To What Extent Was Slavery the Cause of the American Civil War?

In the context of the period 1763-1865, how far was the American Civil War caused by long term divisions over the issue of slavery? In his second inaugural address in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln looked back at the beginning of the Civil War four years earlier “all knew,” he said, that slavery “was somehow the cause of the war. ” This essay will endeavour to discuss the role of long term divisions caused by the slavery debate in the eventual outbreak of the Civil War.
In doing so this analysis will encompass the period between the birth of the nation beginning with the start of the American Revolution in 1763 and the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. This being a period in which the newly independent nation struggled with its state system, with each of the former colonies possessing the rights to a significant level of self-governance that inevitably led to disagreements and conflicts of interest.
One such conflict was the disagreement over slavery which James Ford, like Lincoln, believes was crucial in creating a clear North-South divide that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Whilst recognising slavery’s overwhelming contribution to the outbreak of the American civil war in 1861, one must acknowledge alternative factors beyond slavery, which contributed to the nations descent towards armed conflict. Revisionists such as William Gienapp and William Freehling emphasise the political contribution to the outbreak of the war and the influence of sectional ideology on ante bellum politics.

It was this differing ideology that created the tensions between Southern and Northern parties creating political chaos during the 1850s, the North believing they were attempting to save democracy whilst the South campaigned for increased States’ rights, all of which provoked the outbreak of war. As well as the long-term divisions over slavery and the short term political contributions to the outbreak of war, historians such as Charles and Mary Beard placed emphasis on the fundamental differences between the North and South economic systems, disregarding the moral and political contributions.
This analysis will argue that ultimately the issue of slavery was the main reason for the outbreak of war in 1861; however the short term political blunders and failure of the political system created a chaos that made war inevitable. Had the American political system thrived, the divisions over slavery could have been resolved without war being waged. Slavery is the moral dimension that lies at the heart of the historiographical debate. James Ford Rhodes identified slavery as the central and virtually only cause of the war. If the Negro had not been brought to America,” he wrote, “the Civil War could not have occurred. ” Introducing slavery to America created differences of opinion between the North and the South, on the morality of slavery. It was these differences that created tensions between the regions and ultimately fuelled the outbreak of war in 1861. The Northern climate was not suited to plantation agriculture which resulted in Congress passing an Ordinance in 1787, keeping slavery out of the North West Territory.
The Northern belief insisted that the South was ruled by a ruthless ‘Slave Power’ which, conspiratorial in its methods, consisted of slaveholding planters and political leaders who were determined to convert the whole United States in to a nation of masters and slaves. The aggressive attitude of Southerners arising from the decision by Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that all blacks, slave as well as free, were not and could not be citizens of the United States increased rather than allayed Northern suspicions.
This conspiracy, as the Northerners believed it to be, was fundamentally an aristocracy founded upon these principles; that slavery was not morally wrong, it is a right possessed by the slaveholder, and that it is constitutional. Admitting Missouri as a slave state and introducing the Fugitive Slave Act in the Compromise of 1850, only exacerbated Northern suspicions which is illustrated through what John Rankin believed, “The Slave Power has already seized upon the General Government, and has overthrown the rights of Free States…the struggle between the slave and free institutions is for existence.
They are antagonistic principles and cannot exist long together – one or the other must fall. ” ‘Slave power’ heightened through media influences such as the non-abolitionist Cincinnati Daily Commercial claiming “There is such a thing as THE SLAVE POWER” encouraged the Northern populace that action needed to be taken against the South in order to preserve the existence of their personal liberty. On the other hand, many Southerners like historian Ulrich Bonner Phillips, viewed slavery as a hierarchic order thus making it wholesome practice.
Phillips recalls setting off to school as a young child and burdened by the prospect that his “sable companion” was able to play all day long. According to Hugh Tulloch, the Southerners had evolved a unique form of social relations based on slavery; whereby the master’s role was essentially paternal, “without slavery the black would either lapse into African savagery. ” It is this view and that of Edward Channing’s, “the slaves were often happier than their masters” that appears so distorted in comparison to the Northern interpretation on slavery.
It was this that became an important factor in consolidating antislavery sentiment in the North, thus widening the sectional rift between the North and South. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel. ” Lincoln’s view on the peculiar institution further heightened the issue as Southern states regarded his election as a threat to their power, and provoked the secession of South Carolina from the Union, shadowed by a further 10 states.
Modern fundamentalists such as James McPherson and Eric Foner similarly describe the two sections as “different and deeply antagonistic societies” agreeing that slavery was the root of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernisation, these scholars explained, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labour ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to agriculture and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honour, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.
Had African slave trade been declared illegal long before 1808, the million plus slaves that were in the USA in the early 19th century would not have existed, therefore would have had no effect on population influxes which stimulated an industrial and economic change, nor the geographical expansion which caused the conflict within the different states. Although Rhodes placed his greatest emphasis on the moral conflict over slavery, he suggested that the struggle also reflected fundamental differences between the Northern and Southern economic systems.
In the 1920s, the idea of the war as an irrepressible economic rather than moral conflict received fuller expression from Charles and Mary Beard, insisting there were “inherent antagonisms” between Northern Industrialists and Southern planters. Undoubtedly, the issue of slavery itself would not have created divisions and differences within the nation had someone, or a group of people spoke up and shared their desire to “fight the gross evil of slavery” thus the influence and the rise of abolitionists need to be taken in to account when assessing the causation of the war.
Abolitionists were committed to the doctrine of ‘moral suasion’; the idea that Southern slaveholders could be persuaded that slavery was morally wrong. Arguably, it was the abolitionist’s actions that publicised and brought slavery in to the political arena and through their anti-slavery postal campaign in 1835, the Democratic administration could not avoid the issue. By building these campaigns, abolitionists turned themselves into an organised movement, urging the national government to debate slavery and heightening the nation’s opinion on the institution.
The Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, became one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the Abolitionist Movement. The Constitution introduced a clause stating that fugitives from slave labour must be sent back to the South if captured in the North. It forced citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitives and denied fugitives who claimed to be freemen the right to a fair jury trial. This caused outrage among the Northern black community who were no longer able to legally prove that they were free. Foner stated the act gave slavery what is called “extra-territoriality”, thus making slavery a national institution.
Even though the Northern States could abolish slavery, they still could not avoid their Constitutional obligation to enforce the slave laws of the Southern States. The Act drew more attention to the inhumanity of slavery and caused increased tension between the North and the South. Northern whites resented having to be forced into hunting slaves against their will by the officials enforcing the Act. It was also significant because it helped to create legendary abolitionists and anti-slavery orators such as Frederick Douglas and Henry Highland Garnet and generated the release of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1852 by Harriet Beecher.
Beecher’s book expanded support and contributed to the outbreak of the war by personalising the political and economic arguments of slavery whilst providing depiction of the horrors of slavery. Installments were published weekly from June 1951 in an abolitionist newspaper. In November 1862, President Lincoln famously said, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War. ” More importantly, the Act allowed Northerners who had always thought slavery was so far away to see it personally for the first time.
This display of cruelty convinced more people of the evils of slavery and made them opposed to the Southern institution of slavery and the Act as it had now cemented slavery within the law. This increased support for the abolitionists’ cause would infuriate the South and increased sectional tensions. Despite slavery existing in America since the 1600s, economic and social paths taken by the North and the South increasingly began to change towards the 1800s and as a result created significant sectional differences between the states.
Southerners did not necessarily go to war to defend slavery, nor did northerners go to war to end it. It is often suggested that we have ignored the well-known facts that most southerners did not own slaves and that most northerners shared the era’s racist attitudes. After all, only about 25% of southern white families owned slaves and 50% of these owned less than 5 slaves. Consequently, one must consider the basic differences between the economies and the practical issues that divided the sectional leaders.
Charles and Mary Beard came to the conclusion that there had existed an “irrepressible conflict between a static, agrarian South and the expanding, industrialising North. ” The Beards insisted that “inherent antagonisms” between Northern industrialists and Southern planters contributed to the outbreak of war. Massive changes in transport help to explain the agricultural and industrial changes. The development of steamboats revolutionised travel on the great rivers; by 1850 over 700 steamships were operating on the Mississippi and its tributaries and the North were able to boast more than two-thirds of the railroad tracks in the country.
Less than one in ten Americans lived in towns in 1820; one in five did so by 1860, but it was this urbanisation that was more prevalent in the North as opposed to the South with the percentage of population living in towns of 2500 or more being 26% in 1859 on Northern states, compared to only 10% in the Southern states. Unlike the South, the North had a growing number of immigrants; between 1830 and 1860 most of the five million immigrants to the USA settled in the North. Slave labour was the foundation of a prosperous economic system in the South.
In 1793 the invention of the cotton ‘gin’ revolutionised the region; it is significant to recognise the relationship between the invention of the cotton gin and when cotton became America’s leading crop with the number of slaves in the South. In 1790 America produced 1,500 pounds of cotton. By 1815 production had reached over 100,000 pounds and in 1848, production exceeded an astonishing 1,000,000 pounds. Simultaneously, slavery spread across the Deep South as the cotton engine fuelled slave labour, pushing the North and South’s industrial methods even further apart.
By itself, the South’s economic investment in slavery could easily explain the willingness of Southerners to risk war when faced with what they viewed as a serious threat to their “peculiar institution” after the electoral victories of the Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Economically, the taxes on imported and exported goods contributed greatly to the North- South divide. From the time of the first Congress in 1789 to the outbreak of the Civil War there was dissension between the Northern and the Southern states over the matter of protective tariffs, or import duties on manufactured goods.
Northern industries wanted high tariffs in order to protect their factories and labourers from cheaper European products. Demanding that “American labourers shall be protected against the pauper labour of Europe,” tariff proponents argued that the taxes gave “employment to thousands of mechanics, artisans and labourers. ” The vast majority of American industry was located in the Northern states, whereas the economies of the agricultural Southern states were based on the export of raw materials and the importation of manufactured goods.
The South held few manufacturing concerns, and southerners had to pay higher prices for goods in order to subsidise Northern profits. The collected tariffs were used to fund public projects in the North such as improvements to roads, harbours and rivers. From 1789 to 1845, the North received five times the amount of money that was spent on southern projects, “Sectional legislation, such as subsidies to ship-owners and manufacturers, took money from the pockets of the planters and farmers and transferred it to the pocket of Northern capitalists. This economic policy heightened tensions and exacerbated the sectional disagreements over the best type of government. The stark differences in their economies resulted in supporting either the Democrats or Whigs which brings in to play the revisionist interpretation that political blunders and the breakdown of the system ultimately divided the sections, increasing their hostility to one another. The structure of American politics and the antebellum party realignment provides a way to assess the relationship between the American political system and the origins of the war.
Modern revisionists like Stampp attempt to recapture the eventualities of antebellum politics, placing emphasis on the shared values of the North and South and the failure of political leaders to reach compromises which could have averted war. Erin Foner argued the coming of the Civil war constituted the greatest failure of American democracy; “the intrusion of sectional ideology into the political system brought about the war. The fundamental issues can be traced back to the standoff over sovereignty during the American Revolution, and from this founding era the disagreement over how much authority the national government should have on the one hand and how much sovereignty and independence the individual states should retain on the other began. An unworkable arrangement followed, whereby states tried to coordinate a national war effort, a national economy, and a national government without sacrificing their individual sovereignty.
However, continental currency became worthless and states became free to do their own thing. Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87, occurred as a protest to rising debt and economic chaos and due to the failure of the national government was unable to gather a combined military force amongst the states to help put down the rebellion. This was a catalyst for the Founding Fathers to scrap the Articles of Confederation and devise a new Constitution. However, the Constitution contained a number of provisions that strengthened the forces of sectional division within the nation.
It was the American political system that was particularly vulnerable to sectional strains and tensions and thus the Civil War was able to occur within a particular political framework. William Gienapp believes it was “the Constitution’s provision for amendment that significantly contributed to the outbreak of war. ” The constitution’s ambiguity on whether Congress could impose conditions on a new state or refuse to admit a new state to the Union became a source of controversy which stimulated the growing conflict between the sections.
More important, believed Gienapp, was the ambiguity of whether a state had the right to leave the Union. It was this silence that contributed to the debate over secession as it allowed Southerners to plausibly maintain that secession was a legal right of each state, and thus fuelled Southern extremism. Political blunders from the 1820s widened sectional differences, according to Gabor Boritt; “the crystallisation of rival sectional ideologies orientated towards protecting white equality and opportunity. Each section began to see the other as a threat to its vital social, political and economic interests. A view had been produced that one section or the other has to be dominant. The Missouri Compromise, so Rodger Ramson believed, allowed in the long term, “the right of Congress to pass legislation allowing or prohibiting slavery in the western territories. ” However in 1854 the Kansas Nebraska Act nullified the Missouri Compromise and is claimed to be a political miscalculation of massive proportions. Alan Nevins labelled the entire episode as a “disaster”.
The political effects of this Act were enormous, irrevocably splitting the Whig Party. Every northern Whig had opposed the bill; almost every southern Whig voted for it and due to the competition of the Know-Nothing party and their failure to respond to nativist concerns, the party was effectively killed off. With the emotional issue of slavery involved, there was no common ground to be found and Northern Whigs reorganised themselves to become the Republican Party committed to blocking westward expansion of slavery. Animosity between the North and South was again on the rise.
The North felt that if the Compromise of 1820 was ignored, the Compromise of 1850 could be ignored as well. The Dred Scott case in 1957 brought the Missouri Compromise in conflict with the Fifth Amendment that upheld that no one be deprived of his or her right to life, liberty, and property. Political historian, Michael Holt notes, “The issue that drove the deepest wedge between North and South in the two decades before the Civil War was not the institution of slavery itself, but the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand westwards beyond the boundaries of the slave states. Without the discipline of a strong party system, more outspoken views on slavery and secession began to be heard. Holt declares that the breakdown of the party system, no longer operating on economic issues, allowed demagogues to arise who accentuated the differences between North and South. Politicians in both sections “kept the country in constant turmoil and whipped up popular emotions for the selfish purpose of winning elections” thereby bringing about the Civil War. Lincoln declared before his unanimous nomination, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this Government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved- I don’t expect the house to fall- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. ” Despite Holt placing emphasis on the breakdown of the second party system, Stampp focuses on Lincoln’s actions as president, ‘inviting’ by his proposition a war of sections; “Thus Mr Lincoln invites a war between the free States and the slave States, a war between North and the South, for the purpose of either exterminating slavery in every Southern state, or planting it in every Northern State. The existence of national political parties became increasingly focused on the contest for Presidency. The coming of the war In April 1861 was seen as both sides waging war in an attempt to save democracy as they understood it. For southern secessionists, at stake was the right of self-government and the fundamental right of southern whites to control their own destiny. For the North, the war was a struggle to uphold the democratic principles of law and order and majority rule, as well as preserving the Union, which they believed was inseparably linked to democracy.
Boritt noted, “few northerners failed to appreciate the fundamental irony that they were ready to kill their fellow Americans in order to prove democracy was a workable form of government”. Due to this rivalry of sectional ideologies, each came to think that one section or the other had to be dominant. Residents of each section feared the other, and before the physical fighting the sectional conflict represented a struggle for control of the nation’s future. On December 20, 1860, in response to Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina seceded from the Union.
By the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1861, six more states had also seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Ramson states, “the attempt by the southern states to create a Confederacy separate from the American Union failed because the slave society of the South was unable to sustain an effort in the face of a determined foe. The promise of eliminating slavery eventually provided a unifying force behind the North’s efforts to hold the union together. ” In conjunction with the fight for democracy, revisionists like Holt, Gienapp and William W.
Freehling have focused on those political debates within each section that do not fit into the a direct narrative of the slavery controversy. Political historians have shown Northern voters were preoccupied with and motivated by issues such as nativism; slavery was not their overriding concern and did not explain their voting behaviour. The Southern electorate, too, was deeply divided on the basis of class, economic setting, and sub-region. The differences between the Upper South and the Deep South in particular make it dangerous to generalise broadly about the “fundamental” nature of Southern Society.
When historians assert that slavery caused the Civil War, most are saying that only the presence of the “peculiar institution” made it impossible to resolve peacefully the constitutional, political, and economic issues that had long animated sectional tensions. Conversely, Historians like Jefferson Davis have been keen to refute the argument that the war was caused by the long term divisions of slavery and support the political argument that it was the Republican Party that engineered the war by furthering Northern political and economic aggrandisement against the South.
As soon as the question of slavery expansion in to western territories entered the political agenda, voters were unwilling to drop the issue without protest but when waging war, the North and the South were fighting for what they believed to be a democracy and were motivated by nativism to defeat the opposition; which posed threat and disunion to their democracy. To conclude, the divisions over slavery in America ultimately contributed to the outbreak of war in 1861. This long term factor influenced the economic and social paths taken by both Northern and Southern States during the 1800s and as a result widened sectional differences.
This greatly impacted the American political system resulting in the breakdown of the two-party system through blunders made by politicians in the 1850s in an attempt to win elections and save their democracy. This breakdown heightened tensions between the two sections and was exacerbated by the increasing influence of the abolitionist movement from 1830s onwards. It would be a limited assumption to deem the breakout of the Civil War purely on the divisions of slavery, as many fought in an attempt to save their own democracy.
However, had slavery never been introduced in to American civilization the nation would never have been divided over the institution, the economic paths taken by both North and South wouldn’t have been so diverse, thus eliminating political differences and an abolitionist movement would never have been formed. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Hugh Tulloch, ‘The debate on the American Civil War era’, p. 110. [ 2 ]. James Ford Rhodes, ‘History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850’, p. [ 3 ].
Kenneth M. Stampp, ‘The Causes of the Civil War’, p. 21. [ 4 ]. Ibid. , p. 23. [ 5 ]. Hugh Tulloch, ‘The debate on the American Civil War Era’, p. 37. [ 6 ]. Ibid. ,p. 35 [ 7 ]. Ibid. , p. 38 [ 8 ]. Ibid. , p. 37 [ 9 ]. Eric Foner, ‘Politics and Ideology in the age of the Civil War’, p. 35. [ 10 ]. Charles and Mary Beard, ‘The rise of American Civilization’, p. [ 11 ]. Hugh Tulloch, ‘The debate on the American Civil War Era’, p. [ 12 ]. Eric Foner, ‘Politics and Ideology in the age of the Civil War’, p. 61. [ 13 ].
Kenneth M. Stampp, ‘The causes of the Civil War’ p 93 [ 14 ]. Ibid. , p. 86. [ 15 ]. Eric Foner, ‘ [ 17 ]. Gabor S. Boritt, ‘Why the Civil War Came’, p. [ 18 ]. Roger L. Ransom, ‘Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War’, p. [ 19 ]. Michael F. Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), p. 4. [ 20 ]. Kenneth Stampp, ‘The causes of the Civil War’ p


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