America in the Antebellum Period: A Nation Both United and Divided
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. 19th 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...
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