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In this paper, we’ll delve into the causes of the American Civil War. The most commonly accepted root-cause of this conflict, according to most historians, as well as to the most popular opinion, is slavery, but many other variables were relevant and exerted a significant influence, particularly the political and economic ones. The most apparent difference between North and South was, for sure, slavery and it did instigate the Civil War without any doubt, but it wasn’t the only important variable, not even the main one. As the North’s industrial power advanced, the South’s ability to keep its massive slave population in check also became compromised, and this power imbalance also helped to create conflict. Besides, there was the problem of congressional representation and states’ autonomy; equal representation played a role in both problems, and any thorough and objective analysis of the war’s causes must take that political factor into account.
No other period in American history was as momentous and significant as the Civil war. It was the historic milestone that marked the end of an entire era of legal slavery and many other profound social and political changes. The general trend prevailing in the country back then was towards problematic race relations, and several instances of slave confusions were already challenging the established political and social structures. As a result, racial tensions were polarizing and breaking down the whole country. The consensus points to slavery as the trigger that fired the Civil War, but the reality is never so simple, and other factors need to be accounted for the full picture of the conflict to be reconstructed and understood. So, while slavery was, indeed, the most obvious point of contention, it was not the only single cause by any means. Because they are so intimately related, the Civil War and the abolition of slavery are considered to be interchangeable events or ideas. Nevertheless, some historians still challenge this view arguing that slavery alone is too comfortable a reason thus lacking intellectual rigor.
Randy Golden is one of those historians, his view on this is that considering that the Civil War began over slavery is oversimplistic and points out that, unfortunately, no single simple reason can reasonably be assumed to be the main one. For Golden, many different complex independent events (slavery included) had been around for a very long time before the war ever started. Economic and social structures, the preservation of the Union, the future of slavery, competing nationalisms, the definition of freedom and political chaos were all factors that caused the bloodiest conflict in American history.
The crucial fact to understand here is that fires do need a spark to start, and yet it’s not the spark that burns, but the fuel. So while slavery was for sure a significant cause (thus acting as a spark), it’s just as accurate to say that society, politics, and economy were also of great importance, providing the fuel that burned in the end. But besides measurable and concrete factors there were some other ones, harder to pin down but just as important, such as hidden social and psychological factors that rendered the stage ready for the most far-reaching episode in American history to play out. We must keep in mind that, at the time, the federation was a relatively new thing, not yet a century old. So most individuals’ affiliation and loyalty still belonged more to their own state and community than to the federal republic as a whole because it had not yet been understood by all that the Union had precedence over state independence. As a result, any existing nationalism was local and not country-wide. The idea of the USA was either too abstract or unknown, so most people only took an interest in local state matters. This mindset also paved the way to war.
Following Robert Mercer Taliaferro, we could consider that the Civil War is remembered mainly as the conflict that brought about the end of slavery and because this was its most crucial effect, it’s just too tempting to think that the wish to achieve that effect was its cause. But fundamental as this war’s legacy was, we look at it with the benefit of perspective, so when we contemplate its history and aftermath, we fall into the temptation to forget that people living then were too close and too immersed in their current situation.
The primary beneficiaries of the Civil War’s outcome were the southern African American slaves in the South which goes a long way in explaining why the conflict is so often cast as a fight against slavery. Slavery had vanished from the North as early as 1787, but it was kept untouched in the South. We must comprehend how that drove to war. The ideas of the Union, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence were built upon the Enlightenment principles of freedom for all and that all men are created equal. And while the American Revolution was fought in the name of those high-minded notions the plight of the Southern slaves was never taken into account very seriously. This meant that slaves could only be conflicted by being slaves under the laws of a brand new country that loudly boasted to be constructed by the idea of freedom for all. Did the founding fathers mean that slaves are not really as human as white men? Are all men created equal, or just the ones descended from European immigrants? This remains one of the controversial issues to this day, and a closer look will reveal that it was the seed that grew into slave rebellion.
The American Revolution’s resolute will to fight for independence from the British while not minding at all the very old slaves’ demands for freedom seems to be, to put it very mildly, inconsistent. If the free will and freedom of choice were such crucial values in the revolutionary mind, then how could they possibly just turn a blind eye towards the institution of slavery, the ominous and ruthless antitheses of those core values, and keep it in existence? So the idea of all men being equal was, after all, a coin with two sides; empowerment and freedom for the white population but nothing more than utterly empty and meaningless words for all the slaves who remained under the yoke of their white masters in many of the thirteen colonies.
Slavery is manifestly incompatible with the high ideals written in the Constitution, but it was never seriously challenged by the founding fathers (many of them slave owners, most famously Jefferson) because they cared more for political viability than for logical consistency. Slavery was essential to keep the colonies united, so it had to be either tolerated or ignored. While this achieved the short-term goal of keeping the colonies united for the sake of fighting for independence, it came at a long-term price because no country or institution can keep going for long while espousing mutually exclusive values. The start of the Civil War made this evident at last. This is why it’s vital to realize that, while slavery was indeed a central cause of the war, it was an issue older than the country itself. This, in turn, came to be because the American government that always refused to deal with it, even as it purported itself as the champion of freedom and liberty for all in the brave new world.
The revolutionaries did fight for freedom. Freedom for themselves, but not for the African Americans that also inhabited the same prospective country. That’s one of the reasons why so many historians affirm that the revolutionaries and the founding fathers were pro-slavery. This can be an unwelcome statement by many people as it soils the memory of characters so beloved in the American mind that some of them reach mythical proportions. It’s heresy. But if we are to understand slavery as it was before the Civil War and the role it played in causing it, then we must understand first its history before the war, and that begins with the revolution. This is necessary because this kind of phenomenon does not develop overnight. It evolves slowly, and when it has a long story, it accumulates a lot of stress over time. The idea of slavery as the fundamental cause has a complicated history of its own centered around hatred for the white men. This became worse after the Revolution succeeded in 1776, achieving independence from the United Kingdom. The pure indifference shown by the revolutionaries towards the plight of slaves was enough to fan the flames of deep hostility against white men and the newborn Confederation. When the Constitution was in drafting, the issue of slavery was indeed discussed, but all the heated and passionate disputes ended up protecting and preserving that evil institution nevertheless.
State rights issues were the second most important cause of the war, even if slavery remains the main one. It behooves us to remember that the 13 colonies existed before the Union as distinct and independent entities. They came together voluntarily to create a central federal government under the assumption that equal representation would be provided for all of them at the Congress and that a high degree of state autonomy would remain in place so that no outsider would have a say in each state’s internal matters. In time, none of those two things remained a possibility. While the Constitution did grant some rights to the states, it also declared that the central government would have authority to intervene in any critical matters that arose and that such action would not be disputed. That, of course, made the federal government very powerful which turned it into an antagonist for state governments. In time, states did achieve some limited powers and kept their own affairs in their hands.
Yet, even those granted powers could not keep the states satisfied when it became clear that a demographic boom in the North was going to render the idea of equal representation in the Congress null and void. By the turn of the 19th century, half of the people in the Union were slaving in the south. But then the better chances offered by the North for making a living attracted hundreds of thousands of people who moved North, increasing the population dramatically. Then there was the industrial revolution that turned America into an attractive destination for the poor of Europe as well. They left their own lands looking for a better living in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of that colossal immigration wave chose to stay in the North because the South was built around an agricultural economy not as alluring for the newcomers.
As the Northern population kept growing, the Northern states started to demand representation proportional to population size, so the South became disadvantaged in the Congress and, it seemed at the time, that if such state of affairs kept its course, the South would soon lose all political relevance where federal issues were concerned. It was also understood at the time that the North’s industrial growth was the driving force of attraction for European and Southern immigrants alike while the Southern economy was almost entirely agricultural, stagnated, and the very existence of slavery made jobs for immigrants very hard to get in agriculture. Both societies were very different besides their economics. Educated white people who didn’t lack for sophistication made up the mainstream of the North. It was a modern society. The South, in contrast, still lived under slavery and the whites there lived and acted like de facto nobility with almost utter disregard for slave rights. The South was a lot closer to being feudal than modern. This caused the North to look down on the South, more or less logically, as a society that had not kept up with the times and was trying too hard to keep things standing still. At the same time, the increase in congressional representation for the Northern states made them dominant over the South at the federal level.
So, power shifted towards the North, which opposed slavery for the most part. It then becomes apparent that the Northern population kindled the slave rebellion against the south which climaxed in the Civil War. The point to realize is this: blacks and whites were not the opposing sides in this conflict, but the conflict was instead between the modern industrial society and the agrarian society whose economy was fueled by slavery. The Northern belief in fundamental rights for everybody and distaste for slavery caused them to align themselves with the Southern slave’s plight. This was infuriating for the South, and since the power gap was developing, war became imminent. But there were other deep and grievous differences between them.
Following John B. Gordon, we can see that, for the South, the Union was a union achieved by consent and not by force. This was a belief held fanatically with all the weight of religious dogma. That’s why they confronted the North about the lack of authority granted by the Constitution for the invasion and coercion of a sovereign free state. The North’s argument was that sovereignty was not an item that could be divided and that Union itself was its sole means of expression, that the notions of Union, freedom, and liberty were indivisible which is why preserving the Union was paramount for freedom as well.
These opposing interpretations of the Constitution, freedom, and the Union played a pivotal role during the war as they were the moral and social choices for which each side stood. This is the reason why it is crucial to understand this war in terms of North versus South, as explained. While the abolition of slavery will always be the most endurable outcome of the conflict, in a broader level it was a victory of Northern over Southern values. In this context, the manumission of slaves is a consequence, not a cause.
The economic disparity between North and South was also an essential cause of the war. At the time of the American Revolution, all economies in the world were either agricultural or commercial, so the odds were even throughout the Union in that regard, maybe even slightly better for the South as slavery made agriculture cheaper to sustain. That is until the Industrial Revolution came along and changed everything. The North embraced industrialization while the South stuck to agriculture which, in turn, brought more people to the North and caused the Northern economy to increase dramatically, while the South remained more or less unchanged, which is to say, was left behind. The irony was that the South did need economic growth due to the immense army of slaves it included.
This army of slaves was becoming exceedingly tricky to control and to sustain, which allowed the Northern opinions on slavery to be the seeds falling into fertile grounds. So the ability to keep slavery going was not just a matter of political power but of economic plausibility and economics was on the side of the North. The thing we need to grasp is that among many different economic, social and political issues that converged in time to create the most meaningful war in History, slavery was, however, the primary one.
After in-depth scrutiny of all the factors that led to the Civil war, the impression remains that slavery was the main one because it drew a line between North and South. If other issues fueled the conflict, slavery remained at the heart of each of them.
We must understand slavery as an economic problem, more than an ethical one and, as such, it was the principal variable that resulted in a bloodbath. Some argue that slavery could have ended without a war, but several trials were made and failed so it’s unrealistic to think it would just have gone away someday. Southern intransigence in protecting slavery made war unavoidable, and thousands died. But their sacrifice was validated by the eradication of an evil that has disappeared from American society permanently.