History of the United States
Volume III


Chapter XVII
Causes of the Civil War

The first and most general cause of the civil war in the United States was the different construction put upon the national Constitution by the people of North and South. A difference of opinion had always existed as to how that instrument was to be understood. The question at issue was as to the relation between the States and the general government. One party held that under the Constitution the Union of the States is indissoluable; that the sovereignty of the nation is lodged in the central government; that the States are subordinate; that the acts of Congress, until they are repealed or pronounced unconstitutional by the supreme court, are binding on the States; that the highest allegiance of the citizen is due to the general government, and not to his own State; and that all attempts at nullification and disunion are in their nature disloyal and treasonable. The other party held that the national Constitution is a compact between sovereign States; that for certain reasons the Union may be dissolved; that the sovereignty of the nation is lodged in the individual States, and not in the central government; that Congress can exercise no other than delegated powers; that a State, feeling aggrieved, may annul an act of Congress; that the highest allegiance of the citizen is due to his own State, and afterward to the general government, and that acts of nullification and disunion are justifiable, revolutionary, and honorable.

Here was an issue in its consequences the most fearful that ever disturbed a nation. It struck right into the vitals of the government. It threatened with each renewal of the agitation to undo the whole civil structure of the United States. For a long time the parties who disputed about the meaning of the Constitution were scattered in various sections. In the early history of the country the doctrine of State sovereignty was most advocated in New England. Other States in the North had promulgated the same dangerous doctrine--Pennsylvania in 1808 and Ohio in 1820. With the rise of the tariff question the position of parties changed. Since the tariff--a congressional measure--favored the Eastern States at the expense of the South, it came to pass naturally that the people of New England passed over to the advocacy of national sovereignty, while the people of the South took up the doctrine of State rights. Thus it happened that as early as 1831 the right of nullifying an act of Congress was openly advocated in South Carolina, and thus also it happened that the belief in State sovereignty became more prevalentin the South than in the North. These facts tended powerfully to produce sectional parties and to bring them into conflict.

A second general cause of the civil war was the different system of labor in the North and in the South. In the former section the laborers wer freemen, citizens, voters; in the latter, bondmen, property, slaves. In the South the theory was that the capital of a country should own the labor; in the North that both labor and capital are free. In the beginning all the colonies had been slaveholding. In the Eastern and Middle States the system of slave labor was gradually abolished being unprofitable. In the five great States formed out of the Northwestern Territory slavery was excluded by the original compact under which that Territory was organized. Thus there came to be a dividing line drawn through the Union east and west. It was evident, therefore, that whenever the question of slavery was agitated a sectional division would arise between the parties, and that disunion and war would be threatened. The danger arising from this source was increased and the discord between the sections aggravated by several subordinate causes.

The first of these was the invention of the Cotton Gin. In 1793, Eli Whitney, a young collegian of Massachusetts, went to George, and resided with the family of Mrs. Greene, widow of General Greene, of the Revolution. While there his attention was directed to the tedious and difficult process of picking cotton by hand--that is, separating the seed from the faber. So slow was the process that the production of upland cotton was nearly profitless. The industry of the cotton growing States was paralyzed by the tediousness of preparing the product for the market. Mr. Whitney undertook to remove the difficulty, and succeeded in inventing a gin which astonished the beholder by the rapidity and excellence of its work. From being profitless, cotton became the most profitable of all the staples. The industry of the South was revolutionized. Before the civil war it was estimated that Whitney's gin had added a thusand millions of dollars to the revenues of the Southern States. The American crop had grown to be seven-eighths of all the cotton produced in the world. Just in proportion to the increased profitableness of cotton, slave labor became important, slaves valuable, and the system of slavery a fixed and deep-rooted institution.

From this time onward there was constant danger that the slavery question would so embitter the politics and legislation of the country as to bring about disunion. The danger of such a result was fully manifested in the Missouri Agitation of 1820-21. Threats of dissolving the Union were freely made in both the North and the South--in the North, because of the proposed enlargement of the domain of slavery; in the South, because of the proposed rejection of Missouri as a slave-holding State. When the Missouri Compromise was enacted, it was the hope of Mr. Clay and his fellow statesmen to save the Union by removing forever the slavery question from the politics of the country. In that they succeeded for a while.

Next came the Nullification Acts of South Carolina. And these, too, turned upon the institution of slavery and the profitableness of cotton. The Southern States had become cotton producing; the Eastern States had given themselves to manufacturing. The tariff measures favored manufacturers at the expense of producers. Mr. Calhoun and his friends proposed to remedy the evil complained of by annulling the laws of Congress. His measures failed; but another compromise was found necessary in order to allay the animosities which had been awakened.

The annexation of Texas, with the consequent enlargement of the domain of slavery, led to a renewal of the agitation. Those who opposed the Mexican War did so, not so much because of the injustice of the conflict as because of the fact that thereby slavery would be extended. Then, at the close of the war, came another enormous acquisition of territory. Whether the same should be made into free or slaveholding States was the question next agitated. This controversy led to the passage of the Omnibus Bill, by which again for a brief period the excitement was allayed.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska bill was passed. Thereby the Missouri Compromise was repealed and the whole question opened anew. Meanwhile, the character and the civilization of the Northern and the Southern people had become quite different. In population and wealth the North had far outgrown the South. In the struggle for territorial dominion the North had gained a considerable advantage. In 1860 the division of the Democratic party made certain the election of Mr. Lincoln by the votes of the Northern States. The people of the South were exasperated at the choice of a chief magistrate whom they regarded as indifferent to their welfare and hostile to their interests.

The third general cause of the civil war was the want of intercourse between the people of the North and the South. The great railroads and thoroughfares ran east and west. Emigration flowed from the East to the West. Between the North and the South there was little travel or interchange of opinion. From want of acquaintance the people, without intending it, became estranged, jealous, suspicious. They misjudged each other's motives. They misrepresented each other's beliefs and purposes. They suspected each other of dishonesty and ill-will. Before the outbreak of the war the people of the two sections looked upon each other almost in the light of different nationalities.

A fourth cause was found in the publication of sectional books. During the twenty years preceding the war many works were published, both in the North and the South, whose popularity depended wholly on the animosity existing between the two sections. Such books were generally filled with ridicule and falsehood. The manners and customs, language and beliefs, of one section were held up to the contempt and scorn of the people of the other section. The minds of all classes, especially of the young, were thus prejudiced and poisoned. In the North the belief was fostered that the South was given up to inhumanity, ignorance, and barbarism, while in the South the opinion prevailed that the Northern people were a selfish race of mean, cold-blooded Yankees. A book published in the North was especially influential in exposing the evils of slavery. It was Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Another book, though written by a North Carolinian, was Helper's Impending Crisis, in which an attempt was made to show slavery to be an economic evil. This aroused a great deal of feeling among his Southern countrymen.

A fifth cause may be cited in the influence of the professional politician. There are always men who help to incite partisanship and sectionalism in order to reap political reward. That the people, North and South, were never allowed to forget their differences was often seen in the indendiary speeches made on both sides of the Mason and Dixon Line. While these are in brief the several causes, remote and immediate, of one of the most terrible conflicts of modern times, yet when all these ae reduced to their last analysis, we find that slavery was the controlling factor in all the differences that led to the estrangement of the two sections of our land.


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