The Causes of the American Civil War Essay Example

The American Civil War of 1861-1865 was fought between the Union (the northern states) and The Confederates (the southern states) under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. This international conflict is perhaps the most written about and studied piece of United States history. The war brought about an estimated 700,000-800,000 casualties, more than the American Revolution, World War I, World War II and Vietnam put together. From December 1860, South Carolina succeeded from The Union and so this began the conflict between The North and The South. So exactly what caused the civil war? The war was a result of conflicting ideological, cultural and economic ideas between both regions.


Arguably the general consensus is that slavery was the primary cause of the civil war. Even though there were differences of opinion on slavery within Union states at the time and not all the states that held slaves were part of The Confederacy, it was generally clear that The North and The South held opposing views to slavery, leading to political causes of the civil war. From a philosophical perspective, slave ownership was not consistent with republicanism, a philosophy which held unalienable individual rights and liberty as its key central values. As republicanism was the core philosophy of the United States, The Union longed to bring slavery to a gradual end by containing its spread throughout the nation. The South believed that this idea went against their Constitutional rights and that they should be allowed to own slaves if they so desired.

The majority of slavery was illegal in The North as it had been outlawed in the 19th century, yet its expansion was rife in southern states. Farming wasn’t as important in The North whereas the cheap workforce of slavery provided the backbone for the economy in the southern region. The rise of chattel slavery meant that slaves could be bought and sold as property and any children the slaves had could become property too. People were owned outright, unlike in The North. The culture of abolitionists in the Union vs. the strong desire to use cheap slave labour in The South created strong conflicts between both parties which ultimately escalated.

As Lincoln stated in his inaugural address, one-eighth of the American population were coloured slaves that were localised in The South which had particular and powerful interests. All knew that these interests were somehow the cause of the war. It’s no shock that renowned Historian David Goldfield was famously quoted saying “both northerners and southerners recognized slavery as the immediate cause of the civil war”.

The Economy

New England states and the climate of The North were largely not suited for farming and so this industry was not embraced. Instead, manufacturing was the booming industry in this region and goods were made with machines instead of being grown. Crops and raw materials were taken and turned into something more valuable and so The North didn’t need to rely as much on slave labour, instead immigrants were recruited to work in factories. The booming manufacturing industry and exports overseas meant that cities were able to grow in northern states and city life becoming the norm of northern society.

In contrast, The South was a much better region for growing, with a lot of fertile soil, especially along the mineral-rich river basins. The agricultural industry meant that unlike cities, owners could have large farms with enormous open fields. Cotton, rice, tobacco and the indigo plant were key products grown in largely monoculture farms that required labour from numerous slaves. Plantations became the centre of life and people lived in agrarian societies – these societies didn’t follow the same layout of northern cities but were more like small towns usually owned by one person which allowed lots of slaves to work on the fields.

To put it simply, The North liked producing products and The South liked growing, and so this produced the economic causes of the Civil War. Because of the larger population in the northern region, greater technological advances and economic success lead to greater quantities of manufactured goods, therefore slavery was gradually phased out. This was in contrast to The South which depended on slavery for its predominant agricultural economy.

Southern states had little desire to embrace manufacturing as businesses were based on low cost labour and so supported the right to sell cotton and purchase manufactured items from any country. In contrast, Northern states had heavily invested in manufacturing and could not compete with advanced European industries to offer high prices from southern cotton imports and lower prices for manufactured good exports in return. This difference in economic interests meant that The North supported tariffs on goods whereas The South demanded a free trade.

Some historians debate whether differences in economy between northern and southern regions did help propel the war. A number of academic sources seem to suggest that both regions economies were complementary, i.e. The North and The South did trade a significant amount with each other which brought about mutual benefits. However, it is clear that the interweaving of the slave culture into the southern economy meant that Confederate states would have lost a lot if slavery was taken away from them, and this would have been a great source of tension. If the livelihoods of the majority of southern businessmen were at stake, it is no wonder they would have gone to extraordinary lengths to defend their interests.

Sectionalism and Nationalism

Tensions were unsurprisingly high and loyalty began to brew within regions right before the time of the war, leading to widespread sectionalism. Population’s economies, social structures, customs and political values were vastly different in the north and the south, which exacerbated these tensions. If people were to meet each other they would talk with clear identity in mind, an individual from The North regarding themselves as a “northerner” and The South using derogatory terms like “yankee” to describe those from The North – no one really saw themselves as Americans. At the time it felt like two separate parts of the world and because each region thought of themselves as different, it was more easy for animosity and conflict to brew between these regions.

States’ Rights

A major issue before the time of the war was one of states’ rights. Key questions were posed:

  • What rights do states have over the central government?
  • Should states have more power than central government?
  • Should the central government have all the power in making decisions?

The South argued that each state had rights to secede and leave the Union whenever they wanted – they claimed that states should decide whether they want to pass laws or not, as the states were themselves important individual regions. The reason this problem played out was because The South didn’t like a lot of the laws that were passed by The North and were afraid of The North’s influence, so they looked for a reason not to have to listen to the laws they imposed or to do away with these laws altogether. South Carolina ignored a tax on cotton passed by The North because The South was cotton rich and so South Carolina wondered why they had to listen to such laws that would not affect The North to the same degree, The North hardly growing cotton at all.

The South saw Abraham Lincoln as a threat and so argued that they should have the right to secede or leave the United States. It was argued that each state has its own separate identity and so each state should be able to walk away if they want to. In effect, the issue of states rights caused many states to do just that and to form their own group called The Confederacy or The Confederate States of America. The Confederacy proclaimed that they were not part of the United States anymore and so didn’t have to listen to United States laws and needn’t have to pay attention to the constitution. The North retaliated claiming that all states were indeed part of the United States of America and that The South couldn’t decide to leave, which in turn led to widespread conflict between the two regions.

Conclusion and Aftermath

Lincoln tried to downplay the slavery side stating that the war was mainly about preserving the union, however, it is clear that the predominant factor that resulted in the civil war was slavery. The brutal and horrific practice of slavery filtered through into all of the causes of the civil war, creating tensions that paved the way for such loss of life, suffering and destruction. All causes mixed together forming a potent reason to fight for the good of either The Union or The Confederacy. Whatever individual motives people had, whether they were based on political ideology or economic motives, millions of men were eager to fight and die. In the aftermath, the Reconstruction Era followed immediately after from 1865 – 1877 whereby Lincoln’s administration tried to put the pieces back together and reconstruct society, provide recovery for those involved in the war.

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