CONVERSATION / Legacy / Deep Dive

The Concrete Confederate Crisis
Part 1: American Politics from 1800 - 1860

The election of 1800 is viewed as a major watershed in American politics, marking the beginning of Jeffersonian democracy. However, in 1800, white men who did not own property could not vote, and women had no direct voice in politics at all. Native Americans were clearly seen as an impediment to American expansion, and their lands and rights were shrinking before the advance of the frontier. For African Americans, the years following the American Revolution at first seemed positive. Several northern states abolished slavery, and it was prohibited in the Northwest Territory. But the Constitution accepted slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 denied even free blacks the protections in the Bill of Rights. The success of cotton as a cash crop in the southern states, provided in part by the efficiency of the cotton gin, increased the demand for slave labor. Jefferson had become president, but it made little or no difference to the conditions of blacks, slave or free, Native Americans, or women.



Since The War of 1812, five states had been added to the Union, bringing the total to twenty‐two: Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), and Alabama (1819). In February 1819, Missouri Territory applied for statehood, but its proposed constitution permitted slavery, and at this point, eleven of the twenty‐two states were “free” and eleven were “slave” states. Admitting Missouri would thus upset the existing balance. After considerable debate, a compromise credited to Henry Clay's efforts was reached. Maine, which was cleaved from Massachusetts, was admitted as a free state, followed by Missouri's admission as a slave state; the balance between free and slave states was thus preserved by the Missouri Compromise. Southerners agreed that slavery would not be permitted north of the 36°30′ line in the Louisiana Purchase. The next six territories to become states would continue the fragile balancing act.

By 1824, nationalism was being replaced by the growth of sectionalism, or the sense of one's place being in a portion of the nation rather than in the nation as a whole. Thus, even as developments in transportation and communication worked to unite the nation, political differences threatened to pull it apart.


The factionalism within the Republican ranks led to a split and the creation of two parties—Jackson's Democratic Republicans (soon shortened to “Democrats”) and Adams's National Republicans. 

The campaign itself was less about issues than the character of the two candidates. Jacksonians denounced Adams for being “an aristocrat” and for allegedly trying to influence Russian policy by providing Tsar Alexander I with an American prostitute during Adams's term as ambassador. Supporters of Adams vilified Jackson as a murderer (he had fought several duels), an adulterer (he and his wife had mistakenly married before her divorce from her first husband was final), and an illiterate backwoodsman.


These attacks by the National Republicans did little to detract from Jackson's popularity. Ordinary Americans admired his leadership qualities and decisiveness; they preferred to remember Jackson the Indian fighter and hero of the Battle of New Orleans and forget about the important role Adams played in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Jackson also had clear political advantages. As a westerner, he had secure support from that part of the country, while the fact that he was a slave owner gave him strength in the South. Conversely, Adams was strong only in New England. Jackson was swept into office with 56 percent of the popular vote from a greatly expanded electorate.


To southerners, who depended more on imports than any other region of the country, the Tariff of 1828 was both discriminatory and unconstitutional. Calhoun responded to it by drafting the South Carolina Exposition and Protest , which introduced the idea that states had the right to nullify (refuse to obey) any law passed by Congress they considered unjust. Jackson supported protective tariffs but agreed to a slight reduction in rates in 1832. The change did not go far enough for Calhoun. He resigned the vice presidency in protest and returned to South Carolina, whose legislature promptly sent him back to Washington as a senator.

Calhoun claimed that the only tariff permitted by the Constitution was one that raised money for the common good. Tariffs that adversely affected the economy of one part of the nation (the South) while benefiting other regions (New England and the mid‐Atlantic states) were unconstitutional. In November 1832, South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification that forbade customs duties from being collected in its port cities under the new tariff.

Jackson wasted no time in moving against South Carolina. He proclaimed nullification itself unconstitutional, stressed that the Constitution had created a single nation rather than a group of states, and threatened to use force to collect the customs duties. The forts in Charleston harbor were put on alert by the secretary of war, and federal troops in South Carolina were prepared for action. Military confrontation was prevented through the efforts of Henry Clay, who for the second time in his career achieved a major political compromise. Congress passed two bills in March 1833, both approved by Jackson, that ultimately defused the situation.

The Compromise Tariff gradually reduced duties over a ten‐year period, and the Force Bill authorized the president to enforce federal law in South Carolina by military means, if necessary. South Carolina withdrew its tariff nullification ordinance, crediting Clay's leadership rather than Jackson's threats. The solution was general enough that both Jackson and Calhoun claimed the victory.

Part 2: American Economics 1800 - 1860

American industry grew phenomenally in the first half of the nineteenth century. A series of tariffs enacted by Congress between 1816 and 1828 protected manufacturing, particularly textile milling, from foreign competition. As manufacturing work sites were gradually relocated from the home and small workshop to the factory, the makeup of the labor force changed. The number of artisans and craftsmen declined, and reliance on semiskilled or unskilled workers, including women, to operate machines increased. Just as in agriculture, advances in technology helped boost manufacturing production and increase efficiency. Indeed, the manufacture of such agricultural inventions as the reaper and steel plow became important sectors of the industrial economy.



Textile manufacturing was the leading American industry before the Civil War and was concentrated in the Northeast because the region's rivers provided both water power and transportation. The cloth harvested in the south and produced in New England mills was turned into shirts, pants, and other articles of clothing in smaller factories in New York and Philadelphia. Proximity to raw materials influenced industrial development in other parts of the country. 


The period from 1815 to 1860 proved a golden age for American agriculture due to improvements in the nation's transportation system as well as technological advancements. As farmers shifted from growing just enough to sustain their families (subsistence agriculture) to producing crops for sale (commercial agriculture), demand grew for cheaper and faster ways to get goods to market. Steamboats made river ports important commercial points for entire regions; canals had a similar impact in the Northeast and the Midwest, particularly near the Great Lakes. Railroads, which carried mostly passengers at first, became essential for moving both farm products and manufactured goods by 1860.

Demand for American farm products was high, both in the United States and Europe, and agricultural prices and production rose dramatically. A key factor was the increasing importance of cotton. Until the 1790s, cotton was a relatively minor crop because the variety that grew best in the more southerly latitudes contained seeds that were difficult to remove from the cotton boll. In 1793, Eli Whitney of Connecticut learned of the seed problem while visiting friends in South Carolina; he devised a simple machine known as the cotton gin to separate the fiber from the seeds.

With cotton demand high from the textile industry in Great Britain and soon mills in New England, Whitney's invention led to the expansion of cotton production across Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and into Texas. The Cotton Kingdom, as this vast region was called, produced most of the world's cotton supply and more than fifty percent of American exports by 1860.

The cotton boom also revitalized slavery. Despite the end of the foreign slave trade in 1808, more than four times the number of slaves lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War than on the day Thomas Jefferson took office. Cotton was a labor‐intensive crop, causing the demand and price for field hands to skyrocket. Planters in Virginia found it very profitable to sell their surplus slaves farther south.

Cotton was not the only sector of agriculture to benefit from technological innovations. In 1831, Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper, which harvested considerably more wheat with less labor. John Deere developed a steel plow (1837) that was far more efficient in turning the soil than cast iron and wooden moldboards. The new equipment allowed American farmers to put more land under cultivation and increase production to meet the growing world‐wide demand for wheat, corn, and other cereal grains.


The economic expansion between 1815 and 1860 was reflected in changes in American society. The changes were most evident in the northern states, where the combined effects of the transportation revolution, urbanization, and the rise of manufacturing were keenly felt. In the northern cities, a small, wealthy percentage of the population controlled a large segment of the economy, while the working poor, whose numbers swelled by large‐scale immigration, owned little or nothing.

Despite the “rags‐to‐riches” stories that were popular during the period, wealth remained concentrated in the hands of those who already had it. Opportunities for social mobility were limited, even though personal income was rising. Certainly there were craftsmen who entered the middle class by becoming factory managers or even owners, but many skilled workers found themselves as permanent wage earners with little hope for advancement.


On the eve of the Civil War, there were just under half a million free blacks in the United States, and slightly more than half lived in the southern states, particularly Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Southern free blacks, or “free persons of color” as they were called, could not vote, hold office, or testify against whites in court. Most were laborers, although some were artisans, farmers, and even slave owners themselves.

Although slavery had been abolished in the northern states by 1820, the status of free blacks there was not much different from that of free blacks in the southern part of the country. More than ninety percent of the northern blacks were denied voting rights; the notable exception was in New England. New York required blacks to own at least $250 worth of real property to vote, and New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut rescinded black suffrage in the early nineteenth century. Segregation was the rule, and blacks were denied civil liberties by both law and tradition.

Only Massachusetts allowed blacks to sit on juries, and several Midwestern states prohibited blacks from settling within their boundaries, using laws comparable to those banning free blacks from entering the southern states. In the northern cities, competition between blacks and immigrants—mainly the Irish—for low‐wage, unskilled jobs created tensions that erupted in violence. A series of race riots occurred in Philadelphia between 1832 and 1849.