America in the Antebellum Period: A Nation Both United and Divided Scott Willis Dr. Register History 201 12/11/08 Historians mark the year 1789 as the end of the Revolutionary period in America. Liberty had triumphed, and Americans under the leadership of a bright and resolute few, had fashioned a republic capable governing itself. Modern Americans tend to view the early years of the Republic with a sense of sentimental nostalgia. America had become a nation– or had it?
On the surface, this may have been the case.
Certainly the events of the Colonial period brought forth drastic and long-awaited change, however the historical developments of the 19th century were equally as revolutionary. Independence was an extraordinary feat, yet it was not until the 19th century that a distinct American identity emerged. America’s national identity was complex during the 1800’s; nationalism was a powerful force, but a sectional force nonetheless. 9th century America was, what historian Robert Wiebe called “a society of island communities”.
[i] The remarkable transformations that characterized the 19th century both unified and divided the Republic in its early years. Political upheaval, economic transformation, technological advances and social and religious reform led to both desired and unexpected changes. There was no single unifying force that brought the nation together. Instead, there existed a number of beliefs and movements that all Americans supported to some degree.
Before addressing the factors most significant in uniting and dividing America in the antebellum period, it is important to understand the turbulent environment that characterized the beginning of the 19th century. The stage was set for significant upheaval in 1800, with the election of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson imagined a nation built on the genius of the American workingman. [ii] He supported the formation of an agrarian nation opposed to an industrialized one, hoping to spread agricultural institutions across the seemingly infinite frontier. The laboring man had become America’s hero, especially in the North.
As stated by Jefferson “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God. ” This ideology fueled the expansion of the country, both from an economic and territorial perspective. [iii] The Jeffersonian admiration of labor corresponded with the rise of a unifying nationalism. America’s victory in the War of 1812 had opened up a tremendous amount of land for expansion. The British relinquished their hold on the Oregon territories, and the Indian tribes of the Northwest and the South were defeated and dispossessed. Americans were free to expand beyond their original boundaries.
The construction of canals, national roads and railroads facilitated the movement of people and the exchange of goods. In the North, a new market society boomed, enhanced by this transportation revolution. The South also benefitted, strengthened by internal improvements, and technological advances such as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Agriculture flourished, especially in the South, where a slave-based labor system found new opportunities for expansion into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and territories further west. America in the early 19th century was growing at an astounding pace.
With this development came the emergence of the two very different societies: a market society in the North and a slave society in the South. The different ideologies of labor in North and the South would prove to be the most divisive issue of the 19th century. The North and the South became increasingly opposed, due to fundamental differences in labor ideology and hierarchies of racial division. The sectional opposition between the two regions created a divide that not only could not be bridged, but also grew increasingly apart as these differences became institutionalized.
Differing labor ideologies emerged simultaneously. In the South, labor remained contemptible as men aspired to own slaves. [iv] In the North, slavery was contemptible as the 19th century notion of manhood emphasized relying on oneself, not the labor of others. [v] The South “thoroughly identified” itself “with the institution of slavery”, and for good reason. [vi] The British relied heavily on U. S cotton production, and this dependency fueled the Southern economy. [vii] Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had facilitated the growth of short-staple cotton, a strand that only thrived in hot climates. viii] The Deep South provided the perfect environment for cotton cultivation. As a result, the westward expansion of the entire country coincided with the expansion of slavery. In 1860 the United States exported 4 million bales of cotton per year, yielding a profit of more than a 100%. [ix] The South perceived itself as vital to sustaining the financial strength of the entire country, and the economic security of the entire world. Because slavery was such a lucrative system, Southerners vigorously defended the institution with a distinct hierarchy of racial difference.
For Southerners, slavery was a natural and moral human condition. Slave owners justified the institution by asserting a paternalistic responsibility to provide for their slaves, ensuring stability and a sort of fictionalized happiness. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy expressed the Southern hierarchy of racial difference best: “the great truth [is] that Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition”. x] The North, prompted by incendiary events like the Fugitive Slave Act and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, found increased fault with the institution of slavery. By 1860, Northerners viewed the tyrannical “Slaveocracy” of the South as “a great moral, social and political evil”. [xi] The racial hierarchy of the South created an anti-democratic society in fundamental opposition to the North. Not only did the institution strip the slaves of their humanity, but it also degraded the labor of white working men. xii] There was a little opportunity to rise, and thus little incentive for low class white men to compete with slave labor. In contrast, social mobility was the defining aspect of labor ideology in the North. The forces of the Market Revolution had transformed the pre-industrial rural economy. Gone were the days of the semi-market economy centered on tightly bound networks of family relationships. The workplace had shifted outside the home and into the consumer marketplace, where the mass production of cheap manufactured goods penetrated rural and urban arkets on an extraordinary scale. [xiii] The idea of the “self-made man” was tied to the concept of labor in the North. “Self-achieving manhood”, embodied by peddlers like James Guild, helped to validate a culture of “ambition and entrepreneurial striving” different from the South. [xiv] Northern labor ideology was a masculine alternative to the bonds of dependency that characterized the labor of women and slaves. [xv] Despite the sectional disputes in racial hierarchy and labor ideology, there existed certain widespread beliefs and behaviors that drastically impacted both societies.
Business expansion was the most powerful unifying force. Technological advances and internal improvements created a society in both the North and the South “dominated by profit-maximizing businessmen”. [xvi] The most successful men in both societies embraced the 19th century ideals of ambition and self-interest, but they did so in distinctly different ways. In the North, “the accident of one’s birth” was not an insurmountable or necessarily determinative factor in generating wealth. [xvii] In the South, an equally ambitious class of planter elite and semi-subsidence farmers controlled the region’s wealth.
White laborers, in contrast, had little opportunity to improve their status in a society far more stratified than the free labor North. The spiritual fervor of the Second Great Awakening was another movement experienced across the country. Evangelical religion was an entrepreneurial religion, one that “prompted a competitive religious marketplace in the United States”. [xviii] The expansion of business in American society paralleled the growth of evangelical religion. The print revolution and transportation revolution also helped make the Second Great Awakening a national movement.
It is important to note that evangelical religion was a sectarian revolution: its forms and consequences varied in different societies. The Second Great Awakening was not so much a unifying force, but certainly was a pervasive force, impacting men and women throughout the country, regardless of race or location. Tied to the 19th century expansion of religion and business was the American myth of “Manifest Destiny”. Every American, regardless of the sectional divide, recognized “the certainty that the nation’s unique identity and it’s God-appointed estiny were wrapped up in the fate of the American wilderness”. [xix] For Southerners, this “God-appointed destiny” involved the expansion of slavery. For Northerners, it involved “an expansion of freedom in the fertile, uncorrupted soil of the New World”. [xx] This central ideological difference between the North and the South prohibited America from forging a single national identity in the 19th century. Instead, two sectional identities were forged, drawing on a few widespread beliefs amid an abundance of disagreement. ———————– [i] Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, Lecture, Dec. 0, 2008 [ii] Lecture, Oct. 20, 2008 [iii] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the Sate of Virginia”, from Crosscurrents in American History: A Reader in United States History, vol. 1 (Boston, 2008), 148. [iv] Lecture, Oct. 22, 2008. [v] Lecture, Oct. 22, 2008. [vi] “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union”, The State of Mississippi (January 1861). [vii] “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union”. viii] Lecture, Oct. 27, 2008. [ix] Lecture, Oct. 27, 2008. [x] Alexander H. Stephens, “Corner-stone” speech, March 21, 1861. [xi] Abraham Lincoln, Speech in New Haven, Connecticut, 1860. [xii] Lecture, Dec. 10, 2008. [xiii] Bruce Dorsey and Woody Register, Crosscurrents in American History: A Reader in United States History, vol. 1 (Boston, 2008), 233. [xiv] Dorsey and Register, 143. [xv] Dorsey and Register, 143. [xvi] From History 201, Test Number 2. [xvii] Lecture, Oct. 22, 2008. [xviii] Dorsey and Register, 202. [xix] Dorsey and Register, 233. [xx] Dorsey and Register, 232.
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