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In one year we will be entering the 21st century. The turning of the century also marks the 140th anniversary of the start of the United States Civil War, and looking back on American history, this event stands apart from and above the rest. Whereas the American Revolution of 1776 created the United States, the Civil War saved the nation from annihilation and formed its future. It decided whether the United States "was to be a nation with a sovereign national government, or a dissoluble confederation of sovereign states; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men are created with an equal right to liberty, was to continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world."[1] As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, "the Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history ... It may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense."[2] Yet what was it that gave this young country a history, what animated one American to kill another in this total war with more casualties than in the entire nation's other wars combined? Economics, for one, but also questions of politics, culture and sectional power. However, perhaps the foremost reason in the minds of the public that divided North and South[3] and brought upon the onset of war was the issue of slavery. As the Republican Abraham Lincoln said in a letter to a southern leader:

“You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”[4]

The main part of this essay will concentrate on the political and cultural reasons of the Civil War, and not the economic ones, because of the simple fact that in my opinion they played the main role at the time. One must also mention that before 1840 no exact economic data existed. Whereas the economic differences between the North and South surely played a part, they were not what the general population at the time was conscious of. While we now have graphs and statistics informing us of the disparity between the two regions, newspapers and rallies behind orators such as Lincoln and Douglas informed the public of what was going on in the still young Union, and also formed their sentiments. Most of the speeches by politicians that were made concerning economic differences were held during the time of the secession crisis by southern speakers trying to convince the public that secession was for their benefit.

1. Political and cultural reasons for the U.S. Civil War

1.1. All men are created equal

     The United States of America was founded upon the ideals that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights including liberty and the pursuit of happiness; yet in 1787 at the time of the Constitutional Convention, only five northern states had forbidden slavery. The North had accepted three compromises in respect to slavery to prevent the South's rejection of the Constitution: each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the population basis of representation in the House of Representatives; a clause forbidding for twenty years the passing of a federal law to prohibit the importation of slaves; and a clause requiring the return of slaves who escaped to free states.

     To understand why the American Civil War broke out, one must take a step back and look at the development of the United States as a nation, starting at the Declaration of Independence. In Thomas Jefferson's first draft, he accused George III of England of having

"waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. ...Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for supporting every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce ...."[5]

       This passage, however, was removed by vote in the Continental Congress as many of Jefferson's fellow Southerners perceived the wording as too anti-slavery, and perhaps some Northerners were aware of the actual facts in the United States and were embarrassed by the obvious discrepancy. It must also not be forgotten that numerous Northerners were making a considerable fortune in the slave trade Jefferson so blatantly derided, and were thus understandably not intent on its abolition.

The Second Great Awakening - a revival of Protestant ideals by the descendants of the Puritans and their notions that every man is his brother's keeper - swept the nation and generated numerous cultural and moral reforms, amongst them abolitionism. In the eyes of these Yankees, the sin commanding the utmost attention due to its absolute wickedness was slavery, and its elimination was of the utmost priority.

     This movement soon entered the political scene; however, political leaders intent on maintaining the harmony between the northern and southern supporters of the Democratic and Whig parties, respectively, still tried to avoid the problem. Even as the infant nation grew relentlessly westward and southward, opposition in the North to the extension of slavery in the new territories became ever stronger and ignoring the issue was no longer possible. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 regulated the expansion of slavery in the United States, prohibiting slavery in Louisiana Purchase territories north of the 36° 30' parallel. For the moment, at least, the issue was put aside.

     By this time, however, Jefferson was nearly alone in his opinions amongst white Southerners. In the South, slave-holding was considered a necessity, and that the removal of this "peculiar institution", as one southerner called it, would mean a massive loss of economic and political power, was generally accepted.


1.2. The Mexican War

The momentary peace provided by the Missouri Compromise was swept away by the winds of the Mexican War of 1846 that lit the dormant flame anew. Before 1850, free and slave states were admitted alternately to the Union, enabling the South to maintain parity in the Senate even though in the House of Representatives they were reduced to a permanent minority due to their slower population growth rate. Their larger territory gave them a majority on the Supreme Court, though, as geographical circuits selected the justices.

     The fact that much of the territory acquired from Mexico lay south of the traditional slave-state/free-state border of 36° 30' made many Northerners suspicious of the reasons for the war. Until then, territorial acquisitions had added five slave states and only one free state. A similar treatment of the newly acquired territories would not only expand the hated institution, but also increase the power of the slave-holders and assist the South in gaining control of the free states due to a majority in the House and the Senate.

     To solve this problem, northern congressmen voted for a resolution to exclude slavery from the new territories, the so-called Wilmot Proviso. The Representative David Wilmot called for an amendment of the appropriations bill for the Mexican War, stating, "that, as an express and fundamental condition of the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico…neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory."[6] This proviso, however, was not just about the prevention of the expansion of slavery, as one might assume, but also about power. Northern Democrats were more than weary of Southern domination of the party. Sectionalism played a role in why the North was so irked. Southerners were seen as placing their own interests above all else, not looking out for their northern brethren. Various bills that would have been advantageous to the North were defeated by southern Democrats, and that President Polk went to war for the whole of Texas but compromised with Britain for a part of Oregon was seen as a betrayal of the North by the South. However, the bill was blocked in the Senate by the South's greater power, it consisting in 1847 of 15 slave states in contrast to the North's 14 free states. The South had provided most of the soldiers who fought in the Mexican War, and was consequently reluctant to cede to the North the benefits of taking slavery to "their" new territories.

The enactment of the Wilmot Proviso would have dire consequences for the South; ten new free states would be the result, and with these new states, the South would lose a lot of its power in the Union. Senator John C. Calhoun introduced resolutions arguing that Congress could no more forbid a slave-owner from taking his slaves, his property, albeit human property, to the acquired territories, than from taking his horses or clothes or general farm equipment. The resolutions were not passed; however, Calhoun portended that if the Wilmot Proviso were to have been passed, the result would have been "political revolution, anarchy, (and) civil war."[7]

     The 1848 presidential election was nearing, and the major parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, were both trying to heal sectional breaches amongst their ranks. The idea of popular sovereignty, meaning that the inhabitants of the territories should decide for themselves if they wanted to become a free or a slave state, beat the proposition of extending the Missouri Compromise line through to the Pacific, which Southerners favored because it secured slavery in at least some states.

     The 1849 gold rush to California caused its population to burgeon and a territorial government was needed to maintain law and order, which by now had become more like a dog-eat-dog justice. New Mexico needed to be approved statehood as well, due to the large Hispanic and Indian population as well as the growing Mormon following.

1.3. The Compromise of 1850


The newly elected President Zachary Taylor, who won the election due to his fantastic military successes during the Mexican War and also on terms of ambiguity - the South thought he was a supporter of their cause, due to his being a Southerner with sugar and cotton plantations and the necessary slaves, whereas the North believed him to be anti-slavery on account of his pledge not to interfere with decisions by Congress concerning slavery - wanted to admit California and New Mexico directly as states bypassing the usual territorial stage and so producing two new free states, and at the same time wrenching the majority in the Senate, perhaps for good, from the South. Shouts of dismay were heard from the South, coupled with threats of secession. Taylor was intent on calling the bluff, for that is what most Northerners saw in the southern clamor for disunion.

A proposal to avert the disaster was the carrot-and-stick Compromise Bill of 1850 that granted each side’s most immediate demands and thus lured the acceptance of parts not to their liking. The bill would admit California as a free state and New Mexico and Utah as restriction-less territories. A dispute over the boundary between New Mexico and Texas would be settled by offering Texas monetary compensation for an enlargement of the Territory of New Mexico, and a law requiring fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners would be enacted. Meanwhile, civilians and soldiers in New Mexico had written a free state constitution and President Taylor wanted New Mexico to join the Union with California. Texas insisted on its claim to New Mexico and was ready to go to war with the U.S. Army. The crisis was averted with President Taylor's death. No longer was a president in power who was hostile towards the South, but a proponent of the bill who also ignored New Mexico's pleas for statehood. The Compromise was passed, albeit as many smaller, slightly changed bills, thanks to a Democrat by the name of Stephen A. Douglas, who would later declare that he did not care if slavery was voted legal or illegal as long as the Union remained together. The nation breathed freely again, all worries about disunion forgotten. But the sigh of relief did not last long. The fugitive slave law brought again to a boil the differences in ideology between the North and the South, and numerous reports of heroic blacks who had escaped their shackles and fled north towards freedom were published in the newspapers of the day. Whites started to aid their black neighbors if these were in danger of recapture, and protested against the barbarity of the law that was biased towards the return of slaves to the South, even if they were free and had been living in the North for several years. The book Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was an example for the North's sentiments toward the institution and the law. It became one of the best sellers of all time in respect to sales in proportion to population, and demand for it was so high that bookshops could not keep stock of the book. Its impact on the public cannot be measured directly except through its sales, but it definitely did stir emotions; Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to Stowe when meeting her in 1862:

"So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war."[8]


1.4. The Kansas question, part one

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. The law created federal territories and repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise in so far that the inhabitants of said territories were allowed to decide for themselves if slavery was to be legal there, or not. The Act originated from the demands of pioneers who wanted to open the lands to settlement, and also by northern factions supporting a transcontinental railroad from the Midwest, rather than the South, to California. However, since the Missouri Compromise forbade slavery in these territories, the South voted down the original bill. The inclusion of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and of popular sovereignty by Stephen Douglas, who also proposed the bill, was what enabled it to be passed, though still very narrowly. Popular sovereignty split the Democratic Party anew and destroyed as a national party the Whigs, who opposed the measure, committing thereby political suicide in the South, and whose non-cotton wing re-found itself as the majority in the newly founded Republican Party, which was a result of the breakdown of the two major parties. Numerous abolitionists, who were determined to fight against this "triumph of Slavery (and) Aristocracy over Liberty and Republicanism,"[9], were created from moderate Northerners who were outraged at the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as a blatant attack on northern interests and evidence of "slave power", the South's appetite for political power.

     In the North, the Democrats were nearly wiped off the political map, becoming almost in their entirety a southern party. At the time, not all future Republicans had left their respective parties, but were dabbling in various other anti-slavery parties. By 1856, however, the Republican Party had absorbed most of the smaller parties who were against slavery, and with them also their political outlook; the party was now also capitalistic and modernizing, endorsing a transcontinental railroad and thus attracting industrialist Yankees to their ranks who were not necessarily too involved with anti-slavery issues.

     The Kansas-Nebraska matter was not yet settled. Proslavery militant Southerners from Missouri came into Kansas to take part in the territory's elections. Although settlers in favor of a free state legislature were in the majority, the slave state militants tilted the election in their favor. A later investigation discovered that 96% of the proslavery votes were illegal; still, the legislature was not repealed, as the Governor was too intimidated to order a new election. Free state settlers, however, did not want to accept the fraudulent and illegal law-making body and convened to establish their own. The Senate in the hands of the Democrats recognized the antislavery one, the Republican House that of the free state settlers. Pro- and antislavery factions started a guerilla war against each other, becoming the focus of the Union. It was the litmus test for whether the West would become free or end up in slavery; many newspapers had headlines talking about this "Civil War" - an ominous raindrop in the storm that was to come. The violence swept over to Washington, and not only verbal violence was common, but physical as well. When a slave state delegate beat with a cane an antislavery representative behind his desk, southern newspapers heralded it as a triumph, whereas the North regarded it as an example of southern savageness, a mirror of the institution of slavery. The "Civil War" in Kansas was finally brought to a stop by a new, tougher Democratic governor who used federal troops and rhetorical persuasion to force a truce between the two warring parties before the nearing presidential election.

     The 1856 presidential election was mainly decided between the Democrats, carried by the South, and the Republicans, supported in the North. Prominent voices in the South warned of secession if the Republican Fremont were to be elected, thus causing many northern conservatives to vote for the Democrat Buchanan, not willing to risk a divided Union and possible war, and thereby helping him to victory.


1.5. Dred Scott and the Kansas question, part two

In 1857 the so-called Dred Scott case made waves; the Supreme Court had decided 7-to-2 against a black slave by the name of Dred Scott. After his owner's death, he went to court and demanded his freedom on grounds that he had lived for a prolonged period of time in a free state and territory. Over the years, his case had wound itself up the judicial system and had finally arrived before the Supreme Court. In the meantime it had achieved great significance due to three questions the nation wanted cleared: a) Is a black person a citizen and does he thus have the right to sue in federal courts? b) Does prolonged residence in a free state or territory make a slave free? c) Does congress have the right to allow or forbid slavery in territories, i.e. was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional?

 The southern-dominated Court explained, often using awkward logic, that he was not a citizen as a slave and a descendant of the inferior black race that had been enslaved for more than a century before the Constitution was written, and should not have been allowed to sue in the first place. Also, his residence in a free state did not entitle him to freedom as it was only a sojourn; his residence in free territory did not entitle him either to freedom, as Congress had not the right to bar slavery from a territory since the Constitution guaranteed the right to one’s property, and that is what slaves were; the Missouri Compromise was thus unconstitutional. All in all, he was still a slave, the property of someone, a sub-human being and nothing more.

The decision was not unanimous, and while the South exulted, the North was decrying the ruling, pointing towards the opinions of the two dissenting justices and their powerful and justified rebuke of each point of the majority ruling. The South and many northern Democrats cheered at the Court’s decision, proclaiming: "the subject of Southern now the supreme law of the land."[10] and opposition to it tantamount to treason to the Constitution.  Republicans, however, refuted the Court's decision on grounds that it was obiter dictum, meaning not binding due to the fact that it was not properly before the Court or had no direct meaning to the case. Republicans argued that since the ruling found Scott not to be a citizen, the case should have been abandoned then and there, and that further results were thus obiter dictum, regardless of the fact that the other findings were obiter dictum because the question of the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise had no direct bearing to the case.

The outcome of the case did not calm the matter, but instead fanned the flames of trouble. Republicans and anti-slavery people in general denounced the ruling, condemning it as one no person with morals could recognize; an example of southern slave power and proof of a southern conspiracy to topple the pillars of freedom and equality upon which the United States was founded and to replace them with pillars of English aristocracy, for the ruling itself was not unanimous but divided along sectional lines: southern Justices and Democrats versus a Whig and a Republican. This conspiracy theory helped strengthen the Republican Party, for as northern Democrats, in particular Stephen Douglas, later discovered, the ruling meant that slavery could not be excluded from territory, i.e. popular sovereignty was no longer a viable option; even if the decision guaranteed the right to hold property, in this case slaves, it depended upon the inhabitants of the territory to enforce the ruling, and if they were against slavery, then nothing could be done, it was not self-enforcing. A federal slave code must be enacted, upheld by the United States of America. And something else further angered northern Democrats and Republicans. It being apparent to all that in Kansas anti-slavery forces were now in the majority, free settlers having almost a two-to-one population edge, pro-slavery settlers wanted their territory to become a state without the usual referendum concerning the state constitution, which they had drafted and was to their liking. Since Congress would most likely deny statehood without a referendum over the constitution, and pro-slavery knowing they would lose in a proper election, they created a win-win situation for themselves by submitting two constitutions to be voted for. One forbade the importation of slaves but allowed slaveholders in the state to keep theirs and their offspring, the other allowed slavery in full, which would most likely attract illegal importation of slaves in the future, just as cheese attracts rats. Free-soilers boycotted the first referendum not wanting either constitution, but took part in the second one in which it was possible to vote against the constitution outright. In the first referendum, the pro-slavery voters had the majority, in the second, which the slave staters this time boycotted, votes against both constitutions had the clear majority. What would become of Kansas now? The Senate accepted the constitution, the House did not; the decisions of both following party lines and hopes for reelection. The constitution was again voted upon in Kansas, but this time with the incentive of more land. Again, though, the constitution was rejected, still on grounds of the inclusion of slavery, and Kansas only acquired statehood in 1861.

1.6. A House Divided: The Lincoln-Douglas debates

After Abraham Lincoln’s nomination to the Senate, he clearly stated the Republican view on slavery in his famous “A House Divided” speech. In this address he declared, quoting the Bible, that “ ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free….It will become all one thing, or all the other.”[11] The Republican Party wanted to halt its further spread, unlike Stephen Douglas and the Democratic Party, under which slavery might become legal by a Dred Scott similar decision, forbidding states to outlaw slavery, just as the Dred Scott decision forbade the outlawing of slavery in territories and declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. The next such case might well have been Lemmon v. The People, in which slaves had fled from their master while in a free state and wanted to remain free, had not the secession of the South brought it to an untimely end. Most northern states in the 1850s had laws giving slaves the possibility of freedom if in a free state with their owner, however, the Dred Scott decision put these laws into question. As a Republican newspaper had said: “If a man can hold a slave one day in a free state, why not one month, why not one year? Why could not his ‘transit’ be indefinitely lengthened, his ‘visit’ a practical permanency?”[12]

Lincoln used this case as an example that slavery might well become legal throughout the Union, reminding the public that his main adversary in this campaign, Stephen Douglas, did not care about slavery’s future, whether its proliferation or its demise.  Lincoln and the Republican Party, being true heirs of the founders, wanted to “arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.”[13]

The two orators traveled through Illinois attacking each other, but never meeting personally until the two decided to have seven head-to-head debates in seven different towns. These deliberations made history; thousands of settlers from all walks of life, farmers, businessmen, workers and attorneys all came to hear these two leaders debate, defying the weather, it being rain, sleet, snow or heat. Douglas went on the offensive by trying to link Lincoln with radical abolitionists. Given the choice, he said, referring to popular sovereignty, all territories would surely become free states, thus ensuring what the North wanted sans the risk of disunion. The nation had survived until now half free and half divided, so why should it not be able to continue to do so? Only because the American people had lived in the belief that slavery would duly come to its natural end, just as the Founding Fathers had thought, was Lincoln’s reply. Douglas lashed back, stating that the Founding Fathers had not thought of the inferior Negro while declaring all men equal, and, trying to win public support, asked whether they would like their state to be flooded by degenerate black citizens who could vote, as Lincoln wanted. The outcry from the assembled crowd was a definite “No!”. Lincoln had to defend himself and the Republican platform. Arguing that he never had had any such ambitions, and that he did not believe that social and political equality could be achieved due to inherent physical differences and deficiencies, he stated that “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”[14] This was followed by vigorous applause from the listeners, but Douglas was still able to score some points. Pointing out that Lincoln had said numerous times that it was not his wish to disturb slavery in anyway whatsoever in states in which it already existed, Douglas asked how then did he plan to bring its natural demise about, it’s ultimate extinction? How did Lincoln want to achieve racial equality without total emancipation?  Obviously, Republicans were trying to conceal the fact that they were intent on destroying slavery and of splitting the Union. Douglas had managed with these questions to highlight the contradictions in Republican policy. Lincoln’s reply was that when speaking of ultimate extinction, he did not mean “it will be in a day, nor in a year, nor in two years. I do not suppose that in the most peaceful way ultimate extinction would occur in less than a hundred years at the least; but that it will occur in the best way for both races in God’s good time, I have no doubt.”[15]

Lincoln answered that the questions of “a perfect social and political equality…upon which Judge Douglas has tried to force the controversy…are false issues,” and that the true issue was the morality and future of slavery.

“That is the true issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world … from the beginning of time….The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings….No matter in what shape it comes, whether from a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”[16]

Douglas won the election, however, only because at the time the legislature had not been readjusted to take into account the change of population during the decade. Otherwise, Lincoln would have won, the northern counties in which he had been elected being now the larger in population. The debates made Lincoln a now nationally recognized Republican spokesperson. In the rest of the Union, the Republican Party basically crushed the Democrats. Republicans were on the march.

1.7. John Brown’s militia

John Brown was a religious fanatic believing himself to be an instrument of God, his destiny the destruction of slavery. His favorite biblical passage was: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”[17] For him slavery was a sin, one that must be expiated with blood. His plan to do so was to create a refuge for fugitive slaves in the Appalachians, and there gather a militia of slaves and lead them southward causing slave revolts until all slaves in the South rebelled and brought down the sinful institution.

He was not a great tactician and his plan of capturing a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to arm the thousands of expected slaves that were to join him failed in all except the capture of the undefended magazine. The rebellious slaves he expected did not show up; alas, there were relatively few slaves in the area, and the few that were there did not know anything of his plan. In the meantime, however, word of the seizure of the weapon store had leaked out and a group of local people was gathering to retake the armory complex. John Brown and his remaining men were driven out but were able to escape to the fire-engine house. There they were surrounded and had no chance of escape. A detachment of marines was sent, and stormed the house successfully after Brown refused to capitulate and captured him. Thus ended John Brown’s war against slavery only 36 hours after it had begun without a single slave having joined his crusade.

Yet he still may have created what he wanted, albeit in the long run. For the North he was a martyr and won the admiration of uncountable Northerners due to his stoic behavior and eloquent defense of his actions in behalf of the slaves during his trial. In his closing speech of the trial he said, moving northern anti-slavery circles to call him a saint:

“  I deny everything but what I have admitted: of a design on my part to free slaves….Had I interfered in the manner which I admit…in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great…every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

    This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction….Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”[18] 


He was sentenced to death on a conviction of treason, murder and inciting rebellion. No event “could so deepen the moral hostility to slavery as this execution. This is not because the acts of Brown are generally approved, for they are not. It is because the nature and spirit of the man are seen to be great and noble.” said the moderate Springfield Republican newspaper[19]. There was so much sympathy for the martyr of freedom that the South felt alarmed and even became paranoid. Although northern politicians distanced themselves from Brown’s acts, the massive public responsiveness manifested in church bells tolling, sermons being held in Brown’s name, the firing of canons and minutes of silence, made the South view the North as overrun with abolitionists who were akin to the Republicans, and helped reconfirm their feeling of growing insecurity within the Union. Maps of further targets in the South were found in Brown’s belongings after his capture, and rumors started to circulate that northern abolitionists wanted to incite slave rebellions and come marching armed to their aid. After it had become apparent that not one slave joined Brown’s militia and that the rumors of an armed invasion were false, Southerners felt themselves strengthened in their belief that slaves were content being slaves; after all, food and shelter were provided, and there was no danger of them ever being laid-off. In the eyes of the South, their system was the more just, for in the North, slaves were white, could be fired, earned little and had to provide for themselves. Northern agitators are the root of fugitive slaves, is what the South said.

What was lost on Southerners was the northern differentiation between Brown’s acts and his motives. The North regarded his armed assault as insane, but glorified his cause; the South viewed the whole situation in the North as a sanctioning and applauding of theft, murder and treason[20], ignoring the circumstance that the North deplored the violence involved. What the North did applaud, was the cause, not the action itself. Shouts for secession once again could be heard echoing throughout the realm of King Cotton[21]. A North Carolinian spoke for the South when he said: “I have always been a fervid Union man, but I confess the endorsement of the Harper’s Ferry outrage…has shaken my fidelity and…I am willing to take the chances of every possible evil that may arise from disunion, sooner than submit any longer to Northern insolence.”[22]

 Already the 1860 presidential election in mind, northern Democrats tried to link with their southern counterparts by denouncing the whole John Brown affair. They also attacked William Henry Seward, who would later secure the purchase of Alaska from Russia, because he was the most likely Republican candidate for the upcoming presidency. To ward off political damage, Republicans condemned Brown’s actions, still admitting, though, that they shared the same view on slavery.

The inflamed southern tempers were manifested in the mobs formed to drive out Northerners and also people with anti-slavery sentiments. Numerous business men from the North had to leave, so great was the hostility at the time. As one Atlanta newspaper declared: “We regard every man, who does not boldly declare that he believes African slavery to be a social, moral, and political blessing” as “an enemy to the institutions of the South.”[23]

1.8. The 1860 presidential election

Both Seward and Lincoln were candidates for the Republican nomination. Seward, who was whom the Democrats thought would receive the nomination, had to cede to Lincoln in part due to his long political career in which he had made numerous enemies and also some politically not so prudent moves, such as his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 and various speeches in which he had acquired an air of radicalism. Lincoln’s supporters traveled far and wide trying to convince as many voters as possible that their candidate was the only one who could win the whole North.

The Republicans also slightly changed their platform to make themselves more appetizing for the general public in the North. It was clear from the beginning that the South was a hopeless case, they did not even candidate there. John Brown’s actions were condemned, and the language concerning the exclusion of slavery was milder. They also confirmed “the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions.”[24], i.e., they would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. To appeal to as many voters as possible, the platform also included numerous economic benefits to different regions and groups.

The Democratic Party ensured Lincoln’s victory by splitting into two factions, a northern and a southern one. The southern wing demanded a federal slave code to protect and affirm the right to take slaves into federal territory, while their northern counterparts were in favor of popular sovereignty. The two groups were not able to reconcile their ideas, and so both ran their own candidate, which, in turn, ripped apart the Democratic voter base and ensured that neither would be able to gain a majority. However, this was also in the sense of some radical Southerners who wanted a Republican president to stoke the fire of secession.

During the campaign, the mood in the South was one of anxiety and fear. If a Republican were to become president, the South was in danger. Not just one, but many John Browns would descend upon the South. Although Lincoln was a firm believer that the President had no power to act against slavery where it already existed, he told his supporters that on his pledge to halt the furtherance of slavery he would “hold firm, as with a chin of steel.”[25]. This was something the South could not tolerate whatsoever. A newspaper in Atlanta declared:

“Let the consequences be what they may, whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies…the South, will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.”[26]

Just as when the little boy cries wolf once too often, the North and the Republicans did not take these threats of secession seriously. They were regarded as the usual tactics of the South to scare off northern voters who believed in the Union, from voting Republican. In spite of measures on behalf of the South and northern Democrats to influence Yankee voters, Lincoln won the election, carrying all the free northern states, but not a single slave state.


1.9. "Secessionitis"

Upon Lincoln’s election there were thirty-three states in the Union and Kansas was pending to join as a free state. In March of 1861, at the time of his inauguration, there were only twenty-seven left. The fear of so many Unionists, secession, had now become reality.

In February of 1861, the Confederate States of America had been founded and Jefferson Davis was elected provisional president. A provisional constitution had also been adopted. Numerous federal installations had been taken into possession by the South without any protests or fighting.

Abraham Lincoln was not able to act until his inauguration, and what exactly he would do to protect the Union he had pledged to hold together was not known. He did not seem to be alarmed at the secession of the states, for in his eyes “there (was) no crisis excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by designing politicians”[27]. On Inauguration Day came his answer; he denied the right of any state to secede from the Union all states had made, and he vowed to “hold, occupy and possess” Federal installations.[28] Such was the state of matters leading to the Civil War.

1.10. The spark that ignited the flame

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, had been besieged since the day after Christmas by six thousand Confederate men and cut off from reinforcement and supply. Having waited in vain a further month to see if any betterment could be expected in the crisis of the split Union, Lincoln decided against the counsel of his advisors to send provisions to the fort. Of this he informed the Governor of South Carolina. The president wanted to preserve the Union at all costs, and was now even willing to go to war, though still had not given up hopes for a peaceful solution.

     The Confederacy was split into two groups; those wanting no hostile action undertaken, and those wanting it. Some believed that if nothing were to happen, some states would prefer to return to the Union, now that their blood had cooled and their sentiments for the Union prevailed.

Text Box: The situation at the start of the U.S. Civil War
Orange: Free States   Green: Territory       Blue: Slave States    Stars: Capitals             Red Line: Union & Confederate Boundary


Those favoring action prevailed, and an ultimatum for surrender was given to the Union commander of the fort. If he did not surrender, fire upon the fort would be opened. The bombardment of Fort Sumter began at 4:30 a.m. on the 12th of April, 1861; the Civil War had begun.


2. The economic reasons for the U.S. Civil War

Until the start of the Civil War, the South and the North had not just drifted apart politically and culturally, but also economically. Whereas the North had come to depend on its industry, the South had developed into an agrarian state, dependent on slave labor.

At the start of the 19th century, though, the whole of the United States was an agricultural country with almost no industrial manufacturing, and most of what was produced was for own-consumption. "Hand-made" was the name of the game.

2.1. Advances in transportation

Between 1800 and 1830, macadamia roads were built to replace and also to add to the existing dirt road network. The water road network was next inline of development. Between 1825 and 1850, the United States gained 3,700 miles of canals.

The prototype of the rails used throughout the world today, except in Great Britain, was designed in 1830 by the American Robert Livingston Stevens, and the United States used the design extensively. By 1860, the Union had more railroads than the rest of the world combined – almost 31,000 miles. The great part of these developments was concentrated in the North; the South stayed agricultural, preferring to rest on the work of black hands.

With the massive growth of transportation possibilities came the reduction of the cost and time of transportation, allowing trade, and its prerequisite, the production of goods, to flourish. Shipping and travel time was reduced to approximately a tenth of what it used to be; railroad rates were halved, and canal rates fell even more steeply. The foundation for the transportation of cotton from the South to the factories in the North was laid, and with that the basis of the drifting apart of the two regions.

2.2. Eli Whitney

     Slavery was on its way out, or at least that is what the majority of people at the end of the 18th century thought. The once-rich tobacco fields were nearly exhausted, and with their exhaustion there was no need for the slaves that maintained them. But in 1792, a young Yankee by the name of Eli Whitney invented a cotton engine, or “gin”, a machine that was able to separate quickly and economically the cotton from its seed; cotton was now highly profitable. Until then, slaves had to manually do the job, which was time and labor intensive. A soon improved version of his “gin” was able to produce 300 to 1,000 pounds of lint, in contrast to the pound a slave could do in ten hours. In just two years, the amount of cotton exported to the fabric looms in England jumped twelve-fold, and by 1850 over one million tons were annually exported.

In 1860, of the nine million people living in the South, four million were slaves. Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina formulated the South’s position fittingly: “Cotton is King, and the African must be a slave, or there’s an end to all things, and soon.”[29]. Eli Whitney thus wedded slavery indissolubly with the South’s economy.

The young entrepreneur did not only help the South, though; he was also one of the driving forces behind the industrialization of the North. His invention of interchangeable parts in 1798 revolutionized the way goods were produced. Instead of laboriously manufacturing an item one at a time, one could now produce many single parts and then assemble the item later. This way, an economy of scale was achieved, i.e. due to the high number of a produced item, its price went down. Mass production was born, and like one of the cogs used in the new machines of the North, the southern economy of raw materials complemented beautifully the northern manufacturing industry.

2.3. The development of the southern and northern economies

     The South was an exporter of raw goods, tobacco and indigo before the 19th century, then cotton with the invention of the cotton engine. Before the American Revolution, 80% of all of the colonies’ exports came from the South. Very little industry and few factories settled there; the South was a world exporter of agricultural products, and was intent on maintaining its position. Over half of the United States’ exports from 1815 until the start of the Civil War came in form of cotton from the South.

The colder climate in the North prohibited its development into an agrarian producer, and so the northern regions invested into infrastructure and what is called ‘social overhead’, i.e. state investments that are beneficial to the economy but that are not undertaken by the private sector because of the slow or even non-existent return on equity, such as roads, schools, etc. Industry settled preferably in the North, bought the raw materials from the South and processed them in its factories, increasing its value. In contrast to the North, the South was an economy that exported raw materials and imported the more valuable finished products. What one must also not forget, is that the industry of the middlemen, i.e. the shipping, storage and also financing of the South’s products were all in the hands of the North. One of the factors that might have been the reason for this was that in the North the Puritan work ethos was still at its strongest. This belief, amongst other Puritan values such as “hard work, thrift, sobriety, reliability, self-discipline, self-reliance, and the deferral of immediate gratification for long-range goals”[30] helped the North to furnish the country with over 90% of the important inventions developed from 1800 till 1861, and keep its industry at the cutting-edge of technology.

2.4. The results of the development of different economies in the North and in the South

                     1861                                             North                                    South


105,835 acres  (=65%)

56,832 acres     (=35%)

Railroad track

21,847 miles     (=71%)

8,947 miles      (=29%)

Value of manufactured goods

$1,794,417,000 (=92%)

$155,552,000    (=8%)


119,500             (=85%)

20,600             (=15%)

Workers in industry

1,198,000          (=92%)

111,000             (=8%)

Literacy (1860)


58% of the total population, 83% of the free population and 10% of the slave population


22,340,000        (=63%)

9,103,000        (=37%)

(incl. 3,954,000 slaves)


  The table shows the discrepancies between the two regions. The North produced over 90% in value of the manufactured goods in the United States, having only six-tenth of the population, the South’s slaves included. The North’s population had near complete literacy, whereas in the South almost every second person was illiterate. Excluding the slaves, though, for whom the learning of reading and writing was forbidden because of the fear of possible uprisings, the literate population achieved nigh 85%. One in ten workers in the industry worked in the North, and only 15% of the factories in the Union at the time were in the South. When the South seceded and needed its own currency, they order had to be given to a New York firm; the South did not have a printing company capable of the job.

These developments all helped entrench each society ever more into its way of life; the South became increasingly dependent on slavery and the North to buy its produce, the North developed into a modern economy, pushing itself to further improvements, just as the Puritans constantly strove to better themselves, and to stay competitive with the leading manufacturing nation of the world at the time, Great Britain.

These economic differences helped set a backdrop for the debates and discussions concerning slavery; often enough, a convention to discuss the economic roles of the South and the North lost its original purpose and became the venue for a heated debate on slavery and its future. The South wished for new territory to expand its agricultural business, and also to keep parity in the Government, while the North strived to halt these developments because of power and moral issues. The ongoing battle between the two societies is what I tried to demonstrate. 


       What was the outcome of the Civil War? In terms of human loss it was the most terrible war ever fought in American history. The losses were greater than in all the nation’s other wars combined. One of five Union soldiers and one in four Confederate soldiers died, though more of disease and sickness than of combat. But were its goals achieved? The Union was saved, firmly welded together, the idea of secession discredited. The slaves, however, did not gain social equality. They were freed and slavery was outlawed, but true equality was a goal they would never reach in their lives. Their newly won rights were trampled upon as soon as they had been granted. Separate public facilities were devised for whites and ‘colored people’, and the right to vote was often undermined by poll taxes and literacy tests.

     Blacks resisted these efforts of segregation, but it was not until the Supreme Court declared in 1954 segregation in schools to be unequal and ordered their desegregation, that the Civil Rights movement really gained momentum and prominence. A year later, Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to yield her bus seat to a white person, which the law demanded at the time, and was arrested. Martin Luther King Jr. arranged a bus boycott that lasted for more than a year until a federal court declared the bus laws unconstitutional. Over time, total desegregation was finally achieved, and, at least on paper, blacks and whites had equal rights.

Yet, the situation of blacks in the U.S. today is still one of economic and educational inferiority. Due to the large number of African-Americans living in impoverished areas, they receive an education of lesser quality than their white counterparts living in more affluent neighborhoods that have better schools. This causes a vicious circle that is hard to break free from; no or little education of quality reduces the chances of getting a well-paying occupation, and this in turns decreases the probability of being able to reach a higher social stratum. The percentage of blacks enrolled in university mirrors this fact, only 8.9% in 1990. The median black family income remains three-fifths of that of a white family; an eerie coincidence when one remembers that at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the decision was felled that a black slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a white person.

In my eyes, true social equality still has not been attained. “All men are created equal” is what the Declaration of Independence says, but it does not seem to me as if they are placed with equal chances in our society. The future is for all to guess, but in my opinion, the seeds of equality planted in the moral causes of the Civil War will still need time until they reach maturity.





All images taken from Microsoft Encarta 96.

[1] McPherson, Ordeal, p. vii

[2] Ward, Burns & Burns, p. xvi

[3] In this text, "South" refers to the slave states, while "North" to the free states.

[4] Spotlight, p.27

[5] Wheeler/Becker, p. 115

[6] CG, 29 Cong., 1 Sess., p. 1217

[7] CG, 29 Cong., 2 Sess., p. 453-55

[8] McPherson, Battle,  p.90

[9] Nevins, Ordeal, II, p. 362

[10] McPherson, Battle, p. 176

[11] McPherson, Ordeal, p.106, quoted from Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, I11.: 1953), II, pp. 461-62

[12] McPherson, Battle, p. 181, quoted from Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill, 1981), p. 323

[13] McPherson, Ordeal, p. 106, quoted from Basler (see footnote 9), Works, II, p. 461

[14] Ibid., p. 107, quoted from Basler, II, p. 501

[15] McPherson, Battle, p.187

[16] compare McPherson, Battle, pp. 186

[17] McPherson, Ordeal, p. 114

[18] McPherson, Battle, pp. 208-209, quoted from Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (Boston, 1910), pp. 498-499

[19] McPherson, Ordeal, pp. 116-117

[20] compare McPherson, Battle, p.210

[21] The South proclaimed cotton king since cotton production was the main industry, as I will talk about later; hence the name.

[22] McPherson, Battle, p. 211

[23] Ibid., p. 212

[24] McPherson, Ordeal, p.119

[25] Ward, Burns & Burns, p. 26

[26] McPherson, Ordeal, p.122

[27] Ward, Burns & Burns, p. 33

[28] Ibid., p. 34

[29] Ward, Burns & Burns, p. 12

[30] McPherson, Ordeal, p. 14