The word “Antebellum” means, the period before a war. That certainly is an apt title to give to the history of the United States from 1820 to 1855. It was indeed the period leading up the Civil war. Many of the events that occurred during that period helped make that war inevitable. The issue of slavery and its expansion caused a deep political divide in the country during this time, with continual fighting over the question of whether a state should be “free” or “slave”. Views on slavery hardened–– with vigorous anti-slavery organizations becoming strong in the North… While the defenders of slavery became ever louder in the South.
That being said, one should not look at this period only through the lens of the events that led to the war–– since these events did not take place in a vacuum. At the start of the Antebellum period, the United States was a group of states (primarily in the areas hugging the Atlantic coast.) By the Civil War, the United States was a continental power, with states on both sides of the Continent. When the Antebellum period started, the future borders of the United States were unknown. When the period came to a close, the borders of the Continental United States were set. The Antebellum era in American history was a period of continuous westward expansion. In the Eastern half of the country, the Native Americans ceased to be a problem (after the Indian Removal Act led to the forced removal of the majority of the Native Americans to areas west of the Mississippi River, opening up their lands to White settlers.)
The Antebellum period was an era of rapid technological change, change that transformed America during these years. The first major changes, brought by the older, existing technology, enabled the building of the Erie Canal. This opened up the Mid-West for settlement and trade. Soon after, more major advances came about by the introduction of railroads. The railroads quickly created a single, interdependent economy for the United States. The railroads radically changed the time it took to travel from one place to another. Finally, the introduction of the telegram in the Antebellum period totally transformed communication. Suddenly, news was instant. You might not be able to send a great deal of information at once, but imagine if, in 1815, those fighting the Battle of New Orleans had gotten the message in time that the war had already been settled.
Lastly, the face of America changed radically during the Antebellum period. The population of the United States climbed from 9 million to close to 30 million during this period. And while the United States remained an overwhelmingly rural country—even at the close of the period–– the percentage of people living in American cities continued to grow (from just 6% of the population to close to 19%.) Those nineteen percent represented 6 million people.
The cultural composition of America was changing rapidly as well– with new immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia and Ireland joining the early Americans who were mostly from England.