Civil War: Causes

I realized this summer that I knew very little of substance about America’s Civil War. Louis Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History was a fantastic primer on this part of our country’s history and reading it prompted a number of reflections on my part. This is Part 1, reflecting on some of the causes and background to the war. Part 2 will focus on the War itself and its aftermath.

Longstanding American Hypocrisy

The southern states “saw themselves as upholding the principle on which the American Revolution had first been fought: opposition to remote, tyrannical authority” (1). The same bitter irony runs through both time periods. The founders of our country complained about “tyranny” and fought for “freedom” from a three penny tea tax, all the while holding slaves in actual bondage. Frederick Douglass articulates this marvelously in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The southern states similarly complained against the “tyrannical authority” of the federal government while exercising their own tyrannical authority over their slaves. In the run-up to Lincoln’s first election, an Atlanta newspaper claimed “the south will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” (19), all the while subjecting their slaves to daily humiliation and degradation. The hypocrisy here is glaring.

America’s Founding was White Supremacist

White supremacy didn’t just appear out of nowhere in 1850 in Mississippi—it was woven into the fabric of our country from the beginning. “Thomas Jefferson, one of many slaveholding founders, struggled at times over what to do about the institution [of slavery]… he believed that blacks were innately inferior to whites (“the difference is fixed in nature” he would write)” (3). Or takes the famous Patrick Henry who proclaimed “give me liberty or give me death!” while denying liberty to slaves, and wanted the right to own slaves written into the constitution itself. “Henry asked why a clause was ‘omitted to secure us that property in slaves which we held now’” (4). However, the constitution did get a clause regarding fugitive slaves:

No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due. (Article 4, Section 2).

America was a white supremacist country from the very beginning, and it even made its way into our founding documents. “All men” did not really include all men in the original intent of the writers. When the U.S. Supreme court considered the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case in 1857, their understanding of the rights in the constitution meant that “as a slave he was not a citizen and had ‘no rights which the white man was bound to respect’” (17). “Rights” were for white men only, and this was consistently since the very beginning.

Slavery the foundation of Southern society

I’ve heard some people idealize some aspects of south society and culture, as if slavery can be treated in isolation from the rest of society. Just ignore their racism and slaveholding, but keep the parts that were good. However, slavery was woven into the very foundation of southern society, their views of the family, the economy, the political order, and the ordered structure of reality itself. John Calhoun claimed that “slavery was a ‘positive good…the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions” (7). For Calhoun, you can’t separate politics/states’ rights from slavery. The latter is the foundation of the former. The very identity of southerners was formed around slavery: “A racial ideology built around white supremacy united slaveholders and nonslaveholders and provided Southern states with a common identity” (7).


At the bottom of it all was money. The “Southern aristocracy was reaping untold wealth from the production of cotton for export” (8). This is where the phrase “cotton is king” comes from. Cotton was such an important product in the north and back in Europe that the south felt secure from any threats: “You dare not make ware on cotton… No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king” (8). The north and  those in Europe enjoyed the fruits of slave labor in cheap cotton, while opposing slavery. To be consistent, perhaps they should have changed their consumption habits and not turned a blind eye to where their cotton came from.


Not every family in the south owned slaves, but those who owned the most slaves had the most power, and used their power to keep slavery the way they wanted it. “The members of the planter elite owned twenty or more slaves, and while they accounted for just 3 percent of all white families, they exercised disproportionate political power and among themselves owned more than half of all slaves” (9) Even those who didn’t own slaves shared in the same system of values and worldview: “Two thirds of Southerners were non-slaveholding farmers—yeoman—but they identified their interests, as well as their dreams of upward mobility, with the slaveholding elite” (9). The south wielded their power not just in the individual states but also in Congress. At one point there was a “gag rule” that “banned discussion of antislavery petitions” from even taking place (10). Money and power created a deep stronghold keeping slavery in existence, and they were not going to give this up easily.


“Territorial expansion” was an important factor in pushing the country to the brink of war. With the balance of power between slave-states and free-states so tightly balanced, adding new states would upset the balance one way or the other if not done carefully. What stands out to me here is how greed and injustice has ripple effects. The story of westward expansion is a story of greed for land and resources that resulted in violent and dishonest stealing from the Natives (see The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, for example). “The desire for territory remained insatiable” and Americans spread west under the banner of “manifest destiny.” This was a key factor in disrupting the delicate balance between states, and eventually led to war (10). Various kinds of evils are all deeply intwined.

(see part 2)

(Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash)


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