What Is Sectionalism? Definition and Examples

A map of the United States, showing the distinctions and boundaries between pro- and anti-enslavement states as well as the territories of the Union, 1857.
A map of the United States, showing the distinctions and boundaries between pro- and anti-enslavement states as well as the territories of the Union, 1857. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Sectionalism is the expression of loyalty or support for a particular region of one’s country, rather than to the country as a whole. In contrast to simple feelings of local pride, sectionalism arises from deeper cultural, economic, or political differences and can lead to violent civil strife, including insurrection. In the United States, for example, the enslavement of African people created feelings of sectionalism that eventually led to the Civil War fought between Southerners, who supported it, and Northerners, who opposed it. In this context, sectionalism is considered the opposite of nationalism—the belief that national interests should always be placed ahead of regional concerns.

Sectionalism in the Civil War

On June 16, 1858, three years before the Civil War, then U.S. Senate candidate and future president of the United States Abraham Lincoln prophetically warned that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In these words, Lincoln was referring to the deepening regional divisions over the enslavement of African people threatening to tear the young nation apart.

The regional divisions Lincoln spoke of had first appeared during the nation’s great westward expansion that began in the early 1800s. The industrial East and Northeast were angered to see their youngest, most able workers lured away by new opportunities in the growing Western territories. At the same time, the West was developing its sectionalist feelings based on the settlers’ shared sense of independent “rugged individualism,” and a belief that they were being disrespected and exploited by rich Eastern businessmen. While enslavement was also expanding into the West, most people in the North still largely ignored it.

By far the strongest and most visible feelings of sectionalism during the 1850s were growing in the South. Set aside by its dependence on agriculture, rather than industry, the South considered enslavement—already largely abolished in the North—essential to its economic and cultural survival. In truth, however, fewer than 1,800 individuals of the South’s total White population of over 6 million owned more than 100 slaves in 1850. These large plantation owners were held in great esteem and considered to be the economic, and political leaders of the South. As such, their cultural values—including virtually unanimous support of the enslavement of African people—came to be shared by all levels of Southern society.

The percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860.
The percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860. US Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The South’s disdain for the North increased as the U.S. Congress, then controlled by Northerners, voted to annex one new Western territory after another on the condition that enslavement would never be allowed within their borders.

The sectionalist conflict between the North and the South reached new heights in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act annexing the vast territory between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. Though it had been intended to ease sectional tensions by offering a lasting solution to the contentious issue of enslavement, the bill had the opposite effect. When both Nebraska and Kansas were eventually admitted to the Union as free states, the South resolved to defend enslavement at all costs.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the South saw secession as the only way it could retain enslavement. After South Carolina became the first state to withdraw from the Union on December 20, 1860, the ten states of the lower South soon followed. Half-hearted attempts by outgoing President James Buchanan to stop secession had failed. In Congress, a proposed compromise measure intended to appease the South by extending the 1850 Missouri Compromise line dividing free and pro-slavery states to the Pacific Ocean also failed. When federal military forts in the South began to be overrun by secessionist forces, the war became inevitable.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech, November 19, 1863.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech, November 19, 1863. Library Of Congress/Getty Images

On April 12, 1861, less than a month after President Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated, Southern forces attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Driven by the divisive effects of sectionalism in America, the Civil War—the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history—had formally begun.

Other Examples of Sectionalism

While enslavement in the United States is perhaps the most often-cited example of sectionalism, deep regional differences have also played roles in the development of other countries.

United Kingdom

Among the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom, sectionalism has figured most prominently in the development of modern Scotland, where strongly sectionalist political factions and parties first appeared in the 1920s. Most prominent among these was the Scottish National League (SNL), formed in London in 1921. Created by leaders of earlier sectionalist parties (the Highland Land League and the National Committee), the SNL campaigned for Scottish independence reflecting the old traditions of Gaelic popular sovereignty. Eventually, the United Kingdom granted the Scottish Parliament the authority to control Scotland’s laws, court system, and domestic affairs, while the U.K. Parliament retained control of defense and national security.

In 1928, the Scottish National League reorganized as the National Party of Scotland, and in 1934 merged with the Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party, which today continues to work for full Scottish independence from the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union.

Canada

In 1977, the once French colony of Quebec began a movement to gain its independence from Canada as its own sovereign French-speaking country. Quebec is the only Canadian province in which French-speaking citizens make up the majority, while English speakers are an officially recognized minority group. According to the 2011 Canadian census, nearly 86% of Quebec’s population speaks French at home, while less than 5% of the population is unable to speak French. However, the French-speaking people of Quebec feared that continued Canadian control would erode their language and culture.

In 1980 and again in 1995, Quebec held referendum votes to decide whether to remain a Canadian province or become an independent country. Though the margin was significantly smaller in the 1995 referendum, independence was rejected in both votes, leaving Quebec under the control of the Canadian government. However, as a result of the independence movement, the Canadian government granted northern Quebec’s indigenous Inuit people a degree of self-governance, helping them to maintain their traditional language and culture.

Spain

Catalan Separatist Demonstrators Protest Against Police Tactics
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 26: Over 300,000 people protest in Barcelona over the jailing of Catalan politicians who organised the the 2017 referendum on October 26, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Catalan pro-independence protesters demonstrated against the recent jailing of Catalan separatist politicians. Guy Smallman / Getty Images

Sectionalism can currently be found playing itself out in the Spanish region of Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of about 7.5 million people in northeast Spain. The wealthy region has its own language, parliament, police force, flag, and anthem. Fiercely loyal to their land, Catalans had long complained that the Spanish government in Madrid devoted a disproportionately large share of their tax dollars to poorer parts of Spain. In an October 1, 2017 referendum, that had been declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, about 90% of Catalan voters backed independence from Spain. On October 27, the separatist-controlled Catalan parliament declared independence.

In retaliation, Madrid imposed direct constitution rule over Catalonia for the first time in its 1,000-year history. The Spanish government fired the Catalan leaders, dissolved the region’s parliament, and on December 21, 2017, held a special election, won by Spanish nationalist parties. The former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, fled and remains wanted in Spain, accused of raising a rebellion.

Ukraine

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former Cold War Soviet satellite country of Ukraine became an independent unitary state. However, some regions of Ukraine remained heavily populated by Russian loyalists. This split sectionalist loyalty resulted in rebellions in eastern regions of Ukraine, including the self-declared republics of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People's Republic, and the peninsula of Crimea.

In February 2014, Russian troops seized control of Crimea and held a disputed referendum in which Crimean voters chose to secede and join Russia. Though the United States, along with many other nations and the U.N., has refused to recognize the validity of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its control remains disputed between both Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Sydnor, Charles S. “The Development of Southern Sectionalism 1819–1848.” LSU Press, November 1, 1948, ISBN-10: 0807100153. 
  • “Sectionalism in the Early Republic.” Lumen Learning, ER Services, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1ay/chapter/sectionalism-in-the-early-republic/.
  • “Causes of the Rise of Sectionalism.” UKessays, https://www.ukessays.com/essays/history/causes-of-the-rise-of-sectionalism.php
  • Harvie, Christopher. “Scotland and Nationalism: Scottish Society and Politics, 1707 to the Present.” Psychology Press, 2004, ISBN 0415327245.
  • Noel, Mathieu. “Quebec independence movement.” McCord Museum, http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=11&elementid=105__true&contentlong.
  • “Give Catalonia its freedom to vote - by Pep Guardiola, Josep Carreras and other leading Catalans.” Independent Voice, October 2014, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/give-catalonia-its-freedom-by-pep-guardiola-jose-carreras-and-other-leading-catalans-9787960.html.
  • Subtelny, Orest. “Ukraine: A History.” University of Toronto Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8020-8390-0.