The Civil War and the reconstruction era are considered the turning points in the history of the United States. The Civil War represents a crucial period when the survival of the nation was on the wane and America was at the brink of crumbling. Reconstruction on the other hand set a pace for the future interactions and laid down policies that changed the direction of racial relations in the United States, laying the foundations that would eradicate slavery, a vice that has forever tainted the history of the United States. This paper shall look at the causes of the Civil War paying attention at how the issue of slavery entangled with territorial expansion, property rights, the 5th amendment and the row on state vs. federal states authority led to the war.
Indeed the American Civil War was as a result of the extended struggle between the abolitionists and the slave states. This row was sparked by the extension of the American territory through what is referred as the Westward Expansion, a move initiated by President Andrew Jackson in the 1920s. This expansion however ended up creating more problems than solutions as it meant that slavery would be extended into the expanded territories. The territorial expansion coincided with the important national debate over the morality of slavery resulting to the abolitionists move to demand for the non-expansion of slavery into those territories. This led to a flaring of tempers between the slave and the Free States and despite the futile attempts to settle the issue through the Comprise of the 1850, the row that had been brewing internally erupted into a bloody confrontation (Berlin & Fields, 1985, 16).
To understand the row between the free and the slave states, it is important to analyze the motivating factors behind each territory’s stubborn stand. The south’s economy was riding on the shoulders of slave labor. It was largely agricultural and needed additional slaves to toil in the plantations. The north on the other hand was fast industrializing and undergoing a radical economic shift meaning that slave labor was no longer feasible for the fast expanding states in the north. This is what gave impetus to the abolitionist calls riding on the feeling that the south was lagging behind economically due to slavery. The southern states felt that the abolitionists were touching on the very core of their existence and also their rights to own properties. The southerners with a culture and economic system deeply reliant on the slaves regarded them as their properties. They felt that the federal government was usurping its role and yet “no law at any level of the government anywhere within the union could directly or indirectly harm the value of that property –the absolute sanctity if property rights in slaves.” (Houston, 2003, 394) The southern states were hiding behind the federal constitutions provision that slaves were properties and that they had exclusive rights to them. Backed by the constitution hence, they felt it was their duty to defend their property rights against the aggression by the northerners.
Indeed the southerners regarded slaves as their private properties and hid behind the laws safeguards in regard to such properties. The commodification of slaves also meant that there existed laws that stipulated limited their rights. Slave owners were permitted by the law to recapture slaves that escaped from the slave states into the Free states. The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act ensured that all states and individuals cooperated and helped in the apprehension of escaped slaves with a high fine imposed on anyone who abetted such an escape (Ransom, 1989, 111). With such stringent laws, it was very hard for slaves to escape as they risked arrests and recapture. This weighed heavily on the Free states as even freed slaves would be recaptured merely on an accusers word. The existing laws made it impossible for a slave to get a fair trial in the courts. This was so as slaves were not considered American citizens and hence not under the protections of the Fifth Amendment that guarantees all Americans the right to a fair trial through a grand jury. The constant reluctance by the Free State to apprehend and extradite slaves increased the acrimony between the southerners and the northerners (Berlin & Fields, 1985, 1)
The issue of slavery also reawakened the heated debates by the federalists and the anti-federalists over the rights of a state viz a viz that of the federal government. The question of slavery was crucial and at the heart of the sectional competition that sought to control the expanded territories. Southern states were putting up a spirited fight that sought to have the gained territories join the slave states. The northern states however pushing their abolitionist policies sought to have the territories join the union as Free states. It is important here to observe that by then, the northerners had a firm control over the government and were using their superior numbers to push for favorable legislations to their cause. It is this lopsided advantage that led the southerners to decry that the federal government was encroaching on the individual states authority. The southerners in the bid to safeguard the rights of the individual states to make decisions in regard to slavery called for the idea of nullification. Such a move would have seen the individual states nullify federal legislations they deemed unconstitutional. The push for nullification however failed in a Republican dominated house and the southern states opted for session. This is what sparked the start of the war with Abraham Lincoln putting up a spirited defense to prevent the disintegration of the union through a defeat by the confederates (Abbott, 1863, 354).
It is indeed apparent that slavery was the major cause of slavery and that that there were other factors intertwined with slavery that led to the outbreak of the war. The southern states were of the opinion that with the northerners pushing for abolition and the non expansion of slavery into the expanded territories, they were jeopardizing the survival of the south that largely depended on slave labor. They regarded to the slaves as their properties and viewed the federal government on encroaching on a property right guaranteed by the constitution. Of major concern and a major cause to the war was the perceived federal government usurping of the states rights and denying them the opportunity to make crucial decisions in regard to slavery.
James L. Huston. Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003, 394.
Abbott, John. The History of the Civil War in America: Comprising a Full and Impartial Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rebellion. G. Bill Publishers, 1863
Berlin, Ira & Fields, Barbara J. The Destruction of slavery. CUP Archive, 1985
Ransom, Roger. Conflict and compromise: the political economy of slavery, emancipation, and the American Civil War. Cambridge University Press, 1989