The Causes of the American Civil War

Subject: History
Pages: 6
Words: 1690
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


The American Civil War was a military conflict that occurred in the United States in 1861-1865, between the Union of 20 states and the four border slave states of the North that remained in the Union on the one hand, and the Confederation of 11 slave states of the South, on the other. The sharpest inconsistencies between various socio-economic regimes that prevailed in one state – the imperialist north and the slave south – became the key cause of the Civil War. Slavery was abolished, and the United States’ unity was preserved due to the Civil War, which cost a lot of lives (A Short History of The Civil War 514). The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which went into effect on December 18, 1865, made slavery illegal.

This opposition between the two sides was manifested for various reasons, and it is difficult to tell at first what reason was crucial. Slavery was usually considered the main cause of the war; however, it is hard to say that it was the only one. Moreover, it is debatable what nature it had primarily: moral or pragmatical. Another important reason for the war was state rights, which the Confederates believed the Union had no right to violate. However, the war also had economic contradictions behind it that were insoluble by peaceful means. Thus, this essay aims to decide what reason for the war was the most important because this would help to get a full understanding of the Civil War’s nature.

Slavery and Economic Issues

Since the 17th century, slavery has played a major part in the economy of British possessions in North America. In the north of the mainland, black slaves were mostly domestic servants, while in the south, their labor was widely used on agricultural plantations (Acharya et al. 621). Slavery was abolished in northern states after the War of Independence. However, in the south, at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the profitability of using slave labor increased as planters switched to growing cotton, which was in high demand on the global market.

Due to the rapid depletion of land in the south of the United States, it became necessary to relocate to new areas in the west. Simultaneously, the southerners were confronted with a new influx of immigrants: free farmers who were not associated with slavery. New administrative units were formed on lands seized from Indians and neighboring states, and colonies were ransomed from the Europeans; territories were later transformed into states.

Whether to accept new states into the United States as slave states or free states arose in the 1820s. Slavery was prohibited north of the 36° 30′ latitude, a special agreement passed by the United States Congress (Acharya et al. 635). The compromise lasted until 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was passed, allowing residents of these two states to choose whether or not they wanted to be slaves. However, over time, disagreements arose between proponents and opponents of slavery. Anti-slavery politicians founded the Republican Party in 1854, and, six years later, Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln won the elections (A Short History of The Civil War 38).

Nevertheless, riots erupted in the South after Lincoln was roundly rejected. Representatives of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana announced their secession from the United States and the formation of a new state known as the Confederate States of America (A Short History of The Civil War 56). Confederate forces attacked and captured Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which was the beginning of the Civil War.

Thus, slavery was one of the reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War, but it was primarily economic. The conflict arose because the North and the South held completely incompatible values. By this time, the North had become industrialized, a consumer society had formed, and hired labor had emerged. In the South, on the other hand, a slave-based agricultural society thrived. However, political contradictions played an important role since there was a conflict of power between the federal and state governments. Southern states considered slavery as their affair and that the North had no right to interfere in.

Struggle for Power and Autonomy

Many who fought for the South may have had a variety of motivations, including protecting their homeland, upholding their way of life, or disdain for the Yankees. However, objectively, they all fought for slavery, no matter how personally they treated it. The Constitution of the Confederation inscribed slavery as an integral part of the state system (DeMarco). Nevertheless, although slavery was a major issue in the conflict, it is impossible to say without a doubt that it was the primary cause, given the large number of slave owners among the northerners. Furthermore, three slave states, Delaware, Kentucky, and Maryland, remained on the North’s side; two states – Virginia and Missouri – were divided over this issue (DeMarco). The country’s unity was more important to a significant portion of the northern population than the attitude toward slavery. Among the southerners, there were also principled opponents of slavery, such as General Robert Lee. This does not, however, change the fact that the Confederacy was a slave state.

Political contradictions played a grand role in the relationship between the Union and the Southern states. The population of the Northern states was replenished by free emigrants, while the population of the Southern states was replenished by slaves imported from other countries. As a result, by the early 1860s, only a quarter of the population of the Southern States had the right to vote. Southerners feared that with this dynamic in place, all contentious political issues in Congress would be decided by a majority vote in favor of the North. Furthermore, the North’s central government wanted to exert influence over all states, whereas the Southern Territories wanted to maintain local autonomy.

The secession was based on the idea of ​​”state rights,” which extolled the authority of individual states over the authority of the Federal government. It is founded on the theory of state sovereignty, claiming that in the United States, the main burden of political power lies with the individual states (Chacon & Jensen 32). In keeping with state rights, feelings of loyalty to the state prevail over national patriotism. Before the war, this principle found expression in various forms and at different times, both in the North and in the South, and during the war, it was reborn in the Confederacy.

Many northerners believed that Congress had the power to prohibit slavery, as it had done in the Northwest Territory in the Northwest Ordinance and the portion of the Louisiana Purchase. Some argued for squatter sovereignty, which allowed settlers to decide whether or not to allow slavery in a given area independently, a principle enshrined in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (DeMarco). Pro-slavery southerners, on the other hand, insisted that any prohibition of slavery, whether enacted by Congress or by residents, was unconstitutional.

The sovereign states delegated to Congress the authority to make certain “rules and regulations” for the territories, but not to set the main course for them, according to proponents of slavery. The federal government must act as the ordinary trustee of the states in this matter and enforce state laws, particularly those relating to slavery (Chacon & Jensen 9). State rights were no longer just defenses of local autonomy; they were also vehicles for extending state laws to people living outside of those states.

Although states’ rights became an important sign of the Confederate movement, Jefferson Davis did not let this ideology deter him from establishing a strong federal government, which he saw essential to winning the war. He convinced the Confederate Congress to pass laws authorizing conscription into the army, confiscating private property (known as impressment), the declaration of martial law, and the suspension of habeas corpus rights (DeMarco). States’ sovereignty was originally a unifying ideology around which Southerners rallied to the Confederate cause at the outbreak of the Civil War. Still, wartime demands compelled government and elected leaders to compromise their lofty principles. State rights were a personal issue and a political one and were seen as an assault on an entire population and their way of life. Slavery was seen as a metaphor for the plight of Southerners in this situation, who were portrayed as powerless captives by a federal government now controlled by anti-slavery Republicans.

The contradictions in state rights that led to the Civil War were also economic. The North needed protective duties to protect the fragile US industry from cheap imports. The South feared that retaliatory duties would undermine its cotton export earnings. On the other hand, the development of industry in the North required a sharp expansion of the internal market – the market for goods and labour, and this, in turn, rested on the existence of slavery. The presence of a slave-owning agricultural sector in the American economic system doomed it to the role of a raw material appendage of industrial England. Therefore, the bourgeoisie of the northern states began to learn more and more about the struggle against the planters of the South for the abolition of slavery. The state rights, in this case, were a means of political struggle to protect the economic interests of the southerners.


All the reasons behind the American Civil War played an important role in it. It is impossible to say unequivocally that they were decisive since they intersected with each other in many ways. If slavery was the primary cause of the conflict, it is fair to assume that the battle against it was mostly economic, rather than ethical. Slavery was disadvantageous to the northerners, as it held back the economy and hindered the development of domestic demand. State rights were also important to southerners politically, but no less economically. If the northerners had won a complete victory over the southerners, politically and legally, the slavery economy would have ended. Therefore, protecting the rights of states was a political means of fighting for economic advantage. Based on this, it can be concluded that all three of the above reasons are equally important for the Civil War.


Acharya, Avidit, et al. “The Political Legacy of American Slavery.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 78, no. 3, 2016, pp. 621–41. Crossref. Web.

Chacon, Mario & Jensen, Jeffrey. “The Institutional Determinants of Southern Secession.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017. Crossref. Web.

DeMarco, Michael. “States’ Rights” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (2020). Web.

A Short History of The Civil War. London, DK Publishing, 2020.