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Aspects of America's past

The Civil War

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The American Civil War had extremely complex causes and few historians have come to any agreement as to what started the war. It really stemmed from a series of incidents and miscalculations.

It would seem then that, instead of asking "What caused the war?" one should rather ask "Why did the southern states secede from the Union?".

The answer to that question must be understood in terms of three factors: 1. The differences between the American North and American South; 2. The economic situation; and 3. The question of slavery.

In fact, all three questions are related and can be rolled into one: How did slavery cause such diverse cultures in North and South, add to the economic differences between the two sectors and create the political climate in which the South would decide to forsake the Union so as to create a Confederation on its own?


By 1850, after the acquisition of Texas, California and Oregon, the United States had extended completely across the North American continent and was territorially satiated. In fact, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, the United States had virtually reached her present-day limits.

The vastness of the territory, however, brought about sectional differences, e.g. between North and South, between East and West, etc. In most cases the differences were complementary and allowed a diverse peoples to work together to create a complex but interdependent web of economic interests.

The differences between the North and the South, however, appeared more antagonistic than most because of the slave question.

The major reason for the differences lay in the fact that each section had evolved differently. The South with its warm climate had turned to growing such crops as tobacco and cotton, using the plantation system in which the owners relied heavily on slaves. As a result, slaves formed a significant part of the total population of the South.

Life in the American South became committed to slaves in two aspects: its economy was slave based and the people therefore feared that emancipation would destroy their very existence.

It was particularly problematic since each state was independent. Emancipation might damage the economy of a single state but might not necessarily affect the Union as a whole. On the other hand, the slave population of the South consisted of between 30 to 60 percent of the total population.

Many southerners therefore feared that they would be swamped by blacks should the slaves be emancipated, and that created the fear of mass murder.

The North on the other hand, although also agricultural, tended to be more diverse in its economic pursuits, turning increasingly to trade and manufacture as the basis of its economy. Although there was exploitation of labour in the North, nevertheless the fundamental philosophy was one of free movement, free labour and democracy.

As a result, the North grew to value the commercial virtues of thrift, enterprise and hard work, in contrast to the more military virtues which held a priority in the South.

In every way the slave question appeared to make the South different from the other sections of the Union. It created a semi-feudal society based entirely on agriculture which became conservative in the extreme whereas the North, which based its economy mainly on industry and trade, became progressive and versatile.

Economic interests were, however, more than different. North and South clashed seriously over major issues. The South with its dependence on agriculture needed to maintain a good import/export relationship with Europe based on free trade.

The North on the other hand, desired a protectionist policy to encourage local industry. In fact, the industrial North East complemented the North West with its grain production. The West supplied grain to the East, while the East subsidised the building of canals and communications in the West.

The South, however, was out of that completely. It did not need subsidisation and was severely affected by the protectionist policy which escalated prices. As a result of the clash of interests, South Carolina was ready to leave the Union as early as 1833 but was prevented from doing so by lack of support from the other states.

Nevertheless, the problem of seeking a cause which is too confined to the economic factor is that there was already significant trade between North and South. Indeed, the large businesses of the North attempted to defuse the situation in 1860 so that a war would not happen.

The problem was therefore far more complex for it embodied people, emotions, ideologies, politics, as well as the economy. One must therefore turn to slavery and see how it encompassed a vast aspect of life in the South.


Up until about 1770 slavery was not generally seen as a moral issue and there were slaves in all the American colonies. The North had less slaves simply because they were not as profitable as they were in the South. The Age of the Enlightenment, however, changed all that.

The Enlightenment preached the sanctity of the natural law, of human equality and the rights of man. At the same time, religion began to shift its theme from personal salvation to the social gospel. The "unnatural institution" of slavery came under attack from both these sources.

The North was influenced to a far greater extent by these movements simply because it had less slaves and was therefore not as economically dependent upon them. In other words, emancipation would not affect the economy.

As a result all the northern states had adopted emancipation regulations by 1804 and in 1808 Congress forbade the further importation of slaves from Africa.

Initially the South was also influenced by the Enlightenment as rice and tobacco plantations had become static by the beginning of the 19th century.

Because of the greater numbers of slaves in the South, however, the liberation movement there tended to concentrate more on the repatriation of Free Blacks to Africa than on actual emancipation.

The rapid development of the cotton plantations during the early 19th century placed the whole problem in a new perspective. Slaves were needed for these plantations and so, as cotton farmers moved westward into new states, they took their slaves with them and so created new slave states. By 1820 slavery was totally interwoven with the economy of the South.

With the early 19th century emancipation movements in Britain, France and the states of the American North, the plantation owners in the South began to grow defensive in order to protect their economic interests. Up till then they were prepared to admit that slavery was fundamentally evil but difficult to abolish for economic reasons.

The very real threat to their livelihood gradually led them to defend the institution as a positive good: 1. that the Bible accepted slavery; 2. that the black race was biblically predestined to a life of servitude ("hewers of wood and drawers of water); 3. that the black race was physically and mentally inferior to the white; 4. that slaves were better off than white industrial labourers in the North who had no security; and 5. that it was predestined that one race should dominate the other.

Initially a major clash between North and South was averted because of the prevailing attitudes towards the federal constitution. The federal system was regarded as a loose federation rather than a consolidated nation. Slavery was an affair of the individual states and did not concern the federal government.

Furthermore, slavery was considered by the Southerners to have been enshrined in the constitution: 1. the congressional representation compromise regarded three-fifths of the slaves as part of the population; 2. there were fugitive slave clauses in the constitution.

Indeed, it was only because of these clauses that the South had agreed to join the Union. Furthermore, the very existence of the Union was always seen by the majority in both the North and South as far more important than the slave question.

The problem remained confined as long as the number of free states equalled those of the slave states. The problem came to a head, however, in the mid-19th century with the rapid extension of the western frontier, causing more states to be added to the Union.

The anti-slave lobby, which was prepared to accept the status quo, was not prepared to accept new slave states into the Union. At the same time, a large section of the population wished to keep the new states completely white and had no wish to see a black population move in, either as slaves or as free blacks.

Finally, the South had no desire to see the North politically strengthened by the addition of more free states which would give them greater economic domination over the South.

Because of these divergent positions, trouble arose whenever a new state applied to become a member of the Union. The first such crisis was in 1820 when Missouri applied for admission but after 1846, when the massive territory won from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War began to become organised into new states, serious flare-ups became incessant.

Eventually, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860 as a Northern man representing anti-slave sentiments, the South decided to break away rather than take the chance of anti-slave legislation.


By 1850 the dispute over slavery rose to a peak over the right of a slave owner to carry his property (including slavery) into the new territories.

During that year President Taylor, a Southerner and slave owner, advocated the admission of all the territory acquired from the Mexicans as rapidly as possible so as to settle the slave question. The problem lay, however, in the difficulty of whether they would be slave states or free states.

That year a strong Northern body in Congress was determined to ban slavery from all those territories while Southern congressmen were openly threatening secession if that were to happen.

Eventually a compromise was proposed by Senator Clay and adopted by Congress: California would be admitted to the Union immediately without any reference to slavery; Utah and New Mexico would then be left to make their own decisions on slavery when each applied for admission to the Union. At the same time, to pacify the South, a stronger Fugitive Slave Law was enacted.

Although the South accepted the compromise, the more radical elements were against it. Their argument was that new territorial legislatures ruled by permission of Congress.

Congress in turn was governed by the Constitution which guaranteed the freedom of each individual to use his property as he deemed fit. That was interpreted by the South to mean slaves.

The South at first took a wait and see attitude, putting aside the threat of secession until it had determined whether the North would apply the Fugitive Slave Law.

The North, in the meantime, objected strongly to the law as it meant that a slave owner merely had to present an affidavit to a special federal commissioner to recover his alleged runaway slave. The slave could not testify in his own defence.

Furthermore, bystanders could be called upon to assist in the capture of the slave and a person convicted of aiding a runaway slave or refusing to aid in his capture could be heavily fined or face six months in prison.

Free blacks in turn feared that they might suddenly find themselves enslaved on the untruthful testimony of a Southern slave owner.

By 1860 the South claimed that it had become clear that the North was not prepared to enforce the law. In the meantime, serious clashes had taken place between pro-slavers and anti-slavers in Kansas in which two governments were elected to rule over the state.

Even the Senate was not immune. A Northern senator was clubbed over the head and seriously injured because of remarks he made concerning the South and slavery.

Furthermore, a new and liberal political party had arisen in the North, to be known as the Republicans, which took free labour as its main standpoint. The party proved particularly attractive to the Middle Class of the North.

The Republican Party decided to nominate Abraham Lincoln for President in the 1860 elections. Although Lincoln regarded slavery as an evil which should not be allowed to spread, he was not an abolitionist. Indeed, he only joined the Republican Party when it was clear that it was not an abolitionist party.

The South misinterpreted some of Lincoln's speeches and concluded that he was a abolitionist. The 1860 elections were characterised by disarray in the traditional Whig and Democratic Parties, which enabled the Republicans to sneak in with only 39 percent of the vote, although Lincoln took the electoral vote by 180 to 123 combined votes.

The worst fears of the South had come to fruition although, had the people taken time to consider the situation, they would have seen that the Republican Party did not have a majority in Congress and therefore did not present a real threat to the South.

Nevertheless, Lincoln's election was seen as the beginning of the end to slavery and one by one the Southern states took the decision to secede from the Union.

War was not a certainty. The South did not believe that the North would actually go to war over the secession question. The North in the meantime tended to prevaricate over the issue and tried to woo the South back into the Union through diplomacy. Indeed, the war started over a minor incident: an attack by the new Confederacy on Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter was a Federal fort in South Carolina which refused to surrender to the Confederates. With supplies running low, Lincoln decided to send in new stocks and informed South Carolina accordingly.

Some historians argue that Lincoln was deliberately trying to push the South into a fight by the action whereas others believe that the South wanted a fight and used it as a pretext to attack Fort Sumter.

Whatever the reason, Fort Sumter was attacked and conquered, and the Civil War started, to rage for a further five years, bringing wholesale death and destruction in its wake.

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