Causes of the American Civil War – 2: Antebellum America

Image of escaping slaves

The ConstitutionIn the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.

Geneva Bible
Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Democrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of IndependenceFor further reading:

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

On Slavery, Sectionalism, and the First and Second Party Systems

Alexander Hamilton (Source: Wikicommons, public domain)

The “First Party System,” according to Donald Grier Stephenson, pitted the Federalists (created by Alexander Hamilton and including John Adams, Fisher Ames, and John Marshall) against the Republicans or Antifederalists (created by Thomas Jefferson and including James Madison, Albert Gallatin, and Philip Freneau) and “took shape at the national level soon after government under the Constitution got under way in 1789.” (1)  Gerald Leonard points out that the Constitution was, by design, against parties,  and so these first party-like-organizations were not “mass-based” but existed “more as parties in the government than as parties in the electorate.” (2)  They were, in effect, political cliques.

“In supporting or opposing policy proposals in Congress, members found themselves increasingly voting with the same group of colleagues on one side of an issue or the other. In turn, members sought reelection by defending their positions on legislation and so carried to the electorate the disputes that had divided Congress. Partisanship thus filtered down to the voters, leading them to associate one kind of policies with one group and different policies with another. The result was that congressional factions acquired local followings that duplicated congressional divisions.” (3)

Until the early 19th century, the first party system focused on the issues surrounding political and economic structure. Federalists favored centralization and a strong national government that was more closed and elitist-based. They pushed for an active economic policy. Republicans championed more dominant state governments, openness, and thus less elitism.

Thomas Jefferson

With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, Republicans replaced the Federalists as the dominant party. Jefferson expanded the powers of the president, reasserted a focus on states rights and agrarianism, and expanded the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. The Federalists gradually faded away as a credible political force and by 1820 could offer no candidate for the presidency. “Rivalry among Republican leaders for the presidency and the reemergence of major national policy issues marked the end of the first party system between 1810 and the mid-1820s.”(4) The years between I8I6 and I824 saw a regression of sorts toward anti-partyism and the period “lacked major national issues of the intensity that had earlier sparked partisan combat. The period thus came to be called the ʻEra of Good Feeling.’”(5)

But economic developments in the 1820s caused a resurgence of interest among the populace in politics as they sought to influence their own circumstances through control of government. Southern fears of anti-slavery sentiments surged as the debate around the fate of Missouri’s statehood galvanized many to take interest in the polls. Grass roots political energy began to emerge indicating a clear deathblow to The First Party System, which pushed policy from government down to the populace. This would no longer do.

Historian Michael Holt, who approaches the questions surrounding causation of the American Civil War from the angle of politics, posits that what makes a democratic republic like the United States work is a political structure that allows for discord on issues to be managed as a part of debate among varying points of view. (6) Constructive debate works best when there exist at least two political parties with elected officials who can, at the national, state, and local level, wrangle with the issues and make decisions that direct civic direction. Citizens can align with the party that best represents their perspective and interests. Choice between party platforms provides opportunity for change via regular elections.

A single party system does not facilitate competition between ideas. In fact, Holt suggests that the lack of a two party system can cause people to align around other identifiers such as the region in which they live. “Sectional antagonism was most marked, powerful, and dangerous precisely at those times when or in those places where two-party competition did not exist.” (7) By contrast, these “sharp section lines often disappeared” when two parties were present effectively diffusing sectional antagonism. “When it persisted, party loyalties neutralized it so far as shaping political behavior. As many politicians recognized, in short, inter-party competition was an alternative to naked sectional conflict.” (8)

Martin Van Buren Credit: Former President Martin Van Buren, half-length portrait, facing right. Photographed between 1840 and 1862, printed later. LC-USZ62-13008 DLC. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present.

Thus the ebb and flow in the severity of sectional conflict in America can be traced to the relative competitive strength or weakness of a two-party system. Holt suggests that two strong parties did not exist in the years between 1819 and 1821 when the decision of whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state was being considered. Sectional strife resulted. To prevent the sectional strife from fully permeating politics, “Martin Van Buren helped form the Jacksonian Democratic party in the 1820’s specifically to revive a two-party system as a substitute for sectionalism. (9) The intent was to counteract feelings of sectional prejudices by encouraging party alignment. In this way, issues surrounding slavery contributed to the reemergence of strong parties, and thus  “The Second American Party System.” As the Second Party System emerged between 1824 and 1828, the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Jacksonian faction, which became the modern Democratic Party in the 1830s, and the Henry Clay faction, which was absorbed by Clay’s Whig Party. Unlike the era of “The First American Party System,” this period saw mass-based parties that could mobilize the electorate. Voters could thus feel empowered to effect change through suffrage. Sectionalism and thus many of the critical questions surrounding slavery were, once again, contained within the boundaries of political debate, at least for a time.


(1) Donald Grier Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 27,
(2) Gerald Leonard, The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
(3)  Stephenson, Campaigns and the Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections, 27.
(4) Ibid., 28.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983).
(7) Ibid., 6.
(8) Ibid., 6 – 7.
(9) Ibid., 7.