What Caused the Civil War?

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 bookHere 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?

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10 comments

  1. I am comfortable saying things like “Slavery was the cause of the Civil War,” knowing full well that the short phrase is a bit of a fig leaf hiding a lot of details, because w/o the issue of slavery there would have been (IMO) no Civil War.

    1. Thanks, Jim, and I generally agree with the shorthand version of without slavery there would have been no war, but you and I both understand the backstory which makes that shorthand understandable and correct. But if we’re to explain it to someone who knows nothing about the war, then slavery caused the war becomes a bit problematic since they don’t have the backstory. That’s when you get questions like, “Well, since slavery existed for so long before the war, why did they pick that time to start fighting about it?” And that’s when people start arguing about whether it was slavery or secession or Lincoln’s refusal to accept secession or Davis’ refusal to allow resupply that caused the war, and arguments over whether the war started with the firing on Fort Sumter or with Lincoln’s call-up of troops, or even the Battle of Big Bethel. Those hairs get split so often that the razor has to be microscopic in order to be able to split what’s left.

      1. The downstream arguments usually come—as you well know—from people who don’t want slavery to be the central issue. So they have an agenda to push beyond simply understanding. The “why then and not before?” question is easily answered by reference to the 1850s fight over slavery in the territories, which can lead to discussions of the Gag Rule. (My son wants to read Arguing About Slavery, since he learned of the Gag Rule this year in social studies.)

        First time I’ve seen Big Bethel in one of these discussions ;-)

        1. In many cases, that’s true; however, legitimate questions get raised by folks who genuinely want to understand and are only going on what they’ve heard, because they haven’t read deeply in the subject. Also, there are those who accept slavery as the main, root cause of the war, but who also get wrapped around the axle of what’s the proximate cause vs. the immediate cause vs. the main cause vs. subsidiary causes, etc. Then we get into what was sufficient vs. what was necessary.

  2. FYI—your “email notification” is either very slow or not working. I never got a message about your reply.

    1. Could be a site problem, or could be a setting I have not changed yet. Hey, I just got the blogroll thingie figured out, so at least I’m making progress. :)

  3. Michael C. Lucas · · Reply

    With all due respect Slavery was not THE cause, it was A cause as one of several factors. It was not central to the war anymore than the other factors. The proliferation of Slavery was the cause absolutism and civil rights propaganda has distorted the study of Civil War history since World War II. Consider this no. one Slaves for that matter African Americans had few if any rights period North or South, that’s not saying they were not key players or that slavery was not a factor. It was not however the sole or central factor over others as it has been disproportionately interpreted in recent memory. So what question isn’t being asked? Without further discussion on the Slavery was the cause argument. What other issues or paradigms could be considered other factors as the cause of the conflict? What do others consider as causes?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Michael. I appreciate your taking the time to share your perspective. As my old professor, James I. Robertson, said, the evidence is just too strong that slavery was central to the war (Note that being central to the war is not the same as being the sole cause of the war. I still think “What caused the war?” is the wrong question). Mississippi, for one, was very clear in telling us that the protection of slavery was the only thing they were interested in when they wrote, in their Declaration of Causes, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Jefferson Davis, in his first message to the confederate congress, was very clear in stating that slavery was the at the core of the separation. Now, I recognize that there is a difference between the secession and the war. Certainly if the unseceded states were willing to simply aquiesce in what the seceding states had done the war would probably not have come at that time. However, just as the police don’t cause a conflict when they respond to an alarm announcing a bank robbery, we have to recognize that unilateral secession was seen by enough of a majority of the nonseceding states to be an illegal action and opposing that illegal action was then nowhere near as major a causal factor as the factor that drove the seceded states to secede. And that factor was slavery. By this I don’t mean the existence of slavery itself, but rather issues growing out of slavery and the arguments over slavery between the sections. Most important of these was the issue regarding the expansion of slavery. Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to cut off slavery’s expansion, with Lincoln being of the opinion that this would leave slavery on the road to eventual extinction. Other issues included enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, the John Brown Raid, and antislavery preachings and writings. Men in Congress were carrying weapons into the House and Senate chambers due to the arguments over slavery, not due to any other issues. Your point about African Americans having few rights has no relevance to why the war came about, so I don’t understand why you took the time to include that point. John S. Mosby was quite clear regarding slavery’s role with the war: “The South had always been solid for slavery and when the quarrel about it resulted in a conflict of arms, those who had approved the policy of disunion took the pro-slavery side. It was perfectly logical to fight for slavery, if it was right to own slaves.” [John S. Mosby, Mosby’s Memoirs, p. 20] There are plenty enough statements from the time of the war itself, not from recent times, that show slavery was the central factor of the war. I have an entire bookcase, not just a shelf, loaded with works covering the cause of the war. While you’re right that simply saying slavery caused the war ultimately isn’t satisfactory, if we understand that behind that word “slavery” there are a large number of issues all related to slavery which would not have existed had slavery not existed, we can use “slavery” as a shorthand for all those issues, and then when we say slavery caused the war we have a much more satisfying statement. Ultimately without slavery there would be no secession, and without secession there would have been no war. If you want to say that without the resistance to unilateral secession there would have been no war, then I would agree there would probably not have been a war at that time, but it would probably have come along sooner or later anyway due to the emotions and tensions being at the level they were at. So to bring this long and convoluted response to its conclusion, the issues around slavery were probably not the only factors that led to war, but they were certainly the most important factors and without the issues surrounding slavery no other factor would have led to war. With those issues in the mix, emotions were so high that war was going to come.

  4. […] point that I think I’ve answered in previous posts, and I know has been answered by Al Mackey at Student of the American Civil War and Jarrett Ruminski at That Devil History among many others, but merits a closer […]

  5. Michael Rodgers · · Reply

    The US Civil War was a slave state insurrection that not all the slave states joined and that the federal government put down. The insurrecting states began declaring secession independently — but in communication with each other through secession commissioners — soon after Lincoln was elected President on a slavery containment platform, where slavery would not be officially interfered with by the federal government in the slave states but would be excluded from the federal territories — the frontier and the west.

    The slave states in the deep South, where the sun burns strong in the fields of the white owned plantations, feared losing the nearly $4 billion of property that the black slaves represented to them. Those slave states, with the highest slave population (over 40%), declared secession first, followed by Texas and then by the remaining slave states with over 20% slave population (those slave states with under 20% slave population never declared secession).

    The last batch of states to declare secession did so following the firing on Ft. Sumter, a military installation belonging to the United States of America, by insurrecting forces and following President Lincoln’s subsequent calling up of troops to put down the insurrection. The insurrecting states formed a new government, the Confederate States of America, which the United States of America did not recognize but instead fought and defeated.

    On July 4, 1861 President Lincoln addressed Congress seeking approval for the war effort, and he got it. The war was long and brutal. Confederate troops fought and also captured slaves, fugitive or otherwise. President Lincoln realized that he could enlist former slaves in the war effort and did so. He formed USCT and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in all of the insurrecting states. The Confederate government engaged in conscription to forcibly draft white men into the Confederate army and refused to consider making slaves soldiers.

    The war ended when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. General Ulysses Grant at a courthouse in Appomattox and when, not much later, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured. The insurrection was over and, with the good news of the new Constitutional amendments and the bad news of President Lincoln’s assassination, the United States of America was reborn.

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