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All Roads Lead to War: Part III
Political Origins of the Civil War
When discussing what caused the American Civil War, it is easy to focus on the issue of slavery and how that peculiar institution served as a catalyst in starting the conflict. One can also analyze the role cultural differences played in bringing about the conflict. Both of these elements served as important actors in the origins of the war. Yet perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle lies with the political forces that were at work in bringing the War Between the States about.
The political school of thought provides one of the more compelling arguments in relation to the origin of the Civil War. With the issue of slavery serving as the protagonist, political sectionalism became extremely volatile during the 1850’s with the disintegration of the Whig Party and the fracturing of the Democratic Party. The Democrats, associated with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the powerful pro-slave lobby, and overt corruption, witnessed massive loss of power in national politics and saw many of its anti-slavery members move towards new political groups, including the Know-Nothings.
The imminent decline of the Know-Nothings created a power vacuum, which in turn allowed for the emergence of the Republican Party. The Republicans capitalized on the sectional difficulties associated with slavery, and their power increased with the addition of Abraham Lincoln, who proved to be an adept political operator. Lincoln’s rise to power alarmed Southerners who mistakenly viewed him as an ardent abolitionist, and their response ultimately led to Southern secession. Southern secessionist commissioners repeatedly questioned the role of the Republicans during their travels across the South, and convincingly portrayed the Republicans as anti-slavery zealots who would stop at nothing until emancipation became a reality.
The point of no return came in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which effectively erased the Missouri Compromise and opened the west to the expansion of slavery. The issue of states rights became an embarrassment for the Democratic Party after corrupt and violent proslavery forces swept into the region and forced a proslavery vote. The Kansas-Nebraska Act caused many former Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats to join the Know-Nothings, many of whom would later bolster the ranks of the Republican Party. Most importantly, the Kansas-Nebraska Act caused Lincoln to embark on upon a second political career with the Republican Party. His eventual rise to the presidency directly caused the states from the Deep South to secede, which forced the North to mobilize its military resources in order to keep the Union together.
The events leading up to the Civil War did not occur in a vacuum. Deep sectional conflict had been in place since the beginning of the 19th century, yet both sections refused to discuss the issue of slavery for fear of alienating the other. While the North did attempt to appease the South, their actions proved to be disastrous. The South, requiring more land for the expansion of slavery, would not compromise on the issue. In the end, neither side wanted war, but war proved to be the only option. There was no single cause of the Civil War; rather, it originated in a complex set of ideologies that were too firmly rooted in the psyches of the belligerents.