The American Civil War began in 1861 when South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by the other southern states that joined the Confederacy. But tension had been building since the founding of the country. There were several on-going causes of the Civil War.
One of them was sectionalism—the differences between the North and the South. By 1861, the United States found itself divided into three sections, all with different interests: the North, the South and the West. The North’s economy was based on industry and commerce. It was there that factories were built during the Industrial Revolution and a strong market economy developed around this industry.
In contrast, the South’s economy was based on agriculture done by slave labor. Southerners saw any attack on the institution of slavery as an attack on their livelihood. Southerners were sensitive to any challenges to slavery and were defensive of it to the extreme.
The West, which was just beginning to be settled, was caught in the middle of these two different regions. There was a balance between Northern and Southern interests in the government and once places in the West got settled and applied to become new states that balance was going to be upset. The division between the North and South began to grow and eventually led to the Civil War.
And that division was focused on the issue of slavery and despite claims to the contrary, the institution of slavery, more than any other single thing, led to the American Civil War.
The issue of slavery was not dealt with by the founding fathers when they created the United States. Many of them were slaveholders themselves. Most thought that slavery would eventually die out on its own. The succeeding generations also put off settling the issue of slavery by making compromises to avoid making a decision on the issue.
Then the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney changed everything. It made the production of cotton so much more productive that slavery became big business. The cotton gin caused resurgence in slavery in the United States and the South became even more dependant on slavery and was willing to defend at all costs.
Slavery began causing conflict as new states were being admitted into the Union. At the founding of the country there was a balance between the North and the South in Congress. But the addition of new states threatened to ruin the balance. Arguments over which ones would be slave states and which would be free states intensified.
Another issue was the growing abolition movement in the North. Beginning in the religious communities, abolitionists opposed slavery on a moral ground. Abolition leaders—like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas—were so vocal that Southerners feared all Northerners wanted to end slavery. In reality, most Northerners disliked slavery, but believed in the gradual elimination of it, unlike the vocal abolition leaders. The new political party formed at this time—the Republicans—was founded as a moderate anti-slavery party.
One of the other issues that led to the Civil War was the on-going battle between the Federal government and states. At each juncture in early American history, the Federal government proved supreme. But states kept challenging the right for the federal government to tell them what to do. This is what will lead to the secession—or separation—of the Southern states from the Union—their assertion that they don’t have to follow Federal laws they disagree with.
Another problem that led to the Civil War was the lack of strong political leaders who were able to compromise. Earlier in American history, when these issues came to a head, leaders like Henry Clay stepped in and were able to make a deal everyone would agree to. By 1860, no one was able to broker such an agreement.
But a string of agreement had been made to attempt to satisfy both sides. During the Articles of Confederation, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance. In addition to organizing how the Northwest Territory (modern day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin and part of Minnesota), would become states, the Ordinance prohibited slavery in that territory. In 1808, the international slave trade became illegal. No new slaves could be imported from outside the Americas. Many were smuggled into the country, however.
The admission of new states into the Union became a divisive issue as Congress debated the existence of slavery in them. For instance, as Missouri sought to apply for statehood, southern states wanted it to be a slave state; northern states wanted it to be a free state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established that new states in the Louisiana territory south of 36’30° would be slave states and those north would be free. Most people mistake this line as the Mason-Dixon line, the symbolic division between the north and the south, but it’s actually a little further south. As part of the compromise Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. The balance was maintained.
Other issues were pushing the country towards the war. The Tariff of 1828 and the Nullification Crisis that resulted from it helped cause the Civil War too. Vice President John Calhoun assertion that states need not follow federal laws they though were unconstitutional causes South Carolina to declare the Tariff null and void. They even threatened to secede from the Union. President Jackson furiously threatens to enforce the tariff and South Carolina backed down.
The fear of what slaves would do also escalated conflict between the North and South. In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner started a slave rebellion in Virginia. The revolt was put down and Turner was tried, convicted and executed. The revolt caused Southern states to further limit the rights of African-Americans in an attempt to stop future revolts from happening.
In 1841, the Amistad Supreme Court case—about slaves who were illegally being imported from Africa and mutinied—brought the issue of slavery into the public consciousness again. The debate fueled the abolition movement in the North, which made the South more defensive.
The Mexican-American War also had ties to slavery. In the 1820’s, American settlers were welcomed into Mexican owned Texas. When the Mexican government planned to emancipate the slaves in Texas, the Americans revolted and declared themselves independent. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) ensued and after a United States victory, Texas was annexed as a slave state.
The Mexican Cession also included the acquisition of the territory that would later become New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California). Northern politicians attempted to ban slavery in the territory gained in the Mexican Cession. The House passed the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slaver in these territories, but it was blocked in the Senate. To the South, this showed that the North wanted to outlaw slavery.
The Compromise of 1850 attempted to ease conflict over the slavery. First, the compromise established the policy of “popular sovereignty” for all future new states. It meant that the people in the new state got to vote on whether or not they wanted to be free or state instead of Congress deciding for it. It became a disaster when radicals on both sided moved into the new states just to stay long enough to vote, such as happened in “Bleeding” Kansas.
More importantly and possibly causing even greater conflict in the long term, Southern states had Congress pass the harsher Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as part of the compromise. The Fugitive Slave Law said that runaway slaves must be hunted down and returned to their owners. Southern slave-holders wanted these laws to prevent slaves from escaping on the Underground Railroad. The laws caused a backlash against slavery in the North. Many Northerners resented these laws because they were required to be slave hunters and could be punished if they didn’t comply.
A famous book would add further fuel to the fire. In 1852, Harriett Beacher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a sensation. It was the second best selling book of the 1800’s. The book depicted the cruelty of slavery and again fueled the discussion about slavery in the North.
Congress sought to make yet another compromise to calm down the issue. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, in addition to creating those states, repealed the Missouri Compromise and established that popular sovereignty—the ability for the people of a new territory to decide on an issue themselves—would be used in future territories. As a result, pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates all moved to Kansas for the impending vote. Violence between the two groups was so common that they called it “Bleeding” Kansas.
A landmark Supreme Court case also failed to help. The Court asserted that slaves were not people, but property in the landmark Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. Scott and his wife lived in states with their slave master in states that outlawed slavery. When their “owner” died, the Scotts sued for their freedom. The Supreme Courted ruled against the Scotts, labeling slaves as property, not people. The decision also said earlier attempts of Congress to limit the spread of slavery—such as the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise—were unconstitutional. The decision also stated than anyone of African descent was not a citizen of the United States.
By the time John Brown became a national hero, fear of what could happen made compromise on the issue of slavery all but impossible. John Brown was an abolitionist who believed in using violence to end slavery. In “Bloody” Kansas, where pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces were involved in violent altercations with each other, he and his followers killed five pro-slavery Southerners.
In 1859, he attempted to start a slave insurrection. He and his sons raided the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They planned to give the seized weapons to slaves, so they could revolt against the slave owners. It failed and he was arrested, tried for treason and executed. Brown—who used his very public trial to put the institution of slavery on trial—became a focal point for the slavery issue, increasing tension between the two sides.
The last straw, as far as Southern States were concerned, happened in 1860. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860 was the last straw for Southern states. As mentioned early, the Republican party was founded on the issue of slavery. To Southerners the election of Lincoln was the last straw. The fear of what he and the Republican Congress were going to do caused Southern states to decide to try to leave the United States, or secede.
NEXT: Civil War–Key Events