What was the Civil War about?


Lieutenant General
- ★★★ -
Managing Member & Webmaster
Apr 1, 1999
Martinsburg, WV
The origins of the American Civil War, also known as the War Between the States as my Southern friends would call it, is sometimes a difficult subject to pin down. The attention of historians has been drawn to the subject, and many discussions and sometimes heated arguments have developed. The events leading up to and during this period of war and civil strife have shaped our nation, but no person should attempt to use one solitary issue as the only cause for this war.

What was the Civil War about? Causes of the Civil War & the Fight over Slavery

The Founding of the United States

As the British colonies in North America became more settled, the economy of the southern colonies gravitated toward the so-called money crops of tobacco and sugar grown on large plantations. Farming these crops, however, required significant manpower. The solution was provided by slave labor.

The economy of the northern colonies was more rooted in manufacturing and shipping. While farming in the North was a profitable venture, it wasn't the primary source of income in the region.

Eventually both North and South would be involved in the slave trade: the South using slaves as workers and northern shippers transporting the slaves in from Africa.

The first African slaves arrived in 1619. Initially, slaves came to America via West Indies slave traders, who resold them to colonist shippers who would sail the slaves back to the colonies. Eventually, the middlemen were cut out and colonist merchant ships trading near Africa would make port and fill their remaining space with human trade.

The first American slave ship on record was called Desire, built in 1636, and brought slaves from the West Indies. The first American ship to bring African slaves to the colonies was the Rainbow, in 1654. Throughout the 17th century, the slave trade was a minor industry.

Most colonists were opposed to bringing Africans to the colonies, for any reason and several colonies enacted ordinances to prevent or limit their importation, which were subsequently voided by the British crown. Even so, the number of Africans in the colonies remained negligible up until the emergence of rice in South Carolina and tobacco in Virginia as big money crops around 1680.

South Carolina led Virginia in the slave trade. In 1708, South Carolina’s governor reported the population for whites and slaves were the same – approximately 4,000 each. In Virginia, tobacco plantations could be thousands of acres big, requiring hundreds of workers.

Slaves were officially recognized as property and not legally recognized as people. Not everyone agreed. In 1688 Quakers in Pennsylvania signed an anti-slavery resolution. Eventually, any Quaker found guilty of owning slaves was excommunicated from the Society of Friends.

There is striking evidence that the Founding Fathers wanted slavery abolished. In 1772, Thomas Jefferson and others in the Virginia assembly discussed the issue of slavery, calling it “the great evil…The interest of the country manifestly requires the total expulsion of them.”


In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote that King George, who had prevented the colonies from exacting ordinances preventing the importation of slaves, “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, capturing and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur a miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” -- Harsh words which were stricken at the request of southern delegates of the Continental Congress.

Even though the final draft of the Declaration of Independence maintained that all men were created equal with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it was open to interpretation. Social liberals took it to mean slavery was wrong or by neglecting to specifically mention Africans meant they were not considered “men” but

Practically speaking, the Declaration of Independence was not a binding document but a statement of political philosophy defending the growing desire for colonial independence. After the Revolution was over, despite the formation of a federal government, states acted in many ways like sovereign entities unto themselves so the decision to have slavery or abolish it was a state by state decision.

The Constitutional Convention skirted the issue, more concerned with establishing a united nation than tackling one of the most glaringly divisive issues between the states. But any hope the matter would resolve itself faded as views on slavery became increasingly polarized.

Economic and Social Differences of the North and South

As previously mentioned, the north and south had very different economies. The North had a balanced economy based on industry, manufacturing, and was capable of producing enough agricultural products for local consumption, while the South was heavily dependent on agriculture for survival and profit, and had less ability to manufacture.

The last quarter of the 18th century and early 19th century saw a huge influx of European immigrants in the North. This immigrant population was often employed in factories in the region, and most were willing to work for low wages. Socially, the immigrant population of the northern states brought melting-pot diversity to the increasingly blue-collar population and a greater degree of social tolerance.

The southern plantations that fueled the region’s economy solved their worker shortages through slavery. Many Southerners clung tenaciously to their long-lived way of life. A large number of Southerners could proudly trace their American ancestry back hundreds of years and felt entitled to determine their destiny without government interference.

The Divergence of Political Ideas

On January 1, 1808, the African slave trade officially became illegal, although slavery itself was not affected.

The growing disagreement over whether or the government should condone the ownership of another human being morphed into a debate over states’ rights. Southern politicians argued the issue was not slavery; at stake was the sanctity of states’ sovereignty. That argument, according to author Charles Dew was a smokescreen. The issue really was slavery. In his book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Dew reprints letters written by commissioners appointed by the southern states to promote secession. The letters are shockingly direct and leave no doubt as to the reason for secession – Lincoln’s perceived threat to their exclusive control of black slaves.

Moreover, many northerners resented the three-fifths rule (that allowed slave states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person to determine the number of congressional representatives) believing it gave the south an unfair advantage in Congress. The country’s westward expansion into the territory of the Louisiana purchase and beyond created a new battleground.

Missouri Compromise

By the beginning of the 19th century the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states had legally abolished slavery through the state legislatures. Under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (passed right before the ratification of the Constitution) the Midwest states created in the region – Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio , Wisconsin and Minnesota – were slavery-free, or “free states.” The states south of the Ohio River were called slave states.

Slave states did not want to see more free states – which would have given them more influence and power in the U.S Senate. Free states already held an advantage in the House of Representatives because the northern states had larger populations than southern states.

Missouri’s petition to become a state became a lightening rod. The result was the 1820 Missouri Compromise which stipulated that all the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri, except Missouri, would be free, and the territory below that line would be slave. So Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri was a slave state.

The Nullification Crisis

In the 1820's the United States was facing an economic downturn, with South Carolina feeling the harshest effects. In response to these conditions an import tax known as the Tariff of 1828 was enacted into law by the United States Congress. It was believed that such a tax would give American producers an advantage over British imported products.

This law, labeled as the Tariff of Abominations by Southern detractors, was passed in the hope that it would spur economic activity. With iron, coal, and water power, and skilled labor being so plentiful in the the North, many northerners supported the new tariff.

In the South, agriculture being the primary economy in the region, many of the staple goods for everyday life were imported. The new tariff forced many in the South to pay higher prices for more expensive domestic products, and for many goods imported from overseas.

In an unexpected turn of events, some British merchants stopped purchasing Southern cotton in reaction the tariff, and under heavy British abolitionist pressure. The reduced income put increasing pressure on the already weak Southern economy. It was hoped that with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, that the tariff would be reduced, but the new administration failed to act.

In South Carolina, many detractors of the tariff began to organize against it. One radical faction began suggesting that the tariff be declared null and void within the State. One detractor, Vice President John C. Calhoun, split with President Jackson on the issue, writing the divisive South Carolina Exposition and Protest supporting the idea of nullification of the tariff or secession from the Union.

In 1832 a new tariff was enacted by the United States Congress, but with little relief for the states, the debate became heated. In South Carolina, the legislature called for an election of delegates for a state convention. Once the delegates were assembled the convention voted to declare the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within the State of South Carolina.

President Jackson, in response to this development, declared nullification to be treason against the United States. He swiftly moved to strengthen federal forts in the state.

Those in congress debated a so called "Force Bill" giving the president the authority to use Federal Army and Naval forces to enforce acts of congress. For the first time real violence seemed a possibility, and South Carolinian's refused to back down.

Fortunately for both sides, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay devised the Compromise Tariff of 1833, greatly reducing the tax on imports for all Americans. With this comprimise the crisis was averted.

These events however seemed to strengthen the divide between Northerners and Southerners. Many South Carolinian's believed that nullification forced revision of the tariff, supporting the State's Rights argument. Meanwhile Jackson's supporters believed the compromise proved that no single state could assert rights against the Federal Government.

Compromise of 1850 & the Fugitive Slave Act

After the Mexican War, America had a vast new western territory which became the new focus of the slavery debate. California’s request to be admitted as a free state gave the issue more attention. There was also the issue of Texas claiming it controlled the land all the way to what is now New Mexico. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who had developed the Missouri Compromise, now shepherded through the Compromise of 1850.

According to the compromise, Texas would be compensated with $10 million to relinquish its land claim and to pay off its debt to Mexico. The territories of Nevada, Utah, and the Territory of New Mexico (which also includes the present day State of Arizona) would be organized without determining its slavery status – that would be decided by residents whenever they decided to petition for statehood.

Another provision abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C., although slavery remained legal. California would be admitted as a free state, which was balanced out by the Fugitive Slave Act. The Act required all citizens to help recovery fugitive slaves. It also denied a fugitive’s right to a jury trial.

The law forced many escaped slaves in the North to flee to Canada. It’s estimated 20,000 moved to Canada over the following decade. Even free blacks were captured and sent to the South, having literally no legal recourse.

The Underground Railroad flourished during this time and the Fugitive Slave Act mobilized abolitionists, who made slavery a political talking point.

Clay’s goal of keeping the states united worked, but it was a temporary band-aid to a far deeper wound that was festering.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of a New England preacher. Well educated and deeply religious, she was active in political causes and was an avowed abolitionist. Stowe grew up in the northeast but as a young woman lived in Cincinnati for a while, a city split on the slavery issue. She spoke to many people to get a comprehensive view of both sides of the issue.


The result was the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was a runaway hit and was translated into several languages. It brought the issue of slavery front and center and further incited passionate debate on the morality of slavery.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

On May 30, 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, drafted by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, which gave residents in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether or not to allow slavery – also known as popular sovereignty. In effect, it nullified the Missouri Compromise, angering those in the North.

Dred Scott Case

Dred Scott was a slave owned by an Army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson who moved from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state, and then to the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota), a free territory, for many years. While in Illinois or the Wisconsin Territory, Scott could have made a legal claim for freedom but for unknown reasons, never did. Emerson was eventually reassigned back to Missouri where he died. In 1846 abolitionist attorneys sued for Scott’s freedom, arguing that since he lived in Free states for so many years, he should be deemed a free man.


The case was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In March of 1857, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that no slave or descendant of a slave could be a U.S. citizen. As such, Scott was not a citizen, had no rights and therefore could not sue in a Federal Court. In short he had no legal right to be free. At the time, seven justices had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South and five of them came from slave-owning families.

The court’s stunning ruling affected the status of the nearly four million slaves in America. It also disregarded that in five of the original states free black men had been full voting citizens for 80 years.

The Supreme Court also ruled that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories and declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, an avid supporter of slavery wrote in the majority opinion that the forefathers who wrote the Constitution believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.”

Abolitionists were outraged, as were many moderate northerners. The South was pleased with Dred Scott decision but it would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. The ruling mobilized anti-slavery forces and played a big part in Lincoln’s presidential nomination. Scott, though, eventually won his freedom. The sons of Scott’s first owner, Peter Blow, who sold Scott to Dr. Emerson, had grown up with Scott and after the Supreme Court’s decision was announced, they purchased Scott and his wife from their current owner and set them free.

Dred Scott died a free man nine months later.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In 1858, former U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln ran against incumbent Stephen Douglas for his U.S. Senate seat. During a speech accepting the Republican nomination for senator Lincoln set the tone for the campaign by stating, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”


Lincoln was prompted to run by Douglas’ authoring the Kansas-Nebraska Act. As part of the campaign, they agreed to hold a series of debates throughout Illinois. Politically, the issue they differed on the most was slavery. Lincoln was adamant slavery be prohibited in new territories. Douglas felt that since the territories didn’t have the kinds of economies that warranted slavery, there was no need to pass legislation prohibiting it.

Even though Lincoln won the popular vote, at that time the legislature actually got to decide who became Senator and with Democrats outnumbering Republicans, Douglas won on a 54-46 vote.

Despite losing the Senate race, the debates raised Lincoln’s national profile and earned him the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860.

John Brown’s Raid

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Kansas became a literal battleground between pro and anti slavery factions, earning Kansas the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” Among the anti-slavery forces who traveled to Kansas was John Brown, who advocated violence, if necessary, to end slavery.

In 1857 Brown left Kansas, needing to raise money for his anti-slavery crusade. While back east, Brown devised a plan to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a town located in present day West Virginia. His goal was to give the weapons at the arsenal to slaves in the region so they could form a rebellion against their owners.


Brown and his followers attacked Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859 and succeeded in capturing the arsenal. But federal forces led by Colonel Robert E. Lee were quickly dispatched and recaptured the arsenal two days later. Brown was transported to Charles Town, Virginia for trial. He was convicted of murder, treason against the State of Virginia, and conspiring with slaves to rebel, and sentenced to death by hanging. The execution took place on December 2, 1859. Before going to the gallows, Brown wrote: “the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.”

To most southerners, Brown was a fanatical madman. To many northerners, especially abolitionists, he was a martyr. He became a polarizing figure in an already divided nation on the brink of breaking apart.

The Issue of States Rights

The Southern states maintained the Federal government had no authority to outlaw slavery because it should be a matter of state law. Unionists believed there were some issues that the Federal government would be the ultimate authority on.

Election of 1860

The Democratic Party was deeply split when they met in Charleston, South Carolina to choose their 1860 presidential candidate. Representatives from the Deep South, including Alabama extremist William Yancey and South Carolina extremist Robert Rhett, wanted to a candidate who would forcefully support slavery in the territories. Western Democrats backed a candidate who would endorse popular sovereignty. The more moderate position prevailed and in protest the Southern delegates walked out.

The Northern Democrats eventually nominated Stephen A. Douglas. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge who promised to maintain slavery in the territories. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell, a moderate.

The Republican platform included a homestead bill, federal assistance for a transcontinental railroad, and that each state could decide on the slavery issue and that no legislative body, be it Congress or the territorial legislatures, could legalize slavery in the territories. Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was chosen as their candidate.

During the campaign, Lincoln traveled through the south to promote the importance of the Union and strongly intimated that he would not allow the south to secede. Not all southerners agreed with secession, particularly in the upper south where Lincoln’s moderate position was better received.

Regardless of who was elected, secession may have been inevitable. But Lincoln’s election did guarantee a President who was determined to keep the Union together, even at the cost of war.
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Annual Winner
Dec 30, 2014
Nicely done ..There is a lot to it but you might also mention the canning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which put the burden of proof as to whether one was free or slave on the accused.. a complete reversal of the innocent until proven guilty maxim and , most bizarre of all, the magistrate determining the case would get $10 if the person were judged a slave but only $5 if he were set free..

But i disagree with your conclusion that it was not just about slavery. "no person should attempt to use one solitary issue as the only cause for this war" .

If there had been no slavery there would have been no civil war,,,Historian James Ford Rhodes said that and he lived through the era...and so did Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens and just about everyone else involved at the time.. and although there were other issues none was a divisive and threatening as the issue of slavery and none had the potential to break up the Union.

The CW is one of the very few wars in which it can be said there was just one cause and one cause only..and from that institution and the South's belief that is was a positive good, ordained by God and their attempts to spread it, all the turmoil followed..All the turmoil in South Carolina and demands for secession were based on threats to slavery...and SC was clearly the instigator..


Nov 30, 2014
Sunny SoFla
That was an amazing essay, Mike. If I was a teacher and you were one of my students, I would have given you an A++.

Have you ever considered writing history textbooks?

This definitely deserves a sticky - if not here, then in the Secession and Politics forum.