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Sectionalism and Disunion


In early 1783 Alexander Hamilton wrote to George Washington, beseeching the retiring general to remain active in the public arena. The successful conclusion of the war had not secured the blessings of independence because the "seeds of disunion [are] much more numerous than those of union." Only Washington's ongoing efforts might offset the regrettable fact that the "centrifugal is much stronger than the centripetal force in these states."

The belief that the perpetuation of the union was at once indispensable and problematic was common currency in the early republic. Indeed from the War of Independence to the end of the War of 1812, no subject was more productive of genuine concern or more likely to be contested than the threat of disunion. The best-known assertions of states' rights and sectional interests in this period are the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798, 1799), the latter of which first employed the term "nullification" with respect to federal laws, and the Hartford Convention (1814–1815), which was preceded by loose talk of secession by extreme Federalists. But other confrontations predictably gave rise to similar discussions of the differences that separated Americans from one another, culminating in suggestions of dividing the union into discrete, smaller, and more homogeneous confederacies. During the Revolutionary War, interstate quarrels were so frequent and so fraught with mutual distrust—especially on matters of food and supplies for the Continental Army, allotment of votes in Congress, apportionment of expenses in the Confederation, and disposition of land claims in the West—that friends of the union feared it might be a mere "Rope of Sand." And each succeeding contest from the 1780s to the 1810s seemed only to confirm Hamilton's assessment of the strength of "centrifugal" forces in America.

the colonies

An examination of the "seeds of disunion" in the early Republic must begin with the colonial backgrounds of the Revolutionary states. By 1776 all of the rebellious colonies had developed separate identities and territorial claims that they had jealously nurtured over long periods. Having matured at different rates and along different lines, and with limited opportunities for interaction, the colonies were, as John Adams observed in the Second Continental Congress, "several distinct nations almost." Furthermore, political and economic rivalries, some of which had been cultivated for more than a century, predisposed these colonies to competition rather than cooperation. Even when confronted by what appeared to be an imminent threat of French invasion in 1754, not a single colony would ratify the Albany Plan, whose principal purpose was the establishment of a defensive alliance. Not surprisingly, prominent colonial commentators and imperial officials alike subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the period, which assumed that deeply ingrained differences rendered the colonies incapable of forging a union, however necessary.

The long history of the colonies as independent entities dovetailed nicely with the Revolutionary generation's distrust of power in the hands of weak human beings. Convinced that people were naturally selfish and therefore unable to resist the temptations of self-aggrandizement and avarice, the Revolutionaries were wary of surrendering superintending power to a distant authority. For radicals who had protested to no avail the actions of a parliament far removed from themselves, geographical proximity was crucial in maintaining effective checks on rulers. They took to heart the maxim of the political philosopher Montesquieu that republics must be geographically tiny lest the public good be sacrificed to myriad conflicting private views. The federal structure created under the Articles of Confederation reflected this ideology. Small republics in isolation were easy targets of foreign invasion; a confederation of petty republics might combine the best features of internal harmony and external security. However, the league of friendship proved especially unreliable in meeting the challenge of discriminatory actions taken against it by Britain and Spain. In fact, the British exclusion of American ships from the West Indian trade in 1783 only aggravated existing fissures in the federal union. Some states contemplated separate retaliatory measures that targeted other states as well as foreign countries. Spain's closing of the Mississippi River to American traffic in 1784 further strained sectional relations after the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations produced a proposal for the United States to forgo navigation rights in exchange for Spanish commercial concessions.

Inhabitants of the western territories were particularly aggrieved by the support that John Jay—the confederation congress's secretary for foreign affairs—garnered in the North for his plan to occlude the Mississippi. Had they known of projections at the time pertaining to their permanent status in the Republic, their distress would have deepened. In Congress and in the federal Convention, northern representatives seemed to share an anti-West bias, which held that western frontiersmen, averse to work and addicted to fighting, were poor candidates for republican citizenship. Therefore, irrespective of the number of states that might eventually be carved out of the West, northerners asserted that the Atlantic states must control a majority of all votes in any future legislative assembly. Nothing came of these suggestions because a southern coalition, led by Virginia, refused to go along. Instead it welcomed the prospect of creating new states out of the western territories and admitting them into the Union as equal partners of the original thirteen. Unfavorable discriminations, it was argued, would be contrary to the logic of the Revolution. At least as important in determining southern opposition, however, was the assumption that emerging patterns of migration established an affinity of interest between the South and the West.


An inventory of centrifugal forces operating in the early Republic would be incomplete without a consideration of slavery. The entrenchment of the institution in the South in the century before independence was fundamental to the eventual alignment of the sections; that alignment, however, became fixed only after the War of 1812. To be sure, in 1787, when delegates from large and small states brought the business of the Constitutional Convention to a standstill over the issue of proportional versus equal representation, James Madison famously observed that the states were divided into separate interests not by their size but by "their having or not having slaves." The ensuing debate over the three-fifths compromise, during which unyielding opponents and proponents openly broached the subject of disunion, seemed to substantiate Madison's contention. And yet the division between slave and free states was not as obvious as these actions might suggest. In 1790 all of the states save Massachusetts were slaveholding states. Although it is also true that the other New England states and Pennsylvania had recently enacted gradual emancipation laws, New York and New Jersey, each with at least 6 percent of its population enslaved, had not and would not for another decade.

The line of demarcation is clearer if a distinction is drawn between societies with slaves and slave societies. In the former, slaves were present but slavery was neither central to the economy nor paradigmatic ofsocial relationships; in the latter, they were. Such a distinction undoubtedly underlay Madison's 1787 identification of five slave states: Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. But this division is not without ambiguity. An analysis of Convention votes reveals that Massachusetts was more often in agreement with Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia than it was with Connecticut, and Virginia more often in agreement with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire than with South Carolina. The debate over the importation of slaves from abroad is especially instructive. No state was more spirited than Virginia in condemning the international slave trade, but South Carolina and Georgia, whose economies relied heavily on imported slaves, were quick to point out the self-interested motives of the Virginians. With a surplus of slaves, Virginia hoped to profit from a prohibition of slave imports, which would simultaneously increase the value of domestic slaves and stimulate a market for them.

a union of opposing interests

In the end, something of a paradox remains. If centrifugal forces were so numerous and evidently powerful, why did the Republic not dissolve into its constituent parts? The answer lies in the combination of two interrelated circumstances that ironically exerted a kind of centripetal force on the nation.

First, although separating into sectional confederations appeared logical to many, there was no consensus on their composition. Few thought in terms of a fixed North-South split; instead, members of the Revolutionary generation most often singled out the New England states by designating them "Eastern," as in east of the Hudson River, in order to differentiate them from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. And if there were two Norths, there were at least that many Souths. The Chesapeake and the Lower South, as noted above, did not form a consolidated interest in spite of their common status as slave societies. By adding to this compounded union the newer western and southwestern states, whose allegiance could not be taken for granted, the basis for a minimum of five regional confederations existed.

Second, the mutual distrust that afflicted the states tempered all talk of disunion, for it was commonly understood that the process of secession, once initiated, must lead to catastrophe by unleashing pent-up resentments. Each regional confederation would either succumb to internal divisions, leading to successive secessions into ever smaller polities that invited European encroachments, or become engaged in armed encounters, which in turn resulted in the creation of standing armies and ended inevitably in collapse under dictatorial rulers. In short, the very dissimilarities that made the persistence of the Union problematic rendered the prospect of disunion even more dubious.

All of this changed after the War of 1812, as sectional identities came to be articulated with greater clarity. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820 that the Missouri crisis awakened him "like a fire bell in the night" and sounded the "knell of the Union," principally because "angry passions" had fixed a geographical line separating the sections that "will never be obliterated." Although he attributed these "unworthy passions" to the sons of the revolutionaries, Jefferson's own loyalty to states' rights and the slave-holding class was by this time no longer in doubt. Even his enthusiasm for the University of Virginia was grounded in part on his belief that it was a needed antidote to the doctrine of national supremacy and "anti-Missourianism" that southern youths were otherwise exposed to at northern colleges. Jefferson's transformation was reflective of two larger changes apparent in America by the 1820s. First, the presence or absence of slaves overrode all other variables, thus allowing a consensus to be formed in determining the possible shape of rival confederations. Second, the South, now outside the mainstream of an increasingly democratic America, seemed destined to constitute a permanent minority in a political system dedicated to majority rule. Together these two conditions made secession and disunion more plausible than ever before.

See alsoFederalism; Hartford Convention; Missouri Compromise; States' Rights .


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Melvin Yazawa

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