Common section

Image From Regions to Sections

Ironically, while the omnibus politics of the second party system were disguising regional differences, the effect of cultural and material change in the early nineteenth century was to reinforce them—and also to change their nature. New England and the middle states became more similar to one another, and increasingly different from the coastal and southern highlands. The effect of these tendencies was to combine regions into sections. That pattern had not existed in the United States before 1820. The words “north” and “south” were rarely used in a sectional sense during the early years of the republic. But they developed very rapidly.20

In the late eighteenth century, every part of the nation had been heavily agricultural. By the mid-nineteenth century, the proportion of farm workers in the north was only 40 percent; in the south it was 84 percent. By 1860, 26 percent of northerners lived in cities, compared with 10 percent of the south. In that year, the value of farmland per acre was 2.6 times greater in the north than in the south; the amount of manufacturing capital per capita was nearly four times as great. But in another economic indicator, the south led the north. Concentration of wealth was greater below the Potomac than above it. With only one-third of white population, the south had nearly two-thirds of its richest men and a large proportion of the very poor.

The national communications network also developed on sectional lines; both the north and the south created dense railroad networks by 1860, but the rail links between them were very thin. Patterns of internal migration occurred mainly within sections, and not between them. Foreign immigration also become a sectional process. In 1860 seven-eighths of immigrants came to the north. The effect of ethnic diversity was not to diminish sectional differences, but actually to increase them.21

Cultural disparities were also very great. In the north, 94 percent of the population was found to be literate by the census of 1860; in the south, barely 54 percent could read and write. Roughly 72 percent of northern children were enrolled in school compared with 35 percent of the same age in the south. The average length of a school year was 135 days in the north and 80 days in the south.

From 1800 to 1852, the northern states dominated the many reform movements that developed in this era—education, temperance, penology, care for the insane and the blind, feminism, pacifism and especially abolitionism. Most leaders of these reform movements came from New England and Quaker stock. A majority were descended from families who had arrived in the Puritan great migration of 1629-40, and the Friends’ migration of 1675-95.22

One of these movements, antislavery, gradually became a political movement of increasing power. Its electoral strength was especially strong among Quakers, German Pietists and New Englanders. In the states of Ohio and New York, for example, votes by county for the Liberty party and black suffrage correlated more strongly with the proportion of the population who were of New England origin than with any other variable.23 At the same time, most reform movements—not merely abolitionism but “isms” of every kind—found few followers in the coastal south, and even fewer in the southern highlands. The Richmond Enquirer roundly attacked what it called “Our Enemies, the Isms.” Modern ideologies in general were regarded as hostile to southern folkways.24

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