The American Civil War is one of the most significant and controversial periods in American history. The Civil War was caused by mounting conflicting pressures, principles, and prejudices, fueled by differences and pride, and set into motion by unlikely set of political events.
At the root of all of the problems was the establishment of slavery, which had been introduced into North America in early colonial times. The American Revolution had been fought to confirm the idea that all men were created equal, yet slavery was legal in all of the thirteen colonies throughout the revolutionary period. Although it was largely gone from the northern states by 1787, it was still enshrined in the new Constitution of the United States, not only at the request of the Southern ones, but also with the approval of many of the Northern delegates who saw that there was still much money to be made in the slave trade by the Yankee shipping industry. Eventually its existence came to influence every aspect of American life.
It seemed to Thomas Jefferson and many others that slavery was on its way out, doomed to die a natural death. It was becoming increasingly expensive to keep slaves in the south. Northern and Southern members of Congress voted together to abolish the importation of slaves from overseas in 1808, but the domestic slave trade continued to flourish. The invention of the cotton gin made the cultivation of cotton on large plantations using slave labor a profitable project in the deep South. The slave became an ever more important element of the southern economy, and so the debate about slavery, for the southerner, gradually evolved into an economically based question of money and power. It became an institution that southerners felt bound to protect.
But even as the need to protect it grew, the ability to do this from the Souths perspective was diminishing. Southern leaders grew progressively more sensitive to this condition. In 1800 half of the population of the United States had lived in the South. But by 1850 only a third lived there and the gap continued to widen. Even though slave states were added to the Union to balance the number of free ones, the South found that its representatives in the House had been overwhelmed by the Norths explosive growth. More and more emphasis was now placed on maintaining equality in the Senate. Failing this meant that the South would find itself at the mercy of a government, in which it no longer had an effective voice in.
Of course there was protest in the North for the abolition of the slavery on purely moral grounds. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, holding up a copy of the Federal Constitution before a crowd in Massachusetts called it a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell. The abolitionists believed not only that slavery was wrong, but that the Federal government should move to abolish it. Although they were always a small minority they were very vocal about their beliefs, and projected themselves into the minds of southerners as a threat out of all proportion to their actual power and influence. This threat was greatly exaggerated in 1859 by John Brown’s seizure of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his call for a general rebellion of the slaves. This caused many of the Southern states to implement plans for more effective militias for internal defense.
While some in the North hated slavery because they felt that it was wrong, most people held no opinion of it at all, and some even condoned it because abolishing it would be bad for business. Without slaves there would be no cotton. Without cotton the fabric industry would suffer. To many it was just that simple.
Soon after this a new Republican Party injected its nominee, Abraham Lincoln. He was convinced that the Constitution forbade the Federal government from taking action against slavery where it already existed, but was determined to keep it from spreading further. South Carolina, in a fit of stubborn pride, announced that it would secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected. To everyones amazement Lincoln was victorious. He had gathered a mere 40% of the popular vote, and carried not a single slave state. South Carolina, true to its word, seceded on December 20, 1860. Mississippi left on January 9, 1861, and Florida on the 10th. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed.
Lincolns inaugural address was at once firm and peace-making. Unwilling to strike the initial blow to compel the southern states back into the Union, he decided to bide his time. When a Federal ship carrying supplies was dispatched to reposition Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, the secessionist hand was forced. To forestall the re-supply of the fort the Rebel batteries ringing it opened fire at 4:30 a.m. on the 12th of April, 1861, forcing its rapid admission of defeat.
President Lincoln immediately called upon the states to supply 75,000 troops to serve for ninety days against combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings. Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee promptly seceded.
The war was on and there was no turning back. Ironically, the combination of political events, southern pride, and determination succeeded in paving the way to the elimination of slavery.
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