Arts & Humanities History

Slavery: A Catalyst for the Civil War?

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Jack Farrant.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Jack Farrant.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

The influence of slavery has long been considered to be the most important contributor to the start of the American Civil War. Historians since the days of the Civil War itself have often cited slavery as the primary, or even singular, point of tension. This view, although up to a point valid, is a gross simplification of what was in reality far more complex situation. The government of South Carolina, the first of eleven states to leave the Union, chose slavery as the main cause for the succession in their 1860 Declaration of Succession, saying that there was ‘increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery’. Although it is clear that the tensions of slavery were a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War, it is no doubt useful to also take a more Revisionist point of view. Indeed, while the divisive issue of slavery was a cause of tension among States, the problem of inherent disunity between those States encompasses much more than the dispute over slavery. It is more fitting to argue that it was the role of slavery within larger, more complex issues of economy, demography, and geography, that was more of a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War, as opposed to declaring slavery the sole source of tension. 

Historiographical debate over the last two centuries has provided the framework of modern opinion about the outbreak of the Civil War. For many years, it has been understood that the origins of the Civil War cannot be questioned without also looking at the wider context of international affairs and domestic tension within American society at the time. In addition to this, it is important to take into account the difference in opinion about the origins of the Civil War in Northern and Southern accounts. Especially in the years directly following the end of the Civil War, and into the Reconstruction Era at the end of the 19th Century, general Southern collective memory was that States’ Rights and Northern Aggression were the key factors in the outbreak of the war. On the other hand, Northern abolitionists, as well as the majority of today’s professional historians, point to the institution of slavery as the primary cause. 

On the 20th August 1619, an English trade ship, The White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort near Jamestown, Virginia. It carried with it approximately twenty Africans, who became the first slaves to arrive in the British Colonies in America. By 1860, the slave population was four million. Although Revisionism is appropriate when considering the causes of the Civil War, it is still pertinent to acknowledge the importance of slavery as a source of tension. The uncomfortable question of slavery had remained unanswered since the early days of the Revolutionary War; a shortcoming of the revered Founding Fathers. Slavery had been practised in America for as long as it had been a colony, and so became a contentious issue in the new Union. George Washington, despite being a slave-owner himself, claimed that ‘There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.’ This duplicitous idea is at the core of early-Union hypocrisy over the morality and legality of slavery. The nationalistic sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution affirmed ‘that all men are created equal’, but despite these claims, slavery would remain legal in the former colonies for the time being. In the years following the Revolutionary War, certain States began to prohibit slavery within their territory, creating a great divide within the Union. The politicians of the early Union were far more content to compromise than to take on the problem of slavery outright, a sentiment emphasised in the inclusion of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which decreed that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person, in order to increase House representation for slave-holding States. Further legislation, such as the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, allowed for escaped slaves in free States to be returned to their masters in slaveholding territories. The sentiment of compromise rather than action confirms slavery as a cause for tension in America, and so it is clear that the response to early-Union slavery was an important factor in the lead-up to the Civil War.  

Political mismanagement of slavery no doubt also contributed to the inter-State tensions preceding the Civil War. Throughout the early 19th Century, a careful balancing act of slaveholding and free States in the Union was undertaken to ensure no side of the argument had majority representation in Congress. Just as had been prevalent in the 18th Century, a number of compromises were made to try and preserve the Union. The 1820 Missouri Compromise created the Free State of Maine to counteract the admission of the Slave State of Missouri, and banned all slavery in Louisiana Purchase territory North of the 36° 30’ parallel, excluding the State of Missouri. This was contentious legislation; contemporary writers such as ex-President Thomas Jefferson claimed that the division of the country along sectional lines would lead to the breakdown of the Union. Although the Missouri Compromise undoubtedly delayed the outbreak of war, Jefferson was proven correct just forty years later.  

The concessional nature of the legislation did nothing but delay the inevitable confrontation between North and South, rather than avoid it entirely. The Compromise of 1850 not only enhanced the power of the Fugitive Slave Act, but also defused a confrontation over slavery in the recently acquired New Mexico Territory. While this bill lessened tensions in the short-term, it was yet another example of compromise rather than pragmatism, and so did nothing in the longer-term to quell the confrontation. Further events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing self-determination over slavery in the new States of Kansas and Nebraska, and the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford court ruling, which devalued of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by forcing Scott to remain a slave even though he had lived in free territory for four years, brought the country closer and closer to war, arguably dooming the Union to its impending division. It is clear that the lack of political pragmatism, and by extension the willingness to compromise, did nothing to stop the inter-State problems that had existed since the days of the Revolutionary War. In this way, political mismanagement of the institution of slavery caused just as much tension as the existence of that institution. 

For many years, the President of the United States has been one of the world’s most influential and powerful political figures, and is supposed to act as the defender of the Constitution and of liberty across the world. The position of President has, over American history, been held by some of the greatest leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, among many others. Despite this, the Presidency in the years leading up to the Civil War was not nearly as reassured or steadfast as it had been. The Election of 1856 saw Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan carry every Southern state. In his inaugural address, he left the question of slavery up to individual states, perpetuating the passive approach taken to slavery that was common at the time. Buchanan was a highly divisive figure, and as an advocate of the continuation of slavery, he alienated many Northern abolitionists. Some of the clearest evidence for the divisions within America was the election results in 1856. The divide between Northern and Southern States was obvious, with Buchanan winning every Southern State, and Republican candidate John Fremont, who arguably would have taken a more pragmatic stance to slavery, winning almost every Northern State. This was symbolic of the regionalised nature of American society in the years preceding the Civil War. The anti-abolitionist ideology of President Buchanan was generally popular among Southern voters, and highly unpopular among Northern voters. His politics, just like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, divided the Union among sectional lines. The Election of 1856 was a microcosm of a wider split in the Union; a situation getting closer and closer to Civil War. Overall, the influence of the Presidency during this time did nothing to quell tension within the rapidly failing Union. General historical opinion tends to disregard this factor of the Civil War, but it can be argued that the divisions of American politics were just as important to the start of the Civil War as the existence of slavery is usually considered to be. 

Ever since the early days of post-Revolution America, the issue of States’ Rights had been highly contentious, and the source of much debate among Northern and Southern politicians for decades. For decades, the split between North and South was obvious, encompassing economics, politics, and society. Many in the Southern States argued that Congress favoured the North, and despite being proven correct on multiple occasions, the feeling of dejection felt by many in the South fuelled inter-State rivalry in the Antebellum Union. The Articles of Confederation in the days of the Revolutionary War had allowed the central government little authority in the running of individual States, instead allowing the Union’s constituents to govern themselves on a self-determinist basis. The Constitution a few years later strengthened the government, decreeing that the Federal Law was ‘the supreme Law of the Land’. Despite these efforts to strengthen central government, the federalism present in the early Union meant that post-Revolutionary America was not much more than a loose confederation of individual entities. This lack of complete unity would continue to perpetuate through Antebellum America; it can be said that the Constitution itself split the country along sectional and regional lines, with each constituent member of the Union governing largely separately from the central government. The problem with federalism was most obvious in the early 19th Century, in particular regarding the Nullification Crisis of 1832. This event highlighted more than anything else the innate differences between the Northern and Southern States. The North viewed overseas trade as problematic, due to its industrialised and domestic economy. On the other hand, the much more rural and backwater South relied heavily on international trade, due to the larger emphasis on agriculture and exportation. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, Congress passed a series of tariffs that clearly favoured the Northern economy over that of the South, and the divisive Nullification Crisis began in 1832 when South Carolina declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void within the State, prompting President Andrew Jackson to threaten military force. This brief showing of anti-Union sentiment turned out to be a precursor to the events directly preceding the Civil War, with South Carolina the first State to succeed from the Union in 1860. Overall, the existence of anti-Union sentiment in Southern States, and the popular Southern idea that the government favoured the North helped to fuel tensions between the constituent States of the Union, at the time a broad confederation of entities rather than a singular united body. The inherent split between North and South highlighted the single largest problem with creating such a Union; the political, economic, and social situations between the two sides of the country were so different. 

In conclusion, the influence of slavery in the outbreak of the Civil War cannot be understated. Its continued legality in some parts of the Union fuelled debate and division for decades after the Revolution, and in time tore the Union apart along sectional lines. However, from a Revisionist frame of reference, it is vital to understand that slavery as a part of American society was not wholly to blame for the start of the war. Indeed, the split legality of slavery based upon which State you lived in was symbolic of the innate problems within the early Union, as was the lack of pragmatism from politicians who were much more willing to compromise than to confront issues. The multifaceted split between the North and South was as much a problem of economy and society as it was slavery, with the Antebellum Union arguably trying to hold together what should really have been separate nations in first place. Regardless, the most important factor in the lead-up to war in 1861 was not slavery itself, but rather the divisions in the Union caused in part by slavery, and the half-hearted attempts to reconcile the problems of slavery. The fundamental differences between North and South, and the inability of politicians to effectively reconcile the problems caused by the division, is more influential to the outbreak of the Civil War American slavery itself. In the opinion of President Lincoln, the goal of the Civil War was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery, and so it is clear that the Union fell apart due to its own incompetence in dealing with slavery and other issues dividing North and South, not due to the outright existence of slavery in post-Revolutionary America.  

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