views updated May 21 2018


SECTIONALISM is identification with a geographic section of the United States and the cultural, social, economic, and political interests of that section. During the Revolutionary era, Americans already perceived that the thirteen colonies could be classed into three sectional categories: southern, middle, and New England. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Virginia's Edmund Randolph suggested a three-person executive for the United States with executive officers drawn from different sections of the nation. Gouverneur Morris expressed eastern fears of an emerging western section when he proposed a scheme for apportioning congressional seats that favored the eastern states over the new western commonwealths, thus ensuring eastern control of the nation's future. Neither Randolph nor Morris won approval for their proposals, and the convention's compromise over the enumeration of slaves for apportionment of congressional seats settled an incipient sectional clash between North and South. In the resulting Constitution of 1787, there was no formal recognition of sections. The Constitution conceived of the new nation as a federation of states, not sections.

Growth of Sectional Identities

During the early nineteenth century, sectional tensions mounted. New Englanders expressed increasing anxiety over the growing prominence of the western states and the policies of the Jefferson and Madison administrations regarding the Napoleonic conflict in Europe. Slow population growth owing to westward migration and an insecure economy dependent on international trade left New England vulnerable. In a pattern evident in future decades, perceptions of declining fortunes exacerbated sectionalism. Throughout American history, sectionalism seemed most significant in those sections that felt threatened, exploited, or oppressed. Sectionalism in the United States was primarily a defensive rather than an offensive stance. It was a raw nerve in the American identity; when irritated, it was felt sharply.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the South grew increasingly insecure and defensive about its cultural and economic interests and, most notably, its "peculiar institution" of slavery. The rapid population growth and industrialization of the North seemed to doom the South to an inferior and vulnerable status in the nation. Moreover, northern gains increased the political leverage of abolitionists who were dedicated to eliminating the slave system of the South. Meanwhile, in the states west of the Appalachians, a sense of sectional identity was emerging as residents recognized their special economic needs. Westerners battled in Congress for aid in the construction of internal improvements and sought eastern money to advance their section's economic development. In the U.S. Senate, three great spokesmen personified the sectional clash and became sectional heroes. Daniel Webster was the proponent of the East, Henry Clay the idol of the West, and John C. Calhoun the statesman of the South. Each section rallied around its hero, yet until the 1850s periodic sectional crises produced compromises that patched the rifts in the union and held the nation together for a few more years.

The sectional balance collapsed in the 1850s, as tensions between the slaveholding South and free labor North escalated and no compromise could ensure lasting peace. Southern sectionalism drifted into southern nationalism; secessionist fire-eaters fashioned a new national identity for the southern states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), the Dred Scott Case (1857), and the Lecompton controversy (1857–1858) were each landmarks along the road to disunion; each pitted northerners against southerners over the issue of westward expansion of slavery, creating differences that some deemed irreconcilable.

Civil War and Reconstruction

The result was the Civil War, the nation's ultimate sectional drama. After four years of fighting, the North triumphed, forever squelching southern designs for a separate nation. The union was preserved, but southern sectionalism remained powerful. White southerners abandoned the struggle for independence, yet they did not repudiate their "lost cause." Instead, they canonized the Southern heroes of the Civil War and clung to memories of victory at Bull Run and in the Peninsula campaign while harboring resentment toward Northern generals such as William Tecumseh Sherman and their seemingly gratuitous acts of destruction. The South was defeated, but not mollified, and the resentment and romance arising from the Civil War fueled southern sectionalism in future decades.

Adding to the sectional resentment was the humiliation of Reconstruction. Northern military occupation of the South and rule by northern carpetbaggers and their black allies did little to bridge the sectional chasm between the North and white southerners. In the mind of white southerners, Reconstruction was proof that the North could not be trusted and the rebels of 1861 were correct: northerners seemed dedicated to oppressing and humiliating the South.

Following the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, sectional feelings did not diminish. For the following seventy-five years, the Republican party of Lincoln could make no substantial headway in the South, but remained a sectional party appealing only to the North and the West. The only political party with some following throughout the nation, the Democrats, remained in the minority for most of the period from 1861 to 1933. Thus the government of the nation was largely in the hands of leaders who could not win white southern support. The South remained an impoverished, conquered region in a nation dominated by the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Grand Army of the Republic.

Western Discontent and Populism

In the late nineteenth century, many westerners also grew increasingly resentful of their subordinate position within the nation. The silver mining states of the Rocky Mountain West joined with the Great Plains states in a sectional revolt against the perceived imperialism of eastern capitalists. Known as the Populist movement, this revolt of the late 1880s and 1890s expressed the resentment of miners and farmers who produced the raw materials vital to the nation's prosperity, but seemed to receive little in return. The supposed tyrants of New York's Wall Street were exploiting the economic colonies of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West, and the "colonists" were rising in yet another American revolution. These discontented westerners found their hero in the Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan. Securing both the Democratic and the Populist nominations for President in 1896, Bryan was able to combine unreconstructed white southerners and bitter westerners in an alliance that frightened eastern business leaders. In 1896 and in his later presidential bids of 1900 and 1908, however, Bryan was unable to win the support of a majority of the nation's voters. In the minds of discontented southerners and westerners, the East remained the nation's selfish master, a master that Bryan could not unseat.

As westerners rebelled, the nation's greatest historian of the West, Frederick Jackson Turner, was fashioning his views on sectionalism. In a series of essays written during the first three decades of the twentieth century and collected in The Significance of Sections in American History in 1932, Turner argued, "Our politics and society have been shaped by sectional complexity and interplay not unlike what goes on between European nations" (p. 50). Sectionalism was the preeminent factor explaining American history, and Turner conceived of the national government as "a League of Sections, comparable to a League of Nations" (p. 51). Moreover, he did not perceive a decline in sectionalism. "Statesmen in the future, as in the past, will achieve their leadership by voicing the interests and ideas of the sections which have shaped their leaders," he contended, "and they will exert their influence nationally by making combinations between sections" (p. 314). According to Turner, "Congressional legislation will be shaped by compromises and combinations, which will in effect be treaties between rival sections" (p. 314). In other words, the future, like the past would produce Clays, Calhouns, and Websters, sectional spokespersons who would achieve ascendancy through their ability to accommodate sectional interests and yet preserve the national union.

During the early twentieth century, however, the forces of sectionalism seemed less troublesome. The Populist revolt collapsed, and Americans rallied behind Theodore Roosevelt, a New Yorker who had once ranched in the Dakotas and projected the image of both eastern patrician and western cowboy. The North abdicated any responsibility for southern blacks, leaving white southerners in charge and avoiding a sectional clash over race. During the 1920s, a midwestern farm bloc in Congress expressed its section's resentment over the supposed mistreatment of farmers, but the farm bloc senators did not pose as formidable a threat as the fire-eaters or Populists of the past.

Cultural Regionalism

A cultural regionalism, however, was simmering during the 1920s, and in the 1930s it came to a boil. Following the stock market crash of 1929, southerners and midwesterners rose in revolt against the Northeast and its cultural dominion. Wall Street had long been a symbol of northeastern domination, and now this hated symbol was in disrepute as it seemingly dragged the nation into its worst economic crisis. Leading the revolt in the South were the Nashville agrarians, twelve Southern intellectuals who in 1930 issued their manifesto, I'll Take My Stand. Dedicated to maintaining the rural traditions and identity of the South, the twelve agreed that Southerners had to be on guard against the homogenizing influences of industrialization. In their statement of principles, the twelve affirmed "a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way," and they summed up the distinction between the South and America as a whole in the phrase "Agrarian versus Industrial." One of the twelve, the poet John Crowe Ransom, described industrialism as "a foreign invasion of Southern soil, which is capable of doing more devastation than was wrought when Sherman marched to sea." Despite the rhetoric harkening back to earlier sectional strife, the twelve conceded: "Nobody now proposes for the South …an independent political destiny." But they questioned, "How far shall the South surrender its moral, social, and economic autonomy to the victorious principle of Union?"

Meanwhile, the social scientist Howard Odum was establishing the University of North Carolina as a center of regional studies, collecting data and publishing works on the South and its peculiar traditions and culture. This culminated in two large volumes by Odum: Southern Regions of the United States, published in 1936, and American Regionalism: A Cultural-Historical Approach to National Integration, coauthored with Harry Estill Moore, which appeared in 1938. The preferred term for the new focus on southern roots and culture was regionalism. But in his regionalist classic The Attack on Leviathan, Donald Davidson, one of the Nashville twelve, admitted that this was "really sectionalism under another name." "Sectionalism" was laden with too many negative connotations of violent conflict and hatred; "regionalism" seemed a more benign term that asserted southern cultural autonomy without raising political specters from the past. The Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb, however, was not squeamish about the term and unabashedly wrote of the persistent sectionalism in the United States and of the economic enslavement of the South and West by the North. With a strong sense of southern distinctiveness and a foreboding of change in the southern way of life, the regionalists south of the Mason-Dixon line were, in fact, raising once again the standard of sectionalism and asserting that the South was indeed different, a world apart from the industrialized North.

Regionalism, however, was not confined to the South. In the trans-Mississippi Midwest, some were celebrating their region's supposedly distinctive way of life. During the 1920s, The Midland, a literary journal based in Iowa, led a revolt against the dominance of the New York publishing world, urging young writers to remain in the Midwest, record the life of their region, and eschew the debilitating commercial influence of eastern publishers. In the 1930s, a triumvirate of midwestern artists, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, won fame for canvases that depicted the life and landscape of their native region. An outspoken statement of regionalism, Wood's manifesto "The Revolt Against the City," lauded those who escaped from the grip of the Europeanized East. At the Stone City Art Colony in Iowa, Wood and Curry created their works of art dressed in farmers' overalls. Their art was self-consciously midwestern, the creation of men in overalls working along the Wapsipinicon River rather than on the banks of the Hudson.

Ironically, the federal government proved a formidable ally of the regionalists. Though Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal radically broadened the powers of the federal government, it also espoused the regional faith, paying artists across the country to paint post office murals with regional themes and writers to compile state guides that emphasized the art, the literature, and the folklore of each state. Grant Wood himself favored the creation of federally funded schools in the various sections of the country to teach artists to express their regional heritage and culture. The centralizing federal government was, then, deemed an instrument for making Americans aware that they were not only Americans, but, for example, southerners or midwesterners as well, with a regional baggage from the past that should not be jettisoned.

Economic Sectionalism

During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, regionalism fell from favor. As the nation united to combat first fascism and then Communism and as millions abandoned the farm for the factory and office, the appeal of agrarian roots and regional folklore diminished. Whereas cultural regionalism attracted less attention, political and economic sectionalism heated up. The post–World War II clash over racial segregation pitted the North against a defensive South, and the southern crusade to lure northern industries embittered equally defensive northerners. New England sent Freedom Riders south of the Mason-Dixon line to dismantle the southern structure of racial separation; at the same time southern governors headed north on industry-hunting trips, dedicated to bagging Yankee factories for their perennially poor states. Southern politicians attacked northern interference in the South's race relations, and northern spokespersons deplored southern forays that damaged the economies of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Meanwhile, a booming West was attracting people and business and challenging the traditional preeminence of the East. When baseball's New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers moved to the Pacific Coast in the late 1950s, it was a vivid reminder to the Northeast that it was losing ground.

By the 1970s, commentators were writing of the Sun Belt and Rust Belt, the former comprising the rising South and West and the latter composed of the declining Northeast and Midwest. In a reversal of fortunes, those sections that had traditionally complained of economic colonialism now enjoyed the advantage, whereas the Northeast and Midwest were losing assets. The Conference of Midwestern Governors issued statements deploring the concentration of federal defense spending in the South and West just as the governors' antebellum predecessors had complained of the national government's failure to invest in trans-Appalachian internal improvements. Bankrupt cities in the Northeast and Midwest likewise bewailed the lack of federal aid, and by the 1970s the once imperial financial capital of New York City seemed more in need of help than Mississippi or Montana.


Though sectional divisions had not disappeared, they commanded less attention from historians. Like his beloved Midwest, Frederick Jackson Turner had fallen from favor, and academic historians of the late twentieth century were more likely to focus on the divisions wrought by race, class, or gender rather than on sectional clashes or differences. In fact, as racial segregation disappeared from the South and both the South and West became wealthier and more urbanized, some observers noted a decline in sectionalism. Supposedly the mass media, and especially television, was creating an increasingly homogenized America. Residents of Georgia, Colorado, and New York all ate the same standardized cheeseburgers and fries at look-alike McDonald's and shopped at malls containing the same national chain stores selling the same wares.

Despite such superficial signs of homogeneity, the nation remained divided sectionally, and life in the Berkshires was not identical to that in the Ozarks, nor was Birmingham a clone of Boston. In the presidential elections of the 1990s and 2000, the nation divided sectionally with the South, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain states lining up behind the Republican candidate and the Northeast and Pacific Coast opting for the Democrat. In fact, the sectional alliances in the election of 2000 were remarkably similar to those of 1900, with William Jennings Bryan country backing George W. Bush and William McKinley territory in the Al Gore column. The regions had reversed their partisan allegiances, but in 2000 as in 1900 the map of the United States was not a political checkerboard with Republican and Democratic states distributed in regular intervals across the nation. Instead, there were broad sections of Republican strength and of Democratic strength. There may have been some gender gap in politics, but there was a greater gap between New York and Nebraska, between Massachusetts and Mississippi.

At the close of the twentieth century, there was a "New South," with racially integrated institutions and more tailored suits and fewer overalls, but southern Baptism remained a powerful force, differentiating southerners from Yankees. Easterners still viewed the vast interior of the nation as flyover country, an expanse of corn inhabited largely by farmers. And many westerners still flocked to rodeos, resented federal control of their wide-open spaces, and regarded easterners as effete dudes. Sectional biases persisted, and most Americans still regarded themselves not only as belonging to the larger nation, but also as residents of a section—southerners, westerners, midwesterners, or easterners.


Ayers, Edward L., Patricia Nelson Limerick, Stephen Nissenbaum, and Peter S. Onuf. All Over the Map: RethinkingAmerican Regions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Cobb, James C. The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1990. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Davidson, Donald. The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938.

Dorman, Robert L. Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. Sectional Crisis and Southern Constitutionalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

Hesseltine, William B. "Sectionalism and Regionalism in American History." Journal of Southern History 26 (1960): 2534.

Sewell, Richard H. The House Divided: Sectionalism and Civil War, 1848–1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Sydnor, Charles S. The Development of Southern Sectionalism, 1819–1848. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1948.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of Sections in American History. New York: Holt, 1932.

Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Harper, 1930.

Webb, Walter Prescott. Divided We Stand: The Crisis of a Frontierless Democracy. Rev. ed. Austin, Tex.: Acorn, 1944.

Jon C.Teaford

See alsoAntislavery ; Civil War ; Compromise of 1850 ; Demography and Demographic Trends ; Migrations, Internal ; New England ; Nullification ; Reconstruction ; Rust Belt ; South, the ; Sun Belt ; West, American .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Sectionalism is the belief in and support of political, social, and economic interests particular to a region or section of the country. By the mid-1800s the United States encompassed an enormous area of almost three million square miles following the addition of lands in the Louisiana Purchase, Texas, Florida, the Oregon Territory, and land ceded by Mexico. Although ruled by one government, people living thousands of miles apart developed their own political and economic interests and social causes, often not agreeing with other Americans on these issues. New leaders emerged who represented their own sections of the country rather than the country as a whole, increasing sectional conflict. The country seemed divided into three regions: the North, the South, and the West.

Economics is the major contributing factor to sectionalism. Consequently, well before the great expansion of the United States, the Constitution's framers were familiar with sectional differences. The North's cool climate and rocky soil proved unsuitable for large farms. Its economy soon depended on trade and the growth of industrial cities. The South's economy depended on farming and large plantations worked by black slaves from Africa. Sectional debate during the Constitutional Convention revolved around the slave trade, export taxes, and shipping.

By the 1850s sectionalism bitterly erupted over the issue of slavery and state's rights culminating in the American Civil War (18611865). American loyalties to their section overshadowed loyalty to the nation. Though the Civil War abolished slavery, sectionalism continued through Reconstruction and into the twentieth century with the Solid South acting as a political bloc into the 1960's. Another product of sectionalism was the Populist Party formed by farmers in the West and South in the late 1800s to compete against political groups led by Northeastern industrial interests. As the twentieth century came to a close, the North, South, and West still competed for federal money. Environmental issues consequently divided East and West. Many Easterners believed the vast Western lands needed protection while many Western economies relied on natural resource development. Despite the ongoing disputes, however, sectionalism will probably never again divide the United States as bitterly as it had in the mid-nineteenth century.

See also: Civil War (Economic Causes of), Populist Movement, Slavery

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