Investigating the Causes and Effects of the Civil War
From first to last, the cause of the civil war was slavery. More specifically, the cause was the desire of a minority of slave-owners, slave traders, cotton brokers, etc, to perpetuate and expand slavery across the US. This minority controlled a disproportionate share of the wealth in the South. There was no established middle class, unlike the situation in the North.
Also, this minority controlled the politics in the South. Newspapers did not publish a variety of views. The majority of the population was illiterate. Abolitionists or suspected abolitionists were often threatened, beaten or killed. In the presidential elections of 1856 and 1860, antislavery candidates were not even listed on the ballots in 10 southern slave states.
In the 1830s, John Calhoun of South Carolina advocated the right of states to nullify federal laws or regulations to which they objected. Although this view was precluded by strong words from Andrew Jackson, it became more and more popular after Jackson. It was expanded to mean the right of states to secede from the Union if they objected to any of the above federal edicts, including any on slavery.
Since there were fewer cities than in the North and fewer available farm land not already taken by large plantations, there was little opportunity for a growing middle class. Cultivation of cotton wore out the land and caused constant need for fresh soil. The great majority of Southern whites did not own slaves. They farmed, usually on a subsistence basis. They could only thank God they were born white and were very vulnerable to racist rabble rousing cries of Keep the niggers in their place. Since they often had to hunt to augment food supplies, their numerous rifles and shooting skills were to prove significant later on.
Novels that opposed slavery like Uncle Tom's Cabin, or exposed the inherent weakness of the slave-based economic system (like Hinton Helper's The Impending Crisis of the South), were strictly suppressed in the South and hardly read there at all.
The South was able to control US politics for a considerable number of years. In the Senate, with each state having 2 senators, the slave states held disproportionate power. With only 5 million white population versus a Northern population that grew to 14 million, the slave-owners had considerable power.
President Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder, but, as mentioned above, shot down any attempts at Southern nullification. However, succeeding presidents were very willing to do slaveholder bidding:
1. Martin VanBuren, although a Northerner, tried to interfere with legal proceedings in the Amisted case, so that escaped foreign slaves could have been deemed property to be returned.
2. John Tyler of Virginia took over the Presidency upon the death of Harrison, and, during the Civil War, became a Confederate legislator.
3. James Polk of Tennessee helped inflame public opinion to start the Mexican War and take over much territory that might have been potential slave states.
4. Zachary Taylor was a slave-owner, although his presidency was very brief.
5. Franklin Pierce was a Northerner, but his Ostend Manifesto threatened Spain with war unless it ceded Cuba to the US (another slave territory).
6. James Buchanan was certainly one of our worst Presidents. A Northerner, he defended slave-owner thuggery in trying to force Kansas into the Union as a slave state, against the majority of its residents. Despite urgent pleas in 1861 by the war hero, patriot, and Army head, General Winfield Scott, Buchanan prevented him from sending troops to guard US garrisons, arsenals, and valuable ammunition in the South.
Stephen Douglas was a leader of the Democratic Party who wished to be President. To curry favor among the slave-owners, he forced through the Kansas Nebraska Bill in 1854. It repealed the Missouri Compromise and stated that inhabitants of any designated portion of this vast territorial area should decide by majority rule whether to be a slave or free state. However, slave-owners promptly decided to make Kansas a slave state by force. The soil of the state was unsuited to cotton, sugar or rice cultivation, but it provided two Senate seats. Therefore, by their sending in bands of thugs, a pro-slavery constitution was set up.
Douglas was angry at this distortion of his Bill. Over Buchanan's threats, he refused to sanction the fraudulent Kansas constitution for statehood. Also, in the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, he replied that, yes, in principle, citizens of a territory could vote to exclude slavery. Finally, in 1860, in preparation for the Democratic presidential convention, he denounced movements he detected to advocate renewal of the African slave trade.
All these examples of integrity on Douglas' part cost him support of the slave-owners. Although in the majority nationwide, the Democratic Party became hopelessly divided for the 1860 election. Douglas was thus denied the Presidency he so wanted.
Earlier, Southerners had been defensive about slavery. However, as their economy became more and more dependent on the institution, and the economy of the North passed up the South in wealth, resentment grew. Arguments were often couched in misleading terms of states rights. Even later, during the war, when the Confederate cause was obviously lost, Jefferson Davis wrote The fight will continue until the last of this generation dies in its tracks, until you acknowledge our right to self government. However, the underlying issue was clear, not states rights, and not self government. Statements like the infamous one from Alexander Stephens (paraphrase) identified the heart of the matter, The Negro is inherently inferior to the white man, slavery is his natural condition. We are committed to this great moral and political truth. Thus, the faade of self government really meant a demand for the perpetuation of slavery.
Some have asserted that the North was equally culpable in the slavery institution. After all, Northern bankers had loaned $200 million to slave-owners, who were continuously in debt. Supposedly, northern factory workers were worse off than slaves. However, factory workers could strike or change jobs to better themselves. There was no underground railroad to transport Northern workers down south to slavery conditions. Obviously, the existence of an underground railroad enraged the slave-owners, although relatively few slaves out of the 4 million got away through it.
Robert Rhett and William Yancey were the two Southern spokesmen who carried the slavery question to a logical extension. Rhett advocated secession for his South and revival of the African slave trade-all on moral grounds. Also, the cost of slaves had increased sharply, up to $2000 for a prime field hand. Thus, increasing the supply in this manner would supposedly help the Southern economy (something like a slave in every pot.).
The Republican Party started in the early 1850's. Its platform was not abolitionism, but restricting slavery to its current states. There would be no extension to the territories or overseas military adventures to conquer Caribbean or other tropical lands for new slave states. Slavery could remain intact in existing slave states, although there was a hope that, this way, it would gradually become extinct. Yet, the slave-owners constantly distorted their views. Black Republicans became an epithet. Southern newspapers and, even more so, regional spokesmen and clergymen, constantly talked about the need to protect one's property and loved ones from the massacres and rapes that would occur once Republicans freed the slaves and hurled them on the white population.
Southern newspapers fanned the flames of war. Poor whites were often whipped into frenzies. Before the election of 1860, they warned that election of a Republican president would be a declaration of war. In Lincoln's presidential inaugural speech, he ended with I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Nonetheless, these same publications referred to his speech as a declaration of war.
During the Civil War, the Confederate army was primarily made up of non-slave-owners. These men could not afford to own slaves. To win foreign support, the Confederate Government had reaffirmed the banning of the African slave trade. Therefore, these troops had no prospects of owning slaves. Further, they had no prospects of greater political participation. Yet, these men fought bravely and ferociously for the Confederacy. Before the battle of Gettysburg, the eastern portion of the Confederate army won almost all battles decisively. After Gettysburg, although badly outnumbered, they held off Grant's forces for nearly two years. Only towards the end in 1865, when Lee's army faced starvation, were there significant desertions by Confederate troops.
Even into the 20th century, Southern spokesmen distorted the causes of the Civil War. A prime example is the author, Margaret Mitchell. In Gone with the Wind, she spoke longingly for the pre-Civil War days in the South. Supposedly, every white lived on large populations like Tara. Slaves lovingly and submissively took care of their white superiors. Northerners were recruited for brutish positions like slave overseers. She constantly referred to Negroes as creatures of inferior intelligence and worth. The Northern invasion, sometimes termed Northern aggression, supposedly had put an end to this idyllic existence.
Political demagogues such as Ben Tillman fanned racial hatred and were responsible for the infamous Jim Crow legislation. By the early 20th century, these laws enforced racial segregation and second class citizenship for Blacks, thus wiping out the moral gains of the Civil War. Tillman openly advocated massacres of any Blacks who stepped out of line.
In summary, we can refer to ancillary causes of the Civil War, such as tariffs, jealousy, etc. However, the one root cause was the 4 million Black people held in bondage, and the desire of an entrenched White minority to keep it that way.
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