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UWBTS — Chapter 6:


Chapter 6 – Expansion and Conflict of the Northern and Southern Cultures to 1860

By Clyde N. Wilson of S. C., Ph.D.,  S. I. S. H.



As stated in Chapter 2, understanding the War Between the States is sharpened by knowledge of the characteristics of the two American cultures present before, during, and after that horrific conflict.  From the founding of the U.S. under the Constitution to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President by the Northern Culture in 1860, the basic underlying theme of American history was expansion.  The population increased from 4 million to 31.5 million, the States increased from 13 to 33, and the territory increased from 865,000 square miles to almost 3 million. The Northern Culture and the Southern Culture played different roles in this great growth and experienced it in different ways.  This we will need to understand as we pursue the events leading to the WBTS.

Relevant History

When the American Revolution broke out in Boston in 1775, it took a month for the news to reach Andrew Jackson, a lad in upcountry South Carolina.  When Jackson passed away in TN in 1845 the news was telegraphed and was reported in a few hours in the larger cities by the new daily newspapers peddled on the streets.  Life was vastly different in some ways than it had been in the 13 colonies, although in fundamental ways the core Northern and Southern cultures remained.  By 1860 fleets of steamboats plied the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers and traveled many miles inland from port cities.  Railroads spread over much of the country.  Banks, factories, churches, schools and colleges were numerous and Wall Street was in full flower. There were two new American States on the Pacific coast, California and Oregon.

Many Americans had become accustomed to moving west.   New Southern States admitted to the Union: 1790s, KY and TN; 1810s, LA, MS, and AL; 1820s, MO; 1830s, AR; 1840s, FL and TX.  New Northern States:  1790s, VT; 1803, OH; 1810s, IN and IL; 1820s, ME; 1830s, MI; 1840s, IA and WI; 1850s, MN; and KS with Northern control in 1861.

The Southern culture moved west and reproduced itself in a vast territory.  In 1860, half the people born in the Carolinas, both black and white, were living somewhere further west.  This was natural.  Families were large and did not want to break up their property among many sons; new lands were more fertile; there was a vast and ever increasing world demand for cotton; and Southern Americans were spirited and adventurous. 

Southerners were always in the lead in acquiring new territory.  Virginia by its own efforts had conquered the Northwest Territory (Midwest) and generously gave the land to the Union to be enjoyed by all Americans.  Southerners were responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of Florida, and the American settlement of Texas, all of which were vigourously opposed by dominant Northern leaders. Northerners did not need new land; they wanted the Federal Government to support their industry and commerce.

During most of this period, up to the 1850s, Southerners dominated national politics.  Eight of the first 12 Presidents were Southern plantation owners and another, Harrison, though elected from the Midwest, was born on a VA plantation. However, population increases tended to make for more control of the House of Representatives by the Northern culture.

During this period also, Southern crops made up the vast majority of American exports.  The foreign commerce of the U.S. was Southern based, although New York City enjoyed much of the shipping, financing, and insuring, and had good relations with the South.  The South had relatively little industry.  This was not because Southerners were ignorant and lazy, as New Englanders loudly proclaimed, but because they could enjoy more prosperity and a more comfortable way of life without it.  Thomas Jefferson had warned that farmers were the mainstays of freedom and that urban workers were not desirable. When the Confederacy was threatened by invasion Southerners showed great skill in inventions, engineering, and industrial production.

The North retained its Puritan roots but changed dramatically in its economy and population during the period before the war.  Chapter 4 explains how economic conflict dominated the politics of the Union in this period because the Northern and Southern cultures had different ways of making a living and different ideas of how the power of the Federal Government should be exercised.

The Northern economy had at first been mercantile – shipping and trading.  During the War of 1812 shipping had been curtailed and New England capital had been turned to textile factories and production of war materiel. They had water power, surplus labour, raw material from the South, and money to invest (much of it accumulated earlier in the slave trade).  PA developed iron industry.  From 1816 onward Northern industrialists demanded a “protective tariff” on imports, constantly increased, in order to “protect” their industries by pricing foreign goods out of the market and forcing all Americans to buy their products. It is worth noting that one of the leading Radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens, owned iron furnaces.  The tariff on British imports was very profitable to him although it added $6,000 to the cost of every mile of railroad built in the U.S.

During the 1850s industry spread to the Midwest.  Chicago and Detroit, which not long before had been insignificant villages, grew into teeming industrial cities and Chicago was a great railroad center. The Federalist and Whig parties both advocated a tariff, a national bank, and “internal improvements” at Federal expense.  All these measures took wealth from the South and transferred it to capitalists in the North.  As industry, banking, and stock trading became more and more important in the North, the demand for such measures grew stronger.  The Republican Party got much of its strength from Northern resentment at Democratic vetoes of   Federal subsidies they considered to be beneficial to them. 

The economic conflict between North and South that is discussed in Chapter 4 was important and was present from the beginning.  It was the root of the disagreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson that was the first serious political conflict of the Union. But the undoubted importance of economics was no more central to conflict than the persisting and evolving differences in values and ways of life.  Southerners had first developed the Midwest by settling the southern parts of OH, IN, and IL.  As time went on, this region changed character as industry and great cities developed and as New Englanders and European immigrants swarmed in. From the 1840s large numbers of impoverished Irish came to the U.S. and settled everywhere, especially in the cities.  After the failed revolutions of 1848 many Germans and other central Europeans came, and settled largely in the Midwest.  They had strongly centralist, progressive, and authoritarian attitudes and knew nothing of the South or American Constitutional traditions. They would be zealous supporters of the Republican Party and the Federal Army. Abraham Lincoln secretly bought a German language newspaper to support his presidential candidacy. By the 1850s a majority in the Midwestern States no longer identified with and voted with the South as they had traditionally.  The Northern people were one-fourth foreign-born.

Hard as it is for people today to understand, the pre-war South was far more tolerant of ethnic and religious “diversity” than the North.  Immigrants to the South came as individuals and were quickly assimilated and became loyal Southerners.  During the years before the war the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” party rose in the North. Catholic convents were attacked and burned down by mobs in Philadelphia and Boston (with the collusion of local officials). Nothing like that happened in the South. The Catholic bishop of SC was an honoured and well-liked citizen of Charleston.   The South elected many Catholics to public office. In 1860 two Senators from the South were Jewish, unheard of in the North. 

It must be understood that Northern abolitionists had little sympathy for black people – they considered them an obstacle to what they wanted as American “progress.”  Most Northern states denied rights to the few black people who lived there.  In Lincoln’s IL, before and during the WBTS, free black people were not even allowed to move into the State.  If slaves were freed in the South, as abolitionists demanded, they were still not allowed to move North.  The majority of free black people of the U.S. were in the South and demonstrably better off than those in the North. For a long time New Englanders made the “racist” boast that they were “pure Anglo-Saxons” and thus superior to other Americans.  It is simply wrong to think that antislavery was for racial equality.  It was against black people and even more against those who held them as bonded labour.  To assume otherwise is to make the mistake of reading the later 1900s back into that time.  Abolition had little to do with the actual life lived by people, white or black, in the South.  No abolitionist every made any constructive suggestion.

Religion was an important difference.  The South grew more and more orthodox and devout in this period, although tolerant among the different denominations. The North went in the opposite direction, developing dubiously Christian sects.  Harvard, founded by Puritans, became Unitarian. Many new churches, like Mormons and 7th Day Adventists, appeared in the North. (General Lee prayed frequently during the war;  there is no indication that General Grant ever did.)

The North developed a class of “intellectuals,” people who were rich enough that they did not have to work but could spend their time hectoring others.  The perfect example is Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He started as a Congregational minister but decided that the ministry was invalid and went to Germany to study advanced philosophy.  When he returned he married the daughter of a rich banker and became a guru.  He taught that “the American” was a “New Man” who could lead the world to perfection if the barbaric South could be got rid of.  He announced that the inhabitants of the MA penitentiary were superior to Southern leaders.  Another of the type was Henry David Thoreau, whose father owned a factory, and who likened the psychopath John Brown to Christ.  The “Secret Six,” who financed John Brown’s murderous escapades, were independently wealthy men, mostly from inheritance.  It seems that MA was still the righteous and superior “city on a hill” although Christianity was no longer part of the vision.

The differences between the Northern and Southern cultures grew greater and more obvious as the antebellum period went on.  The Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches split into Northern and Southern groups. For 30 years prior to secession many influential Northerners constantly denounced their Southern fellow citizens as evil barbarians who were inferior in intellect and morals.  We cannot over-estimate the extent to which this hostile atmosphere contributed to secession.  Southerners knew their fathers had joined the Union for mutual benefit of all the States. They grew weary of a Union in which they were relentlessly exploited and slandered by the other parties.

Republicans claimed that the South was dominated by a few rich planters they called “the Slave Power.”  This was not true.  Most Southerners were proud and independent in spirit and property. They could vote, make up their own minds, and choose their own leaders. Planters had much less influence in the South than bankers and industrialists in the North.  The difference was that the bankers and industrialists controlled the politicians but stayed in the background.

Standard Republican propaganda said that the backward, lazy, ignorant, and uncivilized South was an intolerable drag on the welfare of the North.    But in 1860 in NYC there were women and children working 16-hour days for starvation wages, 150,000 unemployed, 40,000 homeless, 600 brothels with girls as young as 12, and 9,000 saloons where the poor could drown their sorrows.  Half the children died before the age of 5 while black children proliferated in the South.  By this time many Southerners had been to NYC, some to London.  When they got home and looked around, they saw no reason to listen to abolitionists who wanted to destroy Southern life at no cost to themselves.


The South did not need the North and had no desire to interfere in its life, but the North found the South indispensable as a source of profits and a political and moral whipping boy. This is the background for the Republican Party’s rise.  

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Why would respectable Northern clergymen liken John Brown to Christ?

When campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination, Lincoln made a famous “House Divided Speech” in which he said that the U.S. had to become “all slave or all free.”  Discuss.  

Recommended Readings

  • The Coming of the Civil War, by Avery O. Craven, pub. 1942.