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Causes of the Civil War

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The American Civil War

"The Causes of the Civil War"

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In the time after the forging of the Constitution the United States of America was a nation that was in effect already moving towards the outbreak of the Civil War. The "peculiar institution" of slavery in the country was one that was slowly gripping the soul of the young nation. From the very beginning the Constitution had to deal with this institution as seen in the three- fifths compromise. After the industrial revolution occurred in the U.S. it caused a social rift between the industrial North and the agrarian South. The differences between these two sections grew ever increasing as the issue of slavery caused a diluted paranoia in both the North and the South. The Civil War was, in essence, caused by the buildup of a half century of sectional suspicion. This becomes evident when the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act are analyzed, as well as the raid at Harper's Ferry and finally the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

From the very beginning of this nation there was a question over the establishment of slavery. In an odd irony the Southern delegates present at the Constitutional Convention argued that slaves counted as humans, and should therefore be counted for representation. The Northern delegates argued conversely that they were not human and should not be counted as such. The aftermath of this argument spurred the Three- Fifths Compromise in which every slave would count as three-fifths of a person for representation. Slavery was not a major issue at the Convention, but by the end of the convention the institution was well protected by the Constitution. (Harrison) This would come back to be the South's defense half a century later.

After the country more than doubled in size after Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana territory, there was an unsettled question of how the territory would be carved out. Not too soon after disputes began to occur as both free and slave settlers were rushing into the region. When Missouri filed for Statehood Congressmen James Tallmadge of New York proposed the Tallmadge Amendment. This bill provided that in order for Missouri could only become a state if it was a free state. The Congressmen was passionate about his proposition and his "remarks in defense of his amendment refer to the excitement and bitterness that his proposition elicited from slavery advocates" (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h511t.html , pg. 1). The very idea of this act outraged southerners as there were already slaves living in the territory, and such and act would demand that they be freed. To settle this heated debate Henry Clay offered the Missouri Compromise in 1820, that would admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, and would create a line at Missouri's Southern border as a the border for free and slave territory. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h511t.html) Though his compromise was accepted by both the North and the South, it signifies the politically weak the South was growing as it clearly had been forced into the worse end of the compromise. From this point on the South would be extremely suspicious and even paranoid of the North, believing that it was trying to abolish slavery.

To better understand the causes of the Civil War it is important first to understand what was happening in America socially at the time. The industrial revolution and the surge of immigration that followed it dramatically tipped the balance of power in the nation. In 1800 half of the population lived in the South, but by mid century two thirds lived in the North. This population shift caused a shift in power and "even as slave states were added to the Union to balance the number of free ones, the South found that its representatives in the House had been overwhelmed by the North's explosive growth." (Harrison, pg. 2) Southern Congressmen believed that they were losing control, or even summed up this Southern sentiment saying, "It is not humanity that influences you... it is that you may have a majority in the Congress of the United States and convert the Government into an engine of Northern aggrandizement... you want by an unjust system of legislation to promote the industry of the United States at the expense of the people of the South." (Harrison, pg .2) From this sentiment the South further continued to distrust the actions of the North and believed it was no longer a part of the nation, pushing it ever close to secession and the Civil War.

After the Mexican War and even more territory was again acquired the same issue of slavery occurred. The Wilmot Proviso attempted to proclaim that all this territory would become free, but such was rejected immediately by the South. To settle the debate Clay again offered a compromise. His plan would admit California as a free state, abolish the slave trade in District of Columbia, the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah would be left without mention of slavery (popular sovereignty), and finally Congress would issue the Fugitive Slave Act. Although Clay himself never got the entire Compromise passed himself, it was passed in its individual parts. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2951.html) The Fugitive Slave Act had the exact opposite reaction that it was intended for. It was the hope that it would pacify proslavery advocates and slip passed pro-abolitionists, yet the act enraged many Northerners and strengthened the North's cry for abolition. In all, the Compromise furthered the rift between the North and South and deepened the wound of distrust.

In 1854 Stephen Douglas wanted to get his railroad bill passed and the only way he could gain the Southern support was if he could distract them with the chance to expand the slave territories. Douglas proposed that the Kansas territory be split in two and that Kansas would be granted popular sovereignty. This action repealed the thirty year old and well established Missouri Compromise and enraged many Northerners and, "Douglas' hopes for national political peace were dashed, as the repeal of the Missouri Compromise excited widespread indignation and opposition in the North." (Monroe, pg. 1) As a result thousands of proslavery and free soil settlers rushed into the territory and literally began fighting over what would become of the territory in what became known as "Bleeding Kansas." Both getting a State Constitution written, and deciding voting of whether the state would be free or slave was abundant with fraud and corruption. (Monroe) This is yet again another example of the growing sectional differences, and the violence itself that erupts in Kansas foreshadows the coming Civil War, which by this point is practically inevitable.

Southerners were once again pushed deeper into believing that the North was staunchly trying to abolish slavery after the raid at Harper's Ferry. John Brown, who had been an active participant in the Kansas violence, now looked for a way to start a slave revolt in the south. His plan involved taking several of his supporters and breaking into the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in Virginia. Although his plan failed miserably, as his actions were suppressed by a force commanded by Robert E. Lee and Brown was sentenced to be hung, the South greatly feared that fact that many people in the North saw Brown as a martyr. By this point the South realized that its society was in mortal danger and "this threat was greatly magnified in 1859 by John Brown's seizure of the Harper's Ferry arsenal and his call for a general insurrection of the slaves. This caused many of the Southern states to implement plans for more effective militias for internal defense." (Harrison, pg. 3)

By the time of the election of 1860 the country was so torn over the issue of slavery that "men could talk only about slavery, and on that subject they could neither talk nor, for the most part, even think, with moderation." (Catton, pg. 30) The events since the Missouri Compromise in 1820 had all been leading to this one moment, where the fate of the union hung upon one election, South Carolina had proclaimed that if a Republican were elected to office it would secede, and sure enough did following the election of Lincoln. Although many people would claim that there were a variety of issues that caused the Civil War, "slavery poisoned the whole situation. It was the issue that could not be compromised, the issue that made men so angry they did not want to compromise. It put a cutting edge on all arguments. It was not the only cause of the Civil War, but it was unquestionably the one cause without which the war would not have taken place." (Catton, pg. 7) By the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, as well as the Kansas- Nebraska Act, the United States had been split into sections and the lines of the war had been drawn. The election of Lincoln in 1860 was simply the last straw for the South and now, as they believed, secession was the only measure left to be taken to save their sovereignty.





Works Cited


Catton, Bruce. New History of the Civil War. American Heritage. 1996. Pages 1-46.


Harrison. "The American Civil War: The Causes." 4 pages. Online. Internet. 27 May. 2006. Available http://www.swcivilwar.com/cw_causes.html .


"Missouri Compromise." 1 page. Online. Internet. 28 May. 2006. Available http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h511t.html


Monroe, R.D. "The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Rise of the Republican party, 1854-1856." 4 pages. Online. Internet. 28 May. 2006. Available http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/biography6text.html


"The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitve Slave Act." 2 pages. Online. Internet. 27 May. 2006. Available http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2951.html .


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Picture of John Brown

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