Political Tension Precipitates Civil War

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Civil-War-era-map

Civil wars are the culmination of long standing social, economic, and political differences.  While some might believe that it was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 that set the American Civil War into motion, conflict and change were both long overdue.  Irreconcilable contrasts between the north and the south, many of which predate the country itself, finally came to a head.  These differences finally faced a grand (albeit, bloody) opportunity to face resolution, and transform this country into something new, and in many ways, unlike before the conflict, undivided.

Before there was even an American Constitution, industrial and commercial power in the continent was centered in the north.  The focus in the south was upon agriculture, which required a large, cheap workforce.  Later on, in during the industrial revolution, the northern states also needed cheap workers by the dozen,   but by that time, slave importation had ceased, and most of the slaves were in the south.  The type of labor required in the south was more unskilled than in the northern colonies.  If the barbarism of slavery was to make sense in America, it only made sense on the plantation.  By the start of the Civil War, social norms in the north generally frowned upon slavery, while it was the only profitable means for the south.

During the formation of this country, there was great factionalization between those in power as to the direction and level of control this new government would take.  Some states were more “Federalist,” while most in the south, “Anti-Federalists,” wanted strong state governments.  They figured that they were basically self-independent, and felt that an overarching federal government would micromanage them more towards the good of the Union at the expense of their state.  As the northern atmosphere became more receptive towards abolition, the southern states, for the protection of their own economic standing, would make a last ditch claim and assertion to their state rights by seceding.

The decision to keep slavery itself had never reached unanimity between the northern and southern states.  The Missouri Compromise, in 1820, set boundaries for slavery’s expansion, and the Compromise of 1850 was made to balance the slave and free states.  But as an issue, the moral position on its place in our country was never tackled by a firm written law.  With legislation largely “dancing” around any mutually satisfying commitment, the loopholes in these compromises caused strife around the country, with “border ruffians” from pro-slavery Missouri pouring into “Bleeding Kansas” to help make it a slave state, with both sides carrying on a small war of their own for three years.  Meanwhile, a gag rule in Washington DC, from 1835-1844 prevented anti-slavery petitions from congressional discussion.

Resentment in the slavery issue created three types of abolitionists in the north.  Some wanted to end slavery outright, some others gradually, or those like Lincoln, hoped to stop its spread.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to turn the public against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  John Brown, who advocated violence and insurrection to end slavery, raided the government armory at Harpers Ferry with the hope of acquiring enough weapons to spark a slave revolt.  At death, after his conviction for treason, he proclaimed that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with blood,” predicting in October of 1859, just over a year in advance, the start of the Civil War.

Finally, all of this builds up to a time where politics were changing.  The current political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats began to separate by region.  The Republicans, spun off of former Whigs as an anti-slavery party in 1854, pushed a progressive agenda that was feared by those in the south. Four major candidates gained electoral votes, but the north, and its booming population took the majority.  People voted along regional lines, with Lincoln winning by clear electoral majority.  The popular votes of all his opponents, if united, would have been overwhelming enough for defeat.

Upon Lincoln’s election, South Carolina would open a convention to discuss secession and decide to leave the Union on December 24th.  Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia would follow suit during the “Secession Winter,” while the incumbent President, Buchanan, posed no challenge. Large portions of the United States Army were parceled out with violent incident.  This country had fallen apart by the time Lincoln sworn in.  Entering office, he faced a split nation, an unsure army, and a moral issue to overcome.

 

Daniel Malo
US History
Dr. Hatzberger
M 630-930
2008

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