The American Civil War is a war from 1861 to 1865 between the Union of non-slavery states and border slave states – the North – on the one side, and the Confederacy of slave states – the South – on the other. The issue of what was the cause of the Civil War is one that continues to be debated. Some argue that this was a war solely over slavery, while others are convinced that this was a war fought over state’s rights versus a central government. The purpose of this essay is to consider the Civil War as a result of a political crisis and then to propose imaginary scenarios where politicians could avoid the armed conflict.
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The division of states into northern and southern was formed in the colonial era. The fast-growing economy of the North was based on free farming and industrialization, and state laws prohibited slavery here. The South mainly relied on an agrarian system, and many large of its plantations utilized slave labor to increase their profits. The population growth rate of the South was significantly lower than in the North. As sectionalism divided the country towards different economic goals, these differences had political ramifications.
Missouri Compromise of 1820
When America began to expand westward, the question of where to allow slavery became politically heated. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 drew the line at the Southern boundary of Missouri west stating that states added above the line would be free ones and states below it would be slave ones. When Texan and Southern Americans wanted to add Texas to the United States, after they gained their independence in the 1830s, Van Buren, did not want to add another slave state. He believed that it could upset the balance between free and slave states in Congress.
Sectionalism in Congress
Three leaders in Congress stepped up to represent the different regions. John C. Calhoun represented the South, Daniel Webster represented the North, and Henry Clay represented the West. Senator John C. Calhoun defended the South and its pro-slavery order. He believed in state’s rights, and that states could secede from the Union. Daniel Webster spoke for northern merchants and opponents of slavery and defended the Union and the Constitution. Henry Clay represented both planters, and small farmers, and worked to bring agreement between North and South.
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 dealt with land gained from the Mexican Cession of 1848. It was designed to settle how to incorporate that land into the United States. Henry Clay helped negotiate the Compromise that would contribute to the banning of the slave trade in Washington, D. C., and the Fugitive Slave Law’s adoption. According to Hamilton, “the Compromise of 1850 represented the victory for the North and a defeat for the South”. The Fugitive Slave Act produced resentment in the Northern states and helped increase “abolitionist” sentiments. Throughout the 1850s, resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law was one of many events pushing the nation toward war.
In 1854 Congressman Stephen Douglas, a member of the Democratic Party proposed a bill to deal with the issue of slavery in new territories known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas introduced the idea of “popular sovereignty” in which the people would decide whether to create a free or slave state, ostensibly repealing the Missouri Compromise. It was a problem for the South because it resulted in an imbalance in Congress if new states of Kansas and Nebraska were to come into the Union as free. Moreover, the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to armed conflicts in Kansas that were a “prelude” to the Civil War.
Dred Scott Decision of 1857
Dred Scott, a slave, had lived with his master in free territory. When his slave owner dies, he sued for his liberty, and the case reached the United States Supreme Court. Chief Roger Taney ruled that African Americans “were not federal citizens and therefore that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction decide on Dred’s freedom”. Taney held that Scott was considered to be a slave and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and Congress could not regulate slavery in the territories. The issue was a victory for the South and split the Democratic Party along sectional lines.
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Presidential Election of 1860
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln, the representative of the Republican Party formed of the antislavery Whigs Party, and the Northern Democrats, was elected president.
The event led to active separatist movements within the country that resulted in armed clashes between Lincoln’s army and the army of the Confederacy.
Could the War Have Been Avoided?
Many scholars would say that the Civil War was inevitable, but there were ways that the war could have been postponed. For instance, rather than using force, both sides could attempt to arrange a meeting in order to devise an action plan to reunify the country. Such conflicting issues as slavery, territorial division of the nation and economic future could be discussed by the parties. The second way to prevent the war concerns the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the country. Even though many Southern states were against the election result, Lincoln became President. A possible solution would have been a dismissal of the elected man and replacing him with a man who wanted to seek compromises between the Union and the Confederacy. These ways of avoidance of the war could probably lead to the loss of territories of the state, and by the end of the 19th century, there would be no the country which we witness now.
The Civil War was a political crisis not only in its origins but in its course. It is believed that the Civil War is a culmination of a political crisis, the conflict over slavery, the sectional controversy, and then the secession crisis. However, the Civil War also might be considered as a crisis that originated in what was considerable disillusionment with political parties.
- Holt, Michael F. The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
- Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: the Crisis and Compromise of 1850. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
- Kennington, Kelly M. In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America. University of Georgia Press, 2017.