I’ve participated in a number of discussions and debates on what caused the Civil War, and have done quite a bit of reading dedicated to it. Among some really good books that discuss the events leading up to the war and that discuss how and why the war came about, I really enjoyed David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, and William Freehling’s The Road to Disunion (2 volumes). Also useful are Gabor S. Boritt’s (edited) Why the Civil War Came, Kenneth M. Stampp’s (edited) The Causes of the Civil War, and The Coming of the Civil War edited by Michael Perman. The last is the third edition, with the first two editions titled The Causes of the American Civil War and edited by Edwin C. Rozwenc. These are collections of documents, speeches, and readings from participants and historians. Avery Craven’s The Coming of the Civil War is also useful, I think. One of the best books about why states seceded is Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. There are some other great books on the start of the Civil War, such as Kenneth Stampp’s And the War Came, David Potter’s Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, and Richard N. Current’s Lincoln and the First Shot.
After doing a lot of reading and listening to historians, I’ve accepted the fact that “What Caused the Civil War?” is the wrong question to ask. Edward Ayers has been influential in this. I enjoy his work. Here is a video of Prof. Ayers talking about his work in digital history and also talking about his essay, “What Caused the Civil War?” The essay can be read, along with other essays from Prof. Ayers, in this book. Here is an essay he wrote for the New York Times’ Sesquicentennial blog, “Disunion.” A thoughtful critique of this column can be found here.
As Professor Ayers tells us in his essay, “‘What caused the Civil War?’ misleads us because it seems such a straightforward question. The implication of ‘what’ is that some factor can be isolated, held apart from everything else. ‘Cause’ evokes a mechanical model of action and reaction. ‘The’ implies that the Civil War was the four-year set of battles and outcomes that eventually unfolded, including Union victory and emancipation. Such a simple question virtually demands a simple answer.” [p. 133]
Unfortunately, answering that question as posed leaves one open to all kinds of quibbling, hair splitting, and “yes, but” interjections that it is ultimately unsatisfying because you can never come up with a sufficient answer.
Ayers talks about having a series of questions that “acknowledge that what became the Civil War was caused over and over again as it changed from a political conflict to a military conflict to a struggle over emancipation.” [Ibid.} Professor Ayers says the first question ought to be, "What motivated millions of Americans to declare themselves as enemies of one another in 1859, in 1860, and in 1861?" [Ibid.]
I’ve been thinking that a good umbrella question might be, “How did the Civil War come about?” Within that, one would start with the sectional conflict, moving up through the secession of the lower south, the dispute over Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens, Lincoln’s proclamation calling up troops, and the secession of the upper south, to name a few of the issues involved.
Unfortunately, that takes the better part of a bookshelf to answer, and in our society we’re looking for soundbites, not necessarily deep answers. And if we’re talking about it on an internet discussion group, forget it. Nobody’s going to type out an entire book, for example. Even in a verbal discussion, a full answer would take weeks and our discussions don’t last anywhere near that long. One must necessarily deal with short answers. Professor Ayers recognizes many of us are looking for short answers.: “What caused the Civil War? If you have to offer a one-word answer, go ahead and just say slavery. But you should know what you mean by that answer. The Civil War did not come from the sheer intolerable existence of slavery in a nation built on the ideals of freedom, or from the past and the future caught in a death struggle, or from a familiar sequence of political events that crashed into one another in a chain reaction like so many billiard balls. Rather, you mean slavery as the key catalytic agent in a volatile new mix of democratic politics and accelerated communication, a process chemical in its complexity and subtlety. You mean, in short, history, the living connection among fundamental structures, unfolding processes, and unpredictable events.” [p. 142]
Often we’ll be asked what caused the Civil War. I think a good response would be that understanding how the Civil War came about is a highly complex undertaking, and if you want a short answer, it would be slavery, but there are a number of factors about slavery and about how slavery affected people, the economy, and the society as a whole in the different parts of the United States in order to bring about the war.
What do you think? How would you answer that question if your cousin or an acquaintance asked you?