Nationalism and Sectionalism During The War of 1812

Categories: Slavery And Freedom

The War of 1812 was a war fought from 1812 to 1816 between Britain and the United States commonly ascribed to the British impressment of American sailors and the British incitement of Indian tribes. Though there was no clear winner, there was also no apparent loser. To some Americans, this “victory” served as a rallying point and ignited nationalism within them, and thus, the period after the War of 1812 was labeled “the Era of Good Feelings”; however, as during this era, sectionalism began growing more prevalent and was fueled by diverging economic interests, lack of infrastructure and divisive politics, the period after the War of 1812 was in fact not an “era of good feelings” but rather one of tension and increasing sectionalism.

The War of 1812 led to the realization of necessary governmental systems and statutes. Some of these included the need for a standing army, the need for increased economic independence from Britain, and the need for a national bank.

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Recognizing these economic needs that the War of 1812 exposed, Henry Clay proposed a three-point economic system he hoped would help the United States’ economy grow; however, two controversial points of his economic system were his plans to implement protective tariffs and to establish a national bank. The protective tariffs would benefit the manufacturing areas of America such as New England in hopes of promoting the manufacturing of goods and creating increased autarky. The tariffs would accomplish this by placing fees on imported goods and exported raw materials which would ultimately encourage intercontinental trade and make American goods cheaper.

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The use of protective tariffs aggravated many, but specifically those who lived in the south. Most southerners lived in agrarian communities while the average northerner lived in an urban community that focused on manufacturing. Southerners felt like the tariffs placed the northerner's interests over their own. Virginian John Randolph expresses the commonly-shared frustrations among southerners in a letter addressed to Congress in 1816 by saying: “The agriculturalists bear the whole brunt of ... the taxation, and remain poor, while the others run in the ring of pleasure, and fatten upon them” (Document A).

In the letter, Randolph refers to himself and fellow farmers as “the agriculturalists” and the manufacturers as “the others” (Document A). Randolph’s terminology displays the growing divide forming not only between north and south but also between urban and rural communities. Randolph’s letter also portrays the increasing resentment felt towards the seemingly “manufacturer elite” when he notes that while the farmers were deeply affected by the war are still deeply affected by tariffs, the manufacturers “run in the ring of pleasure, and fatten upon them” (Document A). The second point of Clay’s economic plan that sparked controversy was his plan to renew the national bank’s charter. Clay hoped that the national bank would help to regulate the constantly-inflated currency. The reimplementation of the national bank would ultimately mean the regulation and recall of many state-issued loans. This plan especially worried about the westerners. This is due to the fact that a majority of westerners took large loans from their small, local banks to purchase their western land. Yet, these loans led to the inflation of the currency because the states were issuing large quantities of these loans without having the gold to back up the value of the currency; however, westerners, along with some southerners as well, perceived the reinstallation of the national bank as the government targeting the ‘little guy’ to raise revenue.

These frustrations ultimately led to the court case McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819. McCulloch, a national bank employee and the plaintiff, sued Maryland. He sued because Maryland attempted taxing the national bank. Maryland tried taxing the national bank because it resented its power over the state, and thus, wanted to try and get rid of it. This court case called into question the idea of federal power over state power and whether federal power extended beyond state sovereignty. Maryland believed “the powers of the general government … [were] delegated by the states, who alone [were] truly sovereign; and must be exercised in subordination to the states, who alone possess supreme dominion” (Document D). The court case between McCulloch and Maryland exemplifies the period’s growing sectionalism. Though a majority of the country voted on the national bank because they felt it would benefit the country, Maryland still went against the national consensus for its own betterment. This can be attributed to the fact that the states were once independent royal colonies whose goals consisted of advancing their individual economy. So, when the states became a united nation, some states still kept their independent mentality and strived to maintain state sovereignty and their own self-interests; this ultimately led to the continued growth of sectionalism.

After the War of 1812, many Americans realized the need for infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure not only affected the economy, as it stifled intercontinental trade, but it also ultimately divided the nation due to the inability to travel. As a result, Americans formed relations within their states and surrounding states because they were easier to access. As they stayed within the confines of their states and neighbors, Americans began developing stronger regional identities. This sectionalism led to a growing fear among some politicians such as John C. Calhoun. In Calhoun’s letter to Congress, he greatly emphasized his fear of “disunion” (Document B). He feared that if the states remained separated by great distances, rendering people unable to travel between states, Americans would begin to forge separate identities and identify more with their state or region. Though roads and canals were eventually implemented, many Americans were already deeply rooted in their state, regional, and occupational identities. So, sectionalism continued to grow, especially after the drawing of an imaginary line across Missouri’s southern border.

As westward expansion continued into the 1820s, the population of western territories began growing rapidly (Document E). In fact, by 1820, the population of some western states was equal to some northern and southern states (Document E). As a result, many western states began to seek statehood. Yet, when the first western state to apply for statehood, Missouri, wanted to enter the Union as a slave state, it sparked heated debates once more. The slave states and free states had been equally divided, and the states hoped to keep it that way for fear of one side dominating the other. Yet, Missouri’s petition for statehood threatened to tilt the balance in favor of the southern, slave-holding states. One proposal to solve this problem was to ban the importation of slaves into Missouri and to free the children of slaves once they reached the age of 25. This proposal passed the House of Representatives which was made up of mostly northerners but was rejected by the Senate which had two representatives per state. Southerners detested the proposal as they worried that eventually it would be implemented within their state, thus slowly abolishing slavery and taking away their livelihoods.

Though, if this proposal had been suggested earlier, perhaps it would have been approved as Americans were taking steps to slowly abolish the practice of slavery through the importation ban on slaves; however, with the invention of the cotton gin, cotton quickly became a cash crop and slavery became even more essential to the southerners’ livelihoods. As a result, southerners fiercely debated the proposal. At a certain point, the issue of slavery was such a hotly-debated subject that they decided not to speak of it. Yet, as Thomas Jefferson referred to it, the issue of slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears: one cannot keep holding it, but one also cannot let it go. Finally, a consensus was reached in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in which Missouri has declared a slave state, and Maine was admitted as a free state. So, from that point onwards, for every slave state admitted into the Union, a free state would have had to be admitted as well. The compromise also specified that all states south of Missouri’s southern border would become slave states, and all states north of Missouri’s southern border (with the exception of Missouri) would become a free state.

Though many felt the Missouri Compromise was a success, some such as Thomas Jefferson felt it was a too short term of a solution. He feared that the line dividing future slave and free states were not simply a geographical divide but an ideological one as well. In his letter, Jefferson fears an upcoming conflict between north and south and refers to it as the “[death] knell of the Union” (Document F). He then refers to the Missouri Compromise as a mere postponement of the rising tensions between regions because the line that separates slave and free states is no longer simply geographical; it has morphed into a line that separates “moral and political” beliefs (Document F). A line that separates the abolitionists from the slaveholders and the struggling farmers from the affluent manufacturers. Jefferson further argues that once the divide has been established and “held up to the angry passions of men, [it] will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper” (Document F). Ultimately, the Missouri Compromise would temporarily end the slavery debate, but whilst feeding the growing tensions and diverging identities.

While a republican society such as America had many benefits such as the citizens having a say in their representatives, it was potentially its own Achilles heel. This is due to the opposing political parties and how the opposition parties ended up creating yet another divide between Americans. One was either with the Democratic-Republicans or with the Federalists. Ultimately, the Federalist party would end up dying out and would no longer hold office. The presidential election of 1820 displays this unanimity in how Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican James Monroe of Virginia won a majority of the electoral vote (Document I). The election of 1820 depicts unanimity and shows that though some Americans may have been divided based on regional differences, they still shared some political beliefs; however, the presidential election of 1824 describes another story (Document I). Four candidates, each identifying as a Democratic-Republican, ran for president. Though each candidate was a Democratic-Republican, their beliefs differed on the job of the central government. As a result, the party ended up splitting up and some Democratic-Republicans adopted Hamiltonian Federalist views. As the Democratic-Republican party split up due to conflicting views, Americans chose which new views lined up with their own. So, America also split in regards to political ideologies which led to the greater appearance of regional political views. For example, John Quincy Adams, a candidate from New England, won a majority of votes from New England while William Crawford, a southerner from Georgia, won a majority of votes from fellow slaveholding states such as Virginia and Georgia.

Though the period after the War of 1812 contained short bursts of nationalism, it was ultimately overwhelmed by events that incited long-lasting sectionalism within Americans. The sectionalism, originally stemming from America’s colonial past and union as a nation, carried into the nineteenth and only worsened. So, the era after the War of 1812 cannot be labeled as the “Era of Good Feelings” as, during this point in history, Americans were full of disunity and fear. Diverging economic interests, lack of infrastructure, and divisive politics further aroused this fear. Ultimately, the events after the War of 1812 would push America down the road to disunion and eventually into civil war. How could this period be described as the “Era of Good Feelings” when the United States was never more divided?

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Nationalism and Sectionalism During The War of 1812. (2020, Oct 02). Retrieved from

Nationalism and Sectionalism During The War of 1812 essay
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