What Were the Top 4 Causes of the Civil War?

  • M.A., History, University of Florida
  • B.A., History, University of Florida

The question “what caused the U.S. Civil War ?” has been debated since the horrific conflict ended in 1865. As with most wars, however, there was no single cause.

Pressing Issues That Led to the Civil War

The Civil War erupted from a variety of long-standing tensions and disagreements about American life and politics. For nearly a century, the people and politicians of the Northern and Southern states had been clashing over the issues that finally led to war: economic interests, cultural values, the power of the federal government to control the states, and, most importantly, slavery in American society.

While some of these differences might have been resolved peacefully through diplomacy, the institution of slavery was not among them.

With a way of life steeped in age-old traditions of white supremacy and a mainly agricultural economy that depended on the labor of enslaved people, the Southern states viewed enslavement as essential to their very survival.

Slavery in the Economy and Society

At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the enslavement of people not only remained legal in all 13 British American colonies, but it also continued to play a significant role in their economies and societies.

Prior to the American Revolution, the institution of slavery in America had become firmly established as being limited to persons of African ancestry. In this atmosphere, the seeds of white supremacy were sown.

Even when the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, very few Black people and no enslaved people were allowed to vote or own property.

However, a growing movement to abolish slavery had led many Northern states to enact abolitionist laws and abandon enslavement. With an economy based more on industry than agriculture, the North enjoyed a steady flow of European immigrants. As impoverished refugees from the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, many of these new immigrants could be hired as factory workers at low wages, thus reducing the need for enslaved people in the North.

In the Southern states, longer growing seasons and fertile soils had established an economy based on agriculture fueled by sprawling plantations owned by White people that depended on enslaved people to perform a wide range of duties.

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, cotton became very profitable. This machine was able to reduce the time it took to separate seeds from the cotton. At the same time, the increase in the number of plantations willing to move from other crops to cotton created an even greater need for enslaved people. The Southern economy became a one-crop economy, depending on cotton and, therefore, on enslaved people.

Though it was often supported throughout the social and economic classes, not every White Southerner enslaved people. The population of the pro-slavery states was around 9.6 million in 1850   and only about 350,000 were enslavers.   This included many of the wealthiest families, a number of whom owned large plantations. At the start of the Civil War, at least 4 million enslaved people   were forced to live and work on the Southern plantations.

In contrast, industry ruled the economy of the North and less emphasis was on agriculture, though even that was more diverse. Many Northern industries were purchasing the South's raw cotton and turning it into finished goods.

This economic disparity also led to irreconcilable differences in societal and political views.

In the North, the influx of immigrants—many from countries that had long since abolished slavery—contributed to a society in which people of different cultures and classes lived and worked together.

The South, however, continued to hold onto a social order based on white supremacy in both private and political life, not unlike that under the rule of racial apartheid that persisted in South Africa for decades .

In both the North and South, these differences influenced views on the powers of the federal government to control the economies and cultures of the states.

States and Federal Rights

Since the time of the American Revolution , two camps emerged when it came to the role of government. Some people argued for greater rights for the states and others argued that the federal government needed to have more control.

The first organized government in the U.S. after the Revolution was under the Articles of Confederation. The 13 states formed a loose Confederation with a very weak federal government. However, when problems arose, the weaknesses of the Articles caused the leaders of the time to come together at the Constitutional Convention and create, in secret, the U.S. Constitution .

Strong proponents of states rights like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were not present at this meeting. Many felt that the new Constitution ignored the rights of states to continue to act independently. They felt that the states should still have the right to decide if they were willing to accept certain federal acts.

This resulted in the idea of nullification , whereby the states would have the right to rule federal acts unconstitutional. The federal government denied states this right. However, proponents such as John C. Calhoun —who resigned as vice president to represent South Carolina in the Senate—fought vehemently for nullification. When nullification would not work and many of the Southern states felt that they were no longer respected, they moved toward thoughts of secession.

Pro-slavery States and Free States

As America began to expand—first with the lands gained from the Louisiana Purchase and later with the Mexican War —the question arose of whether new states would be pro-slavery states or free states. An attempt was made to ensure that equal numbers of free states and pro-slavery states were admitted to the Union, but over time this proved difficult.

The Missouri Compromise passed in 1820. This established a rule that prohibited enslavement in states from the former Louisiana Purchase north of the latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes, with the exception of Missouri.

During the Mexican War, the debate began about what would happen with the new territories the U.S. expected to gain upon victory. David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso in 1846, which would ban enslavement in the new lands. This was shot down amid much debate.

The Compromise of 1850 was created by Henry Clay and others to deal with the balance between pro-slavery states and free states. It was designed to protect both Northern and Southern interests. When California was admitted as a free state, one of the provisions was the Fugitive Slave Act . This held individuals responsible for harboring freedom-seeking enslaved people, even if they were located in free states.

The  Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was another issue that further increased tensions. It created two new territories that would allow the states to use popular sovereignty to determine whether they would be free states or pro-slavery states. The real issue occurred in Kansas where pro-slavery Missourians, called "Border Ruffians," began to pour into the state in an attempt to force it toward slavery.

Problems came to a head with a violent clash at Lawrence, Kansas. This caused it to become known as " Bleeding Kansas ." The fight even erupted on the floor of the Senate when anti-slavery proponent Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten on the head by South Carolina Sen. Preston Brooks.

The Abolitionist Movement

Increasingly, Northerners became more polarized against enslavement. Sympathies began to grow for abolitionists and against enslavement and enslavers. Many in the North came to view enslavement as not just socially unjust, but morally wrong.

The abolitionists came with a variety of viewpoints. People such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass wanted immediate freedom for all enslaved people. A group that included Theodore Weld and Arthur Tappan advocated for emancipating enslaved people slowly. Still others, including Abraham Lincoln, simply hoped to keep slavery from expanding.

A number of events helped fuel the cause for abolition in the 1850s.  Harriet Beecher Stowe  wrote " Uncle Tom's Cabin ," a popular novel that opened many eyes to the reality of enslavement. The Dred Scott Case  brought the issues of enslaved peoples' rights, freedom, and citizenship to the Supreme Court.

Additionally, some abolitionists took a less peaceful route to fighting against slavery. John Brown and his family fought on the anti-slavery side of "Bleeding Kansas." They were responsible for the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which they killed five settlers who were pro-slavery. Yet, Brown's best-known fight would be his last when the group attacked Harper's Ferry in 1859, a crime for which he would hang.

The Election of Abraham Lincoln

The politics of the day were as stormy as the anti-slavery campaigns. All of the issues of the young nation were dividing the political parties and reshaping the established two-party system of Whigs and Democrats.

The Democratic party was divided between factions in the North and South. At the same time, the conflicts surrounding Kansas and the Compromise of 1850 transformed the Whig party into the Republican party (established in 1854). In the North, this new party was seen as both anti-slavery and for the advancement of the American economy. This included the support of industry and encouraging homesteading while advancing educational opportunities. In the South, Republicans were seen as little more than divisive.

The presidential election of 1860 would be the deciding point for the Union. Abraham Lincoln represented the new Republican Party and Stephen Douglas , the Northern Democrat, was seen as his biggest rival. The Southern Democrats put John C. Breckenridge on the ballot. John C. Bell represented the Constitutional Union Party, a group of conservative Whigs hoping to avoid secession.

The country's divisions were clear on Election Day. Lincoln won the North, Breckenridge the South, and Bell the border states. Douglas won only Missouri and a portion of New Jersey. It was enough for Lincoln to win the popular vote, as well as 180 electoral votes .

Even though things were already near a boiling point after Lincoln was elected, South Carolina issued its "Declaration of the Causes of Secession " on December 24, 1860. They believed that Lincoln was anti-slavery and in favor of Northern interests.

President James Buchanan's administration did little to quell the tension or stop what would become known as " Secession Winter ." Between Election Day and Lincoln's inauguration in March, seven states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

In the process, the South took control of federal installations, including forts in the region, which would give them a foundation for war. One of the most shocking events occurred when one-quarter of the nation's army surrendered in Texas under the command of General David E. Twigg. Not a single shot was fired in that exchange, but the stage was set for the bloodiest war in American history.

Edited by Robert Longley

DeBow, J.D.B. "Part II: Population." Statistical View of the United States, Compendium of the Seventh Census . Washington: Beverley Tucker, 1854. 

De Bow, J.D.B. " Statistical view of the United States in 1850 ." Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson. 

Kennedy, Joseph C.G. Population of the United States 1860: Compiled from the Original Returns of the 8th Census . Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1864.

  • Order of Secession During the American Civil War
  • American Civil War: Causes of Conflict
  • Slavery in 19th Century America
  • The Hoax That a Tariff Provoked the Civil War
  • Did Uncle Tom's Cabin Help to Start the Civil War?
  • The American Civil War and Secession
  • The Road to the Civil War
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
  • American History Timeline 1851–1860
  • U.S. Legislative Compromises Over Enslavement, 1820–1854
  • Top 9 Events That Led to the Civil War
  • Bleeding Kansas
  • Abolitionist Pamphlet Campaign
  • The Abolitionists
  • The Compromise of 1850 Delayed the Civil War For a Decade
  • The Crittenden Compromise to Prevent the Civil War

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By: History.com Editors

Updated: April 20, 2023 | Original: October 15, 2009

SpotsylvaniaMay 1864: The battle of Spotsylvania, Virginia. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

The Civil War in the United States began in 1861, after decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 caused seven southern states to secede and form the Confederate States of America; four more states soon joined them. The War Between the States, as the Civil War was also known, ended in Confederate surrender in 1865. The conflict was the costliest and deadliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and much of the South left in ruin.

Causes of the Civil War

In the mid-19th century, while the United States was experiencing an era of tremendous growth, a fundamental economic difference existed between the country’s northern and southern regions.

In the North, manufacturing and industry was well established, and agriculture was mostly limited to small-scale farms, while the South’s economy was based on a system of large-scale farming that depended on the labor of Black enslaved people to grow certain crops, especially cotton and tobacco.

Growing abolitionist sentiment in the North after the 1830s and northern opposition to slavery’s extension into the new western territories led many southerners to fear that the existence of slavery in America —and thus the backbone of their economy—was in danger.

Did you know? Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his famous nickname, "Stonewall," from his steadfast defensive efforts in the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas). At Chancellorsville, Jackson was shot by one of his own men, who mistook him for Union cavalry. His arm was amputated, and he died from pneumonia eight days later.

In 1854, the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act , which essentially opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty over congressional edict. Pro- and anti-slavery forces struggled violently in “ Bleeding Kansas ,” while opposition to the act in the North led to the formation of the Republican Party , a new political entity based on the principle of opposing slavery’s extension into the western territories. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857) confirmed the legality of slavery in the territories, the abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 convinced more and more southerners that their northern neighbors were bent on the destruction of the “peculiar institution” that sustained them. Abraham Lincoln ’s election in November 1860 was the final straw, and within three months seven southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—had seceded from the United States.

Outbreak of the Civil War (1861)

Even as Lincoln took office in March 1861, Confederate forces threatened the federal-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. On April 12, after Lincoln ordered a fleet to resupply Sumter, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War. Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after less than two days of bombardment, leaving the fort in the hands of Confederate forces under Pierre G.T. Beauregard. Four more southern states—Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee—joined the Confederacy after Fort Sumter. Border slave states like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland did not secede, but there was much Confederate sympathy among their citizens.

Though on the surface the Civil War may have seemed a lopsided conflict, with the 23 states of the Union enjoying an enormous advantage in population, manufacturing (including arms production) and railroad construction, the Confederates had a strong military tradition, along with some of the best soldiers and commanders in the nation. They also had a cause they believed in: preserving their long-held traditions and institutions, chief among these being slavery.

In the First Battle of Bull Run (known in the South as First Manassas) on July 21, 1861, 35,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson forced a greater number of Union forces (or Federals) to retreat towards Washington, D.C., dashing any hopes of a quick Union victory and leading Lincoln to call for 500,000 more recruits. In fact, both sides’ initial call for troops had to be widened after it became clear that the war would not be a limited or short conflict.

The Civil War in Virginia (1862)

George B. McClellan —who replaced the aging General Winfield Scott as supreme commander of the Union Army after the first months of the war—was beloved by his troops, but his reluctance to advance frustrated Lincoln. In the spring of 1862, McClellan finally led his Army of the Potomac up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, capturing Yorktown on May 4. The combined forces of Robert E. Lee and Jackson successfully drove back McClellan’s army in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25-July 1), and a cautious McClellan called for yet more reinforcements in order to move against Richmond. Lincoln refused, and instead withdrew the Army of the Potomac to Washington. By mid-1862, McClellan had been replaced as Union general-in-chief by Henry W. Halleck, though he remained in command of the Army of the Potomac.

Lee then moved his troops northwards and split his men, sending Jackson to meet Pope’s forces near Manassas, while Lee himself moved separately with the second half of the army. On August 29, Union troops led by John Pope struck Jackson’s forces in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The next day, Lee hit the Federal left flank with a massive assault, driving Pope’s men back towards Washington. On the heels of his victory at Manassas, Lee began the first Confederate invasion of the North. Despite contradictory orders from Lincoln and Halleck, McClellan was able to reorganize his army and strike at Lee on September 14 in Maryland, driving the Confederates back to a defensive position along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg.

On September 17, the Army of the Potomac hit Lee’s forces (reinforced by Jackson’s) in what became the war’s bloodiest single day of fighting. Total casualties at the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) numbered 12,410 of some 69,000 troops on the Union side, and 13,724 of around 52,000 for the Confederates. The Union victory at Antietam would prove decisive, as it halted the Confederate advance in Maryland and forced Lee to retreat into Virginia. Still, McClellan’s failure to pursue his advantage earned him the scorn of Lincoln and Halleck, who removed him from command in favor of Ambrose E. Burnside . Burnside’s assault on Lee’s troops near Fredericksburg on December 13 ended in heavy Union casualties and a Confederate victory; he was promptly replaced by Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker , and both armies settled into winter quarters across the Rappahannock River from each other.

After the Emancipation Proclamation (1863-4)

Lincoln had used the occasion of the Union victory at Antietam to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation , which freed all enslaved people in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863. He justified his decision as a wartime measure, and did not go so far as to free the enslaved people in the border states loyal to the Union. Still, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side. Some 186,000 Black Civil War soldiers would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives.

In the spring of 1863, Hooker’s plans for a Union offensive were thwarted by a surprise attack by the bulk of Lee’s forces on May 1, whereupon Hooker pulled his men back to Chancellorsville. The Confederates gained a costly victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville , suffering 13,000 casualties (around 22 percent of their troops); the Union lost 17,000 men (15 percent). Lee launched another invasion of the North in June, attacking Union forces commanded by General George Meade on July 1 near Gettysburg, in southern Pennsylvania. Over three days of fierce fighting, the Confederates were unable to push through the Union center, and suffered casualties of close to 60 percent.

Meade failed to counterattack, however, and Lee’s remaining forces were able to escape into Virginia, ending the last Confederate invasion of the North. Also in July 1863, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg (Mississippi) in the Siege of Vicksburg , a victory that would prove to be the turning point of the war in the western theater. After a Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September, Lincoln expanded Grant’s command, and he led a reinforced Federal army (including two corps from the Army of the Potomac) to victory in the Battle of Chattanooga in late November.

Toward a Union Victory (1864-65)

In March 1864, Lincoln put Grant in supreme command of the Union armies, replacing Halleck. Leaving William Tecumseh Sherman in control in the West, Grant headed to Washington, where he led the Army of the Potomac towards Lee’s troops in northern Virginia. Despite heavy Union casualties in the Battle of the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania (both May 1864), at Cold Harbor (early June) and the key rail center of Petersburg (June), Grant pursued a strategy of attrition, putting Petersburg under siege for the next nine months.

Sherman outmaneuvered Confederate forces to take Atlanta by September, after which he and some 60,000 Union troops began the famous “March to the Sea,” devastating Georgia on the way to capturing Savannah on December 21. Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, fell to Sherman’s men by mid-February, and Jefferson Davis belatedly handed over the supreme command to Lee, with the Confederate war effort on its last legs. Sherman pressed on through North Carolina, capturing Fayetteville, Bentonville, Goldsboro and Raleigh by mid-April.

Meanwhile, exhausted by the Union siege of Petersburg and Richmond, Lee’s forces made a last attempt at resistance, attacking and captured the Federal-controlled Fort Stedman on March 25. An immediate counterattack reversed the victory, however, and on the night of April 2-3 Lee’s forces evacuated Richmond. For most of the next week, Grant and Meade pursued the Confederates along the Appomattox River, finally exhausting their possibilities for escape. Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9. On the eve of victory, the Union lost its great leader: The actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14. Sherman received Johnston’s surrender at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 26, effectively ending the Civil War.

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Shiloh Battlefield

From States’ Rights to Slavery: What Caused the American Civil War?

The Northern and Southern sections of the United States developed along different lines. The South remained a predominantly agrarian economy while the North became more and more industrialized. Different social cultures and political beliefs developed. All of this led to disagreements on issues such as taxes, tariffs and internal improvements as well as states’ rights versus federal rights. At the crux of it all, however, was the fight over slavery.

Causes of the Civil War

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The burning issue that led to the disruption of the union was the debate over the future of slavery. That dispute led to secession, and secession brought about a war in which the Northern and Western states and territories fought to preserve the Union, and the South fought to establish Southern independence as a new confederation of states under its own constitution.

The agrarian South utilized slaves to tend its large plantations and perform other duties. On the eve of the Civil War, some 4 million Africans and their descendants toiled as slave laborers in the South. Slavery was interwoven into the Southern economy even though only a relatively small portion of the population actually owned slaves. Slaves could be rented or traded or sold to pay debts. Ownership of more than a handful of slaves bestowed respect and contributed to social position, and slaves, as the property of individuals and businesses, represented the largest portion of the region’s personal and corporate wealth, as cotton and land prices declined and the price of slaves soared.

The states of the North, meanwhile, one by one had gradually abolished slavery. A steady flow of immigrants, especially from Ireland and Germany during the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, insured the North a ready pool of laborers, many of whom could be hired at low wages, diminishing the need to cling to the institution of slavery.

Th e Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott was a slave who sought citizenship through the American legal system, and whose case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The famous Dred Scott Decision in 1857 denied his request stating that no person with African blood could become a U.S. citizen. Besides denying citizenship for African-Americans, it also overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had restricted slavery in certain U.S. territories.

States’ Rights

States’ Rights refers to the struggle between the federal government and individual states over political power. In the Civil War era, this struggle focused heavily on the institution of slavery and whether the federal government had the right to regulate or even abolish slavery within an individual state. The sides of this debate were largely drawn between northern and southern states, thus widened the growing divide within the nation.

Abolitionist Movement

By the early 1830s, those who wished to see that institution abolished within the United States were becoming more strident and influential. They claimed obedience to “higher law” over obedience to the Constitution’s guarantee that a fugitive from one state would be considered a fugitive in all states. The fugitive slave act along with the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped expand the support for abolishing slavery nationwide.

Harriet Beecher S towe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabins was published in serial form in an anti-slavery newspaper in 1851 and in book format in 1852. Within two years it was a nationwide and worldwide bestseller. Depicting the evils of slavery, it offered a vision of slavery that few in the nation had seen before. The book succeeded at its goal, which was to start a wave of anti-slavery sentiment across the nation. Upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

The Underground Railroad

Some abolitionists actively helped runaway slaves to escape via “the Underground Railroad,” and there were instances in which men, even lawmen, sent to retrieve runaways were attacked and beaten by abolitionist mobs. To the slave holding states, this meant Northerners wanted to choose which parts of the Constitution they would enforce, while expecting the South to honor the entire document. The most famous activist of the underground railroad was Harriet Tubman , a nurse and spy in the Civil War and known as the Moses of her people.

The Missouri Compromise

Additional territories gained from the U.S.–Mexican War of 1846–1848 heightened the slavery debate. Abolitionists fought to have slavery declared illegal in those territories, as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had done in the territory that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Advocates of slavery feared that if the institution were prohibited in any states carved out of the new territories the political power of slaveholding states would be diminished, possibly to the point of slavery being outlawed everywhere within the United States. Pro- and anti-slavery groups rushed to populate the new territories.

In Kansas, particularly, violent clashes between proponents of the two ideologies occurred. One abolitionist in particular became famous—or infamous, depending on the point of view—for battles that caused the deaths of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. His name was John Brown. Ultimately, he left Kansas to carry his fight closer to the bosom of slavery.

The Raid On Harpers Ferry

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a band of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in what is believed to have been an attempt to arm a slave insurrection. (Brown denied this at his trial, but evidence indicated otherwise.) They were dislodged by a force of U.S. Marines led by Army lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee.

Brown was swiftly tried for treason against Virginia and hanged. Southern reaction initially was that his acts were those of a mad fanatic, of little consequence. But when Northern abolitionists made a martyr of him, Southerners came to believe this was proof the North intended to wage a war of extermination against white Southerners. Brown’s raid thus became a step on the road to war between the sections.

T he Election Of Abraham Lincoln

Exacerbating tensions, the old Whig political party was dying. Many of its followers joined with members of the American Party (Know-Nothings) and others who opposed slavery to form a new political entity in the 1850s, the Republican Party. When the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, Southern fears that the Republicans would abolish slavery reached a new peak. Lincoln was an avowed opponent of the expansion of slavery but said he would not interfere with it where it existed.

Southern Secession

That was not enough to calm the fears of delegates to an 1860 secession convention in South Carolina. To the surprise of other Southern states—and even to many South Carolinians—the convention voted to dissolve the state’s contract with the United States and strike off on its own.

South Carolina had threatened this before in the 1830s during the presidency of Andrew Jackson , over a tariff that benefited Northern manufacturers but increased the cost of goods in the South. Jackson had vowed to send an army to force the state to stay in the Union, and Congress authorized him to raise such an army (all Southern senators walked out in protest before the vote was taken), but a compromise prevented the confrontation from occurring.

Perhaps learning from that experience the danger of going it alone, in 1860 and early 1861 South Carolina sent emissaries to other slave holding states urging their legislatures to follow its lead, nullify their contract with the United States and form a new Southern Confederacy. Six more states heeded the siren call: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Others voted down secession—temporarily.

Fort Sumter

On April 10, 1861, knowing that resupplies were on their way from the North to the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, provisional Confederate forces in Charleston demanded the fort’s surrender. The fort’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused. On April 12, the Confederates opened fire with cannons. At 2:30 p.m. the following day, Major Anderson surrendered.

War had begun. Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee, refusing to fight against other Southern states and feeling that Lincoln had exceeded his presidential authority, reversed themselves and voted in favor of session. The last one, Tennessee, did not depart until June 8, nearly a week after the first land battle had been fought at Philippi in Western Virginia. (The western section of Virginia rejected the session vote and broke away, ultimately forming a new, Union-loyal state, West Virginia. Other mountainous regions of the South, such as East Tennessee, also favored such a course but were too far from the support of Federal forces to attempt it.)

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On the Civil War’s Causes

By judy giesberg | may 2, 2017 | comments 0 comment.

In the seven years we’ve been in print, the Journal of the Civil War Era has published a number of essays focused on Civil War causation. I turn to a number of these when I teach the Civil War and I have actually advised others—people I’ve met on the sidelines of soccer fields, when walking the dog in my neighborhood, or chatting with a parent at back-to-school night—to take a look for themselves. Indeed, in our second issue published in June 2011, we published Frank Towers’ “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011.”

In the essay, Towers identifies the origins of the debate about what caused the Civil War in the war generation of partisans—people like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis, on the one side, and William Seward, among others, on the other side—men who, according to Towers, were motivated by their “obsession with the protagonists’ questions of who was to blame for dissolving the Union and why.” [1] These men were followed by generations of professionally trained historians who returned to the question of what caused the Civil War, each time with new sources and methods at their disposal and moved by a willingness to follow the evidence where it took them.

Today is a great day to go back and read Towers’ essay—or to recommend it to someone else. And, perhaps you’d like to recommend something else, from the pages of JCWE or elsewhere? Our back issues are available through ProjectMuse and are part of the benefits of membership in the Society of Civil War Historians .

[1] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (June 2011): 240.

Judy Giesberg

Judith Giesberg holds the Robert M. Birmingham Chair in the Humanities and is Professor of History at Villanova University. Giesberg directs a digital project, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, that is collecting, digitizing, and transcribing information wanted ads taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for family members lost to the domestic slave trade.

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A Brief Overview of the American Civil War

This painting portrays Union soldiers waving the American flag, high above the violent battle going on beneath.

The Civil War is the central event in America's historical consciousness. While the Revolution of 1776-1783 created the United States, the Civil War of 1861-1865 determined what kind of nation it would be. The war resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution: whether the United States was to be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world.

Northern victory in the war preserved the United States as one nation and ended the institution of slavery that had divided the country from its beginning. But these achievements came at the cost of 625,000 lives--nearly as many American soldiers as died in all the other wars in which this country has fought combined. The American Civil War was the largest and most destructive conflict in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914.

Portrait photograph of Abraham Lincoln

The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. When Abraham Lincoln won election in 1860 as the first Republican president on a platform pledging to keep slavery out of the territories, seven slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The incoming Lincoln administration and most of the Northern people refused to recognize the legitimacy of secession. They feared that it would discredit democracy and create a fatal precedent that would eventually fragment the no-longer United States into several small, squabbling countries.

The event that triggered war came at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12, 1861. Claiming this United States fort as their own, the Confederate army on that day opened fire on the federal garrison and forced it to lower the American flag in surrender. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress this "insurrection." Four more slave states seceded and joined the Confederacy. By the end of 1861 nearly a million armed men confronted each other along a line stretching 1200 miles from Virginia to Missouri. Several battles had already taken place--near Manassas Junction in Virginia, in the mountains of western Virginia where Union victories paved the way for creation of the new state of West Virginia, at Wilson's Creek in Missouri, at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, and at Port Royal in South Carolina where the Union navy established a base for a blockade to shut off the Confederacy's access to the outside world.

But the real fighting began in 1862. Huge battles like Shiloh in Tennessee, Gaines' Mill , Second Manassas , and Fredericksburg in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland foreshadowed even bigger campaigns and battles in subsequent years, from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to Vicksburg on the Mississippi to Chickamauga and Atlanta in Georgia. By 1864 the original Northern goal of a limited war to restore the Union had given way to a new strategy of "total war" to destroy the Old South and its basic institution of slavery and to give the restored Union a "new birth of freedom," as President Lincoln put it in his address at Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the battle there.

Alexander Gardner's famous photo of Confederate dead before the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield

For three long years, from 1862 to 1865, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia staved off invasions and attacks by the Union Army of the Potomac commanded by a series of ineffective generals until Ulysses S. Grant came to Virginia from the Western theater to become general in chief of all Union armies in 1864. After bloody battles at places with names like The Wilderness , Spotsylvania , Cold Harbor , and Petersburg , Grant finally brought Lee to bay at Appomattox in April 1865. In the meantime Union armies and river fleets in the theater of war comprising the slave states west of the Appalachian Mountain chain won a long series of victories over Confederate armies commanded by hapless or unlucky Confederate generals. In 1864-1865 General William Tecumseh Sherman led his army deep into the Confederate heartland of Georgia and South Carolina, destroying their economic infrastructure while General George Thomas virtually destroyed the Confederacy's Army of Tennessee at the battle of Nashville . By the spring of 1865 all the principal Confederate armies surrendered, and when Union cavalry captured the fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Georgia on May 10, 1865, resistance collapsed and the war ended. The long, painful process of rebuilding a united nation free of slavery began.

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The Causes of the American Civil War


The Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the most significant events in American history that paved the way for future generations to live in ways that were unimaginable a few years later. It preserved the unity of the nation, gave a much-needed boost to the American economy, and turned the country into the land of opportunity that it remains to this day. The positive outcomes came at a high price: the Civil War is by far the deadliest war that has ever been fought on American soil. It is now estimated that some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers lost their lives, millions more were injured, and much of the South was left in debris (Woodworth & Higham 1996). Still, decades after the Civil War ended, its causes and origins still generate controversies among historians. This essay argues that it was the political control, states’ rights, and economics that revolving around the issue of slavery that caused the Civil War.

The Causes of the Civil War

The great economic divide.

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 was far from sudden or surprising: in fact, it was the logical result of the decades of simmering tension between the North and the South. The issue that led to the disruption of the Union was slavery – an exploitative institution dating back to the 15th century when the Transatlantic slave trade began. Fast forward to the mid-19th century, the United States was experiencing fast-paced economic growth as a whole, though with a growing divide in the economic capacity between the country’s Northern and Southern regions (Woodworth & Higham 1996). The North enjoyed well-established manufacturing and industry while its agriculture was primarily confined to small-scale farms.

In contrast, the South’s economy relied on large-scale farming sustained by the labor of African slaves that were growing certain crops with an emphasis on cotton and tobacco. By the year 1860, despite housing a fourth of the country’s free population, the South only had 10% of the country’s capital (Woodworth & Higham 1996). Other figures from back then are as convincing: after the Industrial Revolution, the North had five times more factories than the South (Woodworth & Higham 1996). Besides, nine out of ten skilled workers in the US resided in the North (Woodworth & Higham 1996). Since they were not enslaved, they could freely refine their skills, choose a workplace of their liking, and propel the economic growth.

The Start of the Abolitionist Movement

As early as the 1830s, the Union saw the emergence and development of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement in the North. It was probably triggered by the so-called Missouri compromise when in 1820, amidst growing tensions, the US Congress proclaimed Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state (Shi & Tindall, 2016). The majority of early abolitionists were religious, White people – they appealed to religion when making their argument and saw slavery as an abomination (Duberman, 2015). Soon, the movement was joined by Black men and women who escaped captivity. Together, abolitionists became an active group that was sending petitions to Congress, ran candidates for political office, and popularized anti-slavery literature in the South. In summation, by opposing slavery’s extension into the new territories and criticizing the entire institution, abolitionists were endangering the backbone of the Southern economy.

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Proposed by Abraham Lincoln’s main opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 defeated the progress made by the Abolitionist movement. The new bill mandated “popular sovereignty”: essentially, settlers of a territory now had the right to decide whether slavery will be legal within a new state’s borders (Shi & Tindall, 2016). The Act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that made slavery in the territories north of latitude 36°30´ illegal. It further aggravated the tension between the North and the South. The North considered the 1820 Missouri compromise an imperfect but mutually beneficial agreement. The South, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly in support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act because the issue of slavery now could be handled locally.

It was clear that the election in Kansas would settle the first important precedent after the law went into effect. For this reason, both supporters and opponents of slavery hastily moved to Kansas to tip the outcome of the first election. At first, it was pro-slavery settlers who led the elections; however, the results were found to be fraudulent by anti-slavery settlers that refused to accept them. Soon, the anti-slavery settlers organized another election, in which pro-slavery settlers refused to partake. The conflict led to the emergence of two opposing legislatures on the Kansas territory.

It was not long until the clashes between slavery opponents and supporters became violent. As the number of deaths was rising, the territory was nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas.” After a series of events that included President Pierce’s attempts to disperse violence, Congress did not recognize the constitution drawn up by the pro-slavery settlers. Eventually, the anti-slavery sentiment came to dominate the scene, and on January 29, 1861, right before the start of the Civil War, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.

The Dred Scott Case

Following the controversial 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act , the Dred Scott case was yet another event that increased tension between pro- and anti-slavery factions in the Nothern and Southern regions of the US (Shi & Tindall, 2016). Also known as Dred Scott v. Sandford , the Dred Scott case was a decades-long fight for freedom by a Black enslaved man and his wife. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, were the property of John Emerson who moved several times throughout his life, taking his slaves to different states, including those where slavery was prohibited. After John Emerson’s death, his wife, Irene inherited the slaves who at that point, wanted to be freed. The woman refused, which led Dred and Harriet to file a lawsuit on the grounds of wrongful enslavement. After being brought to several courts, the case ended in the outcome favoring the pro-slavery sentiment, which, however, allowed the anti-slavery North to gain a momentum and consolidate around the issue.

The Election of Abraham Lincoln

Indeed, many events led to the eventual secession of several states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) from the Union. Yet, the final straw that caused the start of the Civil War was the election of Abraham Lincoln. When he was elected, Lincoln was a little-known Illinois legislator. Yet, he led the newly formed Republican party to victory against three major party candidates. Today, it is argued that what enabled Lincoln’s victory was the deep schism and inability to see eye to eye in the Democratic party. Both Democrats Douglas and Breckinridge supported popular sovereignty, though they had opposing views on the federal slave code (Woodworth & Higham 1996). The candidate from another young political party, the Constitutional Union, Bell sought to avoid the slavery issue altogether (Woodworth & Higham 1996). The election of an antislavery northerner as the 16th President of the United States enraged many southerners. Lincoln won without a single Southern electoral vote, which made Southerners feel as if their interests were dismissed and neglected.

The Counterargument and Its Validity

Even though today, the majority of historians agree that it was the economic, political, and social issues of slavery that led to the 1861 outbreak, there is a minor group of historical revisionists who think differently. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy , or simply the Lost Cause , is an American pseudo-historical, negationist theory that defends the Confederate States and their motivation to fight in the Civil War (Bonekemper 2015). Namely, the Lost Cause states that the cause of the Confederate States’ military actions was not only just but borderline heroic. Allegedly, the states were fighting to preserve the Southern way of living in the face of increasing aggression from the Union (Bonekemper 2015). The Lost Cause theory almost completely ignores the reality of slavery and its impact on the dynamics between the Northern and Southern states. Today, it is argued that such historical negationism served the purpose of perpetuating white supremacy in the form of nationwide policies such as the Jim Crow laws.

The historical thought negating the role of slavery persisted to this day. The most widespread myth about the causes of the Civil War has found its way into history books and school curriculums. Loewen (2008), the author of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The ‘Great Truth’ about the ‘Lost Cause,’” reports that between 60% and 75% of school history teachers emphasize state rights as the cause of the Civil War. However, as argued by Loewen, the original documents of the Confederacy show how much the war revolved around slavery. For instance, when declaring its secession from the Union, Mississippi stated that “[its] position [was] thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world (Loewen 2008).” Similarly, Texas justified its decision to secede by saying that “[Black people] were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” According to the document, only slavery could make their presence on American soil “beneficial or tolerable (Loewen 2008).”

As seen from these two excerpts, the Confederate states were outspoken about their stance on slavery and its role in economics and politics. It was slavery that motivated them to make decisions as radical and profound as secession. Therefore, it is not correct to downplay slavery when discussing the causes of the Civil War. Yet, one can readily imagine why such views are likely to persist. Southerners may be reluctant to demonize their ancestors and feel defensive about their own legacy. Besides, the persistence of the Lost Cause helps to uphold institutionalized racism and serve White people’s interests before Black people’s interests.

The American Civil War is the deadliest war that has ever taken place on American soil. It was a turning point for the United States and shaped the way Americans live today. At present, there is little doubt that the main trigger for the Civil War was the issue of slavery and its political and economic implications. Before the start of the war, Southern states were inferior to Northern states economically as they relied heavily on slave labor and large-scale farming. The growing abolitionist sentiment endangered the very backbone of the Southern economy. After several acts and court rulings that could not reconcile proslavery and antislavery advocates, the election of Abraham Lincoln was the final straw that led to the secession of six states. Today, some people still support the Lost Cause theory that negates slavery as the main cause of the Civil War. The theory does not find any supporting historical evidence and is likely used by White supremacists to defend their views.

Bonekemper, Edward H. 2015. The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won . New York: Simon and Schuster.

Duberman, Martin B. 2015. The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Loewen, James W. 2008. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got wrong . New York: The New Press.

Shi, David E., & Tindall, George Brown. 2016. America: A Narrative History . New York: WW Norton & Company.

Woodworth, Steven E. & Robert Higham. 1996. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research . Greenwood Publishing Group.

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April 12, 1861 - April 26, 1865

United States

Confederate States of America, United States

Battle of Antietam, Fort Pillow Massacre, Battle of Gettysburg, Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, Battle of Monocacy

Abraham Lincoln, who served as the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln's leadership and steadfast commitment to preserving the Union were instrumental in guiding the Northern states to victory. General Robert E. Lee, who served as the commander of the Confederate Army. Lee's military prowess and strategic genius earned him respect even among his adversaries. Clara Barton, known as the "Angel of the Battlefield," made a lasting impact as a nurse and humanitarian during the war. She later founded the American Red Cross, which continues to provide humanitarian assistance worldwide.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, was a defining moment in the history of the United States. It emerged from a complex set of circumstances and prerequisites that spanned several decades. One of the primary prerequisites was the issue of slavery. The institution of slavery had long been a divisive issue between the Northern and Southern states. The expansion of slavery into newly acquired territories, such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, heightened tensions and fueled regional conflicts. Economic differences also played a significant role. The Northern states had undergone rapid industrialization, while the Southern states relied heavily on agriculture, particularly cotton production. This led to differing priorities and conflicting interests between the two regions. Political factors, such as debates over states' rights and the balance of power between the federal government and the states, further exacerbated the tensions. The election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860, who opposed the expansion of slavery, intensified the divide and prompted several Southern states to secede from the Union. The historical context of the American Civil War was characterized by deep-rooted divisions over slavery, economic disparities, and political conflicts. These factors ultimately culminated in a devastating conflict that reshaped the nation's history and had long-lasting consequences for both the United States and the institution of slavery.

One of the most significant effects was the abolition of slavery. The Civil War served as a catalyst for the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which declared slaves in Confederate territories to be free. Ultimately, the war led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, officially abolishing slavery nationwide. The Civil War also had far-reaching political consequences. It solidified the power of the federal government over the states and established the supremacy of the United States as a single, indivisible nation. The conflict clarified the relationship between the federal and state governments, paving the way for the expansion of federal authority in subsequent years. Moreover, the war's aftermath brought about significant social and cultural changes. Reconstruction efforts aimed to rebuild and integrate the Southern states into the Union, but the process was marked by challenges, resistance, and the rise of racial segregation. These struggles set the stage for the civil rights movement in the following century. Economically, the war transformed the United States into a more industrialized nation. The demand for supplies and weaponry during the war accelerated industrialization in the North. Additionally, the emancipation of slaves created a labor force that contributed to the country's economic growth.

In the Union states, there was a prevailing sentiment that the war was necessary to preserve the Union and end the institution of slavery. Many Northerners supported the cause, viewing it as a fight for justice and the preservation of the nation's democratic ideals. Abolitionists and those who opposed the expansion of slavery were particularly vocal in their support of the Union cause. In the Confederate states, public opinion leaned towards defending their perceived rights to self-governance and the institution of slavery. The idea of states' rights and the defense of Southern traditions resonated strongly among many Southerners. They believed in the necessity of secession to protect their way of life and preserve their economic system. Public opinion within individual communities could also vary. Families were often divided, with some members fighting for the Union and others for the Confederacy. People in border states, such as Kentucky and Missouri, experienced particularly complex and nuanced views due to their proximity to both sides. Over time, public opinion on the Civil War has evolved. The war's causes and consequences have been reevaluated and interpreted through different lenses, leading to ongoing discussions and debates. Today, the Civil War is widely recognized as a pivotal moment in American history, with public opinion encompassing a range of perspectives that continue to shape our understanding of the conflict.

Films: "Gone with the Wind" (1939), "Glory" (1989), "Lincoln" (2012). Literature: "The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane, "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier, "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara.

The topic of the American Civil War holds immense importance for academic exploration and essay writing due to its significant impact on American history and society. This conflict, fought between the Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, centered on fundamental issues like slavery, states' rights, and the preservation of the Union. Studying the American Civil War allows us to delve into the complexities of the nation's past and comprehend the deep-rooted divisions that led to this brutal conflict. It provides a platform to analyze the moral, political, and socioeconomic factors that shaped the war's outcomes and repercussions. Furthermore, exploring the Civil War fosters a deeper understanding of the struggle for civil rights and the long-lasting consequences that continue to shape the United States today. By examining primary sources, historical narratives, and varying perspectives, essays on the American Civil War can shed light on pivotal events, influential figures, military strategies, and the experiences of individuals affected by the war. It offers an opportunity to critically analyze the causes, motivations, and legacies of this watershed moment in American history, ultimately contributing to a comprehensive understanding of the nation's past and its ongoing pursuit of equality and justice.

1. Foner, E. (2010). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W. W. Norton & Company. 2. McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press. 3. McPherson, J. M. (2003). Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. Oxford University Press. 4. McPherson, J. M. (2007). This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. Oxford University Press. 5. Miller, R. J. (2003). Lincoln and His World: The Civil War Era. University of Nebraska Press. 6. Oakes, J. (2012). Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. W. W. Norton & Company. 7. Potter, D. M. (1990). The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. Harper Perennial. 8. Robertson, J. I. (2002). Civil War: America Becomes One Nation. DK Publishing. 9. Symonds, C. L. (2001). The American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg. HarperCollins. 10. Ward, G. C. (1990). The Civil War: An Illustrated History. Alfred A. Knopf.

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what caused the civil war essays

Causes of the Civil War Essay Example

The Civil War holds the title as the bloodiest and most gruesome war in United States history. It can be described as an extreme clash between the Northern and Southern states, starting at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861. What led up to the event, or in other words, what caused this grisly feud amongst the Americans? Leading up to the event, many small conflicts and important occurrences were taking place, such as westward expansion, economic disproportion, the election of 1860, and perhaps most importantly, the slavery debate between the North and South. Therefore, it can be safely said that a difference in economic interests, inequalities, and views on slavery caused the Civil War because of the acute disagreements that were had between the two sides of the country. There are many pieces of evidence surrounding the previous claim and can thoroughly prove that the Northern and Southern states faced economic inequality and had differing opinions on an array of issues and concepts. 

To begin, the Northern and Southern economies differed greatly. By way of explanation, the two halves of the country had varying economic interests. For example, it is shown that the North strongly valued the creation of manufactured goods through factories. In contrast, the South based itself on agricultural production and farmed resources such as cotton and corn. The Southern economy produced 100 percent of the nation’s cotton in 1861. This can also be seen in a map of the country in 1860, portraying that a substantial portion of the Southern states were producing thousands of bales of cotton (Doc A). Meanwhile, the North had a significantly higher yearly value of manufactured goods at $1,500,000,000, leaving the South producing only $155,000,000 worth of manufactured goods (Doc B). Adding to this, the South was vastly reliant on slavery for their cotton production. The North had a differing opinion on slavery, as can be seen from a map of the 1860 presidential election where the South’s majority vote was for J.C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery Politian, while the North collectively voted for Abraham Lincoln, a man against slavery (Doc N). From the documents above, it can be clearly seen that the North and South had alternate economic values. These diverging interests led to two significantly different regions in the United States, cutting the country in half economically, fueling tension. This tension would eventually lead to larger conflicts, resulting in the Civil War. 

Similarly, surrounding these contrasts, a sense of inequality was felt by the South. The North’s publicity, population, popularity, and representation was seen as significantly higher than in the South. Southerners realized this difference and became bitter over their perceived lack of representation. They began to demand representation for their contributions to the North’s economic success and began to threaten it with the idea of potential lack of cotton as seen in the quote, “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? … England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her.... No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.” (Doc D). At the time, cotton was quite agreeably supporting the textile industry in the North. Seen as though cotton can only be produced in the South, the South had a desire for its counterpart to realize that it played a significant role in their wealth and success. The South was also largely dependent on Northern goods. For example, it is stated, “that we have no foreign trade, no merchants, nor respectable artists: that in comparison with the free states, we contribute nothing to the literature, polite arts and inventions of the age... and that we are dependent on Northern capitalists for the means necessary to build out railroads, canals and other public improvements...” (Doc C). The quote refers to the South’s inability to produce manufactured goods for themselves, and that it was largely dependent on the North’s success, leaving the South its shadow. The South began to point out that it was not prioritized as much as the North, leading to the feeling of developing resentment among Southerners.  

Returning to the topic of slavery, it is known that the South relied heavily on slaves to produce cotton. However, the North strongly disagreed with the morality of slavery. For example, two groups in the state of Kansas arose from this conflict, the border ruffians, and the abolitionists. Border ruffians agreed with and heavily supported slavery, while abolitionists fought to completely abolish slavery. Kansas was mismatched from the rest of the states because its beliefs on slavery were very much mixed according to a document note on a map depicting the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Doc J). Eventually, violence broke out between the two groups, causing an event called “Bleeding Kansas”, defined by the creation of intense violence between border ruffians and abolitionists. Two years prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, delivered a speech describing the hypocrisy of American ideals. He stated, “To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, and unholy license... There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” (Doc G). In Frederick’s quote, he was referring to the prominence of slavery and mistreatment towards black people. For African Americans, Independence Day stands for something that does not exist in the United States. Black people began to rise and call out the United States for their mistreatment and oppression.  

The Northerners, of course, were not fond of the idea of slavery, leading to extreme abolitionists, like John Brown, to take more violent action towards complete abolition. The concept of abolition was a cause that drove people to extremes. During the period of Bleeding Kansas, Brown and his men led an attack on pro-slavery settlers, killing multiple of his own men, eventually leading to his own execution. In a document describing the reaction to John Brown’s attack it tells, “Bells tolled at the news of his execution, guns fired salutes, and large crowds gathered to hear fiery speakers denounce the South.” (Doc I). The extremists following John Brown’s uprising lead to tension and violence between the North and the South due to the controversy. To the Southerners it was unconstitutional for the North to take away their rights to own slaves and separate themselves from the Union. As stated in process of Georgia’s secession, “They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.” (Doc O). As shown in the document, the South began to form their own Confederacy, trying to completely distance themselves from the North. President Abraham Lincoln did not believe in secession, angering the South, sparking more violence into the war. 

The South and the North engaged in much conflict throughout the years during and prior to the Civil War. It is no exaggeration to say that the various economic diversions, inequality, and conflicting opinions of slavery caused this civil war between the two opposing sides of the United States. However, there could very well have been differing reasons for the commencing of the war. For example, it is known that the North and South have disputed over the balance of free and slave states in the past, leading to conflicts. In addition to this, the desire both sides of the country had for political control could have triggered a competitive relationship between the North and South. Eventually, the war did end, leaving the Southern economy in ruins. President Lincoln insisted to pardon and forgive the South, due to his ideal that the nation is a whole and acts as a Union, as can be seen in his speech to the U.S. Senator when he states, “I do not expect the Union to be dissolves- I do not expect the house to fall- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” (Doc M). Although the war was short-lived, it made an impact on the nation that will continuously be remembered, and resulted in a nation that will forever be united.

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Guest Essay

The Supreme Court Should Overturn the Colorado Ruling Unanimously

A silhouetted photo shows Donald Trump and two other people cast in black against an orange sky.

By Samuel Moyn

Mr. Moyn is a professor of law at Yale.

When Donald Trump appeals the Colorado decision disqualifying him from the ballot in that state’s Republican primary, the Supreme Court should overturn the ruling unanimously.

Like many of my fellow liberals, I would love to live in a country where Americans had never elected Mr. Trump — let alone sided with him by the millions in his claims that he won an election he lost, and that he did nothing wrong afterward. But nobody lives in that America. For all the power the institution has arrogated, the Supreme Court cannot bring that fantasy into being. To bar Mr. Trump from the ballot now would be the wrong way to show him to the exits of the political system, after all these years of strife.

Some aspects of American election law are perfectly clear — like the rule that prohibits candidates from becoming president before they turn 35 — but many others are invitations to judges to resolve uncertainty as they see fit, based in part on their own politics. Take Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which blocks insurrectionists from running for office, a provision originally aimed at former Confederates in the wake of the Civil War. There may well be some instances in which the very survival of a democratic regime is at stake if noxious candidates or parties are not banned, as in West Germany after World War II. But in this case, what Section 3 requires is far from straightforward. Keeping Mr. Trump off the ballot could put democracy at more risk rather than less.

Part of the danger lies in the fact that what actually happened on Jan. 6 — and especially Mr. Trump’s exact role beyond months of election denial and entreaties to government officials to side with him — is still too broadly contested. The Colorado court deferred to a lower court on the facts, but it was a bench trial, meaning that no jury ever assessed what happened, and that many Americans still believe Mr. Trump did nothing wrong. A Supreme Court that affirms the Colorado ruling would have to succeed in constructing a consensual narrative where others — including armies of journalists, the Jan. 6 commission and recent indictments — have failed.

The Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on the fate of presidencies before, and its finer moments in this regard have been when it was a force for stability and reflected the will and interests of voters. Almost 50 years ago, the court faced a choice to end a presidency as it deliberated on Richard Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors. But by the time the Supreme Court acted in 1974, a special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, had already won indictments of Nixon’s henchmen and named the president himself before a grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator. Public opinion was with Jaworski; the American people agreed that the tapes Nixon was trying to shield from prosecutors were material evidence, and elites in both political parties had reached the same conclusion. In deciding against Nixon, the Supreme Court was only reaffirming the political consensus.

As the constitutional law professor Josh Chafetz has observed , even United States v. Nixon was suffused with a rhetoric of judicial aggrandizement. But if the Supreme Court were to exclude Mr. Trump from the ballot, seconding the Colorado court on each legal nicety, when so many people still disagree on the facts, it would have disastrous consequences.

For one thing, it would strengthen the hand of a Supreme Court that liberals have rightly complained grabs too much power too routinely. Joe Biden came into office calling for a re-examination of whether the Supreme Court needs reform, and there would be considerable irony if he were re-elected after that very body was seen by millions to pre-empt a democratic choice.

Worse, it is not obvious how many would accept a Supreme Court decision that erased Mr. Trump’s name from every ballot in the land. Liberals with bad memories of Bush v. Gore, which threw an election to one candidate rather than counting votes, have often regretted accepting that ruling as supinely as they did. And rejecting Mr. Trump’s candidacy could well invite a repeat of the kind of violence that led to the prohibition on insurrectionists in public life in the first place. The purpose of Section 3 was to stabilize the country after a civil war, not to cause another one.

As it unfolds, the effort to disqualify Mr. Trump could make him more popular than ever. As harsh experience since 2016 has taught, legalistic maneuvers haven’t hurt him in the polls. And Democrats do nothing to increase their popularity by setting out to “save democracy” when it looks — if their legal basis for proceeding is too flimsy — as if they are afraid of practicing it. That the approval ratings of the Democratic standard-bearer, Mr. Biden, have cratered as prosecutions of Mr. Trump and now this Colorado ruling have accumulated indicates that trying again is a mistake, both of principle and of strategy.

Perhaps the worst outcome of all would be for the Supreme Court to split on ideological lines, as it did in Bush v. Gore, hardly its finest hour. Justices have fretted about the damage to their “ legitimacy ” when their decisions look like political choices. They often are, as so many recent cases have revealed, but when the stakes are this high, the best political choice for the justices is to avoid final judgment on contested matters of fact and law and to let the people decide.

In the Nixon era, the justices were shrewd enough to stand together in delivering their decision: It was handed down 8-0, with one recusal. In our moment, the Supreme Court must do the same.

This will require considerable diplomacy from Chief Justice John Roberts, and it will define his stewardship as profoundly as cases such as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which his effort to herd his colleagues into consensus failed. In this situation, unlike that one, it will require him to convince his liberal colleagues who might otherwise dissent. For their part, they ought to be able to anticipate the high and unpredictable costs of presuming that judges can save a nation on the brink of breakdown.

The truth is that this country has to be allowed to save itself. The Supreme Court must act, but only to place the burden on Mr. Trump’s political opponents to make their case in the political arena. Not just to criticize him for his turpitude, but to argue that their own policies benefit the disaffected voters who side with a charlatan again and again.

Samuel Moyn teaches law and history at Yale.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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