What issues divided America in the first half of the nineteenth century? Economic divisions
The Northern states developed an industrial economy based on manufacturing. They favored high protective tariffs to protect Northern manufacturers from foreign competition.
The Southern states developed an agricultural economy consisting of a slavery-based system of plantations in the lowlands along the Atlantic and in the Deep South, and small subsistence farmers in the foothills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. The South strongly opposed high tariffs, which made the price of imported manufactured goods much more expensive.
The growing division over slavery and states’ rights
As the United States expanded westward, the conflict over slavery grew more bitter and threatened to tear the country apart.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, wife of a New England clergyman, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a best-selling novel that inflamed Northern abolitionist sentiment. Southerners were frightened by the growing strength of Northern abolitionism.
Slave revolts in Virginia, led by Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser, fed white Southern fears about slave rebellions and led to harsh laws in the South against fugitive slaves. Southerners who favored abolition were intimidated into silence.
The admission of new states continually led to conflicts over whether the new states would allow slavery (“slave states”) or prohibit slavery (“free states”). Numerous compromises were struck to maintain the balance of power in Congress:
The Missouri Compromise (1820) drew an east-west line through the Louisiana Purchase, with slavery prohibited above the line and allowed below, except that slavery was allowed in Missouri, north of the line.
In the Compromise of 1850, California entered as a free state, while the new Southwestern territories acquired from Mexico would decide on their own.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise line by giving people in Kansas and Nebraska the choice whether to allow slavery in their states (“popular sovereignty”). This law produced bloody fighting in Kansas as pro- and anti-slavery forces battled each other. It also led to the birth of the Republican Party that same year to oppose the spread of slavery
Southerners argued that individual states could nullify laws passed by the Congress. They also began to insist that states had entered the Union freely and could leave (“secede”) freely if they chose.
Abraham Lincoln, who had joined the new Republican Party, and Stephen Douglas, a Northern Democrat, conducted numerous debates when running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1858. Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery into new states; Douglas stood for “popular sovereignty.”
The Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court overturned efforts to limit the spread of slavery and outraged Northerners, as did enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required slaves who escaped to free states to be forcibly returned to their owners in the South.
Lincoln warned, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The nation could not continue half-free, half-slave. The issue must be resolved.