Since the days of the American Revolution when the colonies joined together to fight the domineering monarchy of King George III in order to create a new nation based on democratic ideals and principles as laid out in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, there has existed a sort of dividing line between the North and the South. This line has nothing to do with geography; rather, it was a philosophical line that separated the Northerners from the Southerners in relation to politics, economics, and how a society should be organized and operated. In essence, this philosophical line of separation began to widen in the 1830’s and 1840’s and by 1861 had expanded into a clear line of demarcation between Americans in the South who supported an institution known as human slavery and those in the North who vigorously opposed it. Thus, the secession of states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi from the Federal Union was an inevitable occurrence and as most American historians point out, was directly responsible for the bloodiest and most violent domestic dispute in U.S. history–the Civil War or as those in the South often referred to it, the War Between the States.
In many ways prior to the outbreak of the Civil War on January 9, 1861 when cadets from the Military College of South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter, the North and the South were separate entities with the North being heavily industrialized with major cities like New York and Boston, and the South as an agrarian/agricultural rural society that depended upon cotton, tobacco, and slavery for its economic livelihood. In the North, most Americans along the Atlantic Seaboard (roughly from Baltimore northwards to New York and Philadelphia) lived and worked in factories and industrial centers that manufactured a wide range of goods and products for everyday consumption. In contrast, most Americans in the South (or as some refer to it, the Deep South) lived and worked on farms which they either owned or worked as sharecroppers, growing products like rice, sugar, tobacco, and especially cotton for Southern and overseas markets. But there was also another segment of this Southern society that lived, more often than not, in luxury and wealth, namely, the great plantation owners whose economic prosperity was dependent upon slavery. This was the antebellum South which compared to the North lacked a solid industrial base but could boast of a more simplified way of life filled with chivalry, honor, and gentility.
This separateness or division between the North and the South was also brought about and maintained by political differences. For example, Northern political beliefs were more in line with nationalist ideals related to spreading democratic principles into the South and making it more industrialized and urban-based; in contrast, political beliefs in the antebellum South were founded upon a two party system–the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans and the Hamiltonian Southern Federalists, but by the mid 1830’s, a new party emerged known as the Whigs, fronted by Henry Clay of Kentucky. However, all three of these political entities were pro-South and pro-slavery and were firmly against any and all encroachment into the South by the Washington-DC based federal government which at the beginning of the Civil War was headed by Republican President Abraham Lincoln.
Although there were powerful differences between the Southern and Northern economic systems and their political ideologies, the overwhelming difference was based on social structure and culture, especially in the “Old South” with its plantation system and its reliance on the institution of slavery. This agricultural/agrarian, slave-based system had its roots in the years following the American Revolution and became widespread in states like Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, and South Carolina by the 1840’s and 1850’s. For African-Americans living in this kind of system, segregation was the law of the land, meaning that Southern whites remained separate from the slaves in all matters. In effect, two separate cultures emerged during the antebellum period (circa 1840 to 1860)–the culture of the black plantation slaves and the culture of the white plantation owners with the first living in dire poverty and the second in opulence and splendor.
For almost all Southern whites, regardless of their social or economic status, any attempt by the Northern federal government to alter or disrupt the institution of human slavery was viewed with much contempt and often outright defiance. As far as the majority of Southerners were concerned, the issue of state’s rights was paramount to maintaining the plantation lifestyle and the institution of slavery. In other words, Southerners believed that every state had the sovereign right to choose its own societal structure and culture and to decide its own destiny without any interference from the federal government.
Therefore, when certain individuals (i.e., abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison), members of Congress, President Lincoln, and the U.S. federal government made their intentions clear in regards to bringing an end to the institution of slavery, the South responded in defiance, due to knowing full well that if slavery was abolished, it would mean the end of their way of life, the collapse of their economic prosperity, and the termination of each state’s sovereign right to decide its own fate. Thus, the dissolvement of the Union was inevitable via secession with South Carolina leading the way on December 20, 1860, followed by ten other states in rapid succession between January and June of 1861.