Most people tend to think that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery and the slave trade, though it was not. Although slavery played an important role in the Civil War, the main reason the Civil War was fought was over whether the Southern states could secede, or break away, from the Union. They fought over whether the South could break away from the United States and become its own country.
Why Did the Southern States Secede?
The South was already angry and upset about the compromises and decisions that had been made earlier regarding slavery. For example, the Dred Scott Decision, Compromise of 1850, Compromise of 1820, Kansas Nebraska Act, Raid at Harpers Ferry, Three Fifths Compromise, and Missouri Compromise were some of the compromises and decisions made at the time to try to deal with disagreements over slavery.
During the presidential election of 1860, Southern leaders told the South to secede from the Union if Lincoln were to win the election because they believed Lincoln was an abolitionist. Abolitionists were people who worked to get rid of slavery. The South was afraid that Lincoln would outlaw slavery while in office. This would have created a problem for the South since its way of life depended on slaves. It would have prevented the South from thriving. Southern farmers would be forced to pay their former slaves in return for working on the farms. Plantation owners would make less money since most of the people working on the plantations would have to be paid. In other words, the main reason the Southern states seceded from the Union was to escape what they felt was a threat to their right to own slaves.
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union following Lincoln’s
election. Soon after, five more states followed. Within six months, a total of eleven states had seceded from the Union.
The United States was no longer united. It had been divided into two nations: the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.
The South was so serious about secession that they even started to print their own money, write their own constitution, make laws, and elect a president and vice president to lead the new nation.
The North’s Reaction Toward the Secession
With so many of the Southern states seceding, many Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, felt they had to fight a war to get the states to come back to the Union. This war would soon be known as the Civil War.
Representatives from seven of the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4, 1861 to write a constitution for their new nation. The convention selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi to be the president of the new nation. The vice presidential position went to Alexander Stephens of Georgia. They called their new constitution the "Confederate Constitution" since it was written for the Confederate States of America. The leaders of the seceded states signed the Confederate Constitution in March. The Confederate Constitution was similar to the United States Constitution except that it guaranteed the support of slavery.
The representatives from the seven seceded states chose government officials to send to the secession conventions in the upper South. They hoped to convince the remaining slave states to join them.
The Crittenden Compromise
In the North, many suggestions were made on how to get the Southern states to come back into the Union. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky suggested the Crittenden Compromise to Congress to make Southerners happy and prevent a war. It protected slavery in all U.S. territories south of the Missouri Compromise Line (36° 30° ), while not allowing it north of the line. It didn’t allow Congress to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) and government interference with slave trade between states. It also suggested that Northerners would have to pay Southerners if they kept them from getting their escaped slaves back.
Other articles attached to the Crittenden Compromise would have changed the Fugitive Slave Law, which said that northerners would have to return escaped slaves to their rightful owners if they were caught. Republicans in Congress were against the compromise. The Senate decided against it on December 28, 1860.
Trying to Keep the Union Together
The Virginia State Legislature sponsored a "Peace Convention," which met in Washington D.C. in February 1861. They invited representatives from all states, including those that had already seceded, and sent representatives to meet with President Buchanan. While Northern states did send representatives, the seceded states did not. The convention was a failure. Its members were unable to come up with a reasonable compromise plan.
At a meeting on November 26, 1861 the committee presented its decisions, announcing both the country's support for the U.S. Constitution and its understanding for the angry Southerners. The committee said the U.S. should move slowly and carefully. Also, the committee announced that Virginia should take a leading role in keeping the Union together. On April 12, 1861, however, South Carolina Confederates fired on the United States’ Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This attack began the Civil War.
The North fought back to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. As the south had thought, Lincoln outlawed slavery in the Confederate States. When Lincoln and Congress ended slavery, however, it was to punish the south for seceding, not because they were abolitionists. After all the fighting had ended, the Southern states came back to the Union and the United States was united again.
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