The Civil War is one of the most seminal periods in the history of the United States. The war changed the United States socially, culturally and politically to an extent that few other events before and after that period did. The war affirmed the inviolability of the Union and eradicated one of the most atrocious institutions of the colonial period and the early republican days, slavery. It also pitted the two then main geographical and political divisions of the Union of the time, the slavery-free states in the North and the states that allowed slavery in the South. Historians have attributed the Civil War to a myriad of factors that can be traced back from the colonial period to the years just before the war. This essay provides a detailed exploration of the causes of the Civil War from the colonial era to the antebellum period.
First, the institution of slavery is usually considered the major factor contributing to the war between the North and the South. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a characteristic feature of the colonial America, with the British benefiting from it since the beginning of colonialization. Meanwhile, according to many people, independence was a new era for the people of the United States since the country had its basis on freedom and liberty. Contrary to the hopes of enslaved blacks, this was not only to become a “peculiar” institution maintained in the social and political structure of the country; independence formed an important political basis for the country. The institution of slavery was profitable for vast cotton and sugar plantations in the South, which had strong reliance on slave labor. While the South was fervently pro-slavery, the sentiments in the North were against the institution. Accordingly, there appeared people who were militantly against the institution. The novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Stowe, which outsold any other book of the era except for the Bible, further inflamed these issues. The book, with its depiction of the horrors of slavery, made the social institution so unbearable for many in the North that in less than ten years, the North was ready to wage war to stop slavery.
Closely related to the issue of slavery was the view that the government dominated be the South was forcing slavery on the states in the North, which further exacerbated tension between the South and the North. Events such as the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, according to which the blacks could not be US citizens and, moreover, that the White people had no legal responsibility to uphold the rights of the former, further instilled the fear of political domination in the northerners. These factors led to the formation a new anti-slavery party developed in the North, the Republican Party. When the Republicans won the elections of 1860, some states in the South started seceding to form the Confederate States, blaming the Republicans for trying to stop the institution of slavery. The Florida draft of declaration of causes called the newly elected Lincoln an illiterate man who had no experience in governance and noted that the abolition of slavery is the “settled purpose and great central principle” of the Lincoln’s party. The North Carolina draft also noted that the election of Lincoln had divided the Union into two parts, indicating that the nation could not exist as half-slave, half-free. The seceded states’ soldiers then attacked Fort Sumter, and Lincoln ordered Union troops to repulse the rebels, thus sparking the war.
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Secondly, apart from the institution of slavery, the Southern states also seceded as a way of maintaining white supremacy. In the contemporary period, some people argue that white supremacy was not so important reason for going to war as preservation of slavery, but the evidence seems to suggest the opposite. In the years that preceded the Civil War, the Northern politicians who advocated for the abolition of slavery were often berated by the South as people who wanted racial equality with the blacks, which was then a critical political issue. This ia apparent from several declarations of causes, the documents that Confederate states would adopt as a formalization of their severance of relations with the Union. For instance, the Texas Declaration explicitly claimed that the white people founded the government of the Southern states for them and their descendants. It further extrapolated that the blacks were in no way a part of the formation of the states in the South. Moreover, according to the declaration, the blacks were inferior to the whites in all respects, and the whites would be able to tolerate their existence in the South only provided complete subjugation of the blacks. With this in mind, the Southern states seceded and attacked Fort Sumter in 1861, which sparked the war.
The third cause of the war was unequal and disparate development of the two parts of the country. After the Industrial Revolution, it was apparent that the two regions developed differently. More significantly, the differences in the structure of the economic court remained until reorientation of the economies of the two areas in the 1840s, which made it much harder to reach a compromise on the issues. In the North, trade began flourishing in the East-West channel rather than North-South nexus. The South, with its excellent climate and abundance of slave labor was the agricultural nexus of America. It grew cotton and other crops for export to the North and the European markets. By contrast, the North had a burgeoning industrial economy. The industrial capitalism in the North regarded the South as dangerous and the “other,” whereas the South also viewed the North as different. These differences are also as a result of the development of the two regions. The South had lagged in industry and urbanization compared to the North. This factor set the country on a path of civil war, with the South convinced that the North wanted to eradicate its rural agricultural outlook which had a basis in slavery.
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Fourthly, the Civil War might have been ignited by the subjective moral principles from both the South and the North. According to Egnal, principal reasons for going to war do not ignore the economics. However, some historians explain that moral concerns are key to explaining this war. For the South, its major concerns were mostly to do with the southern way of life and how it would change under the Republican government led by Lincoln. Moreover, the southerners also wanted to maintain their states’ rights against the now-powerful federal government. According to Southern leaders, a federal government at the hands of the northerners would eventually lead to the decimation of their culture. Meanwhile, the Union government was based on what the North believed were just principles which would even justify using weapons. Lincoln stated that the country did not go to war to end the institution of slavery; therefore, it was apparent that the federal government led by the northerners sought to restrict the expansion of slavery into the new territories, which they perceived as a moral evil. However, one can challenge this assertion by the fact that the South and the North have been able to operate as one country by compromising on their differences for so many years.
Fifthly, the war was triggered by John Brown, who was among radical northern abolitionists. Some historians credit him personally for helping generate tensions that would lead to the war. While most white people who opposed slavery were not prepared to take up arms in the despair, the same was true about the blacks. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act, there were several clashes between the supporters of slavery and its opponents. Among those who violently opposed slavery in Kansas was John Brown, who was to leave Kansas later and move nearer to the epicenter of slavery. In his quest to stop slavery, John Brown organized a group of followers who attacked Harper’s Fort in an attempt to get weapons in the garrison so as to lead a slave insurrection throughout the South. While Brown denied this was his motive, he was tried and hanged. At the time, most people in the South dismissed him as a fanatic. However, some in the North perceived him a martyr in the course of abolitionism, who is believed by some people in the North contributed to the war against the Southern whites. Consequently, Brown’s raid and his subsequent hanging caused increased tension between the South and the North, which eventually led to the war.
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The sixth reason that led to the start of the war was a sectional crisis between the South and the North. In the colonial times, although people opposed slavery, it did not constitute a large political, social or economic debate. English colonies both in the North and in the South had the institution of slavery, and their economies were to a large extent dependent on it. However, the new Republic government did not have the same unity of purpose regarding slavery. According to Bain-Conkin et al., the breakdown of the US over slavery was to occur over a long period and across a broad geography. When Congressman Tallmadge of New York proposed admitting Missouri Territory, which was then a slave state, as the territory of the Union and gradually abolishing its slavery, the Southern states were outraged. The passage of laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which many in the North consider not only as legitimization of slavery but an attempt to establish it in the North, fueled sectional differences between the two regions. The exchange that resulted might have marked the first steps towards the war as it not only laid bare the differences between the Northern and Southern states but also extended slavery across new territories.
Lastly, the breakdown of the Missouri Compromise is also responsible for the start of the war. With the nation deeply divided on the issue of slavery, the Congress passed legislation sponsored by Henry Clay in 1920, which sought to limit slavery by the Missouri line, with the states that lay to the south of the line having the right to continue slavery. The law seemed to suit both pro-slavery legislators and anti-slavery ones. For the former, it ensured that the institution of slavery would continue, while the latter perceived the restriction as the first step in abolishing slavery. However, this compromise lasted for slightly more than three decades, with the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealing it in 1854. This new law allowed white men of voting age to determine through popular sovereignty whether the territories above the Missouri line were to be slave or free states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the trigger to many Abolitionists and Free Soldiers who formed the Republican Party. As it is apparent, formation of the Republican Party and the election of its first President Abraham Lincoln triggered the war. Without a Republican president, it is doubtful whether the country would have started the war.
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Lastly, the Civil War could also have been as a result of economics factors. Some historians have noted that the North had numerous economic reasons for waging war against the South. Lincoln noted that the country did not go to war to abolish slavery; in fact, the Republicans promised not to disturb the “peculiar institution” in the event of the war. Thus, the North went to war to secure the economic legacy of the country. Egnal names several of economic factors leading to war. These are the institution of a banking system for the entire nation, the need to raise tariffs, the improvement of harbors and ports for trade, and the construction of the coast to coast railroad so as to spur the development of the west and the south of the country. Thus, the main aim of the war, according to this school of thought, was to build a strong national economy rather than to stop of slavery for some moral reasons.
The essay was an exploration of the causes of the American Civil War from the colonial era to the antebellum period. First, slavery played a large part in the waging the war as it created irreconcilable differences between the two parts of the country which had disparate ideas about the issue. The Northern states, which did not support slavery, were afraid of the possibility that the Southern states would spread the issue slavery to the North. Secondly, Southern states wanted to maintain their system of white supremacy. Thirdly, the unequal and incongruent development of the North and South, especially in terms of economic activities such as the industrialization of the North and agricultural development of the South, also created differences that led to the war. The breakdown of the Missouri Compromise made war inevitable. Moreover, sectional differences resulting from slavery and other issues created increased tensions in both parts of the country. Lastly, economic factors might have driven the North to wage war with the South in the hope of creating national economic structures so as to develop the country.