THE SIMMERING SPARKS: An Analysis of the Causality of the Civil War

       The causality of the Civil War was a combination of economic and social events and trends over the course of American history that hardened into two separate irreconcilable regional ideologies of the industrialized Republican North that supported free labor against the plantation-owning Democrat South that supported slavery. This broad paradigm can be further subdivided by each criterion. Key economic events and trends leading up to the Civil War included the nature of the regional economic systems and disputes over the governmental level of power on fiscal and monetary policy. Key social events and trends leading up to the Civil War encompassed the distinct racial nature of American slavery exacerbating a Southern paranoia of a slave revolt, the promotion of the rugged individual through the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism to reform society, the proliferation of militancy in armed groups, the failure of legal compromises between the two regions, questionable Supreme Court decisions, the political polarization of the North and South, and the revolutionary mindset of both sides. These economic and social “simmering sparks” exploded in the nationalistic powder keg that was the shelling of Fort Sumter. Thus, the causality to the Civil War was paved in the irreconcilable differences of economic and social differences between the North and the South.

Slave Population in the South, courtesy of the LoC
Slave Population in the South, courtesy of the LoC

 The nature of the Southern economic system was the plantation system, which demanded a three part structure of exportable cash crops, labor, and land. Cash crops, such as tobacco, sugar, and cotton, were valuable exports to Europe, but took nutrients out of the soil and required virgin land after a period of time.[1] In order to clear arable lands of competing foliage and to harvest the cash crops, the owners needed labor in the form of Indians – who died out, indentured servants – who rebelled and had rights as white Englishmen, and finally optimized in African slaves – who were chattel property without rights.[2] This system led Southerners to invest in land and in slaves, as seen in the punitive expeditions to take arable land for cash crops, such as in the Mississippi Delta through the Louisiana Purchase, Texas through the Texan Revolution, the Mexican Cession through the Mexican-American War, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico, by agents such as the Knights of the Golden Circle and revolutionary filibusters.[3] Thus, for the Southern economic way of life to succeed, the plantation system with its demands of land, labor, and capital had to continuously spread across North America.

            The nature of the Northern economic system was based on industry and infrastructure in manufacturing, transportation, and communications. While the South invested in an agrarian plantation society, the North invested in a dynamic society of mechanization and technological progress. Northerners invested in railroads, canals, and machines – like the McCormick reaper – which allowed for a demographic of small land owners in the West from the North and an urban labor class, mostly German and Irish immigrants, to build infrastructure and to work in factories.[4] This infrastructure and industry promoted urbanization, mechanization, and eventually the mass production of goods for sale within the North. This industrial economy was invested in mechanization and technological progress in communications and transportation.

Railroad Flyer, courtesy of the Internet Archive
Railroad Flyer, courtesy of the Internet Archive

 The nature of these competing regional economies came into political conflict during disputes over the fiscal and monetary policies of the United States.  There was tension between the regions over the existence of the Bank of the United States. President Andrew Jackson vetoed the extension of its charter, as Southerners claimed it infringed on their states’ rights against the Northern view that the bank provided for a more secure currency and greater fiscal stability for their grandiose investments.[5] Another fiscal policy that came into debate was the tariff rate, as the North wanted a high tariff to protect its nascent domestic industry, while the South wanted a low tariff to promote its export of cash crops abroad. The conflict between the competing economies flared over the high Tariff of Abominations of 1828. Southerners “blame[d] their economic woes on the tariff, which seemed to act as a form of indirect taxation on the South for the benefit of the North.”[6] The economic issue then became a political-military problem when South Carolina adopted the policy of nullification, or the state veto of federal legislation and a subtle form of secession, against the Tariff of Abominations, which escalated in Jackson’s proposal of the Force Bill for direct armed federal intervention against nullification.[7] Ultimately, tensions settled with the compromise Tariff of 1833, but the irreconcilable differences between the Northern and Southern economic systems remained.[8] The exporting cash crop of the economy of the South and the protectionist industrial economy of the North clashed over monetary and fiscal policies.

            The very institution of American slavery was racialized in its origins which promoted a distinctly Southern paranoia of a slave revolt. Laws in 1662 forbid the sexual intercourse of white women and black men and any offspring of an interracial relationship followed the status of the mother.[9] This racial dichotomy meant that white masters could engage in fornication with slave women without penalty, but any attempt by black males to have sex with white women would result in criminal punishment. Slave codes appeared in the early 1700s that limited the education and the movement of black slaves.[10] Judge John Saffin argued that the Old Testament and racism allowed for slavery and the provision that African Americans did not have equal rights in 1701.[11] Perhaps the most racialized fear was that of the slave revolt, in which Southerners expected the black slaves to kill all whites they came across and raped any white woman they saw. The Nat Turner revolt manifested this fear after which the South developed a paranoia of their property rising up against them: “they [the Southern whites] could ‘never again feel safe, never again be happy’.”[12] This anxiety led the Southern whites to become more militant in the form of slave patrols and blamed Northern abolitionists for fomenting revolt within their peculiar institution, further increasing tensions between the North and South.

            Another change the led to the Civil War was the rugged individualism of the 1800s created by the Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalist literary movement. Demagogic preachers, such as Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney, stirred Northern revival attendees in the burned over district at camp meetings to reform themselves, and then to reform society.[13] Another offshoot of this preaching that spawned rugged individualism was the Transcendentalist literary movement championed by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He demanded that become reform themselves with God, writing, “self makes sin; we were made to become better; because you are a free agent, God can only remove sin by the concurrence of the sinner.”[14] This notion of the rugged individual reforming society had a purpose, which was to bring about the millennium or the Second Coming. Thus, adherents to these motivating doctrines were more willing to fight “the sin of slavery,” as Garrison would say, and make conflict more likely to bring about God’s kingdom.[15] God, in their minds, would surely support their cause and resolve.[16] Thus, the causality of the war took on a religious apocalyptic direction, as adherents of rugged individualism through religion and transcendentalism sought to fix society by force if necessary.

            The militancy of the 1850s contributed to the destabilization of the Union. The fighting in 1854, or “Bleeding Kansas,” between the anti-slavery Jayhawks using Beecher’s Bibles, shipped in crates marked Bibles, against the pro-slavery Missourian Bushwhackers and boarder ruffians.[17] The Wide Awakes, a silent drill and abolitionist escort team, and Zouaves, flamboyant acrobats who indulged in bayonet drills, continued this militancy across the North, as they used enlistment papers, military ranks, drills, lavish uniforms, and military equipment along with a quasi-political agenda to entice members to support their causes.[18] This militancy came to a high point when it fused with the paranoia of the South during John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, where he sought to take the federal arsenal and arm slaves against the Southern gentry.[19] This incident seemed to validate the South’s fear of a slave revolt supported by Northern abolitionists. Thus, as the Union moved closer to war, groups organized to participate in skirmishing and the future combat.

Wide Awakes, courtesy of the Journal of American History
Wide Awakes, courtesy of the Journal of American History

            The disappointment of compromising legislation in which neither side was pleased resulted in future confrontations and an increased polarization between the North supporting the federal government and the limit of slavery against the South supporting the states’ rights and the expansion of slavery. This vexation started before the 1800s. The 3/5ths Compromise of the Constitution counted slaves as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation, which the South came to regret as immigrants flooded into the North, skewing voting.[20] The Fugitive Slave Law of 1790 gave the responsibility of returning runaway slaves that crossed state lines to the federal government, but their agents weakly enforced the provision which students and abolitionists protested, much to the chagrin of Southern slave owners.[21] The Northwest Land Ordinance of 1787 gave Congress the power to outlaw slavery in the territories, which later became contested under the Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Dred Scott decision which superseded the legislation.[22] Slavery was a hot topic in Congress between the North and the South before the 1800s.

            The 1800s had several key legislative movements of attempted compromise, which failed to keep pace with the competing regional ways of life. The Compromise of 1820 sought to settle the question of the status of Missouri, part of the Louisiana Purchase, by having the state enter the Union with slavery, Maine entering as a free state, and the creating the 36° 30’ line to divide the national boundaries between free and slave territories.[23] The Spot Resolution and the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 challenged the morality of the Mexican-American War and the hope to prevent slavery in the Mexican Cession respectively, and spurred debate on the nature of slavery in Congress.[24] The Compromise of 1850, instituted California as a free state, Texas as a single state, a harsher fugitive slave law, banning the sale of slaves in Washington, D.C., and popular sovereignty in the territories, further expanded the gap between Northern and Southern interests.[25] Popular sovereign, or Stephen Douglas’s conceptualization that the residents of a territory could decide whether the territory would have slavery during its tenure and during statehood, demolished the Compromise of 1820, and was legalized in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.[26] John Crittenden made final attempt to compromise between the North and the South by extending the 36° 30’ line to California, banning abolition in D.C., promised federal government non-interference with the domestic slave trade, and compensation to owners of runaway slaves, but this conciliatory approach failed to win over any adherents on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.[27] The pace of disparity between the North and the South represented in the conflict over slavery in the territories made compromise temporary and less than satisfying for both sides.

            Cases before the Supreme Court contributed to the destabilization of the North and South. The cases involving the Cherokee, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia, brought in question the relative power of Indian tribes, the state government, and the federal government.[28] Justice Robert Taney wrote the Dred Scot Decision which contended that blacks were not citizens of the United States and that Congress could not regulate slavery in the territories.[29] This judgment superseded the Compromise of 1820 and the Northwest Land Ordinance of 1787 in favor of popular sovereignty, leading to increased violence between Bushwhackers and Jayhawks in Missouri and the nation as a whole. The Cherokee Cases and the Dred Scot Decision created consternation between the North and South over the spheres of the levels of American governments and the administration of the territories on slavery.

Political Cartoon of the 1860 election, courtesy of the LoC
Political Cartoon of the 1860 election, courtesy of the LoC

            Political parties, after absorbing single-issue party groups, became further regionalized and polarized over time. The Liberty Party under James C. Birney in 1844 pushed an abolitionist agenda as his platform, which was later absorbed by the Free Soil Party.[30] The Free Soil Party in 1848 had the platform of “free soil, free labor, and free men,” that sought to stop the spread of slavery into the territories and to promote free homesteads out West.[31] This standing became the platform of the Republican Party following the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a regional coalition of Northern Whigs, Northern Democrats, and Free Soil politicians against Southern Democrats and border state Copperheads who promoted popular sovereignty and the expansion of slavery.[32] A microcosm of this violent polarization would be when Preston Brooks, a Southern Congressman, caned Charles Sumner, a rabid abolitionist.[33] This regional divide became illustrated in the election of 1860, with the moderate Constitutional Union Party with John Bell carrying the border states, the few remaining Northern “dough-face” Democrats voting for Stephen Douglas, who did poorly in the election, Southerners supporting Democrat candidate John Breckenridge, and the Republicans under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln wining the North with its booming population, making the Rail Splitter a plurality president.[34] Political parties absorbed third parties overtime which influenced their agendas, and the failure of compromise led to the regionalization of the North being associated with Republicans and the Southern elites being synonymous with the Democrats.

Dred Scott
Dred Scott

The final spark that lit the fuse of the Civil War was the fulfillment of the revolutionary potential of both sides in the secession of the South, the shelling of Fort Sumter, and the mobilization of troops. Following the election of Lincoln, the seven states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas ceded from the Union.[35] Both sides viewed the other as revolutionary, as the North viewed Southern secession as illegal and must be checked to preserve the American democratic experiment by holding the rule of law written by the Founding Fathers, and the South viewed the Northern political might as aggressive tyranny which the Founding Fathers had fought against in the Revolutionary War.[36] The revolution reached the point of no return with the ignition of the powder keg, the shelling of Fort Sumter, which symbolized the irreconcilably differences Northern and Southern ways of life.[37] When the fortress fell, both sides responded with fervent militant nationalism outcries, and sought to right the wrongs – at this point in time, secession and Yankee imperialism – through a call to arms, such as Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers, which made the war inevitable.[38] Both sides of the Civil War viewed their region as checking the grievous error of the other with spirit of the Founding Fathers on their side as war became a reality.

            The two key causes of the Civil War were the regional disparities on economic structuring and social constructions. Key economic issues included the competing natures of the Southern plantation system and the Northern industrial system which resulted in differences over monetary and fiscal policies, such as tariff rates and the Bank of the United States. Social constructs that destabilized the United States included the racial nature of American slavery, rugged individualism which stressed reform and millennialism, the proliferation of militancy in the 1850s, the disappointment of compromise, the intervention of the Supreme Court, the polarization of political parties, and the revolutionary potential of both sides. The Civil War resulted from the irreconcilable economic and social differences between the North and the South, who sought to preserve their way of life against the aggression of the other region.


AP Photo. “Dred Scott.” Politico. June 29, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.

Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. First Vintage Books Ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

Masur, Louis P. 1831: Year of Eclipse. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Rovito, Thomas. “Civil War Era.” Class Notes. Taught by Dr. Keith Burich.

——. “The Duality of 1831: An Age of Pessimism and of Optimism in the Gradual Regionalization and Power Demarcation of America.” Civil War Era, 2013.

——. “The Second American Revolution: From Compromise to Confrontation.” Civil War Era, 2013.

[1] Thomas Rovito, “Civil War Era,” Class Notes, taught by Dr. Keith Burich, 8/27.

[2] Thomas Rovito, “Civil War Era,” 8/27.

[3] Ibid., 8/27, 9/17.

[4] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 170-179.

[5] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, 139.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Ibid., 167-168.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 8/27

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 8/29.

[12] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, 11.

[13] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/10.

[14] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, 72.

[15] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/13.

[16] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/13

[17] Ibid., 9/24.

[18] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, 48, 188.

[19] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/26.

[20] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 8/29.

[21] Ibid., 8/29.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 9/24.

[24] Ibid., 9/19.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/26.

[27] Ibid., 10/1.

[28] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, 121-126.

[29] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/24.

[30] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 9/17.

[31] Ibid. 9/19.

[32] Ibid., 9/24.

[33] Ibid., 9/26.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 10/1.

[36] Thomas Rovito, “Class Notes,” 10/1.

[37] Ibid., 10/3.

[38] Ibid.


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