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What was the true catalyst for the American Civil War?


Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you would like an expert to answer, send it to Curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.

What really started the Civil War? —Abbey, age 7, Stone Ridge, New York

The US citizenship test — which immigrants must pass before becoming citizens of the United States — has this question: “Name one problem that led to the Civil War.” It has three possible correct answers: “slavery”, “economic reasons”, and “state rights”.

But if a historian and professor who studies slavery, southern history, and the American Civil War, I know there’s really only one correct answer: slavery.

Photograph from 1862 of enslaved people and soldiers on a plantation, standing in front of the camera.
Enslaved people and soldiers on a South Carolina plantation in 1862.
Henry P. Moore/LOC/Archive Photos via Getty Images

White Southerners left the Union to establish a slave-holding republic; they were dedicated to the preservation of slavery.

What’s more, unlike slavery in the ancient world, slavery in the United States was based on race. By the time of the Civil War, black people were the ones enslaved; whites were not.

Every American citizen, whether born or naturalized in this country, must understand that the conflict over slavery is what caused the Civil War.

The history

Slavery in the US began at least as far back as 1619, when a Portuguese ship came into existence 20 enslaved African people to present-day Virginia. It grew so fast that by the time settlers fought for their independence from England in 1775, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies.

As the 19th century progressed, northern colonies emerged slowly abolished slavery; but southern colonies made it central to their economy. In 1860, nearly 4 million enslaved people lived in the South.

North and South increasingly disagreed about the future of slavery. White Southerners believed that slavery had to spread to new areas or it would die out. In 1845, they put pressure on the federal government to annex Texas, where slavery was legal. They also supported an effort to buy Cuba and add it as a slave state.

In the North, people generally opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories, and many favored the gradual emancipation of enslaved people. A smaller group, known as abolitionists, wanted slavery to end immediately.

But even though many northerners opposed the expansion of slavery, they was not in favor of equal rights for black people. In most northern states, segregation was prevalent, blacks were not allowed to vote, and violence against them was common.

By the 1850s, it was becoming more difficult for the federal government to satisfy both sides. The Compromise of 1850a series of bills that attempted to solve the problem hardly pleased anyone.

The publication of the 1852 novel”Uncle Tom’s cabin”—about the pain and injustice inflicted on an enslaved man—turned northerners against slavery even more. In the 1857 Dred Scott Decisionthe Supreme Court ruled that enslaved people were not citizens of the United States and that Congress could not prohibit slavery in a federal territory. Two years later, the abolitionist John Brown attacked a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginiain a failed attempt to supply arms to enslaved people.

Dressed in a three-piece suit, Abraham Lincoln sits for a photo.
A digitally restored photograph of President Abraham Lincoln taken during the American Civil War.
National Archives/Stocktrek Images via Getty Images

Lincoln becomes president, secession follows

In the midst of this whirlwind of problems, the 1860 presidential election took place. A new political party, the Republican Party, opposed the spread of slavery in the Western Territories. With four major candidates running for president, Abraham Lincoln won the electoral vote – but only 40% of the vote.

The election of a president of an anti-slavery party spurred white Southerners into action. Less than two months after Lincoln won, South Carolina delegates meeting in Charleston decided to secede from the Union—that is, to formally revoke membership in the United States.

Other Southern states followed suit, saying slavery was the main reason for secession. Texas delegates wrote that abolishing slavery “would bring unavoidable disasters for both races and devastationin the slave states. The Mississippi secession document said, “our position has been thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.”

The hundreds of brutal, bloody battles of the Civil War took a terrible toll on the country.

Confederate supporters made their position clear

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens also said that slavery was the reason for secession, and that Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence – that all men are created equal – were wrong.

“Our new government is based on the exact opposite idea,” Stephens told a crowd. “The foundations are laid, the cornerstone rests on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery to the superior race is its natural and normal state.”

While the evidence shows that slavery caused the Civil War, some Southerners created a myth: the “Lost Cause— which turned Confederate generals into freedom-defending heroes. To some extent, that myth has unfortunately gained a foothold. Some schools are silent named after Confederate generals; so are some military basesthough that is changing.

It is important to know the real reason for the civil war so that the country no longer celebrates historical figures who fought to establish a slave-holding republic.

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