In the South merely 10% of the population lived in towns by 1850 compared with 26% of Northern Americans; there was an abundant supply of cheap land which helped increase the cotton trade and allowing the food production to increase fourfold between 1840 and 1860. The South became known as the ‘Cotton Kingdom’, supplying the industrialising North, as plantation agriculture became very profitable during this time, especially with the use of slaves as cheap labour and the invention of the cotton gin, and therefore there is a huge argument for the south being completely successful. The meaning of ‘success’ here however is purely in the sense that some people became very rich and the economy grew exponentially. Being an economy reliant almost solely on the slave trade, it is obvious that the slaves were a key part of life in the south. Some slaves, such as those born into slavery without knowing any other way of life, may have been contented, and the fact that there were relatively few large slave revolts, excluding Nat Turner’s revolt of 1831, supports this theory.
It is obvious that not all Americans shared in the growing prosperity, in particular the slaves which were the basis of the entire southern economy. They were shipped over from Africa in what was known as the ‘Triangular Trade’ route which went through Britain and America and rich landowners would buy them to work their land, increasing the profitability of the agriculture. Some historians, such as Fogel and Engerman, advocated the efficiency of slavery in the South, arguing that slavery was benign as slaves were treated well as the owners wanted to create a highly disciplined, specialised and well co-ordinated work force. They also felt that slavery was beneficial to black people as it ‘pushes them to the outer limits of their capability’ and due to the training they received they often obtained a skill or status that they would not have had if they were free. Unfortunately this was not the case in many instances as there are a number of records of slaves being treated harshly, such as the diary of Fredrick Douglas which illustrated how horrific life was for a slave with a cruel master. The argument put forward by Fogel and Engerman works on the presumption that black people were inferior to whites and that they work as well as they can. In fact many slaves specifically attempted to slow down their work to spite their masters and a large number were unfit to work due to illness or old age. They fail to take into account Adam Smith’s idea that free labourers are incentivised to work with money whereas all the slaves had was relative security, shelter and food – although some were treated so terribly they did not even have these basic human rights.
Slaves were not the only discontented Americans as there were growing inequalities in wealth and status. Women were seen as inferior to men and their main role was in the home – they had little opportunity to branch out, which may be why a number were involved in reform movements during this period, such as Abby Kelley who joined the female anti-slavery society and began giving speeches to gather support. The rich landowners, particularly in the South where slavery had not been abolished, accumulated more and more wealth while many Americans lived in poverty; in 1860 the top 5% of white men owned 53% of America’s wealth while the bottom 50% owned only 1%; this inequality in wealth caused further tension within the union. The Nativist movement also divided the country as they were campaigning to stop immigrants from settling in the US. This divided communities which then required a lot of work to be united.
Migration to the West happened for a number of reasons. The number of immigrants arriving in America – particularly from Ireland after the potato famine - pushed American’s further West, there was more attainable land there which enabled people to build up large estates and, according to the Turner Thesis, migration provided an escape from the urban discontent in the North. This would suggest that there was mostly contentment as the West was fertile and provided cheap land for the new settlers. However the first to migrate faced poverty, and there was sudden depopulation in areas of the Northeast which had less fertile land. Many Americans were also unhappy with the immigrants arriving – not only because they began taking their jobs, but also because many of the immigrants were catholic Irish who could influence America’s democracy as a ‘religiously free’ nation; this resentment meant the country was divided further.
It could be said that America was becoming more united during this time as an increasingly integrated national economy was being created, for example the South provided cotton for the North to turn into cloth in their factories and then sell back to the South. It was also unified under one government which could only exist with the consent of the people and as the government was separated into three equal branches and in the Senate each state had equal representation and each state had rights that the government could not take away it would appear that the nation was both contented and united. However there appears to be little else holding the country together. There were deep divisions over the slave trade in particular, and the abolisionist movement, supported mainly by middle-class women, became highly vocal from the 1830s onwards as the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator was founded and within five years it had over 250,000 supporters. There were also controversies between the North and South over tariffs such as the Nullification crisis of 1832 when the North were in favour of high tariffs which the South objected to, calling it the ‘Tariff of Abominations’ and threatening to secede from the union. This shows that America was not a united country and this was a main reason for the outbreak of the Civil War in the 1860s.
Overall both the North and South were very successful economically, but the different means they used to achieve this success caused discontent within the country. The vast differences between their societies could not be overcome and this ultimately led to disunity and frustration which spiralled into the Civil War.
Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty
Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War
Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross