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Sectional Divisions

Three interrelated themes characterized the young United States during the first half of the 19th century.

  1. Industry and agriculture grew, in conjunction with transportation networks.
  2. Westward expansion occurred on a continual basis.
  3. A great sectional divide grew between the urban industrial north and the largely rural agrarian south.

By the 1820s, canals began to link sections of the country together, decreasing the dependence on coastal shipping and allowing farmers in the west to reach markets in the big cities of the east. The development of the railroads in the decades that followed only increased this flexibility.

The century began with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which added vast territories to the country. In 1849, after its victory in a war with neighboring Mexico, the United States expanded to cover the continent, adding much of the southwest and the jewel of California.

The question of slavery came to divide the country on north/south lines. Northern agitators seeking the abolition of slavery seriously alienated many southerners. Other issues only made the division worse. The south objected to a strong protectionist tariff, which meant they had to buy expensive manufactured goods from the north, instead of cheap goods from other countries. The south also had a greater proportion of advocates of states’ rights who opposed federal control. Social differences also came into place, contrasting the south’s plantation system with the north’s large industrial cities. Even the fact that people in the north and south spoke differently came into play.

Despite economic, social and cultural differences, the north and the south might have been able to get along, as they certainly do today, if it were not for the question of expansion of slavery to the western territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allocated the areas of the Louisiana Purchase between slave and free in a manner that brought peace for some decades. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to do the same to territories farther west. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska directly in the middle of the continent, allowing each to choose whether to allow slave labor or only free labor. This led to violence and bloodshed between pro- and anti-slavery proponents. Americans on both sides still hoped for compromise, but the 1860 election of anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln proved the final push toward war.

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