Causes of the American Civil War

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Introduction to “Causes of the American Civil War”
The causes of the Civil War are complex and layered, needing to be studied in detail using numerous primary sources before even a basic understanding comes into focus. These causes are crucial to the understanding and appreciation, by both interpreters and visitors, of the long ranging effects the war has had and continues to have on American society. Today we live with the fruits of the American Civil War, in a nation changed fundamentally by the war's outcomes. Understanding and acknowledging the causes of that war can help us as a people to better appreciate the choices our nation has made in the subsequent 150 years.
The study of the coming of the war, for public interpreters of the past, also needs to understand the evolution of historical memory of the war, particularly that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Lost Cause interpretation. Perhaps the most contested aspect of popular American history today is related to the causes of the American Civil War. As the Civil War Sesquicentennial approaches, National Park Service interpreters will have to be prepared to help visitors appreciate why a defense of slavery, and not states’ rights, was at the core of Southern unrest. They will equally need to be prepared to explain that the objective of the United States in 1861 was not the abolition of slavery, but the reunification of the Union.
By the end of the course you will be able to:

  • Understand the nuances of the causes of the American Civil War.

  • Identify the “Lost Cause” school of Civil War interpretation and understand its place in the evolution toward modern scholarship.

  • Effectively and respectfully convey the causes of the war to visitors of varying knowledge levels and backgrounds.

Chapter 1: The Long Road to War
The American Civil War has a long lineage of causes. This course could return to the Missouri Compromise (1820) to track the course of slavery's expansion. It could just as easily delve further back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Three-Fifths Compromise or even the Declaration of Independence. The American Civil War, and its root cause of slavery, is deeply embedded in the intellectual and political fabric of the United States itself. For the sake of brevity, however, this study will begin with the Annexation of Texas following the Mexican War. Still, it is important to keep in mind that your specific site may have deeper, older connections to the Civil War's causes than those which grew from the 1840s.
The contest in which we are now engaged is not a new one. It is of twelve or fifteen years’ standing. It assumed new proportions when we acquired Texas. Texas, under the laws of Mexico, was then free. We insisted that slavery should not be recognized there. You claimed that it should–that slavery should go into all the common Territories of the Union. You succeeded. You procured what you claim is a decision of the court in your favor. But the people would not give the question up. The issue was formed–Slavery or Freedom; and on that issue we went into the [1860] election.”

David Wilmot, February 22, 1861, Washington Peace Conference

The outcome of the Texas War of Independence in 1836, with the American settlers of the region gaining independence from the Mexican government, all but ensured that the United States would be poised to fight a war with Mexico over territorial rights. The western border of the now-free Republic of Texas was not determined at the war's end. The Treaties of Velasco, ending the Texas War of Independence, was never ratified by the Mexican Government and, indeed, Mexico never acknowledged Texan sovereignty. In 1845, as the United States prepared to annex Texas, Mexican authorities claimed that President James K. Polk was attempting to steal Mexican Territory. Through his desire for western lands, Polk provoked a war with Mexico.

Slavery quickly became an important issue in the Mexican-American War. David Wilmot, a Democratic member of the House of Representative from north-eastern Pennsylvania, made himself the center of the debate. In August of 1846, Wilmot proposed an amendment to a war appropriations bill, later called the Wilmot Proviso, designed to prevent slavery in any territories acquired from Mexico. From Wilmot's action in 1846 until the outbreak of civil war in 1861, the subject of slavery in the western territories formed the core of sectional unrest.

[Map of West Circa 1845-46] [Wilmot Proviso Text][Portrait of David Wilmot]
As the war with Mexico drew to a close in 1848, American political discourse was creeping toward Civil War. With the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the United States acquired the territory now comprising the American Southwest. General Zachary Taylor, riding high on his status as war hero, unseated Democratic control of the White House. The Whigs now held the highest office in the land. Taylor would face opposition on Capitol Hill from a Democratic congress. Most foreboding for the Whig party was their losses in the House of Representatives. A new third party, flying the banner of “Free Soil,” seized upon the fissures created by David Wilmot’s Proviso to win nine seats on the floor of the House. By the end of the 1840s, Slavery, and its extension into the new territories, was poised to be the central point of controversy on Capitol Hill.
[Smoke Him Out at P&P, LOC]
Further Reading:
Joel H. Sibley, Storm Over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War (2005)
Michael F. Holt, The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War (2004)
Mark J. Stegmaier, Texas, New Mexico, & the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute & Sectional Crisis (1996)

Chapter 2: Compromises and Concessions
I have, senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.”

John C. Calhoun, March 4, 1850, U.S. Senate

1850 While the Compromise of 1850 settled the western boundary issue of Texas, the admission of California as a free state upset the balance of power in the U.S. Senate thus irritating the South while a strengthened Fugitive Slave Law irritated the North.

[Link to Compromise of 1850 map]

1852 In her Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe further irritated the South by painting an unflattering portrait of slavery
1854 Pressured by Southern Congressmen who insisted that the Kansas Territory be open to slavery, Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed the possibility of slavery north of the, by then, sacred Missouri Compromise line established in 1820 prohibiting slavery north of the southern border of Missouri. The introduction of “Popular Sovereignty” led to a shooting war in the Kansas Territory between pro- and anti-slavery forces.
One response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the formation of the Republican Party, out of the Free Soil Party, around opposition of the extension of slavery into the territories, but not the abolition of slavery in the states.

[Link to Kansas-Nebraska interactive map]

[Further Reading: John C. Waugh, On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How it Changed the Course of American History (2003)]

[Further Reading: Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970)]

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