Slavery – Cause and Catalyst of the Civil War

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

What caused the Civil War?

Several issues ignited the Civil War:

  • States’ Rights
  • The Role of the Federal Government
  • Preservation of the Union
  • The Economy

But, all were inextricably bound to the institution of slavery.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

The role of slavery in starting the Civil War has been hotly debated for decades. One important way of approaching the issue is to look at what observers had to say at the time. Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, was quoted in the Savannah Republican on March 21, 1861:

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution of African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. In his forecast, Jefferson had anticipated this as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him is now a realized fact.

“[Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Today, most professional historians agree with Stephens that slavery and the status of African Americans were at the heart of the crisis that plunged the nation into a Civil War from 1861 to 1865. That is not to say the average Confederate soldier fought to preserve slavery or the average Union soldier went to war to end slavery. Some fought on moral grounds. Some fought because they felt their way of life and prosperity were threatened. Others fought to preserve the Union. Initially, the North aimed to preserve the Union, not emancipation. However, emancipation was the primary aim for the 180,000 African Americans who ultimately served the U.S. in the war.

The roots of the crisis over slavery go back well before the nation’s founding. In 1619, slavery was introduced to Virginia when a Dutch ship traded African slaves for food. Unable to find cheap labor from other sources, white settlers increasingly turned to slaves imported from Africa. By the early 1700s, in British North America, slavery generally meant African slavery. Southern plantations, using slave labor, produced the great export crops — tobacco, rice, forest products, and indigo — that made the American colonies prosperous. Many Northern merchants made their fortunes either in the slave trade or by exporting the products of slave labor. African slavery was central to the development of British North America.

Although slavery existed in all 13 colonies at the start of the American Revolution in 1775, several Americans (especially those of African descent) sensed the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence’s ringing claim of human equality and the existence of slavery. Reacting to that contradiction, Northern states decided to phase out slavery following the Revolution. The future of slavery in the South was debated, and some hoped it would eventually disappear there.

Sharecroppers picking cotton

Sharecroppers picking cotton

All realistic hope slavery might eventually die out in the South ended when Massachusetts native Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin — a simple machine that enabled textile mills to use the type of cotton grown in most of the South. At the same time, the world’s demand for cotton exploded. By 1840, cotton produced in the American South earned more money than other U.S. exports combined. Many white Southerners came to believe that the viability of cotton as a crop depended on slave labor. Over time, most took for granted that their prosperity, even their way of life, was inseparable from African slavery.

Slavery was not the only source of dispute. The North and South were very different and wanted different things from their government. In the North, society was fast becoming industrial. Immigrants in search of work were arriving by the thousands. In addition, women began to leave the farms, seeking city opportunities. Immigrants and women provided abundant, inexpensive labor to fuel the factories. Industrialization increased the number of textiles produced and, therefore, the demand for more slave labor. Entrepreneurs looking to develop these new industries demanded protection from cheap manufactured goods imported from Europe.

The South, on the other hand, remained a region of small towns and large plantations. The great cotton empire depended on slave labor and cheap European imports. Southerners began to fear that if the North ever gained control of Congress, it would create taxes on imports, known as tariffs, which would ruin the South.

Southerner John C. Calhoun, Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, was among the first to voice this concern. Though he opposed secession, Calhoun argued that a state could protect its interests by simply nullifying any act by the federal government it considered unconstitutional and unfair. Southerners began to rely on the concept of states’ sovereignty as a means of self-protection.

Slavery and the Constitution

United States Constitution

United States Constitution

When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, the interests of slaveholders and those who profited from slavery could not be ignored. Although slaves could not vote, white Southerners argued slave labor contributed significantly to the nation’s wealth. The Constitution, therefore, provided for counting each slave as 3/5 of a person in the census for the purposes of representation in Congress and the Electoral College. The clause gave the South a role in the national government far more significant than representation based on its free population alone would have allowed. Although the Constitution did not use the term “slavery,” Article IV provided for the return of escaping persons “held to service or labor,” such as fugitive slaves. Article I provided that the slave trade would end 20 years after the Constitution was ratified in 1808. The Constitution left many questions about slavery unanswered, particularly about slavery’s status in any new territory acquired by the U.S. The failure to deal forthrightly and comprehensively with slavery in the Constitution guaranteed future conflict over the issue and was ultimately one of the primary catalysts for war.

State's rights

State’s rights

Slavery and States’ Rights

The question of who had the power to allow or disallow slavery in the territories and the newly formed states — the federal government or the states — provoked a heated national debate that would last for decades, resulting in several compromises. The proposed admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1820 led to the Missouri Compromise. Under its terms, Maine was admitted as a free state when Missouri came in as a slave state, maintaining the balance between slave and free. Additionally, Congress prohibited slavery in all western territories above Missouri’s southern boundary.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 quieted the agitation over slavery. But, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to a friend, said that the compromise was “like a fire bell in the night.” He also foretold that the institution of slavery was like holding a “wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” True to his prediction, the Anti-Slavery movement, which had been around since before the American Revolution, gained strength and became more vocal and radical by the 1830s, calling for an immediate end to slavery. One of these radical abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, declared:

“Enslave the liberty of but one human being, and the liberties of the world are put in peril… I will be as harsh as truth and uncompromising as justice… I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.”

The fire bell in the night that Jefferson predicted went off when Nat Turner, an enslaved man in Southampton County, Virginia, believed that God called him in a vision to initiate a slave revolt. He hoped it would spread into a massive uprising. Turner began his rebellion on April 21, 1831, with a few trusted fellow slaves. Other enslaved and free blacks joined, eventually numbering about 70 rebels. During the revolt, some 60 whites were killed. The retaliation was swift and harsh. Local militias and detachments from the American naval fleet docked in Norfolk, Virginia, numbering about 3000 men, captured and executed 56 blacks. Another 100-200 blacks were killed during the retaliation. Nat Turner’s Revolt planted fear throughout the South. The Virginia General Assembly passed laws that made it unlawful to teach slaves or free blacks to read or write or to hold religious services in which a white minister was not present. Other states followed Virginia’s lead.

Later, the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 brought the nation vast new acreage in the West. Once again, the status of slavery in the territories became a hot issue. Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced legislation strictly prohibiting slavery in any of the new lands. The bill failed to pass. A new agreement, the Compromise of 1850, became necessary when California sought to join the Union. The compromise admitted California as a free state, included a stronger fugitive slave law, assured Congress would not interfere with the interstate traffic of slaves in the South, and prohibited the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

As is usually the case with compromises, neither side was pleased, but both accepted it, hoping the law would finally settle the slavery issue. It didn’t. Also, in 1850, Congress established the area of present-day Arizona and New Mexico as the New Mexico Territory. While the territory was below the line established with the Missouri Compromise, Congress remained silent on whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territory.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 incited great outrage. Under this new law, federal commissioners received twice as much money for returning a slave to the South than freeing them. This heightened Northern sympathy toward the runaway slaves and caused great expansions in the existing vigilance and resistance movements. Organizations like the Anti-Slavery Society, spearheaded by both men and women, staged lectures and provided shelter, money, transportation, and services for slaves to escape along the Underground Railroad.

Fugitive Slave, 1845

Fugitive Slave, 1845

With tensions at a fever pitch, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, describing the atrocities of slave life. The book sold 300,000 copies in its first year and became the second best-selling book of the 19th century, following the Bible. The novel’s popularity aroused intense new resentment in the South. Then, in 1854, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act invoked the concept of “popular sovereignty,” which gave the people of each territory choosing to pursue statehood the right to decide whether or not to allow slavery. Pro- and Anti-Slavery factions turned the Kansas Territory into a bloody battleground, known afterward as “Bleeding Kansas.

Settlers from the North were determined to make Kansas a free state. Southern settlers were equally determined to make it a slave state. Missouri’s Border Ruffians intimidated Free-Staters and raided abolitionist towns. Some Northerners shipped in boxes of rifles, known as “Beecher’s Bibles.” John Brown and his followers started their bloody fight against slavery, killing Pro-Slavery sympathizers in Kansas.

Back in Washington, D.C., tempers flared. After addressing “the crime against Kansas,” Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts was attacked with a cane and beaten unconscious on the Senate floor. Senator Toombs from Georgia announced that he would auction slaves on Boston Common itself one day. In Alabama, Secessionist William Lowndes Yancey argued angrily that the South would never find happiness until it left the Union and became an independent nation.

The Politics of Unrest

The Republican Party was organized as a direct response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Their chief issue was opposing extending slavery in the territories. Inevitably, the party aroused deep anger in the South. Attitudes in the two sections of the nation continued to harden into the late 1850s.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

In 1857, Dred Scott, an enslaved man taken by his owner, an army surgeon, into Illinois and Wisconsin Territory (later Minnesota), which were part of the Northwest Territory in which slavery was prohibited, sued for his freedom. The U. S. Supreme Court decided that Americans of African descent — whether enslaved or free — were not U.S. citizens and did not have the right to sue. The Court also found the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, ruling that the federal government did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

Two years later, the powder keg ignited. With a handful of followers, John Brown attempted to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, hoping to use the weapons stored there to incite a slave insurrection in the South. Brown managed to capture an engine house that he held overnight. The next morning, a detachment of marines, led by Army Colonel Robert E. Lee overran the building. Brown was quickly tried, convicted of treason, and hanged. After this raid, the hope of a peaceful solution to the problem of slavery seemed more and more remote.

The question of slavery, and particularly slavery in the territories, dominated the Presidential election of 1860. The recently formed Republican Party emerged as the advocate for abolishing slavery in the territories. Abraham Lincoln was the party candidate. The Democratic Party, which had dominated politics in the 1850s, split along sectional lines, with Northern Democrats nominating Stephen A. Douglas and adopting a platform of extending popular sovereignty to the territories. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge, and their platform advocated the protection of slavery where it existed and in the territories. Not happy with any of the above options, another party, the Constitutional Union Party, comprised of remnants of the Whig and other earlier parties, nominated John Bell as its candidate. Its platform advocated compromise on the issue of slavery to save the Union and the Constitution.

Though he didn’t receive a majority of the popular vote, Lincoln gained a solid majority in the Electoral College. He won the election by carrying most of the Northern and western states of California and Oregon while failing to receive a single electoral vote in the Deep South. In ten states, he wasn’t even on the ballot.

Spurred by South Carolina, the states of the Deep South concluded that a limitation on slavery in the territories was the first step toward the total abolition of its “peculiar institution.” The South Carolina legislature remained in session, waiting for the election to be held, expecting the worst. Immediately upon seeing the results, representatives called for a special state convention in December, which voted unanimously for the state to secede from the Union. One by one, six other states — Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas — also left the Union, calling their new country the Confederate States of America and electing Jefferson Davis as its president.

President Abraham Lincoln hoped desperately to achieve a peaceful solution. Still, Confederate forces fired on the fort when he decided to resupply the U.S. Army troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April of 1861. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to stop the rebellion prompted Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas to join the Confederacy. Civil War had come.

There were many differences of opinion between the North and the South in 19th-century America. Differences over slavery were the only ones they seemed unable to settle by peaceful means. Evidence from that time shows the secession of seven Deep South states was caused primarily by concerns over the future of slavery. When Mississippi seceded, it asserted that:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery… Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money [the estimated total market value of slaves], or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers to secure this as well as every other species of property.”

Fighting for Freedom

Jefferson Davis by C.E. Emery, about 1888

Jefferson Davis by C.E. Emery, about 1888

Though emancipation was the goal of the war for African Americans, President Lincoln insisted the conflict was not about slavery or civil rights but an effort to preserve the Union. Therefore, at first, he would not permit African-American volunteers from the North to enlist. Developing a policy for dealing with escaping slaves was even more confusing. At first, some were put to work for the Union forces, while others were returned to their owners. Then, in August 1861, fugitive slaves were declared by an act of Congress to be “contraband of war” if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy. If found to be contraband, the former slaves became confiscated property of the Union, but, in essence, they were really freed.

Slaves from the South fled to Union lines, some taking refuge in newly forming contraband camps. In some of these camps, formerly enslaved people gained their first taste of freedom and an opportunity for education. Some built their own communities with telling names such as Promiseland and Fredonia.

By 1862, Lincoln considered emancipating slaves under Confederate control as a military strategy to win the war. The South had been using slaves to aid the war effort. Black men and women had been forced to build fortifications, work as blacksmiths, nurses, and laundresses, and work in factories and armories. Meanwhile, the North refused to accept the services of black volunteers and freed slaves, who most wanted to defeat the slaveholders. However, after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army accepted black soldiers into its ranks. African American men rushed to enlist. Contraband and Colored Troops served in all-black units commanded by white officers. Though they faced segregation and discrimination, they fought with valor, their contributions helping turn the tide of battles. By the end of the war, roughly 180,000 troops were men of color, some earning the highest military honors.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2024.

The issue was not the existence of slavery but the extension of it.
– Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service
African American soldiers in the Civil War

African American soldiers in the Civil War

Also See:

African American Timeline

The Emancipation Proclamation & the 13th Amendment

Slavery In the United States

The United States Bill of Rights

Slavery Photo Gallery

Source: National Park Service