Antebellum is a Latin term that means "before the war." The antebellum period in the United States was the time period before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. It is most often described as the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and it is most often used to refer to the Southern U.S. during that time period. Other historians might use the term "antebellum period" to refer to the entire U.S. and might consider it to have begun after the American Revolutionary War ended in 1789.
After its arduous war for independence from England, the U.S. worked to rebuild itself and create an identity for itself. The U.S. government was in its infancy and was more state-centralized at the time — individual state governments had more power than the federal government. One of the major reasons that the South seceded from the union at the start of the Civil War was because it felt that the federal government was beginning to take too much power away from the states.
During this time, the nation had its first real military test as a nation. The victory of the War of 1812 legitimized the U.S. as a formidable power. Also, the successful Mexican-American War of the late 1840s furthered the reputation of the U.S. as a military presence.
The idea of "manifest destiny" gripped the nation during the antebellum period. Belief that it was a God-given right to expand to the Pacific Ocean spurred westward movement. The gold rush of 1849 also sent droves of people across the country to California. This growth saw the addition of Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, Missouri, Arkansas and Michigan as states. The westward expansion was aided by the advent of railroads, with tracks being built throughout the country to help move people, livestock and materials.
The U.S. economy also changed during the antebellum period. Although there was a great deal of growth in farming, the nation had become more industrialized as textile mills and factories were built. There also were many groundbreaking inventions during the antebellum period, as well. The most notable ones include the cotton gin, the telegraph and the sowing jenny.
Slavery was the major issue of the antebellum period that sparked the Civil War. The South depended on slave labor for a significant portion of its economy. Moral and legal concerns over slave labor in a country that preached equality among all men became overwhelming.
The landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford court case of 1857 declared that slaves were not citizens but were property. Slavery issues could not be avoided as the abolition movement grew. Slave riots and rebellions occurred throughout the South, and the federal government had to address the problem on issues of statehood and population.
Women’s rights also became important during the antebellum period. Many women argued for political privileges and equality under the law. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights, an influential two-day event that was held in Seneca Falls, New York.