All Roads Lead to War: Part I
Slavery and the American Civil War
The Civil War did not come to pass overnight, nor was it the result of a single event. The origins of the war came into existence decades before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, with debate continuing to the present in regards to their respective roles in the causation of the conflict. Various complex, yet intertwined elements served as determinates for the war, yet it is difficult for historians to definitively place the entire blame on one single factor. States rights, cultural disparities, political warfare, and the issue of slavery all served as highly volatile ingredients that, when mixed and allowed to boil for far too long, inevitably ignited with such a destructive force that the cauldron keeping them together violently exploded, resulting on the deaths of more than a quarter million American citizens.
Of all of the possible origins of the Civil War, none is more identifiable than the issue of slavery. The institution of forced labor had been in existence in America long before the birth of the nation, yet most of the Northern states had abandoned the practice in the years following the Revolution. The South, with its lucrative agricultural economy and lack of free labor, retained slavery. To Southerners, slavery was more than just an economic mechanism. It was such an integral part of their lives that many went to great lengths in justifying its existence. Proslavery activists cited biblical justification for continuing the practice of forced servitude, claiming that the patriarchal leaders of the Old Testament owned slaves. Others approached the subject along more practical lines of reasoning, justifying the institution in terms of economics. Slavery allowed a strong cotton-based economy to prosper, resulting in economic freedom for both Northern and Southern whites. Slaves were essentially property protected by the Constitution, and property could not be forfeited without due compensation. To abolish slavery, the Federal government would have to pay for the cost of each slave held in bondage, the total price of which was far too great to meet. Such action would bankrupt the Federal government and would inflict massive economic damage on local economies.
The classification of slaves as property served as one of the strongest arguments for proslavery activists, and they went to great lengths in clarifying this point. The Constitution provided for the protection of such property, and other legislative mechanisms were installed to appease the South in this aspect. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 served as a feeble attempt to return escaped slaves to their masters, but other legislative attempts to appease the South proved to be far more volatile. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, enacted as part of the Compromise of 1850, allowed Southern slaveholders to venture to the North and reclaim their property. Additionally, the populations of Northern states were required to actively assist in such operations. Unfortunately for the South, Northerners were quick to scoff at being required to assist in kidnapping, and incidents of violence were reported when Southern slaveholders attempted to forcibly remove slaves from Northern regions.
Slavery was an integral part of Southern life, and any attempt to restrict the institution was perceived as an outright assault on Southern culture. The main weakness of the proslavery argument is its lack of discussion concerning the Declaration of Independence, which claimed, “All men are created equal.” The Framers of the Constitution ignored this tenet when they drafted the document that would govern the nation, and they did so in order to appease the South. Such hypocrisy serves to weaken the proslavery argument dramatically and proves that Southerners consistently interpreted and shaped historical rhetoric to fit their own agendas. Regardless, the issue of slavery served as the main protagonist in establishing the deep sectional division, and its influence permeated every element that acted as a catalyst for the American Civil War.