Research Papers

Seeds of the Civil War

As time progressed in the pre-war United States, a wedge of division buried itself deeper and deeper into the Union. The issue of slavery, its morality, and its legal existence erupted  between the North and the South with little middle ground. The economies of the North and South also continued to diverge, as the North concentrated on industry and manufacturing, while the South remained fixated on cotton and agriculture. The North progressed to factories and modernized cities, and the South sustained a substantial dependence upon slavery as an institution to bear the weight of their agricultural economy. No longer contingent upon each other to stimulate economic growth, this growing apart set the stage for complete polarization. With power always up for grabs, control of the federal government was uncertain. The Compromise of 1850 represents the point of no return for America, at which point civil war became unavoidable. Many elements of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the northern and southern regions deteriorated the state of Union to the point where civil war became certain: the purely social divisions between the North and South, legal conflicts such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, and finally, secession itself.

Broadening the extent of social division in America, the influence of various anti-slavery societies in the North and the controversial Supreme Court Case, Dred Scott v. Sanford of 1857, brought forth the imminence of civil war, or in the very least regional conflict. Anti-slavery societies in the North, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, exemplified one end of the spectrum on abolition. The abolitionist society, founded by a newspaper publisher by the name of William Lloyd Garrison in 1833, promoted the instantaneous emancipation of slaves throughout the United States. The Society directly contended with other American attitudes of the time, such as William A. Smith, a clergyman and college president who endorsed the notion of slavery on account of strictly racial reasonings. At the Society’s founding meeting in 1833, members professed that all slaves should be granted the identical rights in all walks of life as White men. The abolitionist belief grew popular among the North and illustrated a Southern “enemy,” and only five years after the founding of the Society, it had amassed over 250,000 members across 1,350 chapters.

Conversely, the Supreme Court’s inflammatory decision in the 1857 case, Dred Scott v. Sanford, embodies an opposing view of the rights and powers of Southern slave owners. The verdict discredited the Missouri Compromise of 1820, federal legislation that had bottled up issues on slavery (and runaway slaves) for over a generation. This progressively reinforced steadfast positions on both sides. The Supreme Court decision, an unanticipated triumph for the South, maintained that because slaves were private property, they could be taken into any territory and lawfully detained there in slavery even in the North. This blow upon Northern sovereignty reasoned that the 5th Amendment prohibited Congress to seize property with the absence of due process of law. The Court even ruled that the Missouri Compromise existed unconstitutionally, and that Congress possessed no power to outlaw slavery from territories. Described as a “lethal wedge between North and South,” Dred Scott infringed upon the rights and sovereignty of the North, and implied that free states of the North are not actually free, as slave owners may capture and return slaves back to the South. Social division, ubiquitous in the years leading up to the Civil War, drove a wedge between the already splintered relationship of the Northern and Southern territories, conducting the path towards the looming War. 

The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law symbolized the tipping point in America’s struggle over the polarizing issue of slavery. Civil war became inevitable when the most basic interests of the North and South became to undermine the other. The Compromise of 1850, an attempt to resolve the intensifying challenge of slavery, largely failed in its purpose and garnered negligible support in both the North and the South. The Compromise welcomed California as a free state, upsetting the balance in the Senate against the South. Utah and New Mexico became open to slavery under the regulations of popular sovereignty. In arguing against the Compromise of 1850, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina stated that if they could not settle, then the Senate should let the states agree to separate and part in peace. To this, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts responded that “there can be no such thing as peaceable secession.” With settling out of the picture, only one option lingered in the air, and Webster made his case abundantly clear. He specified that the secession Calhoun had mentioned would produce “such a war as I will not describe.” The Compromise of 1850 marked an unwillingness of the North and South to cooperate, leaving one option to be inevitable: War.

Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Law, an element of the Compromise, triggered significant hostility and opposition in the North to any form of future compromise. The law established extreme punishment for those who provided assistance to fugitive slaves. It also required all law enforcement officers to engage in capturing fugitive slaves in free states, and once captured, the law denied these slaves not only the right to testify on their own behalf, but also the right to a jury trial. This dramatic act bolstered the antislavery cause in the North, compelling moderates to join the cause as well. Moreover, the act set a dangerous precedent for abolitionist Northerners who aid the escaping of slaves, or who refuse to aid slave-catchers, as they became subject to hefty fines and jail sentences. The Compromise of 1850, merely a metaphorical bandage on the wounds stricken by slavery, did not by any means heal the problem and at best extended the tense peace for a few more years. Stirring up division, the Compromise only delayed the very civil war it had rendered inescapable, as only two options resulted: settling, or war.

After decades of havoc wreaked upon the Union by social and legal divisions, the secession of 11 Confederate states embodied the last nail in the coffin of unity, thereby deeming civil war inevitable. Commencing with the secession of South Carolina on December 20th, 1860, 11 states would also continue ahead with secession in the next six months. In President Lincoln’s inaugural address, he vowed that secession remained to be entirely unreasonable, as the country could not physically divide or split. There did not exist any opportunity to turn back once states had seceded, and a “geological truth” stood to cause controversies as well. Though war didn’t begin with secession, the issues of debt, federal buildings, and American military on Confederate “territory” made conflict certain. Furthermore, secession also epitomized the idea that state rights reigned supreme within the Union when the truth was a balance of power. Allowing states to secede would have set a dangerous precedent, and drastically weaken the recently-bolstered federal government. The Southern states seceded nonetheless, as the Southern economy couldn’t function without slavery. The idea of “King Cotton” in the South represented how cotton and slavery were woven into the Southern economy. As a result, the inevitable began to occur; the federal government’s Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, maintained provisions that would last just a few weeks. Lincoln was forced to make a difficult decision to restock the Fort and undeniably face the South Carolinians in an attack against a federal fort. Lincoln sent Union troops to maintain provision in the fort, where Confederate soldiers fired the first shots of America’s bloodiest war to date. Following decades of disunity due to social and legal divisions, the secession of 11 Southern states proved to be the finishing blow.

Several influences debilitated the Union to a point where the likelihood of a civil war proved to be undeniable: Social divisions between the North and South, legal divisions including the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law that was ratified with it, and lastly, the act of secession. While it is obvious that the seeds of conflict and war were sown long before 1861, the question that must be addressed if civil war was ever genuinely inevitable (or when in American history the tides could have turned to peace). In the grand scheme of the relationship between the North, South, and Slavery, war could have very easily been avoided if addressed earlier in history. Slavery remained the foremost catalyst in the schism between North and South. If the South could have weaned off of their reliance on slaves and the idea of “King Cotton” (and perhaps followed the North into an industrial economy), the Civil War may not have occurred. Even something simple such as if the cotton gin was never invented would have forced the economic end of slavery as a profitable institution. Nonetheless, slavery persisted, and with it, unrest in the Union. The seeds of war were planted, and with the Compromise of 1850, they began to poke their stems out from under the soil. With secession and the attack on Union soldiers replenishing Fort Sumter with supplies, the Civil War began.

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