Study Guide

Causes of the Civil War Introduction

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Causes of the Civil War Introduction

About eightscore years ago, America was less about the Dream and more about the Bloodfest of the Century.

Or as we call it today, the Civil War. 

Less than 100 years into countryhood, the United States ditched unity to go at each other's throats. And it turns out, it wasn't just the bloodfest of the century. The Civil War remains the deadliest and most destructive of all of America's wars, with 2% of the population being wiped out: that'd be a hefty 6 to 7 million people today.

Oof. Yeah, it wasn't pretty.

Being a downright ugly affair, you can imagine that civil war is anything but civil. It took countless uncivil simmerings to get to a deeply personal war that pitted brother against brother in a knockdown drag-out fight to protect very different ways of life.

The Civil War was also the first modern war on the continent (and, perhaps, the globe), and the only conflict in U.S. history fought entirely on the nation's soil.

One and done, guys. Take the fighting outside the country next time.

And it battles for the top spot with the Vietnam War as America's most misunderstood conflict. It's been remembered as a Northern crusade—and struggle—to preserve the Union, emancipate slaves, and end the institution of slavery for good.

But the truth is, the road to war—and the set of issues that underscored the hostilities—was never that simple. Lincoln himself, "The Great Emancipator," actually had pretty moderate views on slavery (you've still won our hearts, Abe, plus historians' hearts, too), but the Southern states didn't see it that way. At all.

Besides Southern desire to protect slave labor, the balance between federal power and state power was constantly difficult to strike, and perpetually inciting tensions in the years (and years and years) before the war broke out.

Really, northern and southern states just weren't that compatible. From the beginning.

What is Causes of the Civil War About and Why Should I Care?

In one of many side-splitting episodes of NBC's sitcom The Office, Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott remarks, "Abraham Lincoln once said that if you're a racist, I will attack you with the North. And those are the principles that I carry with me in the workplace."

If you've seen the show, then you know that this is laughable, mainly because Michael is prone to making insensitive—and doltish—comments about pretty much every non-white person he encounters.

But that's not the only reason it's silly. First of all, Lincoln would never have said such a thing. No nineteenth-century politician—and, really, no one at all during this period—called other folks "racist" and certainly wouldn't have used the word to justify a full-scale war. But semantics aside, race had little, if anything, to do with Lincoln's decision to rally Northern troops to crush the South. In fact, the enslavement of millions of Black men, women, and children was not a motivating factor for Union forces.

Well...not exactly.

It's a widely-held misconception that the struggle for emancipation incited half of the nation to war. It might be the simplest and most idealistic way of thinking about such a terribly violent and destructive period in American history. It only seems fitting that a union founded on the notion that "all men are created equal" would go to war to purge an institution justified by inequality. But that's just not true. Such moral reasoning did not pave the road to war.

So, then, slavery had nothing at all to do with the American Civil War, right?

Well...not exactly.

For decades, historians have disagreed as to whether slavery was the single most important factor that led to the outbreak of the Civil War, or whether it had no bearing whatsoever on the conflict (eh, we wouldn't go that far). By breaking down the sorts of questions that scholars have asked over the years, we can see why such a debate survives. Had slavery never existed in the United States, would there have been a Civil War?

If we can say unequivocally "no," then why—or how—did slavery matter? To what degree did slavery actually cause the American Civil War? What aspects of the institution—ideological, political, economic, religious, diplomatic, social, or racial—incited each side to wage war? What other factors may have contributed to the 1861 secession crisis, and then to the first shots fired at Fort Sumter?

Clearly, the road to war that we're talking about here is complex: long, winding, and full of forks. And that's why we've dedicated an entire guide to help you navigate it. So, buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Causes of the Civil War Resources


Paul Finkelman, ed., Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, A Brief History with Documents (2003)
How did American Southerners justify an institution that by the early nineteenth century had been abolished by nearly every state in the North? Read how prominent politicians, statesmen, religious leaders, planters, and legal scholars argued for the protection and expansion of slavery. You may be surprised by the many varieties of proslavery thought that existed prior to the Civil War.

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970)
Historian Eric Foner explains that free labor ideology, adopted by the Republican Party in the late 1950s, judged free labor as inherently better than slave labor for the economy; only with the promise of wages would workers be motivated to produce. In this way, Republicans could vehemently oppose slavery without concerning themselves with the plight of Black slaves. He argues, then, that slavery was in fact central to Civil War causation, but race was not. An important read!

Michael P. Johnson, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War: Selected Writings and Speeches (2001)
This primary source collection contains dozens and dozens of Abraham Lincoln's speeches and writings, including his Kansas-Nebraska speech, his debates with Stephen Douglas in the Illinois Senate race, and poignant presidential campaign speeches. This is a vital text for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of Lincoln's thoughts on slavery, secession, civil war, and emancipation.

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery; the N**** in the Free States, 1790-1860 (1961)
By demonstrating the depths of racism in the North, historian Leon Litwack suggests that it would be absurd to conclude that Northerners, by and large, sympathized with the abolitionist cause and went to war to free Black slaves. That simply wasn't the case. A very readable, provocative, and surprising account of pre-Civil War America.

David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (1977)
Potter's famous Civil War pre-history begins with the end of the Mexican-American War and the Wilmot Proviso. These developments, Potter explains, plunged the nation into years of sectional debate that erupted at various times and places, and ultimately in 1861, in secession.

Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (2000)
A well-researched, straightforward explanation of antebellum politics, particularly the Northern belief in a "Slave Power" conspiracy. An excellent and important book.


Chris Vallillo, Abraham Lincoln in Song (2007)
Contemporary roots singer-songwriter Chris Vallillo honors his fellow Illinoisian as well as his state's deep musical traditions with this masterpiece of slide guitar twang and mesmerizing vocals.

Second South Carolina String Band, Southern Soldier: Favorite Camp Songs of the Civil War (1996)
Although this disc's title implies that its tracks were heard only in Confederate camps, some of the selections here were familiar to soldiers in both the North and the South. In fact, the Second South Carolina String Band performs songs, such as "Boatman's Dance," "Zip Coon," and "Palmetto Quickstep," that were known to people throughout the country during the fighting years as well as in the tumultuous time leading up to the war.

Various Artists, Songs of the Civil War (1991)
Inspired by the release of director Ken Burns' epic Civil War documentary, a group of contemporary rock, soul, and blues singers collaborated to perform their own renditions of war-era compositions. Don't miss Sweet Honey in the Rock's performing "No More Auction Block For Me," Kathy Mattea singing "The Southern Soldier Boy," Judy Collins's interpretation of "Battle Hymn of the Republic (John Brown's Body)," and so many more.

James Horner, Glory: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1990)
Composer James Horner crafted this thunderous backdrop to director Edward Zwick's Civil War drama about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the first all-Black unit to serve the United States Army.

Various Artists, The Civil War: Traditional American Songs and Instrumental Music Featured in the Film by Ken Burns (1990)
Check out this soundtrack, complete with gripping war-era gems, from the Emmy Award-winning television documentary series about the deadliest war in American history.


Missouri Compromise Map
A map showing the boundaries of the Missouri Compromise, an agreement passed in 1820 that divided free states and territories from those open to slavery.

John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun, U.S. Secretary of State from 1844 to 1845 and South Carolina Senator from 1845 until his death in 1850.

"The Union forever!"
An anti-abolitionist handbill from 1837 declares, "The Union forever!"

"The Auction Sale"
"The Auction Sale," a black and white illustration featured in an original publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law"
In 1850, abolitionists published this print entitled "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law." It features six armed whites attacking four Blacks. The victims' attire may suggest that they are free men.

The Liberty Cap
An early U.S. coin featuring the "liberty cap," a symbol that represented freedmen in ancient Rome and was later adopted by French Revolutionaries. In 1855, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to the inclusion of the cap in an early design of a sculpture for the federal capitol building.

The Helmet of Freedom
The head and feathered helmet of the Statue of Freedom designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford in 1855 to stand atop the dome of the United States Capitol.

The Urban North
A view of New York in 1860. In the years leading to the Civil War, the population in the Northeast surged; immigrants crowded into rapidly industrializing city centers.

The Plantation South
View of a plantation in Bishopville, South Carolina, 1857. In the years leading to the Civil War, the population in the South grew slowly, and its agricultural economy—based on the slave production of cotton—thrived.

Lincoln for President
A presidential campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln and running mate Hannibal Hamlin, 1860.

Tearing the Nation Apart
In a caricature of the 1860 presidential race, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas grip the North and the West while John C. Breckinridge claims the South and John Bell tries in vain to paste the map back together.

Political Bedfellows
In this caricature of the 1860 presidential campaign, Dred Scott plays the violin while the candidates dance: John Breckinridge with James Buchanan, Lincoln with an African-American woman, John Bell with a Native American, and Stephen Douglas with an Englishman in rags, 1860.

"The Comet of 1861"
Lincoln as "The Comet of 1861," a foreboding illustration from an envelope, 1861.

Movies & TV

Ride with the Devil (1999)
Before he became Spider-Man, actor Tobey Maguire played a young guerrilla soldier loyal to the South in this Civil War drama. This tale about the Missouri bushwhackers, a little-known group of non-uniformed fighting men, reminds us that this war was not simply a North-versus-South, or a slave-versus-free, affair.

The Civil War (1990)
This Emmy Award-winning television documentary miniseries, directed by Ken Burns, utilizes historical photographs, written accounts, and war-era music to tell the story of the Civil War, from its causes to its conclusion. A nationwide sensation when it was released in 1990, Burns' Civil War revolutionized historical documentary filmmaking.

Glory (1989)
Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick star in this Civil War drama about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the first all-Black unit to serve the United States Army. The film's screenplay is based largely on the letters of the regiment's white captain, Robert Gould Shaw, and, although at times historically inaccurate, it offers a compelling view of the African-American experience on the Civil War battlefield.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
Early African-American actor James B. Lowe stars as Uncle Tom in this, one of the most famous, screen adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel. Seven decades after the book's publication, Stowe's tale about the injustices of slavery takes on new meanings.


South Carolina and the Nullification Crisis
The Library of Congress offers this collection of primary source documents related to South Carolina and the Nullification Crisis that occurred during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Devising the Compromise of 1850
The American Treasures collection of the Library of Congress includes this exhibit of the Compromise of 1850. Check out the original manuscript with corrections written by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. The site also features helpful notes about the resolutions in the Compromise and the debates they sparked.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
The National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior has compiled the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a series of political key debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate seat.

The Sectional Crisis and the Press
The Cornell University Library offers digital access to its extensive Making of American Journal Collection. Search by key word or simply browse the pages of several nineteenth-century magazines, many of which circulated during the years leading up to the Civil War.

Accounts of the John Brown Trial
The University of Virginia presents the transcripts of several eyewitness accounts of radical abolitionist John Brown's raid, his capture, and his trial.

The Life and Work of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Washington State University offers a rich collection of primary source documents related to the life and work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), an incendiary work of abolitionist fiction reviled by Southerners.

The Case of Dred Scott
Washington University in St. Louis has put together an extremely user-friendly website dedicated to the Dred Scott case, featuring a full historical timeline and complete court documentation.

Historical Documents

"Slavery a Positive Good"
South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun's "Slavery a Positive Good" speech, delivered before the U.S. Senate in February 1837.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
View the full text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, one of the most controversial laws passed before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Lincoln Addresses the Fugitive Slave Law
A letter from Abraham Lincoln to a friend in which the political leader speaks about the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

"The Political Economy of Slavery"
Excepts from Edmund Ruffin's proslavery essay, The Political Economy of Slavery; or, The Institution Considered in Regard to Its Influence on Public Wealth and the General Welfare, first published in 1853.

The "Crime Against Kansas"
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner's "Crime Against Kansas" speech, delivered in May 1856 during the Bloody Kansas crisis.

"Cotton is King"
"Cotton is King," Senator James Henry Hammond's speech before the U.S. Senate on 4 March 1858.

John Brown
The life, trial, and execution of John Brown, summarized by a New York publisher in 1859.

The Crittenden Compromise
The Crittenden Compromise, a last-ditch effort to resolve the secession crisis, as presented on December 18th, 1860.

The "Cornerstone Speech"
The "Cornerstone Speech" delivered by Georgia Congressman Alexander Stephens—later Vice President of the Confederate States of America—in Savannah, Georgia on March 21st, 1861.

Lincoln's Campaign Speech
Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City, February 27th, 1860.

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