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Intrastate conflicts and conflicts between states many times are complicated matters and arise as a result of multiple grievances which have accumulated over years, decades and even centuries. The American Civil War is not a single issue conflict, but a conflict that was simmering for almost 60 years over a number of issues: slavery, tariffs, states rights in the Union, enlargement of the Union, inbalance and inaction of Congress, clash between the unitarism of the North and regionalism of the South. The American Civil War was a conflict between the Northern and Southern states, with the North fighting for the preservation of the Union, the South fighting for their right to own slaves and preserve their decision to leave the Union.
The causes of a conflict can be many and varying as there are many tensions and issues that go unresolved over a period of time between the opposing sides. It is sometimes very hard to distinguish what are the crucial issues that made the conflict possible in the first place. In the case of the American Civil War (1861-1865) two separate sides existed in the North and the South. The growing disparity between the Northern and Southern states in terms of wealth and development, with the North having a large manufacturing industry which was protected by high import duty tariffs. This allowed the North unfretted access to domestic markets, and allowed the accumulation of wealth. The South on the other hand was highly dependent on agriculture, and the backbone of the South’s agricultural economy were slaves. Trading and manufacturing consisted of a small proportion of the South’s economy, and the South also depended on the banks from the North and the manufactured goods from the North. The South was also a promoter of free trade in the Union and opposed the protectionist tariffs which made the goods from the North expensive to purchase. The economies of the North and South were not in direct competition, but were complementary and co-dependent.
Slavery was allowed under the Constitution of the United States , and in order to provide certainty with the Southern States, the Congress reached the so called “Missouri compromise”which had a dividing line where new free states are allowed and where new non-free states were allowed. The Missouri compromise kept a balance in the number of slave and non-slave (free) states at equilibrium and which became void after addition of new free states South from the Missouri line. With the addition of the new states of Kansas and Nebraska, the Northern and Southern states entered into a new conflict on how the states should be ordered (free, non-free) and a proxy armed conflict erupted between abolitionist and proslavery groups. To resolve this conflict the US Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) allowing new territories to decide on slavery through popular sovereignty (referendum), bypassing the Missouri compromise. This created uproar with abolitionists who were not satisfied with the deal that was reached with the South The Kansas-Nebraska Act did not reduce the level of conflict in the new states, as the abolitionist and proslavery groups waged guerilla warfare up until 1861.
The Northern American states gradually abolished slavery in a period between 1774 and 1804. Slavery was not a widespread practice in the North nor was the North highly dependent on their labour. In 1806 Congress also banned the importation of new slaves from Africa, thus limiting slaves to be sourced only from existing slave populations found in the United States. There was hope by many in the Union that over time slavery would be phased out and abolished over time. The differing view on how society should be organised between the North and the South on the issue of slavery divided the Union into two camps. The South insisted that slavery was a way of life in the South, where as the Northern states claimed that slavery had no place in the Union. This issue became a heated matter when abolitionists (anti-slavery) movement in the North starting from 1830 went in direct confrontation with the southern states by actively interfering the the matters of state and property by supporting the smuggling (liberating) slaves and transporting them to the North through the so called Underground Railroad which helped 40,00-100,000 slaves to reach freedom, causing losses to slave owners in the South.
The abolitionists were also involved in violent and armed confrontation (guerilla warfare) with pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska through 1851-1861. The failed attempt by John Brown to instigate a slave uprising at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, only galvanised the Southern states against the Northern States and their interference in their matters. Slavery was upheld many times by Congress and by the Supreme Court as a constitutional, like in the Dred Scott Decision when a slave owner was able to assert his right of owning a slave in a free state. In a speech made by Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration speech on the 4th of March 1861 affirmed his position towards slavery in the Union:
“I declare that – I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Speech, 4th of March 1861
With the passing of Thirteenth Amendment towards the end of the Civil War in 1865 after a considerable effort from president Lincoln , only shows that slavery was not the primary cause of the war, and if that was the fact then the Thirteenth Amendment would have been passed much earlier if this was the unifying matter of the war.
The passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 caused a split in the Democratic Party along the issue of slavery in the Union. The split in the Democratic Party paved the way to the creation of the Republican Party which had a strong unitarist view of the role of the Union and that of Congress. It also espoused the abolishment of slavery throughout the Union as well. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who was a staunch republican, raised fear with the Southern States that during his mandate the Congress would abolish slavery.
Over time the North and the South developed differently economically and socially placing the North and the South in direct confrontation with each other. One would have thought that the abolishment of slavery on a Federal level was possible through Congress, however, there was no political will to impose the will of the majority over the minority of the Southern States. In the same inauguration speech Lincoln explained the split in the Union on the matter of slavery:
“One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.”
– Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
The Southern States promoted self rule with the least amount of interference from Congress as possible. The Southern states were also for free-trade and low tariffs for manufactured goods, whereas the North was in favour of a strong tariff regime which favoured their manufacturing industries. The Northern states favoured a strong Union and a single view of what the values of the Union were without room for local or regional flavours of social hierarchies.
In his inauguration speech, Lincoln condemned the unlawful act of secession of the Southern States from the Union:
“We find the proposition that, in legal contemplation, the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And, finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Speech, 4th of March 1861.
This position of the unlawfulness of secession was affirmed in Lincoln’s message to Congress held in a special session on the 4th of July, 1861:
“The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this they can only do so against law and by revolution.”
Lincoln in many of his addresses, letters and speeches was more concerned with the unilateral declaration of secession by the Southern States which went against the Articles of Association of 1774 which made the Union unresolvable unless all states agreed. As the Northern states did not agree with declaration of the Southern States in the eyes of the Articles of Association and the law this was an illegal act and outside the law.
The eruption of the American Civil War created a contest between two sides, one the North fighting for the preservation of the Union and fighting against slavery, and the other (South) fighting for the preservation of slavery and rights of the states to conduct their own affairs without the interference from Congress. It would be simplistic to view that slavery as main cause of the American Civil War, as it would not capture the many other facets of contention between the North and the South, after the abolishment of slavery in the Northern states in 1804. It was from this point that the Union diverged in terms of social, political and economic structure creating a stronger chasm with each passing year. The North possessed a strong unitaritic view on how the Union should operate and their view of the future of society and the Union, whereas the South believed in more loose Union which allowed larger regional differences and freedom of choice which would not be governed from Congress. Lincoln’s drive to preserve the Union was the primary driver of the Civil War, not the need to abolish slavery across all of the states.
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