- The Sectionalization of American Politics
Writing thirty years ago, Joel Silbey complained that antebellum political historians had viewed the twenty years prior to the Civil War primarily as part of the sectional conflict that was to come. 1 Silbey argued that historians had been so preoccupied with sectional divisions that they had failed to examine a complex of ethnocultural issues that he insisted played a central role in the political history of the prewar era.Following his lead, a generation of political historians has focused on these ethnocultural issues and has concluded that they, not sectional concerns, determined the course of political change for much of the critical period that preceded the American Civil War. 2 Yet just as antebellum historians have been engaging in this “new revisionism,” historians of the Civil War have given greater emphasis to a traditionalist interpretation of the sectional conflict. While differing over the meaning of the slavery issue and its impact on the outcome of the war, many have recently stressed the significance of slavery, especially to the history of the Confederacy. Some have claimed that the South fought to defend slavery, while others have insisted that a weak commitment to the institution undermined the South’s will to fight, but few have denied the importance of slavery to the wartime experience. 3
Understandably, this widening gulf in interpretation has left many students of the period baffled. How could a war that came to revolve around the future of the South’s institution of human bondage rise out of a political world in which slavery was not at critical junctures the key issue? Many historians have attempted to bridge this imposing interpretative gap, Silbey among them, but none has produced as expansive and sustained an analytic response as Michael Morrison. 4 By examining the “relationship between the territorial issue and the origins of the American Civil War,” his Slavery and the American West denies the existence of any gap between the concerns of the [End Page 564] antebellum period and those of the Civil War years (p. 4). Resolutely he proclaims that sectionalism dominated the nation’s politics throughout the 1840s and 1850s, just as it would during the war. It was “expansion,” Morrison argues, that “raised the issue of slavery extension. Unlike economic divisions that were interparty . . . [it] divided Americans along sectional lines” (p. 221). “By 1860,” Morrison concludes, “the struggle over westward expansion and settlement issued in sectional alignments and a fragmented political system” (p. 4).
This “territorial issue,” Morrison repeatedly insists, “was not an abstraction” (pp. 6 and 10). Nor was it the creation of ambitious politicians or fanatical agitators. Relying heavily on the words of politicians, Morrison demonstrates convincingly that the issue dominated the politics of the 1850s and was of immediate relevance to Americans, North and South. By focusing on the slavery expansion issue, “politicians in both sections, in all parties, were responding to the anxieties and aspirations of the citizenry,” and so, Morrison maintains, were simply “representing the popular will” (p. 10). To document that will, Morrison brings to bear the results of exhaustive research in both the primary and secondary literature. While he emphasizes the primacy of national issues, his evidence comes from sources on the local as well as national levels. But his work “does not . . . focus on party structure or political maneuvers.” Rather, he suggests, it lies “at the intersection of political, diplomatic, and intellectual history” (p. 4). Indeed, it is as much the intellectual history of a political idea as it is the political history of a contested issue.
Morrison’s goal is to “illuminate and analyze the principled conflicts over slavery extension” (p. 4). He seeks to accomplish this objective by advancing three basic themes. First, he establishes the significance of “expansion and western settlement within the context of Jacksonian politics” (p. 5). Expansion, Morrison explains, promised Americans of the middle period personal freedom through enhanced opportunities on the frontier, and...