Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part V: The Rise of Sectional Disputes
This post continues a series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War. Other posts can be read by clicking on any of the following links: Part I: Introduction, Part II: Antebellum America, Part III: The Antebellum South, and Part IV: The Antebellum North.
Sectional disputes rose and ebbed numerous times in the years before the war. Modernization created social tensions because, as pointed out by James McPherson, “not all groups in American society participated equally in the modernizing process or accepted the values that promoted it. The most important dissenters were found in the South.”[i] The South’s failure to modernize was perceived by many of her citizens as actually desirable.
Sectional arguments expanded to include topics like internal improvements, tariffs, and whether expansion west and south would upset the parity between free and slave states. Foundational to the latter was the belief on the part of the slaveholder in their right to a slave-based social order and a need for assurances of its continuity. Equal representation in government was perceived as critical to that goal.
The rise of abolitionism – largely in the North – put the proponents of slavery on the defensive. The formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society marked the beginning of militant abolitionism and an unprecedented crusade that would rival any modern national marketing campaign. Barbed attacks against slaveholding southerners were launched. They were called the great enemies of democracy and flagrant sinners.[ii] The anti-slavery crusade thus became both a moral one and imperative for the preservation of democracy. Abolitionists created in a section’s consciousness the belief in a “Slave Power.”[iii] Historian Avery Craven suggests that when politicians successfully linked expansion and slavery, the Christian masses accepted as de facto the Abolition attitudes toward both the South and slavery.[iv] Civil war, he contends, “was then in the making.”[v]
The pro-slavery faction fought back with their own “sweeping ideological counterattack that took the form of an assertion that slavery, far from being a necessary evil, was in fact a ‘positive good.’”[vi] “The section developed a siege mentality; unity in the face of external attack and vigilance against the internal threat of slave insurrections became mandatory.”[vii] To insulate itself from the influence of the anti-slavery North, some in the South called for its citizens to shun Northern magazines and books and refrain from sending young men to northern colleges.
The debate over slavery thus infiltrated politics, economics, religion and social policy. Not surprisingly, those who felt most threatened began to speak more loudly of secession.
Next post: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity
© 2007 Rene Tyree
Library of Congress: The African-American Mosaic.
“Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention Assembled in Philadelphia, December 4, 1833” R[ueben] S. Gilbert, Illustrator Philadelphia: Merrihew & Gunn, 1833 Broadside Rare Book and Special Collections Division
“Anthony Burns” Boston: R.M. Edwards, 1855 Broadside Prints and Photographs Division
[i] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 22.
[ii] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 150.
[vi] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 51-52.
[vii] Ibid., 52.