Slavery, Civil War and Westward Expansion

Slave prison in Alexandria, Virginia, ca. 1836
Slave prison in Alexandria, Virginia, ca. 1836

In the early 19th century, slavery began to assume greater importance as a national issue. In the early years of the republic, many leaders had supposed that slavery would die out. As late as 1808, when the international slave trade was abolished, many thought that slavery would soon end. But during the next generation, the South became solidly united behind the institution of slavery as new economic factors made slavery far more profitable than it had been before 1790. Chief among these was the rise of a great cotton-growing industry. Sugarcane and tobacco, two labor-intensive crops, also contributed to slavery’s extension.

The country was divided into states permitting slavery and states prohibiting it. In 1820, politicians debated the question of whether slavery would be legal in the western territories. The Missouri Compromise permitted slavery in the new state of Missouri and the Arkansas Territory but it was barred everywhere west and north of Missouri. Sectional lines steadily hardened on the slavery question. Politically, the 1850s can be characterized as a decade of failure in which the nation’s leaders were unable to resolve, or even contain, the divisive issue of slavery.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, eleven states left the Union and proclaimed themselves an independent nation, the Confederate States of America: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The American Civil War had begun. Four years later, the Confederates surrendered. The Civil War put an end to slavery; it also made clear that the country was not a collection of semi-independent states but an indivisible whole. In December 1865, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, the frontier was pushed beyond the Mississippi River. In 1803, President Jefferson negotiated the purchase of Louisiana with the French. From 1816 to 1821, six new states were created — Indiana, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri. In 1865 the frontier line generally followed the western limits of the states bordering the Mississippi River, bulging outward to include the eastern sections of Kansas and Nebraska. A mere quarter-century later, virtually all this country had been carved into states and territories. Western expansion led to increasing conflicts with the Indians of the West.

New England and the Middle Atlantic states were the main centers of manufacturing, commerce and finance. Principal products were textiles, lumber, clothing, machinery, leather and woolen goods. The South featured an economy centered on agriculture. The Midwest, with its boundless prairies and swiftly growing population, flourished. In 1849, gold was discovered in California. An important stimulus to western prosperity was the great improvement in transportation facilities; from 1850 to 1857 the Appalachian Mountain barrier was pierced by five railway trunk lines linking the Midwest and the East.

Between 1840 and 1860, the United States received its first wave of immigrants. Nearly 4.5 Million immigrants entered the country. In Europe as a whole, famine, rising populations and political unrest stimulated emigration. During the Civil War, the federal government helped fill its roster of troops by encouraging emigration from Europe. By 1865, about one in five Union soldiers was a wartime immigrant.

Abridged from U.S. State Department IIP publications and other U.S. government materials.