The American Civil War: an Unavoidable Conflict?
Some historians have argued that different cultures and societies can coexist peacefully, and without ongoing conflict. This is why some believe that the Civil War was caused by a “blundering generation,” or by a generation of people and politicians acting irresponsibly, rather than by an irreconcilable conflict. Although there may be some truth to this theory, it seems that the events leading up to the Civil War paint a picture of a conflict between the North and South that could not have been ended in compromise or understanding, making the war itself inevitable.
As decades passed, and people became more outraged about the question of slavery in the United States, several events took place to push the North and South further and further into a state of aggression that would ultimately lead to war.
The Compromise of 1850 ensured the entrance of California into the Union as a free state, ended the sale of slaves in the district of Columbia, and organized the Utah and New Mexico territories with the citizens of each being responsible for the issue of slavery in their respective states (Stockwell, 2012). It also created a stronger Fugitive Slave Law, which had a swift and negative reaction in the North. The fugitive Slave Act was the source of a great deal of anger among those who opposed slavery, because it would force all citizens to assist in the recapture of escaped slaves.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act later pushed people to their limits and caused bloodshed on its own. The final draft of the act called for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the application of popular sovereignty (Stockwell, 2012). People took it upon themselves to take up arms against one another because of this act.
People on both sides of the conflict hated this decision for their own reasons, and in turn hated president Douglas who had pushed the act through. The Kansas-Nebraska Act forced change among the political parties in the U.S. and with a realignment of the political parties, opinions became stronger for those on either side of the slavery conflict.
The Dred Scott Decision turned the issue of slavery on its head, and further outraged the North. Until this decision, courts had been upholding the concept of “once free, always free,” which ensured that if a slave had become free because of being in a free state, they could not be enslaved again (Stockwell, 2012). Scott lost his case to a majority vote, and those in the fight against slavery saw this as a clear end to the integrity of the courts.
One of the final major events which pushed the people of the United States toward a Civil War was the raid on Harper’s Ferry. When a militant Abolitionist by the name of John Brown took 22 followers to capture an armory in Virginia with the intention of raising an army of slaves to fight for liberation, his ultimate failure ended in the death of 17 men (Stockwell, 2012). Brown made a statement following his defeat, which mirrors the feelings of many in his time about the inevitability of war. According to Mary Stockwell, in the text ‘The American Story: Perspectives and Encounters to 1877,’ Brown stated that he was, “…quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged but with blood.” (Stockwell, 2012, p. 9.4).
When Abraham Lincoln presented his “House Divided” speech, he explained to those whom he addressed that the war would soon come, because things as they were could not continue. He stated that despite the greatest efforts from the people and politicians, nothing was working to quell the rage that was born of the conflict concerning slavery in the United States. Lincoln states, “We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.” (Lincoln, A., 1858).
The Southern States were convinced that if the North were to win this conflict, they would be subjected to failure and suffering. They knew that their economy rested on cash crops such as cotton, which leached nutrients from the earth each year and needed more and more space to be planted, and which required many hands to work and harvest. As is noted in Mississippi’s Declaration of their reasons for secession, the people of the South thought that if they weren’t allowed slaves, they would not be allowed to continue to live. The people of Mississippi cited as a major reason for their eventual secession that, “Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity.” (Lillian Goldman Law Library, 2008). John C. Calhoun expressed these very same concerns and beliefs when he presented a speech against Clay’s Compromise Measures. Calhoun said, “What is the cause of this discontent? It will be found in the belief of the people of the Southern States, as prevalent as the discontent itself, that they can not remain, as things now are, consistently with honor and safety, in the Union.” (Calhoun, 1850).
Those who lived during the time believed that the war was necessary, and that the Union could not continue to exist as it had been. The South thought that they truly needed to secede, and the North would not back down on the issue of slavery. Evidence suggests that even if the generation were indeed blundering and irresponsible, the circumstances made the conflict unavoidable. The Civil War doesn’t seem to have had any chance at all of being averted.
A declaration of the immediate causes which induce and justify the secession of the state of Mississippi from the federal union (n.d.). Retrieved from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp
Calhoun, J. C. (1850, March 4). The Clay Compromise Measures. Retrieved from http://www.nationalcenter.org/CalhounClayCompromise.html.
Lincoln, A. (1858, June 16). Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2934t.html
Stockwell, M. (2012). The American story: Perspectives and encounters to 1877 [Electronic version]. Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/