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U.S. Civil War, Origins

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The origins of the American Civil War lay in slavery and its implications in all aspects of US society. The origins are most prominent in the collapse of the Second Party System, oriented toward compromise on slavery, and its replacement by a Third Party System, which rejected compromise. Defense of, comprise with, or opposition to slavery played out at many levels, including Congress, the Supreme Court (as in the Dred Scott case), presidential campaigns, the Mexican-American War, the Compromise of 1850, transcontinental railroad, and even a civil war in Kansas. Social and cultural dimensions included the splitting of major churches along North-South lines, growth of Southern and American nationalism, growth of sectionalism; psychological fears of impending disaster brought on by internal subversives, such as Catholics (as expressed by the Know Nothing movement), the Slave Power conspiracy (as expressed by the new Republican Party, or the Anti-Slavery Conspiracy. Economic factors helped keep the Union together, as the North and South had complementary economies with a heavy inter-regional trade to the very end.

Divergent societies

The deepest cause of the Civil War lay in the divergence of two societies over slavery. Prior to the American Revolution slavery had been allowed in all of the British colonies. In waging a revolution on liberal principles and proclaiming the political equality of all men, Americans faced a deep contradiction. Either they abided by their rhetoric, "all men are created equal," or they qualified what they meant by "men" or "equality" or both. States north of Maryland had by the either nineteenth century abolished slavery or had passed laws for the gradual emancipation of slaves. South of Pennsylvania and the Ohio River, states qualified or ignored the revolutionary implications of the liberal rhetoric. Thus, northern states became free states; southern states continued the practice of slavery.

As the North and the South developed divergent societies based on freedom and slavery, two separate regional identities emerged. The United States was a nation divided into two distinct regions separated by the "Mason-Dixon line": New England, the Northeast and the Midwest had a rich and rapidly deepening economy based on family farms, growing industry, coal mining, banking, and commerce with a large and rapidly growing urban population. Its growth was fed by a high birth rate and large numbers of European immigrants, especially Irish, British, German, and Scandinavian. The South was rich as well, but was not growing as fast in terms of population. Economically it was dominated by the plantation system of large farms worked by 20 to 200 slaves.

Slavery dominated social mobility north and south. While the North pursued economic expansion based on open opportunity which encouraged innovation in culture, technology, education, industry, and social arrangements, the South pursued more cotton lands and more slaves. In the north, a person's station was often determined what he (or she) did; behavior, trade, and skills counted much towards building one's societal esteem. Upward mobility, while sometimes derided as the "nouveau riche," was also expected as an indicator of one's worth. In the south however, one's station was determined by one's racial characteristics and by the number of slaves owned. Upward mobility was impossible for blacks, and for whites possible only through the acquisition of more slaves.

By the 1830s, the older plantation areas of the Chesapeake were barely prosperous and survived by selling off slaves to the cotton states. The South's population was increasing (but not as fast as the North) many through a high birth rate but little immigration from Europe or the North. The importation of slaves had been banned by act of Congress in 1808. Nonetheless, there were some illegal shipments afterwards. The South had very few cities and little industry.

Because of their social standing (based on their status as slaveholders), slaveholders controlled both the government and economy of the South. The non-slave-holding class of whites in the south, however, made up about seventy-five percent of the population. This population usually engaged in subsistence agriculture. Politically they often voted Federalist or Whig in opposition to the Planter class, but following the collapse of the Whig party they either joined the Democrats or stopped voting. The Planter class was generally able to keep the other white voters voting their way by playing to their racial sympathies against politicians or parties (such as the Republican or Liberty Parties) who had declared themselves hostile to slavery.

Arguments against slavery

Arguments that slavery was undesirable gained strength after 1776, and all the northern states abolished slavery. In the interest of maintaining unity, politicians had mostly moderated opposition to slavery, resulting in numerous compromises such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. After 1840 abolitionists denounced slavery as more than a social evil — it was a moral wrong. Abraham Lincoln, speaking in 1858 warned that "a house divided against itself cannot stand,"[1] and that sooner or later the United States would become all slave, or all free. Amid the emergence of increasingly virulent and hostile sectional ideologies in national politics, the collapse of the old Second Party System in the 1850s hampered efforts of the politicians to reach yet one more compromise. The compromise that was reached (the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) outraged a majority of northerners. In the 1850s, with the rise of the Republican Party, the first major party with no appeal in the South, the industrializing North and agrarian Midwest became committed to the economic ethos of free-labor industrial capitalism. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln, whom slave owners could not abide even though he had married into a slaveowning family, finally triggered Southern secession from the union.


Before the 1830s many people, North and South, considered slavery an undesirable institution, and a social evil. They did not blame individual slaveowners. The northern states all abolished slavery by 1804, but the peculiar institution took on new vitality in the South with the rise of the cotton plantations in the Gulf states. Because of the Second Great Awakening in religion, a new sensibility emerged from a small but outspoken abolitionist movement, led by New Englanders, Quakers and free blacks, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott. The early abolitionists were little inclined to see slaveholders as demons. However, after 1840 the abolitionists were prone to regard all slaveowners as infamous.[2]

The abolitionists angered the South by insisting that slavery was primarily a moral and religious issue. The anger was palpable in Bloody Kansas, where pro and anti-slavery forces fought a small-scale civil war, with atrocities on each side. As one proslavery editor in Kansas proclaimed, "We will continue to tar and feather, drown, lynch and hang every white- livered abolitionist who dares to pollute our soil."[3]

Abolitionists condemned slavery not just as a generic evil but as a specific sin that would damn the slaveowner to hell unless he immediately repented and set in motion a plan to end his connection with slavery." They condemned slavery not just as a generic evil but as a specific sin that would damn the slaveowner to hell unless he immediately repented and set in motion a plan to end his connection with slavery. As Bartlett notes, it was this intense awareness of the sin of slavery that set the abolitionist apart from others and made him appear fanatical. As McPherson explains their outlook, "All people were equal in God's sight; the souls of black folks were as valuable as those of whites; for one of God's children to enslave another was a violation of the Higher Law, even if it was sanctioned by the Constitution." [4]

The Constitution itself was implicated--Garrison once publicly burned a copy of the U. S. Constitution because of the fugitive slave clause and called it ”a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."[5] Wendell Phillips, one of the most ardent abolitionists, presaged disunion as early as 1845:

The experience of the fifty years ... shows us the slaves trebling in numbers -- slaveholders monopolizing the offices and dictating the policy of the Government -- prostituting the strength and influence of the Nation to the support of slavery here and elsewhere -trampling on the rights of the free States, and making the courts of the country their tools. To continue this disastrous alliance longer is madness. The trial of fifty years only proves that it is impossible for free and slave States to unite on any terms, without all becoming partners in the guilt and responsible for the sin of slavery. Why prolong the experiment? Let every honest man join in the outcry of the American Anti-Slavery Society. [6]

By 1860 many abolitionists welcomed the formation of the Confederacy because it would remove most slaveowners from their powerful positions in the United States.

As historian Kenneth Stampp explains:

Though some [aboltionists] spoke against the slaveholders more harshly than others, all stressed their betrayal of the secular principles of the Declaration of Independence; the hypocrisy of a nation claiming to be a model republic while tolerating slavery; the sinfulness of Christian masters holding as slaves black men and women who were their equals in the sight of God; the corrupting and degrading impact of slavery on the lives of both masters and slaves; and the cruelties inherent in the slave trade, the disruption of slave families, and the physical punishments necessary to maintain slave discipline. All shared a conviction that a sinister Slave Power plotted to transform the republic into a slave empire.... [One minister] warned his audience: "Day and night they are plotting for new fields, reckless of the means, and devising new entrenchments. . . . Can we endure this, and sit tamely down, and do nothing to stay the advance of the all-grasping despotism?" [7]

Slave owners responded that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible[8] and argued for its preservation. Even after the war Jefferson Davis argued "[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America[9]

By the 1850s Northern teachers suspected of any tinge of abolitionism were expelled from the region, and abolitionist literature was banned there as well.

Throughout the 20th century many scholars concluded that the extremism of the abolitionists made compromise much more difficult and the war much more likely. Thus Allan Nevins concluded, "Both sides were equally guilty of hysteria." [10]

Historians continue to debate whether slave owners actually felt either guilt or shame [11] But there is no doubt the southerner slave owners felt mounting anger over the abolitionist and republican attacks on their "peculiar institution" of slavery, Starting in the 1830s there was a vehement and growing ideological defense of slavery as a positive good for everyone, including the slaves. [12] By the 1850s Northern teachers suspected of any tinge of abolitionism were expelled from the region, and abolitionist literature was banned there as well. The secessionists rejected the denials of Republicans that they were abolitionists, and pointed to John Brown's attempt in 1859 to start a slave uprising as proof that multiple northern conspiracies were afoot to ignite bloody slave rebellions. Although some abolitionists did call for slave revolts, no evidence of any actual Brown-like conspiracy has been discovered by historians.[13]

However, it would be misleading to draw the conclusion that abolitionists confined their arguments to condemning slaveholders to hell. Appeals were also made to the values of liberty and equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence. In 1854, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote:

I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form – and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing – with indignation and abhorrence. Not to cherish these feelings would be recreancy to principle. They who desire me to be dumb on the subject of slavery, unless I will open my mouth in its defense, ask me to give the lie to my professions, to degrade my manhood, and to stain my soul. I will not be a liar, a poltroon, or a hypocrite, to accommodate any party, to gratify any sect, to escape any odium or peril, to save any interest, to preserve any institution, or to promote any object. Convince me that one man may rightfully make another man his slave, and I will no longer subscribe to the Declaration of Independence. Convince me that liberty is not the inalienable birthright of every human being, of whatever complexion or clime, and I will give that instrument to the consuming fire. I do not know how to espouse freedom and slavery together.[14]

Abolitionists also attacked slavery as a threat to the freedom of white Americans. Defining freedom as more than a simple lack of restraint, antebellum reformers held that the truly free man was one who imposed restraints upon himself. Thus, for the anti-slavery reformers of the 1830s and 1840s, the promise of free labor and upward social mobility (opportunities for advancement, rights to own property, and to control one's own labor), was central to the ideal of reforming individuals.

John Brown's Raid, 1859

John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859 was a fiasco. Slaves refused to rally to Brown's call for an uprising and he was quickly captured, tried for treason to the state of Virginia, and executed. Southerners were deeply alarmed, having for the first time proof that organized Northern conspiracies were afoot to set off a gigantic slave rebellion that would kill thousands r tens of thousands of men, women and children, both black and white. Republicans repudiated Brown and insisted they wanted no such race war, but the two sections now moved much further apart psychologically.

Anti-slavery movements

The abolitionists were a small group. Much larger and far more important politically were the different anti-slavery forces that did not call for immediate abolition, but who wanted slavery to eventually die out and meanwhile lose its political power.

See also: Free Soil Party

In the North agriculture, based on family farms, was prosperous and wanted to expand westward but feared rich slaveowners would buy up the best lands. They formed the base of the Free Soil movement. The small towns and rich farmlands formed the core of the Republican Party. The party's vision for an ideal society was of small-scale capitalism, with rapid modernization, fast economic growth, strong educational systems, and a pietistis Protestant religiousity. Laborers were entitled to the chance of upward mobility opportunities for advancement, rights to own property, and to control their own labor--opportunities denied to all slaves.

Support for the 1847 Wilmot Proviso consolidated the "free-soil" forces. The next year, Radical New York Democrats known as Barnburners, members of the Liberty Party, and anti-slavery Whigs held a convention at Buffalo, New York, in August, forming the Free-Soil Party. The party supported former President Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams Sr., for President and Vice President. The party opposed the expansion of slavery into territories where it had not yet existed, such as Oregon and California.

Relating Northern and Southern positions on slavery to basic differences in labor systems, but insisting on the role of culture and ideology in coloring these differences, Eric Foner[15] rejected the economic determinism of historian Charles Beard. Foner emphasized the importance of free labor ideology to Northern opponents of slavery, pointing out that the moral concerns of the abolitionists were not the dominant sentiments in the North. Free Soilers opposed slavery also because the rich slaveowners would take over the best lands, and take over the national political system. This was the dreaded Slave Power. Unlike the abolitionists, they showed scant concern about the plight of the slaves themselves.

Sectional tensions and the emergence of mass politics

The politicians of the 1850s were acting in a society in which the traditional restraints that suppressed sectional conflict in the 1820s and 1850s — the most important of which being the stability of the two-party system — were being eroded as this rapid extension of mass democracy went forward in the North and South. It was an era when the mass political party galvanized voter participation to an unprecedented degree, and a time in which politics formed an essential component of American mass culture. Historians agree that political involvement was a larger concern to the average American in the 1850s than today. Politics was, in one of its functions, a form of mass entertainment, a spectacle with rallies, parades, and colorful personalities. Leading politicians, moreover, often served as a focus for popular interests, aspirations, and values.

Historian Allan Nevins, for instance, writes of political rallies in 1856 with turnouts of anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand men and women. Voter turnouts even ran as high as 84% by 1860. A plethora of new parties emerged 1854-56, including the Republicans, People's party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (anti-slavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells and Adopted Citizens. By 1858, they were mostly gone, and politics divided four ways. Republicans controlled most Northern states with a strong Democratic minority. The Democrats were split North and South and fielded two tickets in 1860. Southern non-Democrats tried different coalitions; most supported the Constitutional Union party in 1860.

Many Southern states held constitutional conventions in 1851 to consider the questions of nullification and secession. With the exception of South Carolina, whose convention election did not even offer the option of "no secession" but rather "no secession without the collaboration of other states," the Southern conventions were dominated by Unionists who voted down articles of secession.

Southern fears of modernity

Allan Nevins argued that the Civil War was an "irrepressible" conflict. Nevins synthesized contending accounts emphasizing moral, cultural, social, ideological, political, and economic issues. In doing so, he brought the historical discussion back to an emphasis on social and cultural factors. Nevins stressed pointed out that the North and the South were rapidly becoming two different peoples, a point made also by historian Avery Craven. At the root of these cultural differences was the problem of slavery, but fundamental assumptions, tastes, and cultural aims of the regions were diverging in other ways as well. More specifically, the North was rapidly modernizing in a manner threatening to the South. Historian James McPherson explains:[16]

When secessionists protested in 1861 that they were acting to preserve traditional rights and values, they were correct. They fought to preserve their constitutional liberties against the perceived Northern threat to overthrow them. The South's concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North's had.... The ascension to power of the Republican Party, with its ideology of competitive, egalitarian free-labor capitalism, was a signal to the South that the Northern majority had turned irrevocably towards this frightening, revolutionary future.

Harry L. Watson has synthesized research on antebellum southern social, economic, and political history. Self-sufficient yeomen, in Watson's view, "collaborated in their own transformation" by allowing promoters of a market economy to gain political influence. Resultant "doubts and frustrations" provided fertile soil for the argument that southern rights and liberties were menaced by Black Republicanism [17]

J. Mills Thornton III, explained the viewpoint of the average white Alabamian. Thornton contends that Alabama was engulfed in a severe crisis long before 1860. Deeply held principles of freedom, equality, and autonomy, as expressed in republican values appeared threatened, especially during the 1850s, by the relentless expansion of market relations and commercial agriculture. Alabamians were thus, he judged, prepared to believe the worst once Lincoln was elected.[18]

Slavery in the West

During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the Wilmot Proviso was a bill in Congress to outlaw slavery in the new territories; it never passed but stirred intense controversy. The Compromise of 1850 averted an immediate political crisis by resolving the territorial issues arising from the Mexican war. However it escalated the issue of fugitive slaves. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 undid the previous compromises and ignited the intensely divisive issue of the Slave power, as Republicans denounced the alleged control by slaveholders over the entire national government. Republicans responded with a plan for the long-term termination of slavery: prevent it from spreading and it would wither away in the face of the more efficient and profitable Free Labor policy. Indeed, slavery was already fast declining in the border states and in the cities because it could not compete with free labor. Finally the small group of abolitionists kept insisting that to own a slave was a great sin and had to be ended immediately. Southerners greatly exaggerated the numbers and influence of the abolitionists, and their fears escalated after one abolitionist, John Brown, tried to start a large-scale slave insurrection in Virginia in 1859.

Territorial acquisitions

In the 1850s, sectional tensions were revived by the same issue that had produced them dating back to the Missouri Compromise of 1820: slavery in the territories. Northerners and Southerners, in effect, were coming to define "Manifest Destiny" in different ways, undermining nationalism as a unifying force.

The Compromise of 1850 grappled with the acquisition of territory after the Mexican-American War. It included a provision for the enforcement of the fugitive slave laws that caused a series of small, local episodes in the North that raised concerns about slavery.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

For more information, see: Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Most people thought the Compromise had ended the territorial issue, but Stephen A. Douglas reopened it in 1854, in the name of democracy. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill with the intention of opening up vast new high quality farm lands to settlement. As a Chicagoan, he was especially interested in the railroad connections from Chicago into Kansas and Nebraska, but that was not a controversial point. More importantly, Douglas firmly believed in democracy at the grass roots—that actual settlers have the right to decide on slavery, not politicians from other states. His bill provided that popular sovereignty, through the territorial legislatures, should decide "all questions pertaining to slavery", thus effectively repealing the Missouri Compromise. The ensuing public reaction against it created a firestorm of protest in the Northern states. It was seen as an effort to repeal the Missouri Compromise. However, the popular reaction in the first month after the bill's introduction failed to foreshadow the gravity of the situation. As Northern papers initially ignored the story, Republican leaders lamented the lack of a popular response.

Eventually, the popular reaction did come, but the leaders had to spark it. Chase's "Appeal of the Independent Democrats" did much to arouse popular opinion. In New York, William H. Seward finally took it upon himself to organize a rally against the Nebraska bill, since none had arisen spontaneously. Press such as the National Era, the New York Tribune, and local free-soil journals, condemned the bill.

Founding of the Republican Party

See also: U.S. Republican Party, History

Convinced that Northern society was superior to that of the South, and increasingly persuaded of the threat of the South's ambitions to extend slave power beyond its existing borders, Northerners were embracing a viewpoint that made conflict likely; but conflict required the ascendancy of the Republican Party. The Republican Party — campaigning on the popular, emotional issue of "free soil" in the frontier — captured the White House after just six years of existence.

The Republican Party grew out of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska legislation. Once the Northern reaction against the Kansas-Nebraska Act took place, its leaders acted to advance another political reorganization. Henry Wilson declared the Whig Party dead and vowed to oppose any efforts to resurrect it. Horace Greeley's Tribune called for the formation of a new Northern party, and Benjamin Wade, Chase, Charles Sumner, and others spoke out for the union of all opponents of the Nebraska Act. The Tribune's Gamaliel Bailey was involved in calling a caucus of anti-slavery Whig and Democratic Party Congressmen in May.

Meeting in a Ripon, Wisconsin, Congregational Church on February 28, 1854, some thirty opponents of the Nebraska Act called for the organization of a new political party and suggested that "Republican" would be the most appropriate name (to link their cause with the Declaration of Independence). Like-minded activists took a leading role in the creation of the Republican Party in most northern states during the summer of 1854. While conservatives and many moderates were content merely to call for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise or a prohibition of slavery extension, radicals advocated repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws.

But without the benefit of hindsight, the 1854 elections would seem to indicate the possible triumph of the Know-Nothing movement rather than anti-slavery, with the Catholic/immigrant question replacing slavery as the issue capable of mobilizing mass appeal. Know-Nothings, for instance, captured the mayoralty of Philadelphia with a majority of over 8,000 votes in 1854. Even after opening up immense discord with his Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Douglas began speaking of the Know-Nothings, rather than the Republicans, as the principal danger to the Democratic Party.

When Republicans spoke of themselves as a party of "free labor," they appealed to a rapidly growing, primarily middle class base of support, not permanent wage earners or the unemployed (the working class). When they extolled the virtues of free labor, they were merely reflecting the experiences of millions of men who had "made it" and millions of others who had a realistic hope of doing so. Like the Tories in England, the Republicans in the United States would emerge as the nationalists, homogenizers, imperialists, and cosmopolitans.

Those who had not yet "made it" included Irish immigrants, who made up a large growing proportion of Northern factory workers. Republicans often saw the Catholic working class as lacking the qualities of self-discipline, temperance, and sobriety essential for their vision of ordered liberty. Republicans insisted that there was a high correlation between education, religion, and hard work—the values of the "Protestant work ethic"—and Republican votes. "Where free schools are regarded as a nuisance, where religion is least honored and lazy unthrift is the rule," read an editorial of the pro-Republican Chicago Democratic Press after James Buchanan's defeat of John C. Fremont in the U.S. presidential election, 1856, "there Buchanan has received his strongest support."

Ethnoreligious, socio-economic, and cultural fault lines ran throughout American society, but were becoming increasingly sectional, pitting Yankee Protestants with a stake in the emerging industrial capitalism and American nationalism increasingly against those tied to Southern slaveholding interests. For example, acclaimed historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, in his Prelude to Greatness, Lincoln in the 1850s, noticed how Illinois was a microcosm of the national political scene, pointing out voting patterns that bore striking correlations to regional patterns of settlement. Those areas settled from the South were staunchly Democratic, while those by New Englanders were staunchly Republican. In addition, a belt of border counties were known for their political moderation, and traditionally held the balance of power. Intertwined with religious, ethnic, regional, and class identities, the issues of free labor and free soil were thus easy to play on.

Events during the next two years in "Bleeding Kansas" sustained the popular fervor originally aroused among some elements in the North by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Those from the North were encouraged by press and pulpit and the powerful organs of abolitionist propaganda. Often they received financial help from such organizations as the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. Those from the South often received financial contributions from the communities they left. Southerners sought to uphold their constitutional rights in the territories and to maintain sufficient political strength to repulse 'hostile and ruinous legislation.'

"Bleeding Kansas" and the elections of 1856

The slavery issue exploded into violence in Kansas in 1855. Most new settlers wanted good land, not political debates. Pro-slavery elements encouraged immigration from nearby Missouri; these settlers were poor farmers who did not own slaves. Antislavery forces in new England funded and organized the migration of antislavery settlers. Then abolitionist John Brown brought his sons to fight in God's name against slavery. They killed several men known to be in favor of slavery (though they did not own slaves) in the "Pottawatomie Massacre" of May 24, 1856. Template:Quote box "Bleeding Kansas" emerged as a symbol of sectional controversy, for it seemed to refute the idea that democracy could allow the people on the ground to work out their own solutions.

In Washington on May 19, 1855 Charles Sumner spoke to the Senate on "The Crime Against Kansas," which condemned the Pierce administration and the institution of slavery, and ridiculed and humiliated Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, a strident defender of slavery. Its markedly sexual innuendo cast the South Carolinian as the "Don Quixote" of slavery, who has "chosen a mistress [the harlot slavery]...who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him, though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight." Several days later, Sumner fell victim to the Southern gentleman's code, which instructed retaliation for impugning the honor of an elderly kinsman. Bleeding and unconscious after a nearly fatal assault with a heavy cane by Butler's nephew, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks—and unable to return to the Senate for three years—the Massachusetts senator emerged as another symbol of sectional tensions. For many in the North, he illustrated the barbarism of slave society.

Indignant over the developments in Kansas, the Republicans—the first entirely sectional major party in U.S. history—entered their first presidential campaign with confidence. Their nominee, John C. Frémont, was a generally safe candidate for the new party. Although his nomination upset some of their Nativist Know-Nothing supporters (his mother was a Catholic), the nomination of the famed explorer of the Far West with no political record was an attempt to woo ex-Democrats. The other two Republican contenders, William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase, were seen as too radical.

Nevertheless, the campaign of 1856 was waged almost exclusively on the slavery issue—pitted as a struggle between democracy and aristocracy—focusing on the question of Kansas. The Republicans condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery, but they advanced a program of internal improvements combining the idealism of anti-slavery with the economic aspirations of the North. The new party rapidly developed a powerful partisan culture, and energetic activists drove voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers. People reacted with fervor. Young Republicans organized the "Wide Awake" clubs and chanted "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Frémont!" With Southern fire-eaters and even some moderates uttering threats of secession if Frémont won, the Democratic candidate, Buchanan, benefited from apprehensions about the future of the Union.

Antebellum South and the Union

There had been a continuing contest between the states and the national government over the power of the latter—and over the loyalty of the citizenry—almost since the founding of the republic. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, for example, had defied the Alien and Sedition Acts, and at the Hartford Convention, New England voiced its opposition to President Madison and the War of 1812, and discussed secession from the Union.

Nullification Crisis

For more information, see: Nullification Crisis.

In Congress, John C. Calhoun had favored the War of 1812, advocated protective tariffs and internal improvements at Federal expense, and a national bank. But by 1828, he was convinced that a protective tariff was not only harmful to his state of South Carolina but was also contrary to the Constitution. He also opposed the use of taxes and tariffs collected in one state being used for internal improvements to another state. He then began to work out his system for state resistance to laws he perceived as unconstitutional. [3]

A continuous strain on these unifying forces, from roughly 1820 through the Civil War, was the issue of trade and tariffs. Heavily dependent upon trade, the almost entirely agricultural and export-oriented South imported most of its manufactured needs from Europe or obtained them from the North. The North, by contrast, had a growing domestic industrial economy that viewed foreign trade as competition. Trade barriers, especially protective tariffs, were viewed as harmful to the Southern economy, which depended on exports. In 1828, Congress passed protective tariffs to benefit trade in the northern states which were detrimental to the South. Southerners vocally expressed their tariff opposition in documents such as the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest" in 1828, written in response to the "Tariff of Abominations."

Having waited four years for Congress to repeal the "Tariff of Abominations," South Carolinians reacted with anger as Congress enacted a new tariff in 1832 that offered them little relief, resulting in the most dangerous sectional crisis since the Union was formed. Some militant South Carolinians even hinted at withdrawing from the Union in response. Calhoun, however, persuaded the most ardent opponents of the tariff to adopt the doctrine of nullification (refusing to recognize or to enforce a federal law) — not secession — as their strategy. The newly elected South Carolina legislature then quickly called for the election of delegates to a state convention. Once assembled, the convention voted to declare null and void the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 within the state. President Andrew Jackson responded firmly, declaring nullification an act of treason. He then took steps to strengthen federal forts in the state.

Violence seemed a real possibility early in 1833 as Jacksonians in Congress were introducing a "force bill" authorizing the President to use the Federal army and navy in order to enforce acts of Congress. No other state had come forward to support South Carolina, and the state itself was divided on willingness to continue the showdown with the Federal government. The crisis ended when Henry Clay and Calhoun worked to devise a compromise tariff. Both sides later claimed victory. Calhoun and his supporters in South Carolinia claimed a victory for nullification, insisting that it, a single state, had forced the revision of the tariff. Jackson's followers, however, saw the episode as a demonstration that no single state could assert its rights by independent action. Calhoun, in turn, devoted his efforts to building up a sense of Southern solidarity so that when another standoff should come, the whole section might be prepared to act as a bloc in resisting the federal government.

South Carolina dealt with the tariffs by adopting the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared both the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within South Carolina state borders. The legislature also passed laws to enforce the ordinance, including authorization for raising a military force and appropriations for arms. In response to South Carolina's threat, Congress passed a "Force Bill" and President Jackson sent seven naval vessels and a man-of-war into Charleston harbor in November 1832. On December 10, he issued a resounding proclamation against the nullifiers.

The issue appeared again after 1842's Black Tariff. A period of relative free trade after 1846's Walker Tariff reduction followed until 1860, when the protectionist Morrill Tariff was introduced by the Republicans, fueling Southern anti-tariff sentiments once again.

Southern culture

See also: History of slavery in the United States

Although only a small share of free southerners owned slaves, southerners of all classes often defended the institution of slavery—threatened by the rise of free labor abolitionist movements in the northern states—as the cornerstone of their social order.

Based on a system of plantation slavery, the social structure of the South was far more stratified and patriarchal than that of the North. In 1850, there were around 350,000 slaveholders in a total free southern population of about six million. Among slaveholders, the concentration of slave ownership was unevenly distributed. Perhaps around seven percent of slaveholders owned roughly three-quarters of the slave population. The largest slaveholders, generally owners of large plantations, represented the top stratum of southern society. They benefited from economies of scale and needed large numbers of slaves on big plantations to produce profitable labor-intensive crops like cotton. This plantation-owning elite, known as "slave magnates," was comparable to the millionaires of the following century.

In the 1850s, as large plantation owners out-competed smaller farmers, more slaves were owned by fewer planters. Yet, while the proportion of the white population consisting of slaveholders was on the decline on the eve of the Civil War—perhaps falling below around a quarter of free southerners in 1860—poor whites and small farmers generally accepted the political leadership of the planter elite.

Several factors helped explain why slavery was not under serious threat of internal collapse from any moves for democratic change initiated from the South. First, given the opening of new territories in the West for white settlement, many non-slaveowners also perceived a possibility that they, too, might own slaves at some point in their life.[19]

Second, small free farmers in the South often embraced hysterical racism, making them unlikely agents for internal democratic reforms in the South.[20] The principle of white supremacy, accepted by almost all white southerners of all classes, made slavery seem legitimate, natural, and essential for a civilized society. White racism in the South was sustained by official systems of repression such as the "slave codes" and elaborate codes of speech, behavior, and social practices illustrating the subordination of blacks to whites. For example, the "slave patrols" were among the institutions bringing together southern whites of all classes in support of the prevailing economic and racial order. Serving as slave "patrollers" and "overseers" offered white southerners positions of power and honor. These positions gave even poor white southerners the authority to stop, search, whip, maim, and even kill any slave traveling outside his or her plantation. Slave "patrollers" and "overseers" also won prestige in their communities. Policing and punishing blacks who transgressed the regimentation of slave society was a valued community service in the South, where the fear of free blacks threatening law and order figured heavily in the public discourse of the period.

Third, many small farmers with a few slaves and yeomen were linked to elite planters through the market economy.[21] In many areas, small farmers depended on local planter elites for access to cotton gins, for markets, for their feed and livestock, and for loans. Furthermore, whites of varying social castes, including poor whites and "plain folk" who worked outside or at least in the periphery of the market economy, might be linked to elite planters through extensive kinship networks. For example, a poor white person might be the cousin of the richest aristocrat of his county and share the same militant support of slavery as his richer relatives.

Thus, by the 1850s, Southern slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike felt increasingly encircled psychologically and politically in the national political arena because of the rise of free soilism and abolitionism in the Northern states. Increasingly dependent on the North for manufactured goods, for commercial services, and for loans, and increasingly cut off from the flourishing agricultural regions of the Northwest, they faced the prospects of a growing free labor and abolitionist movement in the North.

Militant defense of slavery

With the outcry over developments in Kansas strong in the North, defenders of slavery— increasingly committed to a way of life that abolitionists and their sympathizers considered obsolete or immoral— shifted to a militant pro-slavery ideology that would lay the groundwork for secession upon the emergence of Abraham Lincoln.

Southerners waged a vitriolic response to political change in the North. Slaveholding interests sought to uphold their constitutional rights in the territories and to maintain sufficient political strength to repulse "hostile" and "ruinous" legislation. Behind this shift was the growth of the cotton industry, which left slavery more important than ever to the Southern economy.


Reactions to the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and the growth of the abolitionist movement (pronounced after the founding of The Liberator in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison) inspired an elaborate intellectual defense of slavery. Increasingly vocal (and sometimes violent) abolitionist movements, culminating in John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 were viewed as a serious threat, and—in the minds of many Southerners—abolitionists were attempting to foment violent slave revolts as seen in Haiti in the 1790s and as attempted by Nat Turner some three decades prior.

After J. D. B. DeBow established De Bow's Review in 1846, it grew to became the leading Southern magazine, warning the planter class about the dangers of depending on the North economically. De Bow's Review also emerged as the leading voice for secession. The magazine emphasized the South's economic inequality, relating it to the concentration of manufacturing, shipping, banking, and international trade in the North. Searching for Biblical passages endorsing slavery and forming economic, sociological, historical, and scientific arguments, slavery went from being a "necessary evil" to a "positive good." Foreshadowing modern totalitarian thought, especially Nazism, Dr. J.H. Van Evrie's book Negroes and Negro slavery: The First an Inferior Race: The Latter Its Normal Condition — setting out the arguments the title would suggest — was an attempt to apply scientific analysis.

Latent sectional divisions suddenly activated derogatory sectional imagery which emerged into sectional ideologies. As industrial capitalism gained momentum in the North, Southern writers emphasized whatever aristocratic traits they valued (but often did not practice) in their own society: courtesy, grace, chivalry, the slow pace of life, orderly life, and leisure. This supported their argument that slavery provided a more humane society than industrial labor. In his Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh argued that the antagonism between labor and capital in a free society would result in "robber barons" and "pauper slavery," while in a slave society such antagonisms were avoided. He advocated enslaving Northern factory workers, for their own benefit. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, denounced such Southern insinuations that Northern wage earners were fatally fixed in that condition for life. To free soilers, the stereotype of the South was one of a diametrically opposite, static society in which the slave system maintained an entrenched anti-democratic aristocracy.

Fragmentation of the American party system

Dred Scott decision and the Lecompton Constitution

See also: Dred Scott v. Sandford

Before the Civil War, the stability of the two-party system was traditionally a unifying force. In the past, the old party-system created links and alliances between parochial interests and political networks of elites in various parts of the country, and kept divisive issues out of the way. The American institutional structure had been able to cope with sectional problems and disagreements; before the 1850s, the nation had already seen sectional disputes centered on the issue of slavery in the West. These disputes did not lead to civil war, but rather the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.

However, as the Second Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum in the North, the pro-Southern Democratic party was increasingly seen as a barrier to progress in the areas of transportation, tariffs, schooling, and banking policy. Moreover, as modern capitalist development transformed the economy and society in the North, the corresponding rise of mass politics undermined the stability of the old two-party system. Sectional ideologies grew more vitriolic after 1856, and the growth of mass politics allowed these sentiments to enter politics with the help of the pamphlets, speeches, and newspaper articles by the Republican radicals. Sectional tensions — once merely an elite concern — were now increasingly tinged by mass ideologies of free-soil and free-labor. Even the Constitution was now emerging as a source of division; in 1857, the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford highlighted the ambiguity of the Constitution, undermining the unifying force that the nationalistic veneration of Constitution had provided.

Although indispensable mechanisms for regulating the balance of power between sectional interests in politics were being considerably eroded, revisionist historians, such as Randall and Craven, have argued that their repair would not have been out of the question had the nation been led by a more able generation of politicians. The controversy over the Lecompton Constitution in 1858 offered the best opportunity for an alliance between the moderate-to-conservative wing of the Republican Party and anti-administration Southerners.

Republicans and anti-administration Democrats

See also: Lecompton constitution, Stephen A. Douglas, and James Buchanan

President Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas voters, however, soundly rejected this constitution— at least with a measure of widespread fraud on both sides— by more than 10,000 votes. As Buchanan directed his presidential authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Prompting their break with the administration, the Douglasites saw this scheme as an attempt to pervert the principle of popular sovereignty on which the Kansas-Nebraska Act was based. Nationwide, conservatives were incensed, feeling as though the principles of states' rights had been violated. Even in the South, ex-Whigs and border states Know-Nothings— most notably John Bell and John J. Crittenden (key figures in the event of sectional controversies)— urged the Republicans to oppose the administration's moves and take up the demand that the territories be given the power to accept or reject sovereignty.

As the schism in the Democratic party deepened, moderate Republicans argued that an alliance with anti-administration Democrats, especially Stephen Douglas, would be a key advantage in the 1860 elections. Some Republican observers saw the controversy over the Lecompton Constitution as an opportunity to peel off Democratic support in the border states, where Frémont picked up little support. After all, the border states had often gone for Whigs with a Northern base of support in the past without prompting threats of Southern withdrawal from the Union.

Among the proponents of this strategy was the New York Times, which called on the Republicans to downplay opposition to popular sovereignty in favor of a compromise policy calling for "no more slave states" in order to quell sectional tensions. The Times maintained that for the Republicans to be competitive in the 1860 elections, they would need to broaden their base of support to include all voters who for one reason or another were upset with the Buchanan Administration.

Indeed, pressure was strong for an alliance that would unite the growing opposition to the Democratic Administration. But such an alliance was no novel idea; it would essentially entail transforming the Republicans into the national, conservative, Union party of the country. In effect, this would be a successor to the Whig party.

Republican leaders, however, staunchly opposed any attempts to modify the party position on slavery, appalled by what they considered a surrender of their principles when, for example, all the ninety-two Republican members of Congress voted for the Crittenden-Montgomery bill in 1858. Although this compromise measure blocked Kansas' entry into the union as a slave state, the fact that it called for popular sovereignty, rather than outright opposition to the expansion of slavery, was troubling to the party leaders.

In the end, the Crittenden-Montgomery bill did not forge a grand anti-administration coalition of Republicans, ex-Whig Southerners in the border states, and Northern Democrats. Instead, the Democratic Party merely split along sectional lines. Anti-Lecompton Democrats complained that a new, pro-slavery test had been imposed upon the party. The Douglasites, however, refused to yield to administration pressure. Like the anti-Nebraska Democrats, who were now members of the Republican Party, the Douglasites insisted that they— not the administration— commanded the support of most northern Democrats.

Extremist sentiment in the South advanced dramatically as the Southern planter class saw its hold on the executive, legislative, and judicial apparatus of the central government wane. It also grew increasingly difficult for Southern Democrats to manipulate power in many of the Northern states through their allies in the Democratic Party.

Republican Party structure

Despite their significant loss in the election of 1856, Republican leaders realized that even though they appealed only to Northern voters, they need win only two more states, such as Pennsylvania and Illinois, to win the presidency in 1860.

As the Democrats were grappling with their own troubles, leaders in the Republican party fought to keep elected members focussed on the issue of slavery in the West, which allowed them to mobilize popular support. Chase wrote Sumner that if the conservatives succeeded, it might be necessary to recreate the Free Soil Party. He was also particularly disturbed by the tendency of many Republicans to eschew moral attacks on slavery for political and economic arguments.

The controversy over slavery in the West was still not creating a fixation on the issue of slavery. Although the old restraints on the sectional tensions were being eroded with the rapid extension of mass politics and mass democracy in the North, the perpetuation of conflict over the issue of slavery in the West still required the efforts of radical Democrats in the South and radical Republicans in the North. They had to ensure that the sectional conflict would remain at the center of the political debate.

William Seward contemplated this potential in the 1840s, when the Democrats were the nation's majority party, usually controlling Congress, the presidency, and many state offices. The country's institutional structure and party system allowed slaveholders to prevail in more of the nation's territories and to garner a great deal of influence over national policy. With growing popular discontent with the unwillingness of many Democratic leaders to take a stand against slavery, and growing consciousness of the party's increasingly pro-Southern stance, Seward became convinced that the only way for the Whig Party to counteract the Democrats' strong monopoly of the rhetoric of democracy and equality was for the Whigs to embrace anti-slavery as a party platform. Once again, to increasing numbers of Northerners, the Southern labor system was increasingly seen as contrary to the ideals of American democracy.

Republicans believed in the existence of "the Slave Power Conspiracy," which had seized control of the federal government and was attempting to pervert the Constitution for its own purposes. The "Slave Power" idea gave the Republicans the anti-aristocratic appeal with which men like Seward had long wished to be associated politically. By fusing older anti-slavery arguments with the idea that slavery posed a threat to Northern free labor and democratic values, it enabled the Republicans to tap into the egalitarian outlook which lay at the heart of Northern society.

In this sense, during the 1860 presidential campaign, Republican orators even cast "Honest Abe" as an embodiment of these principles, repeatedly referring to him as "the child of labor" and "son of the frontier," who had proved how "honest industry and toil" were rewarded in the North. Although Lincoln had been a Whig, the "Wide Awakes" (members of the Republican clubs), used replicas of rails that he had split to remind voters of his humble origins.

In almost every northern state, organizers attempted to have a Republican Party or an anti-Nebraska fusion movement on ballots in 1854. In areas where the radical Republicans controlled the new organization, the comprehensive radical program became the party policy. Just as they helped organize the Republican Party in the summer of 1854, the radicals played an important role in the national organization of the party in 1856. Republican conventions in New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois adopted radical platforms. These radical platforms in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, and Vermont usually called for the divorce of the government from slavery, the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws, and no more slave states, as did platforms in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Massachusetts when radical influence was high.

Conservatives at the Republican 1860 nominating convention in Chicago were able to block the nomination of William Seward, who had an earlier reputation as a radical (but by 1860 had been criticized by Horace Greeley as being too moderate). Other candidates had earlier joined or formed parties opposing the Whigs and had thereby made enemies of many delegates. Lincoln was selected on the third ballot. However, conservatives were unable to bring about the resurrection of "Whiggery." The convention's resolutions regarding slavery were roughly the same as they had been in 1856, but the language appeared less radical. In the following months, even Republican conservatives like Thomas Ewing and Edward Baker embraced the platform language that "the normal condition of territories was freedom". All in all, the organizers had done an effective job of shaping the official policy of the Republican Party.

Southern slaveholding interests now faced the prospects of a Republican President and the entry of new free states that would alter the nation's balance of power between the sections. To many Southerners, the resounding defeat of the Lecompton Constitution foreshadowed the entry of more free states into the Union. Dating back to the Missouri Compromise, the Southern region desperately sought to maintain an equal balance of slave states and free states so as to be competitive in the Senate. Since the last slave state was admitted in 1845, five more free states had entered. The tradition of maintaining a balance between North and South was abandoned in favor of the addition of more freesoil states.

Sectional battles over federal policy in the late 1850s


In The Rise of American Civilization (1927), Charles and Mary Beard argue that slavery was not so much a social or cultural institution as an economic one (a labor system). The Beards cited inherent conflicts between Northeastern finance, manufacturing, and commerce and Southern plantations, which competed to control the federal government so as to protect their own interests. According to the economic determinists of the era, both groups used arguments over slavery and states' rights as a cover.

Recent historians have rejected the Beardian thesis. But their economic determinism has influenced subsequent historians in important ways. Modernization theorists, such as Raimondo Luraghi, have argued that as the Industrial Revolution was expanding on a worldwide scale, the days of wrath were coming for a series of agrarian, pre-capitalistic, "backward" societies throughout the world, from the Italian and American South to India. But most American historians point out the South was highly developed and on average about as prosperous as the North.

Panic of 1857 and sectional realignments

A few historians believe that the serious financial Panic of 1857—and the economic difficulties leading up to it—strengthened the Republican Party and heightened sectional tensions. Before the panic, strong economic growth was being achieved under relatively low tariffs. Hence much of the nation concentrated on growth and prosperity.

The iron and textile industries were facing acute, worsening trouble each year after 1850. By 1854, stocks of iron were accumulating in each world market. Iron prices fell, forcing many American iron mills to shut down.

Republicans urged western farmers and northern manufacturers to blame the depression on the domination of the low-tariff economic policies of southern-controlled Democratic administrations. However the depression revived suspicion of Northeastern banking interests in both the South and the West. Eastern demand for western farm products shifted the West closer to the North. As the "transportation revolution" (canals and railroads) went forward, an increasingly large share and absolute amount of wheat, corn, and other staples of western producers—once difficult to haul across the Appalachians—went to markets in the Northeast. The depression emphasized the value of the western markets for eastern goods and homesteaders who would furnish markets and respectable profits.

Aside from the land issue, economic difficulties strengthened the Republican case for higher tariffs for industries in response to the depression. This issue was important in Pennsylvania and perhaps New Jersey.

Southern response

Meanwhile, many Southerners grumbled over "radical" notions of giving land away to farmers that would "abolitionize" the area. While the ideology of Southern sectionalism was well-developed before the Panic of 1857 by figures like J.D.B DeBow, the panic helped convince even more cotton barons that they had grown too reliant on Eastern financial interests.

Thomas Prentice Kettell, former editor of the Democratic Review, was another commentator popular in the South to enjoy a great degree of prominence between 1857 and 1860. Kettell gathered an array of statistics in his book on Southern Wealth and Northern Profits, to show that the South produced vast wealth, while the North, with its dependence on raw materials, siphoned off the wealth of the South.[22] Arguing that sectional inequality resulted from the concentration of manufacturing in the North, and from the North's supremacy in communications, transportation, finance, and international trade, his ideas paralleled old physiocratic doctrines that all profits of manufacturing and trade come out of the land.[23] Political sociologists, such as Barrington Moore, have noted that these forms of romantic nostalgia tend to crop up whenever industrialization takes hold.[24]

Such Southern hostility to the free farmers gave the North an opportunity for an alliance with Western farmers. After the political realignments of 1857-58—manifested by the emerging strength of the Republican Party and their networks of local support nationwide—almost every issue was entangled with the controversy over the expansion of slavery in the West. While questions of tariffs, banking policy, public land, and subsidies to railroads did not always unite all elements in the North and the Northwest against the interests of slaveholders in the South under the pre-1854 party system, they were translated in terms of sectional conflict—with the expansion of slavery in the West involved.

As the depression strengthened the Republican Party, slaveholding interests were becoming convinced that the North had aggressive and hostile designs on the Southern way of life. The South was thus increasingly fertile ground for secessionism.

The Republicans' Whig-style personality-driven "hurrah" campaign helped stir hysteria in the slave states upon the emergence of Lincoln and intensify divisive tendencies, while Southern "fire eaters" gave credence to notions of the slave power conspiracy among Republican constituencies in the North and West. New Southern demands to re-open the African slave trade further fueled sectional tensions.

From the early 1840s until the outbreak of the Civil War, the cost of slaves had been rising steadily. Meanwhile, the price of cotton was experiencing market fluctuations typical of raw commodities. After the Panic of 1857, the price of cotton fell while the price of slaves continued its steep rise. At the 1858 Southern commercial convention, William L. Yancey of Alabama called for the reopening of the African slave trade. Only the delegates from the states of the Upper South, who profited from the domestic trade, opposed the reopening of the slave trade since they saw it as a potential form of competition. The convention in 1858 wound up voting to recommend the repeal of all laws against slave imports, despite some reservations.

Emergence of Lincoln

Elections of 1860

William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania were leading contenders for the Republican nomination, along with Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Bates of Missouri. Lincoln had fewer liabilities than the others, he represented a must-win state, and his supporters packed the Chicago convention.

The schism in the Democratic Party over the Lecompton Constitution caused Southern fire-eaters to oppose frontrunner Stephen A. Douglas' bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Democratic convention in Charleston, SC, was deadlocked (since a two-thirds vote was needed for nomination.) The party then split as Southerners nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, on a states' rights platform that left it vague just what rights the states were claiming. Northerners nominated Douglas on a platform that called for democracy--for the people to decide all issues, including slavery. The split mean the last remaining institution tying North and South together was now gone.

A fourth party entered when ex-Whigs from the border states had earlier formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominating John Bell of Tennessee on a platform that said national unity was more important than slavery, states rights or democracy. Lincoln would later use this theme to reject secession. Douglas waged a national campaign, the others regional campaigns. Lincoln competed only for Northern votes--he did not offer a ticket in most of the South.

Southern secession

The Republicans had promised that they would not touch slavery in the states, but they would put slavery on the course to extinction by preventing its spread. Slavery would end peacefully--but even before that happened the slave states, frozen in number, would be increasingly outnumbered in by the free states, and thus power would shift to the free states. Politicians in the seven cotton states warned repeatedly they would secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected. They did so. However the other 8 slave states had nothing to gain by secession, and they realized that slavery was doomed in their states anyway because it was uneconomical. So they did not secede, at first.

Within days after the election, a special South Carolina convention declared "that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the 'United States of America' is hereby dissolved," heralding the secession of all seven cotton states by February, 1861.

Onset of the Civil War and the question of compromise

The question of compromise (especially Abraham Lincoln's rejection of the Crittenden Compromise and the failure to secure the ratification of the Corwin amendment in 1861) opens up one of the enduring debates in Civil War historiography. Even as the war was going on, William Seward and James Buchanan were outlining a debate over the question of inevitability that would continue among historians.

Two competing explanations of the sectional tensions inflaming the nation emerged even before the war. Buchanan believed the sectional hostility to be the accidental, unnecessary work of self-interested or fanatical agitators. He also singled out the "fanaticism" of the Republican Party. Seward, on the other hand, believed there to be an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.

The irrepressible conflict argument was the first to dominate historical discussion. In the first decades after the fighting, histories of the Civil War generally reflected the views of Northerners who had participated in the conflict. The war appeared to be a stark moral conflict in which the South was to blame, a conflict that arose as a result of the designs of slave power. Henry Wilson's History of the Rise and Fall of Slave Power (1872-1877) is the foremost representative of this moral interpretation, which argued that Northerners had fought to preserve the union against the aggressive designs of "slave power." Later, in his seven-volume History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Civil War, (1893-1900), James Ford Rhodes identified slavery as the central—and virtually only—cause of the Civil War. The North and South had reached positions on the issue of slavery that were both irreconcilable and unalterable. The conflict had become inevitable.

But the idea that the war was avoidable did not gain ground among historians until the 1920s, when the "revisionists" began to offer new accounts of the prologue to the conflict. Revisionist historians, such as James G. Randall and Avery Craven, saw in the social and economic systems of the South no differences so fundamental as to require a war. Randall blamed the ineptitude of a "blundering generation" of leaders. He also saw slavery as essentially a benign institution, crumbling in the presence of 19th century tendencies. Craven, the other leading revisionist, placed more emphasis on the issue of slavery than Randall but argued roughly the same points. In The Coming of the Civil War (1942), Craven argued that slave laborers were not much worse off than Northern workers, that the institution was already on the road to ultimate extinction, and that the war could have been averted by skillful and responsible leaders in the tradition of Congressional statesmen Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Two of the most important figures in U.S. politics in the first half of the 19th century, Clay and Webster, arguably in contrast to the 1850s generation of leaders, shared a predisposition to compromises marked by a passionate patriotic devotion to the Union.

But it is possible that the politicians of the 1850s were not inept. More recent studies have kept elements of the revisionist interpretation alive, emphasizing the role of political agitation (the efforts of Democratic politicians of the South and Republican politicians in the North to keep the sectional conflict at the center of the political debate). David Herbert Donald argued in 1960 that the politicians of the 1850s were not unusually inept but that they were operating in a society in which traditional restraints were being eroded in the face of the rapid extension of democracy. The stability of the two-party system kept the union together, but would collapse in the 1850s, thus reinforcing, rather than suppressing, sectional conflict.

Reinforcing this interpretation, political sociologists have pointed out that the stable functioning of a political democracy requires a setting in which parties represent broad coalitions of varying interests, and that peaceful resolution of social conflicts takes place most easily when the major parties share fundamental values. Before the 1850s, the second American two party system (competition between the Democrats and the Whigs) conformed to this pattern, largely because sectional ideologies and issues were kept out of politics to maintain cross-regional networks of political alliances. However, in the 1840s and 1850s, ideology made its way into the heart of the political system despite the best efforts of the conservative Whig Party and the Democratic Party to keep it out.


Historians generally agree that economic conflicts were not a major cause of the war. Economic historian Lee A. Craig reports, "In fact, numerous studies by economic historians over the past several decades reveal that economic conflict was not an inherent condition of North-South relations during the antebellum era and did not cause the Civil War."[25] When numerous groups tried at the last minute in 1860-61 to find a compromise to avert war, they did not turn to economic policies.[26] Aside from the economic institution of slavery, no other economic issues brought about the Civil War.

Regional economic differences

The South, Midwest, and Northeast had quite different economic structures. They traded with each other and each became more prosperous by staying in the Union, a point many businessmen made in 1860-61. However Charles Beard in the 1920s made a highly influential argument to the effect that the economic differences among North, South, and Midwest caused the war (rather than slavery or constitutional debates). He saw the industrial Northeast forming a coalition with the agrarian Midwest against the Plantation South.

Critics pointed out that his image of a unified Northeast was incorrect because the region was highly diverse with many different competing economic interests. In 1860-61, most business interests in the Northeast opposed war. After 1950, only a few mainstream historians accepted the Beardian interpretation, though it was accepted by libertarian economists.[27] As Historian Kenneth Stampp—who abandoned Beardianism after 1950, summed up the scholarly consensus: "Most historians ... now see no compelling reason why the divergent economies of the North and South should have led to disunion and civil war; rather, they find stronger practical reasons why the sections, whose economies neatly complemented one another, should have found it advantageous to remain united."[28]

Free labor vs. pro-slavery arguments

Historian Eric Foner has argued that a free-labor ideology dominated thinking in the North, which emphasized economic opportunity. By contrast, Southerners described free labor as "greasy mechanics, filthy operators, small-fisted farmers, and moonstruck theorists".[29] They strongly opposed the homestead laws that were proposed to give free farms in the west, fearing the small farmers would oppose plantation slavery. Indeed, opposition to homestead laws was far more common in secessionist rhetoric than opposition to tariffs.[30] Southerners such as Calhoun argued that slavery was "a positive good", and that slaves were more civilized and morally and intellectually improved because of slavery.[31]

Contemporary explanations

Wikisource has the original text of

In July 1863, as decisive campaigns were fought at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Republican senator Charles Sumner re-dedicated his speech The Barbarism of Slavery and said that desire to preserve slavery was the sole cause of the war:

[T]here are two apparent rudiments to this war. One is Slavery and the other is State Rights. But the latter is only a cover for the former. If Slavery were out of the way there would be no trouble from State Rights.

The war, then, is for Slavery, and nothing else. It is an insane attempt to vindicate by arms the lordship which had been already asserted in debate. With mad-cap audacity it seeks to install this Barbarism as the truest Civilization. Slavery is declared to be the "corner-stone" of the new edifice.

Lincoln's war goals were reactions to the war, as opposed to causes. Abraham Lincoln explained the nationalist goal as the preservation of the Union on August 22, 1862, one month before his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." ... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. ... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.[32]


  2. Genovese and Genovese p 481
  3. General Stringfellow in Atchison Kansas, 1855, quoted in Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1909) p 93 online
  4. Irving H. Bartlett, Wendell Phillips, Brahmin Radical (1961) p. 56; McPherson, Battle Cry p. 8; James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (1976); Pressly, 270ff
  5. Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader, 2000, page 26
  6. Wendell Phillips, "No Union With Slaveholders," Jan. 15, 1845, in Louis Ruchames, ed. The Abolitionists (1963) p. 196.
  7. Keneth Stampp, America in 1857 1990. p. 129.
  8. Mitchell Snay, "American Thought and Southern Distinctiveness: The Southern Clergy and the Sanctification of Slavery Civil War History 1989 35(4): 311-328
  9. Dunbar Rowland's Jefferson Davis, Volume 1, pages 286 and 316-317
  10. Nevins, Ordeal of the Union 1:383; Pressly, 123-33, 278-81
  11. Beringer 1986 pp 359-60[1]
  12. David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage (2006) pp 186-192.
  13. David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage (2006) p 197, 409; Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists and the South, 1831-1861 (1995) p. 62; Jane H. and William H. Pease, "Confrontation and Abolition in the 1850's" Journal of American History (1972) 58(4): 923-937. Fulltext in Jstor
  14. No Compromise with Slavery, 1854, by Wm. L Garrison retrieved from
  15. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970)
  16. James McPherson, "Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question," Civil War History 29 (Sept. 1983)
  17. "Conflict and Collaboration: Yeomen, Slaveholders, and Politics in the Antebellum South," Social History 10 (Oct. 1985): 273-98. quote at p. 297.
  18. Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978)
  19. Brinkley, Alan (1986). American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 328. 
  20. Moore, Barrington (1966). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Beacon Press, 117. 
  21. North, Douglas C. (1961). The Economic Growth of the United States 1790-1860. Englewood Cliffs, 130. 
  22. Donald, David; Randal, J.G. (1961). The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: D.C. Health and Company, 79. 
  23. Allan, Nevins (1947). Ordeal of the Union (vol. 3). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 218. 
  24. Moore, Barrington. p. 122.
  25. Craig in Woodworth, ed. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (1996), p. 505
  26. Donald 2001 pp 134-38
  27. Woodworth, ed., The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (1996), 145, 151, 505, 512, 554, 557, 684; Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1969); for one dissenter see Marc Egnal, "The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860". Civil War History 47, no. 1. (2001): 30-56.
  28. Kenneth M. Stampp, The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (1981), 198;
  29. James McPherson, Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question Civil War History - Volume 50, Number 4, December 2004, page 421
  30. Richard Hofstadter, "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War", The American Historical Review Vol. 44, No. 1 (1938), pp. 50-55 full text in JSTOR
  31. John Calhoun, Slavery a Positive Good, February 6, 1837 [2]
  32. Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862