The Civil War: Causes and Effects

Subject: History
Pages: 11
Words: 2756
Reading time:
10 min
Study level: College


Many political events characterized the crisis that precipitated the Civil War (1861-1865). In the early 1850s, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted giving the former colony sovereign power to decide on whether to abolish or allow African slavery (Kelly 91). This single event turned Kansas into a battlefield pitting the proponents of slavery against abolitionists mainly from the North. Northerners wanted the territory to become a free Kansas state while the Southerners wanted it to retain slavery bringing to the fore the ideological differences between the Union and the Confederate. Besides slavery, the North and South differed in their economic models.

The North was industrializing fast while the South maintained the social order. The stark differences and disagreements over slavery, tariffs, the subjugation of individual rights, and federal/state powers precipitated the Civil War (Guelzo 55). This paper examines the issues central to the Civil War, its causes, and its effects on the Union.

Research Question

Although ending African slavery was the primary goal of the Civil War, some Northern soldiers fought on moral grounds while others battled to preserve the Union. This paper examines the research question: was the Civil War fought to end slavery, preserve the unity, and entrench individual rights or was it a struggle for equity? It is no doubt the conflict was a defining moment in American history coming after the Revolutionary War of the 1770s and the Constitution of the Republic. Its critical milestone was that it ensured Americans not only remain united but also enjoy the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution and an inclusive economic system. Though particular challenges, such as racism, threaten the unity and civil rights, the War shaped American society during the Reconstruction era and our unity and values in the modern era.

The Incompatible Economic Interests

The discussion of what caused the Civil War to break out primarily focuses on African slavery, individual freedoms, and state sovereignty. However, it can be argued that deeper issues related to socioeconomic disparities between the two regions precipitated the conflict. The rift between the North and the South has its roots in the colonial era where the slave trade thrived as a source of cheap labor to the plantations owned by white settlers. The antipathy between the North and South grew after the Republic was formed because the two regions pursued economic models that were largely antithetical.

According to Fleming, the North and South differed in industrialization levels and demands from the government (73). The North was attracting thousands of working immigrants and women seeking to work in new industries in main urban centers. The availability of cheap labor fueled industrialization in the North forcing entrepreneurs to lobby the government to protect them from cheap European imports (Fleming 77). In this view, the demands of the industrialized North were strikingly different from the agricultural South.

Fleming further contends that after the Revolution, the South became a cotton empire with huge tracts of arable land supporting plantations of tobacco, cotton, and rice for export (96). Therefore, the South reliance on slave labor is founded on economic prosperity argument. The prospect of the North dominating Congress and passing laws to raise tariffs caused fear among Southerners, which forced John Calhoun, the V.P., to insist that the region would annul any federal law considered unfair by the South (Fleming 97). It is evident that the Southerners held the belief that the area’s economic prosperity and African slavery were inextricably linked and could go to great lengths to protect their interests.

A standard argument was that a universal abolition of slavery across the Republic could ruin the Southern economy (Fleming 77). In fact, one of the justifications adduced by the South for the expansion of slavery was economic prosperity (Fleming 78).

The defenders of the slave system cited other slavery systems that drove the economies of Greece, Egypt, and Rome forward (Fleming 78). They further stated that the slavery system offered a civilized environment to African slaves making them better people than the savages in Africa. Therefore, unlike the North, the South could not do away with slavery sooner for fear of unknown economic repercussions. Even after the Proclamation of Amnesty, the Southern states retained African Americans as the serving class, which was a temporary economic measure (Guelzo 59). It could be argued that the economic interests of the South and the belief that abolishing African slavery would ruin the economy were at the center of the war between the factions.

The Constitution and Slave System

The U.S. Constitution in many ways accommodated the interests of the slave owners in the South. Slavery, as an institution, contributed immensely to the country’s economy, especially in the Southern states. McPherson writes that while black suffrage was not allowed, the Constitution allotted each slave three-fifths of a vote to boost the Southerners’ numerical strength in Congress (114). This statute enabled the South to have more influence on Federal matters than they could have based on the number of slaveholders.

The Reconstruction sought to expand the political freedoms of the freed slaves. The Southern states’ ratification of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution and the introduction of black suffrage epitomize the Reconstruction era (Foner 44). Radical Republicans were the proponents of the bill passed by Congress to enfranchise the African slaves. Thus, it could be argued that it is through the bill that the political rights were formally entrenched in the Constitution.

The Constitution was also not expressly clear on the status of slavery in the Republic. Article IV allowed fugitive African Americans to be integrated into society while Article I held that the complete abolition of the slave system would happen after two decades (Foner 64). Thus, the place of slavery in the Southern states was not clear in the Constitution upon the expiry of the 20 years in 1808. One can argue that the failure of the Constitution to indicate the place of slavery was meant to cushion the South from possible economic repercussions of an abrupt end of slavery. The vagueness of the Constitution on the issue of slavery was one of the factors fueling the war because it was prone to different interpretations by the factions.

Although the Reconstruction Acts and the Fourteenth Amendment conferred equal rights to freed slaves, the exclusionary practices in the South, such as excluding African Americans from the justice system and imposing severe penalties on black offenders was an attempt to maintain the socioeconomic order (Foner 82). Other legislative and economic measures, such as poll tax and the Ku Klux Klan’s violent attacks, aimed at reversing the black suffrage and individual freedoms (Foner 71). One can contend that one of the successes of Reconstruction was the direct Constitutional measures taken to abolish slavery in the new states. In this view, the legislators and policymakers resorted to exclusionary practices and violence in a bid to preserve the pre-Reconstruction political and socioeconomic status.

The States’ Rights

The issue of the rights of the states to permit or prohibit slavery was meant to protect the economic system of the slaveholding territories from possible repercussions of abolitionism. During the Westward expansion, some newly acquired territories became slave states while others joined as the Free States. Compromises such as 1850 Missouri Compromise gave rise to Free states (Maine) and slave states (Missouri) (Catton 56).

Congress also disallowed slavery in states to the South of the Missouri border (Catton 61). It would appear that the decision to keep some states free and others bondage might have been driven by the need to pacify tensions and promote unity. However, a more plausible explanation could be that the compromises, including the Fugitive Slaves Act, were enacted to give the slaveholding state’s transition to an industrial economy.

The Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slaveholding in states freed by Mexico, was formed out of fear that slavery would disadvantage an average worker against a slaveholder (Catton 72). Therefore, the dominant view was that abolishment was necessary to give non-slaveholders in the North a fair chance in the country’s economy. Proponents like James K. Polk believed that the act would quell the hard-line positions on the slavery issue during the western expansion (Catton 67). It would appear that the economy was the dominant issue shaping the debate on permitting or prohibiting slavery in the new states. Though slaveholding was a divisive issue between the North and the South, some compromises had to be made to protect the economy of the states formed from the western territories.

The idea of popular sovereignty further strengthened the states’ power for self-determination. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 gave the citizens of new states the right to allow or disallow slaveholding (Fleming 157). It can be argued that the reasoning behind this act was to preserve the unity, but most importantly to appease Southern settlers who favored slave labor for economic reasons. As a result, the pro-slavery groups fought to retain slave labor in Kansas.

Northerners led by the likes of John Brown had to battle with the pro-slavery faction to free the states (Fleming 158). Therefore, the antipathy between the two factions was fueled by differences in philosophical inclinations on the slavery issue and economic models. While the Northerners raised moral questions over slaveholding, the South fought to protect their way of life. Northern abolitionists like William Garrison considered Southerners as uncivilized, fueling the conflict (Catton 92). The 1863 proposal for gradual emancipation by Abraham Lincoln underscores his desire to protect the Southern economy from potential shocks.

The Self-preservation Position

One of the positions held by the pro-slavery sympathizers was self-preservation, which explains why they fought to retain slavery. They feared a race war if the slaves were freed. Sympathizers like Thomas Jefferson who openly denounced slavery as an immoral institution could not avoid pointing out its necessity (Fleming 118). Thus, though freedom-loving slaveholders might have wanted to free the slaves, the fear of reprisals forced them to oppose abolition. They were aware that the whole master-slave relationship was degrading to the black population but could not let go of enslaved men, especially after the Nat Turner revolt.

The enslaved African American, Nat Turner, inspired by the Bible, mobilized about 70 rebels to launch an attack on their masters killing 60 whites in 1831 (Kelly 29). In retaliation, local white militiamen caught and killed 56 slaves (Kelly 29). One can argue that this revolt entrenched fear the idea of self-preservation in the South, which bred the modern gun culture in America.

Slaveholding became the necessary evil the South needed to advance its economic welfare despite the moral and security issues involved. Therefore, at the center of the idea of self-preservation was the economics of the region. As Catton writes, the typical position in the South was that the economy would fail if slave labor were to be abolished (76). The Reconstruction Plan introduced industrialization and new technologies after the termination of slavery when the states ratified the 13th Amendment (Catton 85). Thus, the complete abolishment of slavery was achieved through legislative and economic measures.

The compromises made also underscored the self-preservation position of Southern states. The Missouri Compromise during the westward expansion was meant to balance between free and slaveholding states (Kelly 53). The Missouri state, which applied to join the Union, wanted to keep its slaveholding practices (Kelly 53). Thus, the issue of slave/free states was both political and moral. From a political standpoint, the parity between slave and free territories could be seen as a strategy to preserve local interests, which were primarily economic. Other states, such as Maine, joined as free territories. It could be argued that Southerners supported the idea of self-preservation even as the nation expanded westwards.

The spread of the abolitionist movement also forced the Southerners to develop a more robust defense for slaveholding. Initially, the justification for slavery focused on state rights and economic considerations. However, the abolitionists cited scriptural verses on conscience to attack the integrity of slaveholders. The Southerners justified their actions by saying that the Bible approves natural slavery and requires servants to obey their masters (Guelzo 55). However, the justification could be construed as serving the interests of the slaveholders, which explains why they were afraid of a revolt.

How the War Shaped America

Although during the Reconstruction era slaveholding was not completely out, the period saw America undergo significant social, political, and economic transformations. The Southern figures such as Hansel Beckworth battled to preserve the existing social order (Guelzo 112). Ultimately, the war changed the social system not just for the South but also in the North. One of the successes of the abolitionists of the North is the freedom of the enslaved blacks.

By eradicating slavery, the War changed the social and economic systems of the South and established the United States. Arguably, the war unified the states into one indivisible nation by bringing together the two opposing factions. It also eradicated the clamor for secession by Southern states to create America founded on national values. The federal government became the ultimate authority, and the states to the South had to be vetted afresh to join the Union.

The primary reason for going to the war was the emancipation of the enslaved Africans. Besides preserving the Union, as President Lincoln wanted, the war introduced political rights and expanded the freedoms of the African Americans in the South. During the war, the country enacted the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction Plan with implications on the social and economic systems.

Initially, the goal of the Reconstruction plan was to bring the conflict to an ending (Foner 79). The subsequent Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction restored individual rights to the former slaveholders who committed to ending slavery (Foner 79). It also introduced black suffrage and equality in American society. Thus, the war precipitated legislation that restored individual rights, which we still enjoy in contemporary America.

Freedom meant that African Americans were no longer in bondage. For the blacks, freedom meant that they had equal rights as those enjoyed by the white population (Catton 65). It encompassed individual and institutional independence, whereby whites no longer supervised activities such as learning and worshiping. Thus, the freedom extended to the right to worship and academic freedom.

Although the South experienced a dramatic transformation during the Reconstruction, the North too underwent significant changes. The North went through industrial expansion and socioeconomic changes that favored the growth of capitalism (Foner 156). In fact, the capitalist economy of today has its roots in the Reconstruction era. Sectors such as manufacturing, mining, and lumbering grew tremendously in the North during this period. Major infrastructural and railway projects were established to drive this growth. There were also changes in socioeconomic structure with white-collar employees replacing wage earners in industries (Foner 157). However, the Reconstruction plan failed to stimulate the same economic transformation in the South, which perpetuated the inequalities witnessed even today.

The Reconstruction also entailed the compensation of the slave owners to release the enslaved men. The settlement cost the country up to $2bn in the current rate (Guelzo 49). Further, by allowing serving class in the South, the Union enhanced economic disparities between the races. It can also be argued that the Reconstruction plan did not forthrightly deal with the issue of racial equality. In modern America, racial tensions flare up because the Reconstruction failed to address the slavery issue definitively, which led to racial segregation. It also did little to improve the economic condition of the freed African-Americans in the South.

Slavery also bred racism against blacks. Although the white masters showed paternalism towards the slaves under their care, it could be argued that they considered them an inferior race. As Guelzo points out, the slave owners showed concern, especially to house slaves, and held the belief that they were not responsible for the slaves’ suffering (121). The white slave owners developed the master-slave mentality, which made it hard for them to reconcile with the idea of slave resistance (Guelzo 125). They considered slaves lazy and intellectually inferior to whites, which arguably bred the racist attitudes and social classes we see today.


The Civil War indeed defined the history of modern America. It entrenched unity and the identity of being American and created the rights and freedoms that everyone enjoys today. The Civil War and the Reconstitution era had dramatic political and socioeconomic changes that remain up to today. However, the war also inadvertently entrenched racism and economic disparities in American society. In addition, there are obstacles to achieving racial equity present a challenge to the current generation.

Works Cited

Catton, Bruce. The Civil War. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.

Fleming, Thomas. A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. Boston, MA: De Capo Press, 2013. Print.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.

Guelzo, Allen. Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Kelly, Brian. Best Little Stories From The Civil War. Charlottesville, Virginia: Montpelier Publishing, 1995. Print.

McPherson, James. The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters. New York: Oxford, 2015. Print.