Causes of the Civil War


"If we 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 influence), expansion and party politics (increased interest in the Second Party System).

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

  • Psychological - war is an outgrowth of mankind's violent nature

  • Sociological - war is 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 future

  • Rationalist - rational nations come to war because they cannot reach a compromise, cannot make credible commitments, or have an incentive to deceive

  • Economic - economic competition

  • 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 declaring independence.

Several ideas surface if we examine the American Civil war using these classifications.

  • 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 aristocracy.



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
Owning Families

Date of

Mississippi 49% January 9, 1861
South Carolina 46% December 20, 1860
Georgia 37% January 19, 1861
Alabama 35% January 11, 1861
Florida 34% January 10, 1861
Louisiana 29% January 26, 1861
Texas 28% 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 campaigns. 

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 war came."7

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

Economic 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 institution:

"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 property holdings."10

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Foot Notes:

1 States' rights - Wikipedia

2 The Barbarism of Slavery - Wikipedia

3 War - Wikipedia

4 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.

5 The Lower South is composed of SC, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX, FL and were the states that seceded first.  

6 Selected Statistics on Slavery in the United States

7 Lincoln and the Decision for War, Russell McClintock

8 Selected Statistics on Slavery in the United States

9 Economics of American Negro Slavery, Robert Evans

10 Origins of the American Civil War - Wikipedia

Revised 12/09/2016