Historically, textbooks have taught that incompatibility between northern and southern economies caused the Civil War. The industrial revolution in the North, during the first few decades of the 19th century, brought about a machine age economy that relied on wage laborers, not slaves.
At the same time, the warmer Southern states continued to rely on slaves for their farming economy and cotton production. Southerners made huge profits from cotton and slaves and fought a war to maintain them. Northerners did not need slaves for their economy and fought a war to free them. Everything else, many textbooks claim, was tied to that economic difference and was anchored by cotton.
The agricultural economy was certainly one cause of the Civil War, but not the only one. Wars are never simple and neither are their causes. Many other factors that helped bring about the war are central to understanding America's past.
So what did start the Civil War—a war that divided the nation, destroyed crops, cities, and railroad lines, and claimed 630,000 lives? Many factors plunged the nation into chaos in 1861. Key political causes include the slow collapse of the Whig Party, the founding of the Republican Party, and, most important, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as president.
Religious opposition to slavery increased, supported by ministers and abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. Geographical conflict over the spread of slavery into western territories and states—areas with neither an industrial nor a farm economy—grew. And political deals, such as the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and Compromise of 1850, and Supreme Court rulings, such as the Dred Scott decision in 1857, divided the country even more. These divisions went far beyond cotton and economics.
Urban vs. Rural, Factory vs. Farm
The central story told in textbooks is that the industrial revolution, beginning with the first textile mill in New England in the 1790s, created an economy that did not need slaves. Southerners, however, continued to use slave labor on their farms because agriculture was profitable. Closely related to this change, cities rose as population centers in the North created an urban society while the South remained primarily agrarian.
Census data on farms and cities, however, reveals that while cities grew rapidly in the North between 1800 and 1860, they did not become leading population centers until 1920, 60 years after the Civil War began. In 1860, there were more farms in the North than in the South, although Southern states, especially in the Cotton Belt, had the majority of large farms (1,000 acres or more).
Census data on farms and cities, however, reveals that while cities grew rapidly in the North between 1800 and 1860, they did not become leading population centers until 1920, 60 years after the Civil War began.
The notion that there were no southern cities was also a myth. The U.S. had eight cities with more than 150,000 residents in 1860 and three of them—St. Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans—were in slave states. Several other southern cities, such as Louisville, Mobile, and Charleston, had more than 20,000 residents each and were listed among the largest urban places in the U.S.
Similarly, data demonstrate the presence of manufacturing in the South. Richmond, VA, had mills and factories as early as 1800. The 1860 census shows the fairly even spread of manufacturing across the states, with only New York and Pennsylvania recording 17,000 or more manufacturing establishments (see Primary Source Farms Census Data , List of Urban Areas , and Manufacturing Census Date ).
Cotton and Slavery
"Cotton is King!" bellowed James Hammond, a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, in 1859, reminding all of the importance of cotton in the South. A major error in the agricultural vs. industrial revolution theme, however, stated in book after book, is that slavery existed to produce cotton.
When I ask college students to talk about the causes of the war, many tell the story of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. They remind me that there were no factories in the South prior to 1860 and are astonished when I tell them that factories flourished in the South as early as John Adams's Presidency. They gloat over the North's shipping yards and are surprised to learn of the busy shipping industry based in cities such as Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans. Their jaws drop when I talk about the thousands of slaves in the South who worked in busy cities, not on quiet plantations.
Slaves did not arrive in the U.S. in the early 1800s to work on cotton plantations. They began to arrive in the early 1600s to work on farms that grew a number of different crops. Sugar and tobacco became the most profitable to meet European demands for crops that did not grow in the colder European climate. Virginia planters made a fortune growing tobacco, making tobacco the first King. Cotton succeeded tobacco on the throne much later. By 1860, however, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana replaced Georgia and South Carolina as leading growers of cotton (see Primary Source Cotton and Slaves Data ).
[Students'] jaws drop when I talk about the thousands of slaves in the South who worked in busy cities, not on quiet plantations.
If farming was so important, why did southerners rush to enslave the colder Kansas and Nebraska territories that remained snow covered in winter months? In these areas, representing only one third of the United States, only 130 slaves lived. Why were southerners eager to bring territories such as New Mexico, Texas, and California—where very little cotton was grown—into the Union as slave states? There were many reasons completely unrelated to cotton. Pro-slavery advocates in California, for example, wanted slaves to prospect for gold and build gold and silver mines.
And if slavery was so central to the southern economy of farming, why did only one fourth of southerners own slaves? Why were so many prominent southerners, such as George Washington, George Wythe, and Thomas Jefferson, opposed, at least in theory, to the institution? Slavery, too, was seen as a moral evil by the hundreds of thousands of northern abolitionists who published newspapers and marched in the streets of small towns and large cities carrying their colorful banners.
Abraham Lincoln did not target farming and cotton in his arguments against slavery; he used morality. He told one audience in Chicago in 1859 that, "I think slavery is wrong, morally and politically." Lincoln told another audience that America could not be seen "fostering human slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of human freedom." And, of course, in his fabled "House Divided" speech he predicted that the United States would be either all slave or all free.
Turbulent politics also led to the war. Following the compromise of 1850, legal, political, and physical battles raged over whether or not to admit Kansas as a slave state, a state with no cotton. Many students believe that the Republican Party, created in 1855, focused on slavery in the 1860 campaign, but their key issues centered on political corruption of the Buchanan Administration. The Republican platform called for containment, not the end of slavery.
Lincoln's election, however, proved to be the icing on the southern secession cake. Only a minority of southern newspapers favored leaving the union prior to Lincoln's election; most supported secession after.
The notion that slave labor for cotton fields caused the Civil War has been reinforced by textbooks and fictional narratives for more than a century. Historians, however, argue for a more nuanced, complex understanding.
Other factors leading to war include John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, raucous battles over the Fugitive Slave Act, and President Buchanan's refusal to arbitrate between North and South, all connected to the increasingly bitter debate over slavery. In addition, northern newspapers campaigned against states' rights, southerners resented new taxes, and the Fort Sumter crisis turned into a pivotal moment (see Primary Source Editorials [1860-1861]).
The notion that slave labor for cotton fields caused the Civil War has been reinforced by textbooks and fictional narratives for more than a century. Historians, however, argue for a more nuanced, complex understanding. The Civil War was fought for many reasons, not solely or even primarily because of the growing importance of cotton on southern farms. Moving away from economic differences and cotton as simplistic causes leads to a more complex and far more interesting story.
William W. Holden, editor of the Weekly Daily Standard in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a strong Unionist in the years leading up to the Civil War. Holden tried, despite Lincoln's election, to quell his fellow North Carolinians' desire to secede, along with their neighboring states. Like other southerners, however, he believed that each state was sovereign, and when President Lincoln called for recruits in April 1861 to put down the rebellion, Holden saw this as an unconstitutional invasion of the South by the North. Holden then commenced writing editorials urging his fellow citizens to rise up to meet the "invaders."
Excerpted from The Voice of the People (December 26, 1860):
We have never felt, in any previous contest, more in need of the sustaining voice of the people than we do in this; and we are more than gratified to state that on no occasion in our long Editorial life have we been more warmly or generally sustained by the people than we are now. The voice of approval and encouragement comes to us from all quarters. It comes to us from Breckinridge men, from Bell men, from Douglas men, from Buchanan men, and from men of all shades of opinions, who are anxious for the preservation of a Constitutional Union, and who would hold North-Carolina back, at least a while longer, from the vortex of disunion now opening to receive South-Carolina. And this, be it remembered, is no voice of submission to arbitrary or undelegated power. It proceeds from men who will never submit to the administration of the government on principles inimical to the rights, the equality, or the safety of the slaveholding States; but who, while preparing for the emergency that may arise, are nevertheless disposed to "watch and wait" for any attempted overt act by a dominant sectional majority. . .
Excerpted from The News (April 17, 1861):
. . . As hostile as we may be to Mr. Lincoln, the cause of our country, now in fearful perils, requires that we should be just even towards him. But the Union cannot be maintained by force. As we said last year, in the Presidential campaign, "The Union would fall to pieces before the first touch of aggressive or coercive power." . . . A Convention of all the States could either reconstruct the Union or permit the seceded States to go in peace. As it is, we appear to be drifting to civil strife against the wish of the people of the United States, and without their having had any opportunity in their primary capacity to remove the evils which threaten all of us, both North and South, with one common ruin.
Excerpted from Proclamation by Governor Ellis (April 24, 1861):
We publish below the Proclamation of Gov. Ellis, convening the Legislature of this State, in this City, on the 1st day of May.
We think the Governor acted with patriotic promptness in refusing the call on this State for troops; and that, in convening the Legislature to take action in this great crisis, he will be sustained by the whole people of the State.
We have heretofore severely censured this functionary for his public conduct. We did this honestly and from a sincere desire to serve and save our country. We were moved to it by no selfish or personal feeling—by no disappointed ambition. We now come forward to sustain him in this day of trial, and to encourage him in our feeble way to stand like a man of iron for the rights and the honor of North-Carolina. May God defend the right! . . .
Weekly Daily Standard. Editorials. Raleigh, North Carolina: 18601861.
Secondary Source Annotated Bibliography
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
This work by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Davis was originally printed in the 70s, yet it still stands as an important work on the history of slavery.
Davis, William. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
This thick and highly researched biography of the Confederate President captures all of the quirks of his volcanic personality and shows his importance in the South as a politician, war hero and, later, first President of the Confederacy. Historian Davis devotes a considerable amount of time to the causes of the war, seen from both the northern and southern viewpoint.
Fehrenbacher, Don. Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1982.
This is a study of Lincoln's life in the decade preceding the war and the political and cultural storms that surrounded him.
Goodwin, Doris. Team of Rivals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Goodwin's lengthy and carefully researched book tells the story of Lincoln's selection of his chief opponents for the Republican nomination as cabinet officers. The book concentrates on the war, but there are numerous chapters and parts of chapters on the causes of the war.
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning work covers the history of the United States from the Mexican War through the end of the Civil War. Much of it is devoted to the causes of the war and the author shows, through significant research, how complicated they were. The book also probes the politics of the pre-war era and explains what effect Lincoln's election had on secession.
Richard, Leonard. The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 2007.
Richard's study zeroes in on gold mining as the main reason why a large group of people in California wanted slavery in the state. There were no plans for giant cotton production in the state, just an immediate need for enslaved miners who could help their owners turn a large profit. This desire nearly put California in the Democratic column in 1860's close election in that state.
Towers, Frank. The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 2004.
Towers chronicles the growth of cities in the South prior to the Civil War, noting their 62% jump in population, the arrival of street gangs, and manufacturing. Towers notes, too, that three of the largest eight cities in America were in slave states. He counters the argument that the South was an all-agrarian region.
White, Ronald. A. Lincoln. New York: Random House, 2009.
White's detailed study of Lincoln shows him as the centerpiece of the pre-war era, but it also engages the reader in the different causes of the war. He also details the attack on Fort Sumter as a device to gain freedom for the South, not for cotton production.
The most contributing factor to the coming of the Civil War was slavery, an economic issue to the South and a moral issue to the North. Slavery was the driving force for the Southern slave states to leave the Union. The Civil War was ultimately caused by the secession of the Southern states from the Union.
Slavery had caused a great division in our country by the 1850's. The abolitionists of the North proclaimed that slavery was immoral and wrong, and the Southern "fire eaters" were dependent upon slave labor to run its large plantations where the "cash crop" of the South, cotton, was grown. The South, being predominantly agricultural, needed these slaves as workers in the fields of their plantations.
The North, on the other hand, was heading more and more towards manufacturing. They were less dependent on slavery as many of the workers in the factories were immigrants. Because of the factory atmosphere, many of the immigrants settled in the large cities on the North where jobs were easier to find.
Citizens of the South believed that slaves were better off than the immigrants because their owner took care of their basic needs. Southerners often tried to show the plantation life of a slave as a family atmosphere. They said that "Immigrants were underpaid and over worked" and "often working conditions were unsafe and unhealthy."
States rights also played a role in the start of the Civil War. The first state to secede from the Union was South Carolina. In their declaration of secession they stated that they were leaving the Union on two defining factors: "the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted." Southerners believed that it should be up to the state to become a free or slave state and that the federal government should make no bill having to do with slavery. South Carolina is quoted as saying in their secession speech " A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery . And that the public mind must rest in the belief that Slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction."
At the end, the fate of the Union rested on one event: the national election of 1860. The campaign saw the emergence of four different candidates. Abraham Lincoln beat out William H. Seward for the representative of the newly formed Republican Party. The Democratic Party was also divided by the issue of slavery as two parties emerged from this single party. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge was declared a candidate for the Southern Democrats. John Bell filled the fourth slot as he ran for the Constitutional Union party.
The South was almost entirely against Lincoln from the outset, as 10 states in the South did not even have him on the voting ballot. Although he promised not to touch slavery in the states where it already existed, Southerners saw his election as a detriment to their way of life because Lincoln was against almost everything they believed in: the expansion of slavery, popular sovereignty, and secession, which he called unconstitutional. The South made it very clear that if Lincoln won the election, secession from the Union would follow.
The outcome of the election of 1860 was exactly what put many Southern states over the edge. On December 19, 1860, a convention was held at St. Andrew's Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, to vote on secession. One day later on December 20, 1860, the delegates voted by a unanimous 169-0 vote in favor of secession. " The union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States under the name of the United States of America is hereby dissolved." - South Carolina secession speech.
Between January 9 and February 1, 1861, six other Southern slave states followed suit: Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Following Lincoln's inauguration, the second wave of secession occurred with Virginia leading the way for Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
In conclusion, it was the secession of the Southern states that ultimately led to the first shots of the Civil War. Lincoln saw the Southern attempt to secede as a rebellion, and he vowed to preserve the Union at all costs. On April 12, 1861, the South Carolina militia, commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard, fired on Fort Sumter, thus commencing the Civil War.