Causes of the Civil War

By Eli Greenawalt Foster, 1899

State's rights

State’s rights

Slavery and States’ Rights were the two causes of the Civil War in the United States. They came before the people in a variety of forms, which, in spite of repeated compromises, only widened the sentiments between the North and South. The Missouri Compromise was the first of a series of enactments and struggles between the two sections on the subject of slavery. The election of Abraham Lincoln on a platform opposed to the extension of slavery was the last of the series, which grew more bitter and antagonistic until it culminated in the firing upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.

The Nullification Act of South Carolina, in 1832, was the first serious manifestation of the doctrine of States’ Rights, which ended, finally, in the secession ordinances of the Southern States and precipitated the great American conflict.

State Rights

Different views were held by statesmen from the very beginning of our national history as to the nature of the bond which held the States together. It was maintained by one class of statesmen that the Union was a league or confederation, which might be dissolved at the will of any of the States. Under this theory, a failure on the part of the general government to protect the rights, expressed or assumed, of any of the States, entirely released these States from obligations to the Union, and restored them to their former position of separate sovereign States.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Another class of statesmen held that the Federal Union constituted a nation, with a strong central government, and that no State could secede from the Union without the consent of all the others. These were the different constructions placed upon the U.S. Constitution, from which no serious conflict arose until certain material questions came before the people for a solution. Chief among these were those related to tariffs and slavery. The South, which was engaged entirely in agricultural industries, demanded free trade. The North, which derived much of its wealth from manufacturing industries, called for protection. When the Tariff Act of 1832 became a law, it caused intense opposition among the people of the South and led South Carolina to declare the act null and void and to threaten to secede from the Union if the Federal Government should endeavor to enforce the law. The prompt and vigorous action of President Andrew Jackson in sending troops to the rebellious State restored order; and Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 pacified the leaders for a time. They, however, did not abandon the principle of secession, but only shifted it from the tariff issue, in which they had scored a victory, to the much compromised and yet uncompromising issue of slavery extension.

Differences Between the North and South

People who settled these two sections were entirely different in thought, habit, and customs. They sprung from different classes, though most all were of English origin. The North was settled by the Puritans, who fled from the oppression and religious persecution of England in search of freedom and a purer system of faith and worship. The early settlers of the South were the Cavaliers, who were loyal to both the State and the religion of their king. The Puritans belonged to the middle class — laborers and minor landowners and came to establish homes for themselves. The Cavaliers belonged largely to the aristocracy and nobility and came in search of wealth. The representatives of these two classes of society impressed themselves upon the development of the respective sections in which they settled, and molded the customs and institutions for a more varied class of settlers who followed them. The character of the settlers in the North, as well as the nature of the soil and climate, tended toward the cultivation of small estates. But, the early settlers of the South brought with them from England the idea of large estates, which climate and the introduction of African slavery aided to perpetuate. The North was strongly imbued with the love of liberty and a desire for equal opportunities for all. Free schools were established, manufacturing sprung up, and cities multiplied. The South, on the other hand, became agricultural, and educational advantages were confined to the wealthy. This contrast in the character of the people, the difference in the industries of the two sections, and the different conditions of climate and soil made slave labor more profitable in the South than in the North and showed how easily one section could become slaveholding states and another, free states.

Growth Of Slavery

American Slavery

Slavery was introduced in the colonies in 1619, at Jamestown, Virginia. The importation of slaves was continued, and at the close of the American Revolution, the slaves in the States numbered about 600,000, while there were only an estimated  50,000 free persons of color distributed through the colonies. Europe, in her greed for gain, had woven slavery in her colonial policy that her home revenues might be greater. There was not a colony without slaves, though they were more common in the South than in the North. In vain had the Virginia House of Burgesses protested against the “inhumanity of the slave trade.” The colony of South Carolina passed an act in 1760 prohibiting the importation of slaves, but the British government refused to sanction it. Other colonies also endeavored to place restrictions upon the trade, but without success.

The invention of the cotton-gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 greatly stimulated the demand for blacks and increased the importation of slaves. Before the invention of the cotton gin, the process of separating the seed from the cotton was slow, tedious, and expensive.

By the use of this machine, one person could accomplish the work of several hundred hands. The cultivation of cotton was greatly extended, which made a demand for slave labor in the South, where cotton was grown and increased the value of slaves. The number of slaves increased rapidly even though restrictions were placed upon slave traffic, and foreign importation was prohibited by law in 1808. When the Civil War began, the number of slaves in the United States was about 4,000,000. Southern opinion, which in the early colonial day considered slavery evil, gradually changed. Many had come to regard it as a great moral, social and political good, — an institution ordained by Providence for civilizing and educating the black race.

Movements Toward Freedom Of The Slaves

Freed Slaves

Freed Slaves

At the opening of the Civil War, there were more slaves in the United States than in all other countries combined. These were all confined to the States south of Pennsylvania and of the Ohio River. All the Northern States had freed their slaves, either before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution or soon after it. Vermont took the lead, in 1777; Pennsylvania followed, in 1780; and eventually, all other Northern States followed in abolishing slavery or providing measures to effect its gradual abolition. The last to abolish it was New Jersey, in 1804.

Though America is the “land of the free,” slavery clung to its soil with greater tenacity than it did to that of European countries. Great Britain gave freedom to the slaves in her colonies in 1838. Immediate emancipation of the slaves of the colonies of the French Government was decreed in 1848. Other European powers followed the example of Great Britain. Many of the South-American republics provided for the abolition of slavery — Mexico, as early as 1829.

George Washington, in his will, provided for the emancipation of his own slaves. John Adams believed that slavery should be abolished in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, declared, when speaking of this institution, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison opposed the principle of slavery.

Most of the wisest and best men of the time, both North and South, looked forward with confidence and hope to the speedy abolition of an institution so averse to the principles of Christianity and so dangerous to the interests of society and the state.

In 1787 the country including the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin was organized into the Northwest Territory. Freedom was guaranteed to this region by the insertion of this famous clause: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in this Territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes.” This anti-slavery clause was submitted three years before, by Thomas Jefferson, for the government not only of the Northwest Territory but also for that south of the Ohio River. The slavery provision was rejected for the territory south of the Ohio River; and later, four slave States — Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi — were formed out of it; while the territory to the north of the Ohio River was permanently attached to the principles of freedom.

Missouri Compromise of 1820

In 1803 the boundaries of the United States were extended to include that vast region west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, known as the Louisiana Territory. Of the various States afterward formed out of this region, Missouri was the first to apply for admission to the Union. The main question concerning the admission of this State was whether it should be free or slave.

The Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the unorganized territory of the Great Plains (dark green) and permitted it in Missouri (yellow) and the Arkansas Territory (lower blue area).

Before the abolition of slavery in the North and the admission of the free States north of the Ohio River, slavery had not become a sectional affair. Many in the South during the Revolutionary period believed in the gradual emancipation of the slaves. But, sentiment had undergone a change; their chief concern became the perpetuation of the institution. Sectional lines were being definitely drawn on slavery as an issue. A new epoch in the history of slavery was instituted when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a State in 1819. The South endeavored to extend slavery to new territory, while the North opposed it. The discussion was long and acrimonious. It was the real beginning of the great political struggle out of which came the Civil War.

The famous Missouri Compromise provided:

  1. That Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave State.
  2. That slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment of crime, should be prohibited in the remaining part of the Louisiana Purchase lying north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes, which formed the southern boundary of Missouri.
  3. No provision was made relative to the admission of the Territories south of this line; but, as slavery already existed there, they were tacitly surrendered to the slave-power.

Maine was admitted as a free State, on the principle that one free and one slave State should be admitted at the same time. The compromise from which so much was expected settled nothing. The Southern people continued to feel and to act as if they had been hindered in the exercise of their rights.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *