- For Teachers
US History Honors
30 April 2010
On Origins of the American-Civil War
Since the independence of America from King George III, the western lands of America have intrigued and drawn American settlers. Westward expansion led to various disputes regarding states’ rights. Slavery became the basis of these disputes and concerns which ultimately led to a divisional break in the United States of America. The cause of the American-Civil War originated from the vast westward expansion experienced in 19th century America.
The western lands of America have always been an untapped resource that was waiting to be explored. Even before the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788, the North West Ordinance of 1787 under the Articles of Confederation dealt with the western lands adjacent to the original thirteen states. The ordinance prohibited the expansion of slavery in western lands (Gallagher). During this time slavery was in decline, and was unprofitable. However, in 1793 Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin changed this. Whitney’s invention allowed slaves to clean cotton, a labor some crop, efficiently (David 54). Southern planters looked to slaves as the obvious labor force and to cotton as the profitable crop. Plantation owners looked to grow cotton crops in fertile western crops, and brought slavery with them.
One decade later, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from France. The Louisiana Purchase gave Southern plantation owners land to expand. The first dispute involving the expansion of slavery was in 1818. Missouri’s request for statehood opened a heated argument between Northerners and Southerners. In Congress, there had been a balance of eleven free states versus eleven slave states. Missouri wanted to be admitted into the Union as a slave state. This would tip the Congressional balance in favor of slave states with a two-vote majority (David 31). The Missouri Compromise of 1820 solved this problem by admitting Missouri with Maine, a free state. In addition, the Missouri Compromise entailed an invisible line on parallel 39o30’ that would divide the Union (Seymour 93). To the North of the line, free states existed; to the South of the line, salves states existed. This invisible line at 39o30’ would leave a lasting divide on the nation. Jefferson foreshadowed the detriment that would come because of the Missouri Compromise, “like a fire-bell in the night... I considered it at once as the knell of the Union” (Jefferson).
For the next ten years, tensions would continue to rise between the North and South. The ratification of the Tariff of Abominations and the Webster-Hayne debates signified a clear discontent between the Northerners and Southerners. In addition, the Industrial Revolution was introduced to America. Industrial North yielded many internal improvements such as growth of factories, turnpikes, and railroads (Gallagher). The South however, feared that further interference from the national government would ultimately lead to abolishment of slavery (Gallagher). The South remained largely agricultural adding to the contrast between the South and the North.
America would not annex any large territories until 1846. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the result of the Mexican-American War, gave all claims of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado to America. At the same time the Oregon Treaty of 1846 negotiated by Polk, extended the 49th parallel as the border between British-Canada and America (McConnell). Disputes arose regarding the representation of annexed lands. Northerners demanded the lands to be free and Southerners demanded slavery.
Thirty years after the Missouri Compromise, the debate of slavery surfaced again within Congress. However, this time radicals threatened to secede from the Union (McConnell). Politicians had to keep the Union together. Henry Clay’s solution was the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 entailed popular sovereignty to determine state representation in states (Seymour 137). Under the compromise, New Mexico and Utah were allowed to use popular sovereignty to decide the issue of slavery. Similar to the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 used popular sovereignty to decided the issue of slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories (Seymour 157). The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to pass the 39o30’ parallel. Abolitionists and advocates of slavery rushed to these areas to vote for or against slavery (Seymour 159). As a result of popular sovereignty, there was a race from the South and North to claim Kansas. The first to gain control and majority would decide the fate of slavery in the particular territory. Acts of violence in Kansas were inevitable. Border ruffians on the eastern border of Kansas used violence to promote slavery or anti-slavery (David 49). On January 29th, 1861 Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state (David 50).
Shortly after Lincoln’s victory in the election of 1860, South Carolina adopted its ordinance of secession (David 76). Six other Southern states soon followed suit in secession from the Union. On February 7th 1861, the seven states adopted a constitution for the Confederate States of America (David 78). The Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12th, 1861 (David 79). The newly inaugurated Lincoln had to make an important decision, let the Confederacy take Fort Sumter or protect the Union and help Fort Sumter. Lincoln sent supplies to Fort Sumter and stood firm for the Union. The Battle of Fort Sumter had officially started the American-Civil War.
Although the American-Civil War started at the onset of the Battle of Fort Sumter, precursors for the war dated as far back as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by prohibiting slavery in western lands. The invention of the cotton gin kindled slavery and allowed it to expand in the western annexed lands. Without the Treaty of Guadalupe and the Louisiana Purchase slavery would have remained stagnant in south-eastern America. Without western lands, the Missouri Compromise would not have been necessary and disunion may never have transpired.
David, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About the Civil War. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1996. Print.
Seymour, Drescher. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.
Gallagher, Gary W. “Civil War.” Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856 to 1869, vol. 5. 2003: FactsOnFile. Web. 29. April. 2010.
Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes.” loc.gov. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. April. 2010.
McConnell, Eleanor H. and Broyles, Rita M. “Missouri Compromise.” Encyclopedia of American History: Expansion and Reform, 1813 to 1855, vol. 4. 2003: FactsOnFile. Web. 29. April. 2010.