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The Coming of the American Civil War Gary J. Kornblith Oberlin College March 18, 2010 What Caused the Civil War?

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the coming of the american civil war

The Coming of the American Civil War

Gary J. Kornblith

Oberlin College

March 18, 2010

what caused the civil war
What Caused the Civil War?

“One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” -- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address (1865)

Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, 1865

war as an exceptional road to abolition and emancipation
War as an Exceptional Road to Abolition and Emancipation

Source: “Abolition of slavery timeline,” Wikipedia,

more questions
More Questions
  • Why did slavery lead to civil war in the United States when abolition was achieved peacefully in nearly all other societies in the Western Hemisphere?
  • Why did slavery lead to civil war in 1861, rather than in, for example,1820 or 1850 or 1890 or 1920?
the problem of slavery at the founding 1776 1788
The Problem of Slavery at the Founding, 1776-1788
  • Lack of controversy over American slavery through mid-18th century; legal in all British colonies on eve of Revolution

Source: Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone (1998), pp. 369-70

Reevaluation of slavery in Revolutionary Era
    • Sources of antislavery ideas
      • Egalitarian Protestantism, especially Quakerism
      • Lockean political thought
      • “Country“ ideology
    • Antislavery actions at state level
      • Vermont’s Constitution (1777)
      • Pennsylvania’s act for gradual emancipation (1780)
      • Emergence of “free” North as halting process but major world-historical development

Anthony Benezet teaching black children

George Bryan

Continental discussion of slavery, 1776
    • Declaration of Independence
      • Thomas Jefferson’s denunciation of King George III

for promoting slave trade in original draft

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And … he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.”

      • Congress’s decision to omit Jefferson’s attack on slave trade

Thomas Jefferson

Controversy over whether to count slaves as people in apportioning states’ financial obligations (July 1776)
    • General agreement that costs of continental government should be apportioned according to relative wealth of different states
    • When committee proposes using population as practical proxy for wealth, Samuel Chase of Maryland calls for counting only “white inhabitants” on grounds that slaves are property, not people

“Our Slaves being our Property, why should they be

taxed more than the Land, Sheep, Cattle, Horses, &c.”

-- Thomas Lynch of South Carolina

“Slaves rather weaken than strengthen the State,

and there is therefore some difference between

them and Sheep. Sheep will never make any

insurrections.” --Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania

Samuel Chase

Thomas Lynch

Benjamin Franklin

“In some countries the laboring poor [are] called freemen, in others they [are] called slaves; but . . . the difference as to the state [is] imaginary only. What matters it whether a landlord employing ten laborers in his farm, gives them annually as much money as will buy them the necessaries of life, or gives them those necessaries at short hand. The ten laborers add as much wealth annually to the state, increase its exports as much in the one case as the other. Certainly 500 freemen produce no more profits, no greater surplus for the payment of taxes than 500 slaves. Therefore the state in which are the laborers called freemen should be taxed no more than that in which are those called slaves.”--John Adams of Massachusetts

“Two slaves should be counted as one freeman. . . . Slaves [do] not do so much work as freemen . . . This [is] proved by the price of labor. The hire of a labourer in the Southern colonies being from 8 to pound 12, while in the Northern it [is] generally pound 24.”

--Benjamin Harrison of Virginia

John Adams

Benjamin Harrison

Continental discussion of slavery, 1787
    • Northwest Ordinance: intersectional support for restriction of slavery’s expansion
      • Narrow failure of Thomas Jefferson’s 1784 proposal to bar expansion of slavery across Appalachian mountains after 1800
      • Northwest Ordinance as “charter of freedom”?

“Article the Sixth. There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; provided, always that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”

      • Why southern congressmen supported Ordinance
        • Implicit acceptance of slavery south of Ohio River
        • Anticipated demographic growth of Southwest
        • Economic logic: limiting plantation crops to South
        • Anticipated agrarian alliance of South and West
        • Moral ambivalence over slavery
Constitutional Convention
    • Three-fifths compromise
    • Compromise over the slave trade

“Mr. L. Martin [of Maryland], proposed to . . . to allow a prohibition or tax on the importation of slaves. In the first place, as five slaves are to be counted as three freemen, in the apportionment of Representatives, such a clause would leave an encouragement to this traffic. In the second place, slaves weakened one part of the Union, which the other parts were bound to protect; the privilege of importing them was therefore unreasonable. And in the third place, it was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character, to have such a feature in the Constitution. . . . “

“Mr. Rutledge [of South Carolina:] If the Convention thinks that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those States will never be such fools, as to give up so important an interest.”

Luther Martin

John Rutledge

the problem of slavery in the new republic 1789 1820
The Problem of Slavery in the New Republic, 1789-1820
  • Abolition efforts at state level after 1789
    • Virginia declines to consider St. George Tucker’s gradual abolition proposal in 1796
    • New York adopts gradual abolition, 1799
    • Virginia debates foreign colonization of blacks in wake of Gabriel’s Rebellion, 1800-1801; asks for federal assistance in locating a suitable location for sending emancipated slaves
    • New Jersey adopts gradual abolition, 1804
    • No further state-level abolition, though slavery declines significantly in practice in Delaware and Maryland

St. George Tucker

Louisiana Purchase (1803)
    • Almost doubles size of U.S.; seems to guarantee fulfillment Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic for generations to come, what he calls an “Empire for Liberty”
    • A bold step not taken: Jefferson fails to propose carving a black colony out of the purchased territory, which might have led to a “two-state solution” to the problem of where emancipated slaves would go given white resistance to a multi-racial republic
American withdrawal from the Atlantic slave trade (1808)
    • Jefferson frames as a question of “human rights” and Congress passes act banning importation of slaves from abroad
    • Unlike in most other slave societies in Americas, however, end of slave trade does not doom slavery as an institution
    • Stimulates domestic slave trade, tying upper and lower South closer together economically

Abolition in North

Ban on slave importations

average annual rates of natural population increase by race in percent
Average Annual Rates of Natural Population Increase by Race(in percent)


Source: R. W. Fogel, Without Consent or Contract (1989),124.

Missouri Crisis (1819-21)
    • Basic chronology
      • James Tallmadge, Jr., of N.Y.

proposes gradual abolition of

slavery in Missouri as

condition for statehood (1819)

      • Proposal passes in House

but fails in Senate

      • Uproar spreads from Congress

to populace at large (1819-20)

      • Famous compromise engineered by Henry Clay of Kentucky and Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois with support of President James Monroe of Virginia (1820)
        • Missouri to be admitted as slave state; Maine to be admitted as free state
        • Slavery prohibited in remaining territory of Louisiana Purchase north of 36º30´ latitude
      • Second compromise accepts Missouri’s state constitution by construing it as compatible with U.S. Constitution notwithstanding bar on free blacks entering the state (1821)
Rhetoric of the Missouri debates

“Sir, if a dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so! If civil war, which gentlemen so much threaten, must come, I can only say, let it come! My hold on life is probably as frail as that of any man who now hears me; but, while that hold lasts, it shall be devoted to the service of my country—to the freedom of man. If blood is necessary to extinguish any fire which I have assisted to kindle, I can assure gentlemen, while I regret the necessity, I shall not forbear to contribute my mite. . . . I know the will of my constituents, and, regardless of consequences, I will avow it; as their representative, I will proclaim their hatred to slavery in every shape; as their representative, here will I hold my stand, until this floor, with the Constitution of my country which supports it, shall sink beneath me. . . .

“Sir, on this subject the eyes of Europe are turned upon you. You boast of the freedom of your Constitution and your laws; you have claimed, in the Declaration of Independence, ‘That all men are created equal . . .’ and yet you have slaves in your country. The enemies of your Government . . . point to your inconsistencies. . . . If you allow slavery to pass into Territories where you have the lawful power to exclude it, you will justly take upon yourself all the charges of inconsistency; but, confine it to the original slaveholding States where you found it in the formation of your Government, and you stand acquitted of all imputation.” --James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York

James Tallmadge, Jr.

“Sir, when we recollect that our former parent State was the original cause of introducing slavery into America. . . ; that it cannot be got rid of without ruining the country, certainly the present mild treatment of our slaves is most honorable to that part of the country where slavery exists. . . . The great body of slaves are happier in their present situation than they could be in any other . . . .

“Have the Northern States any idea of the value of our slaves? At least, sir, six hundred millions of dollars. If we lose them, . . . an annual income of at least forty millions of dollars will be lost [and] felt by . . . the whole Union; for to whom, at present, do . . . the Eastern and Northern [States] look for the employment of their shipping, in transporting our bulky and valuable products, and bringing us the manufactures and merchandises of Europe? . . . In a pecuniary view of this subject, therefore, it must ever be the policy of the Eastern and Northern States to continue connected with us. But, sir, there is an infinitely greater call upon them, and this is the call of justice, of affection, and humanity. Reposing at a great distance, in safety, in the full enjoyment of all their Federal and State rights, unattacked in either, or in their individual rights, can they, with indifference, or ought they to risk, in the remotest degree, the consequences which this measure may produce. These may be the division of this Union, and a civil war. Knowing that whatever is said here, must get into the public prints, I am unwilling, for obvious reasons, to go into the description of the horrors which such a war must produce, and ardently pray that none of us may ever live to witness such an event . . .” --Charles Pinckney of South Carolina

Charles Pinckney

Significance of the Missouri Crisis
    • Balance of population has shifted markedly toward “free” states by 1820*

*For the purposes of this chart, NY and NJ are considered “free” throughout the period,

even though they did not adopt gradual abolition statutes until 1799 and 1804, respectively.

Arguments on both sides couched in both moral and economic terms
  • Upper South leaders (including Jefferson) have switched from support for restriction of slavery to support for “diffusion”
    • Seek to reduce potential for slave rebellions
    • Seek to retain southern influence in national government
  • Sectional compromise over the problem of slavery is still feasible but significantly harder than in 1787
    • Sense of external danger has diminished
    • Politics has become more democratic and hence less easily managed by elites behind closed doors
  • Disunion and civil war are serious possibilities, not just rhetorical threats, as both John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson signal privately
“I have favored this Missouri compromise, believing it to be all that could be effected under the present Constitution, and from extreme unwillingness to put the Union at hazard. But perhaps it would have been a wiser as well as a bolder course to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri, till it should have terminated in a convention of the States to revise and amend the Constitution. This would have produced a new Union of thirteen or fourteen States unpolluted with slavery, with a great and glorious object to effect, namely, that of rallying to their standard the other States by the universal emancipation of their slaves. If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.”

“[T]his momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. . . . A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. . . .

“I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons. . . . If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

John Quincy Adams

Thomas Jefferson

a path not taken
A Path Not Taken
  • Congressional proposals for compensated emancipation and black colonization
    • Rep. Henry Meigs of New York calls for use of public land as incentive for emancipation but resolution is tabled by House, 66-55 (1821)

“Whereas slavery in the United States is an evil acknowledged to be of great and increasing magnitude, and which merits the greatest efforts of this nation to remedy: therefore,

“Resolved, That a committee be appointed to inquire into the expediency of devoting five hundred millions acres of public lands west of the Mississippi as a fund for the purpose of, in the first place, employing a naval force competent to the annihilation of the slave trade. Secondly, the gradual emancipation of slaves, by a voluntary exchange of lands for them; and, lastly, colonizing such emancipated slaves in such way as may be conducive to their happiness in their original country, Africa: Provided, That no such exchange of lands for slaves shall ever be suffered or allowed, except upon the perfectly ascertained consent of such slaves, to be colonized in Africa: And provided also, That, wherever such exchanges are, or shall be made, no separation of husband and wife, or parent and child, shall be permitted contrary to their well ascertained consent.”

Senator Rufus King of N.Y., a drafter of the Constitution, submits resolution to allocate proceeds from land sales to pay for emancipation and colonization, but it goes nowhere (1825)

“Resolved. . . That, as soon as the portion of the existing funded debt of the United States, for the payment of which the public land of the United States is pledged, shall have been paid off, then, and thenceforth, the whole of the public land of the United States, with the net proceeds of all future sales thereof, shall constitute and form a fund, which is hereby appropriated, and the faith of the United States is pledged, that the said fund shall be inviolably applied to aid the emancipation of such slaves, within any of the United States, and to aid the removal of such slaves, and the removal of such free persons of color, in any of the said states, as by the laws of the states, respectively, may be allowed to be emancipated, or removed, to any territory or country without [i.e., outside] the limits of the United States of America.”

  • Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky seeks to direct part of budget surplus generated by land sales toward financing black colonization but proposal fails in committee (1832)

Rufus King

Henry Clay

Troubled history of the American Colonization Society
    • Founded in 1816
    • Dedicated to African colonization of American free blacks
    • Endorsed by prominent public leaders,

including Henry Clay, Bushrod

Washington, James Madison

    • Society gains some popular supportamong whites in North and Upper South

but almost none in Lower South

    • Widely opposed by northern free blacks
    • Establishes Liberia with federal

assistance in 1822

    • Liberia struggles, grows very slowly
    • Target of immediate abolitionists, who

denounce colonization as immoral, not just impractical

      • David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829)
      • William Lloyd Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832)
      • Lane Debates(1834)

U.S. Cotton Output, 1790-1860

  • Implications
    • Continuing, deepening importance of slavery to economy of the South, especially Lower South, in wake of Cotton Revolution
    • In quest for all-white Republic, Euro-Americans pursue different strategy toward African Americans than toward Native Americans, who are subject to Indian Removal policy in 1830s
    • Continuing potential for the problem of slavery to disrupt the Union
problem of slavery in the jacksonian era 1820 1850
Problem of Slavery in the Jacksonian Era, 1820-1850
  • Party rivalry as counter-weight to sectional conflict

“Party attachment in former times furnished a complete antidote for sectional prejudices by producing counteracting feelings. It was not until that defence had been broken down that the clamour [against] Southern Influence and African Slavery could be made effectual in the North…. Formerly, attacks upon Southern Republicans were regarded by those of the north as assaults upon their political brethren & resented accordingly. This all powerful sympathy has been much weakened, if not destroyed…. It can & ought to be revived.”--Martin Van Buren (1827)

Controversy over slavery intensifies but is contained by Second Party System in 1830s
    • Virginia Slavery Debate in wake of Nat Turner’s Rebellion
    • Rise of immediate abolitionism
    • Attacks on abolitionists by white northerners as well as white southerners
    • Congressional “gag rule” to silence antislavery petitions
    • Elaboration of proslavery argument
    • Rejection of Texas’ application for annexation after Texan Revolution

Anti-abolitionist agitation and riot

in Cincinnati, 1836

New Territory, New Crisis in the 1840s
    • Election of 1844
      • John Tyler’s Texas strategy
      • James K. Polk’s narrow victory
    • Annexation of Texas (1845)
    • Mexican-American War (1846-48)
      • Wilmot Proviso

“I would preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free white labor.”--David Wilmot

      • Mexican Cession

James K. Polk

John Tyler

David Wilmot


Lewis Cass

  • Election of 1848
    • Democrats nominate Lewis Cass on “popular sovereignty” platform
    • Whigs nominate Zachary Taylor on no platform
    • Free Soil Party founded and nominates Martin Van Buren on platform opposing slavery’s expansion
    • Taylor wins with intersectional support
    • Popular vote
      • Whig: 47.5%
      • Democratic: 42.5%
      • Free Soil: 10%

Zachary Taylor

Martin Van Buren


Free vs. Slave State Population, 1820 & 1850

  • Compromise of 1850
    • Demographic dynamics
      • Population of free vs. slave states
      • California Gold Rush
    • Taylor’s plan
    • Clay’s plan
      • Admission of California as free state
      • Organization of the remainder of Mexican Cession without restriction on slavery
      • Abolition of slave trade, but not slavery,

in Washington, D.C.

      • Enactment of more stringent federal fugitive slave law
    • Senate debate and deadlock

Henry Clay addressing Senate, 1850

Taylor dies; New Yorker Millard Fillmore becomes president (July 1850)
  • Democrat Stephen Douglas tweaks Clay’s plan, engineers passage of Compromise of 1850

Millard Fillmore

“I am determined never to make another

speech on the slavery question --let us

cease agitating, stop the debate, and drop the subject. If we do this, the Compromise will be recognized as a final settlement.”

--Stephen Douglas (1850)

Stephen Douglas

the problem of slavery and the realignment of american politics 1850 1860
The Problem of Slavery and the Realignment of American Politics, 1850-1860
  • Still more questions
    • Why did the Compromise of 1850 fail to usher in a generation of peace the way the Missouri Compromise had?
    • What destroyed the Second Party System, the longstanding counter-weight to sectional conflict?
    • How did the Republican Party capture the presidency in the election of 1860?
Old Territory, New Crisis
    • Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
      • Stephen Douglas’s purpose
      • Southern pressure
      • Rationale of “popular sovereignty”
      • Repeal of Missouri Compromise
    • “Appeal of the Independent Democrats” (Jan. 19, 1854)

“In 1820, the Slave States said to the Free States: ‘Admit Missouri with Slavery and refrain from positive exclusion south of 36º 30' and we will join you in perpetual prohibition north of that line.’ The Free States consented. In 1854, the Slave States say to the Free States: ‘Missouri is admitted; no prohibition of Slavery south of 36º 30' has been attempted; we have received the full consideration of our agreement; no more is to be gained by adherence to it on our part; we, therefore, propose to cancel the compact." If this be not Punic faith, what is it? Not without the deepest dishonor and crime can the Free States acquiesce in this demand. . . .

“[T]he first operation of the proposed permission of Slavery in Nebraska will be to stay the progress of the Free States westward, and to cut off the free States of the Pacific from the free States of the Atlantic. It is hoped, doubtless, by compelling the whole commerce and the whole travel between the East and West to pass for hundreds of miles through a Slaveholding region, in the heart of the continent, and by the influence of a Federal Government, controlled by the Slave Power, to extinguish Freedom and to establish Slavery in the States and Territories of the Pacific, and thus permanently subjugate the whole country to the yoke of a Slaveholding despotism.”

Collapse of the Second Party System (1854-1855)
    • Inability of northern Whigs to capitalize on unpopularity of Kansas-Nebraska Act in North
    • Founding of Republican Party
    • Founding of American (Know-Nothing) Party

House of Representatives, 1854 Election

Source: Wikipedia (,_1854)

Republican Party emerges as main opposition to Democrats in North (1856-1858)
    • Failure of Know-Nothings to deliver on promises of reform; decline of alarm over immigration
    • Events lend increasing credence to Republican charge of Slave Power conspiracy
      • Bleeding Kansas (1855+)
      • Caning of Charles Sumner (1856)
      • Dred Scott Decision (1857)
      • Effort to admit Kansas as slave state

on basis of Lecompton Constitution

opposed by most Kansans (1858)

Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina

attacking Sen. Charles Sumner

of Massachusetts in U.S. Senate

Democratic Party divides along sectional lines
    • Southern Democrats turn against Douglas after he turns against Lecompton Constitution and espouses “Freeport Doctrine”
    • Southern Democrats walk out of 1860 party convention over platform’s failure to endorse a federal slave code for territories
  • Four candidates run for president in 1860
  • Republican Abraham Lincoln wins 1860 presidential election with (not quite) 40 percent of popular vote

Stephen Douglas

Northern Democrat

John C. Breckinridge

Southern Democrat

Abraham Lincoln


John Bell

Constitutional Union

the problem of slavery in the secession crisis 1860 1861
The Problem of Slavery in the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861
  • Seven Lower South states secede before Lincoln takes office
    • South Carolina (Dec. 20, 1860)
    • Mississippi (Jan. 9, 1861)
    • Florida (Jan. 10, 1861)
    • Alabama (Jan. 11, 1861)
    • Georgia (Jan. 19, 1861)
    • Louisiana (Jan. 26, 1861)
    • Texas (Feb. 1, 1861)
Rationale for secession: to protect slavery

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.…

“Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England. --Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union

  • Why 1861
    • Political pessimism: fear of what Lincoln would do as president to undermine slavery
    • Economic optimism: confidence in expanding global demand for cotton; belief that slaves states would prosper as separate nation
“[W]ould any sane nation make war on cotton? Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should they make war on us we could bring the whole world to our feet. The South is perfectly competent to go on, one, two, or three years without planting a seed of cotton. . . . What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? . . . England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.” --James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, Speech to the U.S. Senate, Mar. 4, 1858
Lincoln’s position on slavery during secession crisis
    • Rejects Crittenden Compromise that would have reinstituted, extended Missouri Compromise line via Constitutional amendment
    • Supports Constitutional amendment that would have forever prohibited federal intervention to end slavery in states where it already existed
    • In Inaugural Address, proclaims slavery wrong but denies that as president he could or would interfere with it in current states
  • Why war
    • Lower South goes to war to protect slavery
    • North goes to war to protect Union and principles of republican government
    • Upper South divides between allegiance to Union and allegiance to slavery
    • No section goes to war to end slavery--and had the war been short, slavery would have survived the conflict regardless of which side won