Top Causes of the Civil War

American Civil War
Stock Montage/Getty Images

The question, “What caused the U.S. Civil War?” has been debated since the horrific conflict ended in 1865. As with most wars, however, there was no single cause. 

Instead, the Civil War erupted from a variety of longstanding tensions and disagreements about American life and politics. For nearly a century, the people and politicians of the Northern and Southern states had been clashing over the issues that finally led to war: economic interests, cultural values, the power of the federal government to control the states, and, most importantly, slavery in American society.

While some of these differences might have been resolved peacefully through diplomacy, slavery was not among them.

With a way of life steeped in age-old traditions of white supremacy and a mainly agrarian economy that depended on cheap — slave — labor, the Southern states viewed slavery as essential to their very survival.

Slavery in the Economy and Society

At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, slavery not only remained legal in all thirteen British American colonies, it continued to play a significant role in their economies and societies.

Prior to the American Revolution, the institution of slavery in America had become firmly established as being limited to persons of African ancestry. In this atmosphere, the seeds of feelings of white supremacy were sown.

Even when the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, very few black people and no slaves were allowed to vote or own property.

However, a growing movement to abolish slavery had led many Northern states to enact abolitionist laws and abandon slavery. With an economy based more on industry than agriculture, the North enjoyed a steady flow of European immigrants. As impoverished refugees from the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, many of these new immigrants could be hired as factory workers at low wages, thus reducing the need for slavery in the North.

In the Southern states, longer growing seasons and fertile soils had established an economy based on agriculture fueled by sprawling, white-owned plantations that depended on slaves to perform a wide range of duties.

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, cotton became very profitable.

This machine was able to reduce the time it took to separate seeds from the cotton. At the same time, the increase in the number of plantations willing to move from other crops to cotton meant an ever greater need for slaves. The southern economy became a one-crop economy, depending on cotton and therefore on slavery.

Though it was often supported throughout the social and economic classes, not every white Southerner owned slaves. The population of the South was around 6 million in 1850 and only about 350,000 were slave owners. This included many of the wealthiest families, a number of whom owned large plantations. At the start of the Civil War, at least 4 million slaves and their descendants were forced to live and work on the Southern plantations.

In contrast, industry ruled the economy of the North and less emphasis was on agriculture, though even that was more diverse. Many northern industries were purchasing the South's raw cotton and turning it into finished goods.

This economic disparity also led to irreconcilable differences in societal and political views.

In the North, the influx of immigrants — many from countries that had long ago abolished slavery — had contributed to a society in which people of different cultures and classes had to come to live and work together.

The South, however, continued to hold onto a social order based on white supremacy in both private and political life, not unlike that under the rule of racial apartheid that persisted in South Africa for decades.

In both the North and South, these differences influenced peoples’ views on the powers of the federal government to control the economies and cultures of the states.

States vs. Federal Rights

Since the time of the American Revolution, two camps emerged when it came to the role of government.

Some people argued for greater rights for the states and others argued that the federal government needed to have more control.

The first organized government in the U.S. after the Revolution was under the Articles of Confederation. The thirteen states formed a loose confederation with a very weak federal government. However, when problems arose, the weaknesses of the Articles caused the leaders of the time to come together at the Constitutional Convention and create, in secret, the U.S. Constitution.

Strong proponents of states rights like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were not present at this meeting. Many felt that the new constitution ignored the rights of states to continue to act independently. They felt that the states should still have the right to decide if they were willing to accept certain federal acts.

This resulted in the idea of nullification, whereby the states would have the right to rule federal acts unconstitutional. The federal government denied states this right. However, proponents such as John C. Calhoun—who resigned as Vice President to represent South Carolina in the Senate—fought vehemently for nullification. When nullification would not work and many of the southern states felt that they were no longer respected, they moved towards thoughts of secession.

Slave and Non-Slave States

As America began to expand—first with the lands gained from the Louisiana Purchase and later with the Mexican War—the question arose of whether new states would be slave or free.

An attempt was made to ensure that equal numbers of free and slave states were admitted to the Union, but over time this proved difficult.

The Missouri Compromise passed in 1820. This established a rule that prohibited slavery in states from the former Louisiana Purchase north of the latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes, with the exception of Missouri. 

During the Mexican War, the debate began about what would happen with the new territories the U.S. expected to gain upon victory. David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso in 1846 which would ban slavery in the new lands. This was shot down to much debate.

The Compromise of 1850 was created by Henry Clay and others to deal with the balance between slave and free states. It was designed to protect both northern and southern interests. When California was admitted as a free state, one of the provisions was the Fugitive Slave Act. This held individuals responsible for harboring fugitive slaves even if they were located in non-slave states. 

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was another issue that further increased tensions. It created two new territories that would allow the states to use popular sovereignty to determine whether they would be free or slave. The real issue occurred in Kansas where pro-slavery Missourians, called "Border Ruffians," began to pour into the state in an attempt to force it toward slavery. 

Problems came to a head with a violent clash at Lawrence, Kansas, causing it to become known as "Bleeding Kansas." The fight even erupted on the floor of the Senate when anti-slavery proponent Charles Sumner was beaten over the head by South Carolina's Senator Preston Brooks.

The Abolitionist Movement

Increasingly, Northerners became more polarized against slavery. Sympathies began to grow for abolitionists and against slavery and slaveholders. Many in the North came to view slavery as not just socially unjust, but morally wrong.

The abolitionists came with a variety of viewpoints. Those such William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass wanted immediate freedom for all slaves. A group that included Theodore Weld and Arthur Tappan advocated for emancipating slaves slowly. Still others, including Abraham Lincoln, simply hoped to keep slavery from expanding.

A number of events helped fuel the cause for abolition in the 1850s. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and that popular novel opened many eyes to the reality of slavery. The Dred Scott Case brought the issue of a slave's rights, freedom, and citizenship to the Supreme Court.

Additionally, some abolitionists took a less peaceful route to fighting slavery. John Brown and his family fought on the anti-slavery side of "Bleeding Kansas." They were responsible for the Pottawatomie Massacre in which they killed five settlers who were pro-slavery.  Yet, Brown's best-known fight would be his last when the group attacked Harper's Ferry in 1859, a crime for which he would hang.

The Election of Abraham Lincoln

The politics of the day were as stormy as the anti-slavery campaigns. All of the issues of the young nation were dividing the political parties and reshaping the established two-party system of Whigs and Democrats. 

The Democratic party was divided between factions in the North and South. At the same time, the conflicts surrounding Kansas and the Compromise of 1850 transformed the Whig party into the Republican party (established in 1854). In the North, this new party was seen as both anti-slavery and for the advancement of the American economy. This included the support of industry and encouraging homesteading while advancing educational opportunities. In the South, Republicans were seen as little more than divisive.

The presidential election of 1860 would be the deciding point for the Union. Abraham Lincoln represented the new Republican party and Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat, was seen as his biggest rival. The Southern Democrats put John C. Breckenridge on the ballot. John C. Bell represented the Constitutional Union Party, a group of conservative Whigs hoping to avoid secession.

The country's divisions were clear on election day. Lincoln won the North, Breckenridge the South, and Bell the border states. Douglas won only Missouri and a portion of New Jersey. It was enough for Lincoln to win the popular vote as well as 180 electoral votes.

Even though things were already near a boiling point after Lincoln was elected South Carolina issued its "Declaration of the Causes of Secession" on December 24, 1860. They believed that Lincoln was anti-slavery and in favor of Northern interests. 

President Buchanan's administration did little to quell the tension or stop what would become known as "Secession Winter." Between election day and Lincoln's inauguration in March, seven states had seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. 

In the process, the South took control of federal installations, including forts in the region which would give them a foundation for war. One of the most shocking events occurred when one-quarter of the nation's army surrendered in Texas under the command of General David E. Twigg. Not a single shot was fired in that exchange, but the stage was set for the bloodiest war in American history.

Updated by Robert Longley

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Top Causes of the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2018, thoughtco.com/top-causes-of-the-civil-war-104532. Kelly, Martin. (2018, February 9). Top Causes of the Civil War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-causes-of-the-civil-war-104532 Kelly, Martin. "Top Causes of the Civil War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-causes-of-the-civil-war-104532 (accessed May 23, 2018).