Resource 3

Causes of the Civil War

Historians have long debated the causes of the Civil War. Many of them maintain that slavery was the main cause.  In Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865, Lincoln said of slavery, "All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war." But most Historians agree that the Civil War had a number of causes. They note especially the division between North and South--that is, the differences in economies, ideals and ways of life. They also point to the disputes between the federal government and the states over what rights and powers the states possessed. Historians further mention the blunderings of politicians and the disorder in the American political party system during the 1850's. Yet all explanations for the cause of the war have always involved or revolved around the issue of slavery.

In colonial times, most Americans regarded slavery as a necessary evil. The Founding Fathers of the United States had been unable to abolish slavery and compromised over it in writing the Constitution

By the early 1800's, many Northerners had come to view slavery as wrong. Abolitionists began a movement to end it. An antislavery minority also existed in the South. But most southerners found slavery to be highly profitable and in time came to consider it good. From a fourth to a third of all southern whites were members of slave holding family. About half the families owned 1-5 slaves, though 1 percent owned over 100 slaves or more. Even many of the white Southern who did not have slaves supported slavery. They accepted the ideas that the South's economy would collapse without slavery and that blacks were interior to whites.   In 1858, Senator William H. Seward of New York, who later became Lincoln's Secretary of State, referred to the differences between the North and the South as "an irrepressible conflict". He placed slavery at the heart of that uncontrollable conflict. Indeed, an almost constant series of debates over slavery raged in Congress between northern and southern lawmakers during the 1850's.


The Compromise of 1850 was a group of acts passed by the Congress in hope of settling the slavery question by giving some satisfaction to both North and South. The Compromise allowed slavery to continue but prohibited the slave trade in Washington, D.C.  It admitted California to the union as a free state but gave newly acquired territories the right to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. The Compromise also included a stricter fugitive slave law that required Northerners to return escaped slaves to their owners. Northerners resisted the fugitive slave law in many ways. Abolitionists disobeyed the law by operating the Underground Railroad, a system of escape routes and housing of runaway slaves. The routes led from the slave states to the free states and Canada. The abolitionists also tried to free the slaves. A number of rescue attempts led to death or being captured but if successful, they freed a lot of people. One of the most effective attacks on the fugitive slave law-- and on slavery as a whole-- was Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling antislavery novel UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1851-1852)