Brother, What’s Goin’ On:
Major Causes of the Civil War
Dayton Intermediate School
Teaching American History Cohort
Professor Tom Smith
This paper explores the major causes of the Civil War as found by prominent United States Civil War historians. This exploration challenges the simple notion that most students have that the Civil War occurred because of slavery, but most students do not have an in-depth understanding of slavery. Because of this, the understanding of slavery and the understanding of the Civil War suffers. This paper provides depth to facilitate document-based learning for middle-school students. The social, economic, political and cultural context of the United States in and around the start of the Civil War is imperative in the quest to better understand slavery in the Antebellum South.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States had one of the fastest growing per capita economies where wealth and output were growing at a rate faster than the population itself was growing1. Central to this growth was the mechanization of industry, agriculture, transportation, and other mechanized advances that took place during the American Industrial Revolution mostly in the Northern region of the United States. The South, in contrast, remained primarily wed to a rural agriculture system dependent on slave labor2.
The ongoing commitment to the slave labor system produced both fierce criticism and defense of the institution. The Republican Party used a Free Labor Ideology to oppose the expansion of slavery into any new territories3.
Over the course of the nation’s history, free labor, or wage earners, went from being viewed as only slightly better than slaves (since they were dependent on others for their wages) to creating the hard-working, anti-idleness ideology that Americans have even today4. The South, however, saw wage earners as proof that factory employees are treated worse than slaves and they are referred to as “wage slaves” who are exploited by the company owners. Both British and American factory workers were held up as examples of “wage slaves” by the South in an attempt to demonstrate that Southern slavery was a positive institution5.
The North uses the same factory wage earners as proof that free labor is valuable and more productive and effective than slavery. Republican Senator William Seward routinely spoke about slavery in economic terms rather than moral ones in order to gain support of free labor in any territories6. These economic arguments are central to a wider understanding of the tension between the slave labor systems and the rising appreciation of free labor and the marketplace in U.S. society.
Politically, slavery in the expanding United States also led to misunderstandings and mistrust between the North and South in that a majority of Republicans had not wanted to halt slavery where it already existed but to prevent its expansion in any western territories. The South believed restriction of slavery in the states where it already existed was the first step in the eventual abolition of slavery. As early as 1945, Republican Senator Seward indeed openly spoke about the necessity to stop the spread of slavery in order to eventually abolish it completely7. This belief fostered an attitude of defensiveness in the South that underlay all issues that had even a small connection to slavery.
In addition to Southern slave holders feeling the pinch over the expansion of slavery, they also continually felt their way of life was under attack because many newspaper articles and Republicans spoke openly about bringing Northern industry to the South to get rid of the “backwardness” of the South8. These comments and the fact that the South was at a permanent minority in the House of Representatives due to their much smaller populations left Southerners feeling threatened by the ‘interventionist’ North.
Michael Holt looks at the role of politicians in the federal government leading up to the Civil War and their impact on the situation. Once again, slavery is the underlying point of contention about which many political decisions were made. Holt identifies three main political events that profoundly affected the nation9. These were the war with Mexico, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Holt views politics and politicians as paramount in the events that lead up to the Civil War. Holt’s main argument is that politicians of the day were more interested in their own political careers and parties than public opinion that they actually brought on the Civil War by continually making it an issue regardless of what the pubic wanted. Politics most definitely played a significant role in the events that led to the Civil war but it must be taken in context with all the other events occurring at that time as well.
Looking beyond the political nature of slavery, Kenneth Stampp in The Causes of the Civil War cites the most varied reasons for the Civil War. However varied they may be, it all still trickles down to slavery in the end. Stampp notes the overall distrust of the two sections toward each other. Conspiracy theories flourished as both the North and South accused the other of attempting to overthrow the political strength and way of life of the respective societies. Although to this day there is no hard evidence of any conspiracies or conspiratorial groups that were working towards this end for either side10.
Stampp also cites the significance of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia because of its impact on both sides but especially the South. He stresses the way in which the event was blown out of proportion by both sides since the South held this up as a model of the type of people and government the North would allow and held up as a hero11.
James McPherson points out that Brown and other extreme abolitionists refused to use the political system to end slavery because they felt they would be forced to compromise due to the nature of politics and were unwilling to do so. For example, William Lloyd Garrison stated in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator that he could not compromise, or be moderate, on his stance on abolition just as one would not tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm or tell a Mother whose baby has fallen into a fire to “gradually extricate” it12. Clearly abolitionism would not have even existed were it not for slavery’s hold in the South.
Together Stampp and McPherson provide the most rational and reasonable arguments of events that led up to the Civil War by providing context for the complex conditions that existed socially, economically, politically, and culturally in United States in at the start of the Civil War.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Holt, Michael F. The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Stampp, Kenneth M., Editor. The Causes of the Civil War. New York: Touchstone, 1991.