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Was Slavery a Precursor to the American Civil War? - Essay Sample

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Carnegie Mellon University
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Since the end of the American Civil War, there have been disagreements over the years among scholars on what actually led to the outbreak of the war. Some academics argue that the desire by Southern states to perpetuate the institution of slavery caused friction with the North, resulting in the decision to secede and form a confederacy. Others contend that the issue of state rights as related to matters of the Southern economy and taxation played the most significant part in plunging the United States into the Civil War. This paper seeks to contribute to this debate.

The American Civil War began on 12 April 1861, and at the time of the outbreak, both the South and the North had been involved in several disagreements that boiled over in1861.The quest for state rights is one of the arguments that has been fronted as the fundamental cause of the Civil War. To assert their rights as were envisaged in the independence Constitution, Southern states held a strong view that the federal government did not have control on matters relating the economies of the states (Finkelman, 2011). Unlike the economy of the North which was dominated by manufacturing, the South relied majorly on cotton plantations .The cotton was exported to Europe (Mountjoy & McNeese, 2009). This export was exchanged for manufactured goods. After the federal government increased tariffs on imported goods, the Southern states perceived the action as an effrontery to their livelihoods (National Park Service, 2017) hence the decision to make a declaration of secession.

A threat to state rights was also seen in the widespread perception among the Southerners that North-dominated federal government violated earlier treaties and agreements signed at the time of admission of some states into the Union. Some states were admitted into the Union as slave-holding states whereas others made compromises on slavery with United States to promote the Unions expansionist ideology (Woods, 2012). For this reason, the passing of a raft of legislation by Congress which appeared to favor local manufacturing of goods was interpreted as a clever way of ending slavery and introducing the economic model of the North to the Southerners (Mountjoy & McNeese, 2009). These actions were seen as a threat to plantation agriculture which was sustained by slave labor. As Finkelman (2011) notes, South Carolina (which was the first state to secede) voted to leave the Union on December 20, 1860, because the leaders held the view that non-slaveholding states had shown hostility to slaveholding states thereby disregarding their obligations to the objects of the Constitution. As a consequence, South Carolina too, proponents argued, had the right to disregard the objects of the Constitution hence the ratification of the decision to leave the Union.

Differences on what constituted a moral wrong played a vital role in creating resentment between the North and the South which eventually exploded in 1861. For instance, there was a widespread belief among the Northerners that the independence Constitution granted Negroes similar rights as those granted to Whites. The Northerners argued that every American (including people of African descent) had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and as such, the continued practice of slavery in the South went against the principles and values upon which the Union constitution was founded(Boyd, 2013). Therefore, it was morally wrong to hold other Americans as slaves. Using the same constitution( and even the Bible), the Southerners on other hand contended that the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery in the states and new territories because the practice of this peculiar institution was meant to actualize the right of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness among the people of the South (National Park Service, 2017; Finkelman, 2011).In other words, the Southern states had the liberty to do as they chose with slaves so long as such actions entailed pursuit of happiness as was enshrined in the independence Constitution(Calore, 2008). These ideological differences were aggravated in 1860 following the election of Abraham Lincoln who had openly criticized slavery. Lincoln decision to fight against the Confederate states secession marked the start of the Civil War.

States that invoked state rights as a reason for secession made indirect references to slavery as the reason for their decision. However, others made explicit references in their secession declarations. For instance, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia all made direct references that they were walking out on the Union due to the threat to the institution of slavery (Boyd, 2013). Although it has been argued that the walkout sought to reaffirm state rights, it is apparent that the threat to the practice of slavery was the inherent reason to secede hence the outbreak of the Civil War.

Failure to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act further increased the tensions between the North and the South. For one, Northerners aided former slaves and, therefore, frustrated the Act. Besides, the publication of Uncle Toms Cabin in 1852 highlighted the inhumane conditions that slaves were subjected to in the South, galvanizing the moral argument in the North that slavery needed to end by all means, including the use of violence. The widespread resentment against slavery prompted an outbreak of rebellions such the Nat Turner-organized raid in 1831(Boyd, 2013; Calore, 2008).These events created more tensions between the North and the South. A combination of these vents and others resulted in a full-blown war in 1861.

From the above literature review, it is apparent that the desire to reaffirm state rights played a vital role in causing the Civil War. Southern states felt the federal government was overstepping its mandate in matters in relating to commerce. However, amidst of the state rights argument and regulation of commerce in states lies the issue of slavery. That is to say, the opposing stances between the two regions about slavery and their inability to strike a compromise led to the outbreak of the American Civil War.


Boyd, C. O. (2013). Understanding the Civil War. Oglethorpe Journal of Undergraduate Research, 2(1), 1-17.

Calore, P. (2008). The causes of the Civil War: The political, cultural, economic, and territorial disputes between North and South. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Finkelman, P. (2011). Slavery, the Constitution, and the origins of the Civil War. OAH Magazine of History, 25(2), 14-18. doi:10.1093/oahmag/oar004

Mountjoy, S., & McNeese, T. (2009). Causes of the Civil War: The differences between the North and South. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

National Park Service. (2017). Slavery: Cause and catalyst of the Civil War. Retrieved from

Woods, M. E. (2012). What twenty-first-century historians have said about the causes of disunion: A Civil War sesquicentennial review of the recent literature. Journal of American History, 99(2), 415-439. doi:10.1093/jahist/jas272

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