(CA. 1865)

The thorough-going and multifaceted upheavals experienced by mid-19th century American society (1830-1860) led to increasing divisions between the states of North and South. Differences between the economic systems of North and South, varying attitudes towards the scope and legitimacy of federal power and most importantly, very different attitudes towards the institution of slavery split the young republic between North and South. The extent and awareness of this cleavage hardened through the westwards expansion of the USA. Officials had to decide whether the new territories should become slave states. This first led to conflict in Kansas in the mid-1850s. Although remaining local in scope, it provided a portent of things to come. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the office of President in the autumn of 1860 sparked the secession of the first Southern states.

1. The development

of the United States of America

The thirteen colonies which signed the Declaration of Independence from British rule (1776) joined to form the United States of America. The ongoing expansion of this new republic necessitated a process of political alignment between the various states, raising questions of the balance to be struck between state and federal government in economic and political affairs. The divisions involved in this process eventually developed into a deep-seated and bitter conflict, which culminated in the American Civil War (1861-65).

4 July 1776:

The Declaration of Independence
The establishment of the United States of America by 13 former British colonies.

4 March 1789:

The promulgation of the Constitution of the United States of America
The federal constitution foresaw the existence of individual administrative states within a federal structure, all of which had their own constitution. The federal government was established in Washington D.C.

The Presidential System

  • President:
    Head of state and the government
  • Congress:
    Consists of two chambers
    Responsible for passing legislation and the budget

  • House of Representatives
    Made up of representatives from the various American states. The number of members which each state sends to the house reflects the relative size of the population of a state. Three-fifths of the slave population was counted

  • The Senate
    Represents the individual states: each state sent two senators

The 13 Founding States

  • New York
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Delaware
  • Maryland
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia

2. The economic development

of the USA in the 19th century

The following factors influenced the economic upturn in the USA

Population growth

Sustained immigration from Europe in the early 19th century led to strong population growth. Hundreds of thousands of artisans emigrated to the USA from England to escape the growing unemployment caused by the industrial revolution. Millions left Ireland to escape the Great Famine (1845 – 1849) in search of a better life in the New World.

The construction of an infrastructure

European immigrants initially settled a very narrow strip of land along the American East Coast, bounded by the Mississippi River. The westwards extension of this frontier, driven by further waves of migration, necessitated the development of an infrastructure, above all in the northern states. People and goods needed to be able to move quickly around the expanding territory.


A large number of roads – such as the c. 1000 Km long National Road between Maryland and Ohio – and a network of canals and other waterways (e.g. the canal between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers) were constructed in this period. After 1830, the railway became the most important mode of transport, sparking what was to become known as the “Railroad Revolution” or the “Transport Revolution”. Despite this early development, a West to East Coast railway line was not completed until after the Civil War.

Industrialization and Urbanization

In comparison to the Northern states, the South of the USA remained sparsely populated. The North had a population density of 20 people per square mile; the figure for the South was only 13. This was the result of the more rapid development of industrialization and urbanisation in the North.

The North

Industrialization was concentrated in the Mid-West and North-East of the country. Industrial activity in the North-East initially grew to service the agricultural sector and was concentrated in butchery, meat packing, the manufacture of agricultural machinery, wood processing and brewing. The towns of St. Louis and Chicago developed into centres of industry. The decisive factor in industrial growth was trade with the states on the East Coast, from where capital accumulated for investment in manufacturing industry and enabled the development of factories to replace cottage industries. The industrial production of textiles began in 1820, soon followed by the growth of the footwear industry. The first industrial workers were female, recruited from the daughters of farmers. They were known as “mill girls”. In the North, industrialization was accompanied by heavy urbanization; in 1860, some 200,000 people lived in New York City. Other large urban settlements included Boston and Philadelphia.

The South

The economy of the Southern states relied on agriculture. In addition to tobacco and wheat, the staple product was cotton, the importance of which was reflected by its name “King Cotton”. Industrial development remained highly restricted and growth was not accompanied by modernization. This situation of relative backwardness was compounded by the dependence of the southern agriculturalists on the North for investment, transport and shipping. Indeed, much of the cotton produced in the South was processed in the northern textiles industry, which sold it on at a profit. The largest city in the South was the 9,500-strong Atlanta (Georgia) known as the “Pearl of the South”.




3. Political developments

and the early party system

The politics of mid-century USA was dominated by two parties:

The Democrats

The Democratic party grew out of a number of older parties and was founded in 1828. As such, it is generally viewed as the oldest organized political party in the world. The Democrats emphasized the autonomy, freedom and legal rights of the individual. The Democratic politician Andrew Jackson (1776-1845), who served as the 7th US President from 1829 to 1837, sought to represent the interests of the poor. As such, he drew support predominantly from poor immigrants and Catholics. He also supported slavery and the campaign against the Native Americans. Conflict over the slave question eventually split the party along North-South lines in 1860, after which the Northern and Southern states sent their own candidates to the Presidential elections.

7th US-President (1829 - 1837)

The Republicans

Founded in 1854, the Republican party was dedicated to the abolition of slavery, yet took a less hard line than the previously “abolitionist” parties. Republican voters were predominantly drawn from the upper and middle classes of the North and Mid-West. The Presidential election of 1860 returned Abraham Lincoln (1809-1861) who served as the first Republican President. Lincoln accepted the constitutional rights of slave holders and sought to avoid radical solutions.



16th US-President (1861 - 1865)

4. Social developments

in the 19th century

The general situation

American society was made up of a number of different social groups: immigrants (predominantly from Europe), slaves, the free blacks and Native Americans. Per capita income and living standards was generally higher than that in Europe, but was not evenly spread. Prosperous farmers and urban elites formed a broad middle class, which influenced the values and outlook of US society. 

The characteristics of US society

The United States of America was a country of immigrants and over 500,000 German-speakers moved to America in the first half of the 19th century alone. Many left their homeland after the failure of the revolutions of 1848/9. Other Europeans were drawn to the USA on the promise of the affordable land which the New World could provide and which was unavailable in Europe. The US population grew from 4 million to 10 million between 1790 and 1820; 1840 saw the population increase to 17 million. In 1860, this figure increased to 31.5 million, of whom 3.9 million were slaves and 500,000 were free blacks. 

The Southern states

The “Southern way of life” with its own characteristic values, morals, behaviour and legal code included the so-called “peculiar institution” - a euphemism for slavery. Despite living as slaves, the black population of the South still managed to maintain an active society with its own distinctive culture. White society, although dominant, was by no means homogenous.


The large planter families enjoyed an elevated social status, above the smaller yeoman farmers and peasants who led a subsistence existence. Despite this social division, Southern white society developed a particular brand of nationalism which cut across class divides and served to unite them against both the black population and the North.

1. Women and men

19th century U.S. society was strictly segregated along lines of gender; separate spheres were established for each sex in which they pursued different activities and were governed by different values and rules.


Through the institution of paid work, men moved in a public arena encompassing industry, politics and administration. They made all decisions pertaining to their family. “Male problems” encompassed the burden of responsibility, the danger of failure and the general risk of life.


Women were expected to be active in the domestic sphere, working in the house and raising children. After marriage, women were wives, housewives and mothers. The few rights and freedoms that were available to them were tied up with their domestic role.


Gendered expectations


    • Proactive
    • Aggressive/competitive
    • Materialistic
    • More intelligent (than women)
    • Assertive
    • Mentally and physically strong
    • Assume a public social position



    • True womanhood
    • Passive
    • Inward
    • Shy/humble
    • Domestic
    • Virtuous
    • Compassionate



    Women who worked in factories, as domestic servants, seamstresses or casual labourers were unable to fulfil the requirements of “true womanhood”. Life on the Western frontier also provided little scope for women to practice the domestic virtues associated with their gender. For their part, Southern “ladies” believed that female slaves could never aspire to the status of “true womanhood”. Nevertheless, black women sought to maintain these separate roles within their families. Native American women on the other hand, many of whom originally worked in agriculture, often aspired to emulate “white” norms of gender and swapped field labour for sewing and weaving.

    White women

    Educational opportunity for women was uneven and depended on the social position and the resources and priorities of their parents. Female education focused on housekeeping and did not aim to equip girls to pursue a career outside the confines of domesticity. Well-raised and educated ladies were to support their husbands and not work for themselves.

    The main problem experienced by educated white women was the high degree of social isolation which they experienced, restricted as they were to a life in their own homes. To mitigate this loneliness, they sought out contact with other women both personally, and in letters. This produced a culture of correspondence, in which they wrote of domestic issues and exchanged household tips and recipes etc. This culture eventually developed into the production of a number of magazines focusing on housekeeping and cooking.  Examples included Peterson´s Ladies Magazine (founded in Philadelphia in 1842) and Arthur´s Home Magazine (founded in Philadelphia in 1852) which published articles and recipes.

    An excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin

    "Mrs. Bird was a timid, blushing little woman, of about four feet in height, and with mild blue eyes, and a peach-blow complexion, and the gentlest, sweetest voice in the world; -- as for courage, a moderate-sized cockturkey had been known to put her to rout at the very first gobble, and a stout house-dog, of moderate capacity, would bring her into subjection merely by a show of his teeth. Her husband and children were her entire world, and in these she ruled more by entreaty and persuasion than by command or argument. There was only one thing that was capable of arousing her, and that provocation came in on the side of her unusually gentle and sympathetic nature; - anything in the shape of cruelty would throw her into a passion, which was the more alarming and inexplicable in proportion to the general softness of her nature.”

    2. Slaves

    The legal system of the Southern states defined black people as the personal property of a white man, and denied them any individual rights. Slaves existed as chattels to be sold, passed on as inheritance, gifted, loaned and mortgaged. The corporal punishment of slaves was permitted, but they could not legally be put to death; murder was subject to a monetary fine. A legal framework existed to regulate the treatment of slaves in terms of food, clothing and accommodation, but they were not permitted to enforce any rights before a court of law and were not admitted as witnesses. Slave marriages were permitted but not accorded legal recognition; the sale of a slave could result in families being separated.


    Slave status was passed on through the maternal line: even if a female slave married a free man, their offspring would be considered slaves. Such a case involved the activist Harriet Tubman. Female slaves were subject to a double burden: whilst both men and women were deployed in back-breaking plantation work, female slaves also had to work in the home and care for the children.


    The situation of slaves:

    • No civic rights
    • No voting rights
    • Marriage only possible with the consent of their owner; slave marriages are not legally-binding
    • No admission to schools; very few slaves received an education
    • Slaves were forbidden to form or join any form of organization
    • Black males forbidden from fighting in the army until 1863

    3. Reform movements

    The second half of the 19th century saw the development of a number of reform movements, seeking to improve social conditions. This included the anti-slavery movement, the temperance movement and women’s groups.


    The anti-slavery movement (the abolitionist movement)

    • 1776-1804:
      Gradual release of slaves in the Northern states

    • 1787:
      Slavery is outlawed in the states of the North-East

    • 1833:
      After the prohibition of slavery in the British Empire, activists founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, which grew to 250,000 members by 1840. It was founded on the initiative of the journalist and writer William Garrison (1805-1879) from Massachusetts. Writing in the Boston weekly newspaper The Liberator he spoke out against implementing gradual reforms, calling instead for the immediate liberation of all slaves.

     The American Anti-Slavery Society also counted some 400,000 free blacks as members. One of their spokesmen was the former slave Frederick Douglass (1817/18-1895). Writing in the The North Star, he campaigned not only for the liberation of all slaves, but social and legal equality with whites.

    The women’s movement

    Women assumed a prominent position in the anti-slavery movement and even formed local groups for women. They worked both for abolition and woman’s rights. In 1848, Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) organized a convention to discuss the advancement of woman’s rights at Seneca Falls in the North of New York. Male abolitionists such as William L. Garrison and Frederick Douglass also participated. On the eve of the Civil War, the women’s movement had established female suffrage as their aim, but restricted their attentions to improving female education and property rights.

    5. The causes

     of the American Civil War (1861 - 1865)

    The westwards expansion of the USA beyond the Mississippi River necessitated the establishment of new states, which raised the question of whether to introduce slavery. This issue threatened to disrupt the political balance of slave states and non-slave states in the Senate.

    1820/21: The Missouri compromise

    The ideological split in the union over the institution of slavery erupted in very practical terms in 1817, when the slave state of Missouri (located in the West of America) applied for membership of the Union. This raised the question as to whether a slavery could be tolerated in a Western state of the USA. The eventual settlement, known as the Missouri Compromise, established that slavery could only be forbidden north of a line drawn westwards from the south-western corner of the newly acceded state. The sole exception was to be Missouri itself, which was permitted to continue established practices. The simultaneous accession of Maine to the USA meant that parity was maintained in the Senate between the two sides of the debate. 


    The victory of the USA over Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 brought new territories to the Union, including California, New Mexico and Arizona. This reopened the question apparently closed by the Missouri Compromise.

    1850: A new compromise

    California was welcomed into the Union as a non-slaving state, whilst a plebiscite was conducted in New Mexico and Utah to decide the question. This was the first time that the slave question – previously a matter of constitutional rights  –  has been subject to the decision of a democratic vote. At the same time, the Senate passed the Fugitive Slave Act requiring the Northern States to return escaped slaves to their owners. This generated a wave of outrage in the Northern states and radicalized the debate surrounding slavery.

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act: 1854

    The decision to launch a slavery plebiscite in Kansas and Nebraska represented the final nail in the coffin of the Missouri Compromise, the terms of which would have prevented slavery in Kansas and Nebraska. During the violence which unfolded during the four-year referendum campaign (1855-1859) and subsequently referred to as “bleeding Kansas”, John Brown (1800-1859) advanced to hero status after he attempted to raid a Union arsenal in order to arm the slaves. A military court sentenced him to death in 1859.

    JOHN BROWN (CA. 1857)


     „Talk! Talk! Talk! […] That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action – action. “

    John Brown after a meeting of the New England Anti-Slave-Societys.
    McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States, 6. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003,  S. 203.


    Historians often view the conflict in Kansas as a forerunner to the Civil War itself. The outcome was the accession of Kansas to the Union in 1861 as a non-slaving state.

    6. The Secession

    The political background:

    The Liberal Northern states: A unitary constitutional state, dominated by its middle class, operating a market economy. A universalist outlook which opposed particularism.

    The Southern States: A traditional society

    The two camps were divided over the question of slavery; not just a moral issue, but which was tied up with economic interests.

    (1) Economic aspects of the conflict

    Slave labour formed the basis of the economic system of the Southern states, who saw abolitionism as a challenge to their prosperity.

     (2) Ideological conflicts

    The Southern states advanced a biological case for the permissibility of slavery

    Basic problem: The western expansion of the USA threatened the parity of slaver states vs non-slaving states in the Senate.


    The election of Abraham Lincoln (1860)

    Winning the presidential election of 1860, the new Republican President Abraham Lincoln did not argue for the immediate abolition of slavery. He hoped to reach a negotiated settlement with the Southern states involving a system of compensation. The South was sceptical; the first to react was South Carolina. Through a unanimous vote (169:0) of a convention arranged to decide the matter, she declared her secession from the Union. This was followed in 1861 by the departure of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

    8 February 1861: seven states combine to form the “Confederate States of America “.

    4 March 1861: the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the President of the United States of America.

    12 April 1861: the war begins with a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.

    17 April 1861: Virginia leaves the Union, followed by Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.


    23 states

    Population c. 21 million whites and 0.5 million free blacks

    President: Abraham Lincoln

    Capital: Washington D.C.


    11 states

    Population c. 5.5 million white and some 3.5 million blacks, the majority of whom were slaves

    President: Jefferson Davis

    Capital: Richmond (Virginia), some 150 km from Washington