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...and they [Yankees] are marked ... with such a perversity of character, as to constitute, from that circumstance, the natural division of our parties
Thomas Jefferson

Some say simplistically that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Unfortunately, there is no "simple" reason. The causes of the war were a complex series of events, including slavery, that began long before the first shot was fired. Competing nationalisms, political turmoil, the definition of freedom, the preservation of the Union, the fate of slavery and the structure of our society and economy could all be listed as significant contributing factors in America's bloodiest conflict.

Complaints of Georgians

Many of the problems Georgians saw more than one hundred fifty years ago are being reiterated today. The "oppressive" federal government. High taxes(tariffs before the war). A growing government unwilling to listen to law abiding citizens. Sound familiar? They were complaints levied from 1816 on in Georgia.

Constitutional Questions

People argued about the meaning of the Constitution since its infancy. From a legal standpoint, the document defines the relationship between the people of the United States and the federal government, detailing the powers and responsibilities of each. In 1828 Vice-president John C. Calhoun said:

if a state felt a federal law extended beyond the Constitutional rights of the government that state had the right to ignore(or "nullify") the law.

This concept dated back the Articles of Confederation. President Andrew Jackson felt the federal government was the highest authority(Article VI, Section 2) and the states had to abide by its law.

Tariffs and the Nullification Crisis

As industry in the North expanded it looked towards southern markets, rich with cash from the lucrative agricultural business, to buy the North's manufactured goods. However, it was often cheaper for the South to purchase the goods abroad. In order to "protect" the northern industries Jackson slapped a tariff on many of the imported goods that could be manufactured in the North. When South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November 1832, refusing to collect the tariff and threatening to withdraw from the Union, Jackson ordered federal troops to Charleston. A secession crisis was averted when Congress revised the Tariff of Abominations in February 1833.

The rhetoric changes

However, the political climate changed during this "Nullification Crisis." Designations of States Rightist, Pro-Union, loose or strict constructionist became more important than Whig or Democrat. In North Georgia when John Thomas, a local politician, was asked what to name a new county he said, "Name it Union, for none but Union-like men live here." Most of the northern tier of Georgia counties remained pro-Union until the outbreak of war almost 30 years later. From this point on factional politics would play an increasing part in the division of a country.

Economic changes affect society

The Panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression began to gnaw like a hungry animal on the flesh of the American system. The disparity between northern and southern economies was exacerbated. Before and after the depression the economy of the South prospered. Southern cotton sold abroad totaled 57% of all American exports before the war. The Panic of 1857 devastated the North and left the South virtually untouched. The clash of a wealthy, agricultural South and a poorer, industrial North was intensified by abolitionists who were not above using class struggle to further their cause.

The breakdown of the political system

The ugliness of the political process quickly began to show as parties turned upon themselves and politics on a national level were more like local Georgia politics. Feuds and fights in political arenas were common. From 1837 until 1861 eight men became president, but no man served more than a single term in office. One sitting president was not renominated by his own party and another withdrew his name after being nominated. New political parties were created with names like Constitutional Union, American, Free-Soil and Republican. In Georgia, Democrats were strong, but factional fighting broke the party along pro-Union and States Rights lines.

With the disintegration of the Whig party in the early 1850's the political turmoil increased. Howell Cobb, former Speaker of the House, molded pro-Union Democrats, mostly from North Georgia, with former Whigs to grab the governorship in 1851. His attempts to help slaves fell on the deaf ears of our state legislature. Although Georgia began to prosper during his first year the coalition fell apart as the Democrats reunited. The increasing power of the West and self-serving politicians like Stephen A. Douglas churned the political environment as the North and South battled for philosophic control.

By the time Buchanan was elected(1856) the country was divided on many issues, including slavery. Former Governor Cobb spoke in the North as a moderate Southerner for Buchanan and served on his cabinet. Over the next 4 years Cobb changed from pro-Union to secessionist. A similar process occurred across much of Georgia. In 1860 the state was equally divided between secessionist and pro-Union.

A concise history of slavery

At Jamestown, Va. in 1611 a group of Scottish women and children were sold as slaves. 7 years later in Jamestown the first Africans were sold in slavery. From 1611 until 1865 people from virtually every society on earth were sold into slavery in North America. Citizens in each of the thirteen colonies enslaved people, but slavery was viewed as a southern institution after the early 1800's. Along the coastal areas of the South a majority of the slaves were black. In some inland areas whites and Native Americans outnumbered black slaves. Slavery is still legal in the United States as a criminal punishment, but is not practiced.

In 1789 Georgians, as did much of the rest of the country, saw slavery as a dying institution. Eli Whitney's stolen modification of the cotton gin(1793) created a greater demand for slaves, so rather than "wither on the vine" the institution prospered. The Northwest Ordinance, adopted in 1787, banned the practice in the Northwest Territories. In 1798 Georgia forbid further importation of slaves and the Constitution allowed Congress to outlaw importation of slaves in 1808, which they did. Over the next 40 years lesser skirmishes were fought over slavery including the Compromise of 1820. In North Georgia slavery was not widespread and a majority of the slaves were of Native American, Scottish or Irish descent.

Slaves often spoke of "our cotton" or "our cattle". The only item they would concede was the master's carriage. Trusted slaves were permitted to go to town unescorted. Others suffered horribly. Conditions in northern factories were as bad or worse than those for a majority of the slaves, but it would be 40 years after the war when they were properly addressed.

Beginning in the late 1840's the conflict over slavery began to boil over. The Compromise of 1850 contributed heavily to the split in Georgia's Democratic Party. On a national scale David Wilmot, Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe enflamed the abolitionists. James G. Birney and Theodore Weld were more effective against slavery. The Dred Scot decision, Kansas-Nebraska Act, and harsher Fugitive Slave Laws gave the South some redress.

The new Republican Party became a home to the alienated abolitionists. Although they totaled less than 3% of the population at large, they formulated the Republican platform to include the abolition of slavery as a plank. The party then nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. Few gave him any chance of success, but 3 other candidates split the popular vote and Lincoln won. Convinced that Lincoln would ruin the South economically, possibly by freeing the slaves, the heartland of the South withdrew from the Union. Shortly thereafter the upper south joined them. The attack on Fort Sumter launched America's bloodiest conflict.

So what caused the war?

Charleston MercuryThe United States had been moving towards a fractured, divisive society for a number of years. Cultural and economic differences served to widen the rift. Battles among North, South, and West grew more heated, especially after 1850. Politicians and the judiciary sent conflicting signals trying to appease each of the groups involved, yet all remained dissatisfied. Georgians saw a federal government controlled by Northern industrialists who were unresponsive to the problems of their state. Tariffs paid by Georgians bought improvements in northern and western states. Now the federal government, they thought, was going to take away personal property without compensation, a clear violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The South was wrong to assume Lincoln intended to free the slaves. He had never advocated action to abolish slavery nor did he speak out against the Illinois rules prohibiting blacks from testifying against whites. The true abolition candidate, Gerrit Smith of New York drew few votes. In his inaugural address Lincoln made it clear he would not interfere with slavery where it existed. Even though he made this speech after the South seceded he left the door open for their return.

During the war

Southerners abolished the African slave trade in the Confederate Constitution. In the North "Preserve the Union" was the battlecry and Lincoln quoted "...a house divided shall not stand..." from the Bible. In fact the Emancipation Proclamation(1862), a foreign affair ploy, cost Republicans control of the legislature that November. A year later Lincoln restated why the war was fought when he said, dedicating a cemetery at Gettysburg "..for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live." During the Draft Riots in New York City 88 blacks were lynched.

After the war

George Armstrong Custer and others adapted very quickly from killing Rebels to the genocide of Native
Americans. The South was "reconstructed" for the next 87 years. Southerners formed "brotherhoods" that
featured white robes, lynchings and unanimous support for Democratic candidates in the South and West. Confederate General John B. Gordon, reputed leader of this Ku Klux Klan, was elected governor of Georgia. Blacks struggled for nearly one hundred years to gain legal and economic equality.

For a Northern Perspective on why the Civil War was fought, see Causes of the Civil War

The Civil War in Georgia
Beginning with the Great Locomotive Chase and the battle of Chickamauga, to the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea

Article Links
Charleston Mercury
Howell Cobb
John C. Calhoun
Stephen A. Douglas

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