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Causes of the Civil War - A Northern Perspective

It is true that the single, simple answer to the question "What caused the Civil War?" is slavery, but the causes of The Civil War are by no means simple, and saying slavery caused the Civil War is somewhat akin to saying the invention of the printing press caused the Enlightenment. While the two are inextricably tied together, and one probably would not have happened without the other, the invention of the printing press was not the only element that contributed to The Enlightenment.

The same can be said about the Civil War. Without slavery, the divisions that split our nation probably would not have occurred, but slavery was not the only cause of the war. Lincoln himself distanced the country from the slavery issue, proclaiming "A House Divided..." in 1858. It was a theme he would repeat throughout his Presidency.

Ultimately, these divisions began as our Nation was being created. The U. S. Constitution was a document hammered out by compromise - sometimes over slavery, sometimes over the right to bear arms, sometimes over the establishment of a state-sanctioned religion. Compromise, however, did not seem to be completely effective. Each interest group came away winning something and losing something.

By 1820, Southerners had long ago given up on maintaining a majority in the House of Representatives. The growth of the industrialized North meant the distribution of seats in the House was in their favor. When the Compromise of 1820 was worked out Missouri entered the Union as a slave state and Maine entered the Union as a free state preserving the balance of slave states to free states in the Senate. The preservation of the Union came at a price for Southerners. They were tacitly agreeing that the Senate had the right to make laws regarding slavery.

As population in the North swelled, population in the South it remained stagnant. The Northern economy manufactured goods it wanted to sell abroad, but more importantly, at home. The South was a good market for these manufacturers. Flush with cash from the sale of cotton, the South represented a prime, albeit small market. Northern manufacturers wanted tariffs imposed on imported foreign goods that could be made in the United States to ensure that the South bought northern goods. The agrarian South demanded almost a "status quo" government which left them alone while dealing with other problems. Northerners looked to the government for help with immigration, population and competition. Frequently the two goals of the regions were at direct odds with each other.

In 1824 the regionalism developing in the country finally struck Presidential politics. John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and George Crawford ran for President that year, the first time in 12 years that a Presidential candidate had serious opposition. Adams represented the North, Crawford the Deep South, Clay the mid-West and Jackson the developing region known as the West. In the Election of 1824 the regional rift was so deep that the the election ended up in the House of Representatives, where Adams won, at least according to Jackson's supporters, by making a "Corrupt Bargain" to gain the Presidency (Adams actually won because a major target of the Jackson campaign were the party regulars, who tipped the House of Representatives in Adams' favor).

Four years later Jackson defeated Adams, starting the only two-term Presidency between the Compromise of 1820 and the Civil War. During Jackson's first term, the Nullification Crisis began the first talk of secession in the South. Believing it had the right to "nullify" an act of Congress, South Carolina overturned the Tariff of 1832. Jackson warned the errant state that it had no such right and sent troops to Charleston to make certain the Tariff was collected. A crisis was averted when a compromise was reached in the Senate, courtesy of Henry Clay.

Replacing Calhoun as Vice-President on the 1832 ballot was Martin Van Buren. Elected President in 1836, by the time the Election of 1840 came around Democrat Van Buren had alienated large portions of the electorate. The Panic of 1837 spawned the worst economic depression in United States history. Van Buren then used the panic/depression to institute banking changes that many viewed as ill-advised. Van Buren was blamed for the Panic of 1837 and faced stiff competition in the election of 1840 from William Henry Harrison, a Whig war hero. Harrison won the election of 1840, which also featured abolitionist James Birney running on the Liberty Party ticket.

Since the Compromise of 1820 the abolitionist movement had been slowly gaining momentum and Birney managed to gather more than 6,000 votes. Still, abolitionist speakers frequently faced pro-slavery crowds at Northern engagements because people did not understand the plight of the slave. Many, especially the poor, viewed abolition in a negative light because freed slaves would be in competition for what few jobs were available to them.

The first pro-abolition weekly publication, Genius of Universal Emancipation appeared shortly after the Compromise of 1820. David Walker's Appeal, probably the most radical of all abolitionist documents, was published in September, 1829. Walker was a free black who had been a slave. Other papers followed including Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator and North Star by another former slave, Frederick Douglass.

By the Election of 1844 Birney had expanded his pro-abolition vote to more than 80,000, in spite of his failure to campaign. Some scholars attribute this growth to the Second Great Awakening. John Tyler, who replaced Harrison after his untimely death a month after his inauguration, was kicked out of the Whig party for vetoing a national bank bill shortly after becoming president. Unable to lead a Whig ticket, the President without a party tried to form a third-party. Although unsuccessful, Tyler created the issue that defined this election: the Annexation of Texas as a slave state. Martin Van Buren, the leading Democratic candidate, was so out of step with the party that they turned to James Polk, who wasn't officially running, on the ninth ballot. Polk won the general election, defeating perennial Whig loser Henry Clay. Over the next four years there would be a dramatic change in America.

The entry of Texas as a slave state set off a string of protests throughout the North. Soon, Northern representatives united behind the Wilmot Proviso, which outlawed slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico in the Mexican American War. Suddenly, Democrats and Whigs were disregarding party lines and voting based on their region on questions regarding slavery.

In the Election of 1848 Birney's abolitionist votes went to Martin Van Buren and the new Freesoil Party. Van Buren racked up more 10% of the national vote, which is astonishing since he wasn't on the ballot in the South. Slavery divided the two major parties along pro-slavery and "popular sovereignty" lines.

Once again, the balance of power in the Senate became an issue with the proposed admittance of California as a free state in 1850. With the House of Representatives crossing party lines to vote pro-abolition, Southerners were deeply concerned about the balance of power in the Senate. Once again, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster and others hammered out the Compromise of 1850, gaining the admittance of California as a free state (for Northerners) while strengthening Fugitive Slave laws for Southerners. Although in the end the Southerners supported the compromise, 9 Deep South states held the Nashville Convention to determine a course of action if the Compromised passed. It was the Nashville Convention that invigorated talk of secession in the South.

Reaction in the North to the enhanced Fugitive Slave Laws saw the creation of the Underground Railroad, where middle and upper class white "conductors" and former slaves moved slaves north into Canada. In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe created a revolution with a revelation. Her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a surprising success. First published as installments in a magazine, Stowe had done something all the abolitionist writers had failed to do -- Uncle Tom's Cabin brought the plight of slavery to the common man in terms they could understand. Even Abraham Lincoln understood the impact of Stowe's work: According to legend, he told her at a meeting in 1862 "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!"

The Election of 1852 saw the self-destruction of the Whig Party with the election of Franklin Pierce to the White House. The party had failed to come up with a national platform that could attract both Northerners and Southerners and large-scale defections of its members into smaller, more well-defined parties such as the Constitution-Union, Freesoil, and American (Know-Nothings) Parties rang the death knell for the Whigs.

The Democrats continued to wield their "popular sovereignty" carrot to both the North and the South. With the breakdown of the Whigs and the reduction of power of the slave states, almost everybody thought that the expansion of the United States would reach breakneck speed. Instead, it stalled because the South actively worked to limit expansion since it would mean more free states entering the Union, minimizing the impact of the pro-slave votes. Many bureaucrats were trying to push ahead with land sales, which were an important revenue source for the government.

In 1854 the Democrats' "big tent" approach to politics began to tear. Stephen Douglas, chairman of the powerful Committee on Territories, introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the Senate. Douglas, from Illinois, wanted to ensure Chicago became the lucrative hub of railroads to the West. What he did, backed by the support of President Franklin Pierce, was create a small regional war that fueled deep divisions in the country over the next 6 years.

Everybody simply assumed that Nebraska would be a free state and Kansas would be a slave state when they joined the Union. To ensure Kansas would be admitted as a slave state, slaveholders and "border ruffians" from Missouri moved across the border to "help" form a government. Anti-slavery societies in New England also moved in and American newspapers carried stories about "Bleeding Kansas." One of the immediate outcomes of Bleeding Kansas was the formation of the Republican Party.

Although it would be correct to say that the Republican Party represented an amalgam of ex-Whigs and Freesoilers, the party incorporated many of the smaller groups that had sprung up over the years including the Liberty Party. A number of Republicans were disenchanted Democrats, unhappy with the concept of popular sovereignty. A key Republican plank was the abolition of slavery, but much of the campaign of 1856 centered on the conflict in Kansas, where popular sovereignty was proving to be a disaster. One reason Kansas was on everybody's tongue was the vicious attack on Charles Sumner following his "Crime Against Kansas" speech.

One party whose supporters didn't join the Republicans, at least immediately, was the "Know-Nothings." In 1856 this anti-immigrant party, known as the American Party on the ballot, ran former Whig president Millard Fillmore for President. He did surprisingly well in the South, drawing much of his support from pro-slavery Whigs who could not support the Republicans. John C. Fremont, the Republican candidate, did not run in the South but did well in the North as a vocal opponent of slavery.

James Buchanan won the Democratic nomination for President in 1856. The balloting had not been as divisive as it had been in 1852-it only took 17 tries to select Buchanan, who benefited from a outsider image, won the nomination in spite of the fact that a sitting President was running (Pierce, from New Hampshire, had alienated many Northerners with a pro-Slavery stance and he had supported Douglas's disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act). Opposing him was the strongest abolitionist to date, John C. Fremont. Buchanan won all but the northern tier of states, but was a minority President, garnering less than 50% of the popular vote.

With little appreciation for the crisis that was developing in his midst, Buchanan sought to balance his cabinet between pro-slave and abolitionist politicians, which had become a "litmus test" of the era. One interesting selection was Howell Cobb, a pro-Union and pro-slavery former Governor of Georgia as Secretary of Treasury. By the time of his resignation in 1861, Cobb had become a strident secessionist, a change being reflected throughout the South.

The bitterness of the dispute over Kansas reached the floor of the Senate in 1856. Following his Crime Against Kansas speech, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by South Carolina House of Representatives member Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate. Using a light cane, Brooks brutally whipped Sumner. It would take three years for Sumner to recover. Pro-slavery "fireeaters" antagonized abolitionist Northern Senators with talk of "disunion" and pretty soon the idea of compromise was on no one's mind. The effect of Bloody Kansas continued to infiltrated everyday society.

Americans awoke to a society redefined by the Supreme Court on March 7, 1857. The day before the court ruled that Dred Scott, a slave who had travelled extensively in the North) had no standing to sue John Sanford (his current owner) for his freedom. The impact of the decision was far-reaching. It stated that a black man who had lived in the North where slavery had been abolished was still a slave and not a person. The South triumphed the decision while the growing abolition movement in the North was repulsed. Many in the North now realized only the Republicans could effectively deal with question of slavery.

Adding to the sectionalism, the Panic of 1857 had a much wider effect on the industrialized North and the railroad-oriented West. In the North, warehouses began to pile up with unsold merchandise forcing across-the-board layoffs. Demands for an increase in protective tariffs continued to feed the sectionalism in Congress. In the West, over-expansion of the railroads caused many to collapse, taking with them tens of thousands of land speculators. The West wanted the government to support the failing railroads and banks.

Kansas' problems continued to boil over as free-staters and pro-slave forces repeatedly battled over the question of popular sovereignty. At the start of 1858, Douglas and Buchanan began the rift that would ultimately split the Democratic Party when Buchanan accepted the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas statehood over the objections of Douglas. Buchanan yanked all of Douglas's patron jobs and Douglas Democrats sided with Republicans to block Buchanan's legislative agenda. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates Douglas alienated many Southerners with remarks about slavery in territories (Freeport Doctrine). Although Douglas would win the Senatorial election, he would pay dearly for the remarks in 1860.

Then in late 1859, the Kansas-Nebraska situation boiled over in the Eastern United States when John Brown and 21 men (5 black, 16 white) took over the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in an attempt to forment a slave uprising. Those very words sent shivers up every slaveholder's spine. With 40% of the South now black, and with black/white ratios on larger plantations exceeding 10 to 1, the fear of a slave revolt was a serious concern. Now John Brown, who had attacked pro-slavery towns in Kansas, was holding an arsenal waiting for slaves to join him. Colonel Robert E. Lee was chosen to put down the revolt. Brown would be tried and executed before the end of the year.

Election of 1860 saw Abraham Lincoln get elected when Northern and Southern Democrats splintered into three parties. Dating back to 1856, the chasm that had formed over slavery broke the Democratic Convention apart in 1860. The division was over Douglas's "popular sovereignty" that had failed so miserably in Kansas. The South refused to back Douglas, walking out of Democratic conventions in Charleston and Baltimore, and nominated Vice President John Breckenridge for President. Breckenridge sought to preserve slavery in the states (not just the South), ensure slavery as an option in the territories, and threatened secession if Lincoln was elected. He even called the Southern Democrats the Disunion Party. Breckenridge won most of the South.

John Bell was a major slaveholder who was also pro-Union. Drawing from pro-slavery Whigs who could not join the Republicans and pro-Union Southern Democrats, Bell did well throughout the South but managed to win only in Tennessee and Kentucky. Douglas seemed to be oblivious that most people had dismissed his "popular sovereignty" concept. Majorities in the North and the South resented the idea because of the problems it had caused in Kansas.

Abraham Lincoln touched the subject of slavery only briefly in his speeches and was always certain to point out that he did not intend to abolish slavery where it already existed. He pushed his Homestead Act and transcontinental everything to his constituents. With Lincoln's election, the Deep South seceded.

Other links
Southern Causes of the War of Northern Aggression (Civil War)
Harriet Beecher Stowe
John Brown

Links appearing on this page:

Andrew Jackson
Bleeding Kansas
Charles Sumner
Compromise of 1820
Compromise of 1850
Dred Scott
Election of 1824
Election of 1840
Election of 1844
Election of 1848
Election of 1852
Election of 1860
Franklin Pierce
Frederick Douglass
George Crawford
Harper's Ferry
Henry Clay
Howell Cobb
James Birney
James Buchanan
James Polk
John Brown
John C. Fremont
John Quincy Adams
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Lincoln-Douglas debates
March 7
Martin Van Buren
Mexican American War
Millard Fillmore
Nashville Convention
Nullification Crisis
Panic of 1837
Panic of 1857
Preston Brooks
Robert E. Lee
South Carolina
Stephen Douglas
The Civil War
Wilmot Proviso

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