The road to the Civil War

April 15, 2015

Alan Maass explains what brought the economic and social conflict between North and South to a head, in the third article in a series on slavery and the Civil War.

ONE EVENING in November 1820, John Quincy Adams--the son of a former president, the current Secretary of State, and a president himself in four year's time--made a bold prediction:

If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave-holding States, combined with a war between the two severed portions of the Union. It seems to me that its result must be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent; and calamitous and desolating as this course of events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.

Adams confided this speculation to his diary, but if he did speak it out loud, his listeners probably would have been taken aback. In 1820, the idea that slavery would be the cause of a war between North and South might have seemed like a shadowy possibility--but a Southern defeat, followed by "extirpation of slavery from this whole continent," no more than an abolitionist's fantasy.

An engraving of slave catchers chasing Henry Bibb, an escaped slave
An engraving of slave catchers chasing Henry Bibb, an escaped slave

After all, the Southern ruling class's wealth and power was reaching new heights, based on the intensified exploitation of Black slaves to produce the cotton that fueled the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Congress had recently agreed to the Compromise of 1820--the latest in a series of compromises that didn't just leave the cornerstone of Southern wealth intact, but allowed the slaveocracy to continue to dominate the federal government.

Nevertheless, Adams' prediction was vindicated to the letter 45 years later--in April 1865, at the end of four bloody years of a Civil War that did ultimately destroy the institution of slavery.

The conflict between North and South--with their two different social systems, one based on slave labor and the other free--was obvious enough by 1820. What Adams foresaw with greater clarity was, first, this conflict with economic and social roots would be fought out in the political arena; second, every time it was resolved in favor of the South, it would be at the expense of democracy and justice in every corner of society; and third, when the North was finally powerful enough to prevail politically, it would undermine the South's power and seal its fate.

Slavery and the Civil War

One hundred and fifty years ago, the institution of slavery was finally destroyed with the end of the Civil War. Socialist Worker writers tell the story.

It's as if Adams was paraphrasing the words of another fierce advocate for democracy, but from the 20th century. The arc of the moral universe may be long, Adams was saying, but it bends toward emancipation.

Still, as much as the North and South were set on a collision course toward the "irrepressible conflict," as it became known, the shape and timing and outcome of that conflict depended very much on the organization of those determined to bring down the slave system.


AS THIS series on "Slavery and the Civil War" has emphasized, the "irrepressible conflict" was present from the founding of the United States.

The American Revolution, fought to end British rule in its North American colonies, gave expression to the highest democratic ideals of the era. More than a decade before "liberté, égalité, fraternité" became the slogan of the French Revolution, America's Declaration of Independence stated that "all men are created equal."

But of course, all men weren't equal in America. At the time of the revolution, there were more than 1 million African slaves in the colonies.

Even at this point, slavery was concentrated in the South--the system of forced labor was suited to the plantation agriculture system. The boom in cotton production in the early 19th century--driven by the demand of an international capitalist system in the midst of the Industrial Revolution--led to an intensification of all the horrors of slavery. The domination of an oligarchy of big plantation owners over Southern society and politics was cemented in place.

The colonies-turned-states of the North developed in a different direction. The merchant elite of the North was tied up with the slave system because of its position in financing and shipping the South's cotton crop to Europe. But Northern agriculture was dominated by smaller farmsteads and different crops.

More importantly, as the cotton boom took off in the South, industry began to develop nearly as rapidly in the North. The factory system created in Britain spread through New England. By one estimate, by 1840, the value of manufacturing assets concentrated in Providence, Rhode Island--more than 150 factories employing 30,000 men and women--made it the richest city in the world.

The North experienced a further boom after 1840 based on the development of steam power--railroads became the dominant form of transportation in less than a generation. Northern cities grew rapidly, even as the population expanded westward into the upper Midwest and beyond.

In this regard, the North was at least the equal of the South in a different form of barbarism--driving Native Americans off their land and destroying their livelihoods and culture. On this issue, the North and South were united--even the abolitionists appear to have been either oblivious to or silent about this historic crime, at least until after the Civil War.

On virtually every other question, though, the North and South were at odds--and the battles between these rival systems, while rooted in economics, played out in political disputes.

On the issue of trade, for example, the Southern plantation owners wanted free trade policies as the basis of an export economy, while Northern industrialists wanted tariffs to protect their new industrial enterprises. The North needed the federal government to devote financial resources to develop new systems of transportation and spur business innovation, while Southerners wanted the government to stay out of the economy.

Contemporary historians and commentators who want to obscure slavery as the central cause of the Civil War sometimes focus on these other sources of conflict as if they were of equal importance. But all the other frictions flowed out of the essential conflict between two competing social systems, one based on slave labor and the other on free labor.

The different ideological expressions of North and South help illustrate the point. In the North, ideals of democracy and individual freedom, even if they were filtered through the rhetoric of capitalism, could thrive in a society where there was a certain amount of class mobility and economic opportunity. In the South, though the ruling class was enmeshed in an international capitalist system, the dominant ideology reflected anti-democratic prejudices common to the European aristocracy for centuries beforehand.

One article in a Georgia newspaper gave expression to the mindset: "Free Society! We sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers and moon-struck theorists...hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman's body servant."

Writing from England as the Civil War was just underway in late 1861, Karl Marx--the keenest of all contemporary observers of the war--emphasized the heart of the North-South conflict:

The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not, but whether the 20 million free men of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders.


IN THE decades before the war, each time the conflict between North and South came to a head, it had to be papered over with a political compromise--and each one favored the Southern ruling class, at the expense of the North.

The most famous compromise of all was enshrined in the Constitution itself, which is why abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison considered it to be "infected with the pestilence of slavery." Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person (Native Americans were not counted at all) for the purposes of allocating representation in the federal government. This gave the South a built-in advantage and helped it to dominate the White House and the Supreme Court for most of the years until the Civil War.

Subsequent compromises typically came down to the make-or-break question of admitting new states into the Union as slave states or free states. Every new free state threatened to tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate--with its undemocratic two representatives per state, regardless of population--to the Northern side.

The Southern ruling class would stop at nothing to maintain its political domination. In the mid-1840s, the pro-slavery President James Polk launched a war on Mexico, with the clear aim of seizing new territories in the West that could be brought into the U.S. as slave states.

The Compromise of 1850 allowed California into the union as a free state, but at the cost of more concessions to Southern power--including the Fugitive Slave Act, which put the force of the federal government behind the vigilante slave-catchers who kidnapped Blacks from the North, claiming they were escaped slaves.

The Northern ruling class chafed under a political system that kept them, despite their growing economic power, subordinate to their rivals in the South. But the popular effect of the compromises was far more profound.

Among the abolitionists, already committed to the cause of ending slavery, each compromise drove them to more radical positions--including challenging the prevailing orthodoxies of the movement, like nonviolence.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave and well known abolitionist agitator, had already broken with Garrison over nonviolence by 1850, but the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced that direction. "The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter," Douglass said, "is to make a half-dozen or more dead kidnappers."

The new law infuriated even moderate opponents of slavery. "This filthy enactment was made in the 19th century by people who could read and write," wrote the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. "I will not obey it, by God."


AMONG THE Northern population generally, resentment at the power of the Southern ruling class to dictate national policies remained a central factor. Northern farmers, for example, wanted the same territories that the slaveocracy hoped to settle as slave states. But specifically anti-slavery sentiment continued to spread in the 1840s and '50s, driven by the campaigns of the abolitionists, but also by each new outrage like the Fugitive Slave Act.

So, for example, in 1854, Anthony Burns, a former slave living in Boston, was ordered to be returned to slavery. That night, a riotous crowd nearly freed him from the jail where he was being held. The next day, Burns had to be guarded by hundreds of police as he was led to the harbor to be put on board a ship bound for the South.

"We went to bed one night old-fashioned conservative Compromise Union Whigs, and waked up stark mad abolitionists," wrote one Boston resident. From the other side, the Richmond Enquirer newspaper in Virginia commented: "One more victory like that, and the South is lost."

That same year brought a mini-Civil War after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The law created two new territories that would soon become states--but whether they were free or slave was left to a popular vote. Thousands of pro-Southern settlers known as "border ruffians" descended on Kansas to rig the vote in favor of slavery. The battle between these vigilantes and free state forces continued until the outbreak of the Civil War itself.

Among the abolitionists who went to Kansas to fight on the free state side was John Brown. A few years later, he and his sons came back east to carry out a long-planned military operation, with the goal of sparking a general uprising against slavery.

In October 1859, Brown and a small band of men, Black and white together, carried out a raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The raiders succeeded in capturing the armory, but before they escaped with the weapons they intended to distribute among slaves, they were surrounded. Brown was arrested by a U.S. Army unit led by the future Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. After a show trial that Brown nevertheless turned into an indictment of slavery, the captured raiders were put to death.

The Harpers Ferry raid showed that the conflict between North and South was past the point of compromise. The South was convulsed by fear that a slave insurrection, backed by warriors from the North, was at hand. In the North, Brown was celebrated as a hero and martyr. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow declared that Brown's hanging would be "a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution--quite as needed as the old one."

Frederick Douglass, who Brown nearly convinced to join the Harpers Ferry raid, credited his friend with setting the Civil War in motion:

If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did, at least, begin the war that ended slavery...Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm, the sky was cleared--the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union, and the clash of arms was at hand.


THERE WAS one more ingredient in the combustible mix that erupted into the Civil War: the Republican Party.

Strange as it might sound with today's Tea Partying GOP in mind, the Republicans were once hated by the racist reactionaries of the slave South. The New Orleans Daily Delta newspaper called them "essentially a revolutionary party...[made up of] a motley throng of Sans culottes...Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves and amalgamationists."

In reality, the Republicans were not nearly as radical as the slaveocracy feared them to be. They formed in 1854 as a third-party challenge, under the influence of the abolitionists, but also a range of other political forces, including anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Nativists.

The point of unity was opposition to the political power of the Southern elite. Beyond anything else, the different elements of the party wouldn't accept expansion of slavery into new territories--and potential new states--in the West.

For the 1860 presidential election, more prominent abolitionist voices were passed over for the Republican nomination in favor of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, who had been a member of Congress from Illinois, was personally opposed to slavery and expected to see it ended over time. But he specifically denied that he favored "the social and political equality of the white and Black races," as he put it in one political debate. Lincoln won the nomination because he was at the middle point between the different factions of the Republican Party.

Frederick Douglass had supported third-party election challenges in past--by now, he had broken with another orthodoxy of the earlier phase of the abolitionist movement: the rejection of politics preached by William Lloyd Garrison.

As the 1860 election approached, Douglass zeroed in on the contradictions of Lincoln and the Republicans:

The Republican Party...is opposed to the political power of slavery, rather than to slavery itself. It would arrest the spread of the slave system...and defeat all plans for giving slavery any further guarantee of permanence. This is very desirable, but it leaves the great work of abolishing slavery...still to be accomplished. The triumph of the Republican Party will only open the way for this great work.

Nevertheless, Douglass disagreed with other abolitionists who called for boycotting the 1860 election. He recognized that a victory for Lincoln and the Republicans--against a divided Democratic Party, with one candidate representing the Southern slave-owning wing and another the Northern wing--really would "open the way for this great work." As Douglass wrote a few months before the election:

I cannot fail to see that the Republican Party carries with it the anti-slavery sentiment of the North, and that a victory gained by it in the present canvass will be a victory gained by that sentiment over the wickedly aggressive pro-slavery sentiment of the country...The slaveholders know that the day of their power is over when a Republican president is elected.

Douglass' words were prophetic. Lincoln's victory spurred the secession of Southern states--seven of the 11 had broken with the Union before he took the oath of office.

As timid as it might have seemed to the radical abolitionists, the Republicans' commitment to opposing the expansion of slavery would inevitably undermine the South's dominant position in the federal government--and that would be the beginning of the end.

In his inaugural speech, Lincoln pledged, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists." It was an offer of compromise to save the Union, which he insisted was his highest priority.

But Lincoln would only go so far. Various business figures and fellow Republicans urged him to accept a compromise that scrapped opposition to the expansion of slavery. On this, Lincoln refused to bend:

We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten...If we surrender, it is the end of us. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.

The die was cast. A little over one month after Lincoln's inauguration, the first shots of the Civil War were fired--the Confederacy's bombardment of the federal government's Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

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