Causes of the Civil War


There was no single cause of the American Civil War. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the southern and northern states became increasingly divided. This division culminated in six Southern states seceding from the United States, beginning with South Carolina in December 1860. Hostilities were triggered by the Southern attack on the federal military installation, Fort Sumpter, in South Carolina.

During the nineteenth century, the North and the South developed along different cultural and economic paths. Increasingly the interests of the North and the South differed making it difficult for the federal government to make laws that kept all states happy. The principal differences included the imposition of tariffs on imported manufactured goods, slavery, and the extension of slavery to the new territories opening up and moving towards statehood in the west and south west of the United States.

Tariffs favoured the North by protecting its developing manufacturing industry, and disadvantaged the south by making imported manufactured goods more expensive. The South, with the economic advantage of free slave labour, had developed an agrarian economy based largely on the cultivation and export of cotton and tobacco. The North, on the other hand, offered more job opportunities to immigrants who provided a large pool of labour to enable massive development of manufacturing industry.

Slavery in addition to giving the South an economic advantage in the production of tobacco and cotton was also regarded in the south as a cultural tradition beyond the control of the federal government. This issue fed directly into the issue of ???states??™ rights??? which essentially preserved the sovereignty of the states to govern themselves without interference from the federal government whose powers were limited to those set out in the Constitution.

The Southern states also wanted to extend the use of slaves into the new territories opening up in the west and south west of the United States. This became a very argumentative issue because if new territories became ???slave states??? then the voting balance in the U.S. Senate would shift in favour of the South.

It is important to note that the South with an agrarian plantation economy with a slow growth in population, and the North with industrialisation, large urban areas, infrastructure growth, high birth rates and a large influx of European immigrants, were becoming quite distinct and different regions with their own ???sectional interests??™. Holding the union of the United States together became more and more difficult with constant argument over these interests. This boost in population doomed Southern efforts to maintain balance in the government as it meant the future addition of more free states and the election of a Northern, potentially anti-slavery, president. Ultimately, Jefferson Davis, the senator from Mississippi, on the 21st of January 1861 said, ???The argument is exhausted. All hope of relief in the Union…is extinguished.??? (Foote, Vol. 1 p3)

Looking at the causes of the Civil War, it is also important to remember that the American Revolution had occurred not so long before, and the culture of independence and not submitting to onerous government was still strong. This was expressed in the state nationalism, particularly in the South, that underpinned states??™ rights. According to Werstein, ???States??™ rights, not slavery, became the crux of sectional antagonisms and probably was the main cause of the Civil War???. (Werstein, p25)