Was the American Civil War inevitable?
The Peculiar Institution
Was the American Civil War inevitable?
Events Leading Up to the Civil War in 1861 – An Imaginary Q & A session in a high school history classroom created by Michael M. Nakade
(The author created the work below by gathering relevant information from The Teaching Company’s Lecture Series on The First Edition, The History of the United States, Part IV, Lectures 34 & 35 by Louis Masur, Ph.D.)
Student 1: In 1848, Americans were celebrating the military win over Mexico. Mr. History, Isn’t it a bit soon for the North and South to be fighting with each other in 1861? Just 13 years later!?
Teacher: Patriotic feeling was there in 1848 when America defeated Mexico to gain present day California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Texas and Wyoming. But, some Northerners were bothered by the potential expansion of slavery into new territories. The Mexican war opened the can of worms.
Student 2: Americans have always been pragmatic. They did try another compromise in 1850. Why didn’t it settle the issue once and for all?
Teacher: In life, some compromises make both sides unhappy. The Compromise of 1850 ended up making both the Southern states and the Northern states very unhappy. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, lots of people migrated to California in 1849. Within two years, California reached the population of 100,000+, and the Territory of California applied for statehood. Everyone held his breath and wondered if California would be a free state or a slave state. California wanted to be a free state, and the Southerners became insecure. They wanted some kind of concessions from the North if California would be admitted to the Union as a free state. And, they got two things within the package known as the Compromise of 1850.
Student 3: I know these two things. One is the stricter control of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the other one is the assurance that other western territories would decide whether to be free or slave states later on.
Teacher: Very good. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act upset lots of Northerners, especially those who hated slavery. Those folks are called Abolitionists. The new law required everyone in the North to assist the police force in capturing and returning of run-away slaves to rightful owners. The second part also upset the Northerners because it guaranteed that residents in those newly acquired territories the right to be slave states, if they so choose. Some Northerners did not wish to see the institution of slavery spreading to new areas. They thought it spread far enough already as it was.
Student 4: So, you think that the Compromise of 1850 was a failure?
Teacher: Well, we always have the 20-20 hind side vision, and it is easy for us to point out the mistakes of others in the past. But, yes, it was a failure because it didn’t stop the War between the states from happening.
Student 5: Mr. History, what would you have done if you were the key Washington D.C. politician at that time?
Teacher: That’s difficult to say. I know any compromises between the North and the South would have failed because they were not willing to concede their respective position. For the Southerners, slavery was the foundation of their economy. The original constitution tacitly approved of it, and everyone below the Mason-Dixon could own human beings as his or her property. The Southerners could not possibly imagine their lives without slaves. There were 4 million slaves by 1861. That was a lot of property value. The North, on the other hand, felt appalled that the slavery was still alive and well in the southern half of their country. The institution of slavery began offending many Northerners’ conscience by 1830s. Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stow’s best selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out in 1852. The book tipped the scale to the Abolitionist sentiment. Given that political and emotional climate, a truly satisfying compromise between the North and the South was impossible. So, to answer your question, what I would have done? Well, I can tell you with 100% certainty that I would have failed no matter what I did.
Student 6: Are you saying that the Civil War was inevitable? No one could have prevented it?
Teacher: That’s an interesting question. In my opinion, the war was already happening in Kansas Territory in 1854. In history, we call it Bleeding Kansas. I see this event as a dress rehearsal for the Civil War in 1861.
Student 7: Mr. History, will you tell us more about Bleeding Kansas? Why was it the sign of more violence to come?
Teacher: Glad you asked. Bleeding Kansas was an armed conflict between pro slavery residents and pro free soil residents of Kansas Territory. The lawmakers in Washington D.C. passed the law called Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and it said that the residents of Kansas-Nebraska Territory would decide for themselves whether to be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. It was called popular sovereignty. It sounded like a good democratic idea. Right? Wrong! The people took the matter to their own hands. Instead of voting peacefully on the topic, they fought and killed each other to get their way. Some proslavery people from a neighboring state like Missouri came in and fought against the pro free soil residents. The issue was too passionate to settle through democratic means. It really was a mini civil war in Kansas.
Student 8: I heard about popular sovereignty proposed by Lincoln’s rival, Stephen Douglas. It was a popular idea then. But, Lincoln didn’t buy it. Why not?
Teacher: Lincoln was a moderate Abolitionist. He accepted slavery where it existed. He knew all too well that slaves were classified as property in the Constitution and that it would have been difficult, if not outright impossible, to amend the constitution. His position was that he did not like to see the expansion of slavery to new territories. He wanted slavery to stop further west. That’s why he didn’t like the idea of giving the residents of those new territories to decide the matter. When he became the president in 1861, his stance was to save the Union. Initially, he did not send the Federal troops to the south just for the sake of freeing slaves in the South.
Student 9: Wait a minute. Way back in 1820, there was a compromise called the Missouri Compromise. I thought it said that now new slave states would be created above the 36’30” latitude. What happened to that?
Teacher: I’m impressed that you remember the detail of Missouri Compromise. Well, it was thrown out the door when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854. Officially, in 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney’s court declared that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional in the case known as the Dred Scott case. In other words, the sectional tension between the North and the South became so tense that the Missouri Compromise became insufficient to settle the difference. The voice from the South demanded a more Southern friendly compromise, and they got it from Stephen Douglas and the Supreme Court before the Civil War began.
Student 10: Please tell us the significance of the Dred Scott decision.
Teacher: The decision declared that once a slave, always a property. Chief Justice Taney was a true Southerner. He was offended that the former slave actually sued to be free. Taney wanted to make sure that slaves weren’t citizens and that they weren’t qualified to bring up lawsuits against anyone. Dred Scot was a slave living in a slave state. But when his master took him to a free state, he thought he became free forever. But, the court struck down his freedom and let him know that he didn’t have the right to sue anyone for anything for anyway. The decision was offensive to many Northern abolitionists.
Student 11: You said Lincoln was a moderate Abolitionist. What were other kinds of Abolitionists then?
Teacher: The ones that you might have heard are John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. These are radical or immediate Abolitionists. They wanted to free slaves in the South immediately. John Brown took the matter to his own hand and tried to incite the slave rebellion in the South by attacking the Federal weapons storage in today’s West Virginia. He failed and was executed. These radical Abolitionists were few in number but were extremely effective in raising people’s awareness of the evil nature of slavery. Then, there were “gradual” Abolitionists. They didn’t think it was practical to free 4 million slaves in the South all at once. They wanted to do it gradually with some well thought out plans. Then, as you heard, there was Abraham Lincoln and his stance on slavery. He and many Northerners hated slavery but were accepting of slaves where the system had existed since the day of the U.S. Constitution. They just didn’t want the institution of slavery going further west.
Student 12: Let’s go back to the question of the Civil War. Do you think it was inevitable?
Teacher: I do think that President Buchanan might have let the South leave the union and not do anything about it in 1861, thereby averting the Civil War altogether. But, we must remember that Lincoln didn’t start the war in April 1861. It was the folks in South Carolina who first fired upon Fort Sumter. Lincoln had been a president for about a month and had to deal with the southern take over of the federal military fort. He did not have a choice of not fighting back at that point. The attack on Fort Sumter was their declaration of Independence from the Union. But at the same time, we do have to remember that seven southern states seceded from the Union only after realizing that Lincoln, the man who represented the North, was going to the president. They thought they were fighting their war of independence from the North’s reluctance to embrace the slavery. Lincoln, on the other hand, decided to fight back to preserve the Union. He did not want to see the United States of America breaking apart permanently in 1861. Next time, we’ll study the war itself. It will be a long and hard four year period for both sides.