Sectionalism is a time period in American history prior to the Civil War when the country became increasingly divided between the agricultural pro-slavery South and the industrial North. Tariffs, acquisition of territory in the West, and growing moral objections to slavery contributed to the growing divide in the country. But several compromises were made in the decades before the Civil War that managed to keep the country unified for a time. Eventually these differences became overwhelming and the Civil War broke out between the North and the South.


John C. Calhoun was born in South Carolina and after attending Yale University, began to practice law. He was elected to the state legislature and later to the US House of Representatives. He served as Vice President under President John Quincy Adams and again under President Andrew Jackson. In 1832 he resigned that office and was elected to the US Senate. Calhoun favored slavery and its expansion. In an 1837 Senate speech, Calhoun defended slavery as a beneficial institution. Slaves, he argued, fared better under the care of a master than poor workers did in the industrial North. Further, he expressed a view of the Union similar to the one his predecessor, Charles Hayne, had expressed in the Webster-Hayne debate. He believed that the Union was a compact between sovereign states, and that states, not the Supreme Court, could declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. He believed states should nullify federal attempts to limit slavery. Three weeks before his death, he spoke against many of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, which limited slavery’s westward expansion. He favored the Fugitive Slave Act. His final, 42-page speech asserted that North and South were now two separate nations that should separate peacefully.
Henry Clay was born in Virginia, studied law, and began to practice law in Kentucky. He served in the Kentucky state legislature and was elected to the US House of Representatives five times, each time serving as Speaker of the House. He and John C. Calhoun worked together to pass the Tariff of 1816 to help both North and South recover after the War of 1812. Clay became known as the Great Compromiser. Clay was a slave owner, but favored emancipation and the return of slaves to Africa. In 1820, the question of slavery in the Missouri Territory caused a rift in Congress. Clay brokered the Missouri Compromise, maintaining the balance between slave states and free states in the Senate. He ran for president in 1824, but the election produced no winner and was decided in the House of Representatives. Clay gave his support to John Quincy Adams, who, upon election, appointed Clay Secretary of State. This arrangement was dubbed a “corrupt bargain” by Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Clay would run for President and lose a total of five times. He helped create the Whig Party, which opposed the new Democratic Party under the leadership of Andrew Jackson. Clay was elected to the US Senate in 1831. Later in his career, he helped establish the Compromise of 1850.
Stephen Douglas was born in Vermont and moved to Illinois when he was 20. In the 1830s and 1840s he served in various Illinois offices and emerged as a leader of the Democratic Party. He represented Illinois in the US House of Representatives from 1843-1847 and in the US Senate from 1847 until he died in 1861. In Congress, he favored westward expansion, “Manifest Destiny,” and the Compromise of 1850. He believed that states should enter the Union slave or free, based on how their voting population indicated, a doctrine known as “popular sovereignty.” To that end, he proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. In 1858, he ran for reelection to the Senate against Abraham Lincoln. During the campaign the two candidates squared off in a series of debates, which became known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln lost the Senate race but his performance helped boost his national support for the presidency. When Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Douglas condemned secession and, on Lincoln’s request, traveled the country speaking out in favor of preserving the Union. He died two months after shots were fired on Fort Sumter.
Daniel Webster was born in New Hampshire and first became an acclaimed public speaker while attending Dartmouth College. He began to practice law and later argued on behalf of Dartmouth in the Supreme Court case Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1818). Webster represented New Hampshire in the US House of Representatives from 1812 to 1816. He subsequently moved to Massachusetts and in 1827 was elected to the Senate. There he defended the view that states could not nullify federal laws. He famously uttered the words, “liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” in the Hayne-Webster Debate on the compact theory of the Union. His views were shared by Henry Clay and opposed by John C. Calhoun. He supported the Compromise of 1850 and, as Secretary of State, helped enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
In 1819 Missouri requested admission to the union of the United States as a slaveholding state. Missouri’s admission as a slave state would have upset the balance in Congress between the slaveholding states and the free states. Henry Clay introduced a compromise called the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The compromise allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state, but also allowed Maine to enter the union as a free state, thus keeping the balance in Congress and avoiding war between the sections. The compromise also forbade slavery in all the territory north of the 36°30’ parallel with the exception of Missouri.
The Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the conflict in Congress over the issue of slavery in the western territories. It admitted California to the Union as a free state and split the remaining Mexican Cession territory into Utah and New Mexico (settling a border dispute with Texas). It allowed Utah and New Mexico territories to decide the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty (voting by the people). It also banned the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and enacted a stronger Fugitive Slave Act which required all citizens to help catch and return runaway slaves. It bought some peace and time, but not all its provisions were achieved.
Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 in which she described the horrors of slavery. Although her novel was fictional, it furthered the abolitionist movement in the North and gained international attention. It highlighted slavery as a moral issue (not just an economic or states’ rights issue) and opened many people’s eyes to the harsh reality of slave-life in the South. The South was shocked and argued that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was anti-slavery propaganda. This novel is considered one of the most influential books in American history.
Authored by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 divided the land west of Missouri into two territories: Kansas and Nebraska. It allowed the residents of the two territories to decide the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty (voting by the people). Pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters from neighboring territories (including radical abolitionist John Brown) flooded into Kansas to sway the vote, resulting in violent clashes between the two groups. This violence was known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom after his owner took him into a territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Anti-slavery lawyers argued that he should be freed because he had lived in a free territory. When his case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, the Court, presided over by Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled that Mr. Scott could not file a lawsuit because, as a slave, he was not considered a U.S. citizen. The Court further reasoned that people of African descent could never be citizens. According to the Court, slaves were “property,” and thus could not be taken from their owners without violating the due process of law clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Court also struck down part of Congress’ Missouri Compromise of 1820 as unconstitutional, stating that Congress could not ban slavery in the western territories. The Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford was later overruled by Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution in 1868. Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment granted former slaves citizenship.


In 1830, a series of debates took place in the United States Senate over the issue of national sovereignty versus state sovereignty. Daniel Webster, Senator from Massachusetts, argued for national sovereignty and preserving the union. Webster stated: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Robert Hayne, Senator from South Carolina, argued that the states were sovereign and had given limited power to the national government.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas competed against each other in 1858 in an election for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. The two men debated each other seven times, and the debates often focused on the issue of slavery. These debates brought Lincoln and the issue of slavery further into the national spotlight. Douglas argued for popular sovereignty (voting by the people) to decide the issue of slavery in the western territories, while Lincoln argued to stop the spread of slavery in the West. Although Lincoln lost to Douglas, the debates brought him national attention and helped him win the presidency in 1860.
John Brown was a radical abolitionist who resorted to violence in his attempts to defeat slavery. In 1859, he led a raid on a federal arsenal (a collection of weapons and military equipment) at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His hope was to arm slaves and lead an uprising, but he was captured, tried for treason, and hanged for his crime.