The United States of America had been in existence for less than a century when it was nearly shattered by the most terrible conflict in its history. Over 600,000 people were killed, and one out of every 50 Americans was a casualty of war. Applying such a casualty rate to today’s population would result in over 6.6 million killed or wounded. Now, over a century and a half since the war began, the key question that must be addressed remains: Why did it happen?
By the mid-nineteenth century, America consisted of two different societies fueled by two different economies. The North was dominated by industry, and investments in factories, steamships, and railroads created the wealth and jobs that attracted millions of immigrants. Meanwhile, the South remained dependent on an economy based on exporting plantation crops such as cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar.
As northern industry grew, the northern industrial influence on the Federal government became greater. Southerners feared that northern interests would eventually dominate Washington, which would ultimately destroy the traditional way of life in the South. For this reason, southerners sought to keep the Federal government limited in scope, leaving most governing powers to the states as the founders had intended.
Embedded within the economics and politics of the two diverging American societies was the institution of human slavery. In the mid-nineteenth century, most white Americans in both North and South had no definitive opinion on whether slavery should be abolished or upheld. In the South, slaveholders comprised about 25 percent of the population, and abolitionists comprised a similar percentage in the North. However, extremists on both sides added fuel to the fire that was already being stoked by the growing disagreements over money and politics.
Slavery has existed since the development of human civilization, and it had existed in America since the first colonies were organized. In 1776, economist Adam Smith famously argued in The Wealth of Nations that wealth is best created when government intervention in business is minimized. But Smith also argued that slave labor was counterproductive because slaves absorbed capital that could be more profitably invested elsewhere.
These notions of free markets and free men influenced America’s founders, but many of them had never lived without slavery and were not prepared to risk their livelihoods by setting their slaves free. So to create a unified country, a compromise on slavery was needed. Most of the founders hoped that the institution would eventually fade from existence without Federal intervention one way or the other.
By 1860, the demand for slave labor had been replaced by the demand for skilled labor in the North. Slavery was also beginning to fade in the Upper South, and most southerners acknowledged that the institution would die a natural death as it had in nearly all other Western Hemisphere countries.
The approaching conflict did not begin as a fight over slavery. Several states that did not secede, as well as the District of Columbia, allowed slavery. Northern states that prohibited slavery primarily did so not for humanitarian reasons, but because slave labor was no longer profitable in those regions. And in 1860, Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president on the pledge not to disrupt slavery where it already existed.
Southerners watched the rapid changes taking place in the North and feared a northern attempt to control the South. Southerners resisted this change by becoming stronger defenders of their lifestyle, including slavery. Many used biblical arguments to justify slavery, along with rationalizations that slaves received benefits—free food, shelter, and health care—that were not provided to northern laborers.
By 1860, the South was the world’s greatest cotton exporter. Any efforts by the northern lobby to influence the Federal government into acting against slavery were seen as a threat to not only the southern economy, but to the southern way of life.
Since America’s founding, tariffs on imported goods had been the primary source of Federal revenue. Southerners had consistently opposed high tariffs; the South relied more heavily on imports than the North, and foreign trading partners tended to raise prices to offset the tariff increases. Conversely, northerners had consistently pushed for higher tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing—mostly located in the North—from foreign competition.
The Industrial Revolution and poor European living conditions prompted millions of immigrants to come to America seeking jobs and homesteads, and most settled in the northern manufacturing centers. In turn, northern industrialists sought to advance their interests by lobbying the Federal government for various favors such as taxes on foreign competitors, free homesteads to settlers, centralization of the money supply, and taxpayer-funded subsidies to businesses.
While the northern economy was rapidly changing, the southern economy continued its main reliance on plantation farming carried out by slave labor. Southerners rigidly opposed the northern lobby in Washington, instead favoring the founders’ idea of a decentralized Federal government that dispersed more power to the states and the people. Southerners supported low taxes and free trade, and they opposed special favors such as giving tax dollars to preferred businesses.
The founders’ hope that slavery would die a natural death was obliterated by a series of events and Federal actions that unnaturally prolonged the institution’s existence. These events also widened the economic and political divide between North and South.
Slavery’s profitability was waning in the late eighteenth century until the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made plantation farming more lucrative than ever before. This increased the demand for slave labor in the South while such a demand was diminishing in the industry-oriented North.
As the southern economy became more dependent on cotton and slavery, southerners began asserting their belief in a limited Federal government as envisioned by the founders. In the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison argued that the states had voluntarily joined the Union, and as such they had the right to ignore or nullify Federal laws deemed unconstitutional.
American expansion also played a role in dividing North and South. Northerners were suspicious of President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, which added an enormous amount of new land to the U.S., most of which was in the South. This opened the path to creating more southern slave states, and consequently, careful arrangements were made for a generation to maintain a balance of slave and non-slave states in the Union.
New Englanders were highly critical of the War of 1812 against Britain, and at the Hartford Convention, delegates even pondered seceding from the Union. The grievances were strikingly similar to those aired by the southern states a half century later. The motion was defeated and the war ended shortly thereafter, but this was the first secession movement in American history, and it occurred in the North.
A series of Federal compromises were reached to appease North and South, beginning in 1820. When Missouri—a territory that allowed slavery—requested statehood, it threatened to upset the balance between slave and non-slave state representation in Congress. A crisis was averted by also granting statehood to Maine, which prohibited slavery. In addition, slavery was prohibited north of Missouri’s southern border in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Many believed that this compromise would end the sectional differences. However, future President John Quincy Adams prophetically saw it as “a title-page to a great, tragic volume.”
A sensational slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831 caused southerners to enact stricter regulations on slave activity. Southerners also began defending slavery more staunchly, fearful that freeing slaves or allowing slaves to hear northern agitation would lead to more rebellion and mass murder. Consequently, southern states began passing laws limiting free speech, banning abolitionist tracts from the mail, and censoring the press. In turn, northerners began to perceive the South as a backwards region in need of reform.
In 1832, South Carolinians opposed to the enactment of a high tariff (the “Tariff of Abominations”) invoked the principles of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and declared the law null and void. After President Andrew Jackson threatened to lead a Federal army into South Carolina to collect the duties, a compromise was reached that averted war for another generation.
American victory in the Mexican War expanded U.S. territory further to the southwest, again sparking northern fears that more southern states would be created which would give the South an edge in Federal representation. Heated debate ensued over whether or not slavery should be allowed in the new territories. A compromise produced the slave state of Texas, the non-slave state of California, and a region in between (the future states of New Mexico and Arizona) where people would decide for themselves whether slavery would be allowed.
The compromise also included a new Fugitive Slave Act, which required citizens to join Federal posses to capture runaway slaves and return them to their masters. Many northerners who had previously been ambivalent about slavery refused to abide by this “Man-Stealing Law.” Several northern states took a page out of the southern book by invoking the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to nullify the act. This sparked outrage in the South.
Nullification, a concept introduced by southerners, actually increased the number of abolitionists and further separated North and South. Ironically, the southern secession of 1860-1861 was partially prompted by southerners protesting the fact that northerners were nullifying Federal laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act.
The creation of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska caused further sectional animosity because the people of those territories were allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. This violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in that region. Nebraska’s climate was not conducive to slavery, but thousands of ruffians and abolitionists flooded into Kansas to rig elections either for or against allowing slavery. As a smaller version of the conflict to come, the territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Northerners were outraged by an 1857 Supreme Court ruling that the Federal government had no right to prohibit slavery anywhere in America, even in the North. Ironically, the Court cited the numerous laws prohibiting or restricting black immigration, citizenship, and voting rights in the northern states. This ruling horrified those who hoped that slavery would someday end. The Democratic Party openly split along North-South lines over this decision, opening the path to a Republican presidential victory in 1860.
Southerners were horrified by John Brown’s 1859 raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown was a fanatical abolitionist who hoped to incite a massive slave insurrection that would destroy the southern economy. The raid was quickly subdued and Brown was executed for treason, but widespread northern affection for such a terrorist alarmed the South. Southern states began strengthening their militias to defend against other potential northern attacks.
The Republican Party
By the mid-1850s, the two major political parties—the Democrats and the Whigs—were crippled by years of reluctant compromises between North and South. The Democratic Party began splitting along sectional lines, and the Whig Party disintegrated after the 1852 elections. From this, a new party was formed initially to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Consisting mostly of former Whigs and disgruntled northern Democrats, it became known as the Republican Party.
Receiving almost no southern support, this was the first major sectional party in America. The Republicans’ ideology was descended from the Federalist-National Republican-Whig program that supported centralizing banking and finance, raising taxes on foreign competition to protect domestic manufacturing, and granting taxpayer-funded subsidies to favored businesses.
The Republicans’ economic program was perfectly suited for northern industrial interests, and it represented everything that the decentralized, low-tax, free trade South had opposed for three generations. Moreover, Republicans opposed the spread of slavery into the western territories, mainly because cheap slave labor would undercut free white labor. Southerners responded by denouncing the new “Black Republicans.” The Republican Party openly announced its intentions to enact a pro-northern, pro-industry agenda that would necessarily be anti-southern, anti-agricultural in nature.
These economic concepts were not new, but in the past the South had had enough political influence to prevent their implementation. However, the new Republican Party, combined with the population explosion and the strength of the industrial lobby in the North, threatened to permanently outvote southern interests in the Federal government. Southerners dreaded the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress and presidency that would end the southern way of life, and their nightmare came true in the 1860 elections.
For nearly 75 years, the southern way of life had been preserved through compromise and nullification threats. Now, if the Republicans won the White House and Congress in the upcoming elections, the southern political power would be superseded by northern industrial interests. And if that happened, most southerners believed that they would be forced to turn to the final check on limiting Federal power: secession.
Coffey, Walter, The Civil War Months: A Month-by-Month Compendium of the War Between the States. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2012.