Part 05: On the Causes of the Civil War

Part Five: On the Causes of the Civil War

Slavery, from its very inception, created a paradox to the concept of government by the consent of the governed, the basic principle of this country's democracy. The founding fathers tried to deep the recognition of slavery from the constitution and hoped that the prohibition of the slave trade would eventually end slavery; reasoning that the continued existence of tropical people in this land was due to continued additions from abroad. They misjudged, or could not foresee, the changing economic world. Whereas, in the West Indies it was more profitable to kill slaves by overwork and replace them with cheaply bought new ones, in America, without the slave-trade, slaves were multiplied by breeding.

The Southern Americans raised sugar, rice, and tobacco. But when they began to grow cotton the demand for slaves was accelerated, especially with the advent of Eli Whitney's cotton gin (a machine that separates the cotton fibers from the seeds, making the processing of cotton much faster, hence, the need for more cotton, hence, more slaves), as cotton was used to clothe the masses of the world.

As cotton and Blacks proliferated, an alteration in the seams of American conscience was forthcoming.

American slaves were at the bottom of a "growing pyramid of commerce and industry" and COULD NOT BE SPARED! All of this created a desire for expansion, the cause of new political demands, and visions of power and empire.

"First of all, their work called for widening stretches of new, rich black soil—in Florida, in Louisiana, in Mexico, and even Kansas. This land, along with cheap labor, and labor easily regulated and distributed, made for profits so high that a whole system of culture arose in the South, with a new leisure and social philosophy. Black labor became the foundation stone not only of southern social structure, but also of northern manufacture and commerce, and of buying and selling on a worldwide scale. New cities were built on the results of Black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose both in Europe and America."

"…the growing exploitation of white labor in Europe, the rise of the factory system, the increased monopoly of land, and the problem of distribution of political power, began to send wave after wave of immigrants to America, looking for new freedom, new opportunity and new democracy.

Patterns in American life style began to develop. There were the native-born Americans, largely of English descent, property holders, and employers; the free northern Blacks and fugitive slaves from the South; the free Blacks of the South living off the goodwill of white patrons; the great mass of poor whites, and, of course, the slaves.

This system of slavery required a special police force, manned mostly by the poor whites. The effectiveness of this special kind of force in stifling insurrections and patrolling for runaways is the reason why revolts in America were not as successful as those in the West Indies. (It should be noted that coercion, patrolling, and murdering did not curtail the efforts of Blacks in their escape attempts, but rather, caused them to develop the wisdom and boldness necessary to make successful their intent. Case in point—The Underground Railroad.)

In the North, Black labor was cheap, due in part to both custom and competition. The northern employer preferred the immigrants as long as they worked just as cheaply. As a result the immigrants blamed the Blacks for driving the price of labor down. The consequence of this stirred up race tension and led to race riots in many instances. In the South, Black laborers (slaves) kept the immigrants out of work.

It should be pointed out that the first waves of immigrants opposed slavery more so from the economic fear of its competition, than from the moralistic point of view. But as the competition with Black labor persisted, gradually with succeeding immigrants, attitudes changed.

"Thus northern workers were organizing and fighting industrial integration in order to gain higher wage and shorter hours, and more and more they saw economic salvation in the rich land of the West. A western movement of white workers and pioneers began and was paralleled by a western movement of planters and Black workers in the South. Land and more land became the cry of the southern political leaders, with a growing demand for reopening of the African slave trade. Land, more land, became the cry of the peasant farmer in the North. The two forces met in Kansas…" For the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) repealed the Missouri Compromise, and placed in the hands of the territories themselves the ultimate decision as to whether or not they would be slave of free. "For the next few years Kansas bled; Abolitionists swept into the state to oppose the in-rush of the Missourians; northern workingmen and farmers who had been desirous of winning land grants in the West, rushed in alongside the Abolitionist, prepared to deep the western territories free. Naturally, a guerilla warfare opened up with the anti-slavery forces on the defensive."

John Brown was in Kansas at the time and led numerous abolitionist oriented guerilla warfare operations. The confrontation between anti- and pro-slavery groups was soon dubbed "The Winning of the West" (it was actually war, some say the first stages of the Civil War).

Although the North and South considered their own military structure superior to the other and often spoke of the ways each could annihilate the other if provoked, neither region thought and/or prepared for Civil War before 1861.

However, the Harper's Ferry Raid did create quite a furor. Though John Brown was executed, "John Brown's spirit" lived on among the Blacks (free and slave) and the abolitionists. And as a result, abolitionist activities began to accelerate. While in the pro-slavery camps, Brown and "the raid" were bitterly denounced.

This, coupled with the facts that "the South was determined to make free white labor compete with Black slaves, monopolize land and raw material in the hands of a political aristocracy, and extended the scope of that power; … the industrial North refused to surrender its raw material and one of its chief markets to Europe; … White American labor, while it refused to recognize Black labor as equal and human, had to fight to maintain its own humanity and ideal of equality," made the fulfillment of Harriet Tubman's prophecy, "I know there is going to be a war," inevitable. For northern industry wanted to monopolize the raw material raised in the South for its manufacturers; and northern and western labor could not maintain their wage scale against slave competition and "the South had sent its cotton abroad to buy cheap manufacturers, and had resisted the protective tariff demands by the North."

Tensions mounted until "Edwin Ruffin, white-haired and mad, fired the first gun at Fort Sumter, …, and so the war came."

Principle Reference: Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 by W.E.B. DuBois

Other References:

Conrad, Earl — Harriet Tubman
Negro Almanac
The New York Times Encyclopedia Almanac
All quotes are from Black Reconstruction and Harriet Tubman