The Brothers Lawrence have asked me, with more enthusiasm than common
sense, to lead a discussion on the causes of the Civil War. With equal
enthusiasm and lack of common sense, I have agreed, and this is the first
"lecture" in the discussion. It sets out how I see the questions
and issues being framed, etc. I hope that it will serve as a seed for the
rest of the discussion.
Let me begin with a personal introduction and some background. I am
a mathematician by profession and training, and I bring a mathematician's
fondness for logic and clear supporting argument to my study of history,
along with a mathematician's contempt for shoddy scholarship. I was raised
in western Kentucky, and identify myself in many ways with the Bluegrass
State. My collegiate and post-graduate education were in Michigan and Pennsylvania,
but I have spent my entire university career (plus several graduate school
summer jobs) in the South. I had ancestors on both sides of the Civil War.
Insofar as any credentials as an historian of the Civil War, I actually
have some. I was the designer for the wargame Bloody Roads South, about
the battle of the Wilderness, which was published by The Gamers in 1992.
I am a co-moderator and co-founder of the moderated newsgroup soc.history.war.us-civil-war,
and am active in that group and the unmoderated one, alt.war.civil.usa.
I have given several talks to our local Round Table here in Madison, Alabama,
plus one talk to a neighboring SCV camp and one invited talk at the Cincinnati,
Ohio, Round Table. I am in the process of completing manuscripts on the
opening of the battle of the Wilderness and the POW exchange cartel, and
hope to soon announce the creation of a Web site devoted to the study of
the siege of Petersburg.
My plan is to run this like a seminar, of sorts. I will make posts roughly
every other evening or so which attempt to advance the discussion by providing
some particular piece or thread of new information, whether it is a narrative
lecture or simply a collection of relevant facts. I will try to stay out
of the actual discussion to a great extent, only coming in to correct what
I regard as serious mis-statements or errors. I will collect those for
a single post, to the extent possible.
In this connection let me state that, while it is inevitable that the "lectures" will reflect my views and opinions, the purpose of holding a seminar is for everyone (who wants to) to speak out and participate. Subsequent lectures may well be heavily influenced by the comments that participants make in the previous discussions. So feel free to (politely) tell me that I am all wet.
Sources for this topic are of course vast. My personal recommendations would be for McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom or the first four volumes of Nevins's Ordeal of The Union. Potter's The Impending Crisis has also been recommended to me, although I have not yet found the time to acquire or read it. A recent book that is accessible and short and readable is Hummell's Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, which takes a very provocative view of things. If I may toot my own horn, the best Internet resource is my own Web site:
Jim Epperson- Causes of The War Page
Here I have collected a large number of documents from the 1850's and 1860's which dwell on the secession crisis. Since the material there is most relevant to the secession period itself, we will not make much use of it in the first few lectures.
In this opening "lecture" I would like to concentrate on posing
and clarifying the question. When we talk about "the cause(s) of the
Civil War," what kinds of things are we talking about?
Let me begin with the easy part, throwing out those things we are not interested in discussing, because they have no bearing on the issue at hand. The question of slave-ownership by any of R.E. Lee, or U.S. Grant, or my great-aunt Minnie is not relevant and therefore not up for discussion. Neither are we interested in any discussion of the merits of slavery versus factory labor, or Abe Lincoln's alleged extreme racist views, or any large number of black soldiers who allegedly fought for the Confederacy. None of these have to do with the coming of the Civil War, and so are not rightfully part of our discussion. If anyone seriously disagrees with me on this, please email me (with the Lawrences CC-ed in) and we will discuss whether to open the topic up.
Having dealt with what is not up for discussion, let's talk about what is on the table.
There are, I think, three basic questions to talk about, two of which
are more important than the third:
In my humble opinion, the first two issues are much more important than the third, in terms of answering the question, "What caused the Civil War?" This is not to denigrate the motivations of individuals North or South, but simply a reflection of the fact that joining the armies is a result of the coming of the war, not a cause of it. However, individual motivations do reflect the popular mood and feelings, and so are important in assessing why things happened. To that extent it is an important topic for us to talk about.
(I should also point out that at some point in time the Lawrences are
to have someone else do a GDG fringe seminar on the motivations of the rank-and-file
There are some other distinctions that need to be stipulated in advance.
First, it is not necessary for the war aims to reflect the causes of the war. Sometimes there is a neat and tidy connection between the politics that led to a war and the stated (or unstated) war aims of the belligerants, but not always. Nor is it necessary that the two sides have "complimentary" reasons for going to war.
Second, because secession was so central to the war, we must distinguish between the reasons that Southerners (a) believed secession was legal; (b) believed secession in 1860-61 was justified; and (c) the reason they chose to secede in 1860-61. These are all three different.
Third, we need to distinguish between the secession of the seven Lower South states and the secession of the four Upper South states.
Having dispensed with the preliminary material, let me begin the actual "lecture." Since this is the first offering in the discussion, it is mostly background material.
The Legality of Secession
The question of the legality of secession is both central and peripheral
to a discussion of the causes of the Civil War. It is central because it
was the issue of secession that directly led to the shooting war. But it
is peripheral because the fact of the difference of opinion is more important
than the abstract question of who was legally or historically correct.
Nonetheless it is inevitable that the question will come up and I would
like to offer some thoughts on it.
However, it is first necessary to distinguish between a moral right of revolution (such as the colonies asserted against Britain) and a legal right of secession (which is what the Confederacy claimed to assert). No one has ever denied that any group has the (moral) right to (attempt to) throw off what they regard as an oppressive government. The American tradition, with the Declaration of Independence, suggests that such attempts should not be made "for light and transient reasons;" moreover, it is incumbent on the revolutionaries to state their reasons openly, so that all the world can see that they are suffering under oppression. Additionally, the right to attempt a revolution carries with it the implicit right by the allegedly oppressive government to resist and put down the rebellion. The U.S. Constitution recognized this by explicitly authorizing the government to suppress rebellions.
Secession, however, was and is a different thing. The Southern leadership claimed that secession was a legal right, not a revolutionary act, and from the moment the theory first appeared to the present day a number of justifications have been offered in support of this view.
I would prefer not to get bogged down in an extensive discussion of every such argument, for the reasons stated above: the simple fact that the two sections had a difference of opinion on this issue is more important than which one was right. Moreover, it is my opinion that most of the arguments on either side are susceptible to strong counterattack and few are especially compelling. Let me review and outline some of the common arguments and counterarguments in order to set the stage for any discussion.
(1) Tenth Amendment and reserved rights: Many claim that a right of secession is contained within the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, the text of that Amendment speaks of "powers" not "rights" being reserved to the people or states, and there is a difference between the two words. Moreover, if the right of a state to secede is carried by the Tenth Amendment, then surely there is a right for the other states to prevent that secession. How is one right reserved but the other not reserved? Finally, I am unaware of anyone in the 1850's using the Tenth Amendment as the basis for their argument. The secessionists mostly based their ideas on compact theory.
(2) The Constitution as a compact: This idea holds that the Constitution
is or was a compact between equals, each of whom retained its sovereignity
rather than surrendering it to the Federal government. This is perhaps
the strongest case that can be made, but it unfortunately was essentially
contradicted by the Father of the Constitution himself, James Madison,
in a letter to N.P. Trist, Dec. 23, 1832 (The Writings of James Madison,
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1910, v. 9, pp. 490-91):
"The essential difference between a free Government and Governments
not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which
are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them can have a greater
right to break off from the bargain, then the other or others have to hold
them to it. And certainly there is nothing in the Virginia resolutions
of --98, adverse to this principle, which is that of common sense and common
justice. The fallacy which draws a different conclusion from them lies
in confounding a single party, with the parties to the Constitutional compact
of the United States. The latter having made the compact may do what they
will with it. The former as one only of the parties, owes fidelity to it,
till released by consent, or absolved by an intolerable abuse of the power
"It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by someone who understands the subject."
Clearly, Madison does not see that the Constitution provides for a right to secede at the simple discretion of those states wishing to secede.
On the other side of the coin there are some arguments advanced in support of the perpetual nature of the Union. For example:
(1) "More Perfect Union:" Given that the Constitution was designed to strengthen the government, compared to the Articles of Confederation (which were explicitly perpetual), it obviously follows that the Union under the Constituion is perpetual and cannot be broken. Unfortunately, this logic does not follow. Given that the Articles were explicitly stated to be perpetual, why not state that the Federal Union is also? And it is easy to conceive that the Union might be made "more perfect" by allowing an unhappy member to leave.
(2) Lincoln's argument: Lincoln argued that no government in history
ever contained the seeds of its own destruction, and thus secession was
not contemplated by the Framers. I personally find this an historically
compelling argument, full of common sense, but I have to admit that it
carries little legal weight.
(3) Lack of mechanism: If secession were legal, why is there no mechanism to provide for the process and to deal with the distribution of Federal property within the seceding state?
(4) Secession as anarchy: This, to me, is the most compelling argument
of all. If secessionist theory were correct, then any state in the Union,
at any time, for any reason, could simply decide to leave. This is a recipe
for anarchy, for it means that there is no reason for any state to acquiesce
in a political result which they do not like. It means that the New England
states that voted against Jefferson in 1800 would have been justified in
saying, "We do not want to live under this man, we will go form our
own nation." One of the hallmarks of the American experiment is that
it showed that representative government could be made to work by constraining
both majority and minority -- the majority was constrained to respect the
rights of the minority, and the minority was constrained to respect the
results of elections. Legal secession would have made the success of the
American experiment impossible, by leading to the eventual dismemberment
of the nation, over trivial political issues, into a Balkans-like collection
of minor states. This could not have been the intent of the Framers.
It is important for us to consider, however, how it is and why it is
that the two sections came to have differing views on the right of secession.
Sectional Politics Prior to 1850
If we insist on re-hashing all of American history prior to the Civil
War, then we will be here a long time. Since the critical decade was the
1850's, I propose to cover the events of sectional politics prior to 1850
in a brief survey. Moreover, it will be a topical survey, concentrating
on a few discrete events. An excellent book that covers all of these issues
is William Freehling's Road to Disunion.
At the time of the Revolution, slavery was legal in all of the colonies.
In the late 18th Century, most of the Northern states emancipated their
slaves, usually using a gradual scheme based on freeing slaves at a certain
age, but forcing those too old to adapt to freedom to remain slaves and
thus to be provided for by their owners. Often these older slaves would
be eventually emancipated by later laws, but it is a little known fact
that New Jersey still had 18 slaves in the 1860 census; these were men
and women who had been just over the critical age of New Jersey's emancipation
act, and who thus were to remain slaves until death (or, perhaps, the 13th
There were risks of abuse in the way that the Northern states did things. There was a severe financial incentive to sell your slaves out of state before they reached the age of emancipation. Although most states passed laws forbidding this practice, enforcement was imperfect and some owners were indeed able to circumvent the intent of the law.
By 1804 slavery had been ended north of the Mason-Dixon line, in the sense that all of the Northern states had passed some kind of emancipation law. There had been, or would be, attempts to convert Illinois and Indiana to slave states, but these failed.
The Missouri Compromise
Late in 1819, Missouri applied for admission as a state, based on a
constitution sanctioning slavery. Congressman James Talmadge of New York
offered an amendment aimed at allowing Missouri statehood only if she would
abolish slavery, and his colleage John Taylor later offered a similar proposal
concerning Arkansas. The argument over this lasted for about three months,
from December, 1819, to March, 1820, when the compromise was reached that
allowed Missouri in as a slave state, but prohibited slavery elsewhere
in the old Louisiana Purchase, north of the 36-30 line (Missouri's southern
border, roughly), and allowed it south of that line.
The controversy and compromise are significant for many reasons. Prior to 1820, it could perhaps be said that the Southern attitude towards slavery was that it was an evil, but one they were stuck with, and should work towards ending. By 1830, the South was well on its way to the "slavery as a positive good" attitude, and the Missouri question can be seen as a turning point in this evolution of attitudes.
Nullification and the Tariff
One of the few issues other than slavery which ever had a significant
sectional aura was the question of the tariff. In the antebellum years,
the Federal government's entire income was derived from tariffs on imports
and the sale of public lands. Manufacturers were interested in a high,
or protective, tariff in order to discourage competing imports; farmers
were interested in a low tariff which allowed them to buy European products
In 1828 Congress passed an extremely high tariff, which came to be known as the Tariff of Abominations. From the perspective of the South, this tariff was entirely to the benefit of the Northeast (note: not "North," but "Northeast") and amounted to a revenue transfer from the agrarian South to the industrial Northeast. (However, it needs to be noted that there was significant anti-tariff sentiment in the Northeast, due to the concentration of shipping interests there. After all, protectionism hurt the shipping industry by discouraging imports.)
In order to combat this tariff, but also for other, larger reasons (see below), South Carolina undertook to claim the right to nullify this tariff law. Nullification was an idea recently advanced by John C. Calhoun, whereby a state could declare null and void within its borders any act of the Federal Government that it did not agree with. While the immediate concern of the South Carolinians was the tariff, the correspondence between Calhoun and his associates makes plain that the tariff was a stalking horse issue for slavery (Calhoun to Virgil Maxcy, September 11, 1830, The Papers of John C. Calhoun, vol. 11, p. 229; cited in Hummell, p. 19, and Freehling, p. 272 and 275):
"I consider the Tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things..."
By trying out nullification on the tariff they could see if they can
make the case, and then use the same argument to protect slavery from any
encroachments by the Federal Government.
Nullification was effectively killed by the strong response of President
Andew Jackson, who made it very clear that he would enforce the Federal
laws in South Carolina, with force if necessary. While Congress voted to
lower the tariff, it also passed a Force Bill to authorize the President
to use force to collect the duties.
The tariff controversy gets too much attention as a cause of the sectional
disputes, primarily because it was not entirely a sectional issue. The
agrarian Midwest was equally a low-tariff region with the South, for example,
while the industrial Northeast would have sided with the Republicans in
1860 on anti-slavery issues almost regardless of the tariff. Only in Pennsylvania
was the tariff regarded as an important issue in the 1860 election.
The Gag Rule
Between 1836 and 1844 the US House of Representatives was the scene
of the unseemly practice of muzzling the free speech of its members and
their constituents. During this period of time it was against the rules
of the House to even entertain any petitions from members or their constituents
on the subject of slavery. The leading opponent of the "gag rule"
was the venerable and respected John Quincy Adams, former President and
now elderly Whig Congressman from Quincy. Adams's repeated attempts to
introduce petitions to the House -- which meant nothing more than that
the petition was read into what we would today call the record, not that
any action would be taken -- were met with a storm of invective, anger,
and contempt. At one point Adams excited near apoplexy from the Southern
members by attempting to submit a petition from actual slaves. When it
developed that the petition was in favor of slavery, the apoplexy at Adams's
effrontery turned to anger at his trickery. There was rich irony in the
Southern reaction when Adams submitted a petition from some of his constituents
who wished the House to consider dissolution of the Union, since they (the
petitioners) no longer wished to be politically joined with slaveholding
states. The speeches of some of the Southern members, many of whom were
principle actors on the scene in 1860-61, make interesting reading in the
light of subsequent events.
A recent book on the gag rule is Arguing About Slavery, by William
Lee Miller. I have just acquired it, but have not yet begun to read it.
The Mexican Cession and the Wilmot Proviso
On August 8th, 1846, David Wilmot, a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania,
proposed as an amendment to an appropriations bill, that slavery would
not be allowed in any territory seized from Mexico. Although his amendment
was easily killed in the Senate, the fact that he had even proposed it
generated yet another round -- ultimately, the fatal round -- of sectional
discord over slavery. The idea of limiting the growth of slavery, which
was at the nub of Wilmot's proposal, would form the core belief of the
Republican Party barely 10 years later. Before even that, it would lead
to the Crisis of 1850, which would only be resolved by the rickety Compromise
of 1850, and which would see the passing from the stage of some of the
giants of American political history (Clay, Calhoun, Webster) and their
replacement by a new generation of men (Davis, Douglas, Seward, etc.)
OK, where do we go from here? Future lectures will cover the following
Let me remind you all that my role is not to act as the all-knowing
or all-seeing, but rather as a guide for the discussion. The homework assignment
for those who wish to actively participate in the seminar, is to formulate
and post a (brief, temperate) statement of your own views on the two questions:
(1) Why did the two sections of the country, North and South, develop divergent
views on the question of secession and the nature of the Union? (2) What
could have prevented the sectional dispute from leading to Civil War? Until
next time ...
James F. Epperson