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Causes of the Civil War

For more than 160 years, historians have painstakingly searched for the one factor that caused the American Civil War, the event that caused disunion to turn to war. The search is so intense that the American Civil War is one of the most researched events in the history of the United States. Throughout Unit VII, we have seen various events or variables that could be identified as a factor that has set the United States on a path toward the American Civil War. This one factor and its impact will be the focus of our Unit VII assignment.

A Nation in Crisis
Course Learning Outcomes for Unit VII
Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:
4. Compare the influence of political parties on society, government, and culture.
4.1 Describe how sectional factors impacted local and national political actions.
7. Summarize the factors leading to the American Civil War.
7.1 Explain how major social, political, and economic dynamics influenced the nation’s forward
progression to the American Civil War.
Learning Outcomes
4.1, 7.1
Learning Activity
Unit Lesson
Chapter 14 (5 sections)
Unit VII Essay
Required Unit Resources
In order to access the following resource, click the link below.
Corbett, P. S., Janssen, V., Lund, J. M., Pfannestiel, T., Waskiewicz, S., & Vickery, P. (2014). U.S. history.
OpenStax. https://openstax.org/details/books/us-history
Chapter 14: Troubled Times: the Tumultuous 1850s, Sections Introduction–14.4
Unit Lesson
By 1804, the Northern states had, through their own state constitutions, abolished slavery; however, the
institution was still a prominent part of the Southern economy (A&E Networks, 2009). The differences
displayed between the North and the South grew wider and drove deep into the core of each region’s society
and culture. The South had evolved from a society that had enslaved people into a society that was
submerged within the institution of slavery (Roark et al., 2013). Slavery now dominated the South’s economic
structure, political environment, and cultural and societal norms. As a result of differing financial, political,
cultural, and social factors, the North found itself on a very different path, but, nevertheless, was still very
much connected to the South. During the mid-1800s, the two regions, with all their ideological differences,
would find themselves battling over the institution of slavery in various environments, which gave way to
major pieces of legislations, a Supreme Court decision, and the rise of a major political party; it also put the
country on the precipice of a civil war.
The 1848 Election
When considering the 1848 election, it is important to take into consideration the political, social, and
economic environments of the time—especially those that were at the core of Manifest Destiny:
Slave state versus free state votes
Whig versus Republican platforms
Industry versus plantation economies
Slavery versus providence (religion)
HIS 1301, American History I
From these issues stemmed much of the debate in regard to how these new lands
were gained
UNIT (those
from the Louisiana Purchase and later the Mexican-American War) influencedTitle
the political balance in
Washington D.C. To address these were a handful of political actions. The first in 1846 was called the Wilmot
Proviso after Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot. It stated that because Mexico had already forbidden
slavery, that anti-slavery (free soil) was how these newly added lands should remain. This was a hotly
contested perspective considering how many of the most famous figures to fight in the Mexican-American
War, from the Alamo to Santa Anna’s surrender, were Southerners.
If the Wilmot Proviso passed, it meant two things. First, the remaining slave laws were essentially
grandfathered in. Simply put, the standing tradition of laborers freely choosing their working conditions (free
labor) received rave support from the North and great disdain from the South, Uniquely, it was carried along
geographical—not party—lines. The second outcome was that with this constraint in the West, ongoing antiSouthern sentiment in the North, and a third (somewhat unexpected) support from Northern segregationists
who wanted lands free of other races, the representation of slave states quickly became the extreme minority
in both chambers. For most Southerners, slaveholders or not, this was considered a direct attack on the
South’s culture, economy, and society by a growing Northern majority with conflicting values. There was
already a growing population majority against slave states, as evidenced by the vote in the House of
Representatives. It was only by the slimmest of margins that the slave states were able to defeat the measure
in the U.S. Senate.
The next suggestion, called popular sovereignty, presented by Senators Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas,
maintained that part of a state’s application should include a decision by a popular vote of that territory’s
citizens concerning which economic situation was preferred. What killed this plan was a disagreement in the
details. Slave states wanted the vote to be late in the process to give time for slavery to show its economic
benefit, while Northern states knew they could stuff the ballots quickly during the first steps in statehood.
Lewis Cass (ca. 1855), Democratic presidential nominee 1848
There being no clear solution from these debates, the issue carried over to the 1848 election. Senator Lewis
Cass was the Democratic representative, and, opposing him was the war hero and Whig, Zachary Taylor,
who had not weighed in on the labor discussion in either direction. As a matter of fact, the Whig Party had not
even adopted a party platform and not taken a position on the institution of slavery, even though their
candidate owned more than 100 enslaved people in plantations located in Louisiana and Mississippi. The
Whig Party simply stood behind Taylor’s military career and stayed quiet on the issue of slavery.
1848 would be representative of just how divided the nation was at this time, and the voting results made it
clear that geography was not the deciding factor. Interestingly, because of Taylor and the Whig Party’s
silence on the matter of slavery, this was not simply a question of party politics. Southern Democrats saw him
as another Jackson: a soldier, planter, and defender of agricultural rights.
The Northern Democrats and Whigs feared what this could mean if Taylor were to be elected and decided to
abdicate to form the first heavily Northern-biased party since the Federalists: the Free-Soil Party. They
selected former president and vice president Martin Van Buren to lead them. Van Buren, like most third-party
candidates, did not make a dent in the election. Winning zero electoral votes and barely 10% of the popular
vote, if he made any waves at all, it was by taking popular votes away from fellow Northerner Cass.
HIS 1301, American History I
Taylor was successful in November, winning 163 of the 290 electoral votes (U.S.
x STUDYSurvey,
GUIDE n.d.). His
support ranged from Vermont to Louisiana. While Martin Van Buren did not carry
any electoral votes, he did
receive 10.1% of the popular vote, begging the question of how impactful his presence was to Lewis Cass’
campaign. Nevertheless, the time was now time for Taylor to move forward and attempt to unite the nation.
Zachary Taylor, Whig Presidential Nominee 1848
(Maguire of New Orleans, ca. 1843)
The newly inaugurated Taylor was a man of immediate action. He felt that by striking quickly, there would be
almost an entire 4-year term to calm the fears of the nation, giving the politics time to rebalance. As hopeful
as this was, it was not realistic.
Taylor’s proactive attitude fit directly into the Northern plan for a quick vote, denying the slave owners a
chance to impact the economy. California and New Mexico were the next likely territories to ratify, and under
this plan, both would be free-soil states. With Congress back in session by December 1849, President Taylor
encouraged the members of the House and Senate to reach a compromise regarding state admittance. Many
spoke out, including Henry Clay of Kentucky, who argued for compromise, Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, who
offered an opposing perspective, and finally Mississippi’s fiery Henry S. Foote, who would have probably
started a raid against Clay had the Northern delegates not dominated Congress. South Carolina’s John C.
Calhoun (as cited in Roark et al., 2013), a veteran politician, and former vice president under Andrew
Jackson, gave perhaps the most worrisome prediction in February 1850: “As things now stand, […the South]
cannot with safety remain in the Union” (p. 363).
Compromise of 1850
The handwritten resolution presented by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. This document, page 1 of 6,
became the Compromise of 1850.
Production date: January 29, 1850
(The U.S. National Archives, 1850)
Almost poetically, Zachary Taylor and his hope for reunification died in office in July 1850 before Congress
would reach any decision, leaving the responsibility to new President Millard Fillmore to oversee the next
stages of the territorial debate. After a series of hot tempers and refusals, the outcome was the Compromise
of 1850. Utilizing the skills of both Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and rising freshman Senator (and future
1860 presidential candidate) Stephen A. Douglas, the compromise permitted California to enter the Union as
HIS 1301, American History I
a free state. The compromise decreed that states that were already pro-slave UNIT
GUIDE in, and
that any future territories would be given the opportunity to vote, an action known
Titleas popular sovereignty. This
meant that the new territories of Utah and New Mexico, gained from the Mexican-American War, would be
permitted to vote on their own accord as to whether their state would be a free state or a slave state.
Additionally, part of the Compromise enacted a Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slave-owners to journey into
other states (free or slave states) and take back an escaped slave. The compromise also effectively put an
end to the slave trade in Washington D.C.
Senator Henry Clay (Kentucky), 1848.
(Vannerson or Simons, 1848)
The Compromise of 1850 successfully brought the debate of slavery to all regions of the United States. In the
West, requiring the states to vote on whether a state would enter the Union as a free or slave state ignited a
fiery debate that played out time and time again. With the addition of the Fugitive Slave Act, the terrors of
slavery were brought to the anti-slavery societies across the nation because of the guarantee that any
runaway enslaved people would be returned to their rightful owners, even if caught on free soil. This act, of
course, required the willing acceptance of the law by those harboring fleeing enslaved people, and it did not
take long for this to turn into a stage of violence—for both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates.
Senator Stephan A. Douglas (Illinois)
(Lincoln & Miller, 1907)
After the Compromise of 1850, President Millard Fillmore did not run for reelection in 1852. Instead, the
Whigs tried to elect a war hero once again in General Winfield Scott. However, Democrat Franklin Pierce of
New Hampshire, with a noted sympathy for the Southern condition, carried the election easily, as the FreeSoil Party was still politically active, and the deep divisions from 1848 were still quite apparent. Perhaps his
most successful accomplishment was the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, solidifying the border with Mexico and
providing the necessary lands for southern tracks through the American West, which meant the Santa Fe Trail
was no longer the only safe option for passage.
What may have been the only saving grace for the United States at this time was the nationwide support that
both major parties had. Neither wanted to relinquish their Northern or Southern bases of support, and the
Free-Soil Party’s failures had shown where the line between economics and political leadership was drawn.
Despite this apparent lull in the fighting, continued western settlement and transportation infrastructure also
stoked the fires of the slavery question, including the debates to incorporate Nebraska and Kansas in 1854.
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Violent Reactions
Senator William Seward (New York), circa 1859
(Vannerson, ca. 1859)
New York’s Senator, William H. Seward, is arguably best remembered for a controversial 1867 purchase of a
patch of seemingly uninhabitable Russian tundra west of British Columbia in exchange for $7.2 million. For
three decades, the land was given little attention by the United States and became known as “Seward’s
Folly.” However, the New York senator was vindicated when vast natural resources and precious metals were
discovered throughout the land that today we call the state of Alaska.
More than a decade earlier, in 1854, Seward found himself focused on challenging pro-slavery advocates to
allow the inhabitants of Kansas to decide via popular sovereignty if they would prefer slave or free-soil status
as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The cane Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina used to assault Senator Charles Sumner in the
Senator chamber in 1856. Southerners sent Brooks canes in support of his actions.
(Daderot, 1856)
To settle this, both sides had people move into the territory, but the pro-slavery potential settlers clearly
dominated the election, causing Kansas to enter its statehood process with a pro-slave agenda, despite the
less than ethical means. This, of course, upset the free-soil advocates, who took the only logical action—they
set up a rival government. On May 21, 1856, a small-scale civil conflict began near the Missouri border. This
conflict ended with numerous battles, but the same result. Interestingly, among the free-soil leaders was John
Brown, a struggling settler who was not afraid to use violent means and became a national figure after a
violent 1859 incident in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Couple this with the violent beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina
congressman Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in the same month, and it became clear that the slavery
question was as hot as ever. In fact, the geographical division of the remaining Louisiana Territories and
repeal of the Missouri Compromise may have been the catalyst as two new parties emerged out of the shell
of the Whigs: the Republican Party (not to be confused with Jefferson’s earlier Democratic-Republicans) and
the Know-Nothings (American Party).
HIS 1301, American History I
The Republican Platform
The Republican Party’s origin is straightforward: this was primarily a group of Northern anti-slavery
advocates, and their organization derived from the slavery debates. The Know-Nothings were less expected
and emerged from a different labor controversy: anti-immigration. The name was essentially a playful
reminder of its origins as a secret club, but the nativist belief quickly gained massive support. Many who
joined this party feared how the continued immigration numbers threatened available jobs and the American
culture, specifically Protestantism, a fear with which it was easy to recruit support in the North, East, South,
and West.
The election of 1856 pitted two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, against each other. The
Republicans knew that they had to keep the topic of slavery at the forefront of their campaign to guarantee
their success at the ballot box. Their platform, led by candidate John C. Fremont, was that by stopping any
further slavery advancement, none of the new territories would be open for slave labor, resulting in a land of
fresh opportunity. This platform was very successful. In addition to giving the party a clear direction and
position, it also attracted the support of groups without direct influence, such as women, who were being
courted in the male-dominated Northwest. They saw this as an opportunity to resurrect some of their own
reforms introduced in previous units. The Democrats remained overwhelmingly strong, especially in the now
united South. With their candidate, Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, the Democrats depicted Republicans as
radicals who were willing to push the Southern states out of the Union. It is important to remember that it is
only 1856. Talks of secession were not taking place yet. What should be taken from this was that the slavery
question remained more of a hot-button issue than immigration. It is also important to remember that abolition
was not the same as anti-slavery. Finally, the 1856 election showed that sectionalism, as seen in the 1856
election map, was present in American politics. In November, the voters spoke, and with 174 Electoral
College votes, James Buchanan won.
Dred Scott
Perhaps one of the most impactful events to the antebellum society would be the landmark case Dred Scott v.
Sandford in 1857. The Dred Scott case questioned the legality of slavery throughout the states and/or
territories, in accordance with the Constitution of the United States.
Dred Scott in 1833 was bought as a slave in St. Louis, Missouri, and was then taken to the free state of Illinois
and the free territory of Wisconsin, with his owner. In 1846, Scott and his family, along with their owner,
returned to Missouri. Scott, with the help of White friends, filed a lawsuit to prove that he and his family should
be granted their freedom because they all lived in both a free state and a free territory. Scott’s case went
before Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.
Photograph of Dred Scott, circa 1857.
(Dred Scott, 1857)
“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to
associate with the White race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights
which the White man was bound to respect, and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery
HIS 1301, American History I
for his benefit,” said Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, presenting the opinion of the
in Dred Scott
v. Sandford, 1857 (Taney, 1857).
In short, Scott lost his case in a 7 to 2 decision in the Supreme Court, but this decision was not the end of the
impact of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Scott was freed soon after, thanks to the charity of a wealthy free-soil
advocate. The importance of this decision was that it set the legal precedent that free men were only free on
free-soil, which invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and provided the first true constitutional
rendering of the slavery issue that was consciously set aside during the heat of the Constitutional Convention
in 1787. The Dred Scott case also provided a necessary boost for the struggling Republican Party, which was
trying to unite against the Southern-dominated Democrats.
The Rise of Lincoln
Leading this Republican resurgence was former congressman and lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Long gone, but
still connected to his Kentucky roots, the lawyer from Illinois had become fascinated with politics and was
invested in his community. While he held what were considered moderate racial views for the mid-19th
century, denouncing slavery, he viewed racial equality as “impractical and unachievable” (as cited in Roark,
2013, p. 377). He was outraged by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott case, both of which helped
to convince him that the institution of slavery would eventually take over the nation. The Dred Scott case
caused Lincoln to reflect about the swift and intense impact of what another legal case would do to the
country regarding the institution of slavery. Slavery would either be stopped completely or take over the entire
nation. For Lincoln, slavery must be stopped, and it was the job of Congress to stop it. In 1858, Abraham
Lincoln accepted the nomination from the Illinois Republican Party for a U.S. Senate seat. In his acceptance
speech, known as A House Divided, he spoke of the responsibilities of all and the need for the unity.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Lincoln debating Douglass during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858 (Cool10191, 2008)
Who could imagine the impact of seven debates in a Senate race? In the 1858 Illinois Senate race,
Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln ran against the incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. His name
may sound familiar—he is the same Stephen A. Douglas that put forward the Compromise of 1850. Lincoln
challenged Douglas to seven debates, one in each congressional district. The topics of the debate were
focused on two key issues: slavery and states’ rights. Lincoln tried to present Douglas as a candidate who did
not have any interest in the institution of slavery, and Douglas presented Lincoln as an abolitionist. The
debates were wildly popular, attended by thousands of people. In the end, the people of Illinois voted once
again to have Stephen Douglas serve as their senator. However, the now famous Lincoln-Douglas debates
thrust Abraham Lincoln into national attention, preparing him for the role of a lifetime, presidential candidate in
Lincoln, outspoken and clearly anti-slavery, understood and admitted the double edge of the abolition debate.
He also understood that slavery had divided the United States, and to survive, the nation had to unite under
one set of laws. However, his nomination as the Republican candidate for president and eventual election in
HIS 1301, American History I
November 1860 struck a sense of discord with Southern secessionists, even though
still not an
UNIT x war
The Election of 1860
With the multitude of individual battles throughout the nation, it was clear that both sides had dug in and were
unwilling to budge. Each side had great orators and political strategists, both had specific examples of
aggression egged on and supported by the opposition, and both found ways to justify their perspectives as
the constitutional and religious right.
At the center of everyone’s attention was an election. So divided were the causes and views that the majority
of states came down to a battle between two candidates, but not the same two everywhere. In the North, it
was a rematch between Lincoln and Douglas, while in the South it came down to Buchanan’s vice president,
John C. Breckinridge, and Tennessee Senator John Bell. Lincoln’s chances at victory were so unlikely, his
name only appeared on one third of Southern ballots. Despite this, Lincoln won all but one Northern state
outright, and despite not gaining a popular majority or even a single Southern electoral vote, his electoral
totals far surpassed his closest contender, Breckinridge.
Lincoln’s election proved that a united North now politically trumped the South. With this understanding, the
secessionist rhetoric was never stronger. On December 20, 1860, before Lincoln was even inaugurated into
office, South Carolina formally seceded, followed closely after by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida
(January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861),
and Texas (February 1, 1861). Representatives of each would meet on February 7 in Montgomery, Alabama,
to officially designate themselves unprotected by the Northern states and form a separate nation: the
Confederate States of America (CSA).
Lincoln officially took his oath of office on March 4, 1861, and the six border states of Virginia, Arkansas,
North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri also seceded later that year and joined their neighbors as
part of the CSA.
“You can have no conflict, without yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in
Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect,
and defend’ it,” said President Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration speech, March 4, 1861.
A Closing Note
Now that you have finished reading the Unit 7 Study Guide, it is time to head over to the required reading list
for this unit. Clearly as we are already seeing at this point, the Union is in peril, and this will be discussed in
further detail in Chapter 14 (Troubled Times: The Tumultuous 1850s). Just as you did in Unit 6, pay close
attention to the interaction between the social/cultural, economic, and political events of this time, as the rise
of the Antebellum South does not occur without the various socio-political reform movements that took place
and vice versa. We are at the eve of the Civil War (1861—1865) and the events will serve as the final actions
that initiate the literal disunion of the United States.
A&E Networks. (2009, November 12). Slavery in America. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/blackhistory/slavery#:~:text=Between%201774%20and%201804,%20all,absolutely%20vital%20to%20the
Cool10191. (2008). Lincoln debating Douglas [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
Daderot. (1856). Walking cane used to assault Senator Charles Sumner, May 1856—Old State House
Museum [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
HIS 1301, American History I
Dred Scott [Photograph]. (1857). Wikimedia Commons.
Lewis Cass [Photograph]. (ca. 1855). Wikimedia Commons.
Lincoln, A., & Miller, M. M. (Ed.). (1907). Stephen A. Douglas [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
Maguire of New Orleans. (ca. 1843–1845). Zachary Taylor [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
Roark, J. L., Johnson, M. P., Cohen, P. C., Stage, S., Hartmann, S. M. (2013). The American promise: A
concise history, volume 1 (5th ed.). Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Taney, R. B. (1857). The Dred Scott decision.
U.S. National Archives. (1850). Compromise of 1850 (Page 1 of 6) [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
Vannerson, J. (1859 or before). William H. Seward [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
Vannerson, J., or Simons, M. P. (1848). Henry Clay [Image]. Wikimedia Commons.
Suggested Unit Resources
In order to access the following resources, click the links below.
Read the five laws, known as the Compromise of 1850, which were passed in September 1850, that
addressed the controversial issue of slavery and territory expansion in the United States. The laws included
the amendment of the Fugitive Slave Act, the abolishment of slave trade in Washington, D.C., and Utah, New
Mexico entering the Union with the decision on whether their states were free or a slave via popular
sovereignty, and California entering the Union as a free state.
Library of Congress. (n.d.). Compromise of 1850: Primary documents in American history.
Read the official (original) Senate investigatory report regarding the caning of Senator Charles Sumner of
Massachusetts by fellow Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, which took place in the Senate
chambers in 1856.
U.S. Senate. (1856, May 28). The investigation of the assault of Senator Charles Sumner.
Read the transcripts of the Lincoln–Douglas Debates from the 1858 Illinois Senate election. There were a
total of seven debates. Lincoln did not win the election, but these debates were the catalyst that thrust him
into the national spotlight.
National Park Service. (n.d.). The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. U.S. Department of the Interior.
The debate regarding the balance of representation at the federal level was challenged and eventually
resolved because of the Missouri Compromise. Interestingly, a court case in 1857 overturned this 1820 law.
HIS 1301, American History I
Media Rich Learning (Producer). (2017). Missouri Compromise (Segment 2 ofUNIT
8) [Video].
In Democracy
America. Films on Demand.
The transcript for this video can be found by clicking the “Transcript” tab to the right of the video in the Films
on Demand database.
Discover how Congress compromised when trying to determine representation with new and future territories.
Annenberg Leaner (Producer). (2000). Great triumvirate (Segment 2 of 8) [Video]. In The coming of the Civil
War: Episode 9—A biography of America. Films on Demand.
PBS (Producer). (2000). The compromise of 1850 (Segment 9 of 28) [Video]. In Happenstance. Films on
The transcripts for these videos can be found by clicking the “Transcript” tab to the right of the videos in the
Films on Demand database.
HIS 1301, American History I

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