Cause of the Civil War

According to official Confederate mythology, states’ rights, not slavery, was the issue that caused the brutal war that went on so long, as if either issue would have meant much to most of the illiterate Southern yeoman farmers who constituted the bulk of Southern soldiery. In fact, there were a number of counties that refused to secede in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Lincoln’s election in 1860 was a blow to the South because it threatened the further spread of slavery, which meant a significant erosion of Southern domination in the national scene. It also posed a threat: as the number of blacks continued to grow in Southern states, westward expansion was viewed as necessary to avoid an experience like Haiti. Blacks actually outnumbered whites in South Carolina and Mississippi. Northerner politicians continually thwarted such expansion, creating ever-growing animosity between the two systems and regions.

The assertion that slavery was not the cause of the war is laughable. Contention over slavery began before the nation was founded. Our Constitution established a “sunset provision” for the importation of slaves, and Thomas Jefferson, as president, directed that importation end in 1808 because the institution had already become unfavorably regarded abroad. The first big struggle over slavery in our nascent nation began in Congress in 1820, resulting in the Missouri Compromise. The Mexican war was fought principally to ensure the expansion of slavery, but that war mostly met a cool reception from Northern states. Unsuccessful efforts made to control slavery’s spread by the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territory acquired from Mexico. The Senate’s gag rule was imposed over slavery, and there was a struggle over the spread of the institution into the Nebraska-Kansas territory which resulted in the Compromise of 1850. In 1856, a Congressman from South Carolina caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner due to his remarks made in a speech against slavery so savagely that he was unable to return to the Senate for nearly four years. John Brown’s assault at Harpers Ferry in 1859, attempting to spark a slave revolt, sent the South into a frenzy of military preparation, becoming the proximate cause of war. The South limited freedom of speech, of the press, and respect for free traffic in the Post Office, thereby abridging the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in order to protect slavery. States from the “Deep South” — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina dispatched fifty-two representatives to spread the “gospel of disunion” throughout the South beginning in 1859. Their principal themes were that “Black Republicans” threatened the institution of slavery and white supremacy by intimating that all humans were equal, “even” blacks.

Before the war broke out, Jeff Davis threatened secession on several occasions in the Senate if Northern “threats” to slavery continued. Four of the five Articles of Secession issued by the eleven seceding states established slavery as the reason for their break with the United States. The Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stevens, in his “Cornerstone” speech delivered in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861 explicitly identified the reason the South broke away from the Union:

  • The new (Confederate} government has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson …had anticipated this as the “rock upon which the old Union would split. He was right.”

However, Stevens went on to argue that Thomas Jefferson had been “fundamentally wrong” in positing that the two races were “equal.”

The evidence is overwhelming that slavery was the major cause of the war. If Lincoln as politician initially attempted to finesse his way around this delicate issue to keep the border states safely in the Union, the fact that slavery was indeed the major cause for the resort to war remains no less clear.

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Gene Betit

Retired intel analyst with Ph. D. in Soviet Area Studies from Georgetown, love to write. Two Defense Intelligence Agency studies, over ten magazine articles on Soviet military and strategic capabilities. Current publications include War's Cost: The Hites' Civil War, Manhattan's Walloon Settlers, Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid, and Forbidden, Forgotten, Formidable: Blacks in America's Wars.

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