Today 130 years later, there is still a passionate debate regarding the “cause” of the Civil War. Although slavery was the moral issue that divided Northerners and Southerners, the average American in the mid-1800s had very little interest in slaves or slavery. In fact, most Southerners were small farmers that could not support slaves, and most Northerners had never even seen a slave. However, the crucial issue concerning the political leaders during this time was the State’s “rights” to have slaves, versus the “right” and wrong of slavery. These rights or right underlie another major difference between the North and the South, the role of federal versus state government. Slavery at the time was primarily seen by the Southern states as an economic issue that each State should have the right to decide upon. On the other hand, Northern states thought slavery was wrong and ought to be outlawed at the federal level or at the very least contained.
Throughout westward expansion in the early 1800s, the issue of slavery was dealt with by a series of compromises, but as the issue moved from the background to the foreground, political leaders were forced to speak about it. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln stated in his U.S. senate debate that “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it… or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.” (Danzer 324). Lincoln also expressed his personal views of slavery insisting that slavery was morally, socially and politically wrong and that it should not be allowed to spread.
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The election of 1860 of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, whom the South perceived as anti-state’s rights and antislavery was the catalyst to cause South Carolina to succeed from the Union bringing ten Southern states along to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln took the position that States did not have the right to succeed from the Union. Hence, the primary cause for the collapse of the Union and the outbreak of the Civil War can best be attributed to political issues surrounding the role of government and the election of 1860. “The power struggle between state and the federal government has caused controversy since the country’s beginning. At its worst the conflict resulted in the Civil War” (Danzer 322). In the mid-1800s Northern states favoured a strong federal government. The North needed a central government to fund the building of roads and railways, to protect its complex trading and financial interests and to control the national currency.
Conversely, Southern states had little need for strong federal infrastructure, and in fact, viewed a strong central government as a threat to their independence and local economy. The Southern states firmly believed that each State should govern itself and create its own laws. Lincoln was keenly aware that Southern states felt threatened by his presidency, and he tried to allay their fears in his first inaugural address by stating, “In ‘your’ hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in ‘mine’, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail ‘you’. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. ‘You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.'” Lincoln was trying to convey to his Southern constituents that he had no intentions of provoking a war and that any such actions would have to be initiated by the Southern states themselves. However, Lincoln warned his opponents that although he would not initiate a conflict he would strongly defend the Union using any means possible.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was the straw that broke the Union, caused the South to secede, and paved the way for the outbreak of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln who opposed the further expansion of slavery won the presidential election despite not winning the popular vote or carrying one Southern state. The South viewed president Lincoln as a threat even though Lincoln stated in his first inaugural address, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” This left the South with very little comfort. At best existing slave states would be allowed to remain, however, their power would be diluted as new states were formed that were designated as free. Over time the importance and political influence of Southern slave states would be diminished and threatened. The South depended on slavery to support their agricultural economy.
The Southern society believed they could not survive without slavery, and if slavery was abolished their economy would fall. According to the “Crisis of Fear” by Stephen A. Channing, “The election of Lincoln was at once the expression of the will of the Northern people to destroy slavery, and the key to that destruction.” Southerners believed the election gave acceptance to antislavery opinions and that it was a matter of time before slavery was minimized and eventually outlawed. With the election of Lincoln and his public antislavery sentiment, Americans believed that the band-aids which held the country together with respect to the issue of slavery would no longer hold. In the past slavery, conflicts were resolved through a series of compromises that aimed to keep a balance between the number of free and slave states. President Lincoln while publicly stating his antislavery views also went out of his way to support slavery where slavery already existed.
Specifically, in his inaugural address, he stated, “No person held to service or labour in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered upon a claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” Clearly Lincoln was trying to convey to his Southern citizens that he supported their rights to employ slave labourers. In reinforcing his commitment to the Fugitive Slave Act, which provided Southerners with the right to claim slaves as their property, Lincoln stated that under the law escaped slaves need to be returned to their rightful owners. However, once again Lincoln’s message fell on deaf ears as Southerners feared the consequences of Lincoln’s presidency.
The political storm surrounding the issue of slavery also had its foothold in the economic issues of the time. Specifically, free labour which is the definition of slaves provided those who utilize it with significant economic advantages. Northerners resented the benefits that Southerners reaped from the ability to employ workers without any wage requirements. Northerners also resented that slave labourers were not contributing to the tax base of the federal government. The North depended on tax revenues to support the expenditures of the ever-expanding roads, bridges and tunnels. In addition, Northerners considered disunion intolerable. As written in the Boston Herald on November 12, 1860, “Should the South succeed from carrying out her designs she will immediately form commercial alliances with European Countries. The first move the South would make would be to impose a heavy tax upon the manufacturers of the North, and an export tax upon the cotton used by Northern manufacturers.
In this way, she would seek to cripple the North.” For all their bravado Northerners felt their economy was extremely vulnerable if the South was allowed to succeed from the Union. Conversely, Southerners believed they contributed more in tax revenue than they received in benefits from the federal government. For example, in a speech given by Representative John H. Reagen of Texas on January 15, 1861, he stated, “You are not satisfied with the millions of tribute we have in paid you on account of the balance of exchange which you hold against us. You are not satisfied that we of the South are almost reduced to the condition of overseers for Northern capitalists.” In addition, Southerners believed paying slaves would collapse their economy and create competition between blacks and poor whites for limited jobs. Southerners also defended their dependency on slaves stating that the slave system of the South was more humane than the wage system of the North. The economic differences although numerous, would not have brought the country to war without the change in political balance which provoked the South to succeed from the Union.
Social differences between Northerners and Southerners played a lesser role in the start of the Civil War. There was a class conflict between the North and the South. The Northerner’s goals were free public education, better salaries and working conditions, rights for women, and better treatment for criminals. The South felt these views were not important at all because their economy was based more on feudal society. The average citizen was illiterate and did not have high education. Allan Nevis exclaimed in his 1947 “Ordeal of the Union”, “The South was, for the most part, a land without free public schools- a land where the poor man’s son was likely to go untaught, and the workingman or small farmer to be ignorant if not illiterate. Here lay one of the great gulfs separating North from South…” Although there were social tensions between the North and the South these divergences were not enough to single-handedly cause the Civil War.
In summary, the most important motive behind the outbreak of the Civil War was the political issues surrounding the role of government and the Presidential election of 1860. Up until the mid-1800s, slavery was kept as a background issue that the country dealt with by a series of compromises. However, everything changed with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The South viewed Lincoln as a threat based on his public views that “slavery was a moral, social and political wrong that should not be allowed to spread” (Danzer 326). Because slavery was such an important part of Southern society, the South felt that they could not survive without it. Convinced that succeeding from the Union was the only way to protect the State’s rights regarding slavery, eleven states led by South Carolina left the Union to form The Confederate States of America. Lincoln stated that succession was illegal and fought to maintain the Union. The Civil war was now underway.