'The Cause' of the American Civil War: John Spicer Judges That Slavery Was the Key Factor in Producing the Conflict

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Introduction: the Issue of Slavery

More than 60 per cent of the electorate did not vote for Abraham Lincoln as President in November 1860, and he won the electoral college vote despite not carrying one Southern state. Lincoln's triumph prompted South Carolina to secede from the Union on 20th December 1860, and his reassurances that the institution of slavery would not be affected where it already existed failed to satisfy the doubts of other Southern states. By the time of his inauguration, six more states from the Lower South Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas--had left the Union, and the Confederate States of America (CSA) had been set up. Lincoln arrived in Washington having travelled through the slave state of Maryland in disguise in order to avoid possible attack or assassination. A war was about to begin which would leave about as many dead as all of the other wars the USA has fought added together. That war would result in freedom for 4 million black slaves, and secure the future of the Union.

The causes of the American Civil War can perhaps be linked to one particular issue--that of slavery. In December 1860 Lincoln had written to the future vice-president of the Confederate states, Alexander Stephens, and reiterated his public pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but he also added: 'I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.' Later Stephens himself seemed to confirm the significance of the issue by saying that 'African slavery ... was the immediate cause of the late rupture', and stating that the Confederate government was based upon 'the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery ... is his natural and normal condition.' South Carolina's declaration of their reasons for secession cited 'an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.'

It can be argued that slavery played a part in every pre-war crisis, and that even where other factors have been put forward by historians they are in some way linked to slavery. But in many ways the secession of South Carolina was precipitate because Lincoln was in no position to abolish slavery anyway. Following the 1860 elections Lincoln's Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery, did not control either house of Congress. To abolish slavery completely would have required a constitutional amendment, in other words a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress as well as three-quarters of the states to ratify the amendment. In 1860 15 out of the nation's 33 states--or 45 per cent--were slave states which collectively would never have ratified such an amendment. Lincoln could in reality do nothing to touch slavery where it already existed, but moves might be taken to bar slavery from the territories to ensure that all new states joining the Union in the future would be 'free soil'.

The Southern states did not take Lincoln at his word when he said he was opposed merely to the expansion of slavery. Had he not argued that a house divided against itself could not stand? Stephen Douglas, who had run against Lincoln in the 1858 senatorial elections, had pointed out to his rival that 'the divided house' had in fact stood since the writing of the Constitution. Southern states were probably right not to trust Lincoln, because less than two years into the war he issued an Emancipation Proclamation which declared all black slaves in rebel states free. Some have argued that Lincoln intended all along to free the slaves, but he could not afford to tell people lest he lose the support of the four 'border' slave states that remained loyal to the Union throughout the conflict. These four states had much closer ties with the North than other Southern states; and slaveholding, broadly speaking, was less widespread there than further south. …