Tipping the Balance of Sectionalism

Fort Snelling in the Upper Mississippi Valley. By: John Caspar Wild.

By 1848, America had numerous sectional differences, and those sectional differences were beginning to take on a different character.

The deepening sectionalism had come to have a massive impact on politics whereas just a matter of years before, that was not the case. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 27.

Sectionalism had always played a part in American society, as different parts of the country had developed unique cultural and economic qualities. Rivalries developed as well. For example, there was a strong economic rivalry “between New Orleans and Buffalo for the trade of the upper Mississippi Valley.” Id. More broadly, the southern states had “sought to develop a literature, a publishing industry, and an educational system independent of those of the North.” Id.

By the mid-1800s, that form of sectionalism, confined to cultural and economic differences, was eroding and being supplanted by political differences. Those differences “took place in Congress and in conventions and in legislatures; the power they fought for was political control; and their objectives were measures political, such as acts of Congress, the organization of territories, the admission of states.” Id. at 28 citing Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of Sections in American History (New York, 1932).

These sectional differences did not just change the political discourse of the country. They went much further. With every election, there was a “constant exploitation of sectional tension for the purpose of arousing the voters.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 28.

Whereas sectionalism had previously been a phenomenon that could be discerned in some aspects of American life, politics became the stage for sectionalist tensions. Modern Americans will recognize that sectional tension continues to exist. Each part of the country has a unique culture, whether it be the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, or the Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, where sectionalism comes to dominate politics, as was the case in the years approaching the Civil War, the stakes were being raised for conflict. The conflict that had previously occurred in the form of economic rivalries or personal prejudices, however unfounded, would increase in magnitude until the differences would be nearly insurmountable without a devastating result.

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