The name Civil War is misleading because the war was not a class struggle, but a sectional combat having its roots in political, economic, social, and psychological elements so complex that historians still do not agree on its basic causes. It has been characterized, in the words of William H. Seward, as the "irrepressible conflict." In another judgment the Civil War was viewed as criminally stupid, an unnecessary bloodletting brought on by arrogant extremists and blundering politicians. Both views accept the fact that in 1861 there existed a situation that, rightly or wrongly, had come to be regarded as insoluble by peaceful means.
In the days of the American Revolution and of the adoption of the Constitution, differences between North and South were dwarfed by their common interest in establishing a new nation. But sectionalism steadily grew stronger. During the 19th cent. the South remained almost completely agricultural, with an economy and a social order largely founded on slavery and the plantation system. These mutually dependent institutions produced the staples, especially cotton, from which the South derived its wealth. The North had its own great agricultural resources, was always more advanced commercially, and was also expanding industrially.
Hostility between the two sections grew perceptibly after 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, which was intended as a permanent solution to the issue in which that hostility was most clearly expressed—the question of the extension or prohibition of slavery in the federal territories of the West. Difficulties over the tariff (which led John C. Calhoun and South Carolina to nullification and to an extreme states' rights stand) and troubles over internal improvements were also involved, but the territorial issue nearly always loomed largest. In the North moral indignation increased with the rise of the abolitionists in the 1830s. Since slavery was unadaptable to much of the territorial lands, which eventually would be admitted as free states, the South became more anxious about maintaining its position as an equal in the Union. Southerners thus strongly supported the annexation of Texas (certain to be a slave state) and the Mexican War and even agitated for the annexation of Cuba.
The Compromise of 1850 marked the end of the period that might be called the era of compromise. The deaths in 1852 of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster left no leader of national stature, but only sectional spokesmen, such as W. H. Seward, Charles Sumner, and Salmon P. Chase in the North and Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs in the South. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the consequent struggle over "bleeding" Kansas the factions first resorted to shooting. The South was ever alert to protect its "peculiar institution," even though many Southerners recognized slavery as an anachronism in a supposedly enlightened age. Passions aroused by arguments over the fugitive slave laws (which culminated in the Dred Scott Case) and over slavery in general were further excited by the activities of the Northern abolitionist John Brown and by the vigorous proslavery utterances of William L. Yancey, one of the leading Southern fire-eaters.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.