Was the Civil War inevitable? Could the conflicts between federal government and states, between North and South, be resolved in any other way? The answer is yes. If the federal government allowed states to do whatever they wished, and the Northern and the Southern states decided they did not need one another, the Civil War would probably not have happened.
However, a bigger question was being asked and answered at this time. This question was of the identity of the United States of America, as a single entity. The moment this question was asked, the federal government could no longer ignore the states, or the Northern and Southern states one another. It stopped being simply a question of politics and economics. At that point, after all the build-up, the Civil War was inevitable.
Was the Civil War Inevitable? Looking at Root Causes
The Conflict Between the Federal Government and Member-States
The heart of the conflict was that the States were originally independent. The 1776 American Revolution only released these independent British colonies from Imperial rule. However, their unity in the Revolution already created a loose connection from State to State. This connection was confirmed in the Articles of Confederation, fully ratified in 1778.
The Constitution of the United States of America
From there, a Constitutional Convention led to the Constitution of the United States of America as we know it, ratified in 1788–exactly 10 years later. This bound all of the member-states into a federation. Each state gave up some independence to the federal government for mutual safety and well-being.
One of the portions of the Constitution central to state powers, before the Civil War, was the Tenth Amendment, ratified in 1791. It states:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
This placed all authority with the state governments, so long as the federal government did not yet hold the same power. Very loosely interpreted, the amendment could be grounds for a state leaving the Union, if the federal government attempted to impose a law where the state had jurisdiction.
The Nullification Crisis
The strength of state powers vis-a-vis Federal powers was tested in the Nullification Crisis, from 1832-33. The state government of South Carolina declared two tariff acts null and void in the state: The Tariff of 1828, and the Tariff of 1832.
The first, the Tariff of 1828, protected goods produced by Northern factories by taxing imports from Britain. Southern states were forced to buy those goods at a more expensive price, even if the protection did not help them. The British earned less from exports to the United States, and they could no longer pay for Southern cotton. This directly harmed the economy of the Southern states.
On the other hand, the Tariff of 1832 tried to appease the Southern states by lowering the tariff. South Carolina rejected both this reduced tariff and the Tariff of 1828, declaring them non-binding on the state. As a result, President Andrew Jackson responded with a Proclamation declaring that ordinance, in its turn, void.
“[…] the said ordinance prescribes to the people of South Carolina a course of conduct in direct violation of their duty as citizens of the United States, contrary to the laws of their country, subversive of its constitution, and having for its object the destruction of the Union […].”
At the time, South Carolina’s ordinance, nullifying the Federal law, was only a threat of secession. The Southern states were not unified on a decision to secede, and South Carolina would not secede alone. However, it set the precedent for possible Southern secession from the Union.
At the same time, the Force Act set the precedent for possible civil war in the event of a Southern secession. The Force Act allowed the United States government to respond militarily to any resistance to those enforcing tariffs. They also legally protected any revenue officers from resistance by parties in resisting states.
“[…] it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States, or such person or persons as he shall have empowered for that purpose, to employ such part of the land or naval forces, or militia of the United States, as may be necessary for the purpose of preventing the removal of such vessels or cargo […].”
In the end, the Nullification Crisis was ended by the Compromise Tariff of 1933. This tariff structure lowered import duties slowly, over a prolonged period of time. This gave Northern industries a chance to continue industrialization, and removed the disadvantage of the Southern states.
Was the Civil War Inevitable from A Political Standpoint?
The Constitution was not even 50 years old. States were learning to live with one another in a Federation, and learning their relationship with the Federal government. The Southern states were justified in protesting tariffs that favored Northern industries. However, they found they crossed a line in the nullification ordinance.
On the other hand, the Force Act may be considered an overreaction. With these precedents, the Civil War definitely became more probable. The Union already had an idea the South might secede; the South discovered the Union would react strongly.
The Economic Conflict Between North and South
Both simpler and more complicated is the economic vantage point of the Civil War. The Nullification Crisis is an example of the wide economic differences between the Northern and the Southern States. Slavery is discussed here because, at least prior to the Civil War, it was more an economic concern to the Southern states than anything else.
The Civil War happened just as the Industrial Revolution leaped across the Atlantic from Europe into the United States. The invention of the telegraph, the steamboat, and the sewing machine all occurred before the Civil War. In the industrializing Northeast, canals and railroads made industrial economic growth even faster.
On the other hand, in the South, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 turned the Southern states into a cotton-exporting powerhouse. The economic foundation was built on the backs of large landowners, who had the fields and the workforce necessary to sustain an economy of cotton and tobacco.
What Does Slavery Have to Do With Economics?
In the case of the American Civil War, everything. In 1800, the turn of the century, the United States was still an agricultural nation, with the European Industrial Revolution’s influence beginning to trickle in. The Southern states were producing what was, by 1815, the most important export: cotton. They supplied over 66% of the international cotton needs, and the cotton export value was worth more than the rest of all the exports.
Because of this advantage, there was no incentive for the Southern states to change their economic ways for any reason. Despite having only 29% of the railroads and 13% of the banks in the States, their economy was doing well as an agricultural society.
On the other hand, the Northern states were industrializing rapidly, growing their factories, canals, and railroads. A full 90% of the nation’s manufactured goods were produced in the North. By 1860, 84% of the Southern states were still wholly agricultural; only 40% of the Northern states relied exclusively on agriculture.
The industrialization of the North coincided with a wave of immigration, mainly from Europe. Seven-eighths of all immigrants remained in the North. The inevitable effect on wage labor was to make Northern paid labor incredibly cheap, as supply outstripped demand. In other words, Northern states had another workforce to depend on, other than slaves.
On the other hand, slavery never had reason to die in the Southern states. Slaves were the field-hands keeping the cotton and tobacco fields running. Slaves were also the household servants, stable hands, and even held positions necessary to running large lands: they were blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, while still slaves.
It made no economic sense for the Southern states to switch over to paid labor, increasing business expenses and thereby lowering profits. Slavery was an institution of life, and Southern landowners considered slaves their “property.” Because of this, they considered an attack on slavery an economic one rather than a moral one.
Was the Civil War Inevitable from an Economic Standpoint?
From a Southern standpoint, it was the 1828 and 1832 Tariffs happening all over again: blatant favor given to Northern states over the Southern. However, this time, the target was the entire economic machine on which Southern wealth and success ran.
To abolish slavery altogether would be to weaken, if not destroy, that economic machine of the South. The Northern states and their immigrant labor force would only be lightly affected. South Carolina and four other states decided it was grounds for secession, and the Civil War began.
Was the Civil War inevitable, from this point of view? Even then, perhaps not. Even as new states were being tugged back and forth as “slave” or “free,” compromises could still have been drawn up. Alternatively, the Union could have simply allowed the Southern states to secede, considering it not worth the trouble.
Was the Civil War Inevitable?
Was the Civil War inevitable? Yes. Up until the Southern states seceded and formed a Confederacy, the Civil War was not inevitable. Even with the Force Act, there was no guarantee that the Union would decide to actually use force to bring the Southern states back.
However, the Union decided that the United States of America was only complete with all its current member-states, and went beyond the politics and the business sides to what the Union stood for. In that moment, the Civil War became inevitable.
There is no better example for this than the beginning and ending sentences of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. […]
[…] we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The Union realized that holding the South to the abolition of slavery was consistent with what the Southern states had agreed to when they joined the United States of America. It was no longer simply a question of politics or economics, but a question of the identity of the United States. At the point that the Union decided to bring the Southern states back into the Union, and re-forge the American identity, the Civil War was inevitable.
Was the Civil Was Inevitable?
|Was the Civil Was Inevitable?||Yes|
- The Economics of the Civil War by Mises Institute
- Gone with the Wind (fiction) by Margaret Mitchell
- “Slavery and the Civil War” by Stanley B. Burns, MD