Was the American Civil War Really Fought Over the Issue of Slavery?

Introduction

Decades of simmering tensions, mistrust, and differences in opinion culminated into what has remained the United States’ bloodiest civil war in the spring of 1861. What followed was a four-year war that claimed several lives before coming to an end in 1865. Until today, controversy has marked the real causes of the war. Whereas many people, scholars, historians, and political scientists, point to various complex and deeply rooted issues as the causes of the war, in reality however, slavery was the principal cause of the war; the other reasons played a secondary role to slavery and are purely attempts by historical revisionists to improve the image of the Southern States. Lessening the role of slavery in the Civil War is quite misleading. Despite the controversies surrounding the causes of the war, it is undeniable that it was both deadly and destructive, hence the need for pointing out, without any biasness, its real causes. The war pitted neighbor against neighbor, and by the time of the Confederate States’ surrender, it was estimated that 620,000 died, millions incapacitated, while millions more suffered minor injuries. Additionally, properties worth millions were destroyed during the pacification of the Confederate States. The build up to the war, and the reasons cited by both the Confederate States and the Northern States, affirm the centrality of slavery as the driving force for entering the war. It is undeniable that many other factors fuelled the Civil War, but slavery remained the most pertinent of all the issues. As such, this paper will attempt to establish that the “American Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.”

Discussion

A growing number of people, especially in the recent past, consider other factors other than slavery to be responsible for the Civil War. For instance, they cite territorial crisis as one of the major propellants of the Civil War. A few years before the civil war witnessed massive expansion of the United Sates territory. Conquests, purchases, and negotiations saw the incorporation of Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Missouri among other states into the United States. The new states opened new “hunting grounds” for the South and the North to expand their spheres of influence; agriculture and industrialization respectively. Whereas the South saw the new acquisitions as opportunities for furthering their agricultural activities, highly characterized by slave trade, the North wanted the new states free. The North moved in fast to curtail any further expansion of Southern dominance. This resulted in disputes and tension between the two regions, which were later seen as responsible for fuelling the Civil War. No side was willing to back down despite the evident effects of the tensions between them. Finkelman claims, “Proexpansionists, and even some antiexpansionists understood that their positions could very well lead to civil war” but none opted to rethink their position. Hayes supports this opinion by claiming that even local media in the two territories undermined national cohesion by involving deeply in regional issues at the expense of national integration, thereby estranging ties between the two regions. Even though the North contested slavery-aided agriculture in the South, the political polarization that accompanied the protests and objections were far less contentious as compared to that which followed the South’s desire to expand their territories westward. Furthermore, factors, which held back the North from actively fighting the South’s contentious agricultural programs, were not in play, thereby opening a full-blown territorial contest. The factors that held back the North were enshrined in the constitution of the country. First, the constitution granted the southern states, just like the northern states, complete autonomy. As such, regional policies and deliberations guided institutions within their boundaries. Secondly, federal government could not interfere with inter-state slavery. These two constitutional provisions were more of a hindrance to the Northern states in changing the shape and scope of southern agriculture. With slim possibilities of changing the agricultural activities of the South, the North’s only option, it is argued, was to curtail any further expansion of the South. The tension that followed the campaigns was immense, with each side pushing to further its interests. It is this tension and deeply rooted enmity, furthered by territorial scrambles that culminated into the American Civil War. Many people share this opinion. Donovan claims that of all the probable causes of the American civil war, “territorialexpansion” played a central role. Linden adds to this debate by claiming, “Successful waging of the Mexican War added vast new territories to the United States. Soon a rivalry developed between the North and South” to control the new territories culminating into the American Civil War.” Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman place territorial crisis, as a cause of the American Civil War, from a very different perspective. They claim,

In the eyes of many U.S. citizens, virtually every battle in the Mexican-American War made manifest the heroism and superior fighting abilities of the North-American. In the battle of Buena Vista, less than 5,000 U.S soldiers defeated a Mexican army of 15,000. At Cerro Gordo, U.S forces flanked and drove a much larger Mexican army out of a defensive position, clearing the way to match on the capital, where they successfully stormed Chapultepec Castle, which guarded Mexico City.

According the writers argument, the Northerners were used to solving stalemates using military might. Most importantly, civilians in the North viewed military aggression as prowess and an achievement, something to be proud of. Having solved all territorial conflicts militarily, and failing to explore diplomacy, the only viable and available option for solving the stalemate with the South was to engage the military.

Another argument fronted by a section of scholars as the cause of the American Civil War is economic struggle. According to Kennedy, Lizabeth and Thomas “The war was not fought over slavery per se, but rather was a deeply rooted economic strugglebetween an industrial North and an agricultural South.” Years preceding the Civil War saw a great difference in the economic interest of the South and the North. According to the proponents of this theory, the divergent paths taken by the two regions contributed significantly towards building animosity between them leading to the Civil War. Agriculture was the backbone of the United States government’s economy before the civil war. A majority of the U.S population lived in rural areas practicing subsistence and large-scale agriculture. The emergence of industrial revolution in England slowly, but surely found roots in the United States with the North leading in its adoption, just like other “former colonies.” Even though industrialization took place in both regions, North and South, major industries and manufacturing plants were established in the North. Despite comprising of 25% of free population, the South only had 10% of the U.S capital just before the civil war. Worst still, a vast majority of America’s skilled workers were in the North. The difference was not only in the industrialization growth, but also in labor force. Labor in the North was relatively expensive, while that in the South, majorly provided by slaves, was cheap and free in many instances. However, the expensive and mobile North’s labor had its cost controlled by the influx of cheap labor from Asian countries. Unlike in the North where labor was provided for manufacturing, processing, and production in industries and other subsidiary plants, in the south, slaves provided labor in households and farms. The highest number of slaves served Cotton plantations in the South making the cotton industry an extremely lucrative investment for the Southerners. According to Genovese, “…the basic social relations of slaverydominated the great southern heartland and determined its mind...” In fact, Britain’s industrialization increased slave labour demand in the South as Southern farmers acquired Eli Whitney’s Gin, which processed cotton products fast, increasing the demand for raw materials, that is, cotton. Increased demand for cotton in the South led to an increase in slave labour demand in the region. During the pre-war years, farming activities in the South propelled the entire U.S economy’s growth. From the argument, there was a distinct difference in the economic structure and activities of the South from the North. Therefore, what economic issues caused tension between the regions that could have resulted in the Cold War? According to Woodworth, “At the root of this conflict supposedly lay slavery, which was considered a fundamental characteristic of Southern life, and thetariff, which favoured manufacturers at the North.” Here, tariffs are considered as a major tension building issue. A tariff, in this case, is “A tax imposed on imported goods.” Having established earlier on that the South heavily relied on imports from other nations to fulfil their needs, it is clear that imposing tariffs significantly affected them as compared to the North. Unsurprisingly, before the civil war, any attempts by the federal government to increase tariffs were met by objections in the South States, but highly welcomed in the North States. This position was reflected in congressional voting as the South traditional objected tariff increment bills, whereas the North approved such bills. With low tariffs, the South could get cheaply imported goods, while high tariffs offered the reverse, hence the fight for low tariffs in the South. In brief, South’s import oriented economy could only be sustainable with cheap imports. Why did the North favour increased tariffs? The North, as established earlier, produced its own goods. Increased tariffs, therefore, favoured them as it made imported goods more expensive than locally produced goods, making their produce more competitive in the market. 

How exactly did the difference in economic drivers cause the Civil War? From 1820s on wards, the gap between the two regions widened. Bitter and heated debates emerged, not only in the congress, but in business quarters too. Southerners’ interests were continually threatened, especially after the Missouri Compromise. What followed was a series of demonstrations and protests across the Southern States. First, the “Tariff of Abominations” prompted wide protests in the South in 1820s. Almost a decade later in 1830s, the Nullification Crisis emerged. The crisis was worse than the 1820s demonstrations, confirming that the tariff problem was getting worse by the day. These two incidences demonstrated the controversy accompanying the tariff wars in the two regions. As the Southerners fought so hard to protest the tariffs, the Northerners reaped the good fortunes of industrialization arising from increased sales. Further, the protests revealed a deeply rooted division between the two sides aggravated by tariff wars. The tariff wars took a new dimension when the Southerners realized that their interest could only be protected through the enactment of ‘favorable’ laws. A new battleground was hence set in the congress with each side fighting to have a majority in the house. However, the influx of immigrants to the North tilted the ground in favor of the North. This did not go well with the South who feared the enactment of bills that did not favor them, especially on tariffs. As a result, tension between the two sides increased leading to isolated clashes occasionally. By late 1850s, a war between the two sides was eminent. The North having dominated the Congress and in most cases thwarting Southerner’s attempts to put through ‘favorable’ economic policies, secession was the South’s only option. According to the proponents of this theory, the South, fearing domination in national policy formulation and losing their institutions, chose to secede. However, the North was not willing to let the South break; as such, the Civil War began.

This claim is widely supported by many people. Kelly argues that the differences in the economic structures of the two regions resulted in major shifts in economic attitudes. He further claims, “This change in the North meant that society evolved as people of different cultures and classes had to work together. On the other hand, the South continued to hold onto an antiquated social order.” Alexander claims that the ultimate cause of the American Civil War was economic differences. In his opinion, slavery may have just been the proximate cause of the War.

Summary of Counter claims

In summary, those opposed to slavery as the principal cause of the American Civil War give two main claims as the possible causes of the war, territorial disputes, and economic crisis. Pockets also cite Federal versus State laws as another potential trigger. In their opinion, a few years before the civil war witnessed massive expansion of the United Sates territory. The new states opened new “hunting grounds” for the South and the North to expand their spheres of influence; agriculture and industrialization respectively. Whereas the South saw the new acquisitions as opportunities for furthering their agricultural activities, the North wanted the new states free. The North moved in fast to curtail any further expansion of Southern dominance. This resulted in disputes and tension between the two regions, which later triggered the Civil War. On economic crisis, they claim years preceding the Civil War saw a great difference in the economic interest of the South and the North. Bitter and heated debates emerged, not only in the congress, but in business quarters too. What followed was a series of demonstrations and protests across the Southern States. The divergent paths taken by the two regions contributed significantly towards building animosity between them leading to the Civil War, as the South, fearing domination in national policy formulation and losing their institutions, chose to secede. However, the North was not willing to let the South break; as such, the Civil War began.

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