Directions: If you have
completed all of the questions dealing with the causes of the Civil War,
read the passage below and write a short essay that summarizes the passage.
The longer your essay and the better the quality of the essay, the more
points you will receive.
Read the passage below:
The Civil War was caused by a myriad of
conflicting pressures, principles, and prejudices, fueled by sectional
differences and pride, and set into motion by a most unlikely set of
At the root of all of the problems was the institution of slavery, which had
been introduced into North America in early colonial times. The American
Revolution had been fought to validate the idea that all men were created
equal, yet slavery was legal in all of the thirteen colonies throughout the
revolutionary period. Although it was largely gone from the northern states
by 1787, it was still enshrined in the new Constitution of the United
States, not only at the behest of the Southern ones, but also with the
approval of many of the Northern delegates who saw that there was still much
money to be made in the slave trade by the Yankee shipping industry.
Eventually its existence came to color every aspect of American life.
At the Constitutional Convention there were arguments over slavery.
Representatives of the Northern states claimed that if the Southern slaves
were mere property, then they should not be counted toward voting
representation in Congress. Southerners, placed in the difficult position of
trying to argue, at least in this case, that the slaves were human beings,
eventually came to accept the three-fifths compromise, by which five slaves
counted as three free men toward that representation. By the end of the
convention the institution of slavery itself, though never specifically
mentioned, was well protected within the body of the Constitution.
It seemed to Thomas Jefferson and many others that slavery was on its way
out, doomed to die a natural death. It was becoming increasingly expensive
to keep slaves in the agrarian society of the south. Northern and Southern
members of Congress voted together to abolish the importation of slaves from
overseas in 1808, but the domestic slave trade continued to flourish. The
invention of the cotton gin made the cultivation of cotton on large
plantations using slave labor a profitable enterprise in the deep South. The
slave became an ever more important element of the southern economy, and so
the debate about slavery, for the southerner, gradually evolved into an
economically based question of money and power, and ceased to be a
theoretical or ideological issue at all. It became an institution that
southerners felt bound to protect.
But even as the need to protect it grew, the ability, or at least the
perceived ability of the South to do so was waning. Southern leaders grew
progressively more sensitive to this condition. In 1800 half of the
population of the United States had lived in the South. But by 1850 only a
third lived there and the disparity continued to widen. While northern
industrial opportunity attracted scores of immigrants from Europe in search
of freedom the South's population stagnated. Even as slave states were added
to the Union to balance the number of free ones, the South found that its
representatives in the House had been overwhelmed by the North’s explosive
growth. More and more emphasis was now placed on maintaining parity in the
Senate. Failing this, the paranoid theory went, the South would find itself
at the mercy of a government in which it no longer had an effective voice.
Never mind that slavery was protected under the constitution, and that it
would have been impossible to make amendments to abolish it. Jefferson
Davis, at the time a Senator from Mississippi, summed up the sectionalist
argument himself. Speaking, in effect, to the people of the North concerning
slavery, “It is not humanity that influences you… it is that you may have a
majority in the Congress of the United States and convert the Government
into an engine of Northern aggrandizement… you want by an unjust system of
legislation to promote the industry of the United States at the expense of
the people of the South.” There, in plain English, is the shrill, accusatory
language of sectionalism.
Nothing but bitterness and bad feeling could come of it. From such a
position it was a short step to the proposition that if a state or section
of the country no longer felt itself represented in, or fairly treated by,
the Federal Government, then it had the right to dissolve its association
with that government. It could secede from the Union. The use of force to
stop a state from seceding was, the argument went, unconstitutional, since
the Union itself was a creature of the states. It had been wholly created by
them. Moreover no provision had been made for such an eventuality in the
The Unionist response was that the Preamble of the Constitution stated that
the Union derived its power from the people as a whole, and that they alone
could dissolve it. President Andrew Jackson, himself a Southerner, had
threatened in 1832 to send troops to force South Carolina to allow the
collection of the Federal tariff if that state persisted in its assertion
that it could “nullify” any Federal law it did not agree with. Jackson’s
message to the people of the offending state read, “Those who told you that
you might peaceably prevent the execution of the laws deceived you. The
object is disunion. Disunion by armed force is treason.” On that occasion
South Carolina had backed down.
We see this same State’s Rights argument brought forward again in the 1860’s
to justify secession as a solution to what amounts to a sectional
inferiority complex. The section I refer to, of course, the deep South as
whole. Please note that it feels itself to be a “section”, not because of
simple geography, but because its society is based upon slavery. So the
problem, once again, came down to that “peculiar institution.”
Of course there was agitation in the North for the abolition of the slavery
on purely moral grounds. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, holding
aloft a copy of the Federal Constitution before a crowd in Massachusetts
called it “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.” The
abolitionists believed not only that slavery was wrong, but that the Federal
government should move to abolish it. Although they were always a small
minority they were very vocal about their beliefs, and projected themselves
into the minds of southerners as a threat out of all proportion to their
actual power and infuence. This threat was greatly magnified in 1859 by John
Brown's seizure of the Harper's Ferry arsenal and his call for a general
insurrection of the slaves. This caused many of the Southern states to
implement plans for more effective militias for internal defense.
While some in the North hated slavery because they felt that it was wrong,
most people held no opinion of it at all, and some even condoned it because
abolishing it would be bad for business. Without slaves there would be no
cotton. Without cotton the textile industry would suffer. To many it was
just that simple.
Even in the North only four states permitted free blacks to vote, and in no
state could they serve on a jury. Many people wondered what could possibly
be done with the huge number of blacks if they were, in fact, freed.
The whole mess went up in smoke in the presidential election year of 1860.
The Democratic party split badly. Stephen Douglas became the nominee of the
northern wing of the party. A southern faction broke away from the party and
nominated Senator John Breckinridge of Kentucky. The remnants of the Whig
party nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
Into this confusion the new Republican party injected its nominee, Abraham
Lincoln. Lincoln was a moderate Republican. As such he was a compromise
candidate, everybody’s second choice. He was convinced that the Constitution
forbade the Federal government from taking action against slavery where it
already existed, but was determined to keep it from spreading further. South
Carolina, in a fit of stubborn pride, unilaterally announced that it would
secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected.
To everyone’s amazement Lincoln was victorious. He had gathered a mere 40%
of the popular vote, and carried not a single slave state, but the vote had
been so fragmented by the abundance of factions that it had been enough.
South Carolina, true to its word, seceded on December 20, 1860. Mississippi
left on January 9, 1861, and Florida on the 10th. Alabama, Georgia,
Louisiana, and Texas followed.
The sitting President, James Buchanan felt himself powerless to act. Federal
arsenals and fortifications throughout the South were occupied by southern
authorities without a shot being fired. In the four months between Lincoln’s
election and his inauguration the South was allowed to strengthen its
Lincoln’s inaugural address was at once firm and conciliatory. Unwilling to
strike the initial blow to compel the southern states back into the Union,
he decided to bide his time. When a Federal ship carrying supplies was
dispatched to reprovision Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, the
secessionist hand was forced. To forestall the resupply of the fort the
Rebel batteries ringing it opened fire at 4:30 a.m. on the 12th of April,
1861, forcing its rapid capitulation.
President Lincoln immediately called upon the states to supply 75,000 troops
to serve for ninety days against “combinations too powerful to be suppressed
by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” Virginia, Arkansas, and
Tennessee promptly seceded.
The war was on in earnest. Ironically, the combination of political events,
southern pride, and willfulness succeeded in paving the way to the abolition
of slavery; a condition that no combination of legal action on the part of
the most virulent abolitionist could possibly have accomplished.