Causes of the Civil War

Anti-slavery Parties

Anti-slavery meeting, by Thomas H. Shepherd

Anti-slavery meeting, by Thomas H. Shepherd

In 1840 the “Liberty Party” put a national ticket in the field. James G. Birney was nominated but received only a small vote. Four years later he received more than 62,000 votes on the same ticket.

The party favored the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and in all national territory. It favored the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, favored the prohibition of slavery in new Territories and new States, was opposed to the internal slave trade, and opposed the annexation of Texas. Its adherents joined fortunes with the Free-Soil Party in 1848.

The “Free-Soil Party ” was organized by bolting Whigs and Democrats, who held advanced views on the slavery question. It was joined by the followers of the old Liberty Party. Among some of its leaders were Charles Francis Adams, Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, William H. Seward, John P. Hale, John A. Dix, and Henry Wilson.

The Presidential candidates in 1848 and 1852 received a considerable popular vote, but not sufficient to carry the electors in any State.

It advocated non-interference with slavery where it already existed, but, opposed all compromises with slavery, or the formation of any more slave territory, or the admission of any slave State.

The Republican Party – The constant and resolute aggressions of the slave-power called forth an equally aggressive free-soil movement in the North. Whigs, Wilmot-Proviso Democrats, and the Free-Soilers united to form a new party, to prevent the spread of slavery into new territory. The various elements opposed to slavery were thus skillfully and smoothly kneaded into the new Republican Party. John C. Fremont was the first candidate for President. He received 114 electoral votes; James Buchanan, 174; and Millard Fillmore, 8. This formidable vote might well have carried dismay into the pro-slavery columns. The election of Buchanan on a pro-slavery platform gave the South little ground for complaint, but, as events have shown, it afforded them an opportunity to prepare for war. Through the “treachery of the Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, and the indifference of the administration at Washington, large amounts of arms, ammunition, and stores were transferred to the South.

When the time came to choose a President, the people were divided into four parties. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln on the platform that there was no law for slavery in Territories, and no power to enact one, and that Congress was bound to prohibit it. in or exclude it from all Federal territory. John C. Breckinridge was nominated by the Southern Democracy, on a platform distinctly favoring the extension of slavery. Stephen A. Douglas was nominated by the Northern

Democracy, on a platform which would leave the people free to decide the slavery question for themselves in each Territory.

The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell, of Tennessee, on this platform: “The Constitution of the country, the Union of the States, and the enforcement of the laws.” The popular vote decided against the extension of slavery. In the electoral college, Lincoln received 180 votes, Breckinridge 72, Bell 39, and Douglas 12.

The slavery question was the issue in the campaign.

John Brown’s Raid, 1859

John Brown was an abolitionist. He moved to Kansas in 1855, in time to become a conspicuous figure in the thrilling scenes of that State. Five of his sons had settled near Osawatomie the year before, and all took up the cause of freedom. Slavery would no doubt have triumphed over legal and legislative skill, had not the sword been thrown into the balance by such bold and resolute men as Brown.

Raid on Harper's Ferry, by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1859

Raid on Harper’s Ferry, by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1859

After peace had been restored in Kansas, he conceived the idea of freeing the slaves of the South. Settling on a small farm near Harper’s Ferry, he began secretly to collect material for executing his designs. He, with 21 associates appeared before Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia on the night of October 16th, 1859, easily overpowered the guards, and took possession of the armory there, belonging to the United States. He expected to create an uprising among the slaves, arm them with the guns stored there and liberate the blacks of the South.

Between 40 and 50 citizens were captured and confined in the armory by him and some slaves were liberated. The people of the town, arming themselves, made an attack on the insurgents. The U.S. Marine, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, arrived. The militia commenced to pour in. Thirteen of Brown’s men were killed, two of whom were his sons. Two of his men escaped, and the rest were captured. Brown himself was dangerously wounded.

He was speedily tried before a Virginia court and was executed on December 2, 1859. His execution for this wild and erratic scheme reflects little credit upon the elements of humanity and generosity of the officers of Virginia when we consider that Jefferson Davis and his followers suffered no such fate for conducting the stupendous campaign of the great Rebellion.

Brown died a martyr to the cause of liberating enslaved people. His spirit was present in many a battle which followed, and many a regiment was stirred by the words of the popular war song — “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, But his soul is marching on.”


As soon as it became known that Abraham Lincoln was elected, South Carolina called a convention to consider an ordinance of secession, which was unanimously passed on December 20, 1860. Commissioners were sent to the other cotton States to urge them to follow in the same course.

President James Buchanan gave encouragement to the Southern cause by his vacillating action. His message to Congress in December 1860, which was strongly disunion in character, contained these words: “After much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no power has been delegated to Congress, or to any other department of the Federal Government, to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has withdrawn from the Union.” He might well have profited by Jackson’s vigorous measures a third of a century before when South Carolina threatened to secede.

Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LouisianaTexas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, withdrew from the Union in the order named. Four slave states — Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky — did not secede. In these, the sentiment was divided between the North and the South, with the preponderance in favor of the former.

The ordinances of secession were followed quickly by the seizure of the United States forts, arsenals and custom-houses in the seceding States, and by the formation of a Confederate Government. The capital was located in Montgomery, Alabama. Jefferson Davis was chosen President and Alexander H. Stephens Vice-President. Southern officers resigned their places in the Congress and the Cabinet, and in the Army and Navy.

The constitution of the Confederate States of America was a close pattern of that from whose banner they had withdrawn, except that it made slavery the corner-stone of the new system, and forbade a protective tariff.

Crittenden Compromise, December 1860

A Senate committee, composed of men of different politics and from different sections of the country, made a last effort to patch up a scheme by which slavery and freedom might work out their ambitions together. The patriotic John J. Crittenden, who was a member of the committee from Kentucky, submitted the plan. It offered guaranties against arbitrary abolition of slavery by Congress in the slave States, or in places once within their limits, such as forts and navy-yards. It restrained Federal interference with the interstate transportation of slaves. It bound the United States to provide payment for fugitive slaves when local violence prevented their return. It advised the Northern States to repeal their personal liberty laws. But, its main feature was to establish, by constitutional amendment, the Missouri Compromise line (36° 30′), running east and west across the continent, as a permanent barrier between the free and slave States. All efforts to reconcile the conflicting opinions proved futile. The vital points were rejected by members from the North and South alike.

Inauguration Of Lincoln, March 4, 1861

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. From his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he was everywhere received with demonstrations of loyalty. He delivered addresses to the people of the capitals and other large cities of the States through which he passed. Baltimore was not only a slaveholding city but was infested with a large number of persons who were loud and fierce in their denunciation of Lincoln and the principles which he represented. Frequent reports were heard that a plan had been concocted for the assassination of the new President as he passed through the city. His friends persuaded him to go to Washington on a special train, in advance of the one on which his passage had been announced.

Lincoln’s inaugural address was an able state paper. It was an admirable effort to calm the ardor of the South for disunion, without compromising any of the principles of the party which had elected him. The following detached sentences will express Lincoln’s views on some of the leading issues of that hour:

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in any of the States where it exists.”

“The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the Government.”

“I shall take care, as the Constitution expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all States.”

“No State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union.”

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of Civil War. The Government will not assail you.”

The olive-branch of peace was accepted by the conspirators as a challenge to war.


Black Soldiers in the Civil War

Black Soldiers in the Civil War

By Eli Greenawalt Foster, 1899. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Also See:

African-Americans – From Slavery to Equality

Chronology of Slavery in the United States

Slavery – Cause and Catalyst of the Civil War

Civil War Photo Print Galleries

About the Author: “Causes of the Civil War” is a chapter from the book “The Civil War by Campaigns” written by Eli Greenawalt Foster, 1899, published by Crane Publishing.

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