Examining Sectionalism: The Market Revolution and The Cotton Gin
Between 1861 and 1865, more than 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War, a war fought largely over the issue of slavery.
But it is actually more complicated than just slavery alone – indeed most Northerners did not think they were fighting to end slavery but rather to keep the union together. Pro-Southern histories will say the South fought the war over the issue of states’ rights.
One thing most historians do agree on in terms of explaining the root causes of the war is they began long before the war in the early 1800s, with the idea known as sectionalism.
Sectionalism refers to how different regions of one country become divided and begin to see themselves as very different from the other region – different culture and beliefs, different economies and ways of life, sometimes different language, food, music, social values, etc.
The biggest difference was that most northern states had banned slavery by the early 1800s, while in the South the institution only grew.
The ruling southern elite – known as the planter class – were mostly large plantation owners and they controlled the economy and the government. They made their fortunes growing cotton and shipping it to factories in the northern states – but they chose not to develop industrial or manufacturing of their own in the South. So the Southern economy was based on slavery, and that meant any discussion of ending slavery threatened the security – and the liberty – of the southern states (at least of the ruling elite).
By the early 1800s, the country had already begun to split regionally and geographically between northern states and southern states. The North will experience a “market revolution” and develop an industrial-based economy, building new textile and manufacturing factories all along a new network of canals, railroad lines, and roads. Meanwhile, the economy in the South was largely based on agriculture, namely large plantations and small farms, mostly growing cotton.
Keep in mind by the mid-1800s, half of the world’s cotton was coming from the southern states. But the cotton grown in the South was mostly processed by northern textile factories into clothing and then sold in overseas markets. The whole country benefitted from slavery, but the South’s economy was completely dependent on it.
But the North and the South developed differently, and that meant they had different interests – sometimes conflicting interests, as we will begin to see over the next couple weeks.
This one division explains sectionalism – the way these two geographic regions are different based on their economies and their societies, and how that difference will inform how we analyze the Civil War.
For example, most of the railroads in America that existed by 1861 were in the North, and there is a good reason for that. Industry and manufacturing require lots of railroad lines going to and from all of the cities and markets. Meanwhile, few factories were built in the South because most raw goods (crops like cotton) were sent north for processing there – so no need for a lot of railroad lines. When the war begins, the North is at a great advantage, as it has most of the factories and most of the railroad lines – important when it comes to supporting an army.
As you can see, this is a complex topic, and this response only requires you to write a 150 words on each of these questions – easy!
What you will do is examine two big picture-type aspects of sectionalism: the market revolution and the cotton gin. Both of these look at how industrial improvements and advances forever altered the paths taken in the North and the South.
Quote from Eric Foner at least once and the film clips at least twice.
The Market Revolution
The “market revolution” refers mainly to the way the American economy grew at a very fast rate in the 1800s through new modes of transportation and incredible inventions and technology, especially in northern states. In a few short years, America would build hundreds of steam-powered factories along new waterways and railroads.
In the northern states where slavery was banned these factories relied on “free labor,” a term that refers not to slaves but laborers who are free and paid for their work. The growth of textile factories in urban areas drew more people to the cities, as well as immigrants from Europe, who worked for wages in a new American industrial economy.
In your response, explore the Erie Canal and other man-made canals. Watch the clip on the Erie Canal and read Eric Foner on improvements in transportation – when and where in America were these canals built? How do you think they impacted the ability for people to sell products far outside of their local market, and why would that be significant?
Also describe the impact of steam power, which was applied to things like the steamboat (which allowed goods to be moved upstream) and to railroad locomotives, as well as factory machinery. How did steamboats impact the ability to sell in far away markets? And if steam power increased production, do you think that would have impacted the demand for even more cotton – and more slavery?
If possible, briefly describe the growth of factories, especially the textile mills (who were getting their cotton from southern cotton growers). Who worked in these factories (ie. see the Lowell Mill Girls)?
Reading: Eric Foner, Chapter 9, pgs. 307-312, and pgs. 319-325
Crash Course in U.S. History on The Market Revolution https://www.
CBS This Morning piece on the Erie Canal https://www.youtube.com/
Short clip on Steam-powered transportation https://www.
The cotton gin and the Cotton Kingdom
One new technology – the cotton gin – will largely impact southern states, and will immediately make cotton very profitable, leading to the growth of slavery.
Explain how the cotton gin works. What does it do? Who invented it and when? What was the intention of the inventor – did he think it would lessen the work load on slaves? Do you think this actually led to more work – not less – for enslaved people?
The sources describe how much cotton was produced in southern states between 1800 and 1860. What states produced the most cotton? What states had the most slaves? What was the economic value of the cotton economy? Why do you think southern planters chose not to build their own factories and process the cotton in the South?
How do you think the market revolution is connected to the cotton kingdom? Do you think it is fair to say the textile mills in the north benefitted from slavery?
Eric Foner, Ch. 9, pgs. 315-318
TED-Ed clip How Inventions Change History https://www.youtube.
Discerning History clip on the Cotton Gin https://www.youtube.com/
Crash Course in U.S. History: Slavery https://www.youtube.
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