THE CAUSES OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
History 501: Historiography
August 23, 2015
Since its conclusion in 1865, the Civil War remains the most widely examined period in American history. Thousands of books and journal articles on the War between the States are published each year, and professional and amateur historians alike flood message boards and other digital media with their analyses of various ideas associated with the conflict. Some of this interest is due to the fact that war is a popular subject, but the vast majority of the individuals who continue to investigate this event do so because of the incredibly difficult time one has trying to discern how and why Americans found it necessary to kill each other wholesale over an idea most of those living in country at the time clearly understood was wrong and incongruent with American ideals: slavery. How could a country which stood as the example of democracy and freedom for much of the Western world continue to allow some Americans to own others? The disparity between the country's ideals and its realities was clearly evident by this fact, and this idea continues to fuel much of the debate on the Civil War today.
The truth is that slavery, affinity for one's native state and the conspiracy initiated by Southern Democrats in the presidential election of 1860 are the three main reasons that the American Civil War occurred. The record contains ample evidence to support this assertion, as each of these ideas inspired the events which led to secession and the creation of the Confederacy. Moreover, scholars have effectively waded through many of the inconsistent and inaccurate analyses of the conflict produced early in the twentieth century and created a much more honest historiography of the watershed moment in American history.
In order to support this thesis, evidence presented in the scholarship of Ollinger Crenshaw, James McPherson and William Davis will be used in conjunction with the more recent work of Bruce Levine, Douglas Egerton and John Keegan to demonstrate the role slavery played in American politics and society. It will also be used to explain the ways in which politicians manufactured the American Civil War and dispel the myth that many Southerners were manipulated into believing that their participation in the conflict supported states' rights and the protection of their homes, not the perpetuation of slavery. At the end of this paper, the idea that slavery was the impetus for the American Civil War should be clear in the reader's mind.
Most historians agree that slavery was the main cause of the American Civil War. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century, this topic dominated various facets of American life, including politics, religion and societal structure. In his book, Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson writes, "The greatest danger to American survival midcentury. . . was sectional conflict between North and South over the future of slavery.1 Many people in the North considered slavery a direct contradiction to the concepts associated with the American Revolution and founding of the nation, as the United States was established on the principals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness for all people. Though slavery had been protected at the Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, many of the men who framed the Republic "asserted their hostility to slavery" and took measures to prevent it from spreading so that it could be abolished at some point in the near future.2 As the country continued to expand and new territories opened, limits placed on this expansion with the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and the Missouri Compromise in 1820 created a United States wherein slavery had been confined in a way as to make its abolition not only possible but necessary.
In his book, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, Bruce Levine explains how slavery evolved into the issue which divided the country and directly led to the Civil War. He provides evidence which illustrates the correlation between federal legislation, Supreme Court decisions and the reactions of Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line which clearly supports the contention "that the planters of the American South were not about to follow the path of gradual emancipation that the northern states had blazed."3 They elected politicians at all levels of government who countered nearly every piece of federal legislation limiting slavery with state laws bent on preserving it. Southerners in Congress and on the Supreme Court also used their positions to establish policies and precedents such as the Fugitive Slave Act which denied black Americans the citizenship rights they deserved, furthering the divide between the societal structure and belief systems of Northerners and Southerners. "Fears for the future of bound labor grew with the approach of abolition," and "proslavery figures rushed to bolster the defense of the peculiar institution" successfully for nearly four decades.4
By 1850, however, many white Northerners had come to understand that slavery limited their economic opportunities, and groups like the Free Soil Party began advocating for abolition in order to limit the "Slave Power" from dominating them as well.5 How could their children and grandchildren prosper if they had to compete with Southern oligarchs who maintained hundreds or thousands of bonded servants and their offspring in perpetual slavery? The obvious answer is that they could not, and these individuals, in collaboration with abolitionists, began a concerted campaign to end slavery in the United States for all time which culminated in the birth of the Republican Party.
In his book, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, Douglas Egerton details the rise of the Republicans from 1854 through 1860 and illustrates how their desire to eliminate slavery in the United States was the main cause of America's most costly conflict. He also explains how Southerners' fear of the Republicans' platform influenced their decision to call for disunion. "Republicans might pledge to fight slavery only in the territories, but since their success at capturing governors' chairs and senators' seats reflected 'the growth of the Anti-slavery feeling. . . would their animosity be satisfied by a mere ban on the frontier?'"6 After the South was successfully surrounded by free states and the North gained an even greater majority in Congress, would the Republicans then expand their platform and attack slavery where it already existed? These concerns were somewhat justified, especially since so many Republicans were avowed abolitionists. Southern politicians had used the threat of secession many times during the thirty-year period before the Civil War, but never with the fervor with which it was used after the presidential election of 1856. For the next four years, secessionists would work tirelessly, both publicly and clandestinely, to help gain the support of those needed to ensure that slavery would continue to exist in the United States far into the future.7
In Look Away! History of the Confederate States, William Davis examines one of the ways in which Southern leaders responded to these threats made against their most valuable economic and social institution during this period. "Fire-eaters," a term used to identify the most determined proponents of secession, banded together in South Carolina, Alabama and Texas, publishing articles and pamphlets calling for the creation of a new Southern nation which "could afford them better protection" and conspired to achieve this end.8 They believed that protecting slavery ensured the continued economic prosperity of the South and also provided the system necessary to keep blacks productive and whites safe from their depredations. As "Negroes were tyrannical by nature," the structure and discipline provided by slavery was necessary if blacks and whites were to live together peacefully.9 Fire-eaters also argued that Northerners, dominated by wealthy merchants and industrialists, did not understand this, so the best option for both sides was separation. After all, the individual state legislatures had ratified the Constitution and entered into the Union willingly. Therefore, state legislatures also had the right to break this compact if the majority of its members believed this course to be in the best interests of their constituents, or so they asserted in their literature.
However, Eric Foner presents a compelling contrast to the beliefs of Southern secessionists in his book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. He examines how Northern abolitionists "seized on the weapons available to them- petitions, lectures and the newly invented steam press" in order to counter slave owners' claims of the peace and tranquility created by slavery.10 He explains how many Northerners abhorred the barbarity and brutality associated with slavery and consciously sought to end it in America. Though the majority of Northerners who opposed slavery did so because they believed it diminished their opportunities for economic prosperity, the number of those who considered themselves abolitionists opposed to slavery because of the inhumanity and immorality associated with it grew steadily in the 1840s and 1850s. In fact, many of the Republicans seeking high political office, men like William Seward, pledged to help end slavery in America in the near future. These men and women saw black Americans as their equals in every way, and this belief helped move the country ever closer to civil war.11
Though many Southerners believed in their states' right to allow slavery and the tenets of it as an economic and social institution, the majority of those living below the Mason-Dixon Line were not inspired to support the idea that secession was the requisite means to guarantee its survival. Many had faith that the compromise which had always prevailed would continue to do so, but the fire-eaters were not willing to wait and see if this contention held true. Instead, they believed that a catalyst was needed to move the majority of the South's citizens to support secession and used the election of 1860 as such. Years before the campaign season began, William Yancey and Robert Brownwell Rhett, both natives of South Carolina and unyielding supporters of slavery, secession and white supremacy, colluded with other Southern Democrats to split the party's presidential ticket to ensure that the Republican nominee would win.12
Ollinger Crenshaw's The Slave States in the Presidential Election of 1860 is one of the earliest works dedicated to explaining secessionists' strategy to destroy the Union. He outlines the steps Southern Democrats took to impede the Democratic National Convention in order to make it impossible for the Northern Democrats to nominate Stephen Douglas as the party's presidential nominee. As Northerners held an overwhelming majority in the party, it should have been easy for them to accomplish this goal. However, Yancey immediately called for a two-thirds majority in order to secure his nomination, and no Southern Democrats endorsed Douglas so that he could receive the requisite number of votes. Though his record on protecting slavery and even its possible expansion had been solidly demonstrated through his successful navigation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress, legislation which repealed not only the Compromise of 1820 but also the Northwest Ordinance, it was clear that their interests would not be imperiled during a Douglas presidency.13 Crenshaw's research clearly illustrates that secessionists were tired of negotiating and compromising with their Northern allies; they wanted to establish a government which represented the true nature of their culture and beliefs. Thus, despite various attempts to develop its platform and select a candidate during the subsequent convention held six weeks hence, they refused to cooperate. In less than a year, the Civil War would begin in earnest.
Steven Channing makes similar claims in his book, Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. Through the use of public and private letters, legislative documents and newspaper articles, he explains how Rhett and his son used their influence in the South Carolina Congress and the public to lead the charge for secession.14 If they could get South Carolinians to believe that "Black Republicans'" ascension to the White House was a certainty no matter what the Democratic Party's efforts, they could more easily promote the idea that the Republicans' primary goal was to abolish slavery and ruin the state's economy. "Rhett merely hoped to precipitate these fears by making that election more certain," and his plan worked flawlessly.15 Before the election had even taken place, wealthy South Carolinians established the "1860 Association" and began circulating pamphlets all over the South which called for support of the secession of Southern states. Though South Carolina was the hotbed for secession, other states would need to follow them out of the Union if a new confederation was to be established.16 Channing's work lends overwhelming credence to Crenshaw's assertion that the Civil War was the direct result of a conspiracy to propel the country into violent conflict.
More recent scholarship further demonstrates just how the Southern Democrats' ploy helped cause the Civil War. In Year of Meteors, Egerton asserts that many politicians, including Stephen Douglas, realized that the splitting of the Democratic ticket was an act designed to incite secession. In October of 1860, when it was clear that neither Democrat would win the election, Douglas went south to "prepare his southern audiences for the election of Lincoln, unite his fractured party, and persuade southern moderates not to follow the ultras into secession."17 In May of the following year, Douglas would charge that "Abraham Lincoln was merely the excuse for secession" and that "the Confederacy was the product of 'an enormous conspiracy' devised months before the fall election."18 Though he supported slavery and had provided the measure by which to preserve its possible extension, the "Little Giant" was wholly committed to preserving the United States as well. However, because of the efforts of secessionists and the "1860 Association," coupled with the tension accumulated over the decades of debate over slavery, Southerners had already decided the issue. When Lincoln won the election, the South would secede.
Michael Green's Lincoln and the Election of 1860 is an even more recent examination of the way in which Southern Democrats consciously worked to rend the Union. He examines the conspiracy initiated by Rhett and Yancey, providing more examples of the ways in which Yancey's actions at the Democratic Convention ruined the chance of a single Democratic nominee.19 Not only did Yancey propose the two-thirds majority in order to select a nominee, he openly called for additions to the party platform that he knew Northern Democrats could not support. These included a pledge to promote the expansion of slavery instead of simply advocating for popular sovereignty. According to Green, Yancey's actions and demands clearly illustrate his support of the conspiracy to incite secession, the act which directly caused the Civil War.
After South Carolina seceded in December of 1860, there was nothing that could be done to stop the impending military conflict which would ensue. Within three weeks of South Carolina's exit from the Union, three other states followed suit. By May of 1860, the total had reached eleven. Though many of the Southern politicians responsible for secession encouraged disunion to protect slavery, many of the men who joined the Confederate cause did so out of love for their native states. Soldiers Blue and Gray by James Robertson, Jr. asserts that patriotism, not a love or disgust of slavery, drove men by the hundreds of thousands to enlist in the service of their states' cause. "'To arms! Our Southern soil must be defended. We must not stop to ask who brought the war, who is at fault, but let us go and do battle.'"20 It seems that Southern leaders understood that identifying slavery as the cause for secession and war was not the most effective way to encourage participation in the conflict initiated to perpetuate and possibly expand the institution in the future. Ninety percent of Southerners did not own even one slave, so patriotism was the best lure to get the support from the Southern populace. However, after the first year, even the love of one's native state was not enough to generate the numbers of men needed to carry on the war, and the Confederate government turned to conscription to create the means necessary to continue the fight to protect slavery indefinitely into the future, exempting those with the means to hire a replacement or who owned twenty or more slaves.21 Though protecting slavery was the reason for founding the Confederacy, slave owners were not compelled to sacrifice their own lives in support of its survival. Instead, this responsibility would fall on the shoulders of those too poor to resist the mandates of Southern oligarchs, further illustrating the costs paid by all Americans for allowing slavery to exist as long as it had.
Unfortunately, the tragic reality that patriotism was also a cause of the Civil War continues to provide revisionist historians the evidence needed to substantiate their claims that the conflict was caused by Southerners' desire that states' rights be respected, not the protection of slavery. In his book, Hearts in Conflict, Curt Anders discusses the ways in which many in the South viewed the debate over slavery as simply an example of Northerners' interference in state affairs. He explains that "Southerners, mostly in rural areas, wanted most to be left alone... nobody liked feeling coerced, particularly by holier-than-thou zealots" bent on changing Southern culture.22 For these individuals, secession was about freedom and free thought, even if it meant denying these same things to four million others. Though Anders does concede that slavery was the driving force behind the secessionists' move, he also works to support the position that most Southerners were little more than observers in the events that unfolded in 1860. His presentation of the idea that only "two of the four" presidential candidates' names appeared on the ballot in the South and that Douglas' appeared on those in some border states suggests that ordinary citizens did not have the power to prevent that which was about to transpire.23
How could a people so connected to their communities and society be unable to discern the truth about slavery and the call for secession? Given all the information available in primary and secondary source material, it is difficult to accept Anders' assertions. However, John Keegan provides support for Anders' contention in his book, The American Civil War: A Military History, as he argues that many Southern leaders had become masters of manipulation who presented their constituencies with only the options they would have for themselves. They were "adept at disguising their real motives" for secession which was the perpetuation of slavery.24 They made the public believe that reconciliation was impossible because Lincoln and the Republicans were going to free the slaves and destroy the Southern way of life. Like Anders, Keegan makes the average Southerner appear as a dimwitted pawn too naive to see through the hypocrisy and deceit which permeated the election cycle of 1860. The idea that Southern politicians cleverly masked their real agenda is a contention also presented by William Davis. In The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy, Davis argues that Southern leaders often "used states' rights as a synonym" for slavery because the word slavery was "distasteful" even among the Southern masses. He also asserts that the majority of these individuals "were by and large men as good and honorable as their Northern opponents."25
However, there are other historians who supply evidence which challenges the contention that many Southerners were duped into supporting the Confederacy's bid to protect and perpetuate slavery far into the future. In his book of essays entitled This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives of the Civil War, James McPherson provides several examples which demonstrate how ordinary citizens, including many who served in the Confederate Army, were fully aware that secession and the war were about slavery: "'this country without slave labor would be completely worthless. We can only live & exist by the specie of labor; and hence I am willing to fight to the last.'"26 Clearly, this statement illustrates that Southerners understood that their economy was wholly dependent on forced labor and that many were willing to resist the influences of Northerners by any means, even if it meant war. For if the slaves were freed, their whole system would collapse, and that is why hundreds of thousands of Southern men willingly sacrificed everything they had by supporting secession and the Confederacy.
What is also true about the American Civil War is that Republicans were in no way responsible for the conflict which ensued, despite the fact that secessionists and other Southern Democrats demonized them and their party's platform. This is because at every opportunity afforded Abraham Lincoln during his time as the Republican nominee up until Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, he consistently asserted his position that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Paul Findley's book, A. Lincoln, the Crucible of Congress: The Years That Forged His Greatness, provides clear evidence of this as well as the fact that Lincoln refused to let his personal beliefs about slavery counter the will of the majority of the American people. He "was the voice of moderation" on the issue, and this stand "placed him at the broad center of public sentiment."27 Though most Americans did not want to see slavery extend into future states, they were not abolitionists either. Lincoln was one of the few American presidents who understood his responsibility to exercise the will of the people and not his own, and the attempts by Southerners and Northern Democrats to paint him as disingenuous in this regard is the clearest example that many of these individuals were not as honorable as Davis suggests.
Fortunately, the South lost the war, and the institution of slavery is no longer the basis of the Southern economy. More importantly, its legacy has nearly eroded away as well. Though it would take over a century to see the fruits of emancipation fully realized in the former Confederacy, America is now a much more accurate representation of its ideals. In his book, The Radical and the Republican, James Oakes provides an excellent summation of what the Civil War was about through an analysis of Fredrick Douglass' statements about Abraham Lincoln and the sacrifices he made to help put the country on the path it was always meant to be. He writes, "It was natural on such occasions, Douglass added, to struggle through 'tears of anguish, to catch some gleam of hope- some good that may be born of tremendous evil."28 This tremendous evil was slavery, and the emancipation of four million Americans represents the good which came from the conflict. Many scholars have made similar statements regarding the inestimable worth born of this conflict, but it is especially fitting that Douglass, the former slave who served as the living representation of all the hypocrisy associated with slavery, was allowed the opportunity to add it to the record.
Though there is still some debate among scholars about the causes of the Civil War, the historiography of the conflict clearly illustrates that the protection of slavery was the primary reason for secession and war. The Southern economy was wholly dependent upon it, and many people in this part of the country believed that the institution provided the necessary structure to ensure that black and white Americans could live together in peace. It was impossible for many in the South to accept the fact that their culture and customs were no longer tolerable by the vast majority of the country's population, and they chose to war rather than compromise, adapt or abolish slavery.
The record also contains evidence which outlines the plot initiated by Southern Democrats to incite secession by splitting the party's ticket in the election of 1860.These men understood that doing so would make it impossible for a Democrat to win and provide the impetus to initiate secession. This, coupled with the deliberate mischaracterization of the Republican Party's aims, increased tensions between North and South, propelling the country into a conflict that was wholly unnecessary. Why change was not an option remains the most enduring question about this period in American history.
Anders, Curt. Hearts in Conflict: A One Volume History of the Civil War. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1994.
Channing, Steven A. Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1974.
Crenshaw, Ollinger. The Slave States in the Presidential Election of 1860. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1945.
Davis, William. Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America. New York: The Free Press, 2002.
----. The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
Egerton, Douglas R. Year of the Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and the Election That Brought on the Civil War. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.
Findley, Paul. A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979.
Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton and Company., 2011.
Green, Michael S. Lincoln and the Election of 1860. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.
Keegan, John. The American Civil War: A Military History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Levine, Bruce. Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, 3rd ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
----. This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Fredrick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of American Antislavery Politics. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.
Robertson, James I. Soldiers Blue and Gray. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.