Sunday, May 28, 2017

The complex causes of the Civil War

The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861 with shots fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina and the beginning of the end with General Robert E Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S Grant on April 9, 1865 at the Appomattox Courthouse in northern Virginia. The last official battle was in Palmito Ranch, Texas on May 13, 1865. Approximately 620,000 soldiers (although some studies put the number as high as 850,000) died from combat, accidents, starvation and disease. The Civil War is one of the bloodiest conflicts on American soil. Many people will say the cause of the Civil War was slavery and that is true and isn’t true. The causes of the Civil War are more complicated and still very much debated then simply the slavery. In no particular order, the causes of the Civil War can be seen in the struggle over states’ rights, the abolitionist movement, the economics and political power of the slavery system and the expansion or limitation of slavery into new territories.

First, the Southern states were asserting states’ rights over slavery. The Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The states’ rights struggle is between the federal government and individual states over political power (a struggle which can still be seen today). The struggle between the Southern States and the federal government began with the Tariff of Abominations on May 19, 1828. The tariff was designed to protect northern industry at the cost of the southern economy. The outcry from the Southern states nearly started a civil war with the threat of secession. So the debate of states’ rights began to hear up hotter than before in the decades leading to the 1850s. By the 1850s, tempers began to boil faster. In the case of the Civil War, the struggle of states’ rights was the question if the federal government had the right to regulate or even abolish slavery with an individual state. The Southern States said no, the Northern states and the federal government said yes.

Second, the abolitionist movement was a huge force behind the events leading to the Civil War. The first outcry over slavery was from the Mennonites and Quakers in 1688. It can gained momentum in Vermont in 1777 and successfully lobbied the new United States government to ban the importation of new slaves in 1808. The movement then looked to end slavery completely in the United States. As the North slowly did away with slavery due to the influx of Irish and German immigrants, by the early 1830s, the movement grew more and more influential. With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law states that a runaway slave from one state was a fugitive in another regardless if it was a slave or free state, helped the movement. Soon the Underground Railroad begins to form. The railroad was a series of safe houses which fugitive slaves used to reach freedom. The movement was further fueled by the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (newspaper series in 1851, book format in 1852. The book depicted the evils of slavery and offered a view many citizens in the country hadn’t thought before.

Third, the economics and political power of the slavery system was the most powerful cause to fuel the Southern states’ insistence on the continuation of slavery. The Southern states were largely agricultural and slavery helped keep the production going. The practice seemed to diminish and seemly on its way out when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (1794) and the need for slaves exploded as cotton got easier to harvest (American Civil War magazine September 2010). The Southern states became very wealthy and very powerful with the expansion of slavery. When the Republican Party formed in 1854, the party gained prominence as members were strongly opposed to the westward expansion of slavery. As well as California being admitted to the union as a free state in 1850, the political power had shifted to the North and the abolitionist movement. The final fuel to the fire was the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln without a single Southern electoral vote. It was proof to the Southerners that their political influence was waning. Feeling excluded from the political system, the Southern states believed that secession was their only option. This decision would be the final act which would led to war.

Lastly, the fight over the expansion of slavery in new territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 restricted slavery in new U.S. territories. In 1819, Missouri requested admission to the union as a slave state which threatened to upset the balance between free and slave states. Congress passed the compromise allowing Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It also passed an amendment that drew an imaginary line across the former Louisiana Territory establishing a boundary between free and slave states. Slavery could not be permitted in states north of this line thus being allowed in states below this line. It remained law until it was negated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which contained the popular sovereignty clause which the residents of the territory would decide if they wanted to be a free or slave state, further divided the country. It would lead to the eruption of violence known as Bleeding Kansas, John Brown and his gang and their trial of massacres and murders. John Brown attacked pro-slavery settlers and later would lead an attack on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia on October 16, 1859. 

In conclusion, the events which led up to the beginning of the Civil War helps see why the causes are still debated 156 years later. James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, believes the ultimate cause of the Civil War was due to “uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery” in new territories. In essence, the argument over states’ rights is at the root of the Civil War. According to an article in the American Civil War magazine (September 2010), the origins of the Civil War began 250 years earlier when the first ship of slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Essentially, both claims are true and yet doesn’t paint the whole picture. Slavery was interwoven into every aspect of every event leading to the Civil War. Therefore, whatever cause you may point to, one thing is certain, the Civil War was most likely inevitable.