Slavery and the Causes of the American Civil War

History buffs love to debate the cause of the American Civil War.  The most commonly accepted reason is slavery.  While history buffs love to look to other reasons the country split in half and went to war in 1861, those reasons can usually be traced right back to the same cause – slavery.

For example, many Confederate soldiers who were not slave owners would cite states’ rights as their reason for joining the Confederate cause, rather than protecting slavery.  Many civil war re-enactors make the same claim today.  While the sentiment may be sincere, the issue of states’ rights arose over… slavery.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1803, the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory from the French.  The land stretched from the Gulf of Mexico into Canada, and from the Mississippi River to the crest of the Rocky Mountains.  The territory added 828,000 square miles of land to the United States, including the port city of New Orleans and thousands of acres of farmland.  It would eventually be divided into all or part of fifteen states, with the portions above the 49th parallel becoming part of two Canadian provinces.

The first state to be carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, as it came to known, was Missouri.  Its application for statehood caused a firestorm in the United States legislature for one simple reason—slavery.  The state wished to be admitted as a slave state.  Those who opposed slavery worried that it would allow slavery to spread.  Those who supported slavery worried that if the state was admitted as a free state rather than a slave state, slaveholding states would lose power and influence in Congress.

Missouri Compromise

Henry Clay, pictured, one of the greatest statesmen in US history, provided the solution.  As a member of the United States House of Representatives, Clay authored the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, any state that wanted to join the United States as a slave state had to be below the 36 degrees 30 minutes parallel.  Any state north of the parallel would have to enter as a free state.  There was only one exception.  Missouri would be allowed to enter the United States as a slave state, while another area that met requirements for statehood was admitted as a free state.

Maine, a part of the Massachusetts Bay Territory, was admitted to the United States in 1820 as a free state.  Missouri was admitted as a slave state the following year.  The balance of power in Congress was maintained and conflict was averted, but only for a time.  Clay again helped end conflict between slavery supporters and slavery opposition over territories acquired during the Mexican War by helping to formulate the later Compromise of 1850.

Pro-slavery advocates of the day often pointed to one of Clay’s fellow Kentuckians as the cause of the civil war.  His name was Abraham Lincoln.

‘Bleeding Kansas’

In 1854, an Illinois senator named Stephen Douglas proposed a bill known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  It repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and promoted a concept known as popular sovereignty, which gave each new state the right to decide if it would be free or slave.  The issue of states’ rights would result in so much bloodshed in Kansas that the new state became known as ‘Bleeding Kansas.’

Abraham Lincoln, pictured, was an admirer of his fellow Kentuckian, Henry Clay.  Lincoln was also a former Illinois legislator who had refused a third term in the Illinois legislature a few years earlier in order to practice law.  However, Lincoln was so outraged by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the potential for the spread of slavery that he once again stepped into the political fray.  Lincoln began to actively oppose the repeal of the Missouri Compromise by using his eloquence as a speaker to campaign against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Thus began the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that would lead to both men running for the highest political post in the land in 1860—the presidency.  Abraham Lincoln was, of course, the victor.  His views on slavery had drawn a great deal of disapproval from the slave states, many of whom had threatened secession from the United States if Lincoln was elected.

Confederate States of America

In November of 1860, Lincoln defeated candidates Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge in the race for president of the United States.  In December 1860, South Carolina became the first of eleven slave states to secede from the United States with the intent of forming the Confederate States of America.  Their constitution was very much like that of the United States constitution, with one exception.  The Confederate constitution made it clear that slavery would be legal within the new country’s borders.

As a result, some point to Lincoln’s election as the cause of the American Civil War.  It should be noted, however, that the slave states opposed Lincoln primarily because of his views on slavery and fears that his first act as president would be to outlaw the practice.  Lincoln did not end slavery, but he did free the slaves held in states in rebellion against the United States.  Over two years later, on 1 January 1863, when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, 3.1 million of the four million slaves in the country were declared free.  The rest were freed as more and more of the Confederacy came under the control of Union forces during the course of the Civil War.

‘Little lady’

Lincoln, by the way, placed the blame for the war on the actions of another individual.  Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, pictured, author of the best selling novel of her time, Lincoln is reported to have said, “So, you are the little lady who started this great big war.”  Stowe’s book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel published in 1852 about the plight of those held in slavery.  Lincoln was known for his wit, and the remark was probably made in jest.

While most, if not all, of the reasons cited as the cause of the American Civil War do relate to slavery, it should be noted that opposition to slavery was in regard to the practice itself on a moral level.  Few people actually held concern for the circumstances of the slaves as human beings.  Even after the war, when slavery had been outlawed throughout the entire United States, African-Americans were still treated as second-class citizens whose rights were often diminished, on the rare occasions when they were not denied altogether.  It would be another one hundred years after the American Civil War had come to an end before the Civil Rights Movement would effectively shift attitudes towards the status and rights of African-Americans in the United States.

Kat Smutz

Kat is the author of  American Slavery: History In An Hour and The American Civil War: History In An Hour both published by Harper Press, available in various digital formats and the latter as audio.

See also articles on the origins of Memorial Day, the 4th July during the Civil War and the ‘Real Beginning of the American Civil War’.