American society was sharply divided in the antebellum period, the decades immediately preceding the Civil War. Its western and southern borders expanded outwards as the expanding American population sought land and prosperity at the expense of the Native American tribes and neighbouring Mexico, and by purchasing the French and Spanish colonial territories in the South (the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ and Florida respectively). In the north, the US shared as a common border with the emerging nation of Canada, with their common border extending westwards to the Pacific Ocean as both countries expanded rapidly at the expense of the Native American Tribes. Black slavery became the most contentious domestic political issue at this time, shaping and warping many of the other issues of the time.
Black slavery had come to Colonial America at a time when the African slave trade, and the owning and exploitation of such slaves, was legally acceptable within the colonial territories of Britain and the other European powers. Following the independence of the British American colonies at the end of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the abolitionist movement gained momentum in the northern states. Anti-slavery laws were passed in these states, ensuring that most African-Americans living in those states were freed long before the Civil War began. In contrast, the development of the Cotton and other forms of intensive agricultural industries in parts of the Southern States necessitated the employment of vast numbers of semi-skilled labour. Just as slavery was disappearing in the Northern states, the demand for Black slaves accelerated in the South. This demand grew despite the US Congress banning the importation of Black slaves into the United States in 1808. This legislation following Britain’s decision to outlaw the Atlantic Slave trade in the previous year, and employed the Royal Navy to actively intercept slave ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
With many of the Northern and Southern States adopting opposing political positions, escalating political tensions were expressed in political wrangling concerning morality, territorial expansion and statehood for new states, and the building of trans-continental railways.
- Morality: For members of the abolitionist movement, slavery was a moral issue – no human being should be permitted to enslave another human being. This argument – laudable in the eyes of modern observers – was not shared by the pro-slavery movement. Unfortunately, anti-slavery advocates were not uniform in also advocating political, economic or social equality of Europeans and African Americans. That political struggle – the US Civil Rights Movement – was to continue throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.
- Territorial Expansion: As the population of the expanding frontiers grew, so did the demand for political autonomy and statehood for these regions. Under the US Constitution, each state was entitled to elect individuals to represent that state in the US Congress. However, fearful that the representatives from the new states might share the abolitionist views of the northern states, pro-slavery advocates successfully lobbied that new admissions into the Union should occur two at a time – one ‘slave’ state and one ‘free’ state – thereby maintaining equal representation by ‘slave’ and ‘free’ states in Congress. By admitting states two at a time, pro-slavery advocates hoped that Congress would be unable to impose national anti-slavery laws.
- Transcontinental railways: As the free transit of people and goods between east and west was vital for the growth and economic prosperity of the US, impetus was given for the building of railways that would cross continental United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. However, in a country politically divided, should the first east-west railway stretch across the northern or the southern states?
- States’ Rights: the foundation of the United States, as the voluntary action by representatives of existing colonies, has always shaped an expectation amongst political conservatives that neither Congress nor the Federal government should intervene in the internal affairs of member states. As anti-slavery laws became prevalent in the northern states, the debating of anti-slavery legislation in Congress was perceived by many southerners as indications of northern desires to dominate the South. Consequently, states rights’ advocates and North-South tensions became entangled during the antebellum period.