As a native Southerner with ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, I was always taught by my family that the war was a states' rights conflict. This was in no way to minimize the evil of slavery; however, slavery was one of the issues that the Southern states argued, incorrectly, was their right to regulate.
Many Appalachian and other Southerners were conscripted and forced to fight for the Confederacy and deserted whenever they could. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is an interesting treatment of this issued.
I agree with the 4th post; the primary cause of the Civil War was a state's rights issue. Southern states saw the national government's continuing infringement on their rights as a reason to withdraw from the Union. The eventual confederation of states (the CSA) only came later when the seceding states decided to ban together. Slavery was certainly an important issue, since the Southern states saw their power dwindling in Congress with newer states being declared free from slavery.
The groundwork for eventual civil war was laid in the founding document, the Constitution. It said virtually nothing about slavery, only agreeing to end slave imports by 1808, and counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportioning representatives. They had no choice. To abolish slavery would mean southern states would not ratify. To endorse it permanently would alienate much of New England. But by not dealing with slavery early, we guaranteed this country would develop sectionally - our economy, society and way of life would grow apart instead of together, and it was this sectionalism we constantly had to try and compromise our way out of (Missouri Compromise, Fugitive Slave Act, Compromise of 1850). Once compromise was no longer possible, war was inevitable.
When discussing the reasons for the Civil War, one cannot separate the question of slavery from the economy as a cause of the war. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, he belonged to the Republican Party, which was expressly against slavery. The South feared that with Lincoln as president, slavery was threatened. The entire southern economy was based on slave labor. Without slavery, Southerners feared the collapse of their economy. So, one can say that the major cause of the Civil War was economics, but since the southern economy was based on slavery, slavery was also a cause of the Civil War.
The Civil War was not fought over slavery, and although President Lincoln's Emanicipation Proclamation 1863 would attach a moral dynamic to the war, it had no legal bearing with regard to the law. The war was the result of the disintegration of compromise between the federal and several state governments regarding Article Six of the U.S.Constitution and the 10th Amendment...states' rights vs. federal rights. As new territories applied for statehood the question of slavery was not because it was morally wrong but because it would disrupt the balance of power in the Congress between the states. The Missouri Compromise 1820 and The Compromise of 1850 attempted to address the balance of power issue because it mattered whether or not a state would enter as a free state or slave state. The southern slave states feared that the growing popularity of abolition would render their representation useless in Congress. By 1857 the political differences between the north and south reached the point of no return. Led by Senator John C. Calhoun South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860 after Lincoln was elected President that November. Upon taking office in March 1861 (20th Amendment changes the month to January) Lincoln stated that he wanted to preserve the nation, and would not interfere where slavery already existed. Unfortunately, Lincoln's word was simply not good enough. On April 12, 1861 the south fired on Fort Sumpter in Charleston harbor thus beginning the Civil War.
Very interesting response given in #2. I would just like to ask what role slavery did play in initiating the civil war, if, as you say, the major reason were the economic differences between the different sides. How did slavery relate to these economic issues and were there any other issues that contributed?
Most people would say that slavery was the major reason for the American Civil War. It is true that slavery had to do with it, but I do not think it was the major reason. To me, the war happened because the North and South were too different, mainly in terms of their economic systems.
The North was a diversified economy with farms and manufacturing and shipping and other such industries. The South was pretty much centered around producing staple crops (most cotton) for export. This meant that the two sections needed very different economic policies, among other things. You can see this starting to bubble with the Nullification Crisis of the late 1820s.
What this meant is that the two sections had different needs and so what helped one (like a tariff) tended to hurt the other. From that foundation, the two sections came to see each other as different in many other ways.
I would base my essay on the idea that the two sections were fundamentally different economically and that this difference led them to distrust each other. Then I would look at a few incidents that made them grow further apart. I'm talking about things like
- Nullification crisis
- Mexican-American War
- Brooks-Sumner Incident
- Kansas-Nebraska Act
- Dred Scott case
All of these an many more made the two sides more and more angry at each other and made compromise less and less possible.