To What Extent Was Slavery the Cause of the American Civil War?

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In the context of the period 1763-1865, how far was the American Civil War caused by long term divisions over the issue of slavery?

In his second inaugural address in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln looked back at the beginning of the Civil War four years earlier "all knew," he said, that slavery "was somehow the cause of the war." This essay will endeavour to discuss the role of long term divisions caused by the slavery debate in the eventual outbreak of the Civil War. In doing so this analysis will encompass the period between the birth of the nation beginning with the start of the American Revolution in 1763 and the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. This being a period in which the newly independent nation struggled with its state system, with each of the former colonies possessing the rights to a significant level of self-governance that inevitably led to disagreements and conflicts of interest. One such conflict was the disagreement over slavery which James Ford, like Lincoln, believes was crucial in creating a clear North-South divide that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Whilst recognising slavery’s overwhelming contribution to the outbreak of the American civil war in 1861, one must acknowledge alternative factors beyond slavery, which contributed to the nations descent towards armed conflict. Revisionists such as William Gienapp and William Freehling emphasise the political contribution to the outbreak of the war and the influence of sectional ideology on ante bellum politics. It was this differing ideology that created the tensions between Southern and Northern parties creating political chaos during the 1850s, the North believing they were attempting to save democracy whilst the South campaigned for increased States’ rights, all of which provoked the outbreak of war. As well as the long-term divisions over slavery and the short term political contributions to the outbreak of war, historians such as Charles and Mary Beard placed emphasis on the fundamental differences between the North and South economic systems, disregarding the moral and political contributions. This analysis will argue that ultimately the issue of slavery was the main reason for the outbreak of war in 1861; however the short term political blunders and failure of the political system created a chaos that made war inevitable. Had the American political system thrived, the divisions over slavery could have been resolved without war being waged. Slavery is the moral dimension that lies at the heart of the historiographical debate. James Ford Rhodes identified slavery as the central and virtually only cause of the war. "If the Negro had not been brought to America," he wrote, "the Civil War could not have occurred." Introducing slavery to America created differences of opinion between the North and the South, on the morality of slavery. It was these differences that created tensions between the regions and ultimately fuelled the outbreak of war in 1861. The Northern climate was not suited to plantation agriculture which resulted in Congress passing an Ordinance in 1787, keeping slavery out of the North West Territory. The Northern belief insisted that the South was ruled by a ruthless ‘Slave Power’ which, conspiratorial in its methods, consisted of slaveholding planters and political leaders who were determined to convert the whole United States in to a nation of masters and slaves. The aggressive attitude of Southerners arising from the decision by Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that all blacks, slave as well as free, were not and could not be citizens of the United States increased rather than allayed Northern suspicions. This conspiracy, as the Northerners believed it to be, was fundamentally an aristocracy founded upon these principles; that slavery was not morally wrong, it is a right possessed by the slaveholder, and that it is constitutional. Admitting Missouri as a slave state and introducing the Fugitive...
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