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Over the past one hundred and forty-five years, scholars and historians have suggested different causes of the American Civil War, and different schools of thought have gone in and out of favour.
The years immediately after the war regarded it as a clash between those supporting freedom and those supporting slavery. Later scholars saw it as inevitable for other reasons. In the early 1900s the revisionist school emerged, arguing the war was needless and caused by political blunders and extremism. Other historians have focused on economic differences as the cause. Even Abraham Lincoln, in his speeches before, during, and after the war, wavered in what he stated as the need for war. Regardless of the arguments, however, the true cause of the American Civil War was slavery, prominent in the South and generally opposed in the North.
The cause of the Civil War at the time it was fought and in the decades following it was stated slavery as the moral cause. The North believed that slavery was wrong and the slaves should be set free. The South believed that slavery was right, and should continue. There are two problems with this belief. First, it assumes that thousands of white Northerners would be willing to die so that black slaves could be free. There is no indication, anywhere, that the North was willing to make the financial and life sacrifices it did just too free slaves. Second, it makes it hard to reunite as a country. According to this statement of cause, the North became the good guys and the South became are the bad guys. All the death and destruction was the South’s fault. This type of reasoning bred resentment on both sides, and didn’t help rebuild the U.S.
In an attempt to make the causes of the war less good versus bad, and more logical and reasonable, the nationalist school of thought emerged. They felt that the war was inevitable, but neither the South nor the North was wrong. The South was right in that slavery had legally and historically been allowed there, and there was no precedent for that to be changed. They had a right to defend their way of life. The North was right in that they wanted to preserve the union. They had a right to defend their national government. Both sides were right, but reconciliation without war was not possible.
Woodrow Wilson, who was President of the U.S. during the First World War, was a historian of this belief. Wilson described the pre-Civil War United States as a nation sectionalized and divided by social and economic contrast to gross and obvious to be overlooked; a nation whose several regions whose interests diverse and separate, hardly to be reconciled. He was careful not to judge slavery or portray it as evil. In his History of the American People, Wilson presented the notion that slavery was often beneficial for the slaves, rejecting the portrait painted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her famous American novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He said about the novel, No one could read in it the real life of the Negro or take from it any just conception of the system of slavery as administered by the vast majority of southern masters. Indeed, domestic slaves were treated with affection and indulgence and there was almost always moderation, a firm but not unkindly discipline, a real care shown for their comfort and welfare.
His portrayal of Lincoln and the Republicans was equally positive, holding that the people of the North, as conservative of law and of right as the men of the South, drew back, at the first shock and surprise of secession, form coercion or violence, questioned anxiously what they should do, and hesitated as their government did. The Northerners were also in the right. Both governments hoped to see the conflict tended by a mere show of force but were unwillingly drawn into actual war.
Wilson argued that the South had kept to the original intentions of the framers of the American government, and since the Southern States had freely entered into the Union, they felt they could freely withdraw. They expected the North to settle differences by negotiation, not by war. It was only when Lincoln called for soldiers did the Southerners realized a civil war was upon them [ix].North and South disagreed on the contract between them, the constitution, and how it should be interpreted. The conflict arose unintentionally, because of reasons of interpretation and misunderstanding, not from any moral or issue-specific cause.
However, it is important to note that throughout the above arguments, slavery is still one of the main causes of the original dissention. Both North and South may indeed have wanted to avoid war. Neither may have planned on the war actually occurring. There were certainly issues of States’ rights and the rights of the Federal government. The issue that all these centred upon, however, was slavery. Slavery was the primary issue of dissention and disagreement. Both sides’ views on slavery contributed to their actions.
The nationalist school was not the only one, however, to look beyond a moral, right versus wrong cause of the American Civil War. Historians Charles and Mary Beard were some of the first to propose a new interpretation that saw the causes of the war as primarily economic. The South and the North had different economic systems, and these were growing more and more apart. They felt the antislavery party was not opposed to slavery for moral reasons but to gain political ascendancy and wanted to fasten the economic stranglehold of northern capitalism upon the South.
The progressive school, as this line of reasoning was called, recognized the South before the war was more of an old-world classed society. The land and slave owners were the gentlepeople, and other white people were the commoners. Society, culture and the economy revolved around one or a few large plantations in each community. The introduction of the cotton gin had made cotton a very profitable crop in the South. However, growing cotton required cheap labour. The South became more dependent on slavery as cotton became more dominant in its economy. Unlike the nationalist school, however, they did not see slavery as being morally acceptable in the Southern context.
Beard and Beard also disagreed with the idea that different interpretations of State and Federal rights were a primary cause of the Civil War. They emphasised the differences in climate, in industry, and in labour systems. [xiv] The economic needs of the South differed from those of the North, and these led to the needs for differences in government.
The Beards’ assertions, therefore, do not change slavery as the initial and primary cause of the war. What caused the different economic systems? Granted, the North was beginning to become more industrialized while the South remained agricultural, but the vast majority of Northern and Southern Americans were still small farmers at the time. The difference was that Northern communities were economically centring on businesses and factories, while Southern communities were centring on plantations. These plantations required slaves to be profitable. The root cause of the economic differences themselves, therefore, was still slavery.
Avery Craven was an outspoken and often published historian who supported another idea of the causes of the American Civil War. Craven belonged to what is called the revisionist school, and believed that the war was not inevitable. It could have been prevented, but was brought upon the United States by the blunders, ineptitude, and misunderstanding of the country’s leadership. The issue of slavery, particularly in the new territories entering the United States, was mishandled on both sides.
In the two decades leading up to the American Civil War, the South became increasingly inflexible and threatened by the expansion in population and geography of the North. The North saw the South as uncompromising, and unwilling to accept anything less than full right to slavery in the entire union. These attitudes only applied to a handful of extremists on either side, but these extremists were able to dominate political debate and air their views widely in the newspapers of the day.
When Stephen Douglas, a senator from the state of Illinois introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill to the U.S. congress, controversy erupted. The bill divided the Nebraska territory into two parts, and allowed for each to decide the slavery issue for themselves. [xxi] Those who strongly opposed slavery saw this as an attempt to make the whole territory slave states. Those who adherently supported slavery saw it as a way to make both states free states. At this point, according to Craven, politicians and leaders on both sides of the slavery issue began to over react. Each side dug themselves into a hole, and the South began to threaten secession in earnest. The North did not take the South seriously, and through a series of increasingly inflammatory political blunders, the sides became entrenched. There was no turning back from then on.
Although political idiocy has certainly led to a number of disastrous situations throughout history, it is not sufficient to explain the cause of the American Civil War. This was a conflict that pitted brother against brother at great personal and financial cost to both sides. That extremists were able to stir the emotions of the populace shows that there was something to be stirred about. People rarely get excited in large numbers about issues that they don’t care about. The slavery issue was important to many Northerners and Southerners, which enabled them to become emotional. The misunderstandings and political refusals to work together all return back to the issue of slavery. It is this issue that underlies the points of Craven’s arguments.
One can see in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the only one of the five historians mentioned to actually live during the civil war period, that he sees slavery as the main cause of the tension between North and South. At that time there was much controversy over whether western territories coming into the United States would be free or slave. In his unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1958, Lincoln spent over half of his speech talking about slavery. He compared the situation in the United States to a reference from the Bible: A house divided cannot stand. Lincoln stated, I do not expect the Union to be dissolved but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States.
Lincoln took slavery again as one of his main points in his run for president. He acknowledged the necessity of allowing slavery to gradually fade away, rather than outlaw it in presently slave states. Lincoln reminded his listeners that importing slaves had been banned in most of the U.S. by this time. He strongly stood against the spread of slavery, however, in new territories coming in, and advocated that each state entering the union be allowed to determine whether it was slave or free. Lincoln also specifically stated that states should not be allowed to withdraw from the government. He did this because some Southern states had said they would secede if a Republican were elected president. [xxvii]
Most of the Northern politicians opposing the Southerners threatened withdraw from the United States, hypocritically, did not have a moral problem with the Mexican cession states (namely California, New Mexico, and Texas) seceding from Mexico and eventually joining the U.S. This lends support to slavery, as the cause of the secession, remaining the primary cause of the war.
In his inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln spent the entire speech talking about the secession of Southern states and the cause of secession, slavery. One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial debate. He again states four years later, in his second inaugural address, that slaves were a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.
The President of the United States at the time of the Civil War explicitly stated in both his inaugural addresses that slavery was the cause of the war. Before the war Lincoln was willing to allow slavery to remain where it already existed. He said he believed it would die out and there would eventually be no more slavery, and he wanted to avoid conflict. By his later speeches he is firmly standing against slavery as being morally wrong, and needing to be eliminated everywhere. While there is some difference in the strength of his statements against slavery over time, Lincoln is still laying the cause of the Civil War on the slavery issue.
In conclusion, there are many things that can be said to have caused the American Civil War. Each of these causes, however, can be traced back to slavery as its own cause. Economic differences were caused by slavery. Differences in culture would not have developed as they did without slavery. Arrogance amongst politicians may not even have been as extreme without slavery. Slavery remains, therefore, the primary cause of the war, and all subordinate causes must be viewed in its light.