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"The Civil War had one basic cause: Sectionalism"

by Kevin Patrick Mahoney


 There has been more than a century of Civil War historiography, and due to the sheer number of versions, one is very reluctant to isolate one cause, and to place the whole burden of responsibility on it. There can be no doubt that sectionalism was a contributing factor to the war, but, by itself, it does not explain the whole conflict. The North and South of America have been claimed to have been divided in 1860 for a number of reasons; these were economic, constitutional, and political. It was on the latter that Collins wrote that "No event in the 1850s did more to intensify sectional animosities than the formation of the Republican party". Without the Republicans, it is difficult to envisage a civil war at all.
 Before the 1850s, Americans had mostly supported two political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. It was a national two-party system: both parties had support throughout America. Both were a loose system of alliances, characteristic of the American system which survives to this day, in that they were designed to appeal to as many people as possible. However, economic forces increased the division between North and South. There was a boom in the Northern economy, which was beneficial to the Republicans later. The South was mainly concerned with preventing internal improvements to the country, as Parish noted, and were very successful in undermining Northern attempts to raise tariffs. There was a rise in immigration to the North due to the economic boom, so the Republicans took advantage of the rising Nativism and Anti-Catholicism. Although, they cannot be seen to have been completely united in their aims, for Foner wrote that "Some Republicans felt that defining the issue in terms of slavery's effect on labor would also be a way of attracting the support of immigrants". To consolidate their support, they used the method of attacking




an outside group. In a way, this choice was forced upon them, for the South would react strongly to any criticism of its society, and one of the most outspoken Republicans was William Seward, who was against slavery.
 It could be said that the reason why the Republican party did not disappear very quickly was the Civil War. Other American political parties throughout history (such as the Liberty party) vanished more or less overnight, despite initial great support, most probably because they were absorbed by one of the bigger parties. The Republican party was able to gain legitimacy because Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election. However, he only got forty per cent of the vote. A crucial element in his victory was the failure of the Democrat Charleston convention to choose a single candidate. The Democrat party split, and there was no longer a Southern President like Buchanan. This is where the constitutional argument enters the conflict. There is some truth in the belief that the South was steadily becoming a minority in the United States, whilst the North was frustrated at the South's ability to cling on to power .  "For Southerners, constitutional theory and political reality became one, as their section became more... doomed to a minority position in the Union," Parish wrote. Southerners feared being ruled by a hostile majority. No longer had they the option of compromise with the North. Still, all this does not really explain why there was disparity and the rise of sectionalism.
 One crucial factor was westward expansion. This was why the South feared becoming a minority. They expressed this fear in the Nebraska-Kansas act. This, in turn, alarmed Northerners. It is possible that none of them expected the South's urgency. The attempt to extend slavery to the new territories mobilised the Republican party in 1854. It is ironic that the South brought into being by its actions the very force that would destroy their society. During the




1850s, there was a campaign led by northern newspapers to prove that the South's `peculiar institution' had brought the region to its knees. For instance, Frederick Law Olmstead wrote for the New York Times; as Foner noted, "it was Olmsted's conclusion that without slavery, the wealth of the South would be vastly increased." Olmsted was the most widely read of these reporters, who also included Southerners like Cassius Clay.
 They gave evidence for the main Republican doctrine of Free Labor. The reason why the South was languishing was that it relied on the labor of uneducated blacks. Slaves had no reason to work hard, for their position would never improve (the argument went). The South lacked the Northern work ethic, the dignity of labor. What men like Seward especially hated about the South was the fact that its political power was divided amongst a small, unproportionate part of the society: the large slave owners. Due to the fact that cotton was America's largest export at the time, these slave owners were very rich. The Republicans feared that if slavery was allowed to expand into the new territories, then the whole nation would be affected by the South's problems. How could a Northerner compete with a Southerner who had no labor costs?, was the question they asked themselves.
 Since the Republicans emancipated the slaves, it is often for those who have not studied the period to argue that they were early civil rights fighters, knights in shining armour and so on. The following words come as a bit of a shock to them: "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races". These words came from the mouth of Abraham Lincoln in his debate with Stephen A.Douglas in 1858. It cannot be said that North and South were divided on


racial prejudice. Even though the Republicans protested over the Dred Scott verdict (Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was a Southerner), blacks were still prejudiced against in the North. Indeed, Parish reported that one of the reasons why Republicans supported abolition was the belief that "even the free Negroes in the north would return to the southern states, their natural habitat within the United States". Indeed, in the BBC Timewatch programme, Sold Down the River, emancipation of the blacks was seen as a cynical move by Lincoln to boost the strength of the Union army. The programme also noted that many Northerners considered blacks to be incapable of fighting. The Republicans took up the Free Labor argument as it had been developed by the Barnburner Democrats and Cassius Clay. They concentrated on what they saw as the harm slavery had done to the Southern white. There were endless comparisons of the disparities between Northerners and Southerners in the new territories. They found that this got them more support than an abstract description of slavery's damage to the blacks. North and South were not divided by their mutual racism.
 The North was a society looking to the future, so the  feudal South frustrated their ambitions. They wanted to be ambassadors for democracy internationally, to prove that their great experiment had worked. Opponents only had to point to slavery to deflate this American posturing. Increasingly, Northerners looked at ways of reconstructing the South, bringing it up to date. They thought that a mass migration of Northerners into the South would improve the economy no end, as they proved that they could produce profits and social mobility at the same time. The South was proud of its society, however, and did not welcome the disruption that industrialisation would bring to their power. Their attitude can be summarised by Hammond's statement:"Your whole class of manual laborers and operatives, as you call them, are slaves." The South was




ruled by an Anglo-Saxon oligarchy which did not welcome change, as Seward characterised them. Immigrants were unwilling to enter the South for fear of exploitation; yet another difference from the North.
 As the federal government grew in importance (as the population increased), then disputes became more fierce. The South therefore decided to keep self-regulation by secession from the Union, which they were perfectly entitled to do. However, Nativist Republicans could not allow even one state to break away, for the reasons that A Brogan mentions. Sectionalism in itself does not explain the Civil War. Westward expansion was the complicating factor, the one which threatened the survival of slavery, with the increasing division of the two economic and political worlds as secondary factors. If the Civil War could be reduced to
one word, then that word would be Slavery. It was the South's 'peculiar institution' after all. And as the man most responsible for the war said:"One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, whilst the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."






'Conflict and Transformation' edited by W.Brock, featuring Why Fight? by Sir Denis Brogan.


'The Origins of America's Civil War' by B.Collins.


'Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men' by E.Foner.


'The American Civil War' by Peter Parish.


Timewatch: 'Sold Down the River' BBC Autumn 1992.

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