The root causes of the Civil War can be traced back to the foundation of the country. When the Constitution was written, there were some men that wanted slavery to be banned at that point, but other representatives stated that they would refuse to sign the document if that provision was included. Therefore, the entire topic was just avoided in the document. The differences between the North and South continued to create a great divide, and the rift grew through the mid-1800s. The economic and social differences between the North and South were great, and the disparity grew as the years passed. There was a debate over state versus federal rights and which one was to be the prominent of the two. The abolition movement continued to grow in the North, especially as cities grew. Because of these three issues, the tensions continued to mount and the War Between the States could not be averted (Kelly, n.d.).
Originally, the South had been a region where many crops were grown. After Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, almost all plantations produced cotton as their only crop. It was labor intensive, and slavery was the answer to the labor demands. The North moved from agriculture to manufacturing, and the cities grew. Northern factories were purchasing raw southern cotton and manufacturing it into finished goods (Causes, 1993). People of various classes learned to tolerate each other and some respected each other and worked together. The South was content with the old social order whereas the North wanted to move to what they considered a new, more civilized life. Perpetuating this change were Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 which demonstrated how the Fugitive Slave Law was not fair and fueled the abolitionists desire to help slaves escape to the North and Canada (Kelly, n.d.).
The North’s diverse economy, and its greater populace, helped it in two ways. First, there was a greater representation of Northern interests in the House of Representatives since the number of representatives is based on population. Second, the supply of cheap labor provided by the immigrant men as well as women and children meant that the wages were kept very low. The working conditions were horrible, keeping the factories inexpensive to run. Many plantation owners and other southerners questioned whether or not the poor working in factories were better off than the slaves, who were guaranteed a place to sleep and three meals a day as well as what was considered to be adequate clothing. Therefore, all of the basic needs of the slaves were being met (Clowers, DeGracia, McMillin, & Munoz, K. (n.d.).
In 1860, there were about 4 million African slaves in the South. Although few people in the South actually owned slaves, many aspired to do so and felt that it was their right. Slaves could be rented, traded, and also used to pay debts. If someone owned more than a few slaves, they received greater respect and a higher social status. Slaves were considered to be a part of a person’s wealth, and as land prices and the price of cotton declined, the value of slaves increased. The Northern states had abolished slavery one at a time. Because of the immigrants entering the North, mostly from Germany and Ireland, there was a great availability of cheap labor. Yet another reason why Northern states moved away from slavery (Causes, n.d.).
Another issue that placed the North and the South at different ends of the political spectrum was the issue of states’ rights versus federal rights. The original government after the Revolutionary War, organized under the Articles of Confederation, had a weak federal government and stronger state governments. The colonists wanted to be sure that the federal did not become too powerful as Britain had just a few years earlier. States wanted the right to nullify certain federal acts if they could find just cause that the federal acts were unconstitutional, but this right was not granted, giving the states a reason to secede (Causes, 2011). Slavery was a key issue of states’ rights that fueled debates and tension between the Northern and Southern states. South Carolina sent representatives to the Southern states to try and get them to nullify their contract with the United States and succeed in gaining the support of this initial attempt from Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama (Causes, n.d.).
Northerners became increasingly resentful of being thrown into the slavery battle, particularly with the Fugitive Slave Act. They did not want to be a part of being forced to return slaves back to their Southern owners. They felt that if slaves were successful in escaping to the North, they deserved their freedom. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin increased this resentment (Kelly, n.d.). Northerners also were beginning to use the argument of federal rights over states’ rights by the 1830s to support their position of wanting slavery outlawed on a national level by making it a Constitutional Amendment. Further support came from many Northerners becoming abolitionists and supporting the slaves who ran away using the Underground Railroad. This system of traveling at night and hiding by day in the homes, businesses, and barns of the sympathetic abolitionists enabled many thousands of slaves to escape from their owners to freedom in the North and in Canada. The conductors, or leaders, knew where the safe locations were for the travelers to spend the days and they traveled at night to be cloaked and protected by the darkness. Abolitionists knew that they were committing a crime and could be jailed if caught, but their convictions were strong enough that they were willing to assume the risk.
John Brown’s raid in Harper’s Ferry further fueled the abolitionists and their movement. John Brown was originally from Kentucky, but moved to present day West Virginia to be closer to the plantation south and help the abolition movement. On October 16, 1859, John Brown and some of his supporters seized a federal arsenal in an attempt to arm slaves and begin an insurrection. The attempt failed. Brown was found guilty at his trial and hanged. Northerners viewed Brown as a hero, fueling the South to say that the North was going to attempt to wage war on the Southern states (Causes, n.d.).
Scholars still debate over whether or not the Civil War could have been averted. Slavery and states’ rights are often identified as causes of the Civil War. The abolition movement is a part of the slavery debate, so these answers would be correct. The economy of the North was more diverse and it had a greater population, more resources, and more infrastructure, so it was better equipped to sustain a war. The South had the incentive to defend its lifestyle as its momentum. Both sides felt they were right and justified in their decision. Both felt bloodshed was necessary to end their dispute.
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Kelly, M. (n.d.). Top five causes of the Civil War: Leading up to succession and the Civil War.
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