Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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In the period between 1820-1850, how were the North and South different?

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The South was an agrarian economy based on slavery, while the North in this period was developing its industrial base. While most people in both the North and the South farmed, the overwhelming majority of the factories in the United States were in the North. The South grew crops that...

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The South was an agrarian economy based on slavery, while the North in this period was developing its industrial base. While most people in both the North and the South farmed, the overwhelming majority of the factories in the United States were in the North. The South grew crops that were shipped overseas--notably sugar, cotton, and tobacco--while the north produced finished goods, such as woolens, guns, and furniture.

Historian Bruce Catton discusses the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South of this period as having an aristocratic and backward looking social system, with the great white landowners likening themselves to medieval lords and gentlemen. The North, he argues, was democratic and forward looking. The white population of the North far outnumbered the South and the disparity grew in this period as more immigrants flooded into Northern states.

The Northern states had no slavery and a more equalitarian society, although large class disparities existed. Nevertheless, the North had far more middle class people than the South, where people were usually either rich or poor. In the South, the gulf between black and white was almost impassable. In the North, entrepreneurs invested in industrial machines whereas in the South, the investment was in slaves.

The Northern states of this period had a far more developed shipping industry than the South, which would with their industrial capacity and larger white population give them a marked advantage when the Civil War broke out a decade later.

As tensions over slavery arose, the two parts of the country hardened in their social opposition to each other, making a compromise on this difficult issue more and more impossible.

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During the time period that you mention, the North and the South were very different in terms of their economies and their cultures.  These differences grew more pronounced during the time period that you mention.  Later, they would become even worse and would lead to the Civil War.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the North and the South had to do with their economies.  The South’s economy was, of course, built on slavery while the economy of the North was built on free labor.  This was not, however, the only difference.  In the South, the economy depended on the production of staple crops that would be exported.  As the time period that you mention progressed, the South came to depend more and more on cotton.  By contrast, the North had a much more diversified economy.  Importantly, its economy included manufacturing.  This meant that the North had much less interest in foreign trade (which would compete with its manufacturing) than the South did (since the South needed to export).  These differences in their economies led to such things as the fight over the Tariff of 1828.

At the same time, the North and the South were developing very different societies.  Northern society was a more egalitarian society.  This was because the Northern economy was more egalitarian.  Northern society also attracted many immigrants because the Northern economy offered them more opportunities.  By contrast, the South’s society was dominated by planters who saw themselves as an aristocracy. The South held to romantic ideas of personal honor and chivalry.  This is why, for example, the culture of dueling was more developed in the South. 

Thus, the North and the South differed in terms of their economies and their societies during the time period that you are asking about.

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