The Civil War is a well-known war taught in every school. Students of all age groups know at least something about this war. This war lasted from 1861-1865 and divided the nation into the “north” and the “south”. While this war is very well known and thoroughly researched, there is still a lot of debate about the causation of the war breakout. Some historians claim that the main cause of the Civil War was the institution of Slavery. Southern states needed the institution to help with their main source of economy; agriculture. Northern states, however, were primarily manufacturing states and did not have as great of a need for slavery. The opposing belief is that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Southern states claimed that their rights were being taken away by the federal government with their voices being diminished and slavery being taken away. Some say that it wasn’t only the fact that their institution of slavery was being taken away; rather, the issue was that the federal government even had the power to do so. In many cases today, northern states believe the main issue was slavery while southern states believe the main issue was states’ rights. So, which one is correct? Why did southern states secede from the union (The United States)?
What is Secession?
The act of secession was not an easy one, and once a state decided to do so, it would change the nation drastically. Secession is the act of a state formally leaving the Union. Many believe that secession is what caused the war too. With southern states actively leaving the Union, war broke out. The states that seceded were South Carolina,Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. Subsequently, Virginia split up into two (West Virginia and Virginia) and Virginia seceded, followed by Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. These newly separated southern states then elected Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy (states that seceded from the Union/United States).
The Build up to war…
During the early 1800’s it became quiet apparent that the north and the south were growing apart in not only ideology but also culture. As the industrial north continued to grow and flourish with waves of immigrants coming to the U.S in search of the “American Dream” the south continued to rely heavily on the institution of slavery. Many southerners considered the north to be full of abolitionists who were simply trying to push big government as well as industrial progressivism on them. To the average southerner this was an attack on their culture.
This fracture was only growing between the two cultures as the United States began to expand westward and more states would start applying for Statehood. Would the new state be considered a slave state or a free state? If one side gained a state, the other side would need to gain one as well.
In 1819, the Missouri Compromise threatened to upset the balance of slave to free states in the United States as there would be twenty three states in the Union (12 slave and 11 free). The Missouri Compromise only affirmed to many southerners that the national government could create laws against slavery and diminish the state governments powers in the process. Shortly thereafter, the Tariff of 1828 surfaced. Also considered the tariff of abominations by its southern counterparts, this tariff was enacted in hopes of protecting the industries of the north. Northern factories were being put out of business due to the lower priced imported goods. In order to combat this problem the United States would place a tax on them in order to drive its prices up thus making southerns have to pay more money for goods not produced in the U.S.
In 1854, the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act occurred. Since the territory lay above the line that was created by the Missouri Compromise, many southern congressmen were in no rush to push for statehood as anything above the line would not be allowed to hold slaves. However, Stephen Douglas of Illinois pushed for admission of this territory as a slave holding state in order to gain favor from the southern masses. His proposed bill was ultimately passed and caused a serious division in the United States government.
Other historical markers like the Dred Scott Decision, Election of 1860, and many other events mark this journey to the Civil War in 1861. All of these situations provide pivotal background information for the causation of the Civil War.
In conclusion, the Civil War might not be as black and white as we would like to believe. Every year, there is new research that reveals new information about the causes of the Civil War. Was the division of states based off of moral grounds with Slavery or was it solely because of States’ rights? Was it a combination of the two? It is hard to say exactly what argument is sound because there are so many sides to the story. It is our job, as a historian, to discover the truth behind the causation of the infamous Civil War.
Textbooks like to tell one side of the story. In the North, it is usually taught that Slavery was the main issue. In the South, it is usually taught that States’ Rights was the actual issue. What do we believe? Are the textbooks correct or lacking information? What do students actually learn about the Civil War?
So, what was the cause of the Civil War? Was it slavery or states’ rights? Was there solely one cause or a combination of a few? Using the Background Information above and the documents in this website, come to your own conclusion!