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Origins of the American Civil War
The origins of the American Civil War lay in the complex problems of slavery, expansion, sectionalism, parties, and politics of the antebellum era. As territorial expansion forced the United States to confront the question of whether new areas of settlement were to be slave or free, as the power of the slaveholders in national politics waned, and as the North and the South developed starkly divergent economies and societies, the divisive issues of sectionalism catapulted the nation into the Civil War (1861-1865).
See also the Timeline of key events leading up to the Civil War.
On the eve of the Civil War, the United States was a nation divided into four quite distinct regions: the Northeast, with a growing industrial and commercial economy and an increasing density of population; the Northwest, a rapidly expanding region of free farmers; the Upper South, with a settled plantation system and (in some areas) declining economic fortunes; and the Southwest, a booming frontier-like region with expanding cotton economy.
The economic and social structures across the nation's geographical regions – based on free labor in the Northeast and Northwest, and on slave labor in the Southeast and Southwest – resulted in the emergence of distinct visions of society by the mid-nineteenth century in the North and in the South. In the 1840s and 1850s, sectional tensions would change in their nature and intensity, bringing these views into sharp conflict.
With the emergence by the mid-1850s of the United States Republican Party, which was the nation's first major political party with only sectional appeal, politics became the stage on which sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery in the West was played out. The acquisition of new lands in the 1840s catapulted the nation into civil war.
Before the American Civil War, the Constitution provided the basis to define the terms in which debate over the future of government would continue, and had been able to regulate conflicts of interest and conflicting visions for the new, rapidly expanding nation. Factors that had changed from 1820 to 1860 to bring about civil war rather than the gentlemanly compromises of the Missouri Compromise or the Compromise of 1850 included the rise of mass democracy in the North, the breakdown of the old two-party system, and increasingly virulent and hostile sectional ideologies.
Moral arguments against slavery had long existed, but in the interest of maintaining unity and gentlemanly compromise, party loyalties had mostly kept opposition to that "peculiar institution" personal rather than political. With the rise of the Republican Party (itself bolstered by the panic of 1857) and its skilled politicians and activists, the industrializing North became committed to the economic ethos of free-labor industrial capitalism. The resolution of this sectional conflict – culminating in the American Civil War – was perhaps the nation's principal social revolution, a watershed in the rise of modern industrial society in the United States.
Depression sharpened economic and class divides in a society undergoing both a sectional confrontation and an economic revolution. In other words, the realignment of cleavages and cooperation among geographical regions, social classes, and party affiliations in politics between the depression of 1857 and the election of 1860 led to the election of a president so objectionable to Southern slave-owning interests that it would trigger Southern secession, and consequently a war to save the integrity of the Union.
Cultural divergences and the rise of anti-slavery
The rise of abolitionism
Main article: abolitionism.
The anti-slavery movement of the 1830s and 1840s could not have emerged without the transformation of Northern society. The era saw stark changes in American life, which was undergoing the early stages of industrial development and urbanization. Anti-slavery movements gained momentum along with a fervor of reformism in the 1830s and 1840s. Often, the era's reformist impulse was one of nostalgia for a bygone era. However, it also inspired efforts to create or streamline new institutions of social order and control suited to the changing realities of a new era. For example, reform movements were the impetus for the prison- and asylum-building of the era.
To understand the rise of anti-slavery, it is important to get a sense of how the "peculiar institution," as it was called, was perceived among most Northern activists at the time. The legacy of the Second Great Awakening, which largely stressed the reform of individuals, was still relatively fresh in the American memory. Consequently, the principal reform movements in the North were tinged with the ethos of Yankee Protestantism. While including many conflicting ideologies, the reformism of the second quarter of the nineteenth century largely focused on transforming the human personality by internalizing a sense of discipline, order, and restraint. Because of this, reformers of the era generally blamed poor Northern factory workers, alcoholics, and criminals for their own misery. If they were impoverished, it was because they wasted their meager salaries on alcohol (not because of their wages, which were barely above subsistence levels) or failed to curb their sexual passions and bore too many children.
With the same mentality, most abolitionists— William Lloyd Garrison the most influential among them—urged internalized self-discipline. They condemned slavery as a lack of control over one's own destiny and the fruits of one's labor, but defined freedom as more than a simple lack of restraint. The truly free man, in the eyes of antebellum reformers, was one who imposed restraints upon himself.
The context of the changing structures of the American society and economy was noteworthy. The structural changes of the era included the rise of an integrated economic and political structure, the shift from labor-intensive toward capital-intensive production, and the spread of market-oriented capitalist relations. The socio-economic pressures reaching the surface required a value system viewing continuous social change as natural and desirable.
Social mobility was strongly intertwined with the era's economic development. As the Industrial Revolution advanced not only in the United States but on a worldwide scale, property rights, consumer goods, and laborers were gradually breaking free from the traditional bonds and restraints of their old agrarian societies (e.g., aristocratic traditions, quasi-feudal arrangements, and personalistic and other multi-bonded relations). It is thus interesting to note that in the 1830s and 1840s, the rise of the anti-slavery movement coincided with the height of Jacksonian democracy, feeding on the same "anti-aristocratic" and egalitarian ethos. Anti-slavery men exalted "free labor," meaning labor working because of incentive instead of coercion, labor with education, skill, the desire for advancement, and also the freedom to move from job to job according to the changing demands of the marketplace. Behind such expectations, the changing economic structures of the era helped to encourage the growing appeal of "free labor" ideals.
Consequently, most of the reform movements of the era focused attention in one way or another on a loose set of principles that attempted to transform the lifestyle and work habits of labor, helping workers respond to the new demands of an industrializing, capitalistic society. And mainstream abolitionists were among those helping wage laborer adjust to—rather than challenge—the demands of capitalism. For example, relations between the American Anti-Slavery Society—with its Yankee Protestant membership base—and the new, radical unions emerging in the North were by no means cordial during the 1830s and 1840s.
Only a minority of the era's reformers straddled both camps, such as radical English immigrant George Henry Evans (editor of the New York Workingman's Advocate), and the utopian socialists of the period. Small artisans—often subject to declining fortunes and hostile to big manufactures—played a central role in these groups. But prevailing abolitionist sentiment viewed those who advanced the concerns of working class toilers with scorn. Mainstream abolitionists despised slaveholders, but rarely voiced concerns with the often-cruel working conditions to which free laborers were subjected. From their standpoint, starving child laborers, for example, were merely less fortunate in their pursuits, or less exalted in their situation.
Instead, mainstream abolitionists were more often cordial with reform movements with another vision of society, such as the creation of prisons and asylums, temperance, and relief for the "deserving poor" (with the caveat distinguishing them from the "undeserving poor"). According to most abolitionists and members of related crusades, this was to be done through the purification of society from sins such as drunkenness, prostitution, ignorance, and above all slavery.
It would also entail inculcating in those not conforming to the ethos of middle class Yankee Protestantism (especially Southerners and the working class Irish in the North) the Protestant ethos of industry, piety, sobriety, thrift, and self-improvement through self-discipline. In this sense, abolitionists shared the fervent enthusiasm for opportunity and "free labor" common among the country's rapidly growing bourgeoisie. To many believers in the free-labor ideal, the promise of upward social mobility (opportunities for advancement, rights to own property, and to control one's own labor) was central to American democracy.
The rise of the "free soil" movement
Main article: Free soil movement.
The assumptions, tastes, and cultural aims of the reformers of the thirties and forties anticipated the political and ideological ferment of the 1850s. A surge of working class Irish and German Catholic immigration provoked reactions among many Northern Whigs, as well as Democrats. Growing fears of labor competition for white workers and farmers due to the growing number of free blacks-- known as "Negrophobia"-- prompted several northern states to adopt discriminatory "Black Codes."
In the Northwest, although farm tenancy was increasing, the number of free farmers was still double that of farm laborers and tenants. Moreover, although the expansion of the factory system was undermining the economic independence of the small craftsman and artisan, industry in this region, still one largely of small towns, was still concentrated in small-scale enterprises. Arguably, social mobility was on the verge of contracting in the urban centers of the North, but long-cherished ideas of opportunity, "honest industry," and "toil" were at least close enough in time to lend plausibility to the free labor ideology.
In the rural and small-town North, the picture of Northern society (framed by the ethos of "free labor") corresponded to a large degree with reality. Propelled by advancements in transportation and communication, especially steam navigation, railroads, and telegraphs, the two decades before the Civil War saw the rapid expansion of the population and economy of the Northwest. Combined with the rise of Northeastern and export markets for their products, the social standing of farmers in the region substantially improved. The small towns and villages that emerged as the Republican Party's heartland showed every sign of vigorous expansion. Their vision for an ideal society was of small-scale capitalism, with white American laborers entitled to the chance of upward mobility opportunities for advancement, rights to own property, and to control their own labor. Many free-soilers demanded that the slave labor system and free black settlers (and in places such as Oregon Chinese immigrants) should be excluded from the Western plains to guarantee the predominance there of the free white laborer.
Opposition to the 1847 Wilmot Proviso helped to consolidate the "free-soil" forces. Next year, Radical New York Democrats known as Barnburners, members of the Liberty Party, and anti-slavery Whigs held a convention at Buffalo, New York in August, forming the Free-Soil party. The party supported former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. for president and vice president, respectively. The party opposed the expansion of slavery into territories where it had not yet existed, such as Oregon and the ceded Mexican territory.
Relating Northern and Southern positions on slavery to basic differences in labor systems, but insisting on the role of culture and ideology in coloring these differences, Eric Foner's book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970) went beyond the economic determinism of Charles Beard (a leading historian of the 1930s). Foner emphasized the importance of free labor ideology to Northern opponents of slavery, pointing out that the moral concerns of the abolitionists were not necessarily the dominant sentiments in the North. Many Northerners (including Lincoln) opposed slavery also because they feared that black labor might spread to the North and threaten the position of free white laborers. In this sense, Republicans and the abolitionists were able to appeal to powerful emotions in the North through a broader commitment to "free labor" principles. The "Slave Power" idea had a far greater appeal to Northern self-interest than arguments based on the plight of black slaves in the South. As Frederick Douglass noted, "The cry of Free Man was raised, not for the extension of liberty to the black man, but for the protection of the liberty of the white." If the free labor ideology of the 1830s and 1840s depended on the transformation of Northern society, its entry into politics depended on the rise of mass democracy, in turn propelled by far-reaching social change. Its chance would come by the mid-1850s with the collapse of the traditional two-party system, which had long suppressed sectional conflict.
Sectional tensions and the emergence of mass politics
The politicians of the 1850s were acting in a society in which the traditional restraints that suppressed sectional conflict in 1820 and 1850—the most important of which being the stability of the two-party system—were being eroded as this rapid extension of mass democracy went forward in the North.
This was an era when the mass political party galvanized voter participation to an unprecedented degree, and in which politics formed an essential component of American mass culture. Historians specializing in the antebellum years agree that political involvement was a larger concern to the average American in the 1850s than today. With the growth of the American middle class, and rapid growth and change in the economy and society in general, mass participation in politics was much more pronounced, allowing astute politicians to mobilize support by focusing on the expansion of slavery in the West. Politics was, in one of its functions, a form of mass entertainment, a spectacle with rallies, parades, and colorful personalities. Leading politicians, moreover, very often served as a focus for popular interests, aspirations, and values.
Historian Allan Nevins, for instance, writes of political rallies in 1856 with turnouts of anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand men and women. Don E. Fehrenbacher notes that voter turnouts even ran as high as 84 percent for the North by 1860. Religious revivalism reached a new peak in the 1850s. Hysterical fears and paranoid suspicions marked this shift of Americans. The 1850s were fertile ground for propagandists, agitators, and extremists. A plethora of new parties emerged by 1854, including the Republicans, People's party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (anti-slavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells and Adopted Citizens.
Meanwhile, controversy over the so-called Ostend Manifesto (which proposed U.S. annexation of Cuba) and the return of fugitive slaves kept sectional tensions alive before the issue of slavery in the West would preoccupy the country's politics in the mid-to-late fifties. Opposition among some groups in the North intensified after the Compromise of 1850, when Southerners began appearing in Northern states to pursue fugitives or often to claim as slaves free African Americans residing there for years. Meanwhile, some abolitionists openly sought to prevent enforcement of the law. Violation of the Fugitive Slave Act was often open and organized. In Boston— a city from which it was boasted that no fugitive had ever been returned— Theodore Parker and other members of the city's elite helped form mobs to prevent enforcement of the law as early as April 1851. A pattern of public resistance emerged in city after city, notably in Syracuse in 1851, and Boston again in 1854. But, as mentioned, the issue did not lead to a crisis until revived by the same issue underlying the Missouri Compromise of 1820: slavery in the territories.
The question of slavery in the West
In the 1850s, sectional tensions were revived by the same issue that had produced them dating back to the Missouri Compromise of 1820: slavery in the territories. Northerners and Southerners, in effect, were coming to define "Manifest Destiny" in different ways, undermining nationalism as a unifying force.
By the 1850s, the line of frontier settlement had extended beyond the western boundaries of Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri to encompass the Great Plains. Just a generation earlier this area had been known as "the Great American Desert," and most Americans had been unaware of the vast areas of arable land beyond the great bend of the Missouri River. Thus, in the states of the Old Northwest (between the Appalachians and the Mississippi) pressure began to build for efforts to extend settlement westward once again. Moreover, on February 2, 1848, Mexico was forced to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding vast tracts of land to the United States. Free Northern farmers did not want to compete against slave labor, thus bringing up debates on whether slavery should be permitted in the newly gained Western territories.
Not only did the territorial acquisitions of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and the Mexican Cession bring up the old issue of upsetting the balance between slave states and free states in the Senate, they also placed the federal government at the center of sectional conflict. After all, settlers expected a great deal from the federal government: providing territorial governments, and displacing the indigenous population (so as to make room for whites). In addition, the problems of communication and transportation between the older states and areas west of the Mississippi naturally became salient. The interest in further settlement was thus one factor serving to strengthen the federal government. Washington was no longer the remote, unthreatening power that it once had been. It was a power needed to resolve the status of territories and deal directly with sectional disputes.
Ulysses S. Grant declared the Mexican-American war to be "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation" and one of the causes of the American Civil War: "The occupation, separation and annexation [of Texas] were ... a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union."
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
The rise of railroads in the 1840s gave added support for those advocating government subsidies to promote transportation. Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill with the intention of building a railroad hub in his home state of Illinois. Douglas—along with many throughout the Mississippi valley—naturally wanted the railroad for his own region, which could allow Chicago to emerge as a great terminal for traffic with the Pacific coast. To garner Southern support, the Kansas-Nebraska Act provided that popular sovereignty, through the territorial legislatures, should decide "all questions pertaining to slavery", thus effectively repealing the Missouri Compromise. While the idea of a transcontinental railroad gained favor in Congress, it quickly became entangled with sectionalism.
Of greater importance than the opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Congress was the ensuing public reaction against it in the Northern states. Perhaps no other piece of legislation in congressional history produced so many immediate, sweeping, and ominous changes. It was seen as an effort to repeal the Missouri Compromise, a measure that many Northerners believed had a special sanctity, almost as if it were a part of the Constitution. However, the surprisingly mute popular reaction in the first month after the bill's introduction would fail to foreshadow the gravity of the situation. As Northern papers initially ignored the story, Republican leaders lamented the lack of a popular response.
Eventually, the popular reaction did come, but the leaders had to spark it. Chase's "Appeal of the Independent Democrats" did much to arouse popular opinion. In New York, William Seward finally took it upon himself to organize a rally against the Nebraska bill, since none had arisen spontaneously. Press such as the National Era, the New York Tribune, and local free-soil journals, condemned the bill right away.
The founding of the Republican Party
Convinced that Northern society was superior to that of the South, and increasingly persuaded of the South's ambitions to extend slave power beyond its existing borders, Northerners were embracing a viewpoint that made conflict likely; but conflict required the ascendancy of the Republican Party. The Republican Party – harkening on the popular, emotional issue of "free soil" in the frontier – would capture the White House after just six years of existence, cultivating a coherent ideological message playing on sectional discontent in the rapidly developing North with Democratic leaders.
The Republican Party grew out of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska legislation. Once the Northern reaction against the Kansas-Nebraska Act took place, its leaders swung into action to advance another political reorganization. Henry Wilson declared the Whig party dead, and vowed to oppose any efforts to resurrect it. Horace Greeley's Tribune called for the formation of a new Northern party, and Wade, Chase, Sumner, and others spoke out for the union of all opponents of the Nebraska act. The Tribune's Gamaliel Bailey was involved in calling a caucus of anti-slavery Whig and Democratic Party Congressmen in May.
Meeting in a Ripon Wisconsin Congregational Church on February 28, 1854, some thirty opponents of the Nebraska act called for the organization of a new political party and suggested that "Republican" would be the most appropriate name (to link their cause with the Declaration of Independence). These founders also took a leading role in the creation of the Republican Party in many northern states during the summer of 1854. While conservatives and many moderates were content merely to call for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise or a prohibition of slavery extension, radicals advocated repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws and rapid abolition in existing states. The term "radical" has also been applied to those who objected to the Compromise of 1850, which extended slavery in the territories.
But without the benefit of hindsight, the 1854 elections would seem to indicate the possible triumph of Know-Nothingism rather than anti-slavery, with the Catholic/immigrant question replacing slavery as the issue capable of mobilizing mass appeal. Know-Nothings, for instance, captured the mayoralty of Philadelphia with a majority of over 8,000 votes in 1854. Even after opening up immense discord with his Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas began speaking of the Know-Nothings, rather than the Republicans, as the principal danger to the Democratic Party.
After the establishment of the party, when Republicans spoke of themselves as a party of "free labor," they appealed to a rapidly growing, primarily middle class base of support, not permanent wage earners or the unemployed. When they extolled the virtues of free labor, they were merely reflecting the experiences of millions of men who had "made it" and millions of others who had a realistic hope of doing so. Like the Tories in England, the Republicans in the United States would emerge as the nationalists, homogenizers, imperialists, and cosmopolitans. Intolerant of social diversity, they attempted to impose their values on all groups – including temperance legislation and anti-slavery – while the party of the regional and ethnic minorities (Democrats in America, Liberals in Britain), called for cultural pluralism and local autonomy.
Those who had not yet "made it" included Irish immigrants: a large, growing proportion of Northern factory workers. Republicans often saw the Catholic working class as lacking the qualities of self-discipline, temperance, and sobriety essential for their vision of ordered liberty. Republicans insisted that there was a high correlation between education, religion, and hard work—the values of the "Protestant ethic"—and Republican votes. "Where free schools are regarded as a nuisance, where religion is least honored and lazy unthrift is the rule," read an editorial of the pro-Republican Chicago Democratic Press after Buchanan's defeat of Frémont in the U.S. presidential election, 1856, "there Buchanan has received his strongest support."
Ethnoreligious, socio-economic, and cultural fault lines ran throughout American society, but were becoming increasingly sectional, pitting Yankee Protestants with a stake in the emerging industrial capitalism and American nationalism increasingly against those tied to Southern slaveholding interests. For example, acclaimed historian Don E. Fehrenbacher , in his Prelude to Greatness, Lincoln in the 1850s, noticed how Illinois was a microcosm of the national political scene, pointing out voting patterns that bore striking correlations to regional patterns of settlement. Those areas settled from the South were staunchly Democratic, while those by New Englanders were staunchly Republican. In addition, a belt of border counties were known for their political moderation, and traditionally held the balance of power. Intertwined with religious, ethnic, regional, and class identities, the issues of free labor and free soil were thus easy to play on.
Events during the next two years in "Bleeding Kansas" sustained the popular fervor aroused among some elements in the North by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Those from the North were encouraged by press and pulpit and the powerful organs of abolitionist propaganda. Often they received financial help from such organizations as the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Those from the South often received financial contributions from the communities they left. Southerners sought to uphold their constitutional rights in the territories and to maintain sufficient political strength to repulse 'hostile and ruinous legislation.'
While the Great Plains were largely unfit for the cultivation of cotton, informed Southerners demanded that the West be open to slavery, often—perhaps most often—with minerals in mind. Brazil, for instance, was an example of the successful use of slave labor in mining. In the middle of the eighteenth century, diamond mining supplemented gold mining in Minas Gerais and accounted for a massive transfer of masters and slaves from Brazil's Northeastern sugar region. Southern leaders knew a good deal about this experience. It was even promoted in the pro-slavery DeBow's Review as far back as 1848.
"Bleeding Kansas" and the elections of 1856
In Kansas around 1855, the slavery issue reached a condition of intolerable tension and violence for the first time. But this was in an area where an overwhelming proportion of settlers were merely land-hungry Westerners indifferent to the great public issues looming large in the 1850s. The majority of the inhabitants were not concerned with sectional tensions or the issue of slavery. Instead, the tension in Kansas began as a contention between rival claimants. During the first wave of settlement, no one held titles to the land he was squatting, and settlers rushed to occupy newly open land fit for cultivation. While the tension and violence did emerge as a pattern pitting Yankees and Missourians against each other, there is little evidence of any lofty ideological divides on the questions of slavery. Instead, the Missouri claimants, thinking of Kansas as their own domain, regarded the Yankee squatters as invaders, while the Yankees hated the Missourians for grabbing the best land without honestly settling on it, and stigmatized them as half-savage "pukes."
However, the 1855-56 violence in "Bleeding Kansas" did reach an ideological climax after John Brown— regarded by followers as the instrument of God's will to destroy slavery— entered the melee. His assassination of five proslavery settlers (the so-called "Pottawatomie Massacre") resulted in some irregular, guerrilla-style strife. Aside from John Brown's fervor, the strife in Kansas often involved only armed bands more interested in land claims or loot.
Of greater importance than the civil strife in Kansas, however, was the reaction against it nationwide and in Congress. In both North and South, the belief was widespread that the aggressive designs of the other section were epitomized by (and responsible for) what was happening in Kansas. Whether or not such beliefs were entirely correct is less important than that they became passionately held articles of faith in both sections. Consequently, "Bleeding Kansas" would emerge as a symbol of this sectional controversy.
Even before news of the Kansas skirmishes reached the East coast, a related violent escapade occurred in Washington on May 19 and 20. Charles Sumner's speech before the Senate entitled "The Crime Against Kansas," which condemned the Pierce administration and the institution of slavery, singled out in particular Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, a strident defender of slavery. Its markedly sexual innuendo cast the South Carolinian as the "Don Quixote" of slavery, who has "chosen a mistress [the harlot slavery]...who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him, though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight." Several days later, Sumner fell victim to the Southern gentleman's code, which instructed retaliation for impugning the honor of an elderly kinsman. Bleeding and unconsciousness after a nearly fatal assault with a heavy cane by Butler's nephew, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks—and unable to return to the Senate for three years—the Massachusetts Senator emerged as another symbol of sectional tensions. For many in the North, he illustrated the barbarism of slave society.
Indignant over the developments in Kansas, the Republicans—the first entirely sectional major party in U.S. history—entered their first presidential campaign with confidence. Their nominee, John C. Frémont, was a generally safe candidate for the new party. Although his nomination upset some of their Nativist Know-Nothing supporters (his mother was a Catholic), the nomination of the famed explorer of the Far West with no political record was an attempt to woo ex-Democrats. The other two contenders, William Seward and Salmon P. Chase, were seen as too radical.
Nevertheless, the campaign of 1856 was waged almost exclusively on the slavery issue—pitted as a struggle between democracy and aristocracy—focusing on the question of Kansas. The Republicans condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery, but advanced a program of internal improvements combining the idealism of anti-slavery with the economic aspirations of the North. The new party rapidly developed a powerful partisan culture, and energetically cultivated armies of activists driving voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers. People reacted with fervor. Young Republicans organized the "Wide Awake" clubs and chanted the catchphrase "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Frémont!" With Southern fire-eaters and even some moderates uttering threats of secession if Frémont won, Buchanan benefited from apprehensions about the future of the Union. Allan Nevins, in his eight-volume Ordeal of the Union, argued that the Civil War was an "irrepressible" conflict. Nevins synthesized contending accounts emphasizing moral, cultural, social, ideological, political, and economic issues. In doing so, he brought the historical discussion back to an emphasis on social and cultural factors. Nevins correctly pointed out that the North and the South were rapidly becoming two different peoples. At the root of these cultural differences was the problem of slavery, but fundamental assumptions, tastes, and cultural aims of the regions were diverging in other ways as well.
The Antebellum South and the Union
Before the Civil War, a number of factors helped mitigate the sectional tensions, enabling the union to survive episodes such as the Nullification Crisis. The fundamental reason was the dominance of the increasingly pro-Southern Democratic party, which helped secure Southern interests in the federal government.
The Democrats, meanwhile, were the nation's majority party, usually controlling Congress, the presidency, the courts, and many state offices, and the party fostered alliances between Southern planters and Northern Democrats. As a result, until the watershed election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, slaveholders were able to prevail in more and more of the nation's territories and to garner a great deal of influence over national policy.
The expansion of the nation westward made it seem for the time, under President Jackson in the 1830s, that agrarian principles ("Jeffersonian democracy" and "Jacksonian democracy")— in practice an absolute minimum of central authority and a tendency to favor debtors over creditors— had won a permanent victory over those of Alexander Hamilton.
On economic policy, for example, Southerners hailed Jackson's work to dismantle the Bank of the United States, which had been originally introduced in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton as a way of providing for national debt and increasing the power of the federal government. Another example of strong Southern influence was the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which ended the Nullification crisis. Moreover, the South's sway over the judicial branch was perhaps even greater. In 1835 Roger Taney succeeded John Marshall as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For roughly three decades, the Taney Court asserted the principle of social responsibility for private property— the basis for upholding fugitive slave laws. Finally, even in the realm of foreign policy, the Wilmot Proviso (1847) and the Ostend Manifesto (1854) were examples of strong Southern influence.
Tariffs and the question of nullification
A major and continuous strain on these unifying forces from roughly 1820 through the Civil War was the issue of trade and tariffs. Heavily dependent upon trade, the almost entirely agricultural and export-oriented South imported most of its manufactured needs from Europe or obtained them from the North. The North, by contrast, had a growing domestic industrial economy that viewed foreign trade as competition. Trade barriers, especially protective tariffs, were viewed as harmful to the Southern economy, which depended on exports. Southerners vocally expressed their tariff opposition in documents such as the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest" (1828), written in response to the "Tariff of Abominations."
Having waited four years for Congress to repeal the "Tariff of Abominations," South Carolinians reacted with anger as Congress enacted a new tariff in 1832 that offered them little relief, resulting in the most dangerous sectional crisis since the Union was formed. Some militant South Carolinians even hinted at withdrawing from the Union in response. But the state's leading statesman, John C. Calhoun, however, persuaded the most ardent opponents of the tariff to adopt the doctrine of nullification — not secession — as their strategy. The newly elected South Carolina legislature then quickly called for the election of delegates to a state convention. Once assembled, the convention voted to declare null and void the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 within the state. President Andrew Jackson responded firmly, declaring nullification an act of treason. He then took steps to strengthen federal forts in the state.
Violence seemed a real possibility early in 1833 as Jacksonians in Congress were introducing a "force bill" authorizing the president to use the army and navy in order to enforce acts of Congress. No state had come to support South Carolina; and the state itself was divided on willingness to continue the showdown with the federal government. The crisis ended when Henry Clay and Calhoun worked to devise a compromise tariff. Both sides later claimed victory. Calhoun and his supporters in South Carolinia claimed a victory for nullification, insisting that it, a single state, had forced the revision of the tariff. Jackson's followers, however, saw the episode as a demonstration that no single state could assert its rights by independent action. Calhoun, in turn, devoted his efforts to building up a sense of Southern solidarity so that when another standoff should come, the whole section might be prepared to act as a bloc in resisting the federal government.
The issue appeared again after 1842's Black Tariff. A period of relative free trade after 1846's Walker Tariff reduction followed until 1860, when the protectionist Morrill Tariff was introduced by the Republicans, fueling southern anti-tariff sentiments once again.
For further details please see Slavery in North America.
On the slavery issue, growing free labor movements in the North were seen as threats to the Southern plantation system. At the center of these tensions were differences in the labor system. The plantation system, in effect, determined the structure of Southern society. By 1850 there may have been fewer than 350,000 slaveholders in a total white population of about six million. Within this group, only a small minority owned the majority of slaves: perhaps seven percent of slaveholders owned roughly three-quarters of the slave population. This small minority, who constituted a class of plantation-owning elite known as "slave magnates," were small enough as to be comparable to the millionaires of the following century. Poor whites or "plain folk" (who resorted at times to eating clay) were outside the market economy. Many of the small farmers with a few slaves and yeomen were on its periphery.State by state popular vote for president in 1860 election
- Tulane course - article on 1860 election
- Tulane course - article on Fort Sumter
- "Making Two Nations: The Origins of the Civil War" by Peter Onuf , Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In this 2003 speech, delivered at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, he offered his observations on federalism, nationalism, and the foundations of the American Civil War. Recorded for Talking History/University at Albany.
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