Economic Causes of the Civil War

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In “History of the Peloponnesian War”, Thucydides wrote that cause of the 20-year conflict between Athens and Sparta was “the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.”

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“Economic Causes of the Civil War”

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In this context, one of the major causes of the American Civil War was the apparent differences held between the Northern and Southern regions. A major influence was the growth of the North’s power — both economic and political — and the fear this bred in the Southern states. Though a number of issues divided North from South in the decades before the war, the issue that proved both paramount and insoluble was slavery — the issue of allowing slavery to expand into the emerging territories in the West. War culminated over 8 decades of sectional strife that threatened American Democracy. It was fought at 10,000 places with 2000 engagements and over 620,000 Americans perished in the Civil War, making it one of the bloodiest wars, until the later stages of the Vietnam war.

Eighty-five years following the date in which the United States declared its independence, the country was again at war. This time, Americans were not fighting foreigners, motherlands, or native peoples; they were fighting each other. North versus South. The American Civil War lasted four years, from 1861 to 1865, and killed more American soldiers, both Union and Confederate, than would die in the two world wars to come, combined.

Early 1820s: Rise of America

Driven by immigration and the development of the rail road, America was surging West. To Europe it meant limitless land and opportunity with immigrants pouring into the new promised land. The South’s dependence on the industrial resources of the North underlay a visible social split. The South remained agrarian, rural with most Southerners living off the land. For some time, the fuel of the American economy had been cotton. Then, the plantation owners of the South had dominated the American economy. Southerners were convinced that without new Western lands to support the growing population of slavery, the market value of slaves would decline. Having invested so much, psychologically as well as financially, in the “peculiar institution,” the Southern planter class, which dominated Southern governance, decided that if the growth of slavery were halted, it must leave the Union. The nascent outline of the modern American economy of mass consumption, production and capital-intensive agriculture was visible. (James Macpherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: Civil War Era, p.14). Of the 143 important inventions patented in US from 1790 to 1860, 93% came from New England alone.


By 1860, the country was populated with nearly 32 million people and almost 4 million of them were slaves. At the time of the American Revolution slavery was recognized by each of the 13 British colonies, but gradually it perished from the North. The continual expansion of plantation economy to new frontiers uprooted many slaves who left behind family members. The sale of young children apart from parents while not the normal pattern occurred with alarming frequency. (James Macpherson, p38). To the North slavery became a symbol of Southern domination, to the Southerners a symbol of their identity.


Of course, there were other issues which added fire to the fuel. The North wanted tariffs and protection for its nascent industry, the South free trade for its cotton. The North saw future in the West across the continent, the South a future in the Caribbean and Mexico. The confidence of the South rested on the demand for cotton in North and Europe. The South did not miss its lack of infrastructure of heavy industries and total dependence on manufacturing exports. In the mid-1800s, the economies of a majority northern states moved away from farming; focusing on industry. The southern states maintained a very large farming economy that was based on slave labor.


In addition to the fight over slavery, many Southern states held that the laws of each individual state should overrule the laws of the federal, or national, government. These Southerners didn’t want the federal government to interfere in their state affairs. They believed that each state could reserved the right to reject any federal laws they did not agree with. The southern states believed that the federal government was taking away their rights and powers.


As the United States continued to expand westward, each new state added to the country shifted the power struggle that was palpable, between the North and the South. Southern states began to worry that they would lose so much power in this expanse, that they would lose their rights. Each new state became a figurative (and sometimes literal) battleground between the two sides for power.


The first tensions over the issue of slavery took place in Kansas. In 1854, the government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing the residents of Kansas to vote on whether they would be a slave state, and align with the South, or a free state, aligning with the North. The region was flooded with supporters from, and arguments for, both sides. They fought over the issue for years. Several people were killed, over the years, in small skirmishes. These giving the confrontation the name Bleeding Kansas. Eventually, in 1861, Kansas entered the Union as a free state.


The turning point was the 1860 presidential election, in which the Republican Party picked Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for president. Lincoln was not an abolitionist as a stance, but he had spoken against the spread of slavery into the territories. This meant that the South considered him an enemy to their freedoms. Leading Southerners stated that they would demand secession from the Union if Lincoln won the election. (Kingseed, p.10). Originally, the North began the war to preserve the Union, creating a unified United States, rather than to end slavery. Eventually, President Lincoln became convinced that emancipation, granting freedom to slaves, was required to win the war. For this, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Taking place at the beginning of 1863. After which, the Union considered all slaves in the Confederacy to be free. Lincoln continued to declare his preference for gradual abolition. He said, “I am naturally Anti Slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel.”


After Lincoln was elected, many of the Southern states held true to their word, deciding they no longer wanted to be a part of the United States. They believed that they had every right to split. Starting with South Carolina, ten more states eventually left the United States. These 11 forming a new country called the Confederate States of America. Lincoln declared they did not have the right to leave. The (Northern) United States sent in troops to stop the South from leaving. The Civil War had begun.


The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, with the Battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Tensions between the North and the South escalated with violent confrontations throughout the 1850’s. This was clearly evident in “Bleeding Kansas.”

In late 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This document declared that all slaves in areas still in rebellion would receive their freedom as of January 1, 1863. The president made the ending of slavery one of the war aims of the Union. Lasting until 1865, the Civil War saw victory for the North, but only after a tremendous cost in lives on both sides. This including the life of President Lincoln, himself. While the North celebrated its victory, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer.


After the Civil War, three amendments of the U.S. Constitution (13, 14, and 15) were ratified. These ratifications aimed to outlaw slavery, and to guarantee citizenship and voting rights to all Americans. Specifically, the recently freed slaves. Many of the problems involving states’ rights were also ended. This, as the federal government emerged as the supreme authority in the United States. Additionally, before the Civil War, the development of industry and transportation had been slowed. During the dark years of war, American industry had learned new ways of manufacturing. Additionally, we had developed more efficient methods of transporting people and supplies.

Even after conflict, death, and innovation, many new problems surfaced. The Southern economy, which had been almost solely based on agriculture, had died on the vine. The war had destroyed plantations, and ruined much of the staple farmland. Many Southern cities and towns were also destroyed. The people of the South were desperately poor from this. Additionally, at the end of the war, the Southern states found themselves without local government. These states had to be re-admitted to the Union, but that could not happen until they established legal state government. Finally, four million former slaves started new lives as free men. Though, this life would also be wrought with hardship, tragedy, and segregation.


Mcpherson, J. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (p.14 and p.38)

Michael Shaara, M. The Killer Angels, Polygon,2008

Kingseed, C. The American Civil War, Greenwood Publishing Group (p.10)

Foner, E. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

Keegan, J. American Civil War, Vintage Books

Hansen, H. The Civil War

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Economic Causes Of The Civil War. (2020, May 15). Retrieved November 29, 2022 , from

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