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Expansion and Sectionalism

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The Antebellum period from 1800 to 1850 marked a time of sectionalism in American history. Furthermore, new territories gained during western expansion added to this conflict between different sections of America. Southern states wanted new slave territories, while the North wanted to contain the spread of slavery. While Western expansion contributed to growing sectional tensions between the North and South from 1800-1820, sectionalism intensified significantly from 1820-1850

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, Western territorial expansion started to increase a sense of sectionalism throughout America. President Jefferson obtained the Louisiana purchase from Napoleon in 1803, gaining unfamiliar territory West of the Mississippi.

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Southerners were outraged over this Wilmot Proviso and blocked it before it could reach the Senate. When this act was denied it essentially caused America to become a country of two halves. Sadly, this division caused Americans to provoke wickedness against one another: the North vs. South, Slavery vs. Freedom, and Brother vs. Brother. The Wilmot Proviso justified Southerners’ fears that the North had designs against slavery. They worried that if politicians in the North prevented slavery from expanding westward, then it was only a matter of time before they began attacking it in the South as well. As a result, Southerners in both parties flatly rejected the proviso. Such biased support was unprecedented and demonstrated just how serious the South really felt about the issue. The large land concessions made to the U.S

in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo only exacerbated tensions between the North and the South. Debates in Congress grew so heated that even fist fights broke out between Northern and Southern politicians on the floor of the House of Representatives. In fact, sectional division became so evident that many historians label the Mexican-American War and the Wilmot Proviso the first battles that ignited the Civil War. Even though the Wilmot Proviso had failed, the expansion of slavery remained the most demanding issue in the world of politics at the time. The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated Lewis Cass. Also hoping to sidestep the issue of slavery, Cass proposed allowing the citizens of each western territory to decide for themselves whether or not to be free or slave. Cass hoped that a platform based on such popular sovereignty would win him votes in both the North and South.

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The two regions had different economical foundations i.e. the north was industrialized and the southern states were dominantly agrarian. The strife, which resulted to the war, emanated from various political, economic and social issues, which informed the decisions by leaders from these regions

This essay will evaluate in details what exactly caused the terrible war and its aftermath. Fellman et al (2002), point at slavery as the main reason that provoked strife between the two regions. In the late 1970s to 1860s, slavery was the norm in most of the Southern states. Slaves supplied adequate labor that helped flourish the cotton industry. White-Americans perceived the African-Americans (slaves) as mere objects; this mistaken perception led to African Americans being exploited and mistreated (Porter, 1976). On the other hand, the industrialized northern states believed slavery was incorrect and that the African-Americans, like any other human being, are entitled to dignity and respect. The conflict between the two regions kindled tension, which later turned out to be the worst war fought on American soil. Apart from slavery, economic differences and thus different economic aspirations between the south and the north led to the emergency of sectionalism. The impacts of sectionalism were deeply rooted and widely spread. This kind of problem became more apparent in 1787 through debate on a new constitution (Catton, 2004).

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Thus, the North, especially, was afraid that the South would force its “peculiar institution” upon the entire Union. These fears were realized when the expansion of slavery into western territories entered Congressional debates

The federal government, hoping to prevent a civil war, temporarily resolved the issue with compromises. As the compromises appeared to become more one-sided, however, sectional divides between the North and South became more pronounced.

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Carter, A. E., Jensen, R. J. & Thomas, W. G. (2003). The Civil War on the Web. California: American Library Association.

Catton, B. & McPherson, J. M. (2004). The Civil War, American Heritage. New York: American Heritage Inc.

Fellman, M., Gordon, J. L. & Sutherland, D. E. (2002). The Terrible War and Its Aftermath. Michigan: Longman

Porter, D. M. (1976). The Impending Crisis. Michigan: Harper & Row Press

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