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The Cause and Effect of the Civil War

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Though slavery was a key cause of the Civil War, it was not the sole reason for it. To hold slavery as the sole reason for the Civil War is incorrect as there were numerous economic, political and moral reasons behind the strife. Sectionalism (between the Northern and Southern states), Economic (between the industrial North and agrarian South), and Political differences (such as the South’s deeply held belief in states’ rights) all contributed to the conflict between the states. Slavery was the crux of the dilemma, but to simplify the cause of the war the slavery would be a misstatement. Also slavery was a complex issue that encompasses many other issues within it, particularly that of state and federal rights. Even in contemporary society, one can see how the causes of the Civil War have not completely disappeared and still have relevance today.

The differences between the politics of the North and South were numerous and significant and could be seen as far back as the creation of the Constitution in 1787.The fundamental differences were economic, and would lead to sectionalism and separation between northern and southern interests. The southern states were dependent upon farming and raising a myriad of crops (primarily cotton and tobacco) in order to be economically sufficient. It was widely believed in 1808 that slavery would die an inevitable death, albeit slowly and perhaps incompletely. The importation of slaves was ceased, although the domestic slave trade continued to prosper. The invention of the cotton gin helped bolster the increased importation and retention of slaves, as this new device although more efficient than previous methods required additional manpower to operate. The South produced the vast majority of crops and raw materials which were either being sent to the north for manufacture or industrial processing (cotton being utilized by the textile industry, for example) or shipped to England for a bill of exchange. These bills of exchange would have to be brought to northern cities like Philadelphia or New York in order to be traded for ready cash, sometimes at a considerable interest. The fact that the Northern broker assumed a risk in giving the planter ready money in exchange for a future claim was overlooked.

Influential publications of the time, such as De Bow’s Review increased the tension and resentment some southerners held. These publications published articles (fortified with statistics and data) to show that the South was the part of the country responsible for producing wealth and the basis for manufacture, while the North, like an “economic leech”, consumed the wealth of the South upon which it depended for raw materials to manufacture into finished goods. American commerce, according to this view, whether incoming or outgoing, drew deeply from the South. The South was responsible for the majority of exported product and it was the South which bought the bulk of imported goods. Northern manufactures rested upon the production of Southern materials, yet the North managed to earn the majority of profits.

Northern businessmen complained that the South dominated the national government. Southern votes had been chiefly responsible for the low Walker tariff of 1846 , and the South further supported the still tariff of 1857, which was even lower than the previous one. During the Age of Jackson, the South voted second Bank of the United States, thereby destroying that institution. This deprived the nation of central financial direction, something the South later clamored for. Southern Congressmen rejected or severely impeded funding needed for internal improvements. Southern resentment prevented federal money from going into projects intended for the construction of a transcontinental railroad that would have linked Chicago or St. Louis with the Pacific coast.

The issue of slavery, although it is now seen to be a moral one, was primarily economic during the Civil War era. Up until the middle 1800s, slavery was kept as a background issue that remained largely the concern of political leaders of the South, and abolitionists of the North. But in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was sponsored by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, brought slavery to the forefront of national attention. The Kansas-Nebraska Act supplanted the old Missouri Compromise (which in 1820 had designated areas of the new territories in which slavery could and could not be introduced) and made it possible for slavery to be introduced in virtually any new territory. Douglas called the concept of allowing residents of the territories to decide the slavery issue for themselves Popular Sovereignty.

Although from our modern perspective, it sometimes appears as if the Northern states (and those who inhabited them) were free of the prejudice more visible in the south, this was not usually the case. Deeply held prejudice and racism still existed in the North; one of Lincoln’s primary motivations for supporting abolitionist causes was that “even the free Negroes in the north would return to the southern states, their natural habitat within the United States”. Even in the Northern states only four states legally allowed free blacks to vote, and there were no states which allowed blacks to serve on juries. The primary cause for the civil war, according to Lincoln, was that “one section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, whilst the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”

The acquisition of the Louisiana territory made the expansion of slavery a substantial issue. It was the North’s interest (both economically and politically) to curb slavery and its spread into the new territories. In 1800 half of the population of the United States had lived in the South. But by 1850 only a third lived there and the difference continued to widen over time. The South felt its power slipping, and nowhere was this more apparent than the explosive growth of the North. While thousands of European immigrants flocked to the North, attracted by their chance to work within that section’s industries, the population of the South remained relatively stagnant. Immigrants were wary of being exploited by the south’s agrarian economy. The South became increasingly fearful of the North’s increasing political power, which was reflected most clearly in the House of Representatives, where the North’s explosive growth was reflected in an increased number of representatives.

The turning point was the election of 1860. The Democrat party had split badly between Stephen A. Douglas (leader of the Northern Democratic faction and creator of the Kansas-Nebraska Act) and John Breckinridge, leader of the Southern faction. John Bell was nominated by the Whig Party, and Lincoln, a moderate, was the Republican nominee. Lincoln held the belief that the Constitution forbade the Federal government from taking action against slavery where it already existed, but was determined to keep it from spreading further. The South saw this as an attempt to curb the political power of the South, and this played upon the fears held by southerners; that they would subject to the whims of the northern states and be used as a tool for the Northern aggrandizement. More importantly, the average southerner was concerned with the continuation of antebellum southern culture and their traditional way of life. Slavery was not something that most southerners were directly affected by, as slaves were expensive and most southerners were independent farmers not wealth enough to purchase slaves.

“African slavery is the corner-stone of the industrial, social, and political fabric of the South; and whatever wars against it, wars against her very existence. Strike down the institution of African slavery and you reduce the South to depopulation and barbarism”, this was a quote from Lawrence Keitt, a congressman from South Carolina.

Lincoln’s primary concern in the war was not directly related to slavery; rather, it was his desire to keep the union whole. The northerner’s primary argument was that the Constitution was created by the people; therefore it could not be dissolved. The southerners believed that the state’s created the constitution, and if they believed they were not being adequately represented by their government, they had the right to secede from the Union. It’s often said that slavery wasn’t the only cause of the war, but if slavery had not existed, there certainly would not have been a Civil War.

Debate still exists as to the exact reasons for the civil war, but trying to understand the causes is an important task. The effects of the civil war and the reconstruction period which followed, still has effects on the country. The 14th amendment, commonly known as the civil rights amendment, states that no state should “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The next year, the 15th amendment was passed which stated that “the right of citizens to vote should not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” These amendments greatly angered Southern whites who less than a decade ago still held slaves.

The Reconstruction period, although containing some minor improvements, did not radically alter life for blacks in the South or elsewhere. Beyond the abolition of slavery, little was done in terms of civil rights and a pervading feeling of racial bitterness survived in the South. The Civil Rights movement was to some degree a way to address the shortcomings of the Reconstruction and a way to address some of the same issues which were on the abolitionist’s agenda prior to the civil war. The advent of Jim Crow laws, widespread racism and laws preventing interracial marriages, blacks serving on juries, and other forms of prejudice after the civil war were not addressed until the 1960s, and even now the South remains, in certain areas, filled with racial tension and segregation.

The battle for the South to maintain state’s rights continued long after the civil war. The integration of the University of Alabama had to be overseen by Federal troops, as the Board of Trustees repeatedly expelled black students, and Alabama’s state police officers were not effectively performing their duties. Racism, prejudice and unequal opportunities are still abound, emphasizing the importance of understanding the civil war and it’s causes not only as history from a past century, but as something still relevant in contemporary society, there are still lessons to be learned from this period in history.

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