CAUSES OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
The American Civil War was one of the most significant events in all American history. It occurred from 1861 until 1865 and had a profound impact on the development of the United States. At its heart, the American Civil War was the result of growing tensions between the Northern states and Southern states on the issue of slavery. In general, the American Civil War involved the Northern states (also referred to as the ‘Union’) and the Southern states (also referred to as the ‘Confederacy’) fighting in many different major and bloody conflicts. Historians have identified several main causes of the Civil War, including: the Battle of Fort Sumter, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, lingering tensions over the practise of slavery, and the issue of states’ rights versus federal rights. Within each of these causes were other important events that ultimately led to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.
TENSIONS OVER SLAVERY
The first main cause of the Civil War was the growing tensions surrounding slavery in the United States. During the decades before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the practise of slavery was a controversial issue in the United States. For instance, in the Southern states, slavery was tied deeply to both the culture and economy of the region. This is because, slavery in the South was a common practise, especially on plantations where African slaves were used in agricultural production. For example, throughout the period of the 1830s, the demand for slaves grew due to the introduction of the cotton industry in states such as: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
While slavery remained quite popular in the Southern states, many Northerners began to openly oppose it. For instance, at the end of the 18th century, the American Abolitionist Movement began to grow in popularity in the North. The Southern states argued in favor of maintaining slavery as a means of controlling the large and growing population of African slaves. Furthermore, slavery was an important aspect of the economics of the Southern states, and the plantation owners wanted to maintain this position.
As such, many in the South viewed the movement to end slavery as an attack on their way of life. This resulted in the South growing its own sense of identity separate from the rest of the country.
The divide between those who were pro-slavery and those who were anti-slavery became especially important in the events that occurred throughout the 19th century. For example, as the United States expanded west, the questions of whether slavery should be allowed in the new western states became a significant issue. Many in the Northern states did not want to allow slavery to spread to these new states, whereas many in the Southern states did. One of the first instances of this issue was the Missouri Compromise in 1820. It was an act of federal legislation from 1820 that included a rule that no new slave states could be added in the western regions of the Louisiana Territory that were located north of the latitude ‘36°30’ line. This line remained an important aspect in American politics well into the 1850s, especially in relation to the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Compromise of 1850 was an important set of five bills that was passed by the United States Congress in September of 1850 that dealt with the issue of slavery. Following the capture of new western territories from the results of the Mexican-American War, the issue of slavery again became a hot issue. This is because some wanted to extend the 36°30′ latitude of the Missouri Compromise, while others wanted to allow the new states to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery. Henry Clay was an important figure in both the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.
The issue was at the forefront for United States President Zachary Taylor, who was elected to office in 1848 as a member of the Whig Party. In order to avoid a crisis, a compromise was reached that included several provisions. Likely the most significant of the proposals was the passage of a more powerful fugitive slave law. Escaped slaves were a problem for the Southern slave owners. This was due, in part, to the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves from the Southern states escape to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. As a result of this, legislators created the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which sought to stop the practise of escaped slaves. However, the 1793 law failed to stop fugitive slaves from escaping north, so the Compromise of 1850 included a new fugitive slave law that would offer more protections for the slave owners and force escaped slaves to be returned to the slave plantations. In fact, the proposal eventually became the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It created anger among many Northerner’s who resented the idea that they were responsible for returning escaped slaves to Southern plantations.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 was a major event in both the American Civil War and the American Abolitionist Movement. In fact, the Kansas-Nebraska Act is known for being one of the key causes of the Civil War. The bill dealt with the hotly debated topic of whether newly created states would allow slavery or not. The addition of both Kansas and Nebraska to the United States was considered important to completing the Transcontinental Railroad, but it enflamed the issue of slavery. In fact, it led to the violent outbursts referred to as ‘Bleeding Kansas’. In short, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed states to choose for themselves whether slavery would be allowed and repealed the earlier Missouri Compromise. The violence of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ highlighted the divided nature of the United States at the time, and the escalating tensions in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The next major event in the build up to the American Civil War and the fight to end slavery was the raid by John Brown in 1859. John Brown was an abolitionist who argued in favor of using violence to bring about the end of slavery in the United States. He had first gained recognition for his actions in the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ violence that erupted in the buildup to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Regardless, John Brown is also famous for his raid on Harpers Ferry from October 16th to the 18th in 1859. Harpers Ferry is a small town in Virginia that is home to a federal arsenal, which Brown aimed to invade. His plan was to lead his army into the armory, steal the guns and ammunition, and lead the slaves of the area into freedom with the backing of his newly found weaponry. Unfortunately for Brown and the men that followed him, the plan failed. In the end, Brown was arrested and sentenced to hang on December 2nd, 1859. John Brown’s raid was a pivotal moment in American history and foreshadowed the looming violence of the American Civil War. In fact, on the day of his execution John Brown famously stated “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
The tensions over slavery in American society were also highlighted in literature from the time. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe famously wrote her novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ due to what she witnessed occurring in the society around her. She first published the famous work in a weekly serial format in the newspaper from Washington D.C. titled ‘The National Era’. There was a weekly installment of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ publish each week from June 5th, 1851, until April 1st, 1852. ‘The National Era’ newspaper was focused on abolitionist viewpoints and was published from 1846 to 1860, which are the main years before the lead up to the American Civil War.
At its heart, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was a story about the hardships of slavery and how they impacted different aspects of American life. It follows the experiences of a few main characters, of which ‘Uncle Tom’ was one. More specifically, Uncle Tom was a slave who was sold and transported across different parts of the United States.
Finally, there is also a historical claim that American President Abraham Lincoln commented on the impact of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in relation to the American Civil War. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe met with Lincoln on November 25th in 1862, during the early years of the Civil War. At this meeting, it has been stated that Lincoln comment the following: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” This would imply that Lincoln felt that Stowe’s novel played a role in the start of the Civil War. It should be noted that this claim has not necessarily been confirmed. Regardless, whether or not ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ led to the Civil War, it certainly highlighted the growing divide that existed in the United States in terms of the issue of slavery.
The history of slavery in the decades before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, highlights the divided nature of the country at the time. It shows the growing tensions between the Northern states and Southern states around the practise of slavery. In fact, several of the events erupted in violence, foreshadowing the bloodiness of the Civil War. Because of this, historians consider the tensions surrounding slavery as a major cause of the Civil War.
STATES' RIGHTS VERSUS FEDERAL RIGHTS
The second main cause of the Civil War was the issue of states’ rights versus federal rights. This is partially related to the practise of slavery and the information previously discussed above. For instance, as stated in the previous section, slavery became a controversial issue in the 19th century due to the growth of the American Abolitionist Movement. This also related to the westward expansion of the United States throughout the 19th century. At the time, the practise of slavery in these new western territories and states was an issue that created a great deal of tension. More specifically, some called upon the federal government to limit the spread of slavery as the country spread west, while others argued in favor of these new states choosing for themselves. As such, the issue of states’ rights versus the authority of the federal government was a central issue that created a divide in the United States before the start of the Civil War.
Another example related to the issue of states’ rights versus federal rights was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As mention previously, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850, which tried to avoid a crisis between the Northern and Southern states over slavery. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was controversial at the time and created anger among many in the Northern states. This is because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it such that anyone found helping an escaped slave could be punished with a fine and up to six months imprisonment. Second, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it such that law enforcement officers were required to arrest anyone suspected of being an escaped slave. In fact, slave owners were only required to make a sworn written statement of ownership in order to prove that the escaped slave was their property. This angered many in the Northern states because it allowed the federal government to overrule the authority of the local state governments. As such, many became divided over the role of the federal government in state affairs, which increased the tension before the outbreak of the Civil War. Therefore, many historians have considered the issue of states’ rights versus federal rights as one of the main causes of the Civil War.
ELECTION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN 1860
The third main cause of the Civil War was the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States. Following his election victory on November 6th, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was set to take office in March of 1861. Almost immediately, the Southern states began to express anger over Lincoln’s election and began to talk of secession. This means that the Southern states were seeking to leave the Union and break off from the Northern states. In fact, before Lincoln was inaugurated the following states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. Jefferson Davis was selected as the new President of the Confederacy. For his part, Lincoln tried to decrease the tensions at the time by trying to reach a compromise with the Southern states to protect slavery in states where it had long been established. The Southern states were angered because Lincoln was elected as a Republican, which at the time was most represented in the Northern states. Furthermore, Lincoln had often expressed anti-slavery views, which worried many in the South, who viewed slavery as both cultural and economically necessary to their way of life. In fact, there was not a single ballot cast for Lincoln in 10 out the 15 Southern states. As such, many historians point to Lincoln’s election as a significant factor in the eventual outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Furthermore, Lincoln’s election and first actions as President led to the outbreak of the Civil War with the Battle of Fort Sumter.
BATTLE OF FORT SUMTER
The first battle of the Civil War, and the one that historians consider to be the event that sparked the Civil War, was the Battle of Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter was a sea fort located in South Carolina. This is significant because South Carolina was the first Southern state to secede from the Union, following the election of Abraham Lincoln. The conflict at Fort Sumter began on April 12th in 1861 when Lincoln sent supplies to the fort, which was held by Union forces. The Confederacy was angered by this action, as they viewed it as going against their authority over the South and declared war against the Union. In fact, the Southern states demanded the surrender of forts throughout the South and the removal of the United States Army from the region.
At Fort Sumter, the Confederate forces battered the fort with artillery strikes beginning on the morning of April 12th. While, the Union forces inside the fort tried to fight back, they were severely outmatched and were forced to surrender the fort just a day later on April 13th.
On April 15th, Lincoln made a call for other states to assemble 75,000 forces to recapture and fortify Fort Sumter. This sparked further anger throughout the Confederacy and escalated the tensions at the time. In fact, because of Lincoln’s call, four more states ceded and joined the Confederacy, including: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Therefore, this shows the significance of the Battle of Fort Sumter as a cause of the American Civil War. In fact, some historians have argued that Lincoln misunderstood Southern anger at the time and mismanaged his response to the conflict at Fort Sumter. Regardless, the Civil War had begun, and the overall path and outcome of the Civil War was incredibly important to the later years of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency. The Battle of Fort Sumter was the spark that led to the outbreak of the Civil War, but the earlier tensions over slavery and states’ rights versus federal rights created an environment in which the conflict of the Civil War could explode. In fact, earlier violent events such as Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry show that the United States was on the verge of a violent outburst. As such, the Battle of Fort Sumter was not necessarily a direct cause of the Civil War, but was the event that sparked the war.
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