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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Sectional Division

As time went on, it became more and more clear that Americans felt more loyalty to their state and region than they did to the nation as a whole. They thought of themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers, northerners or southerners. This marked a change in the spirit of national unity that had existed during the Revolutionary War days.

Sectionalism—loyalty to one’s own section of the country—thrived because of opposing attitudes toward slavery. The northern states had outlawed it by the turn of the nineteenth century; the southern states insisted on maintaining it. Each region was determined to force the other to give way. More than once, the South had threatened to secede from the United States if certain antislavery measures were passed.

Southern slaveholders justified slavery on two grounds: economics and racism. They argued that the southern cotton crop was highly important to the national economy, and that it would not be cost-effective to work the plantations with a wage-earning labor force. They also had convinced themselves, and continued to teach every generation of their children, that Africans were an inferior race, fit only for slavery. Southerners argued that black people were not smart or capable enough to take care of themselves; therefore, white slave- holders were actually playing a good and necessary role in taking care of them.

Abolitionists argued that such ideas were nonsense. They pointed out that slaveholders forced slaves to live in conditions of poverty and ignorance and then blamed them for being poor and ignorant—slaveholders, not slaves, were to blame. They could also accurately point out that a large number of slaves were at least half European—free southern white men fathered thousands of children by slave women. It was absurd to argue that slaves were racially inferior to people of European descent, when so many slaves had a large proportion of European genes. For many abolitionists, the wrong of treating people as property overrode all other considerations.

Racism certainly existed in the North, but African Americans in the North had the same basic human and civil rights as all other Americans—to be paid for their labor, to marry, to vote (if male), and to get an education. Northerners to whom economics were more important than racism probably considered that if the South were less prosperous, the North would benefit.

Southerners threatened to secede from the Union when California asked to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Congressional debate became so violent that Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi even threatened to shoot Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri from across the Senate chamber. “Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!” Benton thundered as other senators hurried to intervene.

By now Henry Clay, veteran of so many congressional debates and author of so many compromises, was a tired old man of 73. Clay urged his colleagues to try to come to an agreement for the sake of the nation as a whole. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, who had been Andrew Jackson’s vice president and who was even more frail and ill than Clay, scorned Clay’s suggestion. “Let the states agree to part in peace,” he wrote. “If you are unwilling that we should part in peace, tell us so, and we shall know what to do.”

Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was the next to speak. He supported Clay, urging the senators to preserve the Union in order to avoid war between the North and South. “There can be no such thing as peaceable secession,” Webster warned the Senate. “Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.”

Both John Calhoun and President Zachary Taylor died in 1850. New President Millard Fillmore agreed with Webster and Clay that it was more important to preserve the Union than to abolish or even check the spread of slavery. Under the Compromise of 1850, California entered the Union as a free state, but a new, harsh Fugitive Slave Act was passed.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

A House Divided Practice Test

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