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.

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 solution. Chief among these were those which 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 land owners 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.

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