Causes of the Civil War
truly want to be faithful stewards of the past, Americans need to recall
what the war was about: slavery and the definition of human liberty.
And the Civil War's true legacy is not about Big Government or today's
political skirmishing --- it's about a nation's obligation to live up to the
best part of itself. Slavery was an evil, and it had to be defeated."
--- Jon Meacham, Executive Editor of Random House, in
"America's War Without End," Parade Magazine, April 10, 2011, p. 19.
"The next time you hear someone proclaim that secession was about state's
rights, not slavery, ask what right it was that the seceding states were so
anxious to protect."
--- Gordon C. Rhea, attorney, historian, and author in "A
Civil Discourse," Charleston Magazine, April 2011, pp.67-73.
"Peaceable secession is organized by anarchy"
--- Harper's Weekly editorial on April 20, 1861
Slavery and State's Rights
Students of the Civil War are familiar with generally stated reasons
for the war: slavery and states-rights. Other factors mentioned include
sectionalism (cultural, economic and social differences between the North and
South), changes in the balance of power (Southern perceptions about declining
and party politics (increased interest in the Second Party
In some respects, the US Constitution provided the environment that produced
the Civil War.1 The Constitution allowed the existence of
slavery in the United States and the Tenth Amendment provided the basis of
States' rights. The Tenth Amendment says that "The powers not delegated to
the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States,
are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
This led to the concept that states had certain rights and political
powers in relation to the federal government. The States' rights concept is
generally used to defend a state law that the federal government seeks to
override or to oppose an action by the federal government that is perceived
to exceed federal authority.
Actions by the federal government that the states believed were in conflict with
the Tenth Amendment resulted in counter measures by the states to declare the
actions "null and void" within their state. When Congress passed
protective tariffs In 1828 to benefit trade in the northern states, South
Carolina responded with its own Nullification Ordinance in 1832.
Perhaps the issue of states' rights vs. slavery is best expressed by Charles
Sumner in 1860 on the Bill for the Admission of Kansas as a Free State:
"Therefore, there are two apparent rudiments to this war. One is Slavery and the
other is State Rights. But the latter is only a cover for the former. If Slavery
were out of the way there would be no trouble from State Rights."2
The Origins of War
There are many different theories about why wars occur. They are
divided into the following classifications3:
Costs vs. Benefits Analysis of War -
the benefits from war are greater than the cost
war is an outgrowth of mankind's violent nature
caused by domestic conditions
Demographic - Competition for scarce
resources among expanding population result in conflict
Evolutionary Psychology - fears of
being attacked or desperation at the prospect of a bleak
Rationalist - rational nations come to
war because they cannot reach a compromise, cannot make credible
commitments, or have an
incentive to deceive
Marxist - war grows out
of the class war
Political Science -
motivation for war is a quest for security and ensure survival, difference
in moral and religious beliefs, economical and trade disagreements, and
Several ideas surface if we examine the American Civil war using these
Costs vs. Benefits Analysis of War -
The potential economic losses from the end of slavery were believed to be more
significant than the cost of war.
Sociological - The end of slavery would
result the destruction of agriculture in the South.
Evolutionary Psychology - The end of
slavery would destroy a lifestyle enjoyed by the Southern leaders.
Rationalist - The South did not believe
that the Union would compromise on the issue of slavery.
Economic - The end of slavery would
destroy the basis of the Southern economy, Southern leaders could not see a
route to making agriculture profitable with "free" labor, and businessmen in the
South could not envision a transition to a different economic foundation.
Political Science - The
war was the result of a threat to the South's economic survival and associated
economic and trade disagreements.
It is our belief that the war came down to economic causes that would result in an end to a lifestyle enjoyed by the Southern
The Role of Slaveholders
In the Southern agrarian society, the
large plantation owners with greater than 100 slaves controlled the wealth in
the form of land and slaves. The availability of slaves allowed the
plantation owners to monetize their land holdings by producing crops. Without
slaves to work the plantation, the value of the land would decline because
assets that produce no cash flow are worthless.4 This means that the
end of slavery would result in a loss of the value of the slaves and,
without slaves to operate the plantation, a loss of the value of the land.
Such a catastrophe would be the 1860's
equivalent of the of Enron employees who lost the value of their retirement
accounts and their jobs. Unlike the Enron employees, the Southern
aristocracy had ample warnings to assess the magnitude of their loss. Also
unlike Enron employees, these men held powerful positions in local state and
federal government. Enron executives did try to gain support from former
political allies, but lacked the positions of influence held by the Southern
landowners in 1860.
The concepts of rationalist theories
assumed importance because Southern leaders became convinced that the Northern
politicians could not "make credible
commitments" and there was no "hope for
a compromise." Without hope for a solution that would maintain their
economic position, the only solution that Southern leaders could see was to
break away from the Union.
There were more slaves in the Lower
South5 (2,312,352) representing 47% of the population than in the Upper South
(1,208,758) representing 29% of the population.6
In Lower South about 36.7% of the white families
owned slaves. In the Middle South (VA, NC, TN, AR the percentage is around
25.3%. Given the logic presented above it should not be surprising that
the states that led the exodus from the Union, were those states that that had
the highest levels of slave ownership.
Percentage of Slave
||January 9, 1861
||December 20, 1860
||January 19, 1861
||January 11, 1861
||January 10, 1861
||January 26, 1861
||February 1, 1861
The politicians in the seceding states instead of arguing from their
position as wealthy plantation owners, put their own slant on the issue.
They made it a North-South argument, with the North telling the South what
to do and the South defending its right to self-government. Thus the
issue of States Rights became the battle cry of the South. This issue
would have broader appeal especially since slave owners were in the
minority. This tactic has been used successfully in other political
Of course the South Carolinians helped matters along by firing on and
capturing Fort Sumter. As author Russell McClintock states:
"With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, which early on in the crisis
had become a concrete focal point for Northern Unionism, any remaining
alternatives vanished. Northerners of all parties reacted to fury to
what they perceived as aggression against the flag, and a suddenly united
region rallied to the president's call to arms. And, in Lincoln's words, the
The North helped legitimize the Southern position when it moved to maintain the Union
by using force.
Emotions and suspicions about "Yankees" and "Rebels" added fuel to the fire.
By the time that Virginia joined the Confederacy, the conflict had been
positioned by Southern politicians as a "War of Northern Aggression."
Another issue that it often presented to dismiss slavery as
the cause of the Civil War is the belief that slavery was unprofitable and a
"dying" institution. With only 30% of the nation's (free) population, the
South had 60% of the "wealthiest men." The 1860 per capita income in the
South was $3,978; in the North it was $2,040.8
Robert Evans in his 1962 paper Economics
of American Negro Slavery concludes that "the slave industry did not
exhibit characteristics of a nonviable industry about to wither and die
under the impact of adverse economic forces, but rather gave every
indication in its latter years of being a strong and growing industry."9
Value of Slavery
In the South's
agricultural economy, wealth was defined in terms of land and slaves. In October 1860 William Lowndes Yancey, a leading advocate of
secession, placed the value of southern held slaves at $2.8 billion.
Historian James L. Huston emphasizes the role of slavery as an economic
"Understanding the relations between wealth, slavery, and property rights
in the South provides a powerful means of understanding southern
political behavior leading to disunion. First, the size dimensions of
slavery are important to comprehend, for slavery was a colossal
institution. Second, the property rights argument was the ultimate
defense of slavery, and white southerners and the proslavery radicals
knew it. Third, the weak point in the protection of slavery by property
rights was the federal government.... Fourth, the intense need to
preserve the sanctity of property rights in Africans led southern
political leaders to demand the nationalization of slavery -- the
condition under which slaveholders would always be protected in their
Your Opinion Matters:
Please send us your comments on our hypothesis by using the
States' rights - Wikipedia
The Barbarism of Slavery - Wikipedia
3 War - Wikipedia
The assertion is based on
estimating the value of an asset by calculating the present value of
future net cash flows discounted at the asset owner's cost of capital.
The Lower South is composed of SC, GA, AL,
MS, LA, TX, FL and were the states that seceded first.
on Slavery in the United States
7 Lincoln and the Decision for War,
on Slavery in the United States
Economics of American
Negro Slavery, Robert Evans
Origins of the American Civil War