Much has been written on the cause of the Civil War. In this article, I compare two of the main arguments based on a reading of two works that espouse each viewpoint.
What caused the American Civil War? Much has been written on this issue and the general population has been taught and therefore tends to believe that the cause of the Civil War was slavery: the North fighting to end it and the South fighting to preserve it. The belief that is so prevalent in our society is that the North embarked on a moral campaign to free the slaves in the South. The South on the other hand relied on slaves for economic prosperity and were not about to give up slavery as a way of life. But, does this really fully explain the reason the war between the States broke out in 1861? Two books that delve into the question of the cause of the Civil War are A House Divided by Richard Sewell and The Political Crisis of the 1850s by Michael Holt. Each book approaches the question from totally different perspectives. Mr. Sewell follows the traditional approach and focuses on slavery while Mr. Holt introduces the idea that it was the collapse of the political system that eventually led to war. Each of these arguments will be dealt with in turn and it is up to the reader to decide which he or she believes is credible, perhaps it will be decided neither is. In A House Divided, Mr. Sewell focuses attention on slavery as the main cause of why the sections of the country, North and South, became polarized, eventually leading to war. The author looks at sectional discord in the years after 1848 when a number of compromises had to be worked out over the extension of slavery into the territories. There came a time when the North and South were unable to find common ground, and according to Mr. Sewell, the Union finally broke asunder. The author claims that the main division between North and South began to take place during the Mexican War over questions of slavery's expansion. He remarks that "so momentous was the question of slavery's expansion that proposals for its resolution sprouted almost as soon as the conflict with Mexico began". David Wilmot, a democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced a provision in Congress that slavery be excluded from any territory acquired from Mexico. White Southerners saw this as a challenge to the slave system everywhere. Mr. Sewell points out that solution after solution was proposed to settle the controversy of slavery's expansion. Southerners were vehemently opposed to any territorial bill that denied them equal rights, including the right to hold slave property. The Missouri Compromise of 1850, which at one time many thought had ended the debate on slavery, was repealed and replaced with popular sovereignty by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. This bill allowed the people to decide whether to allow slavery in the territory in which they lived. This created a "hell of a storm" throughout the North according to Stephen Douglas. To prove that sectionalism was heating up, Mr. Sewell gives statistics on the Kansas-Nebraska bill that shows nearly 90 percent of all Southerners voted for it while 64 percent of the Northern representatives cast ballots against it. Throughout the 1850's the North and South grew farther apart on one main issue, slavery. Then in October 1859, John Brown's raid left the South "feeling isolated, besieged, dishonored, and physically imperiled as never before". Many in the South believed that the North would resort to force, just like Brown, in order to stop slavery. Mr. Sewell goes on to say that the "chief effect of John Brown's foray was, of course, to strengthen the hand of the fiery advocates of secession". When Abraham Lincoln, a Republican dedicated to the idea that slavery was evil and should be dealt with as such, was elected President, the deep South felt there was no way out but separation. The South saw Lincoln's election and the appointments he would make to positions in the South as being able to foster an antislavery influence dangerous not only to their peculiar institution but to the very lives of Southern whites. With this in mind, seven states in the deep South seceded from the Union. The upper South chose to take a wait and see attitude, but when President Lincoln tried to reprovision Fort Sumter, it was fired upon from Charleston harbor. This act provoked President Lincoln to ask for 75,000 volunteers and four more states joined the Confederacy: the bloodiest war in American history had begun. The Political Crisis of the 1850s by Michael Holt looks at the cause of the Civil War from a different angle. The main tenet of the book is that "the Civil War represented an utter and unique breakdown of the normal democratic political process". Mr. Holt explores the reasons the American political system could no longer contain the sectional conflict. His contention is that for 20 years the national two-party system of Whigs and Democrats helped to contain sectional conflict, but during the political crises of the 1850s, the system collapsed. The political reorganization and realignment that replaced competition between Whigs and Democrats with a competition between the Northern Republican party and Southern Democratic party was the major factor in the breakup of the Union. Because of the breakdown of the party system, the American people became fearful for the republic's future and their own freedom. Northerners and Southerners identified groups in the other section of the country who would destroy their liberty and reduce them to an unequal status. This denial of liberty was made politically possible by the collapse of the old two-party system. This was especially true of the Deep South. As Mr. Holt points out, "sectional extremism flourished in the Deep South precisely because no new framework of two-party competition had appeared there". Dating back to the 1820s, Americans had faith in the political process because of the presence of competing parties. Voters were given options and could remove one party from power because each party had a real chance of winning. Also, slavery was not the only issue that was being contended between the two parties. Issues such as banks, tariffs, and internal improvements were all hotly debated between the Whigs and Democrats and these issues helped keep the parties from being sectionalized. When sectional conflicts about slavery did arise, the party system allowed different opinions to be expressed and compromise was possible. In Martin Van Buren's words, "party conflict is an antidote to sectional conflict". The two-party system collapsed because Whig and Democratic voters lost faith in their old parties ability to take effective action. Social, economic, and political developments in the 1850s made the two parties more alike than different. When this happened, the American people lost faith in the system. With the people looking desperately for a third party to turn to, the Whig party vanished and the Republican party emerged with anti-slavery extension as one of the main points of its platform. The existing political parties, Democrat and Republican, were now mainly sectionalized. The North and South became so polarized that they no longer participated in the same party system. Between 1856 and 1861 the issue of slavery dominated political debate. In the words of Mr. Holt, "national elections came to be viewed by many as less a question of which party than of which section would control the government in Washington". With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, seven slave states seceded from the Union. The chances of these states regaining political power were slim because the Northern population would most likely always be greater. The Deep South believed that with the Republicans in office, attacks on their peculiar institution would come fast and furious. Another important point made by the author is that by this time, the Democratic party was the only party that existed in the Deep South so that only one side of the issue was being heard, there was no debate going on to find resolutions. The Upper South still had a semblance of political parties discussing the issue. But all would change when Fort Sumter was fired upon and the President asked for volunteers. Analyzing both books, The Political Crisis of the 1850s is far more persuasive in its argument. The author admits that slavery was certainly involved in causing the Civil War, going as far as saying that "if the institution had not existed there probably would never have been a war". However, while slavery was intensifying the sectional conflict, the collapse of the two-party system gave the people in the South no cause to think the political process could resolve the issue. Mr. Holt is able to prove very convincingly, by going back to the time of the two-party system's formation, that every time a conflict arose, even about slavery, it was the competition between the political parties that allowed compromise. He brings in other's arguments and either dispels them or incorporates them into his own which gives the book a sense of fair play. To show the collapse of the party system, his conclusions are backed up by statistics from voting records. The one short coming of the book is that Mr. Holt does not deal with economic or social issues and how they affected the countries course toward war. For example, the market revolution and its implications is not discussed. In A House Divided, Richard Sewell tends to stick to one theme: a South that didn't want the institution of slavery meddled with, a North that wanted to stop its expansion. The author rarely takes other arguments or opinions into account. He also does not give many statistics to back up his conclusions. The politics of the time and its effect on the sections of the country is not delved into very deeply. Mr. Sewell's book gives the impression that the author set out to prove his original thesis and disregarded anything that did not provide evidence to back up his conclusions. One question that could be posed to Mr. Sewell would be, if the issue of slavery alone caused the Civil War, why did the war start in 1861, why not 1820, 1830, 1845? Mr. Sewell's book does not provide a clear answer to this question. Mr. Holt's The Political Crisis of the 1850s answers this question sufficiently and in so doing makes a strong case for his argument as to what caused the Civil War. In the reader