Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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Was the slavery conflict more about differing economic systems or morality? Which congressional action pushed the nation toward civil war most?

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The American Civil War resulted from both economic and moral conflicts over the institution of slavery. Abolitionists had been attacking slavery for a solid century, from slave uprisings to social movements to abolitionist societies and underground railroads. In particular, increased slave rebellions and resistance, led by brilliant fighters such as...

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Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, made the institution of slavery begin to crumble. Industrialized capitalism of the mid-nineteenth century also began to push back against plantation slavery not for moral reasons, but because capitalism had morphed into a different kind of exploitation through horrific factory wage work and railroad building.

Abraham Lincoln and the Union States in general were certainly not morally motivated to abolish slavery, as the Northern states continued to allow slavery throughout the war. The Emancipation Proclamation was a political move that ensured the destabilization of the Southern plantation states, and the liberation of black folks from the horrors of slavery was merely an outcome for the politicians and armies of the time.

The lead-up to the civil war and the consequent abolition of slavery (except in the case of being convicted of a crime, which has led to mass incarceration as another form of slavery) were a result of hundreds of years of slave and abolitionist rebellions as well as all of the events mentioned in the question above. Particularly, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a pivotal conjunction in the lead-up to the civil war, as settlers fought fiercely amongst themselves regarding pro and anti-slavery beliefs and whether or not the states of Kansas and Nebraska should allow slavery. The period that followed, known as "Bleeding Kansas," absolutely directly led to the civil war.

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In terms of the legislative acts and initiatives you referred to, it is important to note their relevance and how they are connected. The Wilmot Proviso (1846) was a proposal that the United States Congress ban slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War. This proposal ultimately failed, yet it was one of the major initiatives that lead to the Civil War. Four years later, the Compromise of 1850 banned slavery in Washington DC. However, included in this set of legislation was the Fugitive Slave Act, meant to pacify Southern slave-owners by allowing them to track down runaway slaves. Southerners were still not satisfied by the act, believing it would not be effective in the long run and still fearing the threat of slave uprisings.

The subsequent Kansas-Nebraska Act was the most significant influence precluding the Civil War. The Lecompton Constitution of 1857 was also a major influence on the war: the proposed legislation aimed at preserving slavery in the state of Kansas, which resulted in a national controversy that further split the country.

To address your final question as well as the element of morality influencing the war, the Union was not particularly motivated to abolish slavery in the early years of the civil war. Rather, the focus was on keeping the country together. There was a clear anti-slavery sentiment in the Northern States, but wartime conditions influenced the objective of abolition in the war's final years. As the South achieved decisive victories, military necessity furthered support for abolition. By the end of the war, approximately 179,000 black men fought on the Union side, making up 10% of the Union Army. Moreover, anti-slavery views also strengthened as many African Americans fled enslavement through self-emancipation.

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The slavery battle was in many ways both an economic and a moral issue. The North was committed to industrialization and believed that free labor, which became the platform of the short-lived Free Soil Party (which was folded into the Republican party), was the future of the nation. The South was more and more committed to an agricultural system based on "King Cotton" and the use of slave labor. Moral issues also played a role in the debate, as the North had become more abolitionist following the Second Great Awakening that occurred around 1800. This spiritual movement focused on good deeds to achieve salvation, and many northerners believed slavery was a moral wrong. The South became more invested in its own ideology that stressed the way whites "took care" of slaves (who, this ideology falsely stated, could not care for themselves).

There are arguments to be made that all of these events helped lead to the Civil War, but perhaps the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the most decisive. It stated that people in the territories could choose whether or not to allow slavery. This act was a threat to both sides, but it seemed to benefit the South initially. The North had believed that slavery was going to die out in the territories, but this act contradicted that idea. This act is an example of a short-lived victory for the South that wound up hurting it in the end, as the Kansas-Nebraska Act made the northern abolitionists even more inflamed.

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