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All Roads Lead to War: Part I

Updated on June 7, 2012

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.

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    • chipsball profile image

      chipsball 5 years ago from Houston, Texas USA

      To the 4.5 million slaves living in the U.S...including my Grandfather who was born May 24, 1864 the Civil War was an attempt by President Abraham Lincoln to preserve the status quo, appease the Southern slaveholders, keep southern states (particulary Kentucky) in the Union and compensate slaveholders through payments for "their" loses because of the conflict. States Rights...hardly...President Lincoln wanted to avoid this conflict. He delayed execution of the 1st & 2nd Confiscation Act and prolonged the War to keep full and complete Emancipation from occuring for the 4.5 million Black freeperson and slaves remaining in bondage living in horrible and sub-human conditions at the hands of brutal slavemasters who were fighting for the Confederate Army. Lincoln's plan was to prolong the War until a decisive victory was won on the battlefield...so the whole issue of slavery would go away. His plan included the deportation and colonization of ALL African-Americans to any country outside the U.S...which would have included my Grandfather and my GreatGrandparents along with payments to Southern slaveholders for their slaves who would be deported. If Lincoln's Plan had been fullfilled as he designed and initiated it, there would not have been a Civil War and there would be no Black people in the USA today.

      One of the most astounding myths about President Abraham Lincoln was that he went to war to end slavery...false. Lincoln was never in favor of "full" emancipation for slaves (several states had black majorities) and fought to keep it from occuring. He supported the Fugitive Slave Law which you cite..."States Rights" is what he also supported...the right of southern States to maintain the institution of "slavery" if they renounced the insurrection and returned to the Union by agreeing to a loyalty oath... they could keep their slaves. Black folk like my Grandfather wanted freedom, justice and equality and the Civil War did nothing to bring this about...only the 13th Amendment to the U.S.Constitution and the Thirty-Third U.S.Congress's legislation did so.

    • bnorthrup profile image
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      bnorthrup 5 years ago from Spokane WA

      Thanks Bob! Stay tuned for more articles on American history....

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Good hub, bnorthrup...voted up and interesting. If you have an interest in the Civil War, you might check out my hubs, but I guess my "handle" tips you off to one of my interests! Enjoy your day!