Origins of the American Civil War

Origins of the American Civil War
The Battle of Fort Sumter was the first stage in a conflict that had been brewing for decades.

The main explanation for the origins of the American Civil War is slavery, especially Southern anger at the attempts by Northern antislavery political forces to block the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Southern slave owners held that such a restriction on slavery would violate the principle of states' rights. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln, who won the national election without receiving a single electoral vote from any of the Southern states, triggered declarations of secession from the United States by slave states of the Deep South, and their formation of the Confederate States of America. Nationalists (in the North and elsewhere) refused to recognize secession, nor did any foreign government. War began in April 1861 when Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, a major fortress held by the U.S. in lands claimed by the Confederacy.

As a panel of historians emphasized in 2011, "while slavery and its various and multifaceted discontents were the primary cause of disunion, it was disunion itself that sparked the war."[1] States' rights and the tariff issue became entangled in the slavery issue, and were intensified by it.[2] Other important factors were party politics, Abolitionism, Southern nationalism, Northern nationalism, expansionism, sectionalism, economics and modernization in the Antebellum Period.

The United States had become a nation of two distinct regions. The free states in New England, the Northeast, and the Midwest[3] had a rapidly-growing economy based on family farms, industry, mining, commerce and transportation, with a large and rapidly growing urban population. Their growth was fed by a high birth rate and large numbers of European immigrants, especially Irish, British and German. The South was dominated by a settled plantation system based on slavery. There was some rapid growth taking place in the Southwest, (e.g., Texas), based on high birth rates and high migration from the Southeast, but it had a much lower immigration rate from Europe. The South also had fewer large cities, and little manufacturing except in border areas. Slave owners controlled politics and economics, though about 70% of Southern whites owned no slaves and usually were engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Overall, the Northern population was growing much more quickly than the Southern population, which made it increasingly difficult for the South to continue to influence the national government. By the time of the 1860 election, the heavily agricultural southern states as a group had fewer Electoral College votes than the rapidly industrializing northern states. Lincoln was able to win the 1860 Presidential election without even being on the ballot in ten Southern states. Southerners felt a loss of federal concern for Southern pro-slavery political demands, and continued domination of the Federal government by "Slaveocracy" was on the wane. This political calculus provided a very real basis for Southerners' worry about the relative political decline of their region due to the North growing much faster in terms of population and industrial output.

In the interest of maintaining unity, politicians had mostly moderated opposition to slavery, resulting in numerous compromises such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After the Mexican-American War, the issue of slavery in the new territories led to the Compromise of 1850. While the compromise averted an immediate political crisis, it did not permanently resolve the issue of the Slave power (the power of slaveholders to control the national government).

Amid the emergence of increasingly virulent and hostile sectional ideologies in national politics, the collapse of the old Second Party System in the 1850s hampered efforts of the politicians to reach yet one more compromise. The compromise that was reached (the Kansas-Nebraska Act) outraged too many northerners. In the 1850s, with the rise of the Republican Party, the first major party with no appeal in the South, the industrializing North and agrarian Midwest became committed to the economic ethos of free-labor industrial capitalism.

Arguments that slavery was undesirable for the nation had long existed, and early in U.S. history were made even by some prominent Southerners. After 1840, abolitionists denounced slavery as not only a social evil but a moral wrong. Many Northerners, especially leaders of the new Republican Party, considered slavery a great national evil and believed that a small number of Southern owners of large plantations controlled the national government with the goal of spreading that evil. Southern defenders of slavery, for their part, increasingly came to contend that blacks actually benefited from slavery, an assertion that alienated Northerners even further.



Early Republic

At the time of the American Revolution, the institution of slavery was firmly established in the American colonies. It was most important in the six southern states from Maryland to Georgia, but the total of a half million slaves were spread out through all of the colonies. In the South 40% of the population was made up of slaves, and as Americans moved into Kentucky and the rest of the southwest fully one-sixth of the settlers were slaves. By the end of the war, the New England states provided most of the American ships that were used in the foreign slave trade while most of their customers were in Georgia and the Carolinas.[4]

During this time many Americans found it difficult to reconcile slavery with their interpretation of Christianity and the lofty sentiments that flowed from the Declaration of Independence. A small antislavery movement, led by the Quakers, had some impact in the 1780s and by the late 1780s all of the states except for Georgia had placed some restrictions on their participation in slave trafficking. Still, no serious national political movement against slavery developed, largely due to the overriding concern over achieving national unity.[5] When the Constitutional Convention met, slavery was the one issue "that left the least possibility of compromise, the one that would most pit morality against pragmatism.[6] In the end, while many would take comfort in the fact that the word slavery never occurs in the Constitution, critics note that the three-fifths clause provided slaveholders with extra representatives in Congress, the requirement of the federal government to suppress domestic violence would dedicate national resources to defending against slave revolts, a twenty year delay in banning the import of slaves allowed the South to fortify its labor needs, and the amendment process made the national abolition of slavery very unlikely in the foreseeable future.[7]

With the outlawing of the African slave trade on January 1, 1808 many Americans felt that the slavery issue was resolved.[8] Any national discussion that might have continued over slavery was drowned out by the years of trade embargoes, maritime competition with Great Britain and France, and, finally, the War of 1812. The one exception to this quiet regarding slavery was New Englanders association of their frustration with the war with their resentment of the three-fifths clause that seemed to allow the South to dominate national politics.[9]

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the northern states (north of the Mason-Dixon Line separating Pennsylvania and Maryland) abolished slavery by 1804. In the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, Congress (still under the Articles of Confederation) barred slavery from the Mid-Western territory north of the Ohio River, but when the U.S. Congress organized the southern territories acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, the ban on slavery was omitted.

Missouri Compromise

In 1819 Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York initiated an uproar in the South when he proposed two amendments to a bill admitting Missouri to the Union as a free state. The first barred slaves from being moved to Missouri, and the second would free all Missouri slaves born after admission to the Union at age 25.[10] With the admission of Alabama as a slave state in 1819, the U.S. was equally divided with 11 slave states and 11 free states. The admission of the new state of Missouri as a slave state would give the slave states a majority in the Senate; the Tallmadge Amendment would give the free states a majority.

The Tallmadge amendments passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate when five Northern Senators voted with all the Southern senators.[11] The question was now the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and many leaders shared Thomas Jefferson's fear of a crisis over slavery—a fear that Jefferson described as "a fire bell in the night". The crisis was solved by the Compromise of 1820, which admitted Maine to the Union as a free state at the same time that Missouri was admitted as a slave state. The Compromise also banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north and west of the state of Missouri along the line of 36-30. The Missouri Compromise quieted the issue until its limitations on slavery were repealed by the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854.[12]

In the South, the Missouri crisis reawakened old fears that a strong federal government could be a fatal threat to slavery. The Jeffersonian coalition that united southern planters and northern farmers, mechanics and artisans in opposition to the threat presented by the Federalist Party had started to dissolve after the War of 1812.[13] It was not until the Missouri crisis that Americans became aware of the political possibilities of a sectional attack on slavery, and it was not until the mass politics of the Jackson Administration that this type of organization around this issue became practical.[14]

Nullification Crisis

The American System, advocated by Henry Clay in Congress and supported by many nationalist supporters of the War of 1812 such as John C. Calhoun, was a program for rapid economic modernization featuring protective tariffs, internal improvements at Federal expense, and a national bank. The purpose was to develop American industry and international commerce. Since iron, coal, and water power were mainly in the North, this tax plan was doomed to cause rancor in the South where economies were agriculture-based.[15][16] Southerners claimed it demonstrated favoritism toward the North.[17][18]

The nation suffered an economic downturn throughout the 1820s, and South Carolina was particularly affected. The highly protective Tariff of 1828 (also called the "Tariff of Abominations"), designed to protect American industry by taxing imported manufactured goods, was enacted into law during the last year of the presidency of John Quincy Adams. Opposed in the South and parts of New England, the expectation of the tariff’s opponents was that with the election of Andrew Jackson the tariff would be significantly reduced.[19]

By 1828 South Carolina state politics increasingly organized around the tariff issue. When the Jackson administration failed to take any actions to address their concerns, the most radical faction in the state began to advocate that the state declare the tariff null and void within South Carolina. In Washington, an open split on the issue occurred between Jackson and his vice-president John C. Calhoun, the most effective proponent of the constitutional theory of state nullification through his 1828 "South Carolina Exposition and Protest".[20]

Congress enacted a new tariff in 1832, but it offered the state little relief, resulting in the most dangerous sectional crisis since the Union was formed. Some militant South Carolinians even hinted at withdrawing from the Union in response. The newly-elected South Carolina legislature then quickly called for the election of delegates to a state convention. Once assembled, the convention voted to declare null and void the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 within the state. President Andrew Jackson responded firmly, declaring nullification an act of treason. He then took steps to strengthen federal forts in the state.

Violence seemed a real possibility early in 1833 as Jacksonians in Congress introduced a "Force Bill" authorizing the President to use the Federal army and navy in order to enforce acts of Congress. No other state had come forward to support South Carolina, and the state itself was divided on willingness to continue the showdown with the Federal government. The crisis ended when Clay and Calhoun worked to devise a compromise tariff. Both sides later claimed victory. Calhoun and his supporters in South Carolina claimed a victory for nullification, insisting that it had forced the revision of the tariff. Jackson's followers, however, saw the episode as a demonstration that no single state could assert its rights by independent action.

Calhoun, in turn, devoted his efforts to building up a sense of Southern solidarity so that when another standoff should come, the whole section might be prepared to act as a bloc in resisting the federal government. As early as 1830, in the midst of the crisis, Calhoun identified the right to own slaves as the chief southern minority right being threatened:

I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick [sic] institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestic institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves and children reduced to wretchedness.[21][22]

The issue appeared again after 1842's Black Tariff. A period of relative free trade after 1846's Walker Tariff reduction followed until 1860, when the protectionist Morrill Tariff was introduced by the Republicans, fueling Southern anti-tariff sentiments once again.

Gag Rule debates

From 1831 to 1836 William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society (AA-SS) initiated a campaign to petition Congress in favor of ending slavery in the District of Columbia and all federal territories. Hundreds of thousands of petitions were sent with the number reaching a peak in 1835.[23]

The House passed the Pinckney Resolutions on May 26, 1836. The first of these resolutions stated that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states and the second that it "ought not" do so in the District of Columbia. The third resolution, known from the beginning as the "gag rule", provided that:

All petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.[24]

The first two resolutions passed by votes of 182 to 9 and 132 to 45. The gag rule, supported by Northern and Southern Democrats as well as some Southern Whigs, was passed with a vote of 117 to 68.[25]

Former President John Quincy Adams, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, became an early and central figure in the opposition to the gag rules.[26] He argued that they were a direct violation of the First Amendment right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." A majority of Northern Whigs joined the opposition. Rather than suppress anti-slavery petitions, however, the gag rules only served to offend Americans from Northern states, and dramatically increase the number of petitions.[27]

Since the original gag was a resolution, not a standing House Rule, it had to be renewed every session and the Adams' faction often gained the floor before the gag could be imposed. However in January 1840, the House of Representatives passed the Twenty-first Rule, which prohibited even the reception of anti-slavery petitions and was a standing House rule. Now the pro-petition forces focused on trying to revoke a standing rule. The Rule raised serious doubts about its constitutionality and had less support than the original Pinckney gag, passing only by 114 to 108. Throughout the gag period, Adams' "superior talent in using and abusing parliamentary rules" and skill in baiting his enemies into making mistakes, enabled him to evade the rule and debate the slavery issues. The gag rule was finally rescinded on December 3, 1844 by a strongly sectional vote of 108 to 80, all the Northern and four Southern Whigs voting for repeal, along with 55 of the 71 Northern Democrats.[28]

Antebellum South and the Union

There had been a continuing contest between the states and the national government over the power of the latter—and over the loyalty of the citizenry—almost since the founding of the republic. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, for example, had defied the Alien and Sedition Acts, and at the Hartford Convention, New England voiced its opposition to President James Madison and the War of 1812, and discussed secession from the Union.

Southern culture

Picking cotton in Georgia.

Although there was only a small minority of free Southerners that ever owned slaves (and, in turn, a minority of similar proportion within these slaveholders who owned the vast majority of slaves), Southerners of all classes nevertheless defended the institution of slavery[29]– threatened by the rise of free labor abolitionist movements in the Northern states– as the cornerstone of their social order.

Based on a system of plantation slavery, the social structure of the South was far more stratified and patriarchal than that of the North. In 1850 there were around 350,000 slaveholders in a total free Southern population of about six million. Among slaveholders, the concentration of slave ownership was unevenly distributed. Perhaps around 7 percent of slaveholders owned roughly three-quarters of the slave population. The largest slaveholders, generally owners of large plantations, represented the top stratum of Southern society. They benefited from economies of scale and needed large numbers of slaves on big plantations to produce profitable labor-intensive crops like cotton. This plantation-owning elite, known as "slave magnates", was comparable to the millionaires of the following century.

In the 1850s as large plantation owners out-competed smaller farmers, more slaves were owned by fewer planters. Yet, while the proportion of the white population consisting of slaveholders was on the decline on the eve of the Civil War—perhaps falling below around a quarter of free southerners in 1860—poor whites and small farmers generally accepted the political leadership of the planter elite.

Several factors helped explain why slavery was not under serious threat of internal collapse from any moves for democratic change initiated from the South. First, given the opening of new territories in the West for white settlement, many non-slaveowners also perceived a possibility that they, too, might own slaves at some point in their life.[30]

Violent repression of slaves was a common theme in abolitionist literature in the North. Above, this famous 1863 photo of a man deeply scarred from whipping by an overseer was distributed by abolitionists to illustrate what they saw as the barbarism of Southern society.

Second, small free farmers in the South often embraced hysterical racism, making them unlikely agents for internal democratic reforms in the South.[31] The principle of white supremacy, accepted by almost all white southerners of all classes, made slavery seem legitimate, natural, and essential for a civilized society. White racism in the South was sustained by official systems of repression such as the "slave codes" and elaborate codes of speech, behavior, and social practices illustrating the subordination of blacks to whites. For example, the "slave patrols" were among the institutions bringing together southern whites of all classes in support of the prevailing economic and racial order. Serving as slave "patrollers" and "overseers" offered white southerners positions of power and honor. These positions gave even poor white southerners the authority to stop, search, whip, maim, and even kill any slave traveling outside his or her plantation. Slave "patrollers" and "overseers" also won prestige in their communities. Policing and punishing blacks who transgressed the regimentation of slave society was a valued community service in the South, where the fear of free blacks threatening law and order figured heavily in the public discourse of the period.

Third, many small farmers with a few slaves and yeomen were linked to elite planters through the market economy.[32] In many areas, small farmers depended on local planter elites for vital goods and services including (but not limited to) access to cotton gins, access to markets, access to feed and livestock, and even for loans (since the banking system was not well developed in the antebellum South). Southern tradesmen often depended on the richest planters for steady work. Such dependency effectively deterred many white non-slaveholders from engaging in any political activity that was not in the interest of the large slaveholders. Furthermore, whites of varying social castes, including poor whites and "plain folk" who worked outside or in the periphery of the market economy (and therefore lacked any real economic interest in the defense of slavery) might nonetheless be linked to elite planters through extensive kinship networks. Since inheritance in the South was often unequitable (and generally favored eldest sons), it was not uncommon for a poor white person to be perhaps the first cousin of the richest plantation owner of his county and to share the same militant support of slavery as his richer relatives. Finally, it should be remembered that there was no secret ballot at the time anywhere in the United States - this innovation did not become widespread in the U.S. until the 1880s. For a typical white Southerner, this meant that so much as casting a ballot against the wishes of the establishment meant running the risk of social ostracization.

Thus, by the 1850s, Southern slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike felt increasingly encircled psychologically and politically in the national political arena because of the rise of free soilism and abolitionism in the Northern states. Increasingly dependent on the North for manufactured goods, for commercial services, and for loans, and increasingly cut off from the flourishing agricultural regions of the Northwest, they faced the prospects of a growing free labor and abolitionist movement in the North.

Militant defense of slavery

With the outcry over developments in Kansas strong in the North, defenders of slavery— increasingly committed to a way of life that abolitionists and their sympathizers considered obsolete or immoral— articulated a militant pro-slavery ideology that would lay the groundwork for secession upon the election of a Republican president. Southerners waged a vitriolic response to political change in the North. Slaveholding interests sought to uphold their constitutional rights in the territories and to maintain sufficient political strength to repulse "hostile" and "ruinous" legislation. Behind this shift was the growth of the cotton industry, which left slavery more important than ever to the Southern economy.[33]


Reactions to the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Abraham Lincoln reputedly called "the little woman that started this great war") and the growth of the abolitionist movement (pronounced after the founding of The Liberator in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison) inspired an elaborate intellectual defense of slavery. Increasingly vocal (and sometimes violent) abolitionist movements, culminating in John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 were viewed as a serious threat, and—in the minds of many Southerners—abolitionists were attempting to foment violent slave revolts as seen in Haiti in the 1790s and as attempted by Nat Turner some three decades prior (1831).

After J. D. B. DeBow established De Bow's Review in 1846, it grew to become the leading Southern magazine, warning the planter class about the dangers of depending on the North economically. De Bow's Review also emerged as the leading voice for secession. The magazine emphasized the South's economic inequality, relating it to the concentration of manufacturing, shipping, banking and international trade in the North. Searching for Biblical passages endorsing slavery and forming economic, sociological, historical and scientific arguments, slavery went from being a "necessary evil" to a "positive good". Dr. J.H. Van Evrie's book Negroes and Negro slavery: The First an Inferior Race: The Latter Its Normal Condition– setting out the arguments the title would suggest– was an attempt to apply scientific support to the Southern arguments in favor of race based slavery.

Latent sectional divisions suddenly activated derogatory sectional imagery which emerged into sectional ideologies. As industrial capitalism gained momentum in the North, Southern writers emphasized whatever aristocratic traits they valued (but often did not practice) in their own society: courtesy, grace, chivalry, the slow pace of life, orderly life and leisure. This supported their argument that slavery provided a more humane society than industrial labor.

In his Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh argued that the antagonism between labor and capital in a free society would result in "robber barons" and "pauper slavery", while in a slave society such antagonisms were avoided. He advocated enslaving Northern factory workers, for their own benefit. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, denounced such Southern insinuations that Northern wage earners were fatally fixed in that condition for life. To Free Soilers, the stereotype of the South was one of a diametrically opposite, static society in which the slave system maintained an entrenched anti-democratic aristocracy.

Southern fears of modernization

According to the historian James M. McPherson, exceptionalism applied not to the South but to the North after the North phased out slavery and launched an industrial revolution that led to urbanization, which in turn led to increased education, which in its own turn gave ever-increasing strength to various reform movements but especially abolitionism.[citation needed] The fact that seven immigrants out of eight settled in the North (and the fact that most immigrants viewed slavery with disfavor), compounded by the fact that twice as many whites left the South for the North as vice versa, contributed to the South's defensive-aggressive political behavior. The Charleston Mercury read that on the issue of slavery the North and South "are not only two Peoples, but they are rival, hostile Peoples."[34] As De Bow's Review said, "We are resisting revolution.... We are not engaged in a Quixotic fight for the rights of man.... We are conservative."[34]

Southern fears of modernity

Allan Nevins argued that the Civil War was an "irrepressible" conflict, adopting a phrase first used by U.S. Senator and Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State William H. Seward. Nevins synthesized contending accounts emphasizing moral, cultural, social, ideological, political, and economic issues. In doing so, he brought the historical discussion back to an emphasis on social and cultural factors. Nevins pointed out that the North and the South were rapidly becoming two different peoples, a point made also by historian Avery Craven. At the root of these cultural differences was the problem of slavery, but fundamental assumptions, tastes, and cultural aims of the regions were diverging in other ways as well. More specifically, the North was rapidly modernizing in a manner threatening to the South. Historian McPherson explains:[34]

When secessionists protested in 1861 that they were acting to preserve traditional rights and values, they were correct. They fought to preserve their constitutional liberties against the perceived Northern threat to overthrow them. The South's concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North's had.... The ascension to power of the Republican Party, with its ideology of competitive, egalitarian free-labor capitalism, was a signal to the South that the Northern majority had turned irrevocably towards this frightening, revolutionary future.

Harry L. Watson has synthesized research on antebellum southern social, economic, and political history. Self-sufficient yeomen, in Watson's view, "collaborated in their own transformation" by allowing promoters of a market economy to gain political influence. Resultant "doubts and frustrations" provided fertile soil for the argument that southern rights and liberties were menaced by Black Republicanism.[35]

J. Mills Thornton III, explained the viewpoint of the average white Alabamian. Thornton contends that Alabama was engulfed in a severe crisis long before 1860. Deeply held principles of freedom, equality, and autonomy, as expressed in republican values appeared threatened, especially during the 1850s, by the relentless expansion of market relations and commercial agriculture. Alabamians were thus, he judged, prepared to believe the worst once Lincoln was elected.[36]

Sectional tensions and the emergence of mass politics

The cry of Free Man was raised, not for the extension of liberty to the black man, but for the protection of the liberty of the white.

Frederick Douglass

The politicians of the 1850s were acting in a society in which the traditional restraints that suppressed sectional conflict in the 1820s and 1850s– the most important of which being the stability of the two-party system– were being eroded as this rapid extension of mass democracy went forward in the North and South. It was an era when the mass political party galvanized voter participation to an unprecedented degree, and a time in which politics formed an essential component of American mass culture. Historians agree that political involvement was a larger concern to the average American in the 1850s than today. Politics was, in one of its functions, a form of mass entertainment, a spectacle with rallies, parades, and colorful personalities. Leading politicians, moreover, often served as a focus for popular interests, aspirations, and values.

Historian Allan Nevins, for instance, writes of political rallies in 1856 with turnouts of anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand men and women. Voter turnouts even ran as high as 84% by 1860. An abundance of new parties emerged 1854-56, including the Republicans, People's party men, Anti-Nebraskans, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (anti-slavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindus, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells and Adopted Citizens. By 1858, they were mostly gone, and politics divided four ways. Republicans controlled most Northern states with a strong Democratic minority. The Democrats were split North and South and fielded two tickets in 1860. Southern non-Democrats tried different coalitions; most supported the Constitutional Union party in 1860.

Many Southern states held constitutional conventions in 1851 to consider the questions of nullification and secession. With the exception of South Carolina, whose convention election did not even offer the option of "no secession" but rather "no secession without the collaboration of other states," the Southern conventions were dominated by Unionists who voted down articles of secession.


Historians today generally agree that economic conflicts were not a major cause of the war. While an economic basis to the sectional crisis was popular among the “Progressive school” of historians from the 1910s to the 1940s, few 'professional historians' now subscribe to this explanation.[37] According to economic historian Lee A. Craig, "In fact, numerous studies by economic historians over the past several decades reveal that economic conflict was not an inherent condition of North-South relations during the antebellum era and did not cause the Civil War."[38]

When numerous groups tried at the last minute in 1860-61 to find a compromise to avert war, they did not turn to economic policies. The three major attempts at compromise, the Crittenden Compromise, the Corwin Amendment and the Washington Peace Conference, addressed only the slavery-related issues of fugitive slave laws, personal liberty laws, slavery in the territories and interference with slavery within the existing slave states.[39]

Economic value of slavery to the South

Historian James L. Huston emphasizes the role of slavery as an economic institution. In October 1860 William Lowndes Yancey, a leading advocate of secession, placed the value of Southern-held slaves at $2.8 billion.[40] Huston writes:

Understanding the relations between wealth, slavery, and property rights in the South provides a powerful means of understanding southern political behavior leading to disunion. First, the size dimensions of slavery are important to comprehend, for slavery was a colossal institution. Second, the property rights argument was the ultimate defense of slavery, and white southerners and the proslavery radicals knew it. Third, the weak point in the protection of slavery by property rights was the federal government.... Fourth, the intense need to preserve the sanctity of property rights in Africans led southern political leaders to demand the nationalization of slavery– the condition under which slaveholders would always be protected in their property holdings.[41]

The figures quoted by Southerners in the 1850s would equate to about $70 billion in 2009 dollars. That point being noted, the figures need to be interpreted in the context of American economic perspectives as they existed in the mid-19th century. Back then, the United States would have to be considered (in a purely financial sense) a poor country by any modern standard, and (relatively speaking) the South was the poorest part of the country. To most Americans living at the time, one million dollars would have been considered far more vast a fortune in the 1850s than even an inflation-adjusted sum would be considered today, let alone any sum in the billions of dollars.

The cotton gin greatly increased the efficiency with which cotton could be harvested, contributing to the consolidation of "King Cotton" as the backbone of the economy of the Deep South, and to the entrenchment of the system of slave labor on which the cotton plantation economy depended.

The tendency of monoculture cotton plantings to lead to soil exhaustion created a need for cotton planters to move their operations to new lands, and therefore to the westward expansion of slavery from the Eastern seaboard into new areas (e.g., Alabama, Mississippi, and beyond to East Texas).[42][43]

Regional economic differences

An animation showing the free/slave status of U.S. states and territories, 1789-1861.

The South, Midwest, and Northeast had quite different economic structures. They traded with each other and each became more prosperous by staying in the Union, a point many businessmen made in 1860-61. However Charles Beard in the 1920s made a highly influential argument to the effect that these differences caused the war (rather than slavery or constitutional debates). He saw the industrial Northeast forming a coalition with the agrarian Midwest against the Plantation South. Critics challenged his image of a unified Northeast and said that the region was in fact highly diverse with many different competing economic interests. In 1860-61, most business interests in the Northeast opposed war.

After 1950, only a few mainstream historians accepted the Beard interpretation, though it was accepted by libertarian economists.[44] As Historian Kenneth Stampp—who abandoned Beardianism after 1950, sums up the scholarly consensus:[45] "Most see no compelling reason why the divergent economies of the North and South should have led to disunion and civil war; rather, they find stronger practical reasons why the sections, whose economies neatly complemented one another, should have found it advantageous to remain united."[46]

Free labor vs. pro-slavery arguments

Historian Eric Foner argued that a free-labor ideology dominated thinking in the North, which emphasized economic opportunity. By contrast, Southerners described free labor as "greasy mechanics, filthy operators, small-fisted farmers, and moonstruck theorists".[47] They strongly opposed the homestead laws that were proposed to give free farms in the west, fearing the small farmers would oppose plantation slavery. Indeed, opposition to homestead laws was far more common in secessionist rhetoric than opposition to tariffs.[48] Southerners such as Calhoun argued that slavery was "a positive good", and that slaves were more civilized and morally and intellectually improved because of slavery.[49]

Religious conflict over the slavery question

Led by Mark Noll, a body of scholarship[50][51][52] has highlighted the fact that the American debate over slavery became a shooting war in part because the two sides reached diametrically opposite conclusions based on reading the same authoritative source of guidance on moral questions: the King James Version of the Bible.

After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of government-sponsored churches, the U.S. experienced the Second Great Awakening, a massive Protestant revival. Without centralized church authorities, American Protestantism was heavily reliant on the Bible, which was read in the standard 19th-century Reformed hermeneutic of "common sense", literal interpretation as if the Bible were speaking directly about the modern American situation instead of events that occurred in a much different context, millennia ago.[50] By the mid-19th century this form of religion and Bible interpretation had become a dominant strand in American religious, moral and political discourse, almost serving as a de facto state religion.[50]

The problem that this caused for resolving the slavery question was that the Bible, interpreted under these assumptions, seemed to clearly suggest that slavery was Biblically justified:[50]

The pro-slavery South could point to slaveholding by the godly patriarch Abraham (Gen 12:5; 14:14; 24:35-36; 26:13-14), a practice that was later incorporated into Israelite national law (Lev 25:44-46). It was never denounced by Jesus, who made slavery a model of discipleship (Mk 10:44). The Apostle Paul supported slavery, counseling obedience to earthly masters (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-25) as a duty in agreement with "the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness" (1 Tim 6:3). Because slaves were to remain in their present state unless they could win their freedom (1 Cor 7:20-24), he sent the fugitive slave Onesimus back to his owner Philemon (Phlm 10-20). The abolitionist north had a difficult time matching the pro-slavery south passage for passage. [...] Professor Eugene Genovese, who has studied these biblical debates over slavery in minute detail, concludes that the pro-slavery faction clearly emerged victorious over the abolitionists except for one specious argument based on the so-called Curse of Ham (Gen 9:18-27). For our purposes, it is important to realize that the South won this crucial contest with the North by using the prevailing hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, on which both sides agreed. So decisive was its triumph that the South mounted a vigorous counterattack on the abolitionists as infidels who had abandoned the plain words of Scripture for the secular ideology of the Enlightenment.[53]

Protestant churches in the U.S., unable to agree on what God's Word said about slavery, ended up with schisms between Northern and Southern branches: the Methodists in 1844,[54] the Baptists in 1845,[55] and the Presbyterians in 1857.[56][57] These splits presaged the subsequent split in the nation: "The churches played a major role in the dividing of the nation, and it is probably true that it was the splits in the churches which made a final split of the national inevitable."[58] The conflict over how to interpret the Bible was central:

The theological crisis occasioned by reasoning like [conservative Presbyterian theologian James H.] Thornwell's was acute. Many Northern Bible-readers and not a few in the South felt that slavery was evil. They somehow knew the Bible supported them in that feeling. Yet when it came to using the Bible as it had been used with such success to evangelize and civilize the United States, the sacred page was snatched out of their hands. Trust in the Bible and reliance upon a Reformed, literal hermeneutic had created a crisis that only bullets, not arguments, could resolve.[59]

The result:

The question of the Bible and slavery in the era of the Civil War was never a simple question. The issue involved the American expression of a Reformed literal hermeneutic, the failure of hermeneutical alternatives to gain cultural authority, and the exercise of deeply entrenched intuitive racism, as well as the presence of Scripture as an authoritative religious book and slavery as an inherited social-economic relationship. The North– forced to fight on unfriendly terrain that it had helped to create– lost the exegetical war. The South certainly lost the shooting war. But constructive orthodox theology was the major loser when American believers allowed bullets instead of hermeneutical self-consciousness to determine what the Bible said about slavery. For the history of theology in America, the great tragedy of the Civil War is that the most persuasive theologians were the Rev. Drs. William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant.[60]

There were many causes of the Civil War, but the religious conflict, almost unimaginable in modern America, cut very deep at the time. Noll and others highlight the significance of the religion issue for the famous phrase in Lincoln's second inaugural: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."


Platform of the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan.

Antislavery movements in the North gained momentum in the 1830s and 1840s, a period of rapid transformation of Northern society that inspired a social and political reformism. Many of the reformers of the period, including abolitionists, attempted in one way or another to transform the lifestyle and work habits of labor, helping workers respond to the new demands of an industrializing, capitalistic society.

Antislavery, like many other reform movements of the period, was influenced by the legacy of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the new country stressing the reform of individuals which was still relatively fresh in the American memory. Thus, while the reform spirit of the period was expressed by a variety of movements with often-conflicting political goals, most reform movements shared a common feature in their emphasis on the Great Awakening principle of transforming the human personality through discipline, order, and restraint.

"Abolitionist" had several meanings at the time. The followers of William Lloyd Garrison, including Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, demanded the "immediate abolition of slavery", hence the name. A more pragmatic group of abolitionists, like Theodore Weld and Arthur Tappan, wanted immediate action, but that action might well be a program of gradual emancipation, with a long intermediate stage. "Antislavery men", like John Quincy Adams, did what they could to limit slavery and end it where possible, but were not part of any abolitionist group. For example, in 1841 Adams represented the Amistad African slaves in the Supreme Court of the United States and argued that they should be set free.[61] In the last years before the war, "antislavery" could mean the Northern majority, like Abraham Lincoln, who opposed expansion of slavery or its influence, as by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or the Fugitive Slave Act. Many Southerners called all these abolitionists, without distinguishing them from the Garrisonians. James M. McPherson explains the abolitionists' deep beliefs: "All people were equal in God's sight; the souls of black folks were as valuable as those of whites; for one of God's children to enslave another was a violation of the Higher Law, even if it was sanctioned by the Constitution."[62]

A woodcut from the abolitionist Anti-Slavery Almanac (1839) depicts the capture of a fugitive slave by a slave patrol.

Stressing the Yankee Protestant ideals of self-improvement, industry, and thrift, most abolitionists– most notably William Lloyd Garrison– condemned slavery as a lack of control over one's own destiny and the fruits of one's labor.

Wendell Phillips, one of the most ardent abolitionists, attacked the Slave Power and presaged disunion as early as 1845:

The experience of the fifty years… shows us the slaves trebling in numbers—slaveholders monopolizing the offices and dictating the policy of the Government—prostituting the strength and influence of the Nation to the support of slavery here and elsewhere—trampling on the rights of the free States, and making the courts of the country their tools. To continue this disastrous alliance longer is madness.… Why prolong the experiment?[63]

Abolitionists also attacked slavery as a threat to the freedom of white Americans. Defining freedom as more than a simple lack of restraint, antebellum reformers held that the truly free man was one who imposed restraints upon himself. Thus, for the anti-slavery reformers of the 1830s and 1840s, the promise of free labor and upward social mobility (opportunities for advancement, rights to own property, and to control one's own labor), was central to the ideal of reforming individuals.

Controversy over the so-called Ostend Manifesto (which proposed the U.S. annexation of Cuba as a slave state) and the Fugitive Slave Act kept sectional tensions alive before the issue of slavery in the West could occupy the country's politics in the mid-to-late 1850s.

Antislavery sentiment among some groups in the North intensified after the Compromise of 1850, when Southerners began appearing in Northern states to pursue fugitives or often to claim as slaves free African Americans who had resided there for years. Meanwhile, some abolitionists openly sought to prevent enforcement of the law. Violation of the Fugitive Slave Act was often open and organized. In Boston– a city from which it was boasted that no fugitive had ever been returned– Theodore Parker and other members of the city's elite helped form mobs to prevent enforcement of the law as early as April 1851. A pattern of public resistance emerged in city after city, notably in Syracuse in 1851 (culminating in the Jerry Rescue incident late that year), and Boston again in 1854. But the issue did not lead to a crisis until revived by the same issue underlying the Missouri Compromise of 1820: slavery in the territories.

Arguments for and against slavery

William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist, was motivated by a belief in the growth of democracy. Because the Constitution had a three-fifths clause, a fugitive slave clause and a 20-year extension of the Atlantic slave trade, Garrison once publicly burned a copy of the U. S. Constitution and called it "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell".[64] In 1854, he said:

I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form—and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing—with indignation and abhorrence.[65]

Opposite opinions on slavery were expressed by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens in his "Cornerstone Speech". Stephens said:

(Thomas Jefferson's) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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.[66]

"Free soil" movement

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The assumptions, tastes, and cultural aims of the reformers of the 1830s and 1840s anticipated the political and ideological ferment of the 1850s. A surge of working class Irish and German Catholic immigration provoked reactions among many Northern Whigs, as well as Democrats. Growing fears of labor competition for white workers and farmers because of the growing number of free blacks prompted several northern states to adopt discriminatory "Black Codes".

In the Northwest, although farm tenancy was increasing, the number of free farmers was still double that of farm laborers and tenants. Moreover, although the expansion of the factory system was undermining the economic independence of the small craftsman and artisan, industry in the region, still one largely of small towns, was still concentrated in small-scale enterprises. Arguably, social mobility was on the verge of contracting in the urban centers of the North, but long-cherished ideas of opportunity, "honest industry" and "toil" were at least close enough in time to lend plausibility to the free labor ideology.

In the rural and small-town North, the picture of Northern society (framed by the ethos of "free labor") corresponded to a large degree with reality. Propelled by advancements in transportation and communication– especially steam navigation, railroads, and telegraphs– the two decades before the Civil War were of rapid expansion in population and economy of the Northwest. Combined with the rise of Northeastern and export markets for their products, the social standing of farmers in the region substantially improved. The small towns and villages that emerged as the Republican Party's heartland showed every sign of vigorous expansion. Their vision for an ideal society was of small-scale capitalism, with white American laborers entitled to the chance of upward mobility opportunities for advancement, rights to own property, and to control their own labor. Many free-soilers demanded that the slave labor system and free black settlers (and, in places such as California, Chinese immigrants) should be excluded from the Great Plains to guarantee the predominance there of the free white laborer.

Opposition to the 1847 Wilmot Proviso helped to consolidate the "free-soil" forces. The next year, Radical New York Democrats known as Barnburners, members of the Liberty Party, and anti-slavery Whigs held a convention at Buffalo, New York, in August, forming the Free-Soil Party. The party supported former President Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr., for President and Vice President, respectively. The party opposed the expansion of slavery into territories where it had not yet existed, such as Oregon and the ceded Mexican territory.

Relating Northern and Southern positions on slavery to basic differences in labor systems, but insisting on the role of culture and ideology in coloring these differences, Eric Foner's book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970) went beyond the economic determinism of Charles Beard (a leading historian of the 1930s). Foner emphasized the importance of free labor ideology to Northern opponents of slavery, pointing out that the moral concerns of the abolitionists were not necessarily the dominant sentiments in the North. Many Northerners (including Lincoln) opposed slavery also because they feared that black labor might spread to the North and threaten the position of free white laborers. In this sense, Republicans and the abolitionists were able to appeal to powerful emotions in the North through a broader commitment to "free labor" principles. The "Slave Power" idea had a far greater appeal to Northern self-interest than arguments based on the plight of black slaves in the South. If the free labor ideology of the 1830s and 1840s depended on the transformation of Northern society, its entry into politics depended on the rise of mass democracy, in turn propelled by far-reaching social change. Its chance would come by the mid-1850s with the collapse of the traditional two-party system, which had long suppressed sectional conflict.

Slavery question in territories acquired from Mexico

Soon after the Mexican War started and long before negotiation of the new US-Mexico border, the question of slavery in the territories to be acquired polarized the Northern and Southern United States in the most bitter sectional conflict up to this time, which lasted for a deadlock of four years during which the Second Party System broke up, Mormon pioneers settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled California, and New Mexico under a federal military government turned back Texas's attempt to assert control over territory Texas claimed as far west as the Rio Grande. Eventually the Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union, but only for another decade. Proposals included:

  • The Wilmot Proviso banning slavery in any new territory to be acquired from Mexico, not including Texas which had been annexed the previous year. Passed by the United States House of Representatives in August 1846 and February 1847 but not the Senate. Later an effort to attach the proviso to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed.
  • Failed amendments to the Wilmot Proviso by William W. Wick and then Stephen Douglas extending the Missouri Compromise line (36°30' parallel north) west to the Pacific, allowing slavery in most of present day New Mexico and Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Southern California, as well as any other territories that might be acquired from Mexico. The line was again proposed by the Nashville Convention of June 1850.
  • Popular sovereignty, developed by Lewis Cass and Douglas as the eventual Democratic Party position, letting each territory decide whether to allow slavery.
  • William L. Yancey's "Alabama Platform," endorsed by the Alabama and Georgia legislatures and by Democratic state conventions in Florida and Virginia, called for no restrictions on slavery in the territories either by the federal government or by territorial governments before statehood, opposition to any candidates supporting either the Wilmot Proviso or popular sovereignty, and federal legislation overruling Mexican anti-slavery laws.
  • General Zachary Taylor, who became the Whig candidate in 1848 and then President from March 1849 to July 1850, proposed after becoming President that the entire area become two free states, called California and New Mexico but much larger than the eventual ones. None of the area would be left as an unorganized or organized territory, avoiding the question of slavery in the territories.
  • The Mormons' proposal for a State of Deseret incorporating most of the area of the Mexican Cession but excluding the largest non-Mormon populations in Northern California and central New Mexico was considered unlikely to succeed in Congress, but nevertheless in 1849 President Zachary Taylor sent his agent John Wilson westward with a proposal to combine California and Deseret as a single state, decreasing the number of new free states and the erosion of Southern parity in the Senate.
US Territories 1850.jpg
  • The Compromise of 1850, proposed by Henry Clay in January 1850, guided to passage by Douglas over Northern Whig and Southern Democrat opposition, and enacted September 1850, admitted California as a free state including Southern California and organized Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory with slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty. Texas dropped its claim to the disputed northwestern areas in return for debt relief, and the areas were divided between the two new territories and unorganized territory. El Paso where Texas had successfully established county government was left in Texas. No southern territory dominated by Southerners (like the later short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona) was created. Also, the slave trade was abolished in Washington, D.C. (but not slavery itself), and the Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened.

States' rights

States' rights was an issue in the 19th century for those who felt that the federal government was superseded by the authority of the individual states and was in violation of the role intended for it by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Kenneth M. Stampp notes that each section used states' rights arguments when convenient, and shifted positions when convenient.[67] For example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was justified by its supporters as a state's right to have its property laws respected by other states, and was resisted by northern legislatures in the form of state personal liberty laws that placed state laws above the federal mandate.

States’ rights and slavery

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. noted that the states' rights “never had any real vitality independent of underlying conditions of vast social, economic, or political significance.”[68] He further elaborated:

From the close of the nullification episode of 1832-1833 to the outbreak of the Civil War, the agitation of state rights was intimately connected with the new issue of growing importance, the slavery question, and the principle form assumed by the doctrine was the right of secession. The pro-slavery forces sought refuge in the state rights position as a shield against federal interference with pro-slavery projects.... As a natural consequence, anti-slavery legislatures in the North were led to lay great stress on the national character of the Union and the broad powers of the general government in dealing with slavery. Nevertheless, it is significant to note that when it served anti-slavery purposes better to lapse into state rights dialectic, northern legislatures did not hesitate to be inconsistent.[69]

Echoing Schlesinger, Forrest McDonald wrote that “the dynamics of the tension between federal and state authority changed abruptly during the late 1840s” as a result of the acquisition of territory in the Mexican War. McDonald states:

And then, as a by-product or offshoot of a war of conquest, slavery– a subject that leading politicians had, with the exception of the gag rule controversy and Calhoun’s occasional outbursts, scrupulously kept out of partisan debate– erupted as the dominant issue in that arena. So disruptive was the issue that it subjected the federal Union to the greatest strain the young republic had yet known.[70]

States' rights and minority rights

States' rights theories were a response to a growing awareness of the fact that the Northern population was growing much faster than the population of the South,[citation needed] which concluded that it was only a matter of time before the North controlled the federal government. Acting as a "conscious minority," Southerners hoped that a strict, constructionist interpretation of the Constitution would limit federal power over the states, and that a defense of states' rights against federal encroachments or even nullification or secession would save the South.[71] Before 1860, most presidents were either Southern or pro-South. The North's growing population would mean the election of pro-North presidents, and the addition of free-soil states would end Southern parity with the North in the Senate. As the historian Allan Nevins described the Southern politician John C. Calhoun's theory of states' rights, "Governments, observed Calhoun, were formed to protect minorities, for majorities could take care of themselves".[72]

Until the 1860 election, the South’s interests nationally were entrusted to the Democratic Party. In 1860, the Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern factions as the result of a “bitter debate in the United States Senate between Jefferson Davis and Stephen Douglas.” The debate was over resolutions proposed by Davis “opposing popular sovereignty and supporting a federal slave code and states’ rights” which carried over to the national convention in Charleston.[73]

Davis defined equality in terms of the equal rights of states,[74] and opposed the declaration that all men are created equal.[75] Jefferson Davis stated that a "disparaging discrimination" and a fight for "liberty" against "the tyranny of an unbridled majority" gave the Confederate states a right to secede.[76] In 1860, Congressman Laurence M. Keitt of South Carolina said, "The anti-slavery party contend that slavery is wrong in itself, and the Government is a consolidated national democracy. We of the South contend that slavery is right, and that this is a confederate Republic of sovereign States."[77]

Stampp mentioned Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States as an example of a Southern leader who said that slavery was the "cornerstone of the Confederacy" when the war began and then said that the war was not about slavery but states' rights after Southern defeat. Stampp said that Stephens became one of the most ardent defenders of the Lost Cause.[78]

William C. Davis also mentioned inconsistencies in Southern states' rights arguments. He explained the Confederate Constitution's protection of slavery at the national level as follows:

To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery. Of all the many testimonials to the fact that slavery, and not states rights, really lay at the heart of their movement, this was the most eloquent of all.[79]

The Compromise of 1850

The victory of the United States over Mexico resulted in the addition of large new territories conquered from Mexico. Controversy over whether these territories would be slave or free raised the risk of a war between slave and free states, and Northern support for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in the conquered territories, increased sectional tensions. The controversy was temporarily resolved by the Compromise of 1850, which allowed the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide for or against slavery, but also allowed the admission of California as a free state, reduced the size of the slave state of Texas by adjusting the boundary, and ended the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia. In return, the South got a stronger fugitive slave law than the version mentioned in the Constitution. The Fugitive Slave Law would reignite controversy over slavery.

Fugitive Slave Law issues

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that Northerners assist Southerners in reclaiming fugitive slaves, which many Northerners found to be extremely offensive. Anthony Burns was among the fugitive slaves captured and returned in chains to slavery as a result of the law. Harriett Beecher Stowe's best selling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin greatly increased opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law.

Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)

Most people thought the Compromise had ended the territorial issue, but Stephen A. Douglas reopened it in 1854, in the name of democracy. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill with the intention of opening up vast new high quality farm lands to settlement. As a Chicagoan, he was especially interested in the railroad connections from Chicago into Kansas and Nebraska, but that was not a controversial point. More importantly, Douglas firmly believed in democracy at the grass roots—that actual settlers have the right to decide on slavery, not politicians from other states. His bill provided that popular sovereignty, through the territorial legislatures, should decide "all questions pertaining to slavery", thus effectively repealing the Missouri Compromise. The ensuing public reaction against it created a firestorm of protest in the Northern states. It was seen as an effort to repeal the Missouri Compromise. However, the popular reaction in the first month after the bill's introduction failed to foreshadow the gravity of the situation. As Northern papers initially ignored the story, Republican leaders lamented the lack of a popular response.

Eventually, the popular reaction did come, but the leaders had to spark it. Chase's "Appeal of the Independent Democrats" did much to arouse popular opinion. In New York, William H. Seward finally took it upon himself to organize a rally against the Nebraska bill, since none had arisen spontaneously. Press such as the National Era, the New York Tribune, and local free-soil journals, condemned the bill. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 drew national attention to the issue of slavery expansion.

Founding of the Republican Party (1854)

Charles Sumner, the Senate's leading opponent of slavery.

Convinced that Northern society was superior to that of the South, and increasingly persuaded of the South's ambitions to extend slave power beyond its existing borders, Northerners were embracing a viewpoint that made conflict likely; but conflict required the ascendancy of the Republican Party. The Republican Party– campaigning on the popular, emotional issue of "free soil" in the frontier– captured the White House after just six years of existence.

The Republican Party grew out of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska legislation. Once the Northern reaction against the Kansas-Nebraska Act took place, its leaders acted to advance another political reorganization. Henry Wilson declared the Whig Party dead and vowed to oppose any efforts to resurrect it. Horace Greeley's Tribune called for the formation of a new Northern party, and Benjamin Wade, Chase, Charles Sumner, and others spoke out for the union of all opponents of the Nebraska Act. The Tribune's Gamaliel Bailey was involved in calling a caucus of anti-slavery Whig and Democratic Party Congressmen in May.

Meeting in a Ripon, Wisconsin, Congregational Church on February 28, 1854, some thirty opponents of the Nebraska Act called for the organization of a new political party and suggested that "Republican" would be the most appropriate name (to link their cause to the defunct Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson). These founders also took a leading role in the creation of the Republican Party in many northern states during the summer of 1854. While conservatives and many moderates were content merely to call for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise or a prohibition of slavery extension, radicals advocated repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws and rapid abolition in existing states. The term "radical" has also been applied to those who objected to the Compromise of 1850, which extended slavery in the territories.

But without the benefit of hindsight, the 1854 elections would seem to indicate the possible triumph of the Know-Nothing movement rather than anti-slavery, with the Catholic/immigrant question replacing slavery as the issue capable of mobilizing mass appeal. Know-Nothings, for instance, captured the mayoralty of Philadelphia with a majority of over 8,000 votes in 1854. Even after opening up immense discord with his Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Douglas began speaking of the Know-Nothings, rather than the Republicans, as the principal danger to the Democratic Party.

When Republicans spoke of themselves as a party of "free labor," they appealed to a rapidly growing, primarily middle class base of support, not permanent wage earners or the unemployed (the working class). When they extolled the virtues of free labor, they were merely reflecting the experiences of millions of men who had "made it" and millions of others who had a realistic hope of doing so. Like the Tories in England, the Republicans in the United States would emerge as the nationalists, homogenizers, imperialists, and cosmopolitans.

Those who had not yet "made it" included Irish immigrants, who made up a large growing proportion of Northern factory workers. Republicans often saw the Catholic working class as lacking the qualities of self-discipline, temperance, and sobriety essential for their vision of ordered liberty. Republicans insisted that there was a high correlation between education, religion, and hard work—the values of the "Protestant work ethic"—and Republican votes. "Where free schools are regarded as a nuisance, where religion is least honored and lazy unthrift is the rule," read an editorial of the pro-Republican Chicago Democratic Press after James Buchanan's defeat of John C. Fremont in the 1856 presidential election, "there Buchanan has received his strongest support."

Ethno-religious, socio-economic, and cultural fault lines ran throughout American society, but were becoming increasingly sectional, pitting Yankee Protestants with a stake in the emerging industrial capitalism and American nationalism increasingly against those tied to Southern slave holding interests. For example, acclaimed historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, in his Prelude to Greatness, Lincoln in the 1850s, noticed how Illinois was a microcosm of the national political scene, pointing out voting patterns that bore striking correlations to regional patterns of settlement. Those areas settled from the South were staunchly Democratic, while those by New Englanders were staunchly Republican. In addition, a belt of border counties were known for their political moderation, and traditionally held the balance of power. Intertwined with religious, ethnic, regional, and class identities, the issues of free labor and free soil were thus easy to play on.

Events during the next two years in "Bleeding Kansas" sustained the popular fervor originally aroused among some elements in the North by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Free-State settlers from the North were encouraged by press and pulpit and the powerful organs of abolitionist propaganda. Often they received financial help from such organizations as the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. Those from the South often received financial contributions from the communities they left. Southerners sought to uphold their constitutional rights in the territories and to maintain sufficient political strength to repulse "hostile and ruinous legislation."

While the Great Plains were largely unfit for the cultivation of cotton, informed Southerners demanded that the West be open to slavery, often—perhaps most often—with minerals in mind. Brazil, for instance, was an example of the successful use of slave labor in mining. In the middle of the 18th century, diamond mining supplemented gold mining in Minas Gerais and accounted for a massive transfer of masters and slaves from Brazil's northeastern sugar region. Southern leaders knew a good deal about this experience. It was even promoted in the pro-slavery DeBow's Review as far back as 1848.

Fragmentation of the American party system

"Bleeding Kansas" and the elections of 1856

Radical abolitionist John Brown.

In Kansas around 1855, the slavery issue reached a condition of intolerable tension and violence. But this was in an area where an overwhelming proportion of settlers were merely land-hungry Westerners indifferent to the public issues. The majority of the inhabitants were not concerned with sectional tensions or the issue of slavery. Instead, the tension in Kansas began as a contention between rival claimants. During the first wave of settlement, no one held titles to the land, and settlers rushed to occupy newly open land fit for cultivation. While the tension and violence did emerge as a pattern pitting Yankee and Missourian settlers against each other, there is little evidence of any ideological divides on the questions of slavery. Instead, the Missouri claimants, thinking of Kansas as their own domain, regarded the Yankee squatters as invaders, while the Yankees accused the Missourians for grabbing the best land without honestly settling on it.

However, the 1855-56 violence in "Bleeding Kansas" did reach an ideological climax after John Brown– regarded by followers as the instrument of God's will to destroy slavery– entered the melee. His assassination of five pro-slavery settlers (the so-called "Pottawatomie Massacre", during the night of May 24, 1856) resulted in some irregular, guerrilla-style strife. Aside from John Brown's fervor, the strife in Kansas often involved only armed bands more interested in land claims or loot.

His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine... Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him.

Frederick Douglass speaking of John Brown

Of greater importance than the civil strife in Kansas, however, was the reaction against it nationwide and in Congress. In both North and South, the belief was widespread that the aggressive designs of the other section were epitomized by (and responsible for) what was happening in Kansas. Consequently, "Bleeding Kansas" emerged as a symbol of sectional controversy.

Indignant over the developments in Kansas, the Republicans—the first entirely sectional major party in U.S. history—entered their first presidential campaign with confidence. Their nominee, John C. Frémont, was a generally safe candidate for the new party. Although his nomination upset some of their Nativist Know-Nothing supporters (his mother was a Catholic), the nomination of the famed explorer of the Far West with no political record was an attempt to woo ex-Democrats. The other two Republican contenders, William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase, were seen as too radical.

Nevertheless, the campaign of 1856 was waged almost exclusively on the slavery issue—pitted as a struggle between democracy and aristocracy—focusing on the question of Kansas. The Republicans condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery, but they advanced a program of internal improvements combining the idealism of anti-slavery with the economic aspirations of the North. The new party rapidly developed a powerful partisan culture, and energetic activists drove voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers. People reacted with fervor. Young Republicans organized the "Wide Awake" clubs and chanted "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Frémont!" With Southern fire-eaters and even some moderates uttering threats of secession if Frémont won, the Democratic candidate, Buchanan, benefited from apprehensions about the future of the Union.

Dred Scott decision (1857) and the Lecompton Constitution

Slave Dred Scott.

The Lecompton Constitution and Dred Scott v. Sandford were both part of the Bleeding Kansas controversy over slavery as a result of the Kansas Nebraska Act, which was Stephen Douglas' attempt at replacing the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories with popular sovereignty, which meant that the people of a territory could vote either for or against slavery. The Lecompton Constitution, which would have allowed slavery in Kansas, was the result of massive vote fraud by the pro-slavery Border Ruffians. Douglas defeated the Lecompton Constitution because it was supported by the minority of pro-slavery people in Kansas, and Douglas believed in majority rule. Douglas hoped that both South and North would support popular sovereignty, but the opposite was true. Neither side trusted Douglas.

The Supreme Court decision of 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sandford added to the controversy. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's decision said that slaves were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect",[80] and that slavery could spread into the territories even if the majority of people in the territories were anti-slavery. Lincoln warned that "the next Dred Scott decision"[81] could threaten Northern states with slavery.

Republicans and anti-administration Democrats

President James Buchanan.

President James Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas voters, however, soundly rejected this constitution— at least with a measure of widespread fraud on both sides— by more than 10,000 votes. As Buchanan directed his presidential authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Prompting their break with the administration, the Douglasites saw this scheme as an attempt to pervert the principle of popular sovereignty on which the Kansas-Nebraska Act was based. Nationwide, conservatives were incensed, feeling as though the principles of states' rights had been violated. Even in the South, ex-Whigs and border states Know-Nothings— most notably John Bell and John J. Crittenden (key figures in the event of sectional controversies)— urged the Republicans to oppose the administration's moves and take up the demand that the territories be given the power to accept or reject sovereignty.

As the schism in the Democratic party deepened, moderate Republicans argued that an alliance with anti-administration Democrats, especially Stephen Douglas, would be a key advantage in the 1860 elections. Some Republican observers saw the controversy over the Lecompton Constitution as an opportunity to peel off Democratic support in the border states, where Frémont picked up little support. After all, the border states had often gone for Whigs with a Northern base of support in the past without prompting threats of Southern withdrawal from the Union.

Among the proponents of this strategy was The New York Times, which called on the Republicans to downplay opposition to popular sovereignty in favor of a compromise policy calling for "no more slave states" in order to quell sectional tensions. The Times maintained that for the Republicans to be competitive in the 1860 elections, they would need to broaden their base of support to include all voters who for one reason or another were upset with the Buchanan Administration.

Indeed, pressure was strong for an alliance that would unite the growing opposition to the Democratic Administration. But such an alliance was no novel idea; it would essentially entail transforming the Republicans into the national, conservative, Union party of the country. In effect, this would be a successor to the Whig party.

Republican leaders, however, staunchly opposed any attempts to modify the party position on slavery, appalled by what they considered a surrender of their principles when, for example, all the ninety-two Republican members of Congress voted for the Crittenden-Montgomery bill in 1858. Although this compromise measure blocked Kansas' entry into the union as a slave state, the fact that it called for popular sovereignty, rather than outright opposition to the expansion of slavery, was troubling to the party leaders.

In the end, the Crittenden-Montgomery bill did not forge a grand anti-administration coalition of Republicans, ex-Whig Southerners in the border states, and Northern Democrats. Instead, the Democratic Party merely split along sectional lines. Anti-Lecompton Democrats complained that a new, pro-slavery test had been imposed upon the party. The Douglasites, however, refused to yield to administration pressure. Like the anti-Nebraska Democrats, who were now members of the Republican Party, the Douglasean insisted that they— not the administration— commanded the support of most northern Democrats.

Extremist sentiment in the South advanced dramatically as the Southern planter class saw its hold on the executive, legislative, and judicial apparatus of the central government wane. It also grew increasingly difficult for Southern Democrats to manipulate power in many of the Northern states through their allies in the Democratic Party.

Assault on Sumner (1856)

Even before news of the Kansas skirmishes reached the East coast, a related violent escapade occurred in Washington on May 22. Charles Sumner's May 19 speech before the Senate entitled "The Crime Against Kansas", which condemned the Pierce Administration and the institution of slavery, singled out Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, a strident defender of slavery. Its markedly sexual innuendo cast the South Carolinian as the "Don Quixote" of slavery, who has "chosen a mistress [the harlot slavery]... who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him, though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight." Three days later, Sumner fell victim to the Southern gentleman's-code, which instructed retaliation for impugning the honor of an elderly kinsman. Bleeding and unconscious after a nearly fatal assault with a heavy cane by Butler's nephew, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks– and unable to return to the Senate for three years– the Massachusetts senator emerged as another symbol of sectional tensions. During the beating, many Southern Senators formed a ring around the fight, as to prevent the Northern Senators from saving Sumner. For many in the North, he illustrated the barbarism of slave society; by contrast, Brooks was lauded as a hero by many Southerners, with dozens of his fellow South Carolinians sending him new canes, including one with the label "Hit him again".

Emergence of Lincoln

Republican Party structure

William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.

Despite their significant loss in the election of 1856, Republican leaders realized that even though they appealed only to Northern voters, they need win only two more states, such as Pennsylvania and Illinois, to win the presidency in 1860.

As the Democrats were grappling with their own troubles, leaders in the Republican party fought to keep elected members focused on the issue of slavery in the West, which allowed them to mobilize popular support. Chase wrote Sumner that if the conservatives succeeded, it might be necessary to recreate the Free Soil Party. He was also particularly disturbed by the tendency of many Republicans to eschew moral attacks on slavery for political and economic arguments.

The controversy over slavery in the West was still not creating a fixation on the issue of slavery. Although the old restraints on the sectional tensions were being eroded with the rapid extension of mass politics and mass democracy in the North, the perpetuation of conflict over the issue of slavery in the West still required the efforts of radical Democrats in the South and radical Republicans in the North. They had to ensure that the sectional conflict would remain at the center of the political debate.

William Seward contemplated this potential in the 1840s, when the Democrats were the nation's majority party, usually controlling Congress, the presidency, and many state offices. The country's institutional structure and party system allowed slaveholders to prevail in more of the nation's territories and to garner a great deal of influence over national policy. With growing popular discontent with the unwillingness of many Democratic leaders to take a stand against slavery, and growing consciousness of the party's increasingly pro-Southern stance, Seward became convinced that the only way for the Whig Party to counteract the Democrats' strong monopoly of the rhetoric of democracy and equality was for the Whigs to embrace anti-slavery as a party platform. Once again, to increasing numbers of Northerners, the Southern labor system was increasingly seen as contrary to the ideals of American democracy.

Republicans believed in the existence of "the Slave Power Conspiracy," which had seized control of the federal government and was attempting to pervert the Constitution for its own purposes. The "Slave Power" idea gave the Republicans the anti-aristocratic appeal with which men like Seward had long wished to be associated politically. By fusing older anti-slavery arguments with the idea that slavery posed a threat to Northern free labor and democratic values, it enabled the Republicans to tap into the egalitarian outlook which lay at the heart of Northern society.

In this sense, during the 1860 presidential campaign, Republican orators even cast "Honest Abe" as an embodiment of these principles, repeatedly referring to him as "the child of labor" and "son of the frontier," who had proved how "honest industry and toil" were rewarded in the North. Although Lincoln had been a Whig, the "Wide Awakes" (members of the Republican clubs), used replicas of rails that he had split to remind voters of his humble origins.

In almost every northern state, organizers attempted to have a Republican Party or an anti-Nebraska fusion movement on ballots in 1854. In areas where the radical Republicans controlled the new organization, the comprehensive radical program became the party policy. Just as they helped organize the Republican Party in the summer of 1854, the radicals played an important role in the national organization of the party in 1856. Republican conventions in New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois adopted radical platforms. These radical platforms in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, and Vermont usually called for the divorce of the government from slavery, the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws, and no more slave states, as did platforms in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Massachusetts when radical influence was high.

Conservatives at the Republican 1860 nominating convention in Chicago were able to block the nomination of William Seward, who had an earlier reputation as a radical (but by 1860 had been criticized by Horace Greeley as being too moderate). Other candidates had earlier joined or formed parties opposing the Whigs and had thereby made enemies of many delegates. Lincoln was selected on the third ballot. However, conservatives were unable to bring about the resurrection of "Whiggery." The convention's resolutions regarding slavery were roughly the same as they had been in 1856, but the language appeared less radical. In the following months, even Republican conservatives like Thomas Ewing and Edward Baker embraced the platform language that "the normal condition of territories was freedom". All in all, the organizers had done an effective job of shaping the official policy of the Republican Party.

Southern slave holding interests now faced the prospects of a Republican President and the entry of new free states that would alter the nation's balance of power between the sections. To many Southerners, the resounding defeat of the Lecompton Constitution foreshadowed the entry of more free states into the Union. Dating back to the Missouri Compromise, the Southern region desperately sought to maintain an equal balance of slave states and free states so as to be competitive in the Senate. Since the last slave state was admitted in 1845, five more free states had entered. The tradition of maintaining a balance between North and South was abandoned in favor of the addition of more free soil states.

Sectional battles over federal policy in the late 1850s

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates were a series of seven debates in 1858 between Stephen Douglas, United States Senator from Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln, the Republican who sought to replace Douglas in the Senate. The debates were mainly about slavery. Douglas defended his Kansas Nebraska Act, which replaced the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north and west of Missouri with popular sovereignty, which allowed residents of territories such as the Kansas to vote either for or against slavery. Douglas put Lincoln on the defensive by accusing him of being a Black Republican abolitionist, but Lincoln responded by asking Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision. Douglas' Freeport Doctrine was that residents of a territory could keep slavery out by refusing to pass a slave code and other laws needed to protect slavery. Douglas' Freeport Doctrine, and the fact that he helped defeat the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, made Douglas unpopular in the South, which led to the 1860 split of the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern wings. The Democrats retained control of the Illinois legislature, and Douglas thus retained his seat in the U.S. Senate (at that time United States Senators were elected by the state legislatures, not by popular vote); however, Lincoln's national profile was greatly raised, paving the way for his election as president of the United States two years later.


In The Rise of American Civilization (1927), Charles and Mary Beard argue that slavery was not so much a social or cultural institution as an economic one (a labor system). The Beards cited inherent conflicts between Northeastern finance, manufacturing, and commerce and Southern plantations, which competed to control the federal government so as to protect their own interests. According to the economic determinists of the era, both groups used arguments over slavery and states' rights as a cover.

Recent historians have rejected the Beardian thesis. But their economic determinism has influenced subsequent historians in important ways. Modernization theorists, such as Raimondo Luraghi, have argued that as the Industrial Revolution was expanding on a worldwide scale, the days of wrath were coming for a series of agrarian, pre-capitalistic, "backward" societies throughout the world, from the Italian and American South to India. But most American historians point out the South was highly developed and on average about as prosperous as the North.

Panic of 1857 and sectional realignments

"Vote yourself a farm– vote yourself a tariff": a campaign slogan for Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

A few historians believe that the serious financial panic of 1857– and the economic difficulties leading up to it– strengthened the Republican Party and heightened sectional tensions. Before the panic, strong economic growth was being achieved under relatively low tariffs. Hence much of the nation concentrated on growth and prosperity.

The iron and textile industries were facing acute, worsening trouble each year after 1850. By 1854, stocks of iron were accumulating in each world market. Iron prices fell, forcing many American iron mills to shut down.

Republicans urged western farmers and northern manufacturers to blame the depression on the domination of the low-tariff economic policies of southern-controlled Democratic administrations. However the depression revived suspicion of Northeastern banking interests in both the South and the West. Eastern demand for western farm products shifted the West closer to the North. As the "transportation revolution" (canals and railroads) went forward, an increasingly large share and absolute amount of wheat, corn, and other staples of western producers– once difficult to haul across the Appalachians– went to markets in the Northeast. The depression emphasized the value of the western markets for eastern goods and homesteaders who would furnish markets and respectable profits.

Aside from the land issue, economic difficulties strengthened the Republican case for higher tariffs for industries in response to the depression. This issue was important in Pennsylvania and perhaps New Jersey.

Southern response

The United States, immediately before the Civil War. All of the lands east of, or bordering, the Mississippi River were organized as states in the Union, but the West was still largely unsettled.

Meanwhile, many Southerners grumbled over "radical" notions of giving land away to farmers that would "abolitionize" the area. While the ideology of Southern sectionalism was well-developed before the Panic of 1857 by figures like J.D.B. DeBow, the panic helped convince even more cotton barons that they had grown too reliant on Eastern financial interests.

Thomas Prentice Kettell, former editor of the Democratic Review, was another commentator popular in the South to enjoy a great degree of prominence between 1857 and 1860. Kettell gathered an array of statistics in his book on Southern Wealth and Northern Profits, to show that the South produced vast wealth, while the North, with its dependence on raw materials, siphoned off the wealth of the South.[82] Arguing that sectional inequality resulted from the concentration of manufacturing in the North, and from the North's supremacy in communications, transportation, finance, and international trade, his ideas paralleled old physiocratic doctrines that all profits of manufacturing and trade come out of the land.[83] Political sociologists, such as Barrington Moore, have noted that these forms of romantic nostalgia tend to crop up whenever industrialization takes hold.[84]

Such Southern hostility to the free farmers gave the North an opportunity for an alliance with Western farmers. After the political realignments of 1857-58—manifested by the emerging strength of the Republican Party and their networks of local support nationwide—almost every issue was entangled with the controversy over the expansion of slavery in the West. While questions of tariffs, banking policy, public land, and subsidies to railroads did not always unite all elements in the North and the Northwest against the interests of slaveholders in the South under the pre-1854 party system, they were translated in terms of sectional conflict—with the expansion of slavery in the West involved.

As the depression strengthened the Republican Party, slave holding interests were becoming convinced that the North had aggressive and hostile designs on the Southern way of life. The South was thus increasingly fertile ground for secessionism.

The Republicans' Whig-style personality-driven "hurrah" campaign helped stir hysteria in the slave states upon the emergence of Lincoln and intensify divisive tendencies, while Southern "fire eaters" gave credence to notions of the slave power conspiracy among Republican constituencies in the North and West. New Southern demands to re-open the African slave trade further fueled sectional tensions.

From the early 1840s until the outbreak of the Civil War, the cost of slaves had been rising steadily. Meanwhile, the price of cotton was experiencing market fluctuations typical of raw commodities. After the Panic of 1857, the price of cotton fell while the price of slaves continued its steep rise. At the 1858 Southern commercial convention, William L. Yancey of Alabama called for the reopening of the African slave trade. Only the delegates from the states of the Upper South, who profited from the domestic trade, opposed the reopening of the slave trade since they saw it as a potential form of competition. The convention in 1858 wound up voting to recommend the repeal of all laws against slave imports, despite some reservations.

John Brown and Harpers Ferry (1859)

On October 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led an attempt to start an armed slave revolt by seizing the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown and twenty followers, both whites (including two of Brown's sons) and blacks (three free blacks, one freedman, and one fugitive slave), planned to seize the armory and use weapons stored there to arm black slaves in order to spark a general uprising by the slave population.

Although the raiders were initially successful in cutting the telegraph line and capturing the armory, they allowed a passing train to continue on to Washington, D.C., where the authorities were alerted to the attack. By October 17 the raiders were surrounded in the armory by the militia and other locals. Robert E. Lee (then a Colonel in the U.S. Army) led a company of U.S. Marines in storming the armory on October 18. Ten of the raiders were killed, including both of Brown's sons; Brown himself along with a half dozen of his followers were captured; four of the raiders escaped immediate capture. Six locals were killed and nine injured; the Marines suffered one dead and one injured. The local slave population failed to join in Brown's attack.

Brown was subsequently hanged for treason (against the Commonwealth of Virginia), as were six of his followers. The raid became a cause célèbre in both the North and the South, with Brown vilified by Southerners as a bloodthirsty fanatic, but celebrated by many Northern abolitionists as a martyr to the cause of freedom.

Elections of 1860

1860 electoral map.

Initially, William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, were the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. But Abraham Lincoln, a former one-term House member who gained fame amid the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, had fewer political opponents within the party and out-maneuvered the other contenders. On May 16, 1860, he received the Republican nomination at their convention in Chicago, Illinois.

The schism in the Democratic Party over the Lecompton Constitution and Douglas' Freeport Doctrine caused Southern "fire-eaters" to oppose front runner Stephen A. Douglas' bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Douglas defeated the proslavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas because the majority of Kansans were antislavery, and Douglas' popular sovereignty doctrine would allow the majority to vote slavery up or down as they chose. Douglas' Freeport Doctrine alleged that the antislavery majority of Kansans could thwart the Dred Scott decision that allowed slavery by withholding legislation for a slave code and other laws needed to protect slavery. As a result, Southern extremists demanded a slave code for the territories, and used this issue to divide the northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party. Southerners left the party and in June nominated John C. Breckinridge, while Northern Democrats supported Douglas. As a result, the Southern planter class lost a considerable measure of sway in national politics. Because of the Democrats' division, the Republican nominee faced a divided opposition. Adding to Lincoln's advantage, ex-Whigs from the border states had earlier formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominating John C. Bell for President. Thus, party nominees waged regional campaigns. Douglas and Lincoln competed for Northern votes, while Bell, Douglas and Breckinridge competed for Southern votes.

"Vote yourself a farm– vote yourself a tariff" could have been a slogan for the Republicans in 1860. In sum, business was to support the farmers' demands for land (popular also in industrial working-class circles) in return for support for a higher tariff. To an extent, the elections of 1860 bolstered the political power of new social forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. In February 1861, after the seven states had departed the Union (four more would depart in April–May 1861; in late April, Maryland was unable to secede because it was put under martial law), Congress had a strong northern majority and passed the Morrill Tariff Act (signed by Buchanan), which increased duties and provided the government with funds needed for the war.

Split in the Democratic Party

The Alabama extremist William Lowndes Yancey's demand for a federal slave code for the territories split the Democratic Party between North and South, which made the election of Lincoln possible. Yancey tried to make his demand for a slave code moderate enough to get Southern support and yet extreme enough to enrage Northerners and split the party. He demanded that the party support a slave code for the territories if later necessary, so that the demand would be conditional enough to win Southern support. His tactic worked, and lower South delegates left the Democratic Convention at Institute Hall in Charleston, South Carolina and walked over to Military Hall. The South Carolina extremist Robert Barnwell Rhett hoped that the lower South would completely break with the Northern Democrats and attend a separate convention at Richmond, Virginia, but lower South delegates gave the national Democrats one last chance at unification by going to the convention at Baltimore, Maryland before the split became permanent. The end result was that John C. Breckinridge became the candidate of the Southern Democrats, and Stephen Douglas became the candidate of the Northern Democrats.[85]

Yancy's previous 1848 attempt at demanding a slave code for the territories was his Alabama Platform, which was in response to the Northern Wilmot Proviso attempt at banning slavery in territories conquered from Mexico. Both the Alabama Platform and the Wilmot Proviso failed, but Yancey learned to be less overtly radical in order to get more support. Southerners thought they were merely demanding equality, in that they wanted Southern property in slaves to get the same (or more) protection as Northern forms of property.[85]

Southern secession

With the emergence of the Republicans as the nation's first major sectional party by the mid-1850s, politics became the stage on which sectional tensions were played out. Although much of the West– the focal point of sectional tensions– was unfit for cotton cultivation, Southern secessionists read the political fallout as a sign that their power in national politics was rapidly weakening. Before, the slave system had been buttressed to an extent by the Democratic Party, which was increasingly seen as representing a more pro-Southern position that unfairly permitted Southerners to prevail in the nation's territories and to dominate national policy before the Civil War. But Democrats suffered a significant reverse in the electoral realignment of the mid-1850s. 1860 was a critical election that marked a stark change in existing patterns of party loyalties among groups of voters; Abraham Lincoln's election was a watershed in the balance of power of competing national and parochial interests and affiliations.[86]

Once the election returns were certain, a special South Carolina convention declared "that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the 'United States of America' is hereby dissolved", heralding the secession of six more cotton states by February, and the formation of an independent nation, the Confederate States of America. Lipset (1960) examined the secessionist vote in each Southern state in 1860-61. In each state he divided the counties into high, medium or low proportion of slaves. He found that in the 181 high-slavery counties, the vote was 72% for secession. In the 205 low-slavery counties. the vote was only 37% for secession. (And in the 153 middle counties, the vote for secession was in the middle at 60%).[87] Both the outgoing Buchanan administration and the incoming Lincoln administration refused to recognize the legality of secession or the legitimacy of the Confederacy. After Lincoln called for troops, four border states (that lacked cotton) seceded.[88]

Non-slavery related causes

Disputes over the route of a proposed transcontinental railroad affected the timing of the Kansas Nebraska Act.[89] The timing of the completion of a railroad from Georgia to South Carolina also was important, in that it allowed influential Georgians to declare their support for secession in South Carolina at a crucial moment. South Carolina secessionists feared that if they seceded first, they would be as isolated as they were during the Nullification Crisis. Support from Georgians was quickly followed by support for secession in the same South Carolina state legislature that previously preferred a cooperationist approach, as opposed to separate state secession.[90]

The Totten system of forts (including forts Sumter and Pickens) designed for coastal defense encouraged Anderson to move federal troops from Fort Moultrie to the more easily defended Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. Likewise, Slemmer moved U.S. troops from Fort Barrancas to the more easily defended Fort Pickens in Florida. These troop movements were defensive from the Northern point of view, and acts of aggression from the Southern point of view. Also, an attempt to resupply Fort Sumter via the ship Star of the West was seen as an attack on a Southern owned fort by secessionists, and as an attempt to defend U.S. property from the Northern point of view.[90]

The tariff issue is greatly exaggerated by Lost Cause historians. The tariff had been written and approved by the South, so it was mostly Northerners (especially in Pennsylvania) who complained about the low rates; some Southerners feared that eventually the North would have enough control it could raise the tariff at will.[91]

As for states' rights, while a states' right of revolution mentioned in the Declaration of Independence was based on the inalienable equal rights of man, secessionists believed in a modified version of states' rights that was safe for slavery.[90]

These issues were especially important in the lower South, where 47 percent of the population were slaves. The upper South, where 32 percent of the population were slaves, considered the Fort Sumter crisis—especially Lincoln's call for troops to march south to recapture it—a cause for secession. The northernmost border slave states, where 13 percent of the population were slaves, did not secede.[92]

Fort Sumter

When South Carolina seceded In December 1860, Major Robert Anderson, a pro-slavery, former slave-owner from Kentucky, remained loyal to the Union. He was the commanding officer of United States Army forces in Charleston, South Carolina—the last remaining important Union post In the Deep South. Acting without orders, he moved his small garrison from Fort Moultrie, which was indefensible, to the more modern, more defensible, Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor. South Carolina leaders cried betrayal, while the North celebrated with enormous excitement at this show of defiance against secessionism. In February 1861 the Confederate States of America was formed and took charge. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, ordered the fort be captured. The artillery attack was commanded by Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, who had been Anderson's student at West Point. The attack began April 12, 1861, and continued until Anderson, badly outnumbered and outgunned, surrendered the fort on April 14. The battle began the American Civil War, As an overwhelming demand for war swept both the North and South, with only Kentucky attempting to remain neutral.[93]

Robert Anderson's telegram announcing the surrender of Fort Sumter.

The opening of the Civil War, as well as the modern meaning of the American flag, according to Adam Goodheart (2011), was forged in December 1860, when Anderson, acting without orders, moved the American garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, in defiance of the overwhelming power of the new Confederate States of America. Goodheart argues this was the opening move of the Civil War, and the flag was used throughout the North to symbolize American nationalism and rejection of secessionism.

Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like the Fourth of July. But in the weeks after Major Anderson's surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew -- as it does today, and especially as it did after September 11 -- from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads. For the first time American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand. As the long winter of 1861 turned into spring, that old flag meant something new. The abstraction of the Union clause was transfigured into a physical thing: strips of cloth that millions of people would fight for, and many thousands die for.[94]

Onset of the Civil War and the question of compromise

Abraham Lincoln's rejection of the Crittenden Compromise, the failure to secure the ratification of the Corwin amendment in 1861, and the inability of the Washington Peace Conference of 1861 to provide an effective alternative to Crittenden and Corwin came together to prevent a compromise that is still debated by Civil War historians. Even as the war was going on, William Seward and James Buchanan were outlining a debate over the question of inevitability that would continue among historians.

Two competing explanations of the sectional tensions inflaming the nation emerged even before the war. Buchanan believed the sectional hostility to be the accidental, unnecessary work of self-interested or fanatical agitators. He also singled out the "fanaticism" of the Republican Party. Seward, on the other hand, believed there to be an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.

The irrepressible conflict argument was the first to dominate historical discussion. In the first decades after the fighting, histories of the Civil War generally reflected the views of Northerners who had participated in the conflict. The war appeared to be a stark moral conflict in which the South was to blame, a conflict that arose as a result of the designs of slave power. Henry Wilson's History of The Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (1872–1877) is the foremost representative of this moral interpretation, which argued that Northerners had fought to preserve the union against the aggressive designs of "slave power." Later, in his seven-volume History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Civil War, (1893–1900), James Ford Rhodes identified slavery as the central—and virtually only—cause of the Civil War. The North and South had reached positions on the issue of slavery that were both irreconcilable and unalterable. The conflict had become inevitable.

But the idea that the war was avoidable did not gain ground among historians until the 1920s, when the "revisionists" began to offer new accounts of the prologue to the conflict. Revisionist historians, such as James G. Randall and Avery Craven, saw in the social and economic systems of the South no differences so fundamental as to require a war. Randall blamed the ineptitude of a "blundering generation" of leaders. He also saw slavery as essentially a benign institution, crumbling in the presence of 19th century tendencies. Craven, the other leading revisionist, placed more emphasis on the issue of slavery than Randall but argued roughly the same points. In The Coming of the Civil War (1942), Craven argued that slave laborers were not much worse off than Northern workers, that the institution was already on the road to ultimate extinction, and that the war could have been averted by skillful and responsible leaders in the tradition of Congressional statesmen Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Two of the most important figures in U.S. politics in the first half of the 19th century, Clay and Webster, arguably in contrast to the 1850s generation of leaders, shared a predisposition to compromises marked by a passionate patriotic devotion to the Union.

But it is possible that the politicians of the 1850s were not inept. More recent studies have kept elements of the revisionist interpretation alive, emphasizing the role of political agitation (the efforts of Democratic politicians of the South and Republican politicians in the North to keep the sectional conflict at the center of the political debate). David Herbert Donald argued in 1960 that the politicians of the 1850s were not unusually inept but that they were operating in a society in which traditional restraints were being eroded in the face of the rapid extension of democracy. The stability of the two-party system kept the union together, but would collapse in the 1850s, thus reinforcing, rather than suppressing, sectional conflict.

Reinforcing this interpretation, political sociologists have pointed out that the stable functioning of a political democracy requires a setting in which parties represent broad coalitions of varying interests, and that peaceful resolution of social conflicts takes place most easily when the major parties share fundamental values. Before the 1850s, the second American two party system (competition between the Democrats and the Whigs) conformed to this pattern, largely because sectional ideologies and issues were kept out of politics to maintain cross-regional networks of political alliances. However, in the 1840s and 1850s, ideology made its way into the heart of the political system despite the best efforts of the conservative Whig Party and the Democratic Party to keep it out.

Contemporaneous explanations

From Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens's "Cornerstone Speech," Savannah, March 21, 1861:

(Jefferson's) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its 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.

In July 1863, as decisive campaigns were fought at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Republican senator Charles Sumner re-dedicated his speech The Barbarism of Slavery and said that desire to preserve slavery was the sole cause of the war:

[T]here are two apparent rudiments to this war. One is Slavery and the other is State Rights. But the latter is only a cover for the former. If Slavery were out of the way there would be no trouble from State Rights.

The war, then, is for Slavery, and nothing else. It is an insane attempt to vindicate by arms the lordship which had been already asserted in debate. With mad-cap audacity it seeks to install this Barbarism as the truest Civilization. Slavery is declared to be the "corner-stone" of the new edifice.

Lincoln's war goals were reactions to the war, as opposed to causes. Abraham Lincoln explained the nationalist goal as the preservation of the Union on August 22, 1862, one month before his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." ... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.[95]

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address that slavery was the cause of the War:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

See also


  1. ^ Elizabeth R. Varon, Bruce Levine, Marc Egnal, and Michael Holt at a plenary session of the organization of American Historians, March 17, 2011, reported by David A. Walsh "Highlights from the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Houston, Texas" HNN online
  2. ^ David Potter, The Impending Crisis, pages 42-50
  3. ^ The Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River were key boundaries.
  4. ^ Fehrenbacher pp.15-17. Fehrenbacher wrote, "As a racial caste system, slavery was the most distinctive element in the southern social order. The slave production of staple crops dominated southern agriculture and eminently suited the development of a national market economy."
  5. ^ Fehrenbacher pp. 16-18
  6. ^ Goldstone p. 13
  7. ^ McDougall p. 318
  8. ^ Forbes p. 4
  9. ^ Mason pp. 3-4
  10. ^ Freehling p.144
  11. ^ Freehling p. 149. In the House the votes for the Tallmadge amendments in the North were 86-10 and 80-14 in favor, while in the South the vote to oppose was 66-1 and 64-2.
  12. ^ Missouri Compromise
  13. ^ Forbes pp. 6-7
  14. ^ Mason p. 8
  15. ^ Leah S. Glaser, "United States Expansion, 1800-1860"
  16. ^ Richard J. Ellis, Review of The Shaping of American Liberalism: The Debates over Ratification, Nullification, and Slavery. by David F. Ericson, William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 4 (1994), pp. 826-829
  17. ^ John Tyler, Life Before the Presidency
  18. ^ Jane H. Pease, William H. Pease, "The Economics and Politics of Charleston's Nullification Crisis," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 47, No. 3 (1981), pp. 335-362
  19. ^ Remini, Andrew Jackson, v2 pp. 136-137. Niven pg. 135-137. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War pg 143
  20. ^ Craven pg.65. Niven pg. 135-137. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War pg 143
  21. ^ Ellis, Richard E. The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights, and the Nullification Crisis (1987), page 193; Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina 1816-1836. (1965), page 257
  22. ^ Ellis p. 193. Ellis further notes that “Calhoun and the nullifiers were not the first southerners to link slavery with states’ rights. At various points in their careers, John Taylor, John Randolph, and Nathaniel Macon had warned that giving too much power to the federal government, especially on such an open-ended issue as internal improvement, could ultimately provide it with the power to emancipate slaves against their owners’ wishes.”
  23. ^ Varon (2008) p. 109. Wilentz (2005) p. 451
  24. ^ Miller (1995) pp. 144-146
  25. ^ Miller (1995) pp. 209-210
  26. ^ Wilentz (2005) pp. 470-472
  27. ^ Miller, 112
  28. ^ Miller, pp. 476, 479-481
  29. ^ Huston p. 41. Huston writes, "...on at least three matters southerners were united. First, slaves were property. Second, the sanctity of southerners' property rights in slaves was beyond the questioning of anyone inside or outside of the South. Third, slavery was the only means of adjusting social relations properly between Europeans and Africans."
  30. ^ Brinkley, Alan (1986). American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 328. 
  31. ^ Moore, Barrington (1966). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Beacon Press. pp. 117. 
  32. ^ North, Douglas C. (1961). The Economic Growth of the United States 1790-1860. Englewood Cliffs. pp. 130. 
  33. ^ Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders' New World Order (2008)
  34. ^ a b c James M. McPherson, "Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question," Civil War History 29 (Sept. 1983)
  35. ^ "Conflict and Collaboration: Yeomen, Slaveholders, and Politics in the Antebellum South," Social History 10 (October 1985): 273-98. quote at p. 297.
  36. ^ Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978)
  37. ^ McPherson (2007) pp.4-7. James M. McPherson wrote in referring to the Progressive historians, the Vanderbilt agrarians, and revisionists writing in the 1940s, “While one or more of these interpretations remain popular among the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Southern heritage groups, few historians now subscribe to them.”
  38. ^ Craig in Woodworth, ed. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (1996), p.505.
  39. ^ Donald 2001 pp 134-38[Need quotation to verify]
  40. ^ Huston pp. 24-25. Huston lists other estimates of the value of slaves; James D. B. De Bow puts it at $2 billion in 1850, while in 1858 Governor James Pettus of Mississippi estimated the value at $2.6 billion in 1858.
  41. ^ Huston p. 25
  42. ^ Soil Exhaustion as a Factor in the Agricultural History of Virginia and Maryland, 1606–1860
  43. ^ Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy - A-D
  44. ^ Woodworth, ed. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (1996), 145 151 505 512 554 557 684; Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1969); for one dissenter see Marc Egnal. "The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860". Civil War History 47, no. 1. (2001): 30-56.
  45. ^ Kenneth M. Stampp, The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (1981) p 198
  46. ^ Also from Kenneth M. Stampp, The Imperiled Union p 198

    Most historians... now see no compelling reason why the divergent economies of the North and South should have led to disunion and civil war; rather, they find stronger practical reasons why the sections, whose economies neatly complemented one another, should have found it advantageous to remain united. Beard oversimplified the controversies relating to federal economic policy, for neither section unanimously supported or opposed measures such as the protective tariff, appropriations for internal improvements, or the creation of a national banking system.... During the 1850s, Federal economic policy gave no substantial cause for southern disaffection, for policy was largely determined by pro-Southern Congresses and administrations. Finally, the characteristic posture of the conservative northeastern business community was far from anti-Southern. Most merchants, bankers, and manufacturers were outspoken in their hostility to antislavery agitation and eager for sectional compromise in order to maintain their profitable business connections with the South. The conclusion seems inescapable that if economic differences, real though they were, had been all that troubled relations between North and South, there would be no substantial basis for the idea of an irrepressible conflict.

  47. ^ James M. McPherson, Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question Civil War History - Volume 50, Number 4, December 2004, page 421
  48. ^ Richard Hofstadter, "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War", The American Historical Review Vol. 44, No. 1 (1938), pp. 50-55 full text in JSTOR
  49. ^ John Calhoun, Slavery a Positive Good, February 6, 1837
  50. ^ a b c d Noll, Mark A. (2002). America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford University Press. pp. 640. 
  51. ^ Noll, Mark A. (2006). The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. UNC Press. pp. 216. 
  52. ^ Noll, Mark A. (2002). The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South. Oxford University Press. pp. 640. 
  53. ^ Hull, William E. (February 2003). "Learning the Lessons of Slavery". Christian Ethics Today 9 (43). Retrieved 2007-12-19. 
  54. ^ Methodist Episcopal Church, South
  55. ^
  56. ^ Presbyterian Church in the United States
  57. ^ Gaustad, Edwin S. (1982). A Documentary History of Religion in America to the Civil War. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. pp. 491–502. 
  58. ^ Johnson, Paul (1976). History of Christianity. Simon & Schuster. pp. 438. 
  59. ^ Noll, Mark A. (2002). America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford University Press. pp. 399–400. 
  60. ^ Miller, Randall M.; Stout, Harry S.; Wilson, Charles Reagan, eds. (1998). "title=The Bible and Slavery". Religion and the American Civil War. Oxford University Press. pp. 62. 
  61. ^ "The Amistad Case". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 2007-10-16. 
  62. ^ McPherson, Battle Cry p. 8; James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (1976); Pressly, 270ff
  63. ^ Wendell Phillips, "No Union With Slaveholders," January 15, 1845, in Louis Ruchames, ed. The Abolitionists (1963), p.196.
  64. ^ Mason I Lowance, Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader, (2000), page 26
  65. ^ "Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison Admits of No Compromise with the Evil of Slavery". Retrieved 2007-10-16. 
  66. ^ Alexander Stephen's Cornerstone Speech, Savannah; Georgia, March 21, 1861
  67. ^ Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, page 59
  68. ^ Schlessinger quotes from an essay “The State Rights Fetish” excerpted in Stampp p. 70
  69. ^ Schlessinger in Stampp pp. 68-69
  70. ^ McDonald p. 143
  71. ^ Kenneth M. Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, page 14
  72. ^ Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny 1847–1852, page 155
  73. ^ Donald, Baker, and Holt, p.117.
  74. ^ When arguing for the equality of states, Jefferson Davis said, "Who has been in advance of him in the fiery charge on the rights of the States, and in assuming to the Federal Government the power to crush and to coerce them? Even to-day he has repeated his doctrines. He tells us this is a Government which we will learn is not merely a Government of the States, but a Government of each individual of the people of the United States". - Jefferson Davis' reply in the Senate to William H. Seward, Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, February 29, 1860, From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 6, pp. 277-84. Transcribed from the Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 916–18.
  75. ^ When arguing against equality of individuals, Davis said, "We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority". - Jefferson Davis' reply in the Senate to William H. Seward, Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, February 29, 1860, - From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 6, pp. 277-84. Transcribed from the Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 916–18.
  76. ^ Jefferson Davis' Second Inaugural Address, Virginia Capitol, Richmond, February 22, 1862 Transcribed from Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist, Volume 5, pp. 198–203. Summarized in The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 8, p. 55.
  77. ^ Lawrence Keitt, Congressman from South Carolina, in a speech to the House on January 25, 1860: Congressional Globe.
  78. ^ Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, pages 63–65
  79. ^ William C. Davis, Look Away, pages 97–98
  80. ^ David Potter, The Impending Crisis, page 275
  81. ^ First Lincoln Douglas Debate at Ottawa, Illinois August 21, 1858
  82. ^ Donald, David; Randal, J.G. (1961). The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: D.C. Health and Company. pp. 79. 
  83. ^ Allan, Nevins (1947). Ordeal of the Union (vol. 3). III. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 218. 
  84. ^ Moore, Barrington, p.122.
  85. ^ a b William W, Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861, pages 271-341
  86. ^ Roy Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy: A History of the Political Crisis That Led Up To The Civil War (1949)
  87. ^ Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (Doubleday, 1960) p. 349.
  88. ^ Maury Klein, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War (1999)
  89. ^ David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, pages 14-150
  90. ^ a b c William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861, pages 345-516
  91. ^ Richard Hofstadter, "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War," American Historical Review Vol. 44, No. 1 (Oct., 1938), pp. 50-55 in JSTOR
  92. ^ Daniel Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (1989
  93. ^ Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011) ch 2-5
  94. ^ Adam Goodheart, "Prologue," in 1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011)
  95. ^ Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862


  • Craven, Avery. The Coming of the Civil War (1942) ISBN 0-226-11894-0
  • Donald, David Herbert, Baker, Jean Harvey, and Holt, Michael F. The Civil War and Reconstruction. (2001)
  • Ellis, Richard E. The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights and the Nullification Crisis. (1987)
  • Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery. (2001) ISBN 1-19-514177-6
  • Forbes, Robert Pierce. The Missouri Compromise and ItAftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America. (2007) ISBN 978-0-8078-3105-2
  • Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina 1816-1836. (1965) ISBN 0-19-507681-8
  • Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. (1990) ISBN 0-19-505814-3
  • Freehling, William W. and Craig M. Simpson, eds. Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860 (1992), speeches
  • Hesseltine; William B. ed. The Tragic Conflict: The Civil War and Reconstruction (1962), primary documents
  • Huston, James L. Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War. (2003) ISBN 0-8078-2804-1
  • Mason, Matthew. Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic. (2006) ISBN 13:978-0-8078-3049-9
  • McDonald, Forrest. States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876. (2000)
  • McPherson, James M. This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. (2007)
  • Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress. (1995) ISBN 0-394-56922-9
  • Niven, John. John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (1988) ISBN 0-8071-1451-0
  • Perman, Michael, ed. Major Problems in Civil War & Reconstruction (2nd ed. 1998) primary and secondary sources.
  • Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822–1832,v2 (1981) ISBN 0-06-014844-6
  • Stampp, Kenneth, ed. The Causes of the Civil War (3rd ed 1992), primary and secondary sources.
  • Varon, Elizabeth R. Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. (2008) ISBN 978-0-8078-3232-5
  • Wakelyn; Jon L. ed. Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861 (1996)
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. (2005) ISBN 0-393-05820-4

Further reading


  • Ayers, Edward L. What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History (2005). 222 pp.
  • Beale, Howard K., "What Historians Have Said About the Causes of the Civil War," Social Science Research Bulletin 54, 1946.
  • Boritt, Gabor S. ed. Why the Civil War Came (1996)
  • Childers, Christopher. "Interpreting Popular Sovereignty: A Historiographical Essay," Civil War History Volume 57, Number 1, March 2011 pp. 48-70 in Project MUSE
  • Crofts Daniel. Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (1989), pp 353–82 and 457-80
  • Etcheson, Nicole. "The Origins of the Civil War," History Compass 2005 #3 (North America)
  • Foner, Eric. "The Causes of the American Civil War: Recent Interpretations and New Directions." In Beyond the Civil War Synthesis: Political Essays of the Civil War Era, edited by Robert P. Swierenga, 1975.
  • Kornblith, Gary J., "Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise". Journal of American History 90.1 (2003): 80 pars. detailed historiography; online version
  • Pressly, Thomas. Americans Interpret Their Civil War (1966), sorts historians into schools of interpretation
  • SenGupta, Gunja. “Bleeding Kansas: A Review Essay.” Kansas History 24 (Winter 2001/2002): 318-341.
  • Tulloch, Hugh. The Debate On the American Civil War Era (Issues in Historiography) (2000)
  • Woodworth, Steven E. ed. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (1996), 750 pages of historiography; see part IV on Causation.

"Needless war" school

  • Craven, Avery, The Repressible Conflict, 1830-61 (1939)
    • The Coming of the Civil War (1942)
    • , "The Coming of the War Between the States," Journal of Southern History 2 (August 1936): 30-63; in JSTOR
  • Donald, David. "An Excess of Democracy: The Civil War and the Social Process" in David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2d ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), 209-35.
  • Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. (1978) emphasis on political parties and voters
  • Randall, James G. "A Blundering Generation," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 27 (June 1940): 3-28 in JSTOR
  • James G. Randall. The Civil War and Reconstruction. (1937), survey and statement of "needless war" interpretation
  • Pressly, Thomas J. "The Repressible Conflict," chapter 7 of Americans Interpret Their Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).
  • Ramsdell, Charles W. "The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 16 (Sept. 1929), 151-71, in JSTOR says slavery had almost reached its outer limits of growth by 1860, so war was unnecessary to stop further growth. online version

Economic causation and modernization

  • Beard, Charles, and Mary Beard. The Rise of American Civilization. Two volumes. (1927), says slavery was minor factor
  • Luraghi, Raimondo, "The Civil War and the Modernization of American Society: Social Structure and Industrial Revolution in the Old South Before and During the War," Civil War History XVIII (Sept. 1972). in JSTOR
  • McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: the Civil War and Reconstruction. (1982), uses modernization interpretation.
  • Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. (1966). modernization interpretation
  • Thornton, Mark; Ekelund, Robert B. Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War. (2004), stresses fear of future protective tariffs

Nationalism and culture

  • Crofts Daniel. Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (1989)
  • Current, Richard. Lincoln and the First Shot (1963)
  • Nevins, Allan, author of most detailed history
    • Ordeal of the Union 2 vols. (1947) covers 1850-57.
    • The Emergence of Lincoln, 2 vols. (1950) covers 1857-61; does not take strong position on causation
  • Olsen, Christopher J. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860" (2000), cultural interpretation
  • Potter, David The Impending Crisis 1848-1861. (1976), Pulitzer Prize-winning history emphasizing rise of Southern nationalism
  • Potter, David M. Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942).
  • Miller, Randall M., Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds. Religion and the American Civil War (1998), essays

Slavery as cause

  • Ashworth, John
    • Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic. (1995)
    • "Free labor, wage labor, and the slave power: republicanism and the Republican party in the 1850s," in Melvyn Stokes and Stephen Conway (eds), The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880, pp. 128–46. (1996)
  • Donald, David et al. The Civil War and Reconstruction (latest edition 2001); 700-page survey
  • Fellman, Michael et al. This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (2003), 400-page survey
  • Foner, Eric
    • Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. (1970, 1995) stress on ideology
    • Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. (1981)
  • Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 1991., emphasis on slavery
  • Gienapp William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (1987)
  • Manning, Chandra. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. New York: Vintage Books (2007).
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (1988), major overview, neoabolitionist emphasis on slavery
  • Morrison, Michael. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (1997)
  • Ralph E. Morrow. "The Proslavery Argument Revisited," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 48, No. 1. (June, 1961), pp. 79–94. in JSTOR
  • Rhodes, James Ford History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 Volume: 1. (1920), highly detailed narrative 1850-56. vol 2 1856-60; emphasis on slavery
  • Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. "The Causes of the Civil War" (1949) reprinted in his The Politics of Hope (1963); reintroduced new emphasis on slavery
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (1990)
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (1950).

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