Teach ALL About the Long Term Causes of the Civil War
There were MANY long term causes of the Civil War, not the least of which were the practice of slavery and the divergent economic interests and priorities of the North and South!
The debate over the institution of slavery can easily be traced all the way back to the time of the American colonies, prior to the American Revolution. The issue of slavery is most prominently debated over for the first time when our Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention when they decided to draft a new Constitution.
The intense debate over slavery at the Constitutional Convention would be the first of many long-term causes of the American Civil War as anti-slavery forces (namely abolitionists and some politicians of the northern states) and pro-slavery forces (primarily white Southerners) dug in over the course of the ensuing decades.
As a young United States underwent territorial expansion and began to gradually expand into western territories, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, the debate over whether or not to allow slavery in these new territories grew more intense. And as time went on, there would be numerous events that would ultimately culminate into the beginning of the Civil War. From the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and then when it was controversially repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to the commercial success of the influential book written by Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin and the divisive Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott case, not to mention the increasing willingness of some Americans, most notably John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, to take matters into their own hands.
Regardless of grade level, one of my favorite ways to teach students about the Civil War is with an interactive Civil War Timeline Project!
Issue of Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement
The most prominent long-term cause of the Civil War was the issue of slavery itself. And as the growing Northern abolitionist movement, led by people like Frederick Douglass, influenced more and more Americans and how they viewed the practice of slavery, the issue of slavery became more top of mind for many Americans. Northern abolitionists were dedicated to ending the practice of slavery and worked tirelessly to educate and raise awareness in order to sway public opinion against it. Some abolitionists even provided whatever aid and support they could to an untold number of runaway enslaved people via the “Underground Railroad." Because of this, tensions were further inflamed between the North and South, ultimately contributing to the outbreak of the war.
Northern Economy vs. Southern Economy
Another major factor and one of the long-term causes of the Civil War was how the North had a more industrialized economy, whereas the South was dependent on agriculture, especially the cash crop of cotton. This created a divide between the two regions, which only exacerbated over time, as the North viewed the expansion of slavery into new states as a threat to their own economic growth, while the South believed that Northern abolitionists threatened their way of life and their own economic prosperity.
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Ideological Differences (Free State or Slave State)
On top of that, deeply rooted ideological differences between the Northern states and Southern states over the issue of slavery also contributed in the outbreak of the Civil War. The states of the more industrialized economy of the North opposed slavery and believed in the necessity of a strong federal government because they saw themselves and their way of life as the future of the country. However, states in the agricultural south not only allowed slavery but wanted to expand it. In addition, Southerners valued their autonomy, considered themselves a distinct region with their own way of life, and believed in the importance of states' rights (especially the slave owners). These differing beliefs sparked hostilities between the two regions, which only grew with time.
Presidential Election of 1860
The culmination of all of these factors was the presidential election of 1860, which would alter the political landscape of the nation. Prior to the election of 1860, the United States had been dominated by the two major political parties, the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. However, with the issue of slavery becoming increasingly divisive, a new party, the Republican Party, emerged into the political fray. The Republican Party was committed to opposing the expansion of slavery and was particularly strong in the Northern states.
In the lead up to the presidential election of 1860, the Democratic Party nominated Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas as its candidate. A moderate Democrat, Douglas had once advocated for and supported the idea of popular sovereignty, which would allow new states and territories to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. However, the Republican Party was deeply divided over the slavery issue because some feared it'd cost them the election. Undeterred though, a more radical faction of the Republican Party nominated the anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln who'd eventually become the Republican Party's candidate.
The outcome of the presidential election of 1860 was a turning point in American history, as the Republican Party, with its commitment to opposing the expansion of slavery, emerged as a major political force. This marked a significant shift in the balance of power in the United States and ultimately led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. This significant political shift in the United States was yet another long-term cause of the Civil War as President Abraham Lincoln was dedicated to preserving the Union and opposed the expansion of slavery. With an anti-slavery Republican now president of the United States, tensions and hostilities were further inflamed between the North and South. Many white Southerners felt that their way of life was under attack like never before and were more motivated than ever to take up arms in order to defend it. This led to the secession of South Carolina (shortly after the election itself) and then several other southern states who'd go on to form their own nation, the Confederate States of America. They'd then elect Jefferson Davis as their president who supported a Confederate attack on the federal (Union) military fort, Fort Sumter in 1861, thus marking the official start of the Civil War. As such, the election victory of Lincoln inflamed tensions to the point that numerous Southern states seceded from the Union, created their own nation (Confederate States of America), and launched an attack on a federal fort in South Carolina (Fort Sumter) and marking the presidential election of 1860 as one of the many long-term causes of the Civil War.
In the midst of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate states "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." While the Proclamation did not immediately free all enslaved people in the United States, it fundamentally changed the nature of the Civil War by making it a war to end slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation was yet another one of the long-term causes of the Civil War (in several ways). First, the Emancipation Proclamation galvanized the abolitionist movement in the North and helped in further mobilizing public opinion against slavery. Prior to the Proclamation, many Northerners saw the Civil War primarily as a struggle to preserve the Union, but the Proclamation made it clear that the war was now about ending slavery. This helped to increase support for the Union cause, as many Northerners now saw the war as a moral crusade to end an unjust institution.
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Secondly, the Proclamation had a significant impact on the Confederate war effort. The Confederacy had relied heavily on the labor of enslaved people to support their agricultural economy, and effectively deprived the Confederacy of a significant portion of its workforce as the agricultural economy had relied heavily on the free labor of enslaved people. It’s important to note that while the Union was unable to enforce the Proclamation in the South, it did inspire and motivate many enslaved people to risk capture and runaway to the North where they’d be forever free. This hampered the Confederacy's ability to maintain its war effort and economy as more enslaved people were attempting to flee from the South and ultimately aided the Union's cause while helping to tilt the balance of power in the favor of the Union.
Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation proved to be a significant watershed moment in American history. It not only helped to redefine the nature of the war from a war to preserve the Union, to war to end slavery and further increased the support for the Union cause while making clear that the Confederacy's cause wasn't actually states' rights, but to protect the institution and practice of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation would also pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement of the ensuing century plus and, ultimately, the abolition of slavery in the United States. The Emancipation also bolstered the Union war effort by encouraging enslaved people to escape and join the Union army. This not only deprived the Confederacy of a significant portion of its workforce, but also provided the Union army with a significant number of highly motivated and courageous African American soldiers.
Collectively, these factors result in the Emancipation Proclamation being a long-term cause of the Civil War because it had fundamentally transformed the nature of the war into a war to end slavery, galvanized the abolitionist movement in the North, affected Confederate war effort, inspired runaway enslaved people to join the Union army, and laid the foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery and rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil War was a multifaceted conflict and cannot be attributed to a single cause
To sum it up, there was no single factor that led to the Civil War over the long-term, or even during the war itself. The economic differences between North and South, resolving once and for all the issue of slavery itself, a rising abolitionist movement, deep-seated ideological difference between North and South, the presidential election of 1860, President Lincoln’s commitment to preserving the Union and issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation ALL played an integral role in either the lead-up to the war itself, or altering the course of the war. As history teachers, it's important to help students understand the complexity of this significant period in American history and to recognize the many factors that contributed to the long term cause of the Civil War.
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Thanks for reading!
-Jillian (a.k.a. the Lesson Plan Guru)
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