Though there were other, largely secondary, factors involved, the central cause of the Civil War was undoubtedly the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The issue of slavery had been a divisive factor from a very early point in American history. It was so much so that the Founding Fathers intentionally chose to put off decisively handling the issue for a subsequent generation, in spite of their insistence in the Declaration of Independence and throughout their principles that “all men are created equal.”1 In their unwillingness to resolve the issue of slavery once and for all, the founders of the United States created the situation which led to the Civil War. Slavery was identified as the central dividing issue in the Civil War by the leadership of the Confederate States of America in their justifications for secession, by others members of the Confederacy in their thoughts on the war, and by the Union leadership in their statements on the Civil War and its causes.
Confederate leadership early on stated that slavery was the central issue over which they were seceding from the Union. They saw Northern industrialists, abolitionists, and politicians as encroaching on their “peculiar institution” and saw secession as the only way to save it. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, could not have made this point any clearer than when he said, “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from abolition]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”2
While their leadership recognized and clearly stated, even boasted, over their reasons for secession, the soldiers who fought under them also recognized slavery as the primary reason for their fight. While their leadership proudly proclaimed the inferiority of blacks and sought openly to keep them in subjugation, the average Southern soldier did not own any slaves and some questioned whether the reasons for the war were really worth the cost or were even ethical reasons. According to historian David J. Eicher, “a small but growing number of Confederate soldiers began to question the ruining of their society over slavery.”3 To this effect, he cites the words of one soldier, Colonel William H.A. Speer, wondering whether “there is some national sin hanging over [the Confederacy]” and stating his belief that if Southern slave owners were to agree to emancipate their slaves within 30 years the war would end almost immediately.3
Union leaders, on the other hand, early identified their primary aim in the war as “a struggle to preserve the Union.”5 However, as time went on, Union leadership very quickly realized that the only way to preserve the Union was to agree with the Confederate leadership that the war was primarily about slavery and to adopt the opposite position, seeking to “reconstruct the Union into the nation it should have been without slavery.”6 To this end, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making it clear that the Union side was willing to match the Confederacy in its own goals.
Though there are other factors that must be taken into consideration when considering the causes of the Civil War, slavery was without a doubt the primary issue and the one around which the others revolve and from which they largely emerged. The Founding Fathers had deferred in their duties and created the situation that led almost inevitably to the Civil War. As is made clear from the stated reasons for secession on the part of Confederate leadership, the statements of soldiers who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the war, and the statements, however hesitant, of the Union leadership, the Civil War was fought over slavery.
1 Declaration of Indepence, National Archives, accessed 14 November 2012, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.
2 Alexander Hamilton Stephens, in David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 49.
3 Ibid., 626-7.
5 Ibid., 364-5.