The American Civil War did not occur within a vacuum. Years of political discourse, regional maneuvering, and ideological dueling between the northern and southern states led to the break up of the United States and the war that followed.
African slavery, existent in America since early colonial days, stood at the heart of the political developments that led to the Civil War. While the agricultural South in the first half of the nineteenth century became ever more dependent upon slave labor, increasing northern opposition to the expansion of slavery — on both moral and economic grounds (the latter expressed in a desire to keep slavery confined to the South in order to maintain job opportunities for whites in the North and on the expanding western frontier) — called into question the ethical legitimacy of the South’s slaveocracy while posing a serious threat to southern ambitions to spread slavery westward.
In the 1850s, the tension between the two regions was becoming unbearable. The Whig Party, unable to navigate the treacherous waters of the slavery controversy, collapsed. In its place stepped forward the newly-formed Republican Party, an avowedly anti-slavery party whose sudden ascendancy and ideological platform upended the nation’s fragile political balancing ace. When Abraham Lincoln emerged victorious in the 1860 presidential election, Southern politicians, planters and religious leaders immediately disparaged him as “the black president” whose goal was to eradicate southern slavery, and to whom the South would never submit. Refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Lincoln’s election as president, southern planters in the Deep South — long controllers of the levers of southern politics — determined to create their own nation in order to protect and forever preserve African slavery, the “peculiar institution” that was the source of their wealth, power, and social standing.
Following are selected online introductory resources that are helpful in obtaining a general understanding of the larger political dynamics of the American Civil War:
Secession and the Politics of the Civil War, 1860-1865 (Encyclopedia Britannica)
The Time of the Lincolns (PBS American Experience)
Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of the Civil War (The State of Pennsylvania)
Politics in Illinois and the Union During the Civil War (Northern Illinois University)
America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War (compiled by the University of Houston)
For deeper reading concerning the events leading up to the war, the following Pulitzer Prize-winning books are highly recommended:
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James McPherson
The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter
Most important of all for contextualizing the causes of the Civil War are primary sources. The following key historical documents are imperative to a good understanding of the politics that led to the Civil War:
Missouri Compromise (1820) – A compromise between slavery and anti-slavery political factions that confined slavery in the expanding western territories to the South, with the exception of Missouri. Prior to the Missouri Compromise, slavery had long been a simmering political problem. With the passage of the Compromise, slavery was thrust to the forefront of American politics, where it would remain until the end of the Civil War.
South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification (1832) – An economic slump in the 1820s and U. S. tariff acts in 1828 and 1832 adversely impacted the slave-based, agricultural southern economy by making northern products more expensive and cotton exports less competitive. South Carolina responded by annulling the acts within state boundaries, and beginning military preparations to defend against potential U. S. efforts to enforce the tariffs.
United States Force Bill (1833) – Formerly entitled “An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports“, the Force Bill empowered military force to enforce federal tariffs, and was in response to South Carolina’s refusal (in 1832, the Nullification Crisis) to collect federal tariffs. This was the first U. S. legislation to publicly deny the rights of states to secede from the Union, as South Carolina had implicitly threatened to do. A military clash was avoided when Congress quickly negotiated a new tariff bill that satisfied South Carolina, and the state in turn repealed its Nullification Ordinance.
American Anti-Slavery Society Manifesto (1833) – The stated goals and rationale of the then-three year old American Anti-Slavery Society. The Society’s rationale for eradicating slavery was based on the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, and created further tension between slavery and anti-slavery political factions.
Wilmot Proviso (1846) – A highly controversial attempt to ban slavery in any lands acquired from Mexico, the Proviso passed the House but failed in the Senate, where the South had greater representation. Further attempts to pass the bill also failed. This anti-slavery legislation significantly heightened political tensions between the free states of the North and slave states of the South, leading to secessionist talk from a growing number of southern politicians.
Compromise of 1850 (1850) – A package of bills passed by Congress that addressed growing sectional tensions following the Wilmot Proviso. While neither side obtained all it desired, the Compromise temporarily quelled secessionist rhetoric. Texas surrendered claims to New Mexico, in return for debt relief and additional land. The South gave up rights to Southern California and automatic slavery in the Southwest, in return receiving the right to try for slavery by popular vote in the territories of New Mexico and Utah; a stronger Fugitive Slave Act (a legal means of ensuring escaped slaves were returned to their owners); and the continuation of slavery in the nation’s capital (Washington, D.C.). The free-state North was unhappy with the enhanced Fugitive Slave Act, but achieved a ban on the slave trade in the District of Columbia, apart from a small, set-apart slave market district. Extremists on both sides were upset with the Compromise, none more so than Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) – The Act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opened new lands to settlers, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and provided settlers in the two territories the right to determine whether they would allow slavery within their boundaries (popular sovereignty). Initially envisioned as a way to create opportunities for a Mideastern Transcontinental Railroad, the Act became controversial when popular sovereignty was included within the proposal. Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas included popular sovereignty in an effort to soothe tensions between North and South. Instead, northern opponents were outraged, accusing Douglas of capitulating to the slave states. In response, Douglas’ opponents created a new political party, the Republican Party, which in turn would soon doom the Whig Party.
Republican Party Platform (1856) – Anti-slavery Whigs and Free Soil Democrats joined to create the Republican Party in 1854, and in 1856 nominated John C. Frémont as the first Republican presidential nominee. Frémont did not win the election, but the party gained enough influence that they altered the national political landscape going forward.
Dred Scot v. Sandford (1857) – Commonly known as the Dred Scot Decision, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that African slaves and their descendants could never become U. S. citizens; that the Congress could not prohibit slavery in federal territories; that slaves (as non-citizens) could not sue in court; and that slaves (as chattel, or private property) could not be taken away from their owners. Slave holding states were ecstatic, while many northerners were shocked and outraged at the decision.
Crittenden Compromise (1860) – An unsuccessful proposal by Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden to resolve the U.S. secession crisis in the aftermath of Dred Scot and following the presidential election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, the compromise was comprised of six proposed constitutional amendments and four proposed Congressional resolutions. In essence, the compromise called for the permanent return of the Missouri Compromise line, thus guaranteeing slavery south of the 36° 30′ parallel and prohibiting it to the north. The compromise included a clause that it could not be appealed or revoked. When the proposal failed, the South’s road to secession was sealed.