The American Civil War: Causes


Figure 1.--The Lost Cause historical narative for many years domintd mrrican historiography of the Civil War amd azttempted to shift the focus from slavery to other idssues like states rights. Historians today are vurtually unanimous that slavery was the central cause of the war. It was the one isues that was not amenable to solution through political means. English painter Eyre Crowe (18241910) traveld to America during the 1850s. Here he depicts a group slaves waitiung to be sold in Richmond Virginia.

The causes of the Civil War have been discussed in great detail. Essentialy it was regional conflict between two regions of the country that had developed along different economic and social lines. The agrarian South had an economy based on slave labor. The rapidly expanding north was beginning to industrialize using a free labor force. Some mostly Southern writers have claimed that slavery was not the true cause the War, but rather this regional rivalry. This argument is often made because it is difficult to morally justify the Confederate cause as a fight for such an inhumane institution as chattle slavery. Regional differences were in fact important factors, but the issues involved could have been resolved by constitutional political processes. It was the slavery issues that inflamed emotions on both sides, making it impossible for regional differences to be resolved politically. Slavery was clearly the issue that caused Southern sucession, a fact accepted by most modern historians. [McPherson, 2002] While slavery, or more correctly, Southern perceptions that Lincoln and the Republicans threatened slavery, was the cause of sucession--it was not why the North fought. There was a strong and growing abolitionist movement in the North, but it was a clear minority view. Lincoln could never have drawn the volunteers needed to impose abolotion upon the South. What the North fought for was to preserve the Union. In the end, the South succeded to protect the institution of slavery which was not threatened and in doing so Lincoln was able to turn a War to preserve the Union into a War that freed the slaves.

Two Polarized Regions

The causes of the Civil War have been discussed in great detail. Essentialy it was regional conflict between two regions of the country that had developed along different economic and social lines. The agrarian South had an economy based on slave labor. The rapidly expanding north was beginning to industrialize using a free labor force.

Major Issues

The United States split regionally on several different issues. As in other times in American history, most of these issues could have been resolved through constitutional measures. They could have been handeled through copromise and concessin as other important issues were resolved through the democratic process defined by the Constitution. The one issue tht defied resolution through constitutional processes was slavery. It was such a findamental issue that compromise ultimately proved impossible. The drafters of the Consitution dared not address it and the institution had with the develoment of the south's cotton economy only grown stronger. At the same time, moral objections in the North to the institution of slavery had grown leaving an increasing portion of the country to view slavery as morally repungnant.

Slavery

Some mostly Southern writers have claimed that slavery was not the true cause the War, but rather this regional rivalry. They point out that most southeners did not own slaves. The Southern elite that dominated the political and economic structure did own slaves. And most southerners ho did not own slaves stronly supported slvery. The argument that slavery was not the dominant issue is often made because it is difficult to morally justify the Confederate cause as a fight for such an inhumane institution as chattle slavery. Regional economic differences were in fact important factors, but the economic an other issues involved could have been resolved by constitutional political processes. It was the slavery issues that inflamed emotions on both sides. Slavery occassioned the harshest words and most desperae acts in American history. This made it impossible for regional differences to be resolved politically. And the South persued policies aimed at expanding slavery. This was a factor in the Mexican War and the ammextion of Texas. It more clearly was as factor in the Cmpromise of 1850 whivh essenbtially repealed the Missouri Compromise limitation on slavery. The result was Bloody Kansas. The Supreme Court Dread Scott decesion was another step. One historian explains, " It was not the existence of slavery that polarized the nation to the breaking point, but rather the issue of the expansion of slave territory." [McPherson, This] Slavery was clearly the issue that caused Southern sucession, a fact accepted by most modern historians. [McPherson, BookTV] One historian writes, "The South had fought to keep African Americans in slavery." [Ambrose] Many would like to rewrite history, but as Ambrose states, the South did fight to preserve slavery. That is not to say that most Confederate soldiers held slaves. Most did not. Less than a fourth of Confederate oldiers owned slaves. But most supported slavery, primarily because they saw it as a way of controlling the South's substantial black population which as a matter of policy and state law was uneducated and illiterate. While most professional historians now agree that slavery was the primary cause of sucession. Many others desiring to paint a more glorious picture of the Condederacy seek to down play the role of slavery because they know that slavery is indefensible. Many Southern authors supported the gallant "lost cause" argument that the South was right, but was overwealmed by Northern industry. One historian discussess the "lost cause", especially as it relates to Robert E. Lee and southern mythology. [Trudeau] This argument, however, is hard to make as long as slavery is accepted as the primary reason for seccession. And Lincoln fior his part never doubted that slavery was at the heart of the Confederacy and secession. [Zeitz]

States' Rights

There has been a great deal written about states' rights as a cause of the Civil War. We would certainly not dismiss the protection of states' rights was a cause. We note, however, that in much of the writing about the War there is considerable sympathy for the Confederacy. This has not just been the case of Southern authors, but also authors with non-Southern ties. It is of course difficult to justify the Confederacy if the basic issue is the protection of the institution of slavery. If the basic issue is the protection of states' rights, a principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the Confederacy can be defended on a much higher moral plane. It should be remembered, however, that the South had no quams at all about using Federal power to override state laws to ensure the survival of slavery. The Fugative Slave Law (1850), a compromiose measure designed to apease the South, enpowered Federal Msrshals to persue fugative slaves into northern states wher slavery had been abolished. This should lead those assessing the importance of states' rights as a cause of the War to question the relative importance of slavery and states' rights as a cause of the War. The same argument was made during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s-60s, again because againstates' rights was easier to defend than segreagation. It is inbteresting to note that some authors suggest that the Confederate Constitution creating a weak central government was an important factor in the defeat of the Confederacy.

Tariffs


Union

While slavery, or more correctly Northern resistance to Southern efforts to expand slavery and perceptions that Lincoln and the Republicans threatened slavery, was the primary cause of sucession--it was not why the North fought. here was a strong and growing abolitionist movement in the North, but it was a clear minority view. There was great support for the proposition that the South should not be allowed to expand slavery. It was the preservation of the Union that fired most Union volunteers early in the War. Lincoln could never have drawn the volunteers needed to impose abolotion upon the South. What the North fought for was to preserve the Union. Lincoln himself stated it destinctly, "Both parties depreciated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."

Course of Events

The course of events leading to the Civil War began wih the annexation of Texas (1846). This led to the Mexican-A,erican War (1845-46) ad the acquisitin of the South-Western territories. This led to to the unraveling of the Missouri Compromise. Sootherner plnters saw that free states would soon outnumber slaves states, fundamentally changing the ballance of power in Congress. There was also the agricultural problem. One crop agriculture was depleting the soil. This had already occurred in the Atlantic seaboard states and the problem was begining to affect yields in the Deep south states. Planters were thus anxious to find new land to develop and for this the states had to be slaves states. This objective was achieved by the Compromise of 1850. Many northers were outraged, not only by the opening for new slave states,byut provisions which allowed slave catchers to persue escaped slaves in the North. This was followed by the Kansas-Nebraska ACt (1854) which embodied Senator Stephen Douglas' principle of "popular soverignity" led to the beginning f violence to settle the issue. Than the Supre Court attempted to settle the issue by judicial fiat--the Dread Scott decision (1857). The Court ruled that blacks cold not be citizens, but their decesion in effect extended slavery to the North. The Lincoln-Douglas debates showed graphically the weakness of Douglas' argument (1858). It also destroyed the Senator's credbiity in the South--in effect spliting the Democratic Party (1858). This made possible a Republican victory in the next presidential election. John Brown's raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry terrified the South (1859). It convinced many that they could not continue to be part of the United states. Thus as 1860 approached, you had two deeply divided regions. The North increasingly oposed slavery. And while they were not prepared to end it by force, they were prepared to use force to prevent the division of the Union. The South was set on a course of separation and prepared to use force to secure their independence. The election of Abraham Lincoln (1860) made possble by the split of the Democrati Party was the event that finally sparked secession (1860-61).

Irony of Secession

In the end, the South succeded to protect the institution of slavery which was not threatened and in doing so Lincoln was able to turn a War to preserve the Union into a War that actually freed the slaves.

National Parks

A major issue has arrisen in recent years over the National Park Service (NPS) and their maintenance of the Civil War battlefield parks. Congres mandated in 2000 that the Park's should explain the role of slavery in casusing the Civil War and the conduct of the War. Critics of the NPS policyis policy complain that the Park's hould honor the soldiers that fought there, to help us undrstand them, and explain the battle, but not go into detal as to the causes. Left unsaid was the objection to the focus on slavery. HBC's view is that it is absolutely impossible to understand the average Civil War soldier, especially the Confederate older without understanding slavery. These oldiersof the day asked themselves why am I here. And for southern soldiers there fear was that the North would free the slaves and that this would be a danger to their life style, either depriving them of workers or creating free workers that they would have to compete with. Then there was the preceived danger to Southern women. Some Federal soldiers were motivated by a desire to fee the slaves. Most were not, in fact most soldiers both Confederate and Federal believed in white supremecy. Federal soldiers were deeply committed to Union. The feelings on both sides were fervntly held. It is important to to understand these motivations to understand Civil War battles. These battles were murderous places. It is difficlt to understand why any one would stand in a line and be mowed down as whole units were. Only by understading their feelings and beliefs is it possible to understand these battles.

Sources

Ambrose, Stephen. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian (Simon & Schuster, 2002), 265p.

McPherson, James. BookTV C-Span, October 12, 2002.

McPherson, James M. This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press: 2007), 260p.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage.

Zeitz, Josua. Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay and the War for Lincoln's Image (2913), 400p. John Hay and John Nicolay were President Lincoln's secretaries. They were thev cloest individuals to him outside his immediate family. After the War, despite the growth of the Lost Cause dioctrine, they both worked to preserve Lincoln's conviction for the historical record that slavery was at the heart of the War.






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Created: November 17, 2002
Last updated: 3:17 AM 2/1/2014