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Causes of the The War Between the States - A Southern Perspective

For more than 40 years Southerners spoke of "disunion" over a variety of issues. By the time Abraham Lincoln was elected president a single issue, the rise of the abolitionists, became the focal point of Southerners.


Tariffs were permitted in the Constitution to allow the United States to generate revenue. The first act, the Tariff Act of 1789, did just that, fairly raising revenue through tariffs on imported goods. In the Tariff of 1816, however, the United States tariff structure changed from revenue producing to protectionist. These protectionist tariffs had been proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton back in 1789 but the concept was pretty much ignored. Hamilton's original reason was promote the industrialization of the North.

Tariffs levied in 1816 were aimed at lucrative Southern markets. Many Northern politicians were looking at wealthy plantation owners and wanting to share that wealth with their constituents and tariffs were the means by which to accomplish this goal. Protectionist fervor, fanned by pre-1816 success creating industrial growth through the Embargo Act was somewhat muted by shippers and merchants who opposed tariffs, but in 1820 and 1824 the United States once again was trying to increase tariffs.

The Tariff of 1828 precipitated the first secessionist crisis, in South Carolina in 1832. The battle pitted Vice-President John C. Calhoun against President Andy Jackson, ending with the Nullification Crisis. Luckily, another compromise was reached, courtesy of Henry Clay, and the crisis was avoided. Part of the compromise included a roll-back of tariffs to the 1816 levels over a 10-year period.

When the period was up, however, the pro-Tariff Whigs decided to reapply them to pay for their "internal improvements." The only problem was these internal improvements benefited Northern shipping interests and Western land speculators and not the South. For example, lighthouses had always been state-owned and run. The Northern shipping magnates wanted more lighthouses in the South and when state governments said no, they simply nationalized existing lighthouses and began increasing the number with the tariffs. Tariffs are generally considered to be a "Lost Cause" of the Civil War, but the cited example is directly out of the Georgia Causes of Secession document.

Expansion of government powers

Thomas Jefferson knew as President he did not have the power within the Constitution to agree to buy Louisiana from the French, but he did it anyway. This single act set the stage for a major shift in the political power in the United States, away from the states and to the President and Congress. The South felt that the President and Congress only had powers specifically granted them in the Constitution, but northern and western interests wanted a government who would do more for them and favored expansion of these powers. Even the federal judiciary got in the act, extending its authority over the province of state courts, again reducing the power of the states (Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) and Cohens v. Virginia (1821).

Politicians, Northern and Southern, were generally labelled "strict constructionist" or "loose constructionist" based on their concept of how closely the Constitution should be followed in determining the power of the federal government.

State's Rights

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people" is directly from the Bill of Rights.

Considered to be a "Lost Cause" advanced after the War Between the States, state's rights involved the decreasing power of the states and rights not granted the federal government being usurped. It is not a southern concept by any means. After the Embargo Act of 1807 and other legislation designed to reduce trade with England, the Northeast attacked the expansion of federal power. In the 1830's the western states wanted a central bank to control speculation and tried a state's rights argument to support their stand.

In 1832 Georgia simply ignored the federal government when it stole the Cherokee Nation in spite of federal rulings preventing them from doing so (Worcestor v. Georgia). Andrew Jackson did nothing to force Georgia to obey the ruling of the court, granting Georgia state's rights. Of course, South Carolina used this argument in the early 1830's to justify nullification, which Jackson did oppose with federal troops. When state's rights arguments were proposed in the late 1840's in support of disunion, Congress responded with the Compromise of 1850.

In the early 1850's states rights arguments faded, but by the end of the decade Southerners talking disunion were talking states rights, hardly the "Lost Cause" some want to make it out to be. The South got support from some unusual places: Wisconsin defended the sovereignty of the state in 1859, albeit over sentences imposed under the fugitive slave law.

Sectional differences

Sectional differences divided the North and South from the time the Constitution was signed. As America expanded a third section developed, the West, with their own needs from the federal government. It would take ten years of fear and hatred (1850-1860) for the Southern sectionalism to expand into Southern nationalism.


One of the first needs of the West was a strong central bank, so it seems unusual that Andy Jackson, the first President from the West killed the idea in 1832. The West wanted expansion and associated growth and they viewed the central bank as being important to controlling inflation brought on by growth, curtailing speculation, and creating available funds for loans. Andrew Jackson, whose legendary speculation included the sale of Cherokee and Creek lands to settlers, was strongly against a central bank. The death of the bank in 1832 and subsequent actions by Jackson and the government created the Panic of 1837 and the associated depression.

The Whig Party rode the depression to National prominence, gaining the White House from Martin Van Buren, Jackson's hand-picked successor. As the depression ended, the South's sale of cotton began an unbelievable growth spurt that continued to the Civil War. Even the Panic of 1857 did not slow the growth in cotton markets. The disparity of wealth between the North/West and the South caused further backlash and fueled the rise of the abolitionists.

Issue Alliances

When it came to questions revolving around abolition, the South would normally vote as a bloc, joined by some northern Senators and Congressmen. By 1850, though, the abolition movement had become so powerful in the northeast that they, too, began to vote as a bloc, ignoring party lines. In the 1850's the abolition movement gained strength, continuing to fracture the United States.

In addition to voting as a bloc against abolitionist issues, the South began voting together on issues regarding the expansion of federal powers. They saw the expanding government as problematic while both the North and the West supported a larger government, especially one that could be paid for by tariffs on the South.

Westward Expansion

The concept of expanding the United States from "sea to shining sea" divided the South in the 1840's. Mississippi's Henry Foote and Louisiana's Solomon Downs strongly supported the concept while Whigs led by Alexander Stephens opposed adding territory, especially that taken in the Mexican-American War. With the admission of California in the Compromise of 1850, the issue of territorial expansion had become moot. It was replaced by the bitter argument over whether the states would be added as slave states or free states.

Presidential Turmoil

Under James Monroe the country functioned as a single political unit known as the Democratic-Republican Party. The political turmoil began to arise following the end of Monroe's second term. Four contenders, Jackson (West), John Quincy Adams (North), George Crawford (Deep South) and Henry Clay (sometimes portrayed as an Upper South candidate, Clay was closely aligned with the West) vied to become President. Jackson pulled the highest vote total and the largest number of electoral votes, but not a majority. The election was thrown to the House where Adams made a "Corrupt Bargain" with Clay to gain control of the White House. The next election saw Jackson combine the West and the South to be elected.

The Presidential turmoil really began in 1836, with the ascension of Martin Van Buren to the Presidency. Because of the Panic of 1837 and the resulting depression, Van Buren was unelectable in 1840. Whig war hero William Henry Harrison won the election, but died after catching pneumonia a month after his inauguration. His Ohio background was offset by statements that he did not like anti-slavery agitation and by the presence of pro-slavery Virginian John Tyler as Vice-president. When Tyler assumed the Presidency it was just that, an assumption. The Constitution did not spell out what would happen if the President died, so Tyler merely had himself inaugurated. Tyler drew the wrath of the Whig Party when he vetoed the act creating a national bank.

James Polk, drafted by the Democrats in 1844 was not a candidate but accepted the Presidential nomination. In 1848 he refused to seek a second term. Just like Harrison, Zachery Taylor had been aggressively pursuing the Presidency. Millard Fillmore, his Vice-president, rose to the Presidency in 1850 and signed the Compromise of 1850, something Taylor refused to do. Like Tyler, Fillmore was rebuked when he ran for President. Franklin Pierce easily defeated Whig Winfield Scott and sent the fading Whig Party into a tailspin. Pierce was viewed as unelectable in 1856 because of his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the ongoing war in Kansas, and his support of the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, so the Democrats elected James Buchanan, a minority President.

With Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 the South had seen 9 presidents in 24 years with no second terms for any man. As each term came to an end the voting public was more unhappy than it was four years before and candidates were forced to sidestep the divisive issues dividing the country.

Political Turmoil

In addition to turmoil over the presidential campaigns there was significant turmoil in the political landscape. James Monroe's "Era of Good Feelings" ended with the Election of 1824 and the election of John Quincy Adams as President. In response to the anti-Jackson feelings of 1828 the Whig Party formed, opposing both Jackson and the modern Democratic Party.

As the Whigs faded from power in the early 1850's they splintered into factional groups, mostly single issue parties. One, the Freesoil Party, was based on a strong belief in abolition. Another, the "Know-Nothings," believed the problems of America were in her acceptance of foreigners. By combining the Northern Whigs with the Freesoilers, the Republican Party blossomed from a single-issue party into a full-fledged movement, a key plank of which was abolition.

Regional conflicts

The Mexican-American War

Mr. Polk's War with Mexico was a thinly disguised land-grab. Democrats were interested in expanding the nation under the recently proposed concept of Manifest Destiny. In and of itself, little happened during the war that could be considered a cause of the American Civil War, however, two things that happened in the United States because of this war are causes of the Civil War. The United States gained California and it entered the U. S. as a free state in The Compromise of 1850.

The first of many attempts to restrict slavery in territories grew out of the Mexican-American War. The Wilmot Proviso was introduced (and passed) by the U. S. House of Representatives, but defeated in the U. S. Senate.

Texas boundary dispute with New Mexico

Texas claimed a significant part of the New Mexico territory in 1850. When a constitutional convention in New Mexico drew up an document that excluded slavery from the territory in May, 1850, the Texans had a serious problem with it. They began pushing its claim to the eastern third of the territory. President Zachary Taylor received a delegation of Southern Whigs who had rallied around the Texas. When Alexander Stephens raised the question of impeachment, Taylor responded with a threat to hang rebels as he had hung "spies and deserter in Mexico." Washington remained concerned that this conflict could be the start of a bigger war until the Compromise of 1850 was passed.

Although this conflict decreased following the Compromise of 1850, early in The Civil War Texas Rebels tried to take back some of New Mexico until being turned back at the battle of Glorietta.

Bleeding Kansas

Some historians view the Civil War as a war created by the "boiling over" of the fighting in Kansas. Created as a territory in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, this was the test of the Democrats "popular sovereignty" platform and was a dismal failure. Proposed by Stephen Douglas, this gave the territory the power to choose whether it entered the United States as a slave or free state. Pro-slave voters, mostly from Missouri, poured into the state but were offset by freesoilers from New England. The result was total confusion, four different constitutions, one of which fractured the relationship between Buchanan and Douglas in 1858. This division was a portent of the divisive Democrat Convention of 1860.

In 1859, Bleeding Kansas was carried east by abolitionist John Brown when he took the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, then in Virginia. Word spread quickly not just of the raid, but of his hoped for slave revolt and his desire to arm the slaves.

Utah War

Mormons had tried to settle in a number of western states but eventually gave and moved to land nobody wanted - Utah. Brigham Young used an intriguing argument combining religious freedom and his own views on the power of the federal government to justify forming an independent nation and raising his own army. Afraid that southern states might intepret this as being a precedent for secession, Buchanan ordered Sidney Johnston to the Utah Territory to quell the rebellion

Rise of Abolition

Most people believe that the South was uniform in its support of slavery. A better way to look at it would be to divide the South at the fall line (an artificial line drawn at the navigable end of major rivers, normally at a waterfall). Those above the fall line could normally be considered to be part of two groups, those who tolerated slavery and those opposed to slavery. Below the fall line the South was typically pro-slavery. The only exception was in large cities above the fall line, where coastal Southerners had migrated with their slaves. When the Civil War broke out, Abraham Lincoln tried to take advantage of this knowledge, but it was much more difficult than anticipated.

The concept of abolition was introduced by the Quakers about 1760. Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery in its Constitution of 1777, then came Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in 1780, New Hampshire in 1783, Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784, Northwest Territories in 1787, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804.

Gradual emancipation and colonization were the most popular plans to end slavery. In 1830 immediate abolition began a rise in popularity that would not abate until the War Between the States. Fueled by abolitionist newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrision's The Liberator, the concept of immediate abolition was adopted by gradual emancipationists and colonizationalists alike. Societies, first in New England, but then spreading throughout the northern tier of states, supported the views of the abolitionists.

The passage of the Wilmot Proviso in the House was the first sign of doom for the Union. Southerners, though, still had a majority in the Senate until Whig President Zachary Taylor, under the guidance of William Seward, an outspoken abolitionist, advocated the admittance of California as a free state in 1849. Calls came up for a secessionist conference in Nashville from Mississippi. Old southern nationalist John C. Calhoun had organized the convention but convinced Mississippi to call for it so his name would not be associated with the convention.

During the winter of 1849-50 the Deep South agreed to send delegates to the convention to discuss options if California tipped the free state-slave state balance. It was the threat of the convention that brought Henry Clay to the floor of the Senate in January, 1850 with his Compromise of 1850. By the time the convention was called into session, John C. Calhoun was dead and the Compromise of 1850 appeared to be on a somewhat shaky road to passage. Southerners appeared to be placated, at least until the Kansas Wars ("Bleeding Kansas"). The regional war in the mid-west strengthened the abolitionists who formed the Republican Party. During the Election of 1856, their candidate, John C. Fremont, nearly won the Presidency. If it was not clear to Southerners then, the mid-term election sweep of the Republicans proved that the abolitionists were politically strong enough to end slavery.

During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln had gotten Stephen Douglas to admit that a portion of his "popular sovereignty" idea was illegal. This alienated most of the South, which walked out of the Democratic Convention when Stephen Douglas seemed to be the party's nominee. Since the Whig Party was gone, split in two by the defection of Northern Whigs to the Republican Party, Southern Democrats tried to unite behind John Breckinridge while Constitutional-Unionists supported John Bell from Tennessee. Abraham Lincoln, an abolitionist running on a moderate platform won The Election of 1860 with less than 40% of the popular vote. South Carolina would not wait for the other southern states to meet and seceded that December. Four months later The Civil War began when the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter, claiming the federal land was theirs under the policy of eminent domain.

Links appearing on this page:

Abraham Lincoln
Andy Jackson
Bleeding Kansas
Compromise of 1850
Democrat Convention of 1860
Fort Sumter
Franklin Pierce
Harper's Ferry
Henry Clay
James Buchanan
John Breckinridge
John C. Calhoun
John C. Fremont
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Martin Van Buren
Millard Fillmore
Panic of 1837
Panic of 1857
Sidney Johnston
Stephen Douglas
The Civil War
The Election of 1860
Utah War
William Seward
Wilmot Proviso
Winfield Scott
Zachary Taylor

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