What Caused the Civil War? – TOCWOC Reader Poll

by Brett Schulte on May 11, 2009 · 36 comments

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I recently ran across a long list of what caused the Civil War by James King, a Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp Commander.  I’ve often started to do my own top 10 causes of the Civil War, but I stop each time because it is such a volatile subject and typically leads to people arguing past each other.  Instead, I’ve taken the top 10 causes of the Civil War according to Mr. King and I have made a TOCWOC Reader Poll out of it here.  So, TOCWOC readers, what do you think are the most relevant causes of the Civil War? I have allowed you to pick up to 3 choices, but you only have to choose one for your vote to be counted.  These potential causes are listed in alphabetical order in case anyone wants to accuse me of any bias one way or the other. I am curious to see what everyone thinks about this always controversial and seemingly never ending topic before giving my own opinion.

Update: As of Sunday evening, 7 of 18 people who have responded to this poll have indicated slavery was NOT one of the Top 3 causes of the Civil War.  I am somewhat surprised, especially given the 10 poll choices were from an SCV member and slavery is listed as a cause.

What Caused The Civil War? (Choose Up To 3)

  • Slavery (64%, 159 Votes)
  • Centralization Versus States Rights (47%, 116 Votes)
  • Cultural Differences (27%, 66 Votes)
  • Control of Western Territories (26%, 65 Votes)
  • Northern Industrialists Wanted the South's Resources (11%, 27 Votes)
  • Northern Aggression Against Southern States (11%, 27 Votes)
  • Tariff (11%, 27 Votes)
  • Other (Comment on This) (5%, 13 Votes)
  • Slander of the South By Northern Newspapers (2%, 6 Votes)
  • New Englanders Attempted to Instigate Massive Slave Rebellions in the South (2%, 5 Votes)
  • Chrisitianity Versus Secular Humanism (0%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 249

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

greg May 11, 2009 at 8:31 am

The options are a bit overlapping. Control of western territories, cultural differences and centralization vs states rights are all featured slavery as one of the key focal points for the differences between the north and south.

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admin May 11, 2009 at 8:37 am

Greg,

I personally agree, though you may find some who say slavery has nothing to do with any of those other choices. I’m running this poll and allowing people who vote to comment here to learn a bit more about what people believe and why they believe it.

Brett

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Harry May 11, 2009 at 9:31 am

Secession caused the Civil War. That’s why I chose “Other”. The record, provided by those who lobbied for it, is clear as to why they believed secession was necessary.

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admin May 11, 2009 at 9:34 am

Harry,

That’s an excellent answer, and you phrased it in a way I hadn’t really thought of. I believe, as you do, that the record left by the secession commissioners is very clear on the subject.

Brett

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James Durney May 11, 2009 at 9:42 am

The loss of national political parties, Wig & Democrat, was a major cause.
The devolpement of East/West transportation systems cause the North/South business systems to die out.
The major reason was the devlepoment of two nations. One was industrial with free labor and family farms as the foundation. The other was modled on the English upper class system. This nation was built on large plantations with worldwide cash crops and designed to support that system.

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James Durney May 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

I agree with Harry, “Secession caused the Civil War”. Secession was caused by the United States being two nations with little in common by the late 1850s.

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Richard D. Boles May 11, 2009 at 10:58 am

All the answers that are given are valid reasons, some more than others. In my humble opinion, all the answers stem from the root of the problem. The root is not slavery! The root is Mans relationship with God and Mans relationship with Man. Of course This falls right in line with northern abolitionism, on a moral footing. If you toss out morality, then every thing we do is dependent on the laws that we inflict on others , to justify any conduct , or rule one peoples have over another .
The black man from Africa may have had a life in Africa. May have been a prince or a farmer or any vocation . May have had a family and loved ones ,from a small village or a city. But all this was discounted or not even considered. If the black man or woman survived the ocean trip to land in America, He did not have a past or present or future. He was just a slave , not a person of color, not an african, not a human being , just a slave . With all the rights and priviledges given to him by the whims of those that had control over him. When you grow up generation after generation living in your world,how can you live your life but by what you learned from your community, or state, or country? When the North attacks the South with moral judgements , it attacks the south in all aspects of their life. This was , in my mind, the only achilles heal that the south had. The economics of the south depended on slavery. The expansion of western territories to include slavery was essential to the perpetuation of the way of life for the southern states. The southerners always feared the slave as they grouped together. The southeren man feared the “slave revolt”. They passed laws and rules to govern the slaves conduct and assemblies. They feared the education of slaves. An educated slave who reads and writes can communicate ideas to the black man, ideas of freedom, ideas of throwing off the yoke of bonadge. So the north with these ideas possed a real threat not just from the outside but also from the inside. John Brown may have failed in his attempt with his family and associates to pull off a revolt, but the idea and possabilties were a real threat to the southern man. When learning about the militias being so prominant in the south, it occured to me that the real reason or maybe a huge factor in organizing militias , was to have a strong deterent to the slave revolt. So to sum up my little answer, The north possed a real threat to the southern way of life. If the north won the moral high ground the south had no where to go . Everything would be destroyed

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ghost May 11, 2009 at 12:44 pm

When Lincoln assumed office the government was nearly broke.

Who supplied the money for the war?

When you find the answer to that question you will find the motive for the war.

It’s that simple.

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Kenneth Bynum May 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Slavery, cultural differences (amounts to the same thing), but mainly the election of Abraham Lincoln. A more moderate president could have found a peaceful way out of the conflict even after the attack on Ft. Sumter. We really didn’t have to fight and slavery would have died out for economic reasons within a few decades (I realize, no consolation if you were a slave) without the death of so many and the desolation of half the nation. But Lincoln took the hard**s attitude that, by God, we will make you stay in the Union even if we have to kill you all. George III, anyone?

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The Abraham Lincoln Observer May 11, 2009 at 7:54 pm

1) The entire list is laughable with the exception of “slavery” and “other.”

2) On the Union side, the cause was exactly that: preservation of the Union. If the seceding states had been willing to stay in the Union, slavery would have continued in those states — Lincoln and the Republicans won the 1860 election on a platform that said they could not constitutionally abolish slavery, and they had no intention of trying. Their alternative approach was quite clear: if they could keep slavery from expanding beyond the existing slaveholding states, they believed “the peculiar institution” would eventually die of its own weight.

The problem, of course, is that the southern leadership refused to take “yes” for an answer.

So I cast two votes: “other” because the north went to war overwhelmingly to preserve the Union; and “slavery” because the southern leadership whipped themselves into a frenzy over the issue and started an unnecessary war.

P.S. A “more moderate” president could have averted the war? Moderate how? The only thing that would have satisfied the southern fire-eaters, who controlled the debate, would have been if Abe had accepted the principle of secession. And where would that have left us? I’ve discussed that on my own blog (blogs.sj-r.com/alo/; search for “rants”). But here’s the short version:

“If Abe had let the South leave the Union, what is now the United States would probably be a crazy quilt of tiny, largely backward nations. Texas would be its own republic, just because it’s Texas. California ditto. The heirs of Huey Long might rule the Principality of Louisiana. Utah would be a Mormon theocracy.

“Alaska would be part of Canada (if not still owned by Russia, and isn’t that a pleasant prospect), and Hawaii would have stayed a native monarchy — until 1941, when it would have been absorbed into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Because, after all, without the full strength of the U.S., the Japanese and Germans would have won WWII.

“The rump United States itself would consist mainly of the heart of the old Union, the Northeast and Midwest. The writer of “America the Beautiful” apparently would have had to find a way to rhyme “from sea to shining Iowa.”

“Yes, the Civil War was incredibly painful. But yes, sadly, it also was necessary.”

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Josh May 11, 2009 at 9:28 pm

The Civil War never happens if slavery doesn’t exist.

And a peaceful way out after the attack on Fort Sumter? The South said they were leaving and had just backed it up with cannon fire. The only peaceful way out is to let the Confederacy go.

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Jim Miller May 12, 2009 at 9:00 am

Slavery and the expansion of slavery are the hub which all other issues circle around. Remove slavery from the equation and there would be no sectional conflict. All other issues are secondary and dependant upon slavery. Remove slavery and you remove the cause of the sectional division between the North and the South.

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admin May 12, 2009 at 9:18 am

There are a lot of good responses here. Thank you to everyone for not only voting, but for also taking the time to explain why you voted the way you did.

I tend to view this much as Jim Miller does. Look at all of the contentious events in the decades leading up to the war. Almost all have to do with slavery. If slavery doesn’t exist, you remove a large portion of the tensions which had built up over the years.

Brett

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Michelle May 12, 2009 at 9:59 am

I believe as I dig further into the Civil War (research for a book I’m writing) that slavery was not one of the main reasons. Secession is one as well as the North no longer being dependent upon the Sourth do to the explosion of transportation across the country.
I also agree with Mr. Kennth Bynum that a different president other than Lincoln would have found a more suitable answer to end the war and it would have ended in one battle. Also, lest we all forget a majority of the people that fought in the Civil War were not even aware of the actual reasoning and not wanting to fight their brethern.

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Al Mackey May 12, 2009 at 10:02 am

The desire for protecting slavery from a perceived threat was the overriding cause, but a secondary cause was the presence of the extreme states rights philosophy that said secession was a legal right.

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Michelle May 12, 2009 at 10:03 am

I apologize for noticing that I used do instead of due. The Civil War was started years before the fighting actually began as such with most wars of the modern world.

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York May 12, 2009 at 11:20 am

I agree with those who cite slavery as the main cause of the war. The combination of two cultures, i.e, the European and African, that are not in any way suited to live together was destined to cause great turmoil. Once the first slave was brought over to North America, trouble was sure to follow.

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Jim Miller May 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Michelle said: “I believe as I dig further into the Civil War (research for a book I’m writing) that slavery was not one of the main reasons. Secession is one…”

Michelle, with all due respect, if you remove slavery from the equation there would not have been a Secession movement. Slavery, cloaked in “States Rights” doctrine, was the root, and base cause for secession.

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ghost May 12, 2009 at 2:37 pm

The North made enormous profits from their connections with the South.

Turn those connections off and what do you have?

War.

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Kenneth Bynum May 12, 2009 at 3:53 pm

The Abraham Lincoln Observer: Sorry, I don’t know how other to address you, I’m new to this forum. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You appear to belong to the “chaos theory” of alternate history, that small changes can make radical differences in the course of events. I belong to the “Newtonian” camp, that a body (or historical trend) once set in motion can only be redirected by major forces. I think a peaceful resolution, such as pulling Federal troops out of Ft. Sumter and other such installations within the newly declared Confederacy and acknowledging the right of the southern states to go their own way (in no way forbidden by the Constitution) could have prevented the ensuing bloodbath. In my alternative history, the South would have moved beyond slavery just as Lincoln thought they would and rejoined the Union out of simple economic necessity and common historical bonds.

Please excuse me if I have misinterpreted your views. It’s fun to speculate and this is doubtless the most speculative era in American history. I’ll go to your website and read the discussion.

Michelle: There’s a (probably apocryphal) story about a captured rebel soldier being interrogated by his captors. Why did he fight so fiercely? To keep the blacks as slaves? “No, we’re just poor farmers, we don’t own no slaves.” Well, is it for state’s rights? “I don’t rightly know what that means.” Well why, then? The rebel thinks a moment, the says “We’re fightin’ because you all are down here.”.

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The Abraham Lincoln Observer May 12, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Mr. Bynum: Chaotic vs. Newtonian history? That’s a new one to me, but I get what you’re saying.

What’s a “small” change? The fact that Lincoln’s bodyguard wandered away from the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre would have been a small thing … IF that wasn’t the night Booth picked to attack. If Lincoln had remained alive and president instead of the incompetent Andrew Johnson, clearly the process of North/South reconciliation would have been very different. Or are you saying that Lincoln’s death was the result of a “historical trend,” that it would have taken place anyway? If that’s what you mean — and I also apologize if, in turn, I’m misunderstanding you — that’s hard to take seriously.

And saying secession is “in no way forbidden by the Constitution” ignores the fact that the Constitution includes no mechanism for legal secession, either. (You might want to take a look at Article I, Section 10, which outlines many other things individual states are forbidden to do. No keeping of troops? No engaging in war? The secessionist states certainly violated those provisions.)

Granted, my outline of the Disunited States is largely for fun. But even if the South someday would have meekly asked to be readmitted to the Union — which I doubt — it seems clear to me that, once a right of secession was acknowledged, there would have been no closing the door. Any state with a temporary grievance might have considered opting out of the Union, and nobody could have stopped it. The U.S. would have been doomed. Lincoln was right.

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The Abraham Lincoln Observer May 12, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Oh, and sorry, didn’t mean to be mysterious. My name is Mike Kienzler (it’s on my blog).

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Marshal Ney May 13, 2009 at 12:31 am

I voted for other to stand for the radical and very vocal leadership of the abolitionists in the North and the fire eaters in the South. Their positions were completely irreconcilable with each other and both demonized their opponent’s views. I think the majority of people in both the North and South were more moderate and not necessarily that far apart politically, and that the radicals from both sides portrayed everyone from the North as being a radical abolitionist and everyone from the South as some evil slaveholder trying to destroy the Union. For example, Jefferson Davis was a moderate and I don’t think he would have left the Union if his home state of Mississippi hadn’t seceded. So I would say that slavery, states rights, and even the control of the western territories were all the issues that brought about the conditions that could lead to a Civil War. The actions of the radicals of both sides then, lit the fuse to the bomb that had been built. In my opinion Yancey walking out of the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, secured Lincoln’s election, and ultimately set the stage for secession and war.

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Jon May 13, 2009 at 6:25 am

Slavery was the main but not only cause. Politically, culturally, socially, economically, religiously, & militarily it dominated the history of the United States from inception to war in 1860. You say that secession caused the war? Agreed, but what caused secession? Slavery was the primary culprit.

All you have to do is look up the events from the decades prior & it turns into a giant connect-the-dots to bring you to the Civil War. Once the South seceded, they took no little pains in admitting that was just what it was over-look at CSA VP Alexander Stephens cornerstone speech “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” to the Declarations of Secession (http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html), to the Apostles of Secession (those men who were sent out by the Deep South of the initial 7 seceding states to those of the upper south), to the newspapers, letters, diaries, & sermons of the time. All of them come back to the same thing-slavery.

Economically, the slaves were worth almost 4 billion dollars BACK THEN! They were worth more than the land, the crops, or anything else in the South. King Cotton wouldn’t exist without the slaves in the field to make it work.

What were the majority of the compromises about? The Missouri Compromise, Wilmot Proviso, Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Act, Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc., all dealt with the same issue. Events such as the gag rule on abolition to the caning of Sumner by Brooks dealt with the issue. The Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court is also a major influece.

Look at “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a book that sold more copies in the United States prior to the Civil War than anything other than the bible. Did it have to do with tariffs? No.

Religiously, the three major protestant religions (Presbyterian, Methodist, & Baptist) all split along sectional lines because of the slavery issue. The Southern Baptists Convention apologized for its role in slavery in 1994. Did it apologize for States Rights? No.

Militarily, the Mexican War & the results of that conflict helped to bring the slavery issue to the forefront again. The aquisition of territory & how to allow those states in the Union was the man contention just before the war. The Republican Party’s platform had nothing about getting rid of slavery, just preventing its spread to the new territories/states. Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831 & John Brown’s Raid in 1859 both scared the bejesus out of folks because of the threat of a slave insurrection.

Did the North goto war to free the slaves in 1861? No. They went to war to restore the Union. Did the South goto war to protect slavery? Yes. The Fireeaters of the South helped manipulate the elections of 1860 by splitting the Democratic vote & ensuring the election of Lincoln (a moderate) & then going on to paint him as an extremist who was trying to get rid of slavery (he was not initially). The goal of the USA was to preserve the Union initially & it wasn’t until a year later that Lincoln saw the benefit of changing the nature of the war into one of freeing the slaves (though he persinally wanted them gone, he could not alienate the border states for fear of losing them).

What you have is a conflict started over perceptions. The South (with the help of the Fireeaters), perceived that Lincoln would abolish slavery & took the necessary steps to protect it. Did every man who took up arms own a slave? No. Many fought for adventure, peer pressure, hearth & home, etc. Other reasons crept in there & added to it. Yet States Rights weren’t a big deal when the South was in charge of the country. The South had no qualms about States Rights with the Fugitive Slave Act or the Dred Scott decision. It was the fear of losing control & losing slavery that caused the 7 states of the Deep South to leave before Lincoln was even inaguarated. You cannot call Lincoln a tyrant when the Deep South left BEFORE he even took the oath of office. My two cents worth anyway.

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admin May 13, 2009 at 8:38 am

Jon,

GREAT points. You and I seem to share pretty closely our views on the causes of the war. I voted for Slavery and Control of Western Territories as my main two causes. Your point about the Mexican War adding to the growing discord is well taken.

To all, this has been an excellent and surprisingly civil discussion given the controversial subject matter. I applaud all who have responded for keeping the discussion free of personal attacks.

Brett

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Bob Garrett May 13, 2009 at 7:15 am

There are some good comments here.

Many of the causes overlap, of course. I agree that there wouldn’t have been secession without slavery. Slavery, of course, could also account for cultural differences – or perhaps slavery was just one aspect of the cultural differences, albeit a major aspect.

I do think that control of the Western territories was an important factor. Many Northerners were content to let slavery remain in states where it already existed. Once questions arose about its expansion to newer territories, sectional tensions greatly increased.

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Michelle May 13, 2009 at 8:26 am

Mr. Miller I hadm’t realized that Ihad put the words WAS NOT! I typed it very fast, while on the phone!!!! My apologies. Slavery and secsession were the two main reasons that we were taught in school were the causes of the Civil War. I meant no disrespect to you. I am very embarassed right now. Just shows that slowing down pays. I am right now to walk the local Manassas Battlefield for the view.
Also I wrote on my blog about the preservation of the battlefields here locally. What is your opinion??

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Ken Williams May 13, 2009 at 4:55 pm

slavery- the root issue the South was willing to break up the nation to perpetuate, check out Freehling’s works or Charles Dew- the Apostles of Disunion.
“Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.” A Lincoln

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RichardS May 14, 2009 at 7:22 am

Slavery was first and foremost of the issues of disunion, but to a southerner there was other issues.

For instance Robert Toombs of Georgia denounced the fact that southern goods were forced by the laws of the United States to be shipped on American flagged vessels only.

The south was told to obey the laws of the land to only watch the North evade and deliberately break laws on the books (Fugitive Slave, etc.).

The south watches as militant abolitionists seek to other throw legitimate governments with the ‘apparent’ approval of the North.

Let’s just remember that for most of the Confederates in the ANV, AOT and the Army in the West they were fighting because “You are down here.”

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dale riley May 16, 2009 at 5:32 am

I voted for slavery and the western territories as well as other. The Dread Scott decision forced a doctrine on the North that left the anti-slavery movement few choices but to become radical. The Buchannan government also contributed to the Civil War by leaving the issue of secession an open question and not stating that the consequences of succession would be a war. Many in the South thought that succession would be without consequence, that the North would not dare to fight for the Union. In making this assumption they were more willing to vote for succession. By the time of Lincoln’s nomination the national parties had been divided and no southerner would have a chance of winning the election. Thus the nomination of Lincoln itself was the trigger that started the secessionist rallies. By the time of Lincoln’s inaugural Buchannan’s impotent reactions had sealed the course.

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Jon May 16, 2009 at 8:37 am

What floors me is how many folks are voting for Centralization vs. States Rights. If these states were so demanding of “States Rights”, why did they immediately form a new government with the same Constitution (that protected slavery far more than the USA Constitution)? And that government was far more centralized than anything that the USA had prior to 1861. All you have to do is look at conscription (which happened a year earlier than the North), the Sequestration Act, Impressment of slaves & supplies, suspension of habeus corpus, & declarations of marshal law to see a strong central government in play. This caused no end to the yelling & screaming of the states rights folks.
Look at the Confederate Constitution itself. From http://www.filibustercartoons.com/CSA.htm

“Overall, the CSA constitution does not radically alter the federal system that was set up under the United States constitution. It is thus very debatable as to whether the CSA was a significantly more pro-“states’ rights” country (as supporters claim) in any meaningful sense. At least three states rights are explicitly taken away- the freedom of states to grant voting rights to non-citizens, the freedom of states to outlaw slavery within their borders, and the freedom of states to trade freely with each other.

States only gain four minor rights under the Confederate system- the power to enter into treaties with other states to regulate waterways, the power to tax foreign and domestic ships that use their waterways, the power to impeach federally-appointed state officials, and the power to distribute “bills of credit.” When people champion the cause of reclaiming state power from the feds, are matters like these at the tops of their lists of priorities?

As previously noted, the CSA constitution does not modify many of the most controversial (from a states’ rights perspective) clauses of the American constitution, including the “Supremacy” clause (6-1-3), the “Commerce” clause (1-8-3) and the “Necessary and Proper” clause (1-8-18). Nor does the CSA take away the federal government’s right to suspend habeus corpus or “suppress insurrections.”

As far as slave-owning rights go, however, the document is much more effective. Indeed, CSA constitution seems to barely stop short of making owning slaves mandatory. Four different clauses entrench the legality of slavery in a number of different ways, and together they virtually guarantee that any sort of future anti-slave law or policy will be unconstitutional. People can claim the Civil War was “not about slavery” until the cows come home, but the fact remains that anyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting for a country in which a universal right to own slaves was one of the most entrenched laws of the land. ”

Since centralization only occurred after the war started & on both sides saw their governments become more centralized, it follows that you must blame the war for causing it-that & the fact the two sections of the country that would normally act as a counterbalance to each other in one government were able to support a strong centralized government apart. Add to the fact that the South was nominally in control over the United States government for the most part from its inception to the time they tried to leave in 1861 seems to take away from the argument. Most of the presidents of the U.S. prior to Lincoln were either Southerners or pro-South Northerners (as in the case of both Pierce & Buchanan), the supreme court was not shy about its southern leanings (see Dred Scott), & the South had plenty of representation in the Congress. Thus the argument that the South left of a strong central government for a “weak” central government just doesn’t fly-they left a moderately strong central government for a strong central government & their absence helped make the existing Federal government even stronger. It is safe to say that if the South had not left that U.S. Federal government might not have become as strong centrally as it did or at least it may have taken a lot longer to do so……of course we will never know.

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Robert May 20, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Here’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about, being a southerner. The civil war had 4 causes. 1. The South fired the first shot; they miscalculated their chance of winning because they were in a mass hysteria brought on by the grandiosity of narcissism, a by- product of slavery that de Tocqueville had earlier remarked upon. 2. The incongruity at the time of the Revolution of the enlightenment values of the rights of man on the one hand and slavery on the other. 3. The inherent imbalance of power between a Federal government that has the ability to create a state on the one hand, yet the assertion that the states were sovereign on the other. 4. The plantation system, in the absence of a peasantry, required labor. But mechanized agriculture would have spelled the end of slavery in any event.

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Jon May 23, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Robert, your last point is completely true. However, as per this site: http://inventors.about.com/od/tstartinventions/a/tractors.htm it clearly says that “Henry Ford produced his first experimental gasoline powered tractor in 1907, under the direction of chief engineer Joseph Galamb. It was referred to as an “automobile plow” and the name tractor was not used. After 1910, gasoline powered tractors were used extensively in farming.” So it took almost 50 years after the war before “mechanized agriculture” would have entered the picture. If you are using that as the yardstick to measure when slavery would have been dropped, then they would have been waiting quite a long time for it. Not to mention the fact that the cotton gin, a technological breakthrough, helped pump new life into slavery & extended its life out many years. Perhaps mechanized agriculture would have spelled the end of slavery, or perhaps it would have spurred it even further along. We’ll never know.

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dale riley May 24, 2009 at 6:42 am

Jon,

By 1859 Virginia was an exporter of slaves. The economics of slavery was such that it was more practical for the slave states who did not have cotton plantations to sell their slaves to those who did. The price of a slave at auction had risen to a peak before the Civil War, thus the capital cost of a slave had increased to the point where it was not “cheap labor”. The largest business in Virginia was not the Tradegar Iron Works or the largest flour mills in the world at Petersburg but it was the auctioning of slaves!

At this time the South had a monopoly in the cotton crop. Great Britain was already looking elsewhere for other sources of the fiber. The Union blockade provided the golden opportunity for the Brittish to increase the cotton production in Egypt. I believe that the “King Cotton” era in the South was not sustainable in an economic sense. The consumers of cotton (British textile mills) would have developed other sources for cotton in the near future and were only hastened by the Civil War. Thus, if the money engine that drove the slave market dried up, the demand for slavery would have diminished. This would have preceded the invention of the “automobile plow” by decades.

Note that it was the cotton growing states that formed the core of the seccessionist movement
(plus South Carolina).

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Jordan May 27, 2009 at 2:11 pm

I’ve been reading the Lees of Virginia and An American Reader and they each suggest a likely cause yet to be offered here. The changing of the guard from a government run by, and for, land-owning aristocrats to a government also representing the interests of business and labor voting blocks. This evolution happened slowly over several decades and included removing the requirement to own land to be able to vote and the shocking follow-up election of Andrew Jackson as the Common Man’s President.

Perhaps the list of causes shown might be more a list of symptoms arising from this basic conflict. I think it was more than just cultural differences. It was two distinctly different ideas of what a democratic republic should be. The ideas were incompatible culturally, economically and philosophically.

The original land owners’ methods successfully established civilized and productive colonies. Once they achieved their own “American Dream” it then became difficult to convince them their methods were not in the best interest of all the Americans who could now vote.

Different skills were needed to provide the American Dream possibility for the growing masses of recently arrived immgrants. Well-funded business owners had these skills and, eventually, the means. Congressional battles over tariffs, territories and slavery were the ways our republic tried to “peacefully” work out a transition.

The aristocrats could not prevent this takeover by peaceful means and as their frustration rose so did their appetite for a fight. Almost as proof that they were out of touch with the new reality was their belief that the war would be short. They believed they thrived in America because God had supported them and He would aid them in the rebellion.

Also, they had little confidence in the resillience of common men fighting for someone else’s cause. Aristocrats just didn’t realize that whatever “cause” was so important to them, personally and their future, was not the same thing motivating other men to fight. Consequently they couldn’t predict that the determination of men fighting for their own American Dream would not wane until the war was won.

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Kenneth Bynum May 27, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Mr. Kienzler,

Thank you for your reply and my apology for not getting back to this site sooner. Also, my compliments to all who have posted here and for their well thought out and supported opinions. This is by far the most civil discussion of the Civil War I have ever seen!

I made up the chaotic/Newtonian thing as I was writing my last post. If someone has actually published such a distinction, kick me for not citing you.

No, the assassination of Lincoln was not the result of an historical trend, but did it really make a difference? Lincoln (and I revere him as a great American president) was as likely as any other politician to wet his finger, stick it up in the air and go the way the political winds were blowing. Witness his changes on slavery and the status of blacks during his first campaign and term. I doubt Reconstruction would have gone any differently, given the widespread political desire to punish the South. I still think that a more conciliatory approach might have avoided war. What were the “fire-eaters” going to do if Lincoln had backed off, invade the Union?

As for your constitutional argument, traditional wisdom in democracies is that the law should define what we cannot do, not what we can. The Constitution didn’t bar secession, and afterward the Confederacy was no longer bound by that document. But, I split hairs. We disagree, but you make some valid points that have been well explored by writers of alternative history.

So, what about today? Some Texas politicians have been making secessionist noises (fine with me, the three worst Presidents of my lifetime have come from Texas) and California is always a possibility. What would the government do in such a scenario? Sorry, clearly off-topic, admin feel free to delete the last paragraph.

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