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TexasDude's avatar

What caused the American Civil War?

Asked by TexasDude (25244points) February 14th, 2010

Greetings, Flutherites, I have a question for you, but first, some backstory:

For my Civil War Historiography class, I will be randomly assigned a position to argue in a debate: either that the American Civil War was caused by state’s rights violations, or by slavery.

I am well aware that both of these explanations are ridiculously oversimplified and this argument has been reduced to a contrived either-or scenario (the professor has admitted this as well).

I will be assigned to argue one of these two positions at random by having my name drawn out of a hat. I think that I can effectively argue either side on my own, but being a 3-dimensional thinker, I’m having a hard time reducing the causes of the War to one of these two simplified explanations, and I need some assistance.

That is where you step in, dear reader. Tell me, was the Civil War caused by slavery? Or was it a conflict over state’s rights? If you can provide further reading or citations, I would be much obliged. Thank you.

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45 Answers

njnyjobs's avatar

Homework, eh . . .

dpworkin's avatar

There is no way to answer this question accurately with either of those two choices. It was an economic conflict between an agrarian state and an industrial state over what the future was to look like, exacerbated by the issue of slavery, and couched by the elite minority of wealthy decision makers in the South as a dispute over “state’s rights.”

TexasDude's avatar

@njnyjobs, I’m not asking for you to do my homework for me, I’m asking for ideas and viewpoints. This is research. I don’t have to turn anything in, I just want ammunition for my arguments that I may not have figured out otherwise.

TexasDude's avatar

@dpworkin, that’s exactly how I feel about it, and I know that you and I are both historically correct. This assignment is a little bit stupid in that it doesn’t address this truth, but I suppose the professor’s point is to get us to understand logical fallacies perhaps? Thanks anyway.

rovdog's avatar

It’s been a long time since I studied this stuff but I do believe it will be easier to argue the States Rights position- what are you major points to back the slavery argument other than popular perception?

TexasDude's avatar

@roydog, the slavery argument begins for me with a few documents we have read in class where senators and political activists of the era argued that Lincoln’s Republican party would economically ruin the south by being so blatantly anti-slavery.

aphilotus's avatar

The civil war was caused by the north having an incredibly better basis for an economy than the south- industrialization, natural resources, a paid, motivated immigrant workforce, etc, and the south realizing that it could not survive against that, nor could it make up the difference without massively altering its internal culture.

Jeruba's avatar

Growing up in New England in the 1960s, I learned in American history classes that the issue was the right to secede.

A rabid Civil War enthusiast of my acquaintance from the Deep South refused to believe me and insisted that because I was a Yankee I must have been taught that it was about slavery.

I have not done my own research on this issue but have always continued to believe that it was about the right to secede.

TexasDude's avatar

You’re right, @aphilotus, but unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly fit within the parameters of this debate though. I do think, however, that I can use that info towards the state’s rights argument. Thank you.

TexasDude's avatar

Thank you, @Jeruba, that’s part of my state’s rights half of the argument.

rovdog's avatar

The Election of Lincoln then with primary source backup- I just think it’s easier to argue the economic and political causes of slavery which had been brewing for years rather than the election of Lincoln which can be viewed as more of a directly precipitating event. There’s more to talk about and I think it would be a more nuanced discussion. I have to think back but while dpworking had a really good answer I’m not sure I totally agree with States Rights just being political terminology. He’s right of course about the differences between an Agrarian and Industrial economies and makes a very good point. But if you want to argue States Rights I think you can back to the general principle of the making of the nation and the idea that the federal government was never intended to be as strong as it eventually became. That’s a really big topic- you can even go back to Shay’s rebellion and the like.

TexasDude's avatar

Great, @rovdog, I forgot about Shay’s rebellion. I was going to do the Federal Government size limit thing if I wound up having to argue the state’s rights side, but your info has given me more ideas. Thanks.

Sarcasm's avatar

It was only after the Emancipation Proclamation that the war was officially about slavery. Before that, it was all about states’ rights.

rovdog's avatar

If your arguing States Rights you can even go as far back as the Articles of the Confederation. There’s also the Whiskey Rebellion too- good place to look- I was trying to think of the name of it.

Qingu's avatar

The premise of the question is stupid.

“States rights” and “slavery” are not mutually exclusive causes for the civil war. It was caused by both issues.

It’s like asking “did the victim die from massive brain damage, or from being shot in the head?” The answer is “he died from massive brain damage when he was shot in the head.”

The civil war happened in the context of a conflict about states rights. The subject of that conflict was slavery.

As others have pointed out, there were also underlying economic factors. One of which being an economy based on slavery.

Economics, politics, and morals are intimately intertwined, along with (I’d argue) technology. You can’t just say major economic events were caused only by one area of human behavior and not any others. If I were you, I would explain why the premise of the question is flawed when you answer it.

Qingu's avatar

@Sarcasm, but those states rights conflicts, in turn, were about slavery.

I mean, read Mississippi’s articles of secession:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Nullo's avatar

Whatever its origins, the conflict itself began over states rights violations. The rest is icing.
Curiously, since realizing that both sides had some valid points, I’ve stopped mentally siding with the North; I am now more neutral.

Qingu's avatar

@Nullo, but those states rights violations were, particularly, about the subject of slavery.

Again: they are not mutually exclusive.

AstroChuck's avatar

Civil War is an oxymoron.

TexasDude's avatar

@Qingu, I know it’s stupid, but I don’t have a choice. That’s why I’m asking Fluther, to see if anyone out there has any ideas or suggestions. I do know what you are saying though, and I agree with you, but the problem is that I have already explained to the professor that the reasoning is flawed and the premise of the debate is faulty. No dice. It’s a dumb assignment, and that’s why I’m seeking outside assistance.

Qingu's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard, man, I wouldn’t take that shit lying down. Professor in college? I would tell him that I’d feel “intellectually dishonest” arguing for one position or another when I strongly feel that both positions are wrong.

If I absolutely had to pick one, I would say slavery. All civil wars are, to some extent, about questions of sovereignty, or “states rights.” Sovereignty disputes are a necessary condition for any civil war, so you can argue that it’s tautological to say that the civil war in America was about states rights because all civil wars are about states rights or something comparable. On the other hand, states rights is not a sufficient condition to explain the civil war… because the specific nature of the sovereignty dispute was about slavery.

To put it another way, it’s sort of like arguing whether the Revolutionary War was about “independence,” or “taxation without representation.” It was obviously about both, but every revolution is about “independence,” whereas this particular one involved the specific idea of taxation without representation, so it’s a more germane answer.

TexasDude's avatar

Thanks @Qingu. Yep. Professor in college. I’m a history major and this class is a required course. It’s been a good class so far, but this particular assignment is pretty duh. Thanks for your perspective though. I think I can work something out. +GA

Strauss's avatar

The two issues were inextricably connected, but I would say it was more for economic reasons, supported by the slavery issue.

davidbetterman's avatar

The Industrial Revolution. We needed to switch the slave system from the deep South to the Northern Cities.
Capitalism is simply a new form of slavery.

johnw10's avatar

War can give destruction to human.

mattbrowne's avatar

Clash between a mainly agrarian and industrial society.

UScitizen's avatar

Mr. Lincoln made it clear that to him, in 1862, it was all about secession (an how to ignore the tenth amendment). http://www.classicallibrary.org/lincoln/greeley.htm

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Even the question about slavery was really about state’s rights vs. federal laws. The outcome of the Civil War was a redefinition of the country from “the United States are” to “the United States is

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Here’s a link to demographics of slave ownership in the south. The incidence of slave ownership varied by geographic location. Across the slave-holding states, the incidence of ownership of slaves was an average of 26% of the free population, meaning that 74% of Southerners did not own slaves. Of the 26% that did own slaves, 50% owned fewer than 5 slaves. The financial impact of the demise of slavery affected a small affluent aristocracy in the South. That would seem to support that, for the majority of free Southerners, the true cause was about the sovereignty of states rights over federal legislation.

Throughout the war, the South continued to sell cotton to mills in the north, through brokerage houses in Memphis and Kentucky, using the currency to finance the war and purchase munitions from England. It is really the development of the cotton gin that fueled the continuation of slavery in the southern states; cotton is a labor intensive crop and without the invention of the cotton gin, the economic viability of slave ownership in the south was as precarious as it was in the north. The institution itself was fueled by the northern manufacturing and the economic viability of exporting southern produced crops, such as tobacco.

aphilotus's avatar

i guess, based on @Qingu ‘s reasoning, i would go with slavery as the cause too, in that, economically, it is more of a root cause.

rovdog's avatar

Everyone has made great points. I don’t think it’s an intellectually dishonest question however- I have to disagree with that. Whether or not it is true- your professor is trying to get you to frame an argument- the class is trying to teach you how to think- not what to think. By making you choose between two things that were both obviously causes of the Civil War- you are being forced to prioritize and shape infomation. It doesn’t seem as though you are doing very advanced scholarship where you are uncovering forgotten sources, etc. I think the exercise is a good one and it’s been a good question to think about.

dpworkin's avatar

@rovdog The point is they are made to choose between two artificial distinctions, neither of which was a cause.

Strauss's avatar

@rovdog , @dpworkin I would agree with you both. One of my most memorable classroom moments was in high school (somewhere around 65 or 66). The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and the debate topic was desegregation. When the teacher asked who wants to be on the team debating against desegregation, I misunderstood and put my hand in the air. I ended up defending something (racial segregation) that I really felt was wrong. The lesson was not only to learn the art of debate, but also to learn the other side of the argument.

Qingu's avatar

@davidbetterman, what absolute nonsense.

Capitalism has its bad side. I have to go into a boring office every day to make enough money to eat. Nevertheless, my situation is not equivalent to “slavery.” I am not beaten or killed if I don’t work. I am not treated, legally, as the property of another human being. I have the same civil rights as my employer. My children, if I choose to have them, would not belong to my employer. My employer cannot rape female employees with impunity.

I find your sort of false equivalency insulting to the memories of the millions of people who actually did suffer under slavery—more than you or I can ever imagine—and to their descendants who are now stuck inside a poverty cycle precipitated by the system of slavery.

davidbetterman's avatar

@Qingu In the olden days, slaves were given housing, food clothes….etc…

Nowadays you work for the money to buy your housing, food, clothes…etc..But you must have all these things. and for most of us, if we lose the job, a month later we are out in the streets.

Just because it is a more palatable form of slavery does not make it any less… slavery.

Do yo have to wear a tie to work? The tie is a reminder of your slave collar

Qingu's avatar

@davidbetterman, it’s like you’re saying rape is the same as consentual sex because they are both forms of intercourse.

Yes, modern corporate capitalism and antibellum slavery are similar in some ways. They are also completely different in most important ways.

TexasDude's avatar

Thanks folks. We did the debate. I had to argue for state’s rights. I won. The professor, in the end, told us it was all a sham to show us how it is important to think outside of dualistic terms when studying history.

Qingu's avatar

/ackbar trap

Strauss's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I’m not surprised you won, reading some of your posts in this site. Congrats. Now you can tell us what you learned~!

davidbetterman's avatar

@Qingu LOL…What I said is in no way shape or form reminiscent of rape///nor consensual sex. You best go get laid…I see where your mind is.

TexasDude's avatar

I learned that most of my peers don’t know anything about the Civil War, and I learned that my professor likes to make important points using silly methods :-P

But thank you, @Yetanotheruser, for the kind words.

rovdog's avatar

Yes @Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard somehow I get the sense you put more effort into this exercise than your peers. Nice job! Somehow I knew you’d do well.

I understand the frustration when your studying with these sorts of exercises (and I do think it’s kind of dumb for the professor to say the point is that he doesn’t want you to think in binaries- I don’t think he has to justify his method) but anyway- I think these kinds of limitations can make you more thoughtful and focus your arguments.

In college there was a class where we had to fit our entire argument onto one single sided sheet of paper with no less than 8 pt. font. It was pretty stupid and we became formatting wizards but I think I learned a lot in that class. I think it may have even made me a better writer.

I always saw my liberal arts study as not being about the knowledge itself but about primarily the framing and processing of knowledge. Of course, I studied a good amount of theory and ended up finding a lot of academic work to be pretty arbitrary- but I enjoyed mapping the multiplicity of perspectives. That kind of thought I think still does help me in my life these days while I really can’t remember much of the information. Just a thought for you down the line.

TexasDude's avatar

That’s a good way of looking at it @rovdog, I appreciate the input.

Japannet77's avatar

I think it was the result of inappropriate response to conflict by both societies. Let me explain; I heard that until the abolitionist movement starting in the North in the 30’s there were efforts amongst the southerners who opposed slavery to try to stop it. But as a result of the overly harsh attacks by the abolitionists in the North on slavery that no longer became possible for a southerner if they wanted to continue to live in the south. And what resulted over the next 30 years was a hardening of positions as each side did something in reaction to increasingly inflame the other.

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