Causes of the American Civil War – 2: Antebellum America

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The ConstitutionIn the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.

Image of escaping slaves

Geneva Bible

Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Democrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of IndependenceFor further reading:

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

Causes of the American Civil War – 1

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Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

Image of slaves on Smith's Plantation

To celebrate the opening of Wig-Wags.com, I’m republishing a  series of posts on the much debated topic of the causes of the American Civil war. Let today’s post serve as its introduction. I’ll attempt in the series to address two questions. The first is whether economic interests, political agitation, and the cultural differences between North and South did more to bring about the Civil War than the issue of slavery. The second is whether the American Civil War could have been avoided. Was it inevitable? Underlying both questions is the matter of causation of the war. If there was a singular, definitive reason for it the task would be easier. But deliberation over its cause has continued for almost a century and a half and will no doubt carry on into the future with little hope of achieving clear answers. Scholar Kenneth M. Stampp summarized the challenges of the quest well. [Image of Dred Scott .]

As one reflects upon the problem of causation one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War. Working with fragmentary evidence, possessing less than a perfect understanding of human behavior, viewing the past from the perspective of their own times, finding it impossible to isolate one historical event to test its significance apart from all others, historians must necessarily be somewhat tentative and conjectural in offering their interpretations.[i]

He concluded, and with this, I whole heartedly agree, that even though the ongoing debate over the causes of the war remains inconclusive, the effort of examination brings increased clarity.[ii]

More in the next post.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

Kenneth Stampp

Kenneth Stampp

[i] Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. The Causes of the Civil War, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 17-18.The Causes of the Civil War
[ii] Ibid., 18.
Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE