In the time just before the Civil War, the United States was one of the most successful nations in the world. The United States had become the world’s leading cotton producing country and had developed industry, which would in the future, surpass that of Great Britain. Also, the United States possessed an advanced railroad and transportation system. However, despite its successes, the United States was becoming increasingly divided. The North and the South had many distinct differences in terms of their social, cultural, and economic characteristics that brought about sectionalism and, eventually, the Civil War.
The North’s social structure was very different from that of the South. Industrialization played an important role in forming Northern society. In the North, society was comprised of working class whites and a relatively small number of free blacks. Because of industrialization, a rising number of immigrants were moving into the Northern cities looking for work in the factories. Another effect of industrialization on Northern society was the rise of a wealthy factory-owning group.
There was also a group of people struggling in poverty. Between these two classes was a middle class that consisted mostly of workers and entrepreneurs. This middle class came to dominate society in the North. It was the members of the middle class that tended to leave family owned farms in favor of factory work in the cities. In contrast, families in the South still worked independently on farms and plantations. Comparable to the North’s wealthy class of factory owners, in the South there was a small, wealthy class of plantation owners. Unlike the North, it was the wealthy class that dominated Southern society, rather than the middle class.
The plantation owners used their wealth to control aspects of Southern political and social life. Also in the South, there was a very poor class referred to as the “clay eaters”, because they sometimes resorted to eating clay. The majority of the Southerners called themselves the “plain folk.” Although most “plain folk” practiced subsistence farming and had only family members for labor, a few of them owned slaves, but usually no more than one or two. Plantation owners, however, sometimes owned a great number of slaves. There was a small population of free blacks in the South too. Because the social makeup of the two regions was so different, their cultural characteristics naturally followed the same pattern.
The developing cultures of the North and the South also stood in stark contrast to each other. Northerners were advocating change while Southerners were fighting to preserve traditional ideals. For example, Northerners were becoming involved with and encouraging industrialization. At the same time, Southerners were focusing on remaining agrarian and improving farming techniques. Also, the changing culture in the North promoted reform such as the abolition and feminism movements, and even helped to better the education movement. Although these movements were present in the South, they were not quite as strong or widely supported as they were in the North; this was because the North’s changing environment was much less hostile to reform than the South’s rigid sense of tradition.
Abolitionists in the North such as William Garrison and Fredrick Douglass pushed for the emancipation of slavery while feminists like the Grimke sisters pushed for women’s rights and Horace Mann, an advocate of education, acted to enhance the education system. By contrast, Southerners wanted to remain traditional and preserve their “cavalier” image; they wished to maintain their sophisticated, eloquent image and looked down upon the industrialization in the North as dirty and crude. The factor that led to both the cultural and the social differences in the North and the South was the dissimilar economies of the two regions.
The economies of the North and the South were almost complete opposites. The North had grown away from farming and had become focused on industry and the production of manufactured goods. Factories in the North attracted former subsistence farmers because it was more efficient to buy food rather than to grow it. Systems like the Lowell System employed young women, provided them with room and board, and paid the women for their work in the factory. With the rise of numerous new American inventions, machines became more efficient and the United States had soon developed one of the best industrial economies in the world. Because of the need for effective transportation to distribute goods, new forms of transportation such as elaborate railroad and canal systems emerged.
The south, on the other hand, clung to the slave-based plantation system. The economy was based largely on the production of raw materials, mainly cotton. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin allowed the cultivation of short staple cotton to bring Southern planters great success. Because the cotton industry was so lucrative, Southerners had no reason to become industrialized. However, the industrial economy of the North and the agrarian economy of the South led to a colonial relationship between the two, meaning that the South sold raw materials to the North in exchange for manufactured goods. The system put the South in an inferior position to the North, which obviously upset Southerners and led to greater tension between the two regions.
In the years prior to the Civil War, the Northern and Southern regions of the U.S. began drifting further and further apart. Along with this separation came tension and sectionalism. First, the two regions were different socially. Northerners typically worked as laborers in factories, while Southerners worked on either plantations with slaves or on small farms. Second, the cultural differences between the changing, modernizing North and the traditional South caused tension. Finally, the contrasting economic pursuits of the two regions added to the tension. In antebellum United States, the mounting tensions between the two sections of the country would ultimately lead to the outbreak of the Civil War.