What Were the Major Causes of the
American Civil War?
by Sgt. Wayne A. Alonzo,
2nd Florida Volunteers
On April 12, 1861, a local militia in Charleston, South Carolina began a cannon bombardment on Fort Sumpter just outside its harbor. This attack began the epic struggle known as the American Civil War. In his book, Half Slave and Half Free, Bruce Levine called the Civil War “the most important event in the history of the United States.” He goes on to say that, “It altered the internal structure of American society more profoundly than the Revolution.”
For over a century, the question of causation in reference to the Civil War has been a heated and controversial topic among those attempting to answer the ultimate question: Why? What caused more than one million Americans to make war on each other? What were the leading contributing factors that led to a divided nation and the deaths of over 620,000 men? Although some have been quick to point to the issue of slavery as the leading cause of war, further study suggests the institution only an appendix to two larger and more powerful motivations: Economic differences and the difference in Constitutional interpretation.
For those determined to attribute the cause of the Civil War to the single issue of slavery, Cushing Strout, in his article, Causation and the American Civil War, does not dispute the idea wholly, but helps to reconcile slavery with the major causes of war. He said, “The problem is that slavery was so entangled with the other grievances of a political, economic, and social character that it is artificial to separate it out.” One hundred forty years after the terrible fight, there are those who attempt to justify the decision for war and the slaughter it caused by attaching a moral issue to its origin. To these historians, the Civil War was a necessary evil that the nation had to endure in order to purge itself of the high crimes of human bondage. Although slavery took on more meaning as the war progressed, the outset of war saw the sectional tension mount between the different needs of the two competing economic systems and not based on a consideration of the morality of slavery.
In spite of the views of some that sectional differences between North and South were “potentially reconcilable”, most view the conflict as a long-standing disagreement that had been smoldering for several decades. “The two sections had been following divergent paths ever since the start of settlement in America. Geography and climate at once began shaping radically different economic and social patterns in the North and in the South.” This statement emphasizes the growing hostilities of North and South for some time due to the economic philosophies of each section. For the North, climate did not lend to the cultivation of large cash crop plantations in need of a large labor force. Indeed, it was their decision to move towards Alonzo 3 industrialization earlier on in the country’s history that led to their place in economic motivations.
On the other hand, the South’s large plantations of cash crops and its agrarian way of life led them to support legislation that would favor this development. For example, Northern climate did not foster the growth of crops practically year around like in Southern States. However, the South enjoyed a climate that prospered when harvesting such crops as corn, tobacco, and cotton. A large export demand on these crops allowed the South to enjoy prosperity with its agrarian economic foundation. This in turn encouraged Southern voters to cast their lots for lower tariffs on exported goods as well as those shipped North. Politicians and platforms that supported the agrarian economy were top priority to Southern voters. In the North, voters and politicians saw the South’s agrarian economy as an antiquated institution and sided with those in power who proposed a nation-wide shift to industrialization. This economical struggle would knowingly leave the loser with the task of revamping its entire economic base.
Both North and South lived within the context of “material realities that shaped life...” In the mid nineteenth-century, as many do today, people lived by a code that best fit their economic desires. The law of supply and demand for instance, dictated to people of different regions how to conduct themselves if they wanted to prosper materially or monetarily. In a country as vast as the United States, geography, climate, and culture are sure to be interests that Alonzo 4 could possibly clash with those of other sections of the country. In the case of the Civil War, the North had different aspirations for the country’s economic future than did the South. The South, in turn, refused to believe that their’s was a static culture and economic state, therefore, pressed on towards developing agriculture over industrialization.
In his book, The Origin of the Civil War, Gerald Gunderson proposes that the option of war chosen by both sides was a simple economic decision. Contrary to what most believe to be a never-ending debate over the origins of the war, Gunderson suggests that money was the deciding factor for over one million men to take up arms against their fellow countrymen. He is quoted as saying, “In essence... the war came because both parties viewed it as their least costly alternative.” This perspective was from the minds of those who predicted a very short war. In their calculations, a short war, coupled with a victory, would lead to greater economic power for the victor. Obviously both sides predicted a victory. Very few predicted a four-year-long struggle that would wreck havoc on American soil. Two examples of what the alternatives would be that shaped public opinion in both regions: For the North, an alternative to war would have been to permit the South to secede and as a result lose millions of dollars that went with her. For the South, an alternative to war meant continually paying the high tariffs placed on Southern goods shipped North as well as overseas.
The unknown certainly played a role in the decision for war over peace. Both sides saw Alonzo 5 a destiny awaiting a military victory. For instance, in the case of the Southern States choosing war, they assumed that their destiny was in their own hands. The questions that arose when considering a possible Northern victory was too harsh for Southerners to consider. They knew that their world was not set in stone and was being threatened by Northern States, therefore, they forge their own destiny by defending their land via the bayonet. During the years before the Civil War, the “profit sectors of American life” were the most influential voices rising to crescendo. Like most societies, those with means were the ones usually heard the loudest. Those with the most at stake, especially politicians, were the actual decision makers when it came to making war. Secession would mean a total restructure of the nations economic base for Northern politicians. To politicians in the South, secession would mean that the Southern economic base would be permitted to prosper under new governmental guidelines. Hostilities between the two sections were high in the years just prior to the outbreak of war. For example, some senators began carrying knives and guns to the Senate floor. One instance in particular where hostilities manifested itself on the Senate floor was in May 1856 when South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks attacked and beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts (an abolitionist) with a cane while Sumner was sitting at his Alonzo 6 desk. Neither side wished to surrender to the other’s wishes. War, to them both, seemed to be the only alternative.
In returning to the issue of slavery, one cannot deny slavery’s link to the economics of mid nineteenth-century American culture. In light of this, the understanding of slavery’s place in society is important when understanding the economic differences of the two sections. To most Americans of this time, the question of slavery was directly linked to economics. For the North, free labor was in jeopardy when considering the possible spread of slavery. For the South, the destruction of the institution meant the loss of millions of dollars in property as well as the loss of a labor force. According to James L. Huston, in his book, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War, he said that it was “apparent that Americans of that age did not separate moral questions so easily from economic ones.” As the South prepared for secession, “the North saw its ‘milch cow’ escaping and waged aggressive war against the South to maintain its commercial empire.” In another example of American mentality during the period, President Abraham Lincoln was asked why he would not allow the Southern states to simply secede. In retrospect of what is predominately taught about the mind set of the Great Alonzo 7 Emancipator, Lincoln’s response is one that gives evidence of economics ruling the hour. After the question, Lincoln’s response was, “Let the South go? Let the South go? Where then shall we get our revenues?”
Retiring the issue of economics for a moment, let us now consider the issue of Constitutional interpretation as the other leading cause of war. The two major questions concerning Constitutional interpretation was whether Southern States retained their sovereign rights as individual states in the midst of those in the North pushing for centralization of government, and whether or not Southern States had the Constitutional right to secede from the Union.
Nine years before South Carolina officially seceded from the Union, they drafted what is known as the Declaration of Causes for Secession. On April 26, 1852, South Carolina announced its platform on which it claimed to have the right to secede. In the Declaration, South Carolina documented the reasons for its pending decision to remove itself from the roll of states belonging to the Union. Listing “frequent violations of the Constitution by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of States”, South Carolina claimed to be “justified in withdrawing from the Federal Union.” The Declaration, although not officially adopted until December 24, 1860, declared South Carolina to be a separate and independent State, with all rights of any other foreign country. Among those rights were “full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other Alonzo 8 acts and things which independent States may of right do.”
In contrast to declarations and sentiments shared by Southerners such as South Carolina’s, Senator John Hickman of Pennsylvania addressed his fellow senators in a speech on December 12, 1859. In his emotional speech, Hickman argued for the continuance of union between North and South. The Northern senator boldly stated that the North would not accept secession by any Southern state. He said, “I say ‘no’, the North will never tolerate the division of territory.” When asked during his speech as to how he would prevent Southern States from seceding, Senator Hickman reduced the possibility of the South’s succeeding to a mathematical equation. “I believe sir,” he said, “that all the appliances of art to assist, eighteen millions of men reared to industry, with habits of the right kind, will always be able to cope successfully, if need be, with eight millions of men without these auxiliaries.” Senator Hickman’s prediction of the threat of secession was made very clear. To him, no matter what the South tried to do in order to leave the Union, the North, with its superior industrial might and its greater population, could always repress such an attempt. The senator’s boastful claim very likely did nothing but incite Southerners to prove him wrong.
In considering the South’s dedication to its view on state’s rights and populace, Alonzo 9 statements made by those Northerners such as Senator Hickman stood in direct contrast to many Southerners who vowed to protect the South’s right to independence. One of those men was Robert E. Lee. Later accepting the leadership of the entire Southern army, Lee was propositioned first with the opportunity to lead the Northern army to squelch the pending rebellion “of those who have been effective in challenging the sentiments of various state legislatures.” Southerners were also said to be “challenging our Constitution and challenging our central government.” Although Lee was grateful for the offer, he refused on grounds of state loyalty. His statement was clear as to his position when he said, “I have no greater duty than to my home... to Virginia.” It was those leaders of the South, like Lee, who refused to be intimidated by the hard words of Northern leaders refusing to allow secession. On one hand, senator Hickman believed that the South had no right to secede and would be punished upon attempt. On the other hand, there is Robert E. Lee, confident in himself that his state has every right to secede and he being willing to defend it.
In keeping with Lee’s opinion of state’s rights and Constitutional rights to secession, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi also believed in the same principles as did Lee. In Davis’ farewell address to his fellow senators on January 21, 1861, he remained firm in the fact that Southern States had every right to govern themselves as they saw fit without the Federal Alonzo 10 government’s intrusion. He also maintained that Southern States had the right to secede from a union that no longer held the South’s affections and interests. Later to become the president of the Provisional Confederate States of America, Davis claimed that the Federal government was breaking its Constitutional agreement with Southern States by “denying them of their rights”. It was on these grounds that Davis proclaimed to have the right to “withdraw from a government which thus perverted threatens to be destructive of out rights”, thus Davis said the South must “defend and protect the rights we inherited” by the Constitution.
An example of Constitutional rights Southerners claimed to be denied of was the right to self determination. To Southern States, the right of self determination by each individual state was embedded in the Constitution. In that Constitution they believed that states were rights that now were being threatened. Ultimately, the right to secede being denied by Northern States became the banner under which Southern States protested. Several weeks after Senator Davis gave his speech, Abraham Lincoln became the sixteenth president of the United States; thus inheriting the monumental task of preserving the Union in the midst of secession. On March 4, 1861, Lincoln took the oath of office and immediately addressed the issues that had the nation in crisis. His words echoed a firm belief in Alonzo 11 his convictions. Lincoln did not believe that the South had the right to secede from the Union. Lincoln said, “It follows from these views that no state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void...” Lincoln clearly stated that Southern States have no legal right to secede.
More importantly, Lincoln vowed to defend the Constitution in squelching any attempt at secession. “Acts of violence in any state or states”, he said, “against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.” Lincoln’s position on the South’s Constitutional interpretation of secession is one of total disagreement. Not only does Lincoln oppose secession on Constitutional grounds, but vows to defend that same Constitution by way of force. In this instance, it meant the willingness to go to war to preserve the Union against what Lincoln considered a criminal act on the part of the South in attempting to secede. Calling secession “revolutionary” and “insurrectionary” made secession a criminal offense to Lincoln as far as his interpretation of the Constitution was concerned.
It is clear that both North and South felt themselves to be right in their interpretation of the Constitution. Each was unmoved in their determination to set in motion what they felt they had every right to do. In the case of Northen leaders, it was to squelch any attempt at rebellion. For Southerners such as Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana, defiant language such as, “Never Alonzo 12 can you (The North) subject us...” became a battle cry for Southern freedom. The language and actions on both sides paint a picture of two runaway trains on a collision course. With neither willing to back down, there is no surprise that civil war came to the United states shortly after these positions were taken.
While Northern States attempted to encourage economic change in Southern States, Southerners held fast to their institutions in staunch defiance. While Southern States insisted on defending their right to secede, taking a stand to “live and die in Dixie” , Northerners were determined to smash any attempt at what they felt was lawlessness according to the Constitution. The economical and Constitutional causes of war are prevalent in the actions and speeches of those who held the power to declare war. Both these causes set in motion what we know as the American Civil War.
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