both. Sectionalism, therefore, could not assume a wholly egocentric form. But once sectional demarcation became complete, there was then no check upon the exaggeration and hostility with which men of one section might picture the other—no restraint upon the invective with which the politician might denounce those outside his district in order to woo those within it. It was the nature of sectionalism that as it became complete it would become egocentric. It had not done so on other issues, but negro slavery presented an issue on which it was to become complete.
Until the late eighteenth century, the institution of slavery had not presented sectional contrasts either legally or in terms of moral attitudes. The chattel status of the slave was established in all of the thirteen colonies which formed the original Union, and though the slave population of the Northern colonies was small, Yankee enterprise in the slave trade had been conspicuous. As for moral scruples, these were confined to the Quakers. Then, when the Enlightenment came, it brought a reaction against slavery in North and South alike. The great Virginians—Washington, Jefferson, and many others—regarded slavery as an evil, which ought to be eradicated. But the magnitude of slavery was of an entirely different order on the two sides of the Mason and Dixon line. Less than 6 per cent of the slave population in 1790 lived north of this line, while 94 per cent lived south of it. North of the fine, one person in forty-nine was a slave; south of it, one in three. These proportions gave an entirely different value to slavery in the two sections both as an economic interest and as a system of social control over the negroes, many of whom were not far advanced beyond the African tribal condition.
Because of this great discrepancy, the forces working against slavery operated most unevenly. In the South, they produced acts of private manumission, state measures to abolish the African slave trade before the Federal prohibition of it went into effect in 1808, proposals to restrict the domestic trade, and support for an American Colonization Society (1817) which sought the manumission of slaves and their repatriation in Africa. In the North, by contrast, state after state, between 1774 and 1804, either abolished slavery outright, or provided for gradual abolition, so that by 1846 the last vestiges of the institution had ceased to exist north of Maryland and Delaware.
At first, the presence of contrasting groups of ‘slave states’ and ‘free states’ had seemed not to indicate any real cleavage but merely a difference in timing, for the South could not emancipate so readily because of its larger slave population. But by 1830 it became clear that the attitudes of the two sections were swinging towards opposite poles. In the South, the growth of the cotton economy sent the price of prime field-hands steadily up from $300 in 1795 to $11,00 in 1820. Consequently, slavery, which had seemed in process of becoming an anachronism, attained a new economic vitality. At the same time, episodes or threats of violence, such as the gory slave insurrections in Santo Domingo (1792), the discovery of a major insurrection plot in Charleston (1822), and the murder of fifty-five whites by a band of revolting slaves in Virginia (1831), prompted frightened Southerners to adopt a more repressive attitude. Southern masters who had previously dallied with the American Colonization Society became increasingly defensive as Northern denunciation of their institution increased. After 1830 the South wholly abandoned its earlier condemnation of slavery, and put forward America’s only fully articulated defence of a status society. Thomas R. Dew, James H. Hammond, Calhoun, and others argued that chattel slavery was more humane than wage slavery, that a separate working class, destined to toil, had always been necessary as a basis of civilisation, that the negro was biologically inferior and unfit for freedom, and that slavery was ordained of God. In short, as Calhoun affirmed, slavery was not an evil, but ‘a good, sir, a positive good’.
If this view had been confined to slaveholders, it could not have controlled Southern policy, for two-thirds of the Southern whites were of families that held no slaves at all, and only one-sixth were of families that held more than five slaves (1850). But though the great majority of free people in the South had no economic stake in slavery, they accepted the pro-slavery argument with remarkable unanimity. As members of the dominant caste, they fully shared the slaveholders’ fears of what would happen to social order and to white supremacy if the negroes should be freed. Consequently, the South united to defend slavery as an institution of social control, as well as an economic institution.
In the North, meanwhile, conditions were ripening for a militant antislavery movement. The North shared fully in the world-wide technological change by which the labour of machines was being substituted for the labour of unskilled humans, so that slavery was rendered economically obsolete, and society could, for the first time, afford to treat the use of involuntary labour as a moral and not an economic question. In the North, the powerful emotional drives of evangelical Protestantism, combined with the natural-rights doctrine of the equality of all men, had produced a profound and pervasive belief in the dignity of the human individual. This belief appeared, for instance, as the major theme in the writings of the foremost American thinker of the period, Ralph W. Emerson. It encouraged a faith in progress and the perfectibility of the individual, and this faith, in turn, stimulated a series of reform movements which became one of the most characteristic features of the age. Prison reform, dress reform, reforms in the care of the insane and of the blind, temperance reform, the adoption of universal manhood suffrage, the crusade for women’s rights, the pacifist movement, and various utopian colonies, all reflected the vigour of this humanitarian drive. But slavery, with its palpable violations both of the principle of equality as taught by the Enlightenment and of the principle of human brotherhood as taught by the evangelical churches, attracted more attention from reformers than any other evil. These reformers, deeply influenced by the abolition movement in England, emulated it in demanding legislative action, and accordingly turned from their earlier programme of persuasion, with its goal of voluntary, gradual manumission, and began both to denounce the sinfulness of the slaveholder and to clamour for mandatory and immediate abolition. In 1830 William Lloyd Garrison launched his weekly, The Liberator, with the declaration that he did not propose ‘to think or speak or write with moderation’. In 1831 Theodore Dwight Weld, an evangelist of intense fervour, began a crusade that ultimately led to the training of seventy missionaries who carried their burning denunciation of slavery throughout the North. In 1833 the American Anti-Slavery Society was established; by 1840 two thousand auxiliary societies had been organised to accommodate a membership of between 150,000 and 200.000 people.
Thus the issue of slavery, constantly intensified by the agitation of the abolitionists, provided, as did no other question, a division on which the alignment was almost wholly sectional. Thereby the slavery question opened the way for each section systematically to misunderstand and misrepresent the other. More and more the Yankee began to typify the Southerner as a sadistic, degraded slave-driver, the Southerner to typify the Yankee as a ranting, fanatical abolitionist. Around these false and lurid stereotypes, all the diverse and complex factors of sectional rivalry polarised, and thus sectionalism entered its most dangerous stage—the egocentric phase.
Even with the fullest recognition of the importance of the slavery issue, however, it is a mistake—one made by many historians—to regard the whole period from 1830 to 1860 as a mere extended prologue to the Civil War. From some accounts, one might suppose the American people were exclusively concerned with the slavery question, morning, noon, and night, ceaselessly for thirty years. But in fact these years were much occupied with the broadening of democracy, the continued growth of the area, population, and wealth of the country, and the constant drive to develop or exploit natural resources. Thirty thousand miles of railroad were constructed, thousands of new corporations were chartered, 4.900.000 immigrants poured in from the Old World, and the annual value of American manufactures reached a total of $1,885,000,000. All this activity lay entirely outside the orbit of the slavery controversy, though the more rapid growth of the North tended to increase the selfconsciousness of the South as a minority section.
It is also a common mistake—made by Southerners at the time and by some historical writers since then—to suppose that the Northern people collectively embraced abolitionism. In fact, the influence of the abolitionists, though great, was highly paradoxical. They never polled a formidable vote in any national election, they never captured control of a major party, and they never emancipated any slaves, except a few fugitives. It may be argued that their significance was greater in the South, where they unintentionally created a violent sectional revulsion against Northern opinion, than in the North, where they failed in their intention to stimulate violent action against the Southern institution. By their preaching to the Northern people, they succeeded in arousing moral sympathy for the wrongs of the slave, but failed to overcome moral scruples concerning the legal rights of the slaveholder. The American people, still in a federal stage of political organisation, had been nurtured in the belief that each state retained, under the constitution, a right to decide the slavery question for itself. A few abolitionists like Garrison boldly followed this logic to the conclusion of denouncing the constitution as ‘a covenant with death and an agreement with hell’. But most Northerners, restrained by their dread of any policy which might endanger the Union and by their respect for legal rights, were content to satisfy their moral scruples by abolishing slavery in their own states and their constitutional scruples by leaving it alone in other states.
But while these legal scruples continued to inhibit any impulse toward direct action, the immense power of anti-slavery feeling gradually brought the majority of Northerners to the conviction that slavery must ultimately be eliminated from American society—that it must be placed ‘in the course of ultimate extinction’, with whatever consequences this might imply for the South. Meanwhile, during the period when they were waiting for the opening of a legal path toward this goal, the vast psychological force of the anti-slavery impulse, which had been deflected from a direct assault upon slavery itself, found an outlet in an intensive contest over certain peripheral matters, such as the status of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, the return of fugitive slaves, and most of all, the position of slavery in newly settled territories, possessing political organisation, but not yet admitted as states.
Because of this indirectness, the territorial question, so-called, became, for forty years, the most inflammable issue in American politics. By a supreme paradox, sectional rivalry centred upon slavery not in the areas where it involved the bondage of four million human beings, but in those where no slaves were to be found. Physically, most of the territories did not present conditions favourable to the introduction of slavery. Thus, it has been said, the Union was needlessly wracked by a struggle over ‘an imaginary negro in an impossible place’. If one assumes literally that this territorial contest was really concerned with what it purported to be concerned with, it would seem to follow either that the political leaders of the time were hopelessly unrealistic in precipitating such a concrete crisis over such an abstract question, or else that the contention was fundamentally a rivalry for sectional power—a struggle in which the North was more concerned to create additional states into which it could expand and which would vote with it in the Senate, than it was to help the poor slaves in the South. Both of these views have been widely held by historians. From another standpoint, however, it may appear that the territories became focal because the anti-slavery forces were compelled to make their attack at a point where slavery was constitutionally vulnerable rather than at a place where it enjoyed constitutional sanction. But no matter which of these views is adopted, it is incontestably true that whenever a new area was opened, sectional crisis invariably ensued.
At the time when Andrew Jackson left the Presidency in 1837, the legal basis for determining the status of slavery appeared to be settled throughout the area of the United States. In the states themselves, power lay exclusively with these states, thirteen of which sanctioned slavery while thirteen others forbade it. East of the Mississippi, one territory, Florida, had been acquired from Spain with slavery already established, and another, Wisconsin, was closed to slavery under an ordinance adopted in 1787 by the Congress under the Articles of Confederation. In the area west of the Mississippi, acquired by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, slavery was explicitly excluded from all territory north of 36° 30' and implicitly permitted south of this line. This division along a line of latitude had been adopted as part of the ‘Missouri Compromise’ in 1820, after a violent flare-up over the admission of Missouri as a slave state.
So long as the area of the country remained unchanged, therefore, it appeared that the slavery issue could not arise as a Federal question.
But any further territorial expansion would again drag the question into the political arena, for the Missouri Compromise applied only to the area of the Louisiana Purchase, and not to future acquisitions. And the forces of territorial expansion, never dormant for very long, had begun to work again in the region known as Texas.
Historically, Texas was part of Mexico, but during the 1820’s the Mexican government had encouraged immigration from the United States. Cotton-planting Southerners, carrying their slaves with them, had responded by pouring into the rich Texas river bottoms and had quickly proved restive under Mexican control. When the Mexican government, taking alarm, had tardily attempted to assert its authority, the settlers had risen in revolution, proclaimed an independent republic (1836) and overwhelmed a large Mexican army at the battle of San Jacinto. Soon after, they sought admission for Texas as a state.
To Northerners, who favoured expansion but who feared the sectional power of slavery, Texas presented a dilemma, and strong Northern opposition to annexation developed. Andrew Jackson recognised the delicacy of the question, and left it entirely to his successor, Martin Van Buren (1837-41). Van Buren, too, avoided decisive action, and when defeated by the Whigs in 1840, he passed the problem on to William Henry Harrison (who died after a month in office, 1841), and to Harrison’s successor, John Tyler of Virginia (1841-5). Unlike his predecessor, Tyler was willing to press actively for annexation. The fact, however, that Tyler’s Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun, openly linked the Texas question with the defence of negro slavery further antagonised Northerners, who were increasingly convinced that the Texas revolution had been a pro-slavery plot and that annexation would lead to war with Mexico. In 1844, after Texas had been a republic for eight years, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated a treaty of annexation. Sectional animosity was blocking national expansion.
By this time, however, the forces of expansion were beginning to operate in a larger theatre. American pioneers were pushing west across the continent, to the shores of the Pacific. They were migrating in considerable numbers to the Columbia River valley of Oregon, which was claimed by both Great Britain and the United States and which had been left open, under a treaty in 1818, to settlers from both countries. Other venturesome Americans were going to California, and were quick to note how tenuous were the bonds that held this remote province to Mexico. Expansionists perceived that American farmers were winning the race against British fur-traders in Oregon; they recognised the feebleness of Mexican control in the region from Texas to the Pacific; and they began to dream of a great republic stretching from sea to sea.
In 1844 the Democratic party suddenly seized upon this national impulse toward expansion and found a way to get around each section’s fear of aggrandisement by the other. The Democrats proposed to balance expansion for the North with expansion for the South by a programme which called euphemistically for ‘the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas’. With this slogan, they triumphantly elected James K. Polk to the Presidency (1845-9). His victory led Congress to vote the annexation of Texas as a slave state even before he came to office, and upon his accession he promptly notified Britain of the termination of the treaty of 1818 for Oregon and proposed to Mexico the purchase of the entire south-west.
At this point the widespread support of the expansionist programme seemed to mark the triumph of nationalism over sectionalism, but subsequent developments quickly brought the sectional issue again into the ascendant. Instead of making good the Democrats’ promise to secure the boundary ‘540 40', or fight’, Polk agreed with Britain to divide Oregon at the 49th parallel. While thus abandoning part of what he had promised to Northern expansionists, he gave full measure to Southern expansionists by asking Congress to declare war on Mexico (1846) after a clash between American and Mexican patrols along the Rio Grande (cf. ch. XXV, pp. 674-5).
In the twenty-month war that followed, American armies marched to California, to Monterrey, and to Mexico City itself. From their overwhelming victory a peace ensued by which the United States acquired the entire south-west (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848). Nationalist aspirations now achieved realisation as the United States became a transcontinental republic and a power in two oceans. Less than seventy years after the Declaration of Independence the country had grown from its precarious beginnings to possess the area and resources which would enable it in the twentieth century to occupy a position of world power.
Yet the climax of national fulfilment was also, paradoxically, the prelude to sectional crisis, for it brought the territorial question to the centre of the political arena. From the beginning of the Mexican war, Northern Congressmen had attempted to retaliate for the compromise which sacrificed part of their claim in Oregon, by demanding the exclusion of slavery from any territory won from Mexico (Wilmot Proviso). For four years, while the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession remained in doubt, and while Congress battled over the question, the crisis mounted. It reached an acute stage by 1849, when Zachary Taylor (1849-50), a Whig who had succeeded Polk in the Presidency, recommended that both California and New Mexico be admitted as free states. By this time, Southern leaders were threatening to secede rather than be excluded from areas ‘purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people’, and a convention of nine Southern states was being planned to meet at Nashville to consider whether the South ought to remain in the Union.
This emergency brought about the most famous and elaborate agreement in the long series of major compromises which, almost like international treaties, had traditionally been invoked to settle acute sectional disputes. The three-fifths compromise on the counting of slaves for purposes of representation, adopted in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the tariff compromise of 1833, all furnished precedent for another great compromise. Henry Clay, who had been instrumental in both of the latter two settlements, now came forward again with measures for conciliation. The death of President Taylor in 1850 and the succession of Millard Fillmore (1850-3) to his post enabled Clay to secure Presidential support. When Daniel Webster gave his venerable blessing and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois his vigorous and resourceful backing, passage was assured and in the autumn of the year of Taylor’s death the Compromise of 1850 was adopted.
This compromise attempted to provide a comprehensive settlement for all aspects of the slavery question. It included legislation to secure the return of fugitive slaves. It guaranteed slavery but abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. It admitted California as a free state. Most important of all, it provided a new formula for the rest of the area ceded by Mexico: this whole region, which now constitutes four states, was organised into two territories, Utah and New Mexico, with no provision whatever about slavery except that ‘when admitted as a state, the said territory or any portion of the same shall be received into the Union with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission’.
Here was a formula which seemed almost magical in its effectiveness: eliminate the slavery question from national politics by invoking the unchallenged democratic principle of local self-government. If the people of Massachusetts and Virginia were entitled to settle the slavery question for themselves, without Congressional interference, then the people of Utah and New Mexico, it was argued, were entitled to a similar autonomy. Yet behind the facade of ‘popular sovereignty’, with its unassailable democratic premise, there lurked a fatal, and perhaps intentional ambiguity. To Southern leaders, the absence of restriction meant that Congress was now abandoning any pretended power to exclude slavery during the territorial period, and was conceding the right of slaveholders to carry slaves into all territories until the time of admission to statehood, at which time popular sovereignty would come into operation. To some moderates, it meant that the courts would determine the question for the territories, in the light of Mexican and American law. But to Douglas and the Northern Democrats, it meant that the territorial legislatures would take control of the question as soon as they were organised. In short, agreement on the principle of local control masked a disagreement as to the stage of political advancement at which local control would come into play.
Two years later Franklin Pierce (1853-7) and the Democrats won the heaviest majority in any presidential election since 1820, on a platform which proclaimed the ‘finality of the Compromise’. Optimists now supposed that the dangers of sectional strife were safely past. But since the ‘popular sovereignty’ formula really concealed a disagreement rather than adjusting it, dissension was in any case likely to break out again. It did break out, more bitterly than ever, in connection with the Kansas-Nebraska question and the case of Dred Scott.
The Kansas-Nebraska area, which was part of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36° 30', lay athwart the line of a proposed railway between Illinois and the Pacific coast. To expedite this project, territorial organisation was necessary, and Stephen A. Douglas took the lead in arranging it. Douglas recognised that Southern support would be essential, and he attracted such support by proposing to repeal the anti-slavery restriction of the Missouri Compromise and to apply popular sovereignty, thus opening Kansas and Nebraska to a race between Northern and Southern settlers. Supported by Southern votes and applying extreme pressure, he drove this measure through (1854). But outraged anti-slavery men protested that popular sovereignty in the Louisiana Purchase was a wholly different thing from popular sovereignty in the Mexican Cession: they were being cheated of the promise they had received years before when they admitted Missouri as a slave state and they angrily prepared to resist any further concessions.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed a territorial compromise but did not impair the Congressional power to compromise. Three years later, however, the Dred Scott decision (1857) deprived Congress of this power. The Supreme Court, ruling in the case of a negro who claimed freedom by virtue of former residence in free territory, held that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from any territory. Not only had the Missouri Compromise been void from the beginning, but it also followed that if Congress lacked power to exclude slavery, it could not confer such power upon a territorial legislature. This meant that the Northern theory of popular sovereignty for the territories was also void, and that all these areas were wide open to slavery. Only within the states could slavery be prohibited. The full implication of the Dred Scott case was not widely understood at first, but an Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, did much to expose the significance of the decision when he met Stephen A. Douglas in a series of debates arising from a senatorial election in 1858.
Thus by 1857 the long-standing structure of compromise lay smashed to fragments. The removal of what had been, at best, a frail barrier now opened the way for a direct clash of sections. The South was determined to secure the rights which the Supreme Court accorded to it as guarantees under the constitution; the North, deprived both of the line 36° 30' and of the popular sovereignty principle, came increasingly to the conclusion that it might as well abandon half-way measures, and, despite the Supreme Court, exclude slavery from all territories. In a larger sense, the South was committed to the belief that the loose federation formed in the eighteenth century should be maintained against the transforming economic forces of the nineteenth century, and that the constitution, as a legal absolute, could be preserved intact against evolutionary change. The North, exulting in its rapid progress and its growing power, was resolved that political adjustment to this transformation should not be blocked either by a numerical minority or by a literal interpretation of the constitution. Slavery, viewed in this context, was but one aspect of the opposition between two societies—one static and oriented to the past, the other dynamic and committed to the future.
While these diametrically opposite attitudes were crystallising, a series of developments marked the growth of bitterness and the deterioration of Union sentiment. The immense success of the sensational anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1852, the caning of Senator Sumner in 1856, the adoption of Personal Liberty laws by Northern states to prevent the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave act, the dramatic attempts by large mobs in the North to rescue fugitives who were being returned, and the chronic guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in ‘Bleeding Kansas’, all marked the extremism of the forces now at work. In 1859, when the abolitionist John Brown was captured and sentenced to hang, after attempting to start a slave insurrection by means of a raid upon Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the outpouring of sympathy for him in the North caused deep alarm and a major alienation of Unionist sentiment in the South.
‘The cords that bind the States together’, Calhoun had said in 1850, ‘are not only many, but various in character. Some are spiritual or ecclesiastical; some political; others social.’ Disunion, he predicted, could not be brought about at one stroke, but must come gradually, as one by one these cords were broken. Even before he spoke, both the Methodist church and the Baptist church had divided into separate Northern and Southern branches, and the Presbyterians were locked in constant sectional dissension. During the ’fifties, Southern students began to leave Northern schools, Southern vacationists to absent themselves from their customary Northern resorts, and Southern patriots to wear homespun rather than cloth from Northern factories. One by one the cords of Union were snapping.
The most important nationalising institutions that remained were the political parties. Both Whigs and Democrats had consistently maintained a party clientele in both sections and had sought to take national rather than sectional positions on public questions. Northern and Southern leaders had consulted together in party councils and worked together toward party goals. But in the ’fifties, even these pillars of nationalism began to crumble. In the Whig party, strife between ‘Conscience Whigs’ and ‘Cotton Whigs’ led to disintegration, with most of the Northern members going ultimately into the newly formed Republican party, and with Southern members drifting into the Democratic ranks. By 1856 the Democratic party was the only major national party remaining. In that year it nominated James Buchanan (1857-61) for the Presidency, and won the election by carrying five free states and all of the fifteen slave states except Maryland (which went for a nativist group called the American, or Know-Nothing party). Buchanan’s principal opposition came from the Republicans, who denounced slavery as a ‘relic of barbarism’ and carried eleven free states, but secured only 1200 votes in the entire South. The Democratic party was now the only national party, and it too became sectionalised in 1860 when the Douglas Democrats, still supporting popular sovereignty, and the administration Democrats, demanding free access for slavery in all the territories, split and nominated separate candidates (Douglas and John C. Breckinridge). The Constitutional Unionists, as successors to the Whigs, nominated John Bell of Tennessee. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln on a platform promising the complete exclusion of slavery from all the territories.
Lincoln received only 39 per cent of the popular vote, but it was so concentrated in the free states that he would have been elected even against a united opposition. He carried seventeen of the eighteen free states, and part of the eighteenth; the fifteen slave states went overwhelmingly against him. The polarisation of the sections was now virtually complete and the final crisis was not long to await.
History has clarified Lincoln’s position as a man of more than national stature, everlastingly just in according to the slaveholders all the legal rights they claimed except the territorial right, and wise in his realisation that the slavery problem was too big for quick or simple solutions. But in 1860 his victory presented a bleak prospect to the South, which pictured him as a rank, incendiary abolitionist. The situation as it appeared to Southerners was that discriminatory and exploitative policies had already caused the South to fall far behind the North in wealth and population (in 1860 the free inhabitants of the free states numbered 18,800,000, those of the slave states 8,030,000); the South had long since lost its former status of equality in the House of Representatives, and Congress had passed into the hands of a party which openly proposed to defy the decisions of the Supreme Court; now the Presidency was also about to pass into this same hostile control. Many Southerners felt that no true union remained, but only a sectional domination, and that at this juncture it behoved the Southern states, which had always insisted upon the retention of their sovereignty, to resume their sovereign capacity.
For more than a decade a faction of ardent secessionists, or ‘fire-eaters’, led by William L. Yancey of Alabama, Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, and Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, had urged disunion, and this group now found a widespread Southern response to its warning that the South could escape subjugation to an alien North only by seceding at once. This programme of immediate secession was vigorously resisted by moderates who urged delay either to seek guarantees from the North or to assure effective joint action among the Southern states. These moderates were, for the most part, lovers of the Union, who wanted to preserve it on a voluntary basis. In this sense, Unionism in the South still remained a powerful force, almost strong enough to check the drift towards secession. But there were almost no unconditional Unionists who believed in the power of the Federal government to coerce a state, and in this sense Unionism was extremely weak. As the crisis developed, attempts at compromise failed, and the moderates found that they could not ride out the storm.
Between December and March 1860-1 South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas held conventions, and each convention separately adopted an Ordinance of Secession. Almost simultaneously, these states formed a Southern union—the Confederate States of America—and installed Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as President on 22 February 1861. Yet despite Confederate boasts of a united South, eight other slave states declined to follow them, and remained in the old Union. Such was the continuing strength of American nationalism in the South as late as the eve of war.
When Lincoln became President on 4 March he found not only a fully formed Southern republic but also a very tense situation at two Federal forts in the South—Pickens in Florida and Sumter in South Carolina. Federal garrisons, holding these places, were regarded by the Confederates as invaders and were threatened with military force. There is strong evidence that Lincoln did not expect nor want war, but desired a period of inaction, during which Southern Unionism (to which he had appealed in his inaugural speech) might reassert itself. But he was not willing to withdraw the garrisons or to let them be starved out. Accordingly he sent a relief expedition to Fort Sumter in April. The Confederates, in anticipation of its arrival, bombarded and captured the fort. Thereupon Lincoln called for 75,000 troops; Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas went over to the Confederacy rather than meet this request; and American nationalism moved into the phase of supreme crisis which was resolved only by four years of Civil War.
Historians have found a favourite topic for controversy in the question whether the Civil War might have been averted, or whether it was the inevitable result of deterministic forces—an ‘irrepressible conflict’. Some writers have found a deterministic answer in their analysis of basic social and economic factors. Others, stressing the artificiality of the territorial question, the large part played by violent emotions, and the damage caused by the folly of extremists in both the abolitionist and the secessionist camps, have argued that the ‘irreconcilable’ differences were more fictitious than real, and that the crisis was artificial. There is probably no way of resolving this controversy conclusively, one way or the other, but two considerations in connection with it may be noted. First, it seems safe to say that psychological and emotional forces and the rise of extremists to positions of leadership may be quite as ‘real’ in their impact and quite as inevitably determined in their origins as the most basic social and economic conditions. Second, it appears certain that the disparity in the rate of Northern and Southern growth had destroyed the equilibrium between the sections, but that the South would never accept the political consequences of this change without a crisis. Whether the crisis had to take the form of armed conflict, and whether this phase of armed force had to occur precisely when it did, or might have come a month, or a year, or a decade sooner or later, would seem to be open to endless speculation.
The American Civil War lies outside the limits of the present chapter, but this discussion of the interplay of nationalism and sectionalism would hardly be complete without some indication of the final resolution of the conflict between these opposing forces.
From the beginning of the Civil War, the more immediate question was whether the Union could attain victory, but the more fundamental question was whether victory, if won, could restore an American nation. Could the triumph of one section and the defeat of another section abate the intensity of sectionalism, especially when the Republicans were already adopting measures such as the Morrill Tariff, the National Bank Act, and the Pacific Railroad Act to secure Northern sectional ends? Could the process of coercion produce a spirit of voluntary loyalty which is the very essence of Union?
It was fortunate for the United States that, although most men in public life were either unable or unwilling to understand this problem, Abraham Lincoln saw it with perfect clarity. Throughout the fighting, he was constantly alert to uphold the maintenance of the Union as the grand object of the war, and, like Andrew Jackson before him, to infuse the concept of American nationalism with a broadly democratic philosophy. Hence he refused to make the abolition of slavery an objective, and waited almost two years before issuing an Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves in areas which were still in rebellion but did not interfere with slavery in the loyal slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. His refusal to act until he was convinced that ‘slavery must die that the nation might live’ incurred violent denunciation from the abolitionists, but the forbearance which they deplored enabled him to strike slavery a more deadly blow than they could ever deliver. By his patience in waiting until the principle of Union and the principle of emancipation converged, he was able, as J. G. Randall has said, ‘to fuse the cause of nationalism with the cause of freedom’.
Lincoln came near the beginning of a period, not yet ended, of extreme and ruthless nationalism that often sacrifices the individual in the name of the state and repudiates democracy as inconsistent with national power. The other great nation-builders of his century—Napoleon, Cavour, Bismarck—seemed ready to subordinate human welfare in general to the fulfilment of French, or Italian, or German destiny. It was a distinctive contribution therefore of Lincoln’s that he based his defence of the Union not upon the exaltation of the American state, but upon the universal cause of democracy, to which the survival of the American Republic seemed essential. In a supreme moment at Gettysburg, he did not mention the word American, but spoke of the war as a test whether any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure. The vital issue was not the survival of one nation, more or less, but the survival of a nation committed to the principle that government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not perish from the earth.
Because of his deep awareness of the importance of voluntary loyalty as a basis of national union, Lincoln was prepared to restore the Southern states to the Union on the most conciliatory terms possible, and for this purpose he was even prepared to sacrifice some of the sectional advantage which the North might gain by victory. In general, the Republican party did not share this purpose with him, and after his assassination control passed into the hands of a faction which imposed a sterner programme of ‘Reconstruction’ on the South. Whatever else may be said of this policy, it certainly did not diminish sectional bitterness in either North or South, and at the end of twelve years of reconstruction, the spirit of nationalism seemed weaker than at the beginning of the war. The restoration of nationalism by political means, therefore, must be said to have failed, and it remained for a gradual social process, a kind of folk reconstruction, to restore the bonds of Union. It was in this final phase that the essential forces of nationalism—never extinguished, though for a long while latent—again came into play. The basic homogeneity of the American people, their common speech, their common descent from British stock, their common acceptance of the Protestant ethic, their common historical experience in the American revolution and on the frontier, their common commitment to ideals of democracy, liberty, and individualism, generated an emotional longing for reconciliation within the old Union. This yearning expressed itself in a thousand forms such as the poem of Francis Miles Finch honouring both ‘The Blue and the Gray’ in 1867, the funeral of General Grant, at which distinguished Southern generals, wearing the grey sash of the Confederacy, served as pall-bearers in 1885, and the Spanish-American War in which Southern troops rushed to enlist voluntarily under the flag of the Union in 1898. By the end of the century folk reconstruction had accomplished what political reconstruction failed to achieve, and a spontaneous American nationalism had again sprung up within the framework of Union which the Civil War had preserved.