States Rights Civil War Essay Introduction

A common assumption to explain the cause of the American Civil War was that the North was no longer willing to tolerate slavery as being part of the fabric of US society and that the political power brokers in Washington were planning to abolish slavery throughout the Union. Therefore for many people slavery is the key issue to explain the causes of the American Civil War. However, it is not as simple as this and slavery, while a major issue, was not the only issue that pushed American into the ‘Great American Tragedy’. By April 1861, slavery had become inextricably entwined with state rights, the power of the federal government over the states, the South’s ‘way of life’ etc. – all of which made a major contribution to the causes of the American Civil War.


By 1860 America could not be seen as being a homogenous society. Clearly defined areas could be identified that had different outlooks and different values. This was later to be seen in the North versus South divide that created the two sides in the war.


The South was an agricultural region where cotton and tobacco were the main backbone to the region’s economic strength. The area relied on exports to markets in Western Europe and the class structure that could be found in the UK, for example, was mimicked in the southern states. The local plantation owner was a ‘king’ within his own area and locals would be deferential towards such men. The whole structure was portrayed in ‘Gone With The Wind’; a strictly Christian society that had men at the top while those underneath were expected and required to accept their social status. Social advancement was possible but invariably it was done within the senior families of a state, who were the economic, political and legal brokers of their state on behalf of the people in that state. Within this structure was the wealth that these families had accrued. It cannot be denied that a huge part of this wealth came from the fact that the plantation owners oriented the work on their plantations around slave labour. As abhorrent as it may be to those in the C21st, slavery was simply seen as part of the southern way of life. Without slavery, the economic clout of these premier families would have been seriously dented and those they employed and paid – local people who would have recognised how important the local plantation owner was to their own well-being – simply accepted this as ‘how it is’. When the dark clouds of war gathered in 1860-61, many in the South saw their very way of life being threatened. Part of that was slavery but it was not the only part.


The North was almost in complete contrast to the South. In the lead up to April 1861, the North was industrialising at a very fast rate. Entrepreneurs were accepted and, in fact, were seen as being vital to the further industrial development of America. You did not have to stay in your social place and social mobility was common. For example, Samuel Colt was born in Connecticut into a relatively poor background. He had an inauspicious start to his life but ended up a very rich man who left his wife $15 million in his will. Whether he could have done this in the South is a moot topic. It was always possible but most of America’s premier entrepreneurs based themselves in the North where the straitjacket of social class was weaker. Cornelius Vanderbilt is another example. Whether a man who came from the Netherlands could have forced his way into the social hierarchy of the South is again a question open to debate. The North was also a cosmopolitan mixture of nationalities and religions – far more so than the South. There can be little doubt that there were important groups in the North that were anti-slavery and wanted its abolition throughout the Union. However, there were also groups that were ambivalent and those who knew that the North’s economic development was based not only on entrepreneurial skills but also on the input of poorly paid workers who were not slaves but lived lives not totally removed from those in the South. While they had their freedom and were paid, their lifestyle was at best very harsh.


While the two sides that made up the American Civil War were apart in many areas, it became worse when the perception in the South was that the North would try to impose its values on the South.


In 1832, South Carolina passed an act that declared that Federal tariff legislation of 1828 and 1832 could not be enforced onto states and that after February 1st 1833 the tariffs would not be recognised in the state. This brought South Carolina into direct conflict with the Federal government in Washington DC. Congress pushed through the Force Bill that enabled the President to use military force to bring any state into line with regards to implementing Federal law. On this occasion the threat of military force worked. People in South Carolina vowed, however, it would be the last time. 


It was now that slavery became mixed up with state rights – just how much power a state had compared to federal authority. State rights became intermingled with slavery. The key issue was whether slavery would be allowed in the newly created states that were joining the Union. This dispute further developed with the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ of 1803 whereby Kansas, among others, was purchased by the federal government. Kansas was officially opened to settlement in 1854 and there was a rush to settle in the state between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it. The state became a place of violence between the two groups and Kansas got the nickname ‘Bleeding Kansas’ in recognition of what was going on there. However on January 29th 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a slave-free state. Many in the traditional slave states saw this as the first step towards abolishing slavery throughout the Union and thus the destruction of the southern way of life.


When South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20th 1860, the first state to do so, it was a sign that the state no longer felt part of the United States of America and that America as an entity was being dominated by a federal government ensconced in the views of the North. Whether this was true or not, is not relevant as it was felt to be true by many South Carolinians. The secession of South Carolina pushed other southern states into doing the same. With such a background of distrust between most southern states and the government in Washington, it only needed one incident to set off a civil war and that occurred at Fort Sumter in April 1861.


Further Reading:

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

James M. McPherson




The Civil War: The Story of the War with Maps

M.David Detweiler



The American Civil War

Richard S. Hartmetz


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.


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