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Causes of The Civil War

Lincoln/Douglas Debate

The Lincoln/Douglas Debate

The Causes of the Civil War – A Struggle for Freedom

No single cause can be spoken of as the catalyst for this terrible Civil War; no single issue lit the powder keg and began the bloody march to Appomattox. All the issues, however, share a common thread, a critical factor tying them together and leading the nation to the brink of war. This issue is slavery, the “peculiar institution,” according to South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, the practice of maintaining African-American men, women, and children as property, little better than livestock. The practice of forced servitude of Africans and African-Americans was not new to the period of the Civil War but instead stretches back to the first colonies in the New World by the United Kingdom. The Jamestown colony imported its first slaves, approximately 30 slaves taken from modern Angola, in the 1600s.

 
Slaves on a ship bound for colonial America.

Slaves on a ship bound for colonial America.

This practice continued for centuries until 1808 when the United States and Great Britain both outlawed the international slave trade. This step, however laudable, did not stop the sale of slaves already in the United States nor did it emancipate anyone. Many Northern intellectuals found the institution of slavery to be a blight and worked legislatively to eradicate it by first stopping its advance with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and later the Compromise of 1850. Both actions by Congress sought to limit the area where slaves could be held, cordoning the slave South off from the rest of the nation. The North was moved by stories of escaped slaves, like the Narrative of Frederick Douglass written by a former slave and leading abolitionist speaker, and fictional portrayals as well, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The questionable universality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a model of all Southern slavery aside, these works and others like them inflamed Northern idealists to oppose slavery on moral grounds, pushing for its abolition and the guarantee of civil rights for African-Americans under the law.

 
Tammany Hall politicians opposed the abolition of slavery to appease their working-class constituents.

Tammany Hall politicians opposed the abolition of slavery to appease their working-class constituents.

Slavery in the North was far from being a dead institution, however, despite the popular veneer that Northerners by and large were staunch abolitionists. The population of the Union was in no way rushing to support the cause of abolition either in the South or in the nation as a whole. Even President Lincoln said, on the matter of slavery:

"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."
-Abraham Lincoln, August 22, 1862.

Some slave states remained in the Union, like Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky, mostly through the result of federal occupations in the early days of the war. These states maintained slavery while still fighting for the cause of the Union, something not inconsistent with Lincoln's own position on the issue. Moreover, many urban centers in the Union were strongholds of the Democratic Party which stood in opposition to Lincoln and his Republicans. These urban centers, filled with poor immigrant laborers, were gripped with the fear that if slavery were ended, the former slaves would act as competition for their already low-paying jobs. Thus the opposition of slavery in the North was far from universal and equally far from a moral crusade waged by a united Northern population reacting to the plight of those enslaved.
 
Southern slaves harvesting cotton.

Southern slaves harvesting cotton.

The institution of slavery was more than simply a moral concern for the South; it was the bedrock of the economic system of the Southern agricultural economy. "King Cotton" ruled the South, a labor intensive cash crop needed by the industrialized North and Great Britain. The entire economy was based on final calculus of profit and free labor from slaves allowed the great plantation owners to reap great profits from cotton crop. While the South expanded as an agrarian power, the North was industrializing, trading farming for factories. To protect this new manufacturing sector, the Congress, over the protests of the Southern representatives, passed a protective set of tariffs that raised the price of imports so that American goods would be competitive. However, nations like Great Britain, affected by the American tariff, responded with a tariff on American imports, which hurt the cotton producing South which relied on Britain as its major export partner. The South suffered economically while the Northern manufacturing prospered.

 
Union political cartoon

Union political cartoon.

The final major factors were legal ones, the constitutional principles of nullification and secession. These issues are generally seen as part of what is called states' rights, a principle that refers to the powers reserved for the government of individual states in the United States rather than the federal government. During the early years of the United States, Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote in support of the idea of states' rights and nullification in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

"Resolved, that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: That to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral party, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party....each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress."
–Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolution, 1798

This issue of states' rights in the Civil War, however, is tied integrally to the question of slavery. The right the states sought to maintain was the right to keep slaves as property, despite any action on the part of the federal government. This position is consistent with the rhetoric of the secessionists in the South, who argued that as the Union was made up of individual states which entered a government for their mutual benefit, it was the right of any state to remove itself from that government when they felt that the actions of the federal government were harming the interests of the state's people. And with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln without a single electoral vote from the South, many Southern states felt secession was their only recourse. Led by South Carolina, eventually eleven states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, leading to war with the federal government of the United States.


Check out the following links to more events on the road to Civil War and keep checking back for more information about the Civil War, 150 years later:

Bleeding Kansas

John Brown – Abolitionist or Terrorist?

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Did You Know?

Author Janet Lambert and books she wrote while living on Governors Island.

Janet Lambert (1893-1973) was a military wife for over 30 years, and an actress and author of 54 books of young adult fiction for girls in the 1940s and 50s. She wrote about the lives and the coming of age choices between career or family by daughters of U.S. Army families during World War II and the Korean War-era. She wrote many of her books while living on Governors Island.