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Causes of the Civil War

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Causes of the Civil War

Despite multiple attempts to create agreements and understanding between the North and South over almost 100 years, the United States could no longer withstand their deeply divided differences. Between opposite economic interests, cultural values, and the widely debated power of states' rights, it seemed as though there was nothing left to do but fight. The Civil War would begin in 1861 between the Union and the Confederacy and last until 1865. The human cost is the greatest in U.S. history: around 620,000 people lost their lives.

Main causes of the Civil War

The causes of the Civil War are still debated. The consensus is that economic and political factors related to slavery played a more decisive role than the moral issues this system of human exploitation raised. Let's look at a timeline to explore the main events of the American Civil War:

Causes of the Civil War: A Timeline

1776 – The Declaration of Independence is signed, removing the Thirteen Colonies from the control of England. Slavery remains legal in all territories, according to the document.

The 1840s-1850s – During the 1840s to 1850s, Europe's modernization spread to North America. Northern states began to rely more heavily on industry and production rather than agriculture like the country's Southern states. Hence the need for slavery in the North started to dwindle.

The "Potato Famine" in Ireland sent a wave of laborers to America searching for a better life, mainly settling in the North. Many European workers had already removed slavery within their home countries, and the idea of Abolitionism in the United States began to grow.

Abolitionism

Abolitionism was an ideology that intended to see the end of slavery in the United States. With workers coming from all over Europe for job opportunities in the industrialized North, slavery became unnecessary to the economy's success. Also, the population at large began to perceive it as morally wrong.

In the 1850s, abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. This book revealed the vicious realities of slavery which further fueled the Abolitionist cause. Stowe took inspiration for her book from real stories that a former enslaved person had told her.

Causes of the Civil War | Portrait of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe | StudySmarter

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

1857 – The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 solidified the sharp division between those who were pro-slavery and those who were anti-slavery; the case had involved a former enslaved person, Dred Scott, suing his previous master for the right to his freedom. Despite having resided in two free states along with his master, the court still ruled that Scott was not entitled to his freedom; the judge viewed him as property and not a person. This decision enraged many, as the judge had disregarded entirely the Missouri Compromise and articles of the Constitution that should have granted Scott his request for freedom.

Did you know?

This decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is viewed by Constitutional Scholars today as one of the worst rulings in U.S. History.

1860 – The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 would be the event that pushed the Southern states to their breaking point; a Republican President threatened to destroy their economy and their way of life. From Lincoln's election in November to February of 1861, multiple Southern states would secede from the Union in what is known as "Secession Winter."

1861 – In April 1861, the Confederate Army would fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, beginning the Civil War until April 1865.

Economic Causes of the Civil War

As industry and production began their growth in the North, the South became stuck in its one-crop economy–also known as cash crop economy–that relied immensely on slave labor. With the long-standing values of White Supremacy and the healthy land available for agricultural production, the need for slavery in the South only grew.

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, it became faster than ever to separate the cotton from seeds. Due to its efficiency, many plantation owners moved from growing multiple crops to only focusing on harvesting cotton. This created an economy deeply threatened by the oncoming rise of Abolitionism in the Northern states. The South feared that abolishing slavery would destroy their economy if any Abolitionists were to reach power. To ensure that their pockets remained deep from selling cotton, many Southerners contemplated the idea of secession.

Political Causes of the Civil War

Since the end of the American Revolution, the U.S. remained divided into two groups; those who wanted the Federal Government to have more power and control and those who wished to the states to have more power and control. When the "Articles of Confederation" were written for the first Thirteen Colonies, the Federal Government was weak and hence enabled leaders of the time to write the Constitution. Leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, for example, were more in favor of states' rights and did not attend the meeting, seeing it as undermining state independence. With multiple leaders wanting their states to be able to decide whether or not to accept federal law, the idea of nullification arose.

Nullification meant that each state would have the right to cancel out, or not accept, a Federal Act if the people deemed it unconstitutional; to nullify an act would make it unenforceable and invalid in said state.

John C. Calhoun was a leading advocate for Southern states and firmly believed in the idea of nullifying a federal act that was found unconstitutional. Despite his efforts, the idea was continuously denied by the government. These contrasting views of power created many issues concerning documents such as the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which tragically led to a period known as "Bleeding Kansas"). The South's inability to nullify federal acts pushed them even closer to their official secession.

The Election of 1860

Following the Republican Convention and the problematic Democratic Convention of 1860, Abraham Lincoln claimed the Presidency in November of that year. Naturally, the South was infuriated at the winning of a Republican candidate; Lincoln had been left off of ten state ballots, and the Democratic Party had split into three groups. Regardless, he managed to take the win over Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell.

South Carolina was the first to officially declare its secession from the Union in December of 1860 with their "Declaration of the Causes of Secession." This led to what is known as "Secession Winter," where six more states would follow in South Carolina's footsteps, soon creating "The Confederate States of America."

As President Lincoln stated in his inauguration speech, preserving the Union was the top priority for his presidency, regardless of whether or not that meant war.

Declaration of the Causes of Secession

The South wanted its reasonings for secession to be similar to the Declaration of Independence. They wrote the Declaration of the Causes of Secession with this purpose. Like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine (writers of the Declaration of Independence), the Causes of Secession stated why it was acceptable for the South to remove itself from the North as the United States did from the control of England.

Causes of the Civil War | Portrait of Abraham Lincoln | StudySmarter

1860 presidential winner Abraham Lincoln. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.
Causes of the Civil War | Portrait of Stephen A. Douglas | StudySmarter | US Library of Congress1860 presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.Causes of the Civil War | Portrait of John C. Breckinridge | StudySmarter | US Library of Congress1860 presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.Causes of the Civil War | Portrait of John Bell | StudySmarter1860 presidential candidate John Bell. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.
The Civil War Begins

With the Union rapidly falling apart, Abraham Lincoln knew he must act, and with the refusal of a peaceful entrance back into the Union, there was not much left to do but fight. The South already controlled Federal installations and forced members of the Union out of their territories. The bloodiest war in U.S. history would officially begin with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter at Charleston Harbor in April 1861.

Causes of the Civil War - Key takeaways

  • The Civil War had more than one cause, including substantial differences in economy, culture, and politics.
  • A significant difference between the factions was their economy: industry in the North, and agriculture in the South. Slavery was no longer necessary in the North but was critical to the South's economy.
  • States' Rights vs. the Federal Government also created a deep divide between the North and the South, some believed that the state should hold power over Federal Law, but many others disagreed.
  • The election of Republican President Abraham Lincoln, who threatened Southern ways of life, was the final piece needed to push the South into secession.
  • Having tensions reach a breaking point caused the Civil War to begin with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861.

Frequently Asked Questions about Causes of the Civil War

The three main causes of the Civil War were disagreements regarding the economy and its relation to slavery, federal vs. state rights, and the election of 1860.  

Slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War but not necessarily as a moral principle but as an economic and political factor. The rights of each state to determine their stance regarding slavery was the factor that lead the South to secede and the North to fight for the union of the states. 

The immediate causer of the Civil War was the Souths decision to secede from the Union after the election of 1860. It was President Abraham Lincoln's first priority to keep the Union intact.

Slavery was a cause of the Civil War due to the modernization of the North and their heavy focus on industry. The North no longer needed slavery in order to keep their economy afloat. In contrast, the Souths enormous one-crop economy kept them heavily relying on slave labor. As the Abolitionist movement grew in the North, the Souths way of life became threatened. 

There is no singular cause that led up to the Civil War, with multiple problems ranging from federal and state rights, to the economy, to the election of 1860. The final step towards war was the secession of Southern states and the threat of the Union breaking apart.

Final Causes of the Civil War Quiz

Question

What year were the Lincoln Douglas debates?

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1858

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How many debates were held in total?

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7

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In what state did the debates take place?

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Illinois

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Which event almost caused civil war in Kansas?

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The Kansas Nebraska Act

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Who was the Republican representative?

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Abraham Lincoln 

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Who was the Democratic representative? 

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Stephen A. Douglas 

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What was the Missouri Compromise?

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Missouri would be entered into the Union as a slave state while Maine would be entered as free in order to keep the balance.

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What was “Popular Sovereignty”?

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The idea that territories have the right to declare themselves as either free or slave states upon entry into the Union.

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Which war broke out soon after the debates? 

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The Civil War 

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What was the Dred Scott decision?

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Previously enslaved people were still not granted the right to freedom or their citizenship despite now residing in a free state. 

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Which candidate later became president of the US?

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Abraham Lincoln 

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Any territory _____ of the 36’30 line was not allowed to be a slave state.

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North

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Why did Stephen A. Douglas view Abraham Lincoln as radical?

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Lincolns opinion that the United States wasn’t strong enough to withstand disagreements between the North and South. 

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Maine was originally a part of what Northern state?

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Massachusetts 

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The 36’30 line is also known as the _______ line. 

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Louisiana Purchase 

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What year was the Republican Party founded?

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1854

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The Republican Party was also known as _____. (Hint: “GOP”)

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Grand Old Party

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When was the Republican Party’s candidate first elected as president? 

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1860

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What was the name of the first Republican president? 

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Abraham Lincoln

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What years did the Civil War take place?

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1861-1865

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The Republican Party was created by former members of the _____.

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Whig Party

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Why did Southern states threaten to secede? 

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They were against a Republican president.

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Who did Lincoln debate for Senate seat of Illinois?

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Stephen A. Douglas 

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Which state was the first to secede? 

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South Carolina 

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What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

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All of the above.

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Was Abraham Lincoln elected for a second term in 1864?

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Yes

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What Civil War General helped Lincoln‘s re-election?

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Ulysses S. Grant 

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What else did the Republican Party do during this time period? (1862)

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All of the above.

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The Republican Party would hold the presidency until the year ____.

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1933

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What happened to Lincoln just after the Civil War?

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He was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. 

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When was the Whig Party founded?

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1834

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The Whig Party was formed in opposition of ____?

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Andrew Jackson

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Why did the Whig Party refer to Andrew Jackson as “King Andrew”?

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They viewed him as tyrannical.

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What caused the final split in the Whig Party?

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The Kansas Nebraska Act

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The Whig Party was diverse, but united in its support of ____?

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The Second National Bank of the United States

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Why was the Whig Party so supportive of the National Banks of the US?

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They would help protect and fund American industry. 

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Why did Andrew Jackson oppose the National Banks of the US?

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They had too much power over state banks.

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Who led the Whig Party?

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Henry Clay

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What was Andrew Jackson‘s “Trail of Tears”?

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A forced displacement of around 60,000 Native American peoples. 

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Which state was most closely affiliated with the Whig Party?

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North Carolina 

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What did the Whig Party do for the state of North Carolina? 

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All of the above. 

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Why did Abolitionists join the Whig Party even though they weren’t a strictly anti-slavery party? 

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They had more in common with the Whigs than the Jacksonian Democrats. 

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In what year did the Whig Party officially split?

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1854

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The Northern Whigs went on to create the _____ party.

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Republican 

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The Southern Whigs went on to create the _____ party.

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Know-Nothing Party

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In what city was the Republican Convention of 1860 held? 

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Chicago, Illinois 

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What was the Republican Convention of 1860 for?

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Selecting a nominee for the Presidency and Vice Presidency.  

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The projected nominee of the Republican Party was originally ______.

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William H. Seward

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It was rumored that Abraham Lincoln won the 3rd ballot due to _______.

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Counterfeit tickets. 

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Which Ohio delegate convinced his fellow state delegates to change their votes to Lincoln?

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Answer

Robert K. Enos 

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