Slavery, as Abraham Lincoln often noted, was the root cause of the Civil War. Tensions over slavery dated back to the contradictory nature of the American Revolution of 1776 that resulted in a republic simultaneously committed to freedom for whites and bondage for blacks (Barney W., p. 61). Within years North and South reached the point at which compromise was not possible. At that time Civil War had been started.
In this paper we would analyze the causes of the Civil War and advocate the thesis that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.
As we already noted – in the 1800s expediency of slavery was disputed. While industrial North almost abandoned bondage, by the early 19th century, slavery was almost exclusively confined to the South, home to more than 90 percent of American blacks (Barney W., p. 61). Agrarian South needed free labor force in order to stimulate economic growth. In particular, whites exploited blacks in textile production. This conditioned the differences in economic and social development of the North and South, and opposing viewpoints on the social structure. “Northerners now saw slavery as a barbaric relic from the past, a barrier to secular and Christian progress that contradicted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and degraded the free-labor aspirations of Northern society” (Barney W., p. 63).
In 1830s some faithful activists like W. Garrison, Tappan brothers, T. Weld and others have made several publications advocating antislavery movement and claiming that slavery is a major sin. They give birth to the movement of abolitionism and win over many white Americans to their camp.
Main goal of the early abolitionists was to create a better society through reforms and they engaged in a battle to convince their fellow Americans that it was morally wrong to keep other humans in bondage. In order to realize a better and more righteous republic, they believed, the institution of slavery had to be rejected (Harpen R., Dal Lago E., p. 296). Many abolitionists appealed to abolish slavery immediately as they believed all people should be equal in rights. The abolitionists demanded immediate emancipation without payment to slaveowners. Rather than accepting the dominant white view of African Americans as an inferior caste that could never be integrated as equals in American society, they called for an end to racial discrimination (Barney W., p. 8). Such initiatives contradicted with Southern philosophy and, in fact, suggested abolishment of slavery was a significant obstacle for economic development of the North.
White abolitionists also paid a great deal of attention to black education, helping blacks to found or improve schools by providing funds and teachers (Harpen R., Dal Lago E., p. 308). However, a large part of abolitionists supported only economic reforms and did not concentrate on slavery as a serious problem.
There was another movement (more liberal) that also was against slavery, but in contrast to the abolitionists it supported the idea of gradual slavery cessation. In the presidential election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran on a Republican platform of resistance to the expansion of slavery, and was elected with a narrow margin in the popular vote (Harpen R., Dal Lago E., p. 345). Proclamation of Lincoln’s course against slavery was the last straw, which caused Northern states to secede from the Union and unleash Civil War. The opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, facing Charleston: on April 12 (1861), southern soldiers attacked the federal garrison, and two days later the fort surrendered (Harpen R., Dal Lago E., p. 345). Although there may be other causes of Civil War, we can see that slavery was the primary one.
On July 22 1863 Lincoln drafted an Emancipation Proclamation, according to which all slaves in areas under Confederate control would be proclaimed free on January I, 1863 … thus he permanently changed the nature and scope of the Civil War (Harpen R., Dal Lago E., p. 378). After Emancipation Proclamation northern forces mobilized blacks and organized separate black troops.
Black soldiers fought bravely for their freedom nip and tuck with white, and noticeably changed balance of forces in the Civil War. It was not a surprise as their freedom was bet on. Black soldiers played a vital role in the Union victory, and their combat record influenced whites after the war to take the first steps toward racial equality (Barney W., p. 32).
We can not be sure that purpose of Emancipation Proclamation was to put end to racial inequality. It was rather a strategic decision of Lincoln to obtain military whip-hand and to change the course of the war. Lincoln was more interested in undermining the Southern rebellion than in freeing black people from bondage, and his principal aim was not to bestow freedom but to convert the slaves into yet another Northern war asset (Holzer H., Gabbard S., p. 67). However, it was a great hope and a step forward for enslaved blacks on their way to freedom and equity.
Since premature declaration of emancipation as a war aim would have shattered the coalition and likely cost Lincoln the support he needed to wage the war. Emancipation would become politically feasible only when a majority of Northerners, civilians and military personnel alike, grasped that the Union and slavery were incompatible. Once that point was reached in late 1862, the war assumed an entirely new character (Barney W., p. 114) and it became possible to declare its highly moral purpose and mask any other motives related to lust for power.
Returning to the role of abolitionists we should notice their contribution to ratification of the 13th Amendment, which eliminated the possibility that wartime measures against slavery might be overturned by the courts or reversed by the Southern states after the war (Barney W., p. 315) and de jure put end to slavery.
Abolitionists together with feminists provided a petition to amend the Constitution to the Congress. They enforced significant social pressure on the Congress and provided public support to the initiatives of Lincoln in respect to the 13th Amendment, which was finally passed in January 1865.
Finally, we conclude that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, although there were some other minor reasons behind. Differences in economic and social development of the North and South, and opposing viewpoints on the social structure and economic development were incompatible. South considered slavery as optimal way for economic growth, while North claimed it was morally wrong to keep other humans in bondage and that Union had to reject slavery. Proclamation of Lincoln’s course against slavery unleashed the Civil War.
Emancipation Proclamation permanently changed the nature and scope of the Civil War. Participation of black soldiers in military operations was a significant step forward in the battle for equality of all Americans. The 13th amendment supported by abolitionists and carried out by Abraham Lincoln de jure put end to slavery.
- Harpen R., Dal Lago E. (editors). Slavery and emancipation. Malden: Blackwell 2002.
- Barney W. The Civil War and reconstruction. A student companion. New York: Oxford University Press 2001.
- Holzer H., Gabbard S. (editors). Lincoln and freedom: slavery, emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Fort Wayne: Southern Illinois University Press 2007.