Causes Of Disunion Essays

What caused the Civil War? To ask the question is to invite intense debate. History’s present-day relevance is on full display in the countless discussions—online and offline—that this topic continues to generate. Americans remain deeply and personally invested in the Civil War, making it an exciting but challenging field for anyone committed to rigorous scholarship. When South Carolina diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut explained secession in 1861, she focused on visceral rage: "We are divorced, North from South, because we hated each other so."[1] Today, traces of these feelings linger, making careful study essential to a thorough understanding of the war that Chesnut’s contemporaries fought.

Students of Civil War causation should clearly state the historical problem they wish to solve and carefully decide where in time to begin and end their narratives. Good history begins with precise questions. Asking what caused the war is not the same, for example, as asking why soldiers enlisted, or whether the North and South were more alike or different by 1861. Our questions must also inspire nuanced answers. “What caused the war?” invites us simply to list sectional differences or major events. We might quarrel over how to rank the enumerated items. We might (more profitably) explore the connections between them. But the “what” question risks implying that history is a series of isolated episodes rather than an intricate process of change over time. Historians do their best work when they ask “why” or “how” questions. These questions reflect and respect the complexity of the past and invite more satisfying answers. We might ask: “Why did the Civil War happen?” Or: “How did disunion and war become possible?”

The narratives we write in response must start and stop at specific points in time. Most studies of Civil War causation conclude in April 1861 with the outbreak of war in Charleston, South Carolina. But when should the narrative start? This decision dramatically influences accounts of the war's origins. If we start with the Constitutional Convention, sectional conflict might appear as an unavoidable result of compromises made, and decisions postponed, by the Founding Fathers, with the war serving as a bloody climax to philosophical debates commenced at Independence Hall. But if we begin in 1819 with the clash over slavery in Missouri, or in 1845, with the annexation of the slaveholding Texas Republic, our narrative might spotlight a series of crises over westward expansion. The war would grow from sectional wrangling over the spoils of continental empire. To choose a third starting point, if we commence in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the war will be a battle over the legitimacy of secession.

Each of these narratives offers considerable insight. But each one inevitably obscures important points as well. The first account, for example, situates the war within a longer struggle between southern defenders of states’ rights against primarily northern champions of federal power. But what about the ways in which southern statesmen used the federal government to defend their interests, particularly in the recovery of runaway slaves? This narrative would make little sense to northerners like Gideon Welles (later Secretary of the Navy under Abraham Lincoln), who denounced the Fugitive Slave Act as a "consolidating measure," an “abandonment” of the “doctrines and teachings of Jefferson,” and an "invasion of the states."[2] Similarly, despite the significance of the territorial issue, the final secession crisis commenced with a presidential election, not the conquest of fresh acreage. And while the war’s immediate trigger was secession, thorough accounts of its origins must explain why an election that followed the letter of constitutional law provoked disunion.

This essay offers a basic framework for thinking about Civil War causation. It proceeds from two foundational questions and adopts a unique approach to the chronology. The questions open up layers of puzzles to solve: Why did eleven states secede after the 1860 presidential election? Why did secession trigger war? I will address them in reverse order, working backward from 1861. Each episode on the road to war grew out of earlier conditions and events, and this essay reverses the timeline to explore what made each one possible. This does not mean that the outcome was inevitable. But it shows that every historical explanation leads to more questions, which can only be answered by moving further back in time. Each layer of historical excavation uncovers a few answers and many more challenges.

Why did secession lead to war? Many accounts focus on President Abraham Lincoln's handling of the secession crisis. But the Confederates fired first; President Jefferson Davis's perspective is, therefore, equally important. Obviously, the U.S. garrison at Fort Sumter, an island installation in Charleston, South Carolina’s expansive harbor, defied the Confederacy's claim to independence. Most other federal property in the seceded states had been seized peacefully, but Fort Sumter capitulated only after enduring the opening salvos of the war. There were, however, deeper motivations for the bombardment. By April 1861, Davis faced two challenges: one was to vindicate the independence of the seven Deep South states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina) which then comprised the Confederacy. The second was to convince the other eight slave states, home to most of the South's industry and white manpower, to join them. Many upper south states, including Virginia and Arkansas, had rejected secession so far, and even in the Deep South it had been controversial. War offered a solution to both problems. In the seceded states, armed conflict would transform dissent and apathy into martial zeal. "[U]nless you sprinkle a little blood in the face of the people of Alabama," warned one correspondent, "they will be back in the old Union in less than ten days!"[3] War would also force upper south whites to choose sides, and Davis expected they would fall in with the Deep South once the shooting started. Davis chose war, and at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, southern artillery commenced a bombardment of Fort Sumter that lasted more than thirty hours. Ironically, the cannonade killed no one. But it inspired citizens on both sides to rally to the colors. Northerners responded to Lincoln's April 15 call for 75,000 volunteers with patriotic fervor. Four slave states—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—responded by seceding. Davis did not win over the border region, but the Confederacy swelled to eleven states and nine million inhabitants. The war had begun.

But why did Lincoln cling so tenaciously to Fort Sumter? The unfinished and undermanned citadel was ill-prepared to withstand a determined barrage. Some of Lincoln's closest advisors, including Secretary of State William Seward, urged him to abandon it in order to preserve an uneasy peace and prevent strategic upper south states like Virginia from seceding. But Lincoln's resolve grew from his understanding of the Union and his duties as president. He believed that the Constitution’s “more perfect Union” was perpetual and that Confederates had rebelled against lawful authority. Like Andrew Jackson in the Nullification Crisis (1832-33), he would execute the laws peacefully if possible, forcibly if necessary.

Lincoln outlined his intentions in his Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861. No other American president inherited such a volatile situation: seven states had seceded, eight more seemed poised to follow, and most federal property in the Deep South, including forts, arsenals, and dockyards, had fallen to Confederates. Lincoln pledged neither to seek war, nor to buy peace at any price. He repudiated secession and deemed the Union "unbroken." He promised that the laws would be "faithfully executed in all the States" and that the government would "defend and maintain itself." This need not cause bloodshed, but if force was required to maintain normal government operations, he would use it. Lincoln concluded that his opponents would decide the outcome. "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war....You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend it.'"[4] This meant holding federal property, including Charleston’s Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida. Lincoln resolved to replenish both garrisons' dwindling provisions and keep the Stars and Stripes flying. Fort Pickens never surrendered, but Confederates blasted Fort Sumter into submission before supplies arrived.

War exploded at the Charleston flashpoint because neither side could back down without sacrificing principle or losing face. But the confrontation resulted from secession. Confederates necessarily defended its validity; to Unionists, secession amounted to anarchy and treason. But why had the first wave of secession, in which seven states departed the Union between December 1860 and February 1861, not been halted? Threats of disunion had permeated American political rhetoric and a secession scare had been averted in 1850. Why was there no Compromise of 1861?

It was not for a lack of effort. Throughout the winter of 1860-61, members of the 36th Congress scrambled to enact compromise legislation. Moderates nationwide begged them to preserve the Union and keep the peace. "For God's sake," urged a Kentuckian, "and for the sake of humanity, persevere in the noble efforts at conciliation."[5] Both houses of Congress formed special committees to tailor a compromise. The content of their proposals reflected slavery’s central importance. No one doubted that a viable compromise must address slavery’s expansion and the return of fugitive slaves to their masters; these were the rocks on which the Union was foundering. Dozens of ideas circulated in Washington, but the leading plan came from Senator John Jordan Crittenden of Kentucky. The "Crittenden Compromise" consisted of six proposed constitutional amendments. Crittenden sought to avert secession by redefining the relationship between the federal government and slavery. His amendments would do the following:

Together, Crittenden's amendments would have weakened the federal government's ability to restrict slavery and required it to protect the institution. They were controversial not because they limited or expanded federal power generally, but because pro- and antislavery politicians disagreed about how that power should be used.

Despite provoking intense discussion, neither Crittenden’s proposal, nor anyone else’s, forestalled secession. To state the challenge Crittenden faced is to indicate why he failed: he and other would-be compromisers had to satisfy the most ardent proslavery extremists and the most unwavering antislavery zealots. To secessionist fire-eaters, the amendments offered only paper guarantees, not the ironclad security that they associated with southern independence. To antislavery Republicans, Crittenden's plan seemed destined to make the federal government an openly proslavery agency. Lincoln threw his influence as president-elect against any compromise that would allow slavery to expand. He offered concessions on other points, including the recovery of fugitives and a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from abolishing slavery. But against slavery expansion he urged congressional Republicans to stand firm, lest they forsake a core tenet of their party's platform. Lincoln clarified the issue in a letter to his friend, future Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens: “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”[6] But it was a world of difference. In this formulation, the conflict was both a matter of policy—should slavery be extended (by active federal protection) or restricted (by active federal prohibition)?—and of morality. Neither facet of the problem was easily compromised. The prospects for compromise faded away as Congress adjourned in early March.

But why was compromise necessary? Lincoln received only a plurality (just under 40%) of the popular vote, but his share of the electoral votes (180 out of 303, with 152 needed to win) far exceeded the constitutionally-required majority. He would likely face a hostile Congress, as well as the Supreme Court that had rendered the stridently proslavery Dred Scott decision. How much damage could Lincoln do? Why did his by-the-book election push seven Deep South states to secede?

Lincoln's letter to Stephens and his party's rejection of Crittenden’s amendments help explain why the Republican victory so deeply disturbed proslavery southerners. Historians have labored to show that most Republicans were not “radical abolitionists,” that they did not immediately threaten slavery in the fifteen states where it was legal. Lincoln wearily reiterated this point in his Inaugural, disavowing any intention to “interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”[7] But Republicans did endorse an antislavery agenda calculated to contain slavery and facilitate its eventual collapse. The fact that this would be entirely constitutional was of little comfort to those with an economic, political, or social stake in slavery as a labor system and a means of racial domination, and in the billions of dollars invested in four million enslaved people.

Antebellum Republicans acknowledged that slavery was a state institution which Congress could not touch. Most abolitionists actually agreed, leading some of them to denounce the Constitution as a wickedly proslavery compact. But Republicans combined a variety of antislavery policy proposals to craft a strategy for bringing slavery to a gradual end. They advocated a two-pronged campaign: Congress would outlaw slavery in areas under its direct jurisdiction, including western territories and Washington, DC. This would hem in the slave states, surrounding them with free soil and depriving slaveholders of fresh land. Meanwhile, the federal government would stop supporting slavery, leaving it up to the states to return fugitive slaves and otherwise protect masters’ property claims. Thus, Republicans defied proslavery politicians by demanding that slavery truly be treated as a state institution – not one entitled to federal aid. Under these conditions, Republicans predicted that, like a scorpion encircled by fire, slavery would sting itself to death. Their pledge to respect slavery in the states, therefore was attached to predictions of slavery’s destruction. As New York Congressman Anson Burlingame put it, the “Republican party does not wish to interfere in the internal government or social institutions of the slave States, but merely to place around them a cordon of Free States. Then this horrible system will die of inanition; or, like the scorpion, seeing no means of escape, sting itself to death.”[8] Slavery would die by state-level abolition, as border and upper south states abandoned it, or by constitutional amendment, once the number of Free states reached three-quarters of the total. Republicans candidly discussed these goals. Their 1860 platform, for example, proclaimed that the “normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom” and condemned efforts to legislate for slavery’s expansion.[9]

The 1860 election was an unprecedented Republican triumph, and the prospect of a Lincoln administration alarmed many white southerners. Fresh memories of John Brown’s October 1859 raid made Lincoln’s victory seem even more dangerous. Lincoln’s predecessor had dispatched federal troops to crush the abolitionist conspirators—but could a Republican be trusted to do the same? Convinced that Republicans menaced slavery’s growth and stability, secessionists candidly justified their decisive response. South Carolina secessionists blamed antislavery “agitation” for the “election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Upon Lincoln’s inauguration in March, they warned, the government would fall to a party that had “announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory…and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.”[10] Republican gradualism did not make slavery’s death easier to swallow, especially for white South Carolinians, who lived among an enslaved black majority in a state where nearly half of white families owned slaves. They had every reason to secede first, which they did on December 20, 1860. Georgians agreed, recognizing that “anti-slavery” was the Republican Party’s “mission and purpose.” To avoid the “evils” of Republicans’ encirclement strategy, Georgia secession convention delegates led their state out of the Union.[11] Other secession documents followed similar logic; Mississippi’s was the most forthright. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” proclaimed Magnolia State secessionists, and now they had to choose between “submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” Confronted by a party dedicated to “extinguish[ing]” slavery “by confining it within its present limits,” Mississippi secessionists chose disunion. “We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede.”[12]

Given secessionists’ reading of Republican aims, their response to Lincoln’s election appears drastic but not necessarily irrational. But why did the Republicans win in 1860? Their party was six years old. It is not overly dramatic to call the party’s rise “one of the most striking success stories in political annals.”[13] How did Republicans convince a majority of free-state voters, few of whom favored abolitionism or any semblance of racial egalitarianism, to support them at the polls?

Lincoln did not face united opposition in 1860. Rather, the election developed into a four-way race. Democrats split into rival northern and southern wings, nominating Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and the current vice president, Kentucky’s John Cabell Breckinridge, respectively. Led by upper and border south moderates, a new Constitutional Union Party rallied behind John Bell of Tennessee. But the proliferation of competitors did not by itself bring Republican success. Lincoln would have won even if all his rivals’ votes had gone to a single opponent.[14] Moreover, the four-sided contest largely became a pair of two-way races, pitting Bell against Breckinridge in the South, and Lincoln against Douglas in the North. It was Lincoln’s near sweep of the Free states (he divided New Jersey’s electoral votes with Douglas), coupled with northern demographic might, that secured his victory. Why did a commanding 54% of free-state voters support the rail splitter?

The Republican Party’s origins provide clues about its appeal. In 1854, the United States reached a fateful milestone on the road to civil war: the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was in opposition to this law—condemned by Michigan Republicans as a “gigantic wrong”[15]—that the Republican Party coalesced. Ironically, the divisive law was not necessitated by the acquisition of new land. Rather, it was designed to organize governments for a region that, on paper, had belonged to the U.S. since 1803. Most of the Louisiana Purchase was already carved into states or territories, but a massive “Unorganized Territory”—covering part or all of modern-day North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska—remained in legal limbo.

White farmers who coveted these lands had an ally in Stephen A. Douglas. The pugnacious Democrat’s career was a product of westward migration; born in Vermont, Douglas thrived on the Illinois prairies and, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, he vigorously promoted western political and economic development. He yearned to establish governments in the Unorganized Territory, but earlier efforts had failed. Much of the opposition came from the South because the proposed territories lay north of the 36° 30’ line, which since 1820 had divided the Louisiana Purchase into slave and free zones. In 1854, Douglas offered a new plan: organize two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, not under the free soil restriction, but under the principle of popular sovereignty, which allowed territorial voters to decide for or against slavery. Southerners demanded that the bill explicitly repeal the Missouri Compromise. Douglas acquiesced, Congress approved, and in May President Franklin Pierce signed it into law.

Rather than stifle sectionalism, the Kansas-Nebraska Act unleashed a frightful debate that propelled the nation closer to war. To many northerners, the Act seemed like a conspiracy to transform land preserved for freedom into slave territory. Indeed, northern opposition began even before it became law. Shortly after Douglas introduced the bill, six northern legislators published an “Appeal of the Independent Democrats,” in which they castigated the proposal “as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region, immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary reign of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.”[16] Many critics of the bill began to build a new party opposed to slavery expansion. Some hoped that non-slaveholding white southerners might join, but many imagined it as a sectional organization; one editorialist concluded that “the People of the North and West” must “unite in a Party of Freedom, with a fixed purpose to regain possession of the Federal Government” from the Democratic Party, which had become an agent of slaveholders.[17] From this this wave of indignation the Republican Party was born.

Still, the party’s presidential triumph was not inevitable. Republican success required fusing disparate factions into a single organization. What could unite former Whigs, who wanted protective tariffs and federal support for railroads, with former Democrats, who demanded free land for western settlers and strict economy in public expenditures? How could seasoned antislavery activists cooperate with racists who objected to slavery expansion because they wanted the west reserved for whites? The Republicans were not a single-issue party and championed a variety of causes, including Democrats’ long-cherished homestead legislation and a Whiggish program of public support for internal improvements. But opposition to slavery’s expansion, and to the political power of slaveholders and their allies, glued the Republican coalition together.

Two features of antebellum politics made this possible—and boosted the Republicans’ popular appeal. First, the line between “slavery” and “other issues” was blurry. Northerners noticed, for example, that southern votes repeatedly blocked Senate approval of a homestead bill. They resented this stranglehold on this and other measures, especially when, as a Pennsylvanian wrote in 1850, “Northern interests as usual must succumb to Southern.”[18] It was a short step from this broad dissatisfaction to a much sharper critique of the so-called “slave power.” The notion that southern politicians exerted disproportionate power in the federal government was not far-fetched. The Constitution’s 3/5 Clause inflated slave-state influence in Congress and the Electoral College and it was no accident that a slaveholder was president for 50 of the 62 years before 1850. National policy—from the Fugitive Slave Act to the removal of Native Americans from rich cotton-planting lands in the Deep South—seemed to confirm that slaveholders wielded the levers of national power. Republicans capitalized on the issue, warning that the “national Government…is as fully under the control of these few extreme men of the South, as are the slaves on their plantations.”[19] Northerners opposed the slave power for diverse reasons, but their shared grievance swelled Republican vote tallies and embedded the slavery controversy into apparently unrelated issues.

Second, the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s results validated Republican opposition to popular sovereignty and to slavery’s champions. Popular sovereignty invited opponents and proponents of slavery to race to Kansas to determine its fate. The result was widespread fraud and violence. During a March 1855 election to choose a territorial legislature, thousands of Missourians, led by Senator David Rice Atchison, crossed the border to vote illegally for proslavery candidates. Antislavery settlers refused to acknowledge the proslavery legislature and established a rival government. Heavily armed northern migrants arrived to resist Missouri Border Ruffians and over the next four years, between fifty and two hundred people died in the clashes between them. Republicans pointed to Bleeding Kansas as proof of popular sovereignty’s failure and of the brutality of proslavery zealots.

The hostilities spread eastward from the Great Plains. In May 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican, condemned proslavery violence in Kansas, comparing slavery expansion to the “rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery” for the purpose of “adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.”[20] His deliberately provocative speech infuriated South Carolina Congressman Preston Smith Brooks, who beat Sumner into unconsciousness on the Senate floor two days later. For many northerners, Brooks personified the slave power, a menace to freedom in Kansas and free speech in Congress. The Bleeding Sumner incident increased support for the Republicans in the presidential election that November. Republican John C. Frémont finished second to Democrat James Buchanan, but came within two states of winning the contest and received a plurality of northern ballots.

Subsequent efforts to close the book on Kansas only reaffirmed, to Republicans at least, that slaveholders sought to use federal power to safeguard slavery’s expansion. In March 1857, the Supreme Court issued its notorious decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Most famously, it held that Scott, a slave who had been taken from Missouri into free territory and sued for his liberty, could not sue because African Americans could not be U.S. citizens and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”[21] But the decision was also calculated to foster slavery expansion by ruling that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could bar slavery from a territory. The fact that five of the nine justices hailed from slave states fueled conspiracy theories and supported claims that the slave power, as a New York editorialist wrote, had “converted” the Court “into a propagandist of human slavery.”[22] Similarly, President Buchanan’s subsequent efforts to push Congress to admit Kansas as a state under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, which had not been fully submitted to Kansas voters for approval, provoked fierce resistance from Republicans and most northern Democrats, including Douglas, who believed that the “Lecompton swindle” violated popular sovereignty.[23] This political environment fertilized Republicans’ growth into the North’s leading party.

Of course, this account of the short- and medium-term roots of the Civil War leads to more questions. Why were many southerners so adamant about Kansas? The security of slavery’s northwestern flank had something to do with it, as did the desire to establish a precedent for territorial property rights that might be needed later in Mexico or Cuba. Why were many northerners primed to react so fiercely to the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) kept slavery in northerners’ minds and refreshed hostility toward the slave power that had flourished after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Why was westward expansion so divisive? One could trace the slavery expansion issue back in time, through the Compromise of 1850, the clash during and after the Mexican War (1846-48) over slavery’s status in the freshly-conquered southwest, Texas annexation, the admission of Missouri, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which barred slavery from the region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. Why did northerners fear southern domination? One could follow northern hostility to the slave power back through the Gag Rule debates (1836-44) over the reception of antislavery petitions in Congress, the lasting resentment of the 3/5 Compromise, to the Constitutional Convention – where, as James Madison put it, “the real difference of interests lay, not between the large and small but between the N. and Southn. States,” with the “institution of slavery and its consequences form[ing] the line of discrimination” between them.[24] To understand these sectional issues, we would then have to explore politics within regions and states. We could study how northern political candidates used the slave power theory to denounce local opponents who courted southern allies. We might examine how differences between the upper and lower south exacerbated sectional conflict by convincing cotton-state planters that their counterparts along the South’s vulnerable northern border might not defend slavery to the last ditch.

A thorough account of Civil War causation, therefore, could easily grow into a history of the United States to 1861. It would show that without the presence of slavery, disunion and war would not have taken place. But did slavery’s presence make that outcome inevitable? When Abraham Lincoln warned that the country could not endure half slave and half free, Stephen Douglas asked, why not? It had done so for generations. To understand why this precarious balance ultimately failed requires that we do much more than list the issues that divided Americans into hostile sections. Participants made it clear that war, secession, and slavery were inextricably interconnected. But there is always more to learn about why so many decent people were willing to kill for what they believed.

  • [1] Diary entry for March [between 11 and 15], 1861, in C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 25.
  • [2] Gideon Welles to My Dear Sir, October 16, 1861, Gideon Welles Papers, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT.
  • [3] Quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 273.
  • [4] “First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, (accessed October 13, 2014).
  • [5] Thomas H. Clay to John J. Crittenden, January 9, 1861, in Mrs. Chapman Coleman, ed., The Life of John J. Crittenden, with Selections from His Correspondence and Speeches,  2 vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1873), 2:253.
  • [6] Quoted in Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 178.
  • [7] “First Inaugural Address.”
  • [8] Quoted in James Oakes, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 26.
  • [9] “Republican Party Platform of 1860,” The American Presidency Project, (Accessed October 13, 2014).
  • [10] “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” Avalon Project, (Accessed October 13, 2014).
  • [11] “Georgia Secession,” Avalon Project, (Accessed October 13, 2014).
  • [12] “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union,” Avalon Project, (Accessed October 13, 2014).
  • [13] William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 3.
  • [14] For an excellent discussion of these important what-if questions about the election, see the Appendix entitled “1860 Election Scenarios and Possible Outcomes” in Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
  • [15] Quoted in Francis Curtis, The Republican Party: A History of its Fifty Years’ Existence and a Record of its Measures and Leaders, 1854-1904, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 1:189.
  • [16]Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress, to the People of the United States ([Washington, DC]: Towers, Printers, [1854]), 1.
  • [17]National Era, June 1, 1854.
  • [18] Paul S. Preston to Jackson Woodward, January 2, 1850, Preston-Woodward Correspondence, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • [19]Cong. Globe, 35th Cong., 2d Sess., appendix, 190 (1858).
  • [20] Charles Sumner, The Crime Against Kansas. The Apologies for the Crime. The True Remedy. Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, in the Senate of the United States, 19th and 20th May, 1856 (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1856), 5.
  • [21] Quoted in Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 347.
  • [22] Quoted in Lorman A. Ratner and Dwight L. Teeter, Jr., Fanatics and Fire-eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 52.
  • [23] Opponents of the Lecompton Constitution often used the “swindle” term to denounce it. For one example of its use in Congressional debate, see the remarks of Massachusetts Republican Henry Wilson in the Cong. Globe, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., 499 (1858). For Douglas’s opposition to Lecompton, see especially ibid., 15-18.
  • [24] Quoted in Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 77.

Professional historians can be an argumentative lot, but by the dawn of the twenty-first century, a broad consensus regarding Civil War causation clearly reigned. Few mainstream scholars would deny that Abraham Lincoln got it right in his second inaugural address—that slavery was “somehow” the cause of the war. Public statements by preeminent historians reaffirmed that slavery's centrality had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Writing for the popular Civil War magazine North and South in November 2000, James M. McPherson pointed out that during the war, “few people in either North or South would have dissented” from Lincoln's slavery-oriented account of the war's origins. In ten remarkably efficient pages, McPherson dismantled arguments that the war was fought over tariffs, states' rights, or the abstract principle of secession. That same year, Charles Joyner penned a report on Civil War causation for release at a Columbia, South Carolina, press conference at the peak of the Palmetto State's Confederate flag debate. Endorsed by dozens of scholars and later published in Callaloo, it concluded that the “historical record … clearly shows that the cause for which the South seceded and fought a devastating war was slavery.”1

Despite the impulse to close ranks amid the culture wars, however, professional historians have not abandoned the debate over Civil War causation. Rather, they have rightly concluded that there is not much of a consensus on the topic after all. Elizabeth Varon remarks that although “scholars can agree that slavery, more than any other issue, divided North and South, there is still much to be said about why slavery proved so divisive and why sectional compromise ultimately proved elusive.” And as Edward Ayers observes: “slavery and freedom remain the keys to understanding the war, but they are the place to begin our questions, not to end them.”2 The continuing flood of scholarship on the sectional conflict suggests that many other historians agree. Recent work on the topic reveals two widely acknowledged truths: that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict and that there is more to learn about precisely what this means, not least because slavery was always a multifaceted issue.

This essay analyzes the extensive literature on Civil War causation published since 2000, a body of work that has not been analyzed at length. This survey cannot be comprehensive but seeks instead to clarify current debates in a field long defined by distinct interpretive schools—such as those of the progressives, revisionists, and modernization theorists—whose boundaries are now blurrier. To be sure, echoes still reverberate of the venerable arguments between historians who emphasize abstract economic, social, or political forces and those who stress human agency. The classic interpretive schools still command allegiance, with fundamentalists who accentuate concrete sectional differences dueling against revisionists, for whom contingency, chance, and irrationality are paramount. But recent students of Civil War causation have not merely plowed familiar furrows. They have broken fresh ground, challenged long-standing assumptions, and provided new perspectives on old debates. This essay explores three key issues that vein the recent scholarship: the geographic and temporal parameters of the sectional conflict, the relationship between sectionalism and nationalism, and the relative significance of race and class in sectional politics. All three problems stimulated important research long before 2000, but recent work has taken them in new directions. These themes are particularly helpful for navigating the recent scholarship, and by using them to organize and evaluate the latest literature, this essay underscores fruitful avenues for future study of a subject that remains central in American historiography.3

Space, Time, and Sectionalism

Historians of the sectional conflict, like their colleagues in other fields, have consciously expanded the geographic and chronological confines of their research. Crossing the borders of the nation-state and reaching back toward the American Revolution, many recent studies of the war's origins situate the clash over slavery within a broad spatial and temporal context. The ramifications of this work will not be entirely clear until an enterprising scholar incorporates those studies into a new synthesis, but this essay will offer a preliminary evaluation.

Scholarship following the transnational turn in American history has silenced lingering doubts that nineteenth-century Americans of all regions, classes, and colors were deeply influenced by people, ideas, and events from abroad. Historians have long known that the causes of the Civil War cannot be understood outside the context of international affairs, particularly the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Three of the most influential narrative histories of the Civil War era open either on Mexican soil (those written by Allan Nevins and James McPherson) or with the transnational journey from Mexico City to Washington of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis). The domestic political influence of the annexation of Texas, Caribbean filibustering, and the Ostend Manifesto, a widely publicized message written to President Franklin Pierce in 1854 that called for the acquisition of Cuba, are similarly well established.4

Recent studies by Edward Bartlett Rugemer and Matthew J. Clavin, among others, build on that foundation to show that the international dimensions of the sectional conflict transcended the bitterly contested question of territorial expansion. Rugemer, for instance, demonstrates that Caribbean emancipation informed U.S. debates over slavery from the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) through Reconstruction. Situating sectional politics within the Atlantic history of slavery and abolition, he illustrates how arguments for and against U.S. slavery drew from competing interpretations of emancipation in the British West Indies. Britain's “mighty experiment” thus provided “useable history for an increasingly divided nation.” Proslavery ideologues learned that abolitionism sparked insurrection, that Africans and their descendants would become idlers or murderers or both if released from bondage, and that British radicals sought to undermine the peculiar institution wherever it persisted. To slavery's foes, the same history revealed that antislavery activism worked, that emancipation could be peaceful and profitable, and that servitude, not skin tone, degraded enslaved laborers. Clavin's study of American memory of Toussaint L'Ouverture indicates that the Haitian Revolution cast an equally long shadow over antebellum history. Construed as a catastrophic race war, the revolution haunted slaveholders with the prospect of an alliance between ostensibly savage slaves and fanatical whites. Understood as a hopeful story of the downtrodden overthrowing their oppressors, however, Haitian history furnished abolitionists, white and black, with an inspiring example of heroic self-liberation by the enslaved. By the 1850s it also furnished abolitionists, many of whom were frustrated by the abysmally slow progress of emancipation in the United States, with a precedent for swift, violent revolution and the vindication of black masculinity. The Haitian Revolution thus provided “resonant, polarizing, and ultimately subversive symbols” for antislavery and proslavery partisans alike and helped “provoke a violent confrontation and determine the fate of slavery in the United States.”5

These findings will surprise few students of Civil War causation, but they demonstrate that the international aspects of the sectional conflict did not begin and end with Manifest Destiny. They also encourage Atlantic historians to pay more attention to the nineteenth century, particularly to the period after British emancipation. Rugemer and Clavin point out that deep connections among Atlantic rim societies persisted far into the nineteenth century and that, like other struggles over New World slavery, the American Civil War is an Atlantic story. One of their most stimulating contributions may therefore be to encourage Atlantic historians to widen their temporal perspectives to include the middle third of the nineteenth century. By foregrounding the hotly contested public memory of the Haitian Revolution, Rugemer and Clavin push the story of American sectionalism back into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, suggesting that crossing geographic boundaries can go hand in hand with stretching the temporal limits of sectionalism.6

The internationalizing impulse has also nurtured economic interpretations of the sectional struggle. Brian Schoen, Peter Onuf, and Nicholas Onuf situate antebellum politics within the context of global trade, reinvigorating economic analysis of sectionalism without summoning the ghosts of Charles Beard and Mary Beard. Readers may balk at their emphasis on tariff debates, but these histories are plainly not Confederate apologia. As Schoen points out, chattel slavery expanded in the American South, even as it withered throughout most of the Atlantic world, because southern masters embraced the nineteenth century's most important crop: cotton. Like the oil titans of a later age, southern cotton planters reveled in the economic indispensability of their product. Schoen adopts a cotton-centered perspective from which to examine southern political economy, from the earliest cotton boom to the secession crisis. “Broad regional faith in cotton's global power,” he argues, “both informed secessionists' actions and provided them an indispensable tool for mobilizing otherwise reluctant confederates.” Planters' commitment to the production and overseas sale of cotton shaped southern politics and business practices. It impelled westward expansion, informed planters' jealous defense of slavery, and wedded them to free trade. An arrogant faith in their commanding economic position gave planters the impetus and the confidence to secede when northern Republicans threatened to block the expansion of slavery and increase the tariff. The Onufs reveal a similar dynamic at work in their complementary study, Nations, Markets, and War. Like Schoen, they portray slaveholders as forward-looking businessmen who espoused free-trade liberalism in defense of their economic interests. Entangled in political competition with Yankee protectionists throughout the early national and antebellum years, slaveholders seceded when it became clear that their vision for the nation's political economy—most importantly its trade policy—could no longer prevail.7

These authors examine Civil War causation within a global context, though in a way more reminiscent of traditional economic history than similar to other recent transnational scholarship. But perhaps the most significant contribution made by these authors lies beyond internationalizing American history. After all, most historians of the Old South have recognized that the region's economic and political power depended on the Atlantic cotton trade, and scholars of the Confederacy demonstrated long ago that overconfidence in cotton's international leverage led southern elites to pursue a disastrous foreign policy. What these recent studies reveal is that cotton-centered diplomatic and domestic politics long predated southern independence and had roots in the late eighteenth century, when slaveholders' decision to enlarge King Cotton's domain set them on a turbulent political course that led to Appomattox. The Onufs and Schoen, then, like Rugemer and Clavin, expand not only the geographic parameters of the sectional conflict but also its temporal boundaries.8

These four important histories reinforce recent work that emphasizes the eruption of the sectional conflict at least a generation before the 1820 Missouri Compromise. If the conflict over Missouri was a “firebell in the night,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, it was a rather tardy alarm. This scholarship mirrors a propensity among political historians—most notably scholars of the civil rights movement—to write “long histories.” Like their colleagues who dispute the Montgomery-to-Memphis narrative of the civil rights era, political historians of the early republic have questioned conventional periodization by showing that sectionalism did not spring fully grown from the head of James Tallmadge, the New York congressman whose February 1819 proposal to bar the further extension of slavery into Missouri unleashed the political storm that was calmed, for the moment, by the Missouri Compromise. Matthew Mason, for instance, maintains that “there never was a time between the Revolution and the Civil War in which slavery went unchallenged.” Mason shows that political partisans battered their rivals with the club of slavery, with New England Federalists proving especially adept at denouncing their Jeffersonian opponents as minions of southern slaveholders. In a series of encounters, from the closure of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 to the opening (fire)bell of the Missouri crisis, slavery remained a central question in American politics. Even the outbreak of war in 1812 failed to suppress the issue.9

A complementary study by John Craig Hammond confirms that slavery roiled American politics from the late eighteenth century on and that its westward expansion proved especially divisive years before the Missouri fracas. As America's weak national government continued to bring more western acreage under its nominal control, it had to accede to local preferences regarding slavery. Much of the fierce conflict over slavery therefore occurred at the territorial and state levels. Hammond astutely juxtaposes the histories of slave states such as Louisiana and Missouri alongside those of Ohio and Indiana, where proslavery policies were defeated. In every case, local politics proved decisive. Neither the rise nor the extent of the cotton kingdom was a foregone conclusion, and the quarrel over its expansion profoundly influenced territorial and state politics north and south of the Ohio River. Bringing the growing scholarship on both early republic slavery and proslavery ideology into conversation with political history, Hammond demonstrates that the bitterness of the Missouri debate stemmed from that dispute's contentious prehistory, not from its novelty. Just as social, economic, and intellectual historians have traced the “long history” of the antebellum South back to its once relatively neglected early national origins, political historians have uncovered the deep roots of political discord over slavery's expansion.10

Scholars have applied the “long history” principle to other aspects of Civil War causation as well. In his study of the slave power thesis, Leonard L. Richards finds that northern anxieties about slaveholders' inordinate political influence germinated during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Jan Lewis's argument that the concessions made to southern delegates at the convention emboldened them to demand special protection for slavery suggests that those apprehensions were sensible. David L. Lightner demonstrates that northern demands for a congressional ban on the domestic slave trade, designed to strike a powerful and, thanks to the interstate commerce clause, constitutional blow against slavery extension emerged during the first decade of the nineteenth century and informed antislavery strategy for the next fifty years. Richard S. Newman emphasizes that abolitionist politics long predated William Lloyd Garrison's founding of the Liberator in 1831. Like William W. Freehling, who followed the “road to disunion” back to the American Revolution, Newman commences his study of American abolitionism with the establishment of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1775. Most recently, Christopher Childers has invited historians to explore the early history of the doctrine of popular sovereignty.11

Skeptics might ask where the logic of these studies will lead. Why not push the origins of sectional strife even further back into colonial history? Why not begin, as did a recent overview of Civil War causation, with the initial arrival of African slaves in Virginia in 1619? This critique has a point—hopefully we will never read an article called “Christopher Columbus and the Coming of the American Civil War”—but two virtues of recent work on the long sectional conflict merit emphasis. First, its extended view mirrors the very long, if chronically selective, memories of late antebellum partisans. By the 1850s few sectional provocateurs failed to trace northern belligerence toward the South, and vice versa, back to the eighteenth century. Massachusetts Republican John B. Alley reminded Congress in April 1860 that slavery had been “a disturbing element in our national politics ever since the organization of the Government.” “In fact,” Alley recalled, “political differences were occasioned by it, and sectional prejudices grew out of it, at a period long anterior to the formation of the Federal compact.” Eight tumultuous months later, U.S. senator Robert Toombs recounted to the Georgia legislature a litany of northern aggressions and insisted that protectionism and abolitionism had tainted Yankee politics from “the very first Congress.” Tellingly, the study of historical memory, most famously used to analyze remembrance of the Civil War, has moved the study of Civil War causation more firmly into the decades between the nation's founding and the Missouri Compromise. Memories of the Haitian Revolution shaped antebellum expectations for emancipation. Similarly, recollections of southern economic sacrifice during Jefferson's 1807 embargo and the War of 1812 heightened white southerners' outrage over their “exclusion” from conquered Mexican territory more than three decades later. And as Margot Minardi has shown, Massachusetts abolitionists used public memory of the American Revolution to champion emancipation and racial equality. The Missouri-to-Sumter narrative conceals that these distant events haunted the memories of late antebellum Americans. Early national battles over slavery did not make the Civil War inevitable, but in the hands of propagandists they could make the war seem inevitable to many contemporaries.12

Second, proponents of the long view of Civil War causation have not made a simplistic argument for continuity. Elizabeth Varon's study of the evolution of disunion as a political concept and rhetorical device from 1789 to 1859 demonstrates that long histories need not obscure change over time. Arguing that “sectional tensions deriving from the diverging interests of the free labor North and the slaveholding South” were “as old as the republic itself,” Varon adopts a long perspective on sectional tension. But her nuanced analysis of the diverse and shifting political uses of disunion rhetoric suggests that what historians conveniently call the sectional conflict was in fact a series of overlapping clashes, each with its own dynamics and idiom. Quite literally, the terms of sectional debate remained in flux. The language of disunion came in five varieties—“a prophecy of national ruin, a threat of withdrawal from the federal compact, an accusation of treasonous plotting, a process of sectional alienation, and a program for regional independence”—and the specific meanings of each cannot be interpreted accurately without regard to historical context, for “their uses changed and shifted over time.” To cite just one example, the concept of disunion as a process of increasing alienation between North and South gained credibility during the 1850s as proslavery and antislavery elements clashed, often violently, over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the extension of slavery into Kansas. Republican senator William Henry Seward's famous “irrepressible conflict” speech of 1858 took this interpretation of disunion, one that had long languished on the radical margins of sectional politics, and thrust it into mainstream discourse. Shifting political circumstances reshaped the terms of political debate from the 1830s, when the view of disunion as an irreversible process flourished only among abolitionists and southern extremists, to the late 1850s, when a leading contender for the presidential nomination of a major party could express it openly.13

Consistent with Varon's emphasis on the instability of political rhetoric, other recent studies of Civil War causation have spotlighted two well-known and important forks in the road to disunion. Thanks to their fresh perspective on the crisis of 1819–1821, scholars of early national sectionalism have identified the Missouri struggle as the first of these turning points. The battle over slavery in Missouri, Robert Pierce Forbes argues, was “a crack in the master narrative” of American history that fundamentally altered how Americans thought about slavery and the Union. In the South, it nurtured a less crassly self-interested defense of servitude. Simultaneously, it tempted northerners to conceptually separate “the South” from “America,” thereby sectionalizing the moral problem of slavery and conflating northern values and interests with those of the nation. The intensity of the crisis demonstrated that the slavery debate threatened the Union, prompting Jacksonian-era politicians to suppress the topic and stymie sectionalists for a generation. But even as the Missouri controversy impressed moderates with the need for compromise, it fostered “a new clarity in the sectional politics of the United States and moved each section toward greater coherence on the slavery issue” by refining arguments for and against the peculiar institution. The competing ideologies that defined antebellum sectional politics coalesced during the contest over Missouri, now portrayed as a milestone rather than a starter's pistol.14

A diverse body of scholarship identifies a second period of discontinuity stretching from 1845 to 1850. This literature confirms rather than challenges traditional periodization, for those years have long marked the beginning of the “Civil War era.” This time span has attracted considerable attention because the slavery expansion debate intensified markedly between the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Compromise of 1850. Not surprisingly, recent work on slavery's contested westward extension continues to present the late 1840s as a key turning point—perhaps a point of no return—in the sectional conflict. As Michael S. Green puts it, by 1848, “something in American political life clearly had snapped. … [T]he genies that [James K.] Polk, [David] Wilmot, and their allies had let out of the bottle would not be put back in.”15

Scholars not specifically interested in slavery expansion have also identified the late 1840s as a decisive period. In his history of southern race mythology—the notion that white southerners' “Norman” ancestry elevated them over Saxon-descended northerners—Ritchie Devon Watson Jr. identifies these years as a transition period between two theories of sectional difference. White southerners' U.S. nationalism persisted into the 1840s, he argues, and although they recognized cultural differences between the Yankees and themselves, the dissimilarities were not imagined in racial terms. After 1850, however, white southerners increasingly argued for innate differences between the white southern “race” and its ostensibly inferior northern rival. This mythology was a “key element” in the “flowering of southern nationalism before and during the Civil War.” Susan-Mary Grant has shown that northern opinion of the South underwent a simultaneous shift, with the slave power thesis gaining widespread credibility by the late 1840s. The year 1850 marked an economic turning point as well. Marc Egnal posits that around that year, a generation of economic integration between North and South gave way to an emerging “Lake Economy,” which knit the Northwest and Northeast into an economic and political alliance at odds with the South. Taken together, this scholarship reaffirms what historians have long suspected about the sectional conflict: despite sectionalism's oft-recalled roots in the early national period, the late 1840s represents an important period of discontinuity. It is unsurprising that these years climaxed with a secession scare and a makeshift compromise reached not through bona fide give-and-take but rather through the political dexterity of Senator Stephen A. Douglas.16

That Douglas succeeded where the eminent Henry Clay had failed suggests another late 1840s discontinuity that deserves more scholarly attention. Thirty-six years older than the Little Giant, Clay was already Speaker of the House when Douglas was born in 1813. Douglas's shepherding of Clay's smashed omnibus bill through the Senate in 1850 “marked a changing of the guard from an older generation, whose time already might have passed, to a new generation whose time had yet to come.” This passing of the torch symbolized a broader shift in political personnel. The Thirty-First Congress, which passed the compromise measures of 1850, was a youthful assembly. The average age for representatives was forty-three, only two were older than sixty-two, and more than half were freshmen. The Senate was similarly youthful, particularly its Democratic members, fewer than half of whom had reached age fifty. Moreover, the deaths of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster between March 1850 and October 1852 signaled to many observers the end of an era. In 1851 members of the University of Virginia's Southern Rights Association reminded their southern peers that “soon the destinies of the South must be entrusted to our keeping. The present occupants of the arena of action must soon pass away, and we be called upon to fill their places. … It becomes therefore our sacred duty to prepare for the contest.”17

Students of Civil War causation would do well to probe this intergenerational transfer of power. This analysis need not revive the argument, most popular in the 1930s and 1940s, that the “blundering generation” of hot-headed and self-serving politicos who grasped the reins of power around 1850 brought on an unnecessary war. Caricaturing the rising generation as exceptionally inept is not required to profitably contrast the socioeconomic environments, political contexts, and intellectual milieus in which Clay's and Douglas's respective generations matured. These differences, and the generational conflict that they engendered, may have an important bearing on both the origins and the timing of the Civil War. Peter Carmichael's study of Virginia's last antebellum generation explores this subject in detail. Historians have long recognized that disproportionately high numbers of young white southerners supported secession. Carmichael offers a compelling explanation for why this was so, without portraying his subjects as mediocre statesmen or citing the eternal impetuousness of youth. Deftly blending cultural, social, economic, and political history, Carmichael rejects the notion that young Virginia gentlemen who came of age in the late 1850s were immature, impassioned, and reckless. They were, he argues, idealistic and ambitious men who believed deeply in progress but worried that their elders had squandered Virginia's traditional economic and political preeminence. Confronted with their state's apparent degeneration and their own lack of opportunity for advancement, Carmichael's young Virginians endorsed a pair of solutions that put them at odds with their conservative elders: economic diversification and, after John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, southern independence. Whether this generational dynamic extended beyond Virginia remains to be seen. But other recent works, including Stephen Berry's study of young white men in the Old South and Jon Grinspan's essay on youthful Republicans during the 1860 presidential campaign, indicate that similar concerns about progress, decline, and sectional destiny haunted many young minds on the eve of the Civil War. More work in this area is necessary, especially on how members of the new generation remembered the sectional conflict that had been raging since before they were born. Clearly, though, the generation that ascended to national leadership during the 1850s came of age in a very different world than had its predecessor. Further analysis of this shift promises to link the insights of the long sectional conflict approach (particularly regarding public memory) with the emphasis on late 1840s discontinuity that veins recent scholarship on sectionalism.18

The Historian's Use of Sectionalism and Vice Versa

Recent historians have challenged conventional periodization by expanding the chronological scope of the sectional conflict, even as they confirm two key moments of historical discontinuity. This work revises older interpretations of Civil War causation without overturning them. A second trend in the literature, however, is potentially more provocative. A number of powerfully argued studies building on David Potter's classic essay, “The Historian's Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” have answered his call for closer scrutiny of the “seemingly manifest difference between the loyalties of a nationalistic North and a sectionalistic South.” Impatient with historians who read separatism into all aspects of prewar southern politics or Unionism into all things northern, Potter admonished scholars not to project Civil War loyalties back into the antebellum period. A more nuanced approach would reveal “that in the North as well as in the South there were deep sectional impulses, and support or nonsupport of the Union was sometimes a matter of sectional tactics rather than of national loyalty.” Recent scholars have accepted Potter's challenge, and their findings contribute to an emerging reinterpretation of the sectional conflict and the timing of secession.19

Disentangling northern from national interests and values has been difficult thanks in part to the Civil War itself (in which “the North” and “the Union” overlapped, albeit imperfectly) and because of the northern victory and the temptation to classify the Old South as an un-American aberration. But several recent studies have risen to the task. Challenging the notion that the antebellum North must have been nationalistic because of its opposition to slavery and its role in the Civil War, Susan-Mary Grant argues that by the 1850s a stereotyped view of the South and a sense of moral and economic superiority had created a powerful northern sectional identity. Championed by the Republican party, this identity flowered into an exclusionary nationalism in which the South served as a negative reference point for the articulation of ostensibly national values, goals, and identities based on the North's flattering self-image. This sectionalism-cum-nationalism eventually corroded national ties by convincing northerners that the South represented an internal threat to the nation. Although this vision became genuinely national after the war, in the antebellum period it was sectionally specific and bitterly divisive. “It was not the case,” Grant concludes, “that the northern ideology of the antebellum period was American, truly national, and supportive of the Union and the southern ideology was wholly sectional and destructive of the Union.” Matthew Mason makes a related point about early national politics, noting that the original sectionalists were antislavery New England Federalists whose flirtation with secession in 1815 crippled their party. Never simply the repository of authentic American values, the nineteenth-century North developed a sectional identity in opposition to an imagined (though not fictitious) South. Only victory in the Civil War allowed for the reconstruction of the rest of the nation in this image.20

If victory in the war obscured northern sectionalism, it was the defense of slavery, coupled with defeat, that has distorted our view of American nationalism in the Old South. The United States was founded as a slaveholding nation, and there was unfortunately nothing necessarily un-American about slavery in the early nineteenth century. Slavery existed in tension with, not purely in opposition to, the nation's perennially imperfect political institutions, and its place in the young republic was a hotly contested question with a highly contingent resolution. Moreover, despite their pretensions to being an embattled minority, southern elites long succeeded in harnessing national ideals and federal power to their own interests. Thus, defense of slavery was neither inevitably nor invariably secessionist. This is a key theme of Robert Bonner's expertly crafted history of the rise and fall of proslavery American nationalism. Adopting a long-sectional-conflict perspective, Bonner challenges historians who have “conflate[d] an understandable revulsion at proslavery ideology with a willful disassociation of bondage from prevailing American norms.” He details the efforts of proslavery southerners to integrate slavery into national identity and policy and to harmonize slaveholding with American expansionism, republicanism, constitutionalism, and evangelicalism. Appropriating the quintessentially American sense of national purpose, proslavery nationalists “invited outsiders to consider [slavery's] compatibility with broadly shared notions of American values and visions of a globally redeeming national mission.” This effort ended in defeat, but not because proslavery southerners chronically privileged separatism over nationalism. Rather, it was their failure to bind slavery to American nationalism—signaled by the Republican triumph in 1860—that finally drove slaveholders to secede. Lincoln's victory “effectively ended the prospects for achieving proslavery Americanism within the federal Union,” forcing slavery's champions to pin their hopes to a new nation-state. Confederate nationalism was more a response to the demise of proslavery American nationalism than the cause of its death.21

Other recent studies of slaveholders' efforts to nationalize their goals and interests complement Bonner's skilled analysis. Matthew J. Karp casts proslavery politicians not as jumpy sectionalists but as confident imperialists who sponsored an ambitious and costly expansion of American naval power to protect slavery against foreign encroachment and to exert national influence overseas. For these slaveholding nationalists, “federal power was not a danger to be feared, but a force to be utilized,” right up to the 1860 election. Similarly, Brian Schoen has explored cotton planters' efforts to ensure that national policy on tariff rates and slavery's territorial status remained favorable to their interests. As cotton prices boomed during the 1850s, planters grew richer and the stakes grew higher, especially as their national political power waned with the ascension of the overtly sectional Republican party. The simultaneous increase in planters' economic might and decline in their political dominance made for an explosive mixture that shattered the bonds of the Union. Still, one must not focus solely on cases in which proslavery nationalism was thwarted, for its successes convinced many northerners of the veracity of the slave power thesis, helping further corrode the Union. James L. Huston shows that both southern efforts to nationalize property rights in slaves and the prospect of slavery becoming a national institution—in the sense that a fully integrated national market could bring slave and free labor into competition—fueled northern sectionalism and promoted the rise of the Republican party. Proslavery nationalism and its policy implications thus emboldened the political party whose victory in 1860 convinced proslavery southerners that their goals could not be realized within the Union.22

As the standard-bearers of northern and southern interests battled for national power, both sides emphasized that their respective ideologies were consistent with the nation's most cherished principles. Shearer Davis Bowman has argued that “northern and southern partisans of white sectionalism tended to see their respective sections as engaged in the high-minded defense of vested interests, outraged rights and liberties, and imperiled honor, all embedded in a society and way of life they deemed authentically American.” In a sense, both sides were right. Recent scholarship in such varied fields as intellectual, religious, political, and literary history suggests that although often incompatible, the values and ideals of the contending sections flowed from a common source. Work by Margaret Abruzzo on proslavery and antislavery humanitarianism, John Patrick Daly and Mark A. Noll on evangelical Protestantism, Sean Wilentz on political democracy, and Diane N. Capitani on domestic sentimental fiction suggests that the highly politicized differences between northern and southern ideologies masked those ideologies' common intellectual roots. Some scholars have argued for more fundamental difference, maintaining that southern thinkers roundly rejected democracy and liberal capitalism, while others have gone too far in the other direction in presenting northern and southern whites as equally committed to liberalism. But the dominant thrust of recent work on sectional ideologies suggests that they represented two hostile sides of a single coin minted at the nation's founding. Since a coin flip cannot end in a tie, both sides struggled for control of the national government to put their incompatible ideals into practice. The nationalization of northern ideals was a hotly contested outcome, made possible only by armed conflict. Conversely, the sectionalization of white southern ideals was not inevitable. Proponents of both sections drew on nationalism and sectionalism alike, embracing the former when they felt powerful and the latter when they felt weak. “As long as the Government is on our side,” proslavery Democrat and future South Carolina governor Francis W. Pickens wrote in 1857, “I am for sustaining it and using its power for our benefit. … [if] our opponents reverse the present state of things then I am for war.”23

Together, recent studies of northern sectionalism and southern nationalism make a compelling case for why the Civil War broke out when it did. If the South was always a separatist minority and if the North always defended the American way, secession might well have come long before 1861. It is more helpful to view the sectional conflict as one between equally authentic (not morally equivalent) strands of American nationalism grappling for the power to govern the entire country according to sectionally specific values. Southern slaveholders ruled what was in many ways the weaker section, but constitutional privileges such as the infamous three-fifths clause, along with other advantageous provisions such as the rule requiring a two-thirds majority in the nominations of Democratic presidential candidates, allowed them to remain dominant prior to 1860, until their successes aroused a sense of northern sectionalism robust enough to lift the Republican party into power. Almost overnight, the proslavery nationalist project collapsed. Only then did decisive numbers of southern whites countenance disunion, a drastic measure whose use had long been resisted within the South. The Civil War erupted when northern sectionalism grew powerful enough to undermine southern nationalism.24

… With Liberty and Justice for Whom?

In the model of Civil War causation sketched above, northern voters who joined the Republicans fretted over the fate of liberty in a slaveholding republic. But whose liberty was at stake? Recent scholarship powerfully demonstrates that for moderate opponents of slavery the most damnable aspect of the institution was not what it did to slaves but what it allowed slaveholders to do to northern whites. Popular antislavery grew from trepidation about the power of the slaveholding class and its threat to republican liberty, not from uproar against proslavery racism and racial oppression. And since this concern fueled the Republican party's rapid growth and 1860 presidential triumph, white northerners' indignant response to slaveholders' clout contributed significantly to the coming of the war by providing secessionists with a pretext for disunion. According to this interpretation of northern politics, slavery remains at the root of the sectional conflict even though racial egalitarianism did not inspire the most popular brands of antislavery politics and even though many of the debates over slavery, as Eric Foner has pointed out, “were only marginally related to race.” At the same time, recent scholarship on southern politics foregrounds slave agency and persuasively demonstrates that conflict between masters and slaves directly affected national affairs. If the fate of the enslaved did not preoccupy most northern whites, the same cannot be said of their southern counterparts, whose politics are intelligible only in the context of slave resistance. In sum, recent work confirms the centrality of slavery in the coming of the war in a very specific and nuanced way, showing that the actions and contested status of enslaved people influenced southern politics directly and northern politics more obliquely. This work reveals an asymmetry in the politics of slavery: in the South it revolved around maintaining control over slaves in the name of white supremacy and planters' interests, while in the North it centered on the problem of the slaveholding class.25

Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a “crucial distinction” between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution. Gara praised his contemporaries for restoring slavery to narratives of the sectional conflict but worried that “the impact of the new scholarship might prove more misleading than helpful.” Recognizing that antiracism and support for African American civil rights informed scholarly interpretations of Civil War causation, Gara warned:

Moral indignation at racial prejudice in the twentieth century does not necessarily provide the key to an understanding of the dispute between the sections in the nineteenth century. While some abolitionists were indignant at the slave system and what it did to black men, many more northerners became antisouthern and antislavery because of what the slave system did or threatened to do to them. A failure to recognize this can easily lead us into a blind alley of oversimplification, and to view the events of a hundred years ago as a morality play with heroes and villains rather than a plausible presentation of a human dilemma.

Most antislavery politicians and the northern voters who supported them, Gara argued, cared little about the sufferings of slaves. Instead, they “feared the effect of continued national rule by slaveholding interests on northern rights, on civil liberties, on desired economic measures and on the future of free white labor itself.” Only by acknowledging this fact, Gara believed, could scholars understand Civil War causation and the postwar persistence of racial prejudice.26

Many twenty-first century scholars have taken this point to heart while implicitly challenging Gara's stark contrast between moral and self-interested antislavery. They stress the primary importance of white liberty in popular antislavery critiques but show that slavery's “moderate” opponents were no less morally outraged than their “radical” counterparts. Slavery could be condemned on moral grounds for a wide variety of reasons, some of which had much to do with enslaved people and some of which—whether they stressed the degeneracy of southern society, the undemocratic influence of slaveholders' political clout, or the threat that proslavery zealots posed to civil liberties—did not. Thus, recent scholars have made Gara's “crucial distinction” while underlining the moral dimensions of ostensibly moderate, conservative, or racist antislavery arguments. Popular antislavery strove to protect democratic politics from the machinations of a legally privileged and economically potent ruling class. Slaveholders' inordinate political power was itself a moral problem. These findings may prompt historians to reconsider the relative emphasis placed on class and race in the origins and meanings of the Civil War, particularly regarding the political behavior of the nonabolitionist northern majority.27

Numerous recent studies emphasize that perceived threats to white freedom pushed northerners to oppose the slave power, support the Republican party, and prosecute the Civil War on behalf of liberty and the Union. Nicole Etcheson's study of the violent struggle between proslavery and antislavery forces over Kansas during the mid-1850s contends that the key issue at stake was freedom for white settlers. During the Civil War many Kansans who had fought for the admission of their state under an antislavery constitution applauded emancipation, but Etcheson persuasively argues that “Bleeding Kansas began as a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites.” Racist pioneers from both sections battled to ensure that the plains would remain a haven for white freedom, disagreeing primarily over slavery's compatibility with that goal. Similarly, Matthew Mason shows that antislavery politics in the early national period, spearheaded by Federalists, thrived only when northern voters recognized “how slavery impinged on their rights and interests.” Russell McClintock's analysis of the 1860 election and northerners' reaction to secession and the bombardment of Fort Sumter indicates that anxiety over slaveholders' power encouraged a decisive, violent northern response. As the antislavery position edged closer to the mainstream of northern politics, critiques of slavery grounded in sympathy for enslaved people faded as less philanthropic assaults on the institution proliferated. Carol Lasser's study of the shifting emphasis of antislavery rhetoric demonstrates that between the 1830s and the 1850s, “self-interest replaced sin as a basis for antislavery organizing,” as antislavery appeals increasingly “stressed the self-interest of northern farmers and workers—mainly white and mainly male.” Ultimately, popular antislavery cast “free white men, rather than enslaved African American women,” as “the victims of ‘the peculiar institution.’”28

Even histories of fugitive slave cases underscore the preeminence of white liberty as the activating concern for many northerners. As the historian Earl M. Maltz has pointed out, the fugitive slave issue was never isolated from other political controversies. Thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which seemed to prove the existence of a southern plot to spread slavery onto previously free western soil, fugitive slave cases during and after 1854 aroused increased hostility among white northerners who suspected that slaveholders threatened the liberties of all Americans. Those fears intensified throughout the 1850s in response to cases in which free northerners stood trial for violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. In two of the three cases explored by Steven Lubet the defendants were not runaway slaves but predominantly white northerners accused of abetting fugitives from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act's criminalization of noncompliance with slave catchers proved especially odious. “For all of its blatant unfairness,” Lubet argues, “the Act might have been considered tolerable in the North—at least among non-abolitionists—if it had been directed only at blacks.” It was not, of course, and some of the act's most celebrated cases placed white northerners in legal jeopardy for crossing swords with the slave power. Two recent studies of the Joshua Glover case reinforce this point. Formerly a slave in St. Louis, Glover escaped to Wisconsin and, with the help of sympathetic white residents, from there to Canada in 1854. But the dramatic confrontation between free-state citizens and the slaveholder-dominated federal government only began with Glover's successful flight, since the political reverberations of the case echoed for many years after Glover reached Canadian soil. Debates over the rights and duties of citizens, over the boundaries of state and federal sovereignty, and over the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act hinged on the prosecution of the primarily white Wisconsinites who aided Glover's escape. None gained more notoriety than Sherman Booth, the Milwaukee newspaper editor whose case bounced between state and federal courts from 1854 to 1859, and whose attorney, Byron Paine, capitalized on his own resulting popularity to win a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Long after attention left Glover, who was undoubtedly relieved to be out of the public eye, conflicts over northern state rights and individual rights highlighted the threat to white liberty posed by the slave power and its federal agents.29

Of course, the white northerners prosecuted under proslavery law would have remained in obscurity if not for the daring escapes made by enslaved people. As Stanley Harrold has shown, runaway slaves sparked dozens of bloody skirmishes in the antebellum borderland between slavery and freedom. To stress the importance of conflicts over white liberty in the coming of the Civil War is not to ignore the political impact of slave resistance. Quite the reverse: recent studies of Civil War causation have deftly explored the relationship between slave agency and sectional antagonism, revealing that slave resistance provoked conflict between whites, even in situations where racial justice was not the main point of contention. Northern sectionalism was a reaction against proslavery belligerence, which was fueled by internal conflicts in the South. Narratives of Civil War causation that focus on white northerners' fears for their liberties depend on slave agency, for the aggressiveness of the slave power was, essentially, a response to the power of slaves.30

Revealingly, recent works by John Ashworth and William W. Freehling both stress this theme. Both scholars published long-awaited second volumes of their accounts of Civil War causation in 2007. Beyond this coincidence, however, it would be difficult to find two historians more dissimilar than Ashworth, a Marxist who privileges labor systems and class relations, and Freehling, a master storyteller who stresses contingency and individual consciousness. For all their methodological and ideological differences, however, Ashworth and Freehling concur on an essential point: the struggle between masters and slaves accelerated the sectional conflict by forcing masters to support undemocratic policies that threatened northern liberties. The resulting hostility of northerners toward slaveholders provoked a fierce response, and the cycle continued. By weaving the day-to-day contest between masters and slaves into their political analyses, both authors fashion a “reintegrated” American history that blends the insights of social and political history.31

According to Ashworth, class conflict forced ruling elites in both sections to pursue clashing political and economic policies. Thus, structural divergence in social and economic systems between North and South inflamed the political and ideological strife that resulted in disunion. Class conflict was especially problematic in the South, whose enslaved population did not accept proslavery principles in the same way that, by the 1850s, some northern workers embraced free-labor ideology. Instead, interminable slave resistance compelled southern masters to gag congressional debate over slavery, to demand stringent fugitive slave laws, and to agitate for a territorial slave code—in short, to act the part of an authoritarian slave power. “Behind every event in the history of the sectional controversy,” Ashworth argues in his first volume, “lurked the consequences of black resistance to slavery.” A dozen years of additional work confirmed this thesis. In his second volume, Ashworth contends that “the opposition of the slaves to their own enslavement is the fundamental, irreplaceable cause of the War.” The Civil War did not begin as a massive slave rebellion because southern masters managed to contain the unrest that threatened their rule, but the price of this success was a deteriorating relationship with northerners. By contending for their freedom, slaves obliged their masters to behave in ways that convinced even the most bigoted northern whites that slavery menaced their own liberties.32

Freehling tells a similar tale in his own inimitable idiom. At the outset of the second volume of The Road to Disunion, he points to the underlying tension between slavery and democracy in antebellum America, referring to the Old South's

colliding democratic and despotic governing systems. The Old South combined dictatorship over blacks with republicanism for whites, supposedly cleanly severed by an All-Mighty Color Line. But to preserve dictatorial dominion over blacks, the slaveholding minority sometimes trenched on majoritarian government for whites, in the nation as well as in their section. … Northerners called the militant slavocracy the Slave Power, meaning that those with autocratic power over blacks also deployed undemocratic power over whites. Most Yankees hardly embraced blacks or abolitionists. Yet racist Northerners would fight the Slave Power to the death to preserve their white men's majoritarian rights.

Like Ashworth, Freehling recognizes that the preservation of “dictatorship over blacks” would have been simple if slaves had been contented and docile—and so it was anything but simple. “The nature of masters' dictatorship over blacks compelled their partial closure of republicanism for whites. Furthermore, the nature of slaves' resistances propelled their uninvited (and important) intrusions into white men's political upheavals.” Proslavery southerners insisted that slavery bolstered white democracy, but their response to slave resistance convinced many northerners that slaveholders were aristocratic bullies. In Ashworth's and Freehling's capable hands, the story of the sectional conflict over slavery appears far more complicated than the “morality play” that Gara rightly criticized four decades ago. Without the threat to northern liberties posed by the slave power, most northern whites would not have welcomed the Republican party's moderate strain of antislavery politics. Although slaves themselves did not always figure prominently in the moderate antislavery argument, slave resistance ultimately made the slave power thesis plausible.33

Scholars who foreground northern concern for white liberty in a slaveholding republic underline the importance of class conflict between northern voters and southern elites in the coming of the Civil War. Moderate antislavery northerners condemned slaveholders for aristocratic pretensions and tyrannical policies, not for racial bigotry. But for many scholars, race remains the key to understanding antebellum sectional politics. The tendency remains strong to frame the sectional conflict and the Civil War as one campaign in a longer struggle for racial justice. Not surprisingly, studies of radical abolitionism are the most likely works to employ this framework. Radical abolitionists nurtured a strikingly egalitarian conception of race and fought for a social vision that most scholars share but one that the modern world has not yet realized, and therein lies their appeal. Moreover, those who foreground race in the coming of the war do not naïvely suggest that all northern whites were racial egalitarians. Since the 1960s, commitment to an admirable antiracist ideal, not wishful thinking, has given a powerful boost to a primarily racial interpretation of the sectional conflict. But the recent scholarly emphasis on issues of class and the slave power suggests that framing the sectional conflict as a clash over racial injustice is not the most useful approach to understanding Civil War causation.34


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