What was the short term significance of the maintenance of slavery in the southern states to the outbreak of the US Civil War?

Authors Avatar by jimmybeanbeaner (student)

What was the short term significance of the maintenance of slavery in the southern states to the outbreak of the US Civil War?


Arguably the main factor concerning the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861 was the dispute over slavery involving the Northern (anti slavery states) and the Southern (pro slavery) states. Slavery was an integral part of the South and their culture. Although slavery had been called to ‘stop spreading’ by Abraham Lincoln and was respected in the North, the South still practiced it freely and legally. Both the North and South were driven by Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs to form their campaign for and against slavery. The North believed that in the words of Jefferson ‘all men are created equal’ and this included slaves. The South however used the state rights mentioned in Jefferson’s ‘Kentucky resolutions’ to defend slavery.  It is clear that Slavery was a main factor in the cause of Secession and the formation of the Confederacy.    

Responses to the Civil War and the causes of the conflict have evolved over time. For instance early historians such as Rhodes argue that Slavery was the sole cause. It is however later historians such as Beard who offer an alternative perspective and perhaps a wider more contextual view as to why the Civil War happened. This is more of an interpretation of the events surrounding the build up to the Civil War and an analysis of the tensions and concerns associated with this rather than Rhodes’s single cause theory.

 Historian James Ford Rhodes in 1919 declared that ‘of the American civil war it may safely be asserted that there was a single cause, slavery’. This shows the importance slavery played around the time of the war. However it may also suggest that as this source is written a relatively short time after the Civil War (1919) that it was difficult to step back and see the bigger picture of the recent conflict.  James Ford Rhodes is also renowned for emphasising causes of the Civil War on slavery and anti slavery views. Other historians similarly argue the final nail in the coffin for the cause of Secession was slavery related owing to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. His policies and views on slavery and ever growing power of the North scared the South into the prospect of ‘being controlled’ by the North and having to abolish slavery. Although Lincoln agreed to the Cowlin Amendment which respected the industry and protection of slavery in the states which it was already happening in. The South feared that this would be the start of a controlling North taking advantage of the already poorer rural South.  The South feared slavery would slowly be phased out until extinct. .  ‘In fact only 25 percent of white southerners owned slaves. However many farmers and the majority supported the institution and aspired one day to become slave holders themselves claims historian Alan Farmer. This supports the idea of slavery being part of the Southern culture, embedded in their society and also the importance of the slaves to their industry and identity.

Join now!

The Missouri compromise of 1820 was the acceptance of slavery to take place in the territories under the state and not above it. Because of the geographical location of Missouri lying between Northern and Southern territories it led to difficulties in determining whether it would be a ‘free’ or ‘slave’ state. The 1850 compromise made California a ‘free’ state and Texas would thus receive compensation. The historian David Potter describes the 1850 compromise as ‘an armistice rather than a compromise’.  This perhaps shows how relations between the North and South were already at boiling point in 1850 and that a later ...

This is a preview of the whole essay