The causes of the Civil War were complex and have been controversial since the war began. The issue has been further complicated by historical revisionists, who have tried to offer a variety of reasons for the war. Slavery was the central source of escalating political tension in the 1850s. The Republican Party was determined to prevent any spread of slavery, and many Southern leaders had threatened secession if the Republican candidate, Lincoln, won the 1860 election. After Lincoln had won without carrying a single Southern state, many Southern whites felt that disunion had become their only option, because they felt as if they were losing representation, which hampered their ability to promote pro-slavery acts and policies.
The slavery issue was primarily about whether the system of slavery was an anachronistic evil that was incompatible with Republicanism in the United States, or a state-based property system protected by the Constitution. The strategy of the anti-slavery forces was containment—to stop the expansion and thus put slavery on a path to gradual extinction. To slave holding interests in the South, this strategy was perceived as infringing upon their Constitutional rights. Slavery was being phased out of existence in the North and was fading in the border states and urban areas, but was expanding in highly profitable cotton districts of the south.
Despite compromises in 1820 and 1850, the slavery issues exploded in the 1850s. Causes include controversy over admitting Missouri as a slave state in 1820, the acquisition of Texas as a slave state in 1845 and the status of slavery in western territories won as a result of the Mexican–American War and the resulting Compromise of 1850. Following the U.S. victory over Mexico, Northerners attempted to exclude slavery from conquered territories in the Wilmot Proviso; although it passed the House, it failed in the Senate. Northern (and British) readers recoiled in anger at the horrors of slavery as described in the novel and play Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Irreconcilable disagreements over slavery ended the Whig and Know Nothing political parties, and later split the Democratic Party between North and South, while the new Republican Partyangered slavery interests by demanding an end to its expansion. Most observers believed that without expansion slavery would eventually die out; Lincoln argued this in 1845 and 1858.
Meanwhile, the South of the 1850s saw an increasing number of slaves leave the border states through sale, manumission and escape. During this same period, slave-holding border states had more free African-Americans and European immigrants than the lower South, which increased Southern fears that slavery was threatened with rapid extinction in this area. With tobacco and cotton wearing out the soil, the South believed it needed to expand slavery. The Southern states had advocates arguing to reopen the international slave trade to populate territory that was to be newly opened to slavery. Southern demands for a slave code to ensure slavery in the territories repeatedly split the Democratic Party between North and South by widening margins.
To settle the dispute over slavery expansion, Abolitionists and proslavery elements sent their partisans into Kansas, both using ballots and bullets. In the 1850s, a miniature civil war in Bleeding Kansas led pro-South Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan to attempt a forced admission of Kansas as a slave state through vote fraud. The 1857 Congressional rejection of the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was the first multi-party solid-North vote, and that solid vote was anti-slavery to support the democratic majority voting in the Kansas Territory. Violence on behalf of Southern honor reached the floor of the Senate in 1856 when a Southern Congressman, Preston Brooks, physically assaulted Republican Senator Charles Sumner when he ridiculed prominent slaveholders as pimps for slavery.
The earlier political party structure failed to make accommodation among sectional differences. Disagreements over slavery caused the Whig and “Know-Nothing” parties to collapse. In 1860, the last national political party, the Democratic Party, split along sectional lines. Anti-slavery Northerners mobilized in 1860 behind moderate Abraham Lincoln because he was most likely to carry the doubtful western states. In 1857, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision ended the Congressional compromise for Popular Sovereignty in Kansas. According to the court, slavery in the territories was a property right of any settler, regardless of the majority there. Chief Justice Taney’s decision said that slaves were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. The decision overturned the Missouri Compromise which banned slavery in territory north of the 36°30′ parallel.
Republicans denounced the Dred Scott decision and promised to overturn it; Abraham Lincoln warned that the next Dred Scott decision could threaten the Northern states with slavery. The Republican party platform called slavery “a national evil”, and Lincoln believed it would die a natural death if it were contained. The Democrat Stephen A. Douglas developed the Freeport Doctrine to appeal to North and South. Douglas argued, Congress could not decide either for or against slavery before a territory was settled. Nonetheless, the anti-slavery majority in Kansas could stop slavery with its own local laws if their police laws did not protect slavery introduction. Most 1850 political battles followed the arguments of Lincoln and Douglas, focusing on the issue of slavery expansion in the territories.
But political debate was cut short throughout the South with Northern abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry Armory in an attempt to incite slave insurrections. The Southern political defense of slavery transformed into widespread expansion of local militias for armed defense of their “peculiar” domestic institution. Lincoln’s assessment of the political issue for the 1860 elections was that, “This question of Slavery was more important than any other; indeed, so much more important has it become that no other national question can even get a hearing just at present.” The Republicans gained majorities in both House and Senate for the first time since Democrats in the 1856 elections, they were to be seated in numbers which Lincoln might use to govern, a national parliamentary majority even before pro-slavery House and Senate seats vacated. Meanwhile, Southern Vice President, Alexander Stephens, in the Cornerstone Speech, declared the new confederate “Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” The Republican administration enacted the Confiscation Acts that set conditions for emancipation of slaves prior to the official proclamation of emancipation. Likewise, Lincoln had previously condemned slavery and called for its “extinction.”
Considering the relative weight given to causes of the Civil War by contemporary actors, historians such as Chandra Manning argue that both Union and Confederate fighting soldiers believed slavery to be the cause of the Civil War. Union men mainly believed the war was to bring emancipation to the slaves. Confederates fought to protect southern society, and slavery as an integral part of it. Addressing the causes,Eric Foner would relate a historical context with multidimensional political, social and economic variables. The several causes united in the moment by a consolidating nationalism. A social movement that was individualist, egalitarian and perfectionist grew to a political democratic majority attacking slavery, and slavery’s defense in the Southern pre-industrial traditional society brought the two sides to war.
Everyone agreed that states had certain rights—but did those rights carry over when a citizen left that state? The Southern position was that citizens of every state had the right to take their property anywhere in the U.S. and not have it taken away—specifically they could bring their slaves anywhere and they would remain slaves. Northerners rejected this “right” because it would violate the right of a free state to outlaw slavery within its borders. Republicans committed to ending the expansion of slavery were among those opposed to any such right to bring slaves and slavery into the free states and territories. The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 bolstered the Southern case within territories, and angered the North.
Secondly, the South argued that each state had the right to secede—leave the Union—at any time, that the Constitution was a “compact” or agreement among the states. Northerners (including President Buchanan) rejected that notion as opposed to the will of the Founding Fathers who said they were setting up a “perpetual union”. Historian James McPherson writes concerning states’ rights and other non-slavery explanations:
While one or more of these interpretations remain popular among the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Southern heritage groups, few professional historians now subscribe to them. Of all these interpretations, the state’s-rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, state’s rights for what purpose? State’s rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle
Sectionalism refers to the different economies, social structure, customs and political values of the North and South. It increased steadily between 1800 and 1860 as the North, which phased slavery out of existence, industrialized, urbanized and built prosperous farms, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor, together with subsistence farming for the poor whites. The South expanded into rich new lands in the Southwest (from Alabama to Texas).
However, slavery declined in the border states and could barely survive in cities and industrial areas (it was fading out in cities such as Baltimore, Louisville, and St. Louis), so a South based on slavery was rural and non-industrial. On the other hand, as the demand for cotton grew, the price of slaves soared. Historians have debated whether economic differences between the industrial Northeast and the agricultural South helped cause the war. Most historians now disagree with theeconomic determinism of historian Charles Beard in the 1920s and emphasize that Northern and Southern economies were largely complementary.
Fears of slave revolts and abolitionist propaganda made the South militantly hostile to abolitionism. Southerners complained that it was the North that was changing, and was prone to new “isms”, while the South remained true to historic republican values of the Founding Fathers (many of whom owned slaves, including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison). Lincoln said that Republicans were following the tradition of the framers of the Constitution (including theNorthwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise) by preventing expansion of slavery.
The issue of accepting slavery (in the guise of rejecting slave-owning bishops and missionaries) split the largest religious denominations (the Methodist, Baptistand Presbyterian churches) into separate Northern and Southern denominations. Industrialization meant that seven European immigrants out of eight settled in the North. The movement of twice as many whites leaving the South for the North as vice versa contributed to the South’s defensive-aggressive political behavior.
Historically, southern slave-holding states, because of their low cost manual labor, had little perceived need for mechanization, and supported having the right to sell cotton and purchase manufactured goods from any nation. Northern states, which had heavily invested in their still-nascent manufacturing, could not compete with the full-fledged industries of Europe in offering high prices for cotton imported from the South and low prices for manufactured exports in return. For this reason, northern manufacturing interests supported tariffs and protectionism while southern planters demanded free trade.
The Democrats in Congress, controlled by Southerners, wrote the tariff laws in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, and kept reducing rates so that the 1857 rates were the lowest since 1816. The South had no complaints but the low rates angered Northern industrialists and factory workers, especially in Pennsylvania, who demanded protection for their growing iron industry. The Whigs and Republicans complained because they favored high tariffs to stimulate industrial growth, and Republicans called for an increase in tariffs in the 1860 election. The increases were finally enacted in 1861 after Southerners resigned their seats in Congress.
Historians in the 1920s emphasized the tariff issue but since the 1950s they have minimized it, noting that few Southerners in 1860–61 said it was of central importance to them. Some secessionist documents do mention the tariff issue, though not nearly as often as the preservation of slavery.
Slave power and free soil
Antislavery forces in the North identified the “Slave Power” as a direct threat to republican values. They argued that rich slave owners were using political power to take control of the Presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court, thus threatening the rights of the citizens of the North.
“Free soil” was a Northern demand that the new lands opening up in the west be available to independent yeoman farmers and not be bought out by rich slave owners who would buy up the best land and work it with slaves, forcing the white farmers onto marginal lands. This was the basis of the Free Soil Party of 1848, and a main theme of the Republican Party. Free Soilers and Republicans demanded a homestead law that would give government land to settlers; it was defeated by Southerners who feared it would attract to the west European immigrants and poor Southern whites.
Between 1803 and 1854, the United States achieved a vast expansion of territory through purchase, negotiation, and conquest. Of the states carved out of these territories by 1845, all had entered the union as slave states: Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Texas, as well as the southern portions of Alabama and Mississippi. And with the conquest of northern Mexico, including California, in 1848, slaveholding interests looked forward to the institution flourishing in these lands as well. Southerners also anticipated garnering slaves and slave states in Cuba and Central America. Northern free soil interests vigorously sought to curtail any further expansion of slave soil. It was these territorial disputes that the proslavery and antislavery forces collided over.
The existence of slavery in the southern states was far less politically polarizing than the explosive question of the territorial expansion of the institution westward. Moreover, Americans were informed by two well-established readings of the Constitution regarding human bondage: first, that the slave states had complete autonomy over the institution within their boundaries, and second, that the domestic slave trade – trade among the states – was immune to federal interference. The only feasible strategy available to attack slavery was to restrict its expansion into the new territories. Slaveholding interests fully grasped the danger that this strategy posed to them. Both the South and the North drew the same conclusion: “The power to decide the question of slavery for the territories was the power to determine the future of slavery itself.”
By 1860, four doctrines had emerged to answer the question of federal control in the territories, and they all claimed to be sanctioned by the Constitution, implicitly or explicitly. Two of the “conservative” doctrines emphasized the written text and historical precedents of the founding document (specifically, the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise), while the other two doctrines developed arguments that transcended the Constitution.
The first of these “conservative” theories, represented by the Constitutional Union Party, argued that the historical designation of free and slave apportionments in territories should become a Constitutional mandate. The Crittenden Compromise of 1860 was an expression of this view.
The second doctrine of Congressional preeminence, championed by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, insisted that the Constitution did not bind legislators to a policy of balance – that slavery could be excluded altogether in a territory at the discretion of Congress – with one caveat: the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment must apply. In other words, Congress could restrict human bondage, but never establish it. The Wilmot Proviso announced this position in 1846.
Of the two doctrines that rejected federal authority, one was articulated by northern Democrat of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and the other by southern Democratic Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Vice-President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.
Douglas proclaimed the doctrine of territorial or “popular” sovereignty, which declared that the settlers in a territory had the same rights as states in the Union to establish or disestablish slavery – a purely local matter. Congress, having created the territory, was barred, according to Douglas, from exercising any authority in domestic matters. To do so would violate historic traditions of self-government, implicit in the US Constitution. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 legislated this doctrine.
The fourth in this quartet is the theory of state sovereignty (“states’ rights”), also known as the “Calhoun doctrine”, named after the South Carolinian political theorist and statesman John C. Calhoun. Rejecting the arguments for federal authority or self-government, state sovereignty would empower states to promote the expansion of slavery as part of the Federal Union under the US Constitution – and not merely as an argument for secession. The basic premise was that all authority regarding matters of slavery in the territories resided in each state. The role of the federal government was merely to enable the implementation of state laws when residents of the states entered the territories. The Calhoun doctrine asserted that the federal government in the territories was only the agent of the several sovereign states, and hence incapable of forbidding the bringing into any territory of anything that was legal property in any state. State sovereignty, in other words, gave the laws of the slaveholding states extra-jurisdictional effect.
“States’ rights” was an ideology formulated and applied as a means of advancing slave state interests through federal authority. As historian Thomas L. Krannawitter points out, “[T]he Southern demand for federal slave protection represented a demand for an unprecedented expansion of federal power.”
By 1860, these four doctrines comprised the major ideologies presented to the American public on the matters of slavery, the territories and the US Constitution.
Beginning in the American Revolution and accelerating after the War of 1812, the people of the United States grew in their sense of country as an important example to the world of a national republic of political liberty and personal rights. Previous regional independence movements such as the Greek revolt in the Ottoman Empire, division and redivision in the Latin American political map, and the British-French Crimean triumph leading to an interest in redrawing Europe along cultural differences, all conspired to make for a time of upheaval and uncertainty about the basis of the nation-state. In the world of 19th century self-made Americans, growing in prosperity, population and expanding westward, “freedom” could mean personal liberty or property rights. The unresolved difference would cause failure—first in their political institutions, then in their civil life together.
Nationalism and honor
Nationalism was a powerful force in the early 19th century, with famous spokesmen such as Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster. While practically all Northerners supported the Union, Southerners were split between those loyal to the entire United States (called “unionists”) and those loyal primarily to the southern region and then the Confederacy.C. Vann Woodward said of the latter group, “A great slave society … had grown up and miraculously flourished in the heart of a thoroughly bourgeois and partly puritanical republic. It had renounced its bourgeois origins and elaborated and painfully rationalized its institutional, legal, metaphysical, and religious defenses … When the crisis came it chose to fight. It proved to be the death struggle of a society, which went down in ruins.” Perceived insults to Southern collective honor included the enormous popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and the actions of abolitionist John Brown in trying to incite a slave rebellion in 1859.
While the South moved toward a Southern nationalism, leaders in the North were also becoming more nationally minded, and rejected any notion of splitting the Union. The Republican national electoral platform of 1860 warned that Republicans regarded disunion as treason and would not tolerate it: “We denounce those threats of disunion … as denying the vital principles of a free government, and as an avowal of contemplated treason, which it is the imperative duty of an indignant people sternly to rebuke and forever silence.” The South ignored the warnings: Southerners did not realize how ardently the North would fight to hold the Union together.
The election of Lincoln in November 1860 was the final trigger for secession. Efforts at compromise, including the “Corwin Amendment” and the “Crittenden Compromise”, failed. Southern leaders feared that Lincoln would stop the expansion of slavery and put it on a course toward extinction. The slave states, which had already become a minority in the House of Representatives, were now facing a future as a perpetual minority in the Senate and Electoral College against an increasingly powerful North. Before Lincoln took office in March 1861, seven slave states had declared their secession and joined to form the Confederacy.