Background to the Civil War – causes and events

Background and Causes of the Civil War

The American Civil War was the turning point in American history. The Civil War resulted in nearly 750,000 deaths.

While many are aware of the Civil War and what took place during the war, many are not aware of the events and causes of the Civil War that led to the conflict.

In this article, we will take a look at the major events and see how divisions over the question of the institution of slavery and whether or not slavery should be allowed, should be expanded or should be regulated by Congress resulted in the bloodiest event in American history.

To truly understand this conflict and the causes of the Civil War, we need to go back to the beginning of the nation and look at the Constitutional Convention.

Three-Fifths Compromise

When the Constitutional Convention began, the institution of slavery was still a part of some of the Northern states. However, slavery was not thriving and was, by all appearances, dying a natural death. This led to a clash between Northern and Southern states and was the beginning of tensions between North and South (Rank, 2019).

Kasey Hendricks wrote, “Slavery was the central subject since wealth portfolios of the richest Americans held a bulk of their assets in human bondage. Disagreements over how central the institution was, as well as what lengths it ought to be protected, introduced unresolved disputes that contributed to the failure of the Articles of Confederation” (2018). This issue truly came to light during the Constitutional Convention with the creation of the US census.

The census was instituted as a part of the checks and balances system of the Constitution. The larger the population, the more representation you would have. However, you would also pay more taxes. This was created this way to stop states from inflating numbers to gain more political power. This made the United States the second modern country in the world to have a regular national census.

When the Constitution was finally ratified, it created three groups of people: free persons, slaves who were black, and Native Americans. The second group, slaves, were the source of great debate. As Paul Schor wrote, “The principle of representation proportional to population, rather than equal representation of the states or representation based on real property, clearly favored the republican position” (2017). In other words, this clearly favored the North. To solve this issue, the Three-Fifths Compromise was created.

James Wilson of Pennsylvania led this compromise. This compromise was born out of the proportion of population and wealth in a state. If slaves were not counted, as they were not counted in state legislatures, then those states would not be measuring a major portion of their wealth and would thus not pay their fair share of taxes. However, slaves states still wanted to count the slave population when it came to representation in Congress because this would give them a political edge and financial break.

The delegates finally reached a compromise by basing taxation and representation on population. However, that population number would include slaves as three-fifths coefficient. This would give them less power in the population while still counting the slave population to an extent (Schor, 2017)

This was an incredibly divisive issue during the convention. One that threatened to not allow the Constitution to be ratified. However, this compromise did create a temporary solution to the question of slavery and allowed the Constitution to be ratified. This “peculiar institution” would be the cause of much division and would eventually lead to the American Civil War (Porter, 2019).

Threats of Secession

Another issue before the American Civil War was the threat of secession. There were groups in America who thought that secession was allowed under the Constitution.

The first example of this was several counties in South Carolina threatened to secede in 1784. These counties claimed that they were independent. These counties declared themselves independent because of how leaders of South Carolina were treating them. This rebellion continued until 1988 when the efforts fell apart. The counties that had “seceded” joined the state of Tennessee in 1796.

Another secession crisis occurred again in 1814, when Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire all convened in Hartford. This meeting was intended to be a protest against the War of 1812. The states also spoke about seceding from the United States of America. This convention created a declaration that was given to Congress asking for the law to be changed on how war was declared and for aid from the federal government. These states never actually seceded (2020).

The Nullification Crisis was the next major secession threat. This threat arose during President Andrew Jackson’s administration and was the closest America came to civil war before war broke out in 1861. This crisis arose when South Carolina stated that states could rule federal law null and void. The tensions of this crisis came to a boil and resulted in Andrew Jackson nearly using federal troops to put down the rebellion in South Carolina.

However, before tensions could result in civil war, Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, stepped in and brokered a deal.

Since secession had been threatened but never acted upon, many Americans did not believe the South’s threats and failed to take them seriously prior to the American Civil War (Youngdahl, 2012).

The Republican Mayor of Chicago stated that it was, “the same old game of scaring and bullying the North into submission to Southern demands.”

James McPherson wrote on the threat of succession that, “Republicans failed to take these warnings to heart” (McPherson, 1988).

Manifest Destiny

As America grew and expanded, the issue of slaveries expansion and whether or not the federal government had the power to regulate it grew as well and the nation grew closer and closer to civil war. This became an issue that could not be ignored. There was a constant power struggle in Congress over keeping the balance of power in Congress.

Before the westward expansion, there had been an equal number of slave and free states. However, as America pushed westward during the 19th century, there was debate over how to keep this balance.

This balance was maintained through 1850 through compromise with the help of Henry Clay. This was especially important in the Senate. This was because the North had rapid population growth which gave increasing control in the House. However, in the Senate, the balance was maintained between Northern states (free states) and Southern states (slave states) senators because of the two Senators per state rule.

The Missouri Compromise

This issue of new western territories and the expansion of slavery first became an issue in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. This deal was brokered by President Thomas Jefferson to acquire the Louisiana territory from Napoleon and the French. This doubled the size of the United States. However, this created an issue because politicians did not know if this land should be allowed to join as slave or free states.

This resulted in a crisis when Missouri wanted to join the Union as a slave state. This would have upset the balance of power in Congress. This crisis was averted when Henry’s class stepped in and brokered the Missouri Compromise.

This allowed Missouri to join as a slave state while also admitting Maine as a free state. This balanced the power and averted the crisis. This deal also banned slavery above the 36°30′ parallel. However, this did not advert crisis for long.

The Compromise of 1850

In the 1840s, America gained a great deal of western land after the Mexican-American war. This renewed the issue of the expansion of slavery.

The pro-slavery Southerners began becoming more radical as they wanted all this western land opened up to slavery. The North, on the other hand, wanted this land to be free. Northern anti-slavery citizens hoped that if slavery was bottled up and not allowed to expand, it would die out. This ideology was similar to the logic behind the Northwest Ordinance. This led to the Compromise of 1850 which again tried to keep the balance of power in the federal government.

The compromise had several goals.

The first was that California would be admitted as a free state. California had taken a statewide vote to be a free state.

Popular sovereignty would be used for the rest of the territory acquired from Mexico.

There was some legislation about Texas that primarily focused on assuming the state debt. Texas owed a lot of money to various people, so they wanted the federal government to pay the money.

The compromise also abolished the slave trade in Washington D.C. However, the compromise did not outlaw slavery itself in Washington D.C.

Finally, there was also a new Fugitive Slave Law more powerful than before.

The Fugitive Slave Law became the most polarizing issue in the compromise.

The Fugitive Slave Law

The Fugitive Slave Act portion of the bill soon became a volatile issue. This issue showed that the South did not believe in states’ rights as they claimed. This was the strongest violation of states’ rights before the Civil War.

This new Fugitive Slave Act put the capture of slaves in the hands of federal commissioners who would oversee the law.

The former slaves had no rights and could not testify on their behalf. All that had to happen was they be identified. This act also imposed heavy fines on anyone who helped a fugitive slave and punished anyone who resisted helping to capture a fugitive slave.

If the commissioner sent the fugitive back to slavery, he received a $10 fee, but if he sent the wrong man back, he only got a $5 fee. This was a danger to formerly free slaves and free African-Americans. People who were born free could be captured and sent back because there was no consequence for doing so or way of proving their freedom.

This was a slave law that reached into the North. Therefore, Canada became central to escaping African-Americans.

In 1851 in Massachusetts, a slave was seized, and a mob led by free African-Americans stormed the courthouse and freed him. This happened several times in response to the law and the egregious atrocities committed in in its name.

This was one of the most divisive aspects of the compromise and outraged anti-slavery advocates.

The bill was picked up by Stephen A. Douglas and was passed as a series of measures instead of just one bill.

This was the only way to pass the bill because there was not a majority to support the bill in its entirety, but there was a majority for each part individually.

This managed to keep the peace in America, however, this was, once again, only a temporary peace (Youngdahl, 2013).


In the 1850s, there was a growing movement that also caused tension between the states. That movement was the abolitionist movement.

Around the turn of the decade, abolitionists began making impassioned speeches and began using the printing press to spread their message (Rank, 2019).

One very notable publication was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a fictional exploration of slave life that became a cultural sensation.  Northerners felt as if their eyes had been opened to the horrors of slavery, while Southerners protested that Stowe’s work was slanderous. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second-best-selling book in America in the 19th century. This novel stirred up anti-slavery sentiments in the North and helped expose people to the cruelty of slavery.

The spread of abolitionist ideas caused a massive backlash in the South. Particularly because abolitionists (such as William H. Seward’s “Higher Law” speech which stated that there is a higher law than the Constitution) argued that slavery was a moral wrong and that it was un-Godly (Youngdahl, 2012).

In response to this, Southerners began to argue that slavery was no longer a necessary evil, as previously believed, but that it was now a necessary good (Rank, 2019). This was a personal attack because slavery was important to the South for several reasons. The first reason was that slavery was central to the economy and society of the South. The second reason was that Southerners believed that this was a “divinely sanctioned institution.”

While most Northerners were prejudice and believed that African-Americans were inferior to whites, they did not use this as a justification for slavery, which is the difference between North and South. This ideology was not central to the economy. In addition to this, while it is true that only a small percentage of the population in the South were slave owners, every white person in the South was raised in a society where African-Americans were enslaved based on racist ideology. Southerners began turning to means such as science, history, economics and religion to try to justify this “peculiar institution.”

Dr. Samuel Cartwright is the perfect example of this attempt to justify slavery. He addressed the Louisiana medical association and talked about how African-Americans had less brain matter and intelligence. He continued by stating that African people could not care for themselves and were “naturally lazy and helpless.” Cartwright went further and stated that African-Americans had a disease that made them attempt to run away from slavery. He also stated that it was necessary to whip slaves.

Christian pastors also preached pro-slavery sermons in support of the institution. They attempted to use the Bible to support the enslavement of African-Americans. Even politicians in the South supported slavery.

Senator Albert Brown stated that slavery was “a great moral, social, and political blessing. A blessing to the slave and a blessing to the master.” Finally, in March, 1861, Jefferson Davis stated that “we recognize (African-Americans) as God and God’s book and God’s laws and nature tell us to recognize him. Are inferior. Fitted expressly for servitude… The innate stamp of inferiority is beyond the reach of change. You cannot transform (African-Americans) into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as slavery enables him to be.” To Southerners, slavery was not just an institution but a key part of their society and way of life (Youngdahl, 2012).

Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas saw violence erupt throughout the state over whether or not the state should be a slave or free state.

Stephen Douglas, an Illinois Senator, initiated this crisis when he attempted to organize territorial governments in the remaining Louisiana Purchase lands. The Senator’s main motivation for this organization of the territories was the establishment of a trans-continental railroad through Chicago which benefited his business ventures as well as those of his constituents. In order to get these territories organized, Douglas had to go against the Missouri Compromise an the line that it set barring slavery north of Missouri.

Douglas chose to replace the compromise with a new theory called “popular sovereignty.” This would allow the people of these territories to chose for themselves whether to be a slave state or a free state. The Senator hoped that by admitting Kansas and Nebraska, the balance of power in the federal government would be kept. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce.

Once the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, it became apparent that Kansas would become a battleground for the extension of slavery. Pro-slavery southerners and anti-slavery Northerners then began pouring into the territory and resulted in civil war before the nation civil war began. Abolitionists sent citizens in to try to sway the state while pro-slavery Missourians crossed into Kansas with guns. These Missourians began to stuff ballot boxes attempting to swing the election and tried to scare anti-slavery voters (Youngdahl, 2012). They were hoping they could get enough supporters of their respective cause into the state to swing the state in their direction (Rank, 2019).

In 1855, there were elections in Kansas that went pro-slavery. However, these results were fraudulent because many “Border Ruffian” Missourians poured across the border on the day of the election. The vote for slavery was also larger than the number of people who could vote in Kansas. In addition to this, the Missourians threatened to beat and whip anyone who voted for the anti-slavery cause.

Despite the election being fraudulent, President Pierce certified the election anyway. This established a pro-slavery government in Lecompton.

This government created a slave code that would punish anyone who “expressed disagreement with slavery.” If someone added a fugitive slave, they could get 10 years in prison.

In response to this, anti-slavery supporters held a re-vote which resulted in the election of an anti-slavery government that was mainly supported by legal voters.

Abolitionists from New England then began to ship rifles into Kansas to support the anti-slavery cause. These rifles were called “Beecher’s Bibles.” As tensions continued to rise, on May 21, 1856, Lawrence (where the anti-slavery government was located) was raided by pro-slavery “border ruffians.” They destroyed homes, shops, and two newspaper offices. A cannon was even used during the fighting.

This war in Kansas then spread to the Senate floor. Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina attacked Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. He did so with a heavy cane in retaliation for Sumner critiquing Brooks cousin and fellow Senator Andrew P. Butler (Youngdahll, 2012).

Dred Scott

Then, the Dred Scott decision was handed down and added to the growing tensions of civil war (Rank, 2019).

Dred Scott had been a slave of John Emerson who was an army surgeon. Scott married another of Emerson’s slaves. The couple birthed their daughter in territory that was made free from the Missouri Compromise.

After Emerson died, his wife inherited her deceased husband’s slaves. When this happened, Scott sued to be made free. He initially lost this suit but he won a retrial in the St. Louis County Court in 1850. This ruling was then overturned by the Missouri State Supreme Court in 1852 and upheld by the Missouri Circuit court in 1854.

This case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that Dred Scott was not a citizen and that slaves were property. They also ruled that Congress could not ban slave, overturning the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

This decision said that African-Americans were not citizens of the United States and that Congress did not have the power to ban slavery from the territories. This fired up anti-slavery citizens such as John Brown (McPherson, 1988).

John Brown’s Raid

In response to these growing tensions, John Brown took action.

John Brown was an abolitionist (anti-slavery) born in Connecticut. Brown had fiery rhetoric and wanted to use violence to bring about an end to slavery. He was very different than his close friend Frederick Douglas, who was also an anti-slavery abolitionist, who advocated more peaceful means of bringing about an end to slavery. In 1856, Brown made multiple trips to the east to raise money for the fight that was going on in Kansas. He then led a raid in the Appalachian Foothills freeing slaves along the way.


He then decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. His goal was to use the weapons to arm slaves and overthrow their plantations. Brown was accompanied on this raid by 22 other men (5 black and 17 white). On October 16, 1859, he left three men at his base and took the other 18 men into the federal armory.

John Brown and his men were successful in capturing the weapons armory. They then sent out word throughout the countryside, hoping slaves would run away and join their force. However, this success was short-lived.

The next day, federal troops were sent in under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Eight of the men who captured the armory were killed on site. Seven managed to escape but two were captured later.

Brown retreated to the fire-engine house at Harpers Ferry where he stayed during the night. During the night, marines under the command of Robert E. Lee and JEB Stuart arrived. They broke down the doors using battering rams and bayonets and raided the house. Two more of Brown’s men were killed during this raid and the rest were captured.

Brown was then tried and convicted of treason, murder, and fomenting insurrection. He was sentenced to death by hanging on December 2, 1859.

Four more of his men were hanged on December 16th and two more on March 16, 1860.

This caused outrage in both the North and the South and furthered the rising sectional tension in America and brought tensions much closer to civil war (McPherson, 1988).

Brown became a hero and a villain to Northern and Southern states.

The Southern states were so outraged by the abolitionists’ actions at Harpers Ferry that they began to talk of secession from the Union. A paper in Atlanta wrote, “We regard every man who does not boldly declare that he believes African slavery to be a social, moral, and political blessing an enemy to the institutions of the South” (McPherson, 1988).

Political Splits

The period of American history prior to the American Civil War saw unprecedented decisiveness. There were traditionally two dominant political parties: the Whigs and the Democrats.

Southerners wanted to expand slavery in order to keep it from dying out. They set their sights on Cuba and Texas. Northerners, on the other hand, wanted to prevent this from happening and to let slavery die out naturally.

In 1832-36, the Whig Party began to split into Northern and Southern factions over the issue of slavery and its expansion. This eventually led to the death of the party.

Northern Whigs went and formed the Republican Party which ran their first candidate in 1856. In this presidential election, the Republicans ran John C. Fremont, “the pathfinder.”

The election of 1856 saw Fremont facing off against Millard Fillmore in the South and Buchanan facing Fillmore in the South. The reason Fremont was not a contender in the South was that they were a North-only party.

This election saw Buchanan win a ticket to the White House. Had Fremont won, Southerners were already threatening to secede.

Then, in 1860, the Democratic party spit.

The Election of 1860

Stephen Douglas of Illinois was the Northern candidate. However, he was not embraced in the pro-slavery states of the South. In the South, John C. Breckinridge was nominated by Southern Democrats. The newly formed Republican party nominated Abraham Lincoln, also from Illinois.

The Southern states again threatened to secede from the Union if the Republican candidate (this time Lincoln, not John C. Fremont) was elected. This was over the belief that Lincoln would pass federal regulations and limitations on slavery, despite the fact that Lincoln promised not to touch slavery in the pro-slavery states if he were to be elected. Lincoln’s only intentions when he was a presidential candidate in 1860 were to prevent slavery from spreading into the new territories.

When the results of the 1860 election came in, Lincoln had won with only about 40% of the popular vote.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860 sealed the deal. His victory, without a single Southern electoral vote, was a clear signal to the Southern states that they had lost all influence. Feeling that slavery would now be threatened, they turned to the only alternative they believed was left to them: secession.

The Confederacy

In response to the election of the “rail-splitter,” South Carolina seceded on December 20th, 1860. By February of the following year, six more states had seceded: Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Texas. Once these states seceded, they joined together and created the Confederate States of America. These pro-slavery states were pushed over the edge by the election of President Lincoln.

The secession of these states from the Union had seemed like little more than a threat before December of 1860. However, now secession was all too real and American was being divided.

The capital of this new “country” was named Montgomery, Alabama. The Confederacy began to build up its army and seize control of federal land in the South.

One spot, in particular, was Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina (Rank, 2019).

The Battle of Fort Sumter, South Carolina

Fort Sumter had been built in 1829. The fort was constructed to defend the East Coast of the United States. The fort had never seen battle before the outbreak of the Civil War.

When the pro-slavery state of South Carolina seceded from the Union, Major Robert Anderson, the Union general in command of the fort, began to secretly move his troops garrisoned at another fort to Fort Sumter.

Upon learning that Anderson had brought troops to the fort, members of the South Carolina government sent representatives to Washington, D.C. to speak with President Buchanan. They demanded that the president order the Union general to leave the fort. However, Buchanan refused and instead sent a ship with 200 troops to strengthen Fort Sumter.

However, this ship would never reach its destination. The forts surrounding Fort Sumter had been taken over by Confederate forces and it was clear that the Union ship would never make it past these forts.

After this, Abraham Lincoln took office. He felt that he had to hold Fort Sumter. He believed that if it fell, it would legitimize the Confederacy and their rebellion. Lincoln then planned to resupply the fort. He sent a message to the Confederate government stating that he was going to “send supplies—not troops—to reinforce the fort and would do so even if they tried to stop him.”

The Confederate forces knew that these supplies would make it incredibly difficult to secure the fort. In response, South Carolina sent a message to the commander of Fort Sumter and asked him to surrender. They offered terms of surrender that allowed the Union forces safe travel back to Union territory and allowed the men to keep their weapons and to salute the American flag before abandoning the fort. He refused.

In response, Confederate forces under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard in South Carolina began to shell the fort on April 12, 1861, using cannons and mortar. The Federal troops inside the fort were outmatched and outgunned. Union guns were quickly damaged and were unable to fire back. After just two days Anderson was forced to surrender.

There were no casualties except a Confederate horse. There were also two Union soldiers killed during the evacuation of the fort. During the hundred-gun salute that occurred while the Northern troops were leaving Fort Sumter, there was an issue with one of the cannons and two Union soldiers were killed. There was no more fighting at the Charleston fort ( Fort Sumter, 2021).

The Start of the American Civil War

President Lincoln had shrewdly navigated the crisis at the fort. He had avoided firing first and seeming like the aggressor in starting the Civil War.

The next day, in response, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000, 90-day volunteers to put down the rebellion that was being led by South Carolina.

This call to arms by Abraham Lincoln triggered the secession of Virginia, which left the Union on April 17, 1861. Virginia was followed by North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

It was at this point that the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Abraham Lincoln then turned to Robert E. Lee and offered him command of the Union forces. Colonel Lee declined, stating that he did not want to turn against Virginia. A few days later, he accepted a position in the Confederate army (Rank, 2019).

Works Cited

Fort Sumter. (2021). Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Henricks, K. (2018). “I’m Principled Against Slavery, but …”:Colorblindness and the Three-Fifths Debate. Social Problems65(3), 285–304.

McPherson, James M. (1988). Battle cry of freedom : the Civil War era. New York :Oxford University Press, 1988.

Porter, D. L. (2019). Three-fifths compromise. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Rank, S. (Host). (2019, February 7). Episode 1: Background to the Civil War (No. 1) [Audio Podcast Episode] IN Key Battles of the Civil War 

Schor, P. (2017). The Creation of the Federal Census by the Constitution of the United States : A Political Instrument. Oxford University Press.

Sheposh, R. (2020). Secession in the United States. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Youngdahl, R. (2012, November 25). #02 SLAVERY & POLITICS (No. 2) [Audio Podcast Episode] In The Civil War (1861-1865): A History Podcast 

Youngdahl, Richard. (Creator). (2012, December 9) #04 Nullification Crisis [Audio Podcast].

Youngdahl, Richard. (Creator). (2013, January 6) #08 Election of 1848 & Compromise of 1850 [Audio Podcast].

One thought on “Background to the Civil War – causes and events

Add yours

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Powered by

Up ↑