The American Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago, but the debate over what really caused the conflict will probably keep history buffs and scholars busy until the heat death of the universe. This is actually a good thing; revisiting this tragic and complicated period of our past, no matter how well we think we understand it, continually reveals new ideas about government, social structures, economics, and geopolitics that can serve as lessons for our future, not just for Americans, but for people all over the world. It is the debate, of course, that gives value to the ideas and the lessons we draw from them; history cannot be changed, but our interpretation of it changes constantly. The depth and range of our knowledge usually benefit from looking at past events through a contemporary lens, but only if we properly understand the chronology and basic underlying conditions of those events.
The Civil War was a distinctly sectional conflict, and although by the time of its outbreak the United States had grown to reach the Pacific coast, the political and social cores of the Union and the Confederacy still resided in the “old” country – the original 13 colonies and regions immediately to the West, divided into north and south roughly along the Potomac River. The Appalachian Mountains, which once formed the western frontier of the American colonies, angle westward south of that river, forming the wide, fertile Piedmont in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia; north of the Potomac, the land between the mountains and the sea grows progressively narrower.
Geography as much as anything determined the character of the people who colonized America under British rule. The people who populated the northern part of the colonies were, in general, more communal, more trade- and industry-minded, and poorer; those who colonized the south were generally of wealthier stock and on the whole more loyal to the Crown – in the days before the Industrial Revolution, land was the ultimate capital, and there was a lot of it in the south, which tended to fall into the hands of those with wealth and the right sort of influence. The colonies developed a sort of symbiosis, which continued right up to the beginning of the Civil War; the South was suited for agriculture while the North was suited for trade and industry, and so the former supplied the raw materials for the latter, to everyone’s benefit. Sectional differences always existed, because the two distinctly different societies had unavoidably different political needs and priorities; these differences were set aside for the common cause of freeing the colonies from British rule, but soon began to simmer back to the surface not long after the Revolution was won.
Even today, there is little agreement on just how big an issue slavery was in causing the Civil War. It became a general moral issue from 1862 onward because US President Abraham Lincoln believed – correctly, as it turned out – that it was politically and militarily advantageous to make it so, but prior to that the institution of slavery was treated more as an avatar of political alignment than anything else. Certainly, there was a vocal minority of abolitionists in the North who could not be completely ignored by Northern politicians – a modern political analog might be the Conservative Christian movement – but a majority of Northerners were largely ambivalent towards the institution. Likewise, there was a significant minority of Southerners who regarded slavery with some degree of distaste. Slavery did not exist in most of the North largely as a matter of tradition, but that might not have been the case if it had been an economic necessity, which it was in the pre-mechanized agricultural South. That meant that the existence or non-existence of slavery symbolized the economic character of the states, and identified the alignments on critical national economic issues.
Most historians agree that the sectional differences that existed since colonial times started down the path to the war beginning in 1820, the year the Missouri Compromise was reached by the US Congress. This act was intended to set the limits on the spread of slavery in the growing country; new states north of Latitude 36°30’ would be free states, while those south of that line would be permitted to practice slavery. The objective of the compromise was to maintain a balance between the slave-holding and free states in the national government. This was more a concern of the agrarian South, the reasons for which became painfully clear with the passage of the so-called “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828: In order to protect the growing industries of the North, the government imposed steep tariffs on imports from Europe. Not only did this drive up the price of goods, which affected the South more than the North, it also reduced the European markets for the South’s cotton crops, imposing a double economic blow to the slave-holding states.
A modification of the tariff in 1832 failed to satisfy more extreme Southerners, chief among them South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, who prevailed upon his state’s legislature to “nullify” the tariff there. President Andrew Jackson threatened to send Federal troops to enforce collection of the tariff in South Carolina’s ports in what has become known as the “Nullification Crisis,” and in fact a bill authorizing him to do so was passed by Congress – at just about the same time as a compromise tariff acceptable to the South was also passed. Both sides backed down, but in the wake of the Nullification Crisis, a critical question of the primacy of the Federal government or those of the individual states was left unanswered. Almost 30 years of political struggle would follow before the two very different parts of the country – who were, at the heart of it all, defending their livelihoods – found themselves in a catastrophic conflict that, to this day, still accounts for a little more than 90% of the combined deaths in every war America has ever fought.
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