What Is Sectionalism?

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Sectionalism is usually linked with Abraham Lincoln’s struggle against slavery, which caused division across the nation between North and South. But its root cause was more likely related to regional differences based on economic and political interests than anything else.

One such regional distinction was economic; the North relied heavily on industry and commerce while the South relied upon agriculture trade with Europe.

Definition

Sectionalism refers to allegiance to one region or section of a country rather than its whole. It can lead to violent civil strife such as insurrection or war; slaveholding led to feelings of sectionalism within the United States, which led to its Civil War between those supporting slavery and those opposing it; but there are other types of sectionalism as well; economic, political and social.

In the 1800s, sectionalism was widespread throughout America due to disparate lifestyles, social structures, customs, and political values between North and South Americans. While Northerners were industrializing and supporting free trade, Southerners maintained large family farms called plantations farms which relied on slave labor as well as rural lifestyles with less schooling and placing great importance on specific cultural values, including supporting the enslavement of African people.

By the time of Dred Scott v Sanford, there was such an intense divide over slavery that no possible compromise existed between Northerners who opposed any settlement with African enslavement and Southerners who desired to preserve slavery as part of their culture.

Sectionalism became more pronounced as the country expanded. The population doubled between the 1820s and 1830s, creating more significant regional disparities and making it harder to find common ground on national issues. These tensions were compounded by sectional grievances such as the foreign trade embargo that disproportionately impacted Northern industries, new states that diminished Northern power, and an ineffective Presidential leadership team. As divisions between North and South deepened, secessionist sentiment became widespread, leading to one of American history’s bloodiest wars – the Civil War. Sectionalism remains an issue today in many countries – although not always leading directly to violence, the underlying tensions can contribute to unemployment, poverty, and crime rates.

Origins

Sectionalism refers to an allegiance to one region over that of an entire nation. This can lead to tensions that could eventually escalate into civil war, typically caused by cultural, economic, or geographic realities that create distinct sections within larger polities – this happened in America during the 1800s due to different customs, social structures, and lifestyles creating divisions which eventually resulted in civil conflict.

Eugene Genovese, one of America’s eminent historians, described early American society as being marked by geographically grounded differences pointing toward national unity: settled older regions against newer ones, cities against rural areas, capital-lending districts against debtor regions, and manufacturing districts against agricultural communities.” These regional interests were apparent during debates at the Constitutional Convention, which produced its final document. For instance, the bicameral Congress and the 3/5ths clause incorporate sectional interests into a more effective government structure.

As America expanded westward during the 1850s, regional interests clashed as regional expansion occurred. This was especially evident in slavery; Northern states opposed its practice, while Southern states relied upon slave labor for cheap cotton production. Abraham Lincoln put it succinctly when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

These regional feelings were at the root of much division within the United States, particularly between North and South. Both regions differed significantly in culture, economy, and politics – as evidenced by feelings of sectionalism ranging from industrial-minded northern states relying heavily on the industry for survival to agricultural-centric states in the South; free trade in one camp while protective tariffs helped struggling industries in another center.

Conflict over slavery led directly to war between the North and the South in this nation’s most significant sectional battle that lasted four years before being won by the North – effectively dashed any hopes for secessionist South formation while creating decades of resentment and romance in its wake.

Causes

History’s foremost example of sectionalism, the Civil War, stands as an illustration of this trend. Understandably, many consider its impactful portrayal of sectional tension the ultimate manifestation of sectionalism in American history.

However, this narrow approach is problematic for various reasons. First, it disregards the fact that North and South cultures were fundamentally distinct – the people each developed unique accents, lived more slowly-paced lifestyles, and possessed different customs that shaped their perspectives of the world.

As mentioned previously, the North and South had starkly different economies; one was predominantly industrial, and one consisted of plantations and farms cultivating tobacco and cotton while relying heavily on slave labor for labor purposes. Due to these stark economic disparities between regions, it proved hard for any common interests between them.

As a result, both sides of the country viewed political representation as essential to their own economic and social systems. Each side worried about “outsiders” having too much power in Congress. In contrast, their delegates should have had more excellent representation than those from other states – leading to political crises throughout the 1800s, particularly during its first half-century.

By the end of the decade, tensions had reached a boiling point. President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat from Kentucky, attempted to ease these divisions through an appeal targeted toward white working men from all parts of America – an attempt that proved ultimately futile.

By the late 1800s, it had become clear that divisions in culture and economy would persist. This culminated in the tragic Civil War, which pitted Americans against each other due to sectionalism.

Effects

In the 1800s, sectionalism led to tensions that culminated in the Civil War. The country was deeply divided over slavery: Northerners opposed it, while Southerners saw it as morally and economically necessary; these divisions gave rise to regional loyalties that overrode any sense of national cohesion.

Slavery not only played an economic but cultural role in America. It helped define the South with its dialects, accents, and manner of speech. It created a lifestyle that revolved around cotton production compared to people living more urban lives in Northern areas who typically had more industrialization, being more likely to attend high school themselves than their Southern counterparts.

Differences between the regions were difficult to bridge, evidenced by no meaningful efforts during the first decade of the 19th century to abolish slavery throughout all of America, despite growing support from abolitionist newspapers such as The Liberator. Many historians, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, have suggested that this lack of movement toward eradication led directly to Civil War and fed sectional passions that ultimately caused its outbreak.

After the Civil War, efforts were undertaken to overcome divisions within society. Henry Clay, a Kentucky Whig, worked tirelessly in 1850 to craft compromise legislation that could appease both North and South. Finally, this effort bore fruit with the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which included California becoming an official free state and passing an aggressive Fugitive Slave Act.

Today, many Americans consider the North-South divide to be vestigal or irrelevant to today. Yet Southerners still feel strongly that their heritage and difference should be protected – evident by ongoing disputes regarding Confederate monuments that some see as sources of pride. In contrast, others remember the bloody wars that broke out during that period. Such conflicts reveal areas of great division and disunity even in such a solid and united country as America.