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A Nation Divided.  The Civil War in contemporary prints
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Causes of the Civil War


[ Underlying Factors | Events leading to war ]

The causes of the Civil War are manifold and the manner in which they interacted and combined to create the conflagration that consumed the United States from 1861 to 1865 is complex. This web site, focusing on the printed images of the Civil War, is not the place where these causes can be fully elucidated nor studied, but it does seem important to make an attempt at laying out the roots of the war in order to put this event into historic context.

It is evident that the most fundamental cause of the Civil War was slavery. It was the sine qua non of the war. If slavery had previously been abolished in this country, it is likely that the Civil War would not have happened; with slavery in existence in part, but not all, of the United States, there was a significant chance that a Civil War would eventually have happened even if the events in the years before 1861 had taken a different course.

That being said, there were many other causes of the Civil War; factors which led to this conflict. In this brief consideration of the topic, we will look at both the underlying factors and the particular events which combined in the nineteenth century and resulted in the Civil War.

Underlying Factors

A number of the underlying factors which help lead to the Civil War in the United States had their genesis in the nature of the country's creation, that is, in its founding documents. While there was considerable sentiment by the founders to prohibit slavery in the Constitution, this was not done, and so this issue was allowed to fester and eventually cause enough friction to set the conflagration going.

Slavery was a political, economic, social and moral issue which strongly divided the citizens of the nation. Because of differences in history and economies, slavery was also a sectional issue between the North and South. Whether rights of slave owners would be protected throughout the country, whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories, whether slavery was to be abolished in the South, and whether slavery was a moral evil were all questions which generated diametrically opposed answers in the North and South.

There was another divisive issue which, though addressed in the Constitution, was not there resolved and which added to the conflicting forces leading to the war, viz. the debate between Federal power and States' rights. Through much of the nineteenth century, the Federal government had been gaining more power at the expense of the States. While not so directly relevant to geography, this too became a sectional conflict. The resentment and fear of growing Federal power by those in the South was an important factor in their decision to try to secede from Union.

It is interesting to note that both the North and South claimed the heritage of the American Revolution for their own side. Those in the North pointed to the principals of liberty and equality for all men, along with the principal of the permanent union of the states which Washington so clearly backed. Those in the South countered with the principals of individual rights against governments, the freedoms of individuals in an agrarian society, and the rights of the sovereign states as enshrined in the Constitution.

Besides political causes, the differences in culture and economy between the North and South also influenced the events of the mid-nineteenth century. The North had become industrialized and urban, and there was a general support for the government being intimately involved in the nation's economy and life. The South was essentially agricultural and rural, with a strong streak of suspicion about the federal government. In the North, there was a need for free labor and the different social classes had to learn to work together. In the South, the plantation economy relied heavily on slave labor and the social distinctions were rigidly maintained.

Events leading to war

Missouri Compromise of 1820

By 1820, the tensions between the "free" and "slave" states was already apparent, with the South concerned that the admission of new free states would lead to the political power of the slave states being overwhelmed. The compromise of 1820 allowed the admission of Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, helping to maintain the balance of power. At the same time, the 36º 30' parallel of latitude was established as the division between any new slave and free states.

Compromise of 1850

With the 1848 acquisition by the United States of vast lands in the west at the end of Mexican War, Southerners again felt threatened. Slavery had not been permitted in the old Mexican territories and there was little sentiment for slavery there. Southerners feared that these new lands would all come into the country as free territory, so a compromise was reached where California would be admitted as a free state, but the territories of Utah and New Mexico (which comprised the rest of the newly acquired lands) would allow "popular sovereignty." This meant that the issue of slavery would be voted on by the citizens of these territories when they became states. At the same time a fugitive slave act was passed which allowed slave owners to apprehend runaway slaves even in the free North, requiring federal officers to help. It was hoped by many that this compromise would save the Union, a sentiment expressed by T.H. Matteson in his print "Union," which commemorates the compromise and illustrates its main participants.

U.S. Senate
One of the strongest supporters of the compromise, was "the Great Compromiser" himself, Henry Clay, who had fought so hard for the Missouri Compromise 30 years before. 73 years old in 1850, Clay fought hard for this new compromise. The print above shows Clay making his last great speech to the Senate in favor of the compromise (Clay died just two years later). Clay was wrong in his hopes, however. Instead, the Compromise of 1850 further inflamed the passions of those in the North, who were unhappy about the allowance of slavery above the 36º 30' parallel of latitude and the fugitive slave act. Instead of dampening the fires of division, this compromise added fuel to the embers.

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

The Kansas-Nebraska established these two territories out of what had been a single, unorganized territory comprising the lands north of the Indian territories, west of the Missouri River and east of the Rockies. The South was unified in its abhorrence of the idea of allowing a free state to be created just to the west of Missouri, so a compromise was reached which allowed these new territories to be established under the principal of "popular sovereignty." This effectively voided the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited the introduction of slavery that far north, and it further infuriated those in the North.

This act radically influenced the political situation in the country, changing the character and popularity of the existing political parties and leading to the formation of the Republican party, which was established in part to fight against the expansion of slavery into any new territories or states. The act also led to a further increase in the level of passion over the slavery issue, both in words and deeds.

Bleeding Kansas 1855-56

With the issue of whether Kansas would become a slave or free state to be determined by "popular sovereignty," proponents of both sides flooded into the territory, inevitably resulting in murder and mayhem. This violence and all the passions generated by the earlier events, caused both the North and South to begin to see each other as fundamentally inimical. The issue of slavery was no longer a matter which could be argued in words only, for inflamed passions now began to result regularly in violence, with episodes such as Preston Brooks' vicious attack on Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress and John Brown's violent raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.


All of these forces, underlying factors and specific events, came to a head with the Presidential election of 1860, probably the most significant election in the nation's history.

GoGo to page on the events of 1860

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