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From the Top Ten Causes of the Civil War
There was no single cause of the American Civil War. From its earliest years, the batch of English colonies that became the United States were never a uniform entity. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the relationship between the states had become surprisingly and dangerously unstable.
In order to better understand why these states turned so violently upon each other, we can examine underlying differences between the warring parties and look for possible sources of those differences. The following are ten key circumstances contributing to the political, social, economic, and evolutionary division of the country. A few were centuries in the making; others were relatively new phenomena. All changed a relatively functional nation into two distinct and confrontational sections, where "e pluribus unum" devolved into "us versus them."(1)
1. Territorial Expansion
By 1820 it was well established which states would be free or slave. Territories, however, were open for debate, and there would be much to fight over. Less than a million square miles in 1800, the United States nearly doubled with the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and almost doubled again after the war with Mexico (1846-48).
Armed with the popular ideology of "Manifest Destiny," many citizens North and South considered the continent, if not the hemisphere, the divine right of the United States. This aggressive foreign policy against Spanish, British, French, and Native American holdings fed the ravenous appetite of an expanding population and economy. It also created a showdown of "winner take all" between slavery and free-soil sections.(2)
The contrived war with Mexico was a thinly veiled attempt by Southern statesmen to secure more slave states. In the same light, Northerners pushed for homestead bills to virtually pay people to settle the Midwest and cried "54-40 or Fight" in demanding all of the vast Oregon Territory from Britain.
The greed turned to warfare with the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. The U.S. Constitution was not specific on whether the states or the federal government controlled the territories. With disputes escalating for and against either position, Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas proposed a compromise: The residents of the territory in question would decide. Calling it "popular sovereignty," Douglas and many of the congressmen who passed the bill assumed antislavery settlers would choose Nebraska and proslavery settlers would move into Kansas.
Kansas, however, was north of the traditional 36? 30' line between free and slave soil. In a prequel to the larger version in 1861, the area devolved into civil war. In 1855 proslavery "Bushwackers" and antislavery "Jayhawkers" swarmed into the territory. Voter fraud turned into armed threats, and then open warfare. For five years, and well into the Civil War, the territory became aptly known as "Bleeding Kansas."(3)
On a national level, the conflict destroyed the Whig Party, cracked the dominant Democrats into North and South factions, and inspired a new party that would rise to the presidency in six years.(4)
During the presidency of James K. Polk, the United States acquired more than five hundred thousand square miles of territory-more than the land area of France, Italy, and Germany combined.
2. Southern Dependence on Slavery
To mention slavery as a primary cause of the Civil War is to invite arguments to the contrary. The reaction among many Americans is almost Pavlovian.
Incentives to resist the slavery theory are manifold, but the overlaying motivation may be to preserve a sense of-for lack of a better term-reunion. A characteristic outcome of many wars is an eventual desire for reconciliation, which in the case of a reunified country is almost a matter of necessity. To create an environment of cooperation requires a reconstruction of dignity for the vanquished and a reformation of the past for the victor.(5)
But the facts remain. Concerning the American Civil War, armed conflict erupted when one section split away and the other resisted. The departing section left to protect, among other things, a third of its wealth, over half of its cheap labor force, its primary vehicle for economic opportunity, and its fundamental definition of social structure-in other words, slavery.
When the Southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861, they did not leave in the order of their geographic location, economic standing, political qualities, or level of industrialization. They left in almost the exact order of their percentage of slaves.
True, just one in three families in the South owned slaves, but in the 1861 convention that formed the Confederacy, 98 percent of the delegates were slave owners. The constitution they formed mentioned slavery ten times, more than any other subject. Selected as the Confederacy's vice president, Alexander H. Stephens declared in a speech made soon after the convention: "African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution." Robert H. Smith of Alabama concurred, adding, "We have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the negro quarrel."(6)
The United States in 1860:
Total value of all capital investments in manufacturing = $1 billion in gold.
Total value of all capital investments in slaves = $2 billion in gold.
3. Growing Disparity in Population
Paralleling industry, the distribution of the national population between sections was relatively equal in the first years of the United States. Then high birth rates and immigration expanded the numbers quickly. In 1800 the national population stood at 5.3 million. By 1830 it had reached nearly 13 million. By 1860 the country climbed to 32 million people. Yet the sectional balance in the House of Representatives was long gone.
More than 22 million Americans lived in free states. Fewer than 10 million lived in slave states, and 4 million of those were the slaves themselves. Even with the constitutional measure of a slave as three-fifths of a person, Pennsylvania and New York had more seats in Congress than Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas put together. Early on, Southern lawmakers realized that to be as effective in national politics as they had been in earlier days, they would have to rely on concessions over consensus.(7)
In 1860 the largest city in the United States was New York, with nearly one million inhabitants. The twenty-seventh largest city was Richmond, Virginia, with thirty-seven thousand.