Causes of the War
In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln summarized the war’s causes:
“Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”
In Lincoln’s view, everyone knew that the “peculiar and powerful interest” of southern slavery was the root cause of the war and that disunion was the southern gamble to “strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest.” But what explains the coming of the Civil War?
Abolition of Slavery
The moral crusade of abolitionism was a necessary prerequisite. The predominantly northern movement began in the 1830s, denouncing slavery as a sin and sought its end. Abolitionism was born of revivalism aiming to eradicate the ills of American society. Its members were uncompromising, particularly leading spokesman William Lloyd Garrison who deemed Constitutional protections of slavery “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Abolitionists urged others to see slaves as tortured humans. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped expose slavery’s cruelty. In 1862, Lincoln quipped, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Despite growth, abolitionism remained a minority movement. Many northerners were unmoved owing to racism and fears of economic competition. Abolitionists were abused, and northern blacks faced severe discrimination. Following antislavery lectures in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall, an angry crowd burned the building to the ground in 1838.
Bleeding Kansas and Slave States
While abolitionists seethed with moral intensity, others considered slavery’s economic and political consequences. Many championed “free labor” and felt that the expansion of slave labor doomed the opportunities of white workers. This larger segment of society cared less about slavery in the South than its potential spread westward into areas that represented the “American Dream.”
Fierce partisanship and fear-mongering to win votes shaped politics at mid-century. Free labor defenders warned that a group of elite slaveholders conspired to dominate federal government and expand slavery. The specter of this “slave power,” as they termed it, was effective in rallying supporters.
Fears of the slave power loomed over territorial debates in the 1850s. The most volatile episode originated with the ambitious Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. In 1858, Douglas wrangled a Congressional bill opening the Kansas and Nebraska territories to settlement under the principle of popular sovereignty; those who settled there would decide the status of slavery in their territory.
While Douglas viewed this as the essence of self-government, he could not prevent the disastrous effects of “Bleeding Kansas,” where pro- and anti-slavery forces clashed violently. The struggle over slavery there foreshadowed civil war and gave life to a new political force in the nation, the Republican Party.
Rise of the Republican Party
The Republican Party was founded in Pittsburgh in 1856 after the disintegration of the old Whig Party, channeling anger over slavery’s expansion and “Bleeding Kansas.”
“The normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom.”
Slavery in the South
To many southerners, slavery was not evil but a God-ordained “positive good.” The pro-slavery intellectual George Fitzhugh of Virginia wrote, “our Southern slavery has become a benign and protective institution, and our Negroes are confessedly better off than any free laboring population in the world.”
Anti-slavery attacks fostered alienation and fears of marginalization within a hostile Union. In self-defense, southern politicians contemplated the advantages of disunion, seen as a drastic but legal security of states’ rights. Period speeches brimmed with hardnosed rhetoric but secession required broad agreement.
A New President
Urgency to invoke secession came after the 1860 election of the sectional Republican candidate, Lincoln. Pennsylvania’s hotly contested electoral votes were crucial in helping Lincoln clinch victory.
Before the inauguration, South Carolina led seven states out of the Union prophesying Republican intentions that “a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease.” Lincoln’s inaugural vainly sought to assuage southerners: “You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”
The war erupted in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor at the contested federal Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s refusal to abandon the fort goaded impatient Confederates to open fire on April 12, 1861. Following the formal surrender at Fort Sumter, Lincoln appealed for 75,000 Union volunteers to suppress insurrection, pushing four more states into the Confederacy. As Lincoln put it simply,
“And the war came.”
Information for this section was contributed by Robert M. Sandow, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.
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- David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2002).
- Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1995).
- William Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford University Press, 1991); The Road to Disunion: Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1876 (Oxford University Press, 2008).
- James McPherson, Battle Cry Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988).