The Catalysts of War: Exploring the Causes of the American Civil War

Exploring the causes of the American Civil War.

The Wilmot Proviso
The Liberator
John Brown

A war over the Constitution

The American Civil War was the greatest challenge that the United States of America has ever faced. While many factors contributed to its beginning, they could all be boiled down to one fundamental question – what kind of union should exist in the USA?

This was a question that the Founding Fathers had attempted to solve for good some 70 years before the Civil War, when they wrote the Constitution.

This Constitution has proved, for the most part, extremely successful. But there have been several moments in US history where the Constitution has come extremely close to unraveling altogether. Nowhere was this more true than in the American Civil War.

The American system of government is a federal system of government, in which power is divided between the central government in Washington and the individual states. This system of government allows each state to maintain their own laws and regulations, while still being part of a larger union.

The relationship relies upon cooperation between the state and federal governments. But what happens when the two are not co-operating? What happens when they disagree?

States’ rights: the debate about federal vs. state power

The debate over states’ rights was a major factor in the American Civil War. This debate was rooted in the Constitution, which established a federal government to oversee the nation as a whole, while also granting certain powers to the individual states. The question of how much power should be held by the federal government and how much should be held by the states was a source of contention between the North and the South.

The South was largely in favor of states’ rights, believing that the federal government should not interfere with the individual states’ laws or policies. The North, on the other hand, was more in favor of a strong federal government, believing that it was necessary to ensure the unity of the nation. This debate over states’ rights was a major factor in the buildup to the Civil War, as it created a deep divide between the two sides.

States' rights: growing tensions

One of the earliest disputes over states rights leading up to the American Civil War occurred in 1846, with the Wilmot Proviso. This was an amendment proposed by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, which would have outlawed the expansion of slavery into any new territories acquired by the United States.


Southerners vehemently opposed the amendment. While the Wilmot Proviso never passed, it created a rift between the North and the South that would only continue to grow. This was exacerbated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which rules that these two new states should have the right to vote on whether they allowed slavery. Kansas experienced such violent protests at this that it became known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’.

The Compromise of 1850 was an attempt by congress to appease both sides of the debate, but it only created further tension. The primary reason for this was the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act in the compromise. This made it a legal obligation for any US citizen to return runaway slaves if they encountered them. Understandably, many who were opposed to slavery were outraged at this proposition.

Growing abolitionist movements: the push to end slavery in the United States

The abolitionist movement in the United States was a long-standing effort to end the practice of slavery. It was a cause that had been championed by many since the early 19th century, but it was not until the mid-1800s that the movement began to gain traction.

Two of the most important abolitionists were Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass was an escaped slave who wrote an account of his life under slavery. His story became one of the most widely-read books in America, the most prominent example of a whole genre of slave narratives that seriously bolstered support for abolitionism in the 1840s and 1850s.

William Lloyd Garrison founded the abolitionist newspaper *The Liberator* and the American Anti-Slavery Society. His writings and teachings were so popular that he has been described by historian Horace Seldon as ‘the central figure in American life’ in the 1830s and 1840s – more influential even than president Andrew Jackson.


Thanks to Douglass, Garrison and a range of other brave men and women working for the abolitionist cause, abolitionism had become the most divisive issue in America by the 1860s. There were many causes for disagreement between the Northern and Southern states, but slavery was by far the most contentious.

The Fugitive Slave Act: escalating tensions over runaway slaves

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a major catalyst for the American Civil War. It was a federal law that required all citizens to assist in the capture and return of runaway slaves.

This law put the North and South at odds, as the North had abolished slavery and the South was still heavily reliant on it. The law was seen as an infringement of the rights of the Northern states, and it was met with strong opposition.


The Fugitive Slave Act further escalated tensions between the North and South, and was seen as a violation of the rights of the Northern states, and it was met with strong resistance.

The Fugitive Slave Act was a major factor in the lead up to the Civil War, as it highlighted the stark differences between the two sides and made it clear that the issue of slavery was not going to be resolved peacefully.

Economic disparities: how the North and South evolved differently

By the mid-1800s, the Northern and Southern states had developed vastly different economies and societies. The North had become an industrial powerhouse, with a strong manufacturing sector and a growing middle class.

In contrast, the South was still largely agrarian, relying on slave labor to produce its main exports of cotton and tobacco.

This economic disparity led to a widening gap in wealth between the two regions, with the North becoming increasingly wealthy and the South becoming increasingly impoverished. This economic divide was a major factor in the eventual outbreak of the Civil War.

The economic divide between the North and South also led to differences in their social and political systems. The North was more progressive and egalitarian, with a strong emphasis on individual rights and freedoms.

The South, on the other hand, was more conservative and hierarchical, with a strong emphasis on tradition and social order. This difference in values and beliefs was another major factor in the eventual outbreak of the Civil War. The North and South had become so different that it was only a matter of time before they clashed.

The 1860 presidential election: how Lincoln’s win ignited the powder keg

The election of 1860 was a crucial turning point in the history of the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election was a major catalyst in the lead up to the American Civil War.


The Republican Party, of which Lincoln was a member, had a platform of anti-slavery, which was seen as a direct threat to the Southern states. In response, the Southern states declared their secession from the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.

The election was a highly contested affair, with the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the Constitutional Union Party all vying for the presidency.

Lincoln’s victory was a shock to the South, as it was seen as a direct challenge to their way of life. The election of Lincoln was the spark that ignited the powder keg of tensions between the North and the South, leading to the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Bleeding Kansas

The violence that occurred in the mid-1850s in the Kansas Territory was a major factor in the lead-up to the American Civil War. This violence was a result of the struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces over the question of whether slavery would be allowed in the new state.


The pro-slavery forces were backed by the government of Missouri, while the anti-slavery forces were supported by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. The conflict between the two sides was intense and often resulted in violence.

The violence in Kansas was a major factor in the lead-up to the Civil War, as it demonstrated the deep divisions between the North and South and the willingness of both sides to resort to violence to achieve their goals.

The events in Kansas showed that the North and South were not willing to compromise on the issue of slavery and that the only way to resolve the issue was through war.

John Brown’s raid

Tensions came to the forefront when John Brown, a prominent abolitionist, conducted a raid on the Harpers Ferry federal armory in 1859. He tried to incite a slave revolt at an important Southern military base, and it was met with outrage from the South. Brown was captured and hanged.


Brown’s actions were a symbol of the brewing conflict between the North and South, and a stark reminder of the tensions that had been building for years.

This event was a catalyst for the war, as it highlighted the deep divide between the two regions and their opposing views on slavery. Brown’s raid was a powerful symbol of the conflict that had been simmering for years, and it ultimately helped to spark the American Civil War.

The push for secession: how southern states began to leave the union

The secession of the Southern states marked the point of no return in the outbreak of the American Civil War. This process began in late 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to declare its secession from the Union.

This was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, all of which declared their secession in the first half of 1861.

The secession of these states was a result of the growing divide between the North and South, which had been exacerbated by the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.

The secession of the Southern states was seen by many as a violation of the Constitution, and it was met with strong opposition from the North. The secessionists argued that the states had the right to secede, and that the Union was a voluntary association of states.

This argument was rejected by the North, and the secession of the Southern states was seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the federal government. This challenge ultimately led to the outbreak of war in April 1861.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

Life on the Battlefield: Soldiers’ Stories from the Civil War;

What life was like for those on the front line of the Civil War.

Reconstructing a Nation: How the United States Attempted to Heal After the Civil War;

How the United States attempted to heal after the Civil War

Slavery, Emancipation, and the African American Experience During the Civil War;

Slavery, emancipation and the new challenges for the African American community by the Civil War.

Lincoln, Davis, and the Political Leaders of the Civil War;

A look at some of the major leaders in the Civil War, with a special focus on Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

Women in the Civil War: Roles, Experiences, and Contributions;

Roles, experiences, and contributions made by women in the Civil War.

Lasting Impacts: How the American Civil War Continues to Shape the United States Today;

How the American Civil War continues to shape the United States today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *