Causes of the American Civil War
Civil War - Americans v Americans
The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 remains one of the worst conflicts on American soil with huge loss of life on both sides. Over 600,000 men lost their lives in the civil war which ultimately brought the 'United' States together.
Ask most people today what caused the war and the answer is usually 'slavery'.
Whilst slavery was certainly one of the main causes, it was not the only one.
The American Civil War is a war with a number of major causes. It was a war with a long history of conflict before it. The conflict came from a number of sources but nobody really dealt with any of them.
A series of political and partisan movements, ideologies and events led to the American Civil War and slavery was at its centre, some, but not all of the time.
In this article, I propose to explain the causes for the American Civil War by looking at 10 reasons for it.
10 Causes of the American Civil War
- Advanced Industrialisation in the Northern States
- Population Growth and Disparity in Population between North and South
- A Rise in 'Nationalist' politics in the Southern states
- Intrusion of Slavery into Free States
- A Rise in 'Nationalism' in the Northern states.
- National Expansion - a desire to remove European influences.
- Lack of Leadership
- The Rise of the Republican (Sectional) Party
- The Southern States Dependence on Slaves
In the period just before the American civil war, America was a very different country with the north and south showing massive differences in industry more than anything.
In the north particularly, there had been an industrial revolution which caused work once done in homes and farms to be done in factories.
At first, this happened on a small scale but steam power changed all of that. The creation of this power lead to mass production and it was the North that embraced this change.
The 19th century was a time of amazing invention. America led the way with much of this with men like Morse, Singer and Goodyear all inventing products which changed industry,communication and transport once and for all.
With invention and the desire for effective, profitable industrialisation came entrepreneurial spirit with families like the Vanderbilts and Rothschilds investing heavily in the North. This caused a rise in wealth and affluence in the north.
In the South, investors stuck with cotton, a cash crop, still creating huge wealth. Export to Britain was still strong but soon factories built in the north of America would undermine the industrial revolution in Britain with an industrial golden age of their own. In 1860, the state of Massachusetts produced more manufactured goods than the whole of the deep south states combined.
It is worth noting that the North was moving with the times - industrialisation was a way to quicker profit and considerable wealth to those who invested but with industrialisation came the growth of the country's infrastructure with canal and rail building central to the process for progress. The north was becoming more urban, suburban and above all, affluent.
Population Growth and Disparity in Population between North and South
In 1800, the population of America was 5.3 million people.
By 1830, due to high birth rates, this had risen to 13 million.
By 1860, at the height of the new industrialisation this had risen to 32 million.
The split between North and South was thus:
- 22 million people lived in the free states
- 10 million lived in slave states, of these 10 million, 4 million were slaves.
It is worth nothing that this disparity had a huge political influence because seats in congress were acquired based on population numbers and as slaves were, in law, considered to be 'three fifths' of a person, southern states were greatly outnumbered by free states.
This gave the northern states an immediate political advantage at a time when the country was going through enormous change and caused the south to resent the influence of the north in Washington.
This would, in time, become one of the major causes of the American Civil War as the South felt more and more marginalised from what was happening in Washington.
William Lloyd-Garrison's repudiation of white slave owners as 'barbaric tyrants' in 1832 during his early years as founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society started a debate about slavery which continued to rage for the next three centuries.
Lloyd Garrison's newspaper 'The Liberator' began as a way to spread the word about the wrongs of slavery. It had only 400 subscribers when it was first published but Garrison gained more and more supporters because he remained a vocal and vehement opponent of slavery.
Slave uprisings became more prevalent in the decades following Lloyd-Garrison's initial proposals to free slaves from bondage.
In a strange counter-attack, southern slave owners called upon their politicians (most of whom were slave owners themselves) to show that their work with slaves was a virtuous pursuit.
They tried to sell themselves as good men who cared for their slaves in the right way.
Conversely, in the northern free states, over a quarter of a million people had joined anti-slavery societies by 1840.
In newspapers, political speeches and the pulpit, men fought for and against slavery.
Often, the Declaration of Independence was called into use as the document which supported their views (on both sides).
The southern slave owners and politicians held slavery up as the reason for American wealth and industrial success. They belittled the efforts of the anti-slavery movement as one that was out of step with American culture.
The incident at Harpers Ferry in 1859 was what finally brought things to a head. There was a realisation for all concerned that John Brown's audacious raid on the arsenal could have led to a real anti-slavery movement, armed and with intent to get their way in the south.
After Harpers Ferry, things were never the same. John Brown's raid gained national attention.
Whilst not a cause, it became the catalyst for the American civil war.
A Rise in Nationalist Politics in the Southern States
It is too easy to imagine that America was the same in the early 19th century as it is now.
But it was nothing like the truly 'federal' country of the 21st century.
North and south both became enclaves for differing political ideologies with the south feeling more and more isolated with their reduced voice in Congress.
Understandably, this led to the south's most powerful men coming together on the same side. Unity was more effective than many disparate visions of the way forward for the slave states.
Their biggest issue was 'States' Rights'. They argued for their rights as each state to have jurisdiction over events occurring on their own soil.
America's federal government had no national bank, no real national currency, no universal tax laws and a tiny national army. There was, indeed, not much 'national' about the country at all.
The north dominated in congress and consequently, the south found themselves on the wrong end of a number of major fiscal decisions. Not least of which was the matter of import tariff payment which, the south felt they were unduly discriminated against.
Politicians in the south led the cry again and again for autonomy over their own affairs. They argued for the rights to do as they pleased over slavery ownership, tarrifs and taxes. Once again, they called upon the not so ancient declaration as the standard bearer for their rights.
Men like South Carolina's John C Calhoun fought for the south's rights to 'free trade' and 'minority rights' - claiming that the South was being unjustly taxed and tariffed because they were less represented in congress.
Whilst in fact, states rights were the same for all states, the south seemed to call upon their rights more frequently as the gap between the industrialised north and the southern slave states grew ever wider. They felt the pressure of a changing culture but would not move with the times; the financial and personal losses were too great to consider.
Intrusion of Slavery into the Free States
On the featured map which outlines the Missouri Compromise (1820), the areas for slavery and non-slavery were determined by politicians in both the northern and southern states.
In the west, the Spanish still held huge swathes of land (coloured grey on the map). The former Louisiana territory (now called the Missouri territory) was a relatively new addition to the States and was deemed as an area which could not have slavery.
In effect, a line was drawn on the parallel 30 degrees and 30 minutes north, except within the boundaries of Missouri. Agreement was reached on this matter and there was an understanding that no slavery would occur north of that boundary.
It is a complicated matter to explain how a slave taken by his master into one of the free states could still not be free. But he is still owned by his master!
The master would claim that the slave was his 'property'. Sadly, the free states had no real laws in place to offer rights to slaves or fugitive slaves. A slave had no rights as a 'citizen' either in the south or the north.
Many southern slave owners thwarted the agreement of the Missouri Compromise and took slaves with them to do work in free states.
Not unexpectedly, the free states said that this was illegal. They began to talk about their 'states rights'.
Abraham Lincoln warned the people in 1858 that the government would not survive as long as the country was half free, half slave owning. He suggested that it should be one or the other; he was not the first to discuss it but he was perhaps the most committed of all those who thought it.
Lincoln felt a zeitgeist at work in the north; it was time for change and he did everything in his power to compromise with the south. But his presidency and early work led to secession.
A Rise in Nationalism in the Northern States
Parallel to the rise in a southern national identity and togetherness, the northern states began to feel more connected with one another because their own laws and state laws were being undermined.
Nobody can ever be sure whether this northern unity was ever as cohesive as it has since been described but out of what political and partisan annoyance with the south there was, came an idea of northern 'union'. Behind it were men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.
This union has been somewhat romanticized over the intervening centuries. In truth, it was probably an idea which came from angry, shared conversations but created enough groundswell to lead to a shared sense of achievement in contrast to the South's.
Whilst the South's wealth and industry was achieved through slavery, the north pointed to their canals, railways and other public works - the cottonfield versus the factory. They boasted that they had done all of this without exploiting any slaves (though seem to have turned a blind eye to the fact that they employed small children to do some of the work!).
Their main cry though was for 'democracy'. A world created by exploiting slaves had no democratic principles. They looked to the Constitution of the United States for their proof and found it; the constitution was about the people and the people decided on how they would create their nation from the moment of independence. They believed the Southern states were not following the constitution's message because slaves had no rights.
The Union was recognised, for the first time, as being a force to be reckoned with. This 'united' culture of shared values and beliefs became an inevitable cause of the American Civil War because it further alienated those in the south.
National Expansion - Removal of European Influences
The United States had huge swathes of land west of the Louisiana Territory which remained in European hands for parts of the 19th century.
The Mexican War (1846-48) saw the Spanish finally removed from the west and the British handed over the Oregon territory without fuss on agreement that some of the territorial land on the border with Canada would be settled for good.
So within the space of thirty years, the states suddenly had more land and it was inevitable that the Southern slave owners would want to expand into this land with their slaves whilst of course, the North disagreed.
Mexico, in particular was favoured by the southern cotton farmers who felt that its climate would favour cotton growing.
In Kansas in particular, a fight over land rights began in earnest. Technically, Kansas was a free state but slave owners moved onto the land. There was political activist violence and fighting in Kansas before the civil war began and even during the civil war, it was one of the worst battle sites.
It is telling though, that the desire to expand west had slavery at its heart.
The union wanted to settle the west with Americans and in truth, to carry on their industrial legacy if they could.
The south, already in the minority in terms of population saw it as a way to gain more political power (and wealth). Technically, the land belonged to the federal government and this was the time for good leadership.
Sadly, the American Civil War ended up being the inevitable outcome of too many years of bad leadership.
Lack of Leadership
In 1858, William H Seward foresaw conflict arising from the irreconcilable differences between the north and the south but by then the conflict had been raging for about thirty years.
A distinct lack of leadership by presidents in the period of the 19th century which led to the war was one of the main reasons for its occurrence.
Presidents from Polk through to James Buchanan had done little to resolve the issues which far from receding, had gotten worse.
As already discussed, their leadership covered a period of growing political and moral ideology and also the industrial and physical expansion of the country.
Reading the history of most of them reveals a fear of losing support from either north or south.
Only Zachary Taylor who died in office, took the brave decision to only allow new territories into the states once they had written their own state constitutions. he understood that 'the people' should decide on their future progress. As a former soldier himself, he understood that civil war would be a disaster.
Sadly, his successor Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president undid most of Taylor's work and his successor Franklin Pierce with his indecision over the Kansas Nebraska Act lead to him losing a lot of northern support. He was not nominated for a second term.
The president who followed him, James Buchanan, was in charge when the initial declaration of secession occurred. A lawyer by profession, he deemed it illegal but also deemed any war against it as 'illegal', If ever there was a time for firm leadership, indeed, decisive leadership, this was it. With this inaction, that initial fuse was lit.
Buchanan did nothing to diffuse the situation. He was too busy trying to keep everybody happy and in this situation, that was impossible. In Washington he was referred to as 'doughface' (two-faced, he changed its shape depending on whether he needed to please north or south).
It was not until Abraham Lincoln came to the presidency that some good leadership was restored; though of course, his presidency is considered to be the tipping point for actual secession and in effect, his presidency became a major cause of the civil war.
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The Rise of the Republican Party
In 1854, the north finally had a political movement with some real power. It started at a partisan level; men who wanted to put time and energy into further improving industry and infrastructure.
They wanted to contain slavery and have more protective tariffs for the free states, indeed, all states.
They called themselves The Republican Party and in a five year period rose from a grass roots party into a major political force, claiming a third of all congressional seats and a third of the popular vote for president.
The Republican Party was very different to The Whigs and Democrats in that it existed almost exclusively in the North.
The South looked on at the rise of this 'anti slavery' party with genuine concern. They feared a Republican presidency above all else.
When the Republicans finally won the presidency with Abraham Lincoln in 1861 that really was the turning point for them. The South carried out proper secession after a few decades of threatening it.
South Carolina, a state which had many times asserted its rights over those of the federal government and had threatened secession during the presidency of Andrew Jackson declared first and was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.
The secession was an act of anger at Lincoln's victory in the election. The South knew that major change was afoot. Lincoln had already declared his ambitions to bring the country together and the new 'Confederacy' knew that this meant changing their way of life forever.
The new 'Confederate' state of South Carolina fired the first shots of the war with their attack on Fort Sumter in January 1861.
This act began the American civil war.
The Southern States Dependence on Slaves
When South Carolina seceded in 1860, followed by the other 6 states and then others in 1861, it was solely to protect their wealth and ownership of their slaves.
To say that slavery was the cause of the war is too specific to slavery alone. When you get down to the statistical facts of secession, you discover a not insubstantial fact:-
The states seceded based on the exact order of their percentage of slaves owned!
South Carolina had more slaves as a percentage of its population and had more to lose as a result. When you see the percentage of slaves per population per state, you realise that the south saw the abolition of slavery as the end of all they had known.
The other states seceded in order of slaves percentage per state population.
It was no coincidence. The talking had already taken place and the plans were already in place to secede in that order.
- South Carolina - 57.1%
- Mississippi 55.1%
- Georgia 48.2%
- Louisiana 46.8%
- Alabama 45.1%
- Florida 43.9%
- North Carolina 33.3%
- Virginia 30.9%
- Texas 30.2%
- Arkansas 26%
Texas, was at that time, a relatively 'new' American state.
When the territory was ripe for expansion, other southern gentry moved into Texas with their families, taking their slaves with them.
That it appears on this list with over 30% slave population tells us that the south were keen to develop the new territories in the west. They got in there pretty fast!
The state of Virginia seceded but its north western area declared itself a union 'state' because it had few slaves and did most of its business with the north. It became the state of West Virginia and joined the American Civil War on the side of the Union.
The Civil War - 30 Years in Waiting
It is amazing to think that the early talk of anti-slavery began in the early 1830s. This coincides with the abolition of slavery in many European countries.
Over the following 30 years, no politician could achieve a compromise which might have led to the abolition of slavery and found a way to compensate the South for the changes forced upon it.
It was a complicated problem.
These people had never had any other way of life. Their wealth was a direct result of slave labour and it is understandable that if that way of life was destroyed, they would fight tooth and nail to restore it.
In our time, we find it difficult to imagine that they believed their ownership of other people was justifiable but the issue of slavery was not only an American one.
The British had banned slavery in its empire in 1833, offering a number of philosophical reasons for doing so. The Americans, in their newly independent nation and trying to establish their place in the world did not have to follow where others led. Though it is clear opinion was divided.
Had they been a 'united' nation, emancipation may have occurred more quickly.
The fact is, they were not - they were north and south in a divided nation. They lived in very different worlds, neither seemingly willing or able to understand the other.
The list of 10 causes I have suggested is, perhaps, not exhaustive (the comments below will tell their own tale) but the American Civil War was caused, to some degree, because of each of them.
Many thanks for reading.
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