Although many events led up to the final outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, three of the most important, which occurred in successive years before 1860, are the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. These three events combined, and each coming upon the heels of the other, led to an exacerbation of the tension between the North and the South, heightening feelings on both sides. Although the Civil War had become a near-inevitability by the time that these events occurred and due to the ideological rift between North and South, these three events are important link in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of conflict.
The Dred Scott Decision in 1857 decided the case of Dred Scott, a slave who tried to claim his freedom on the basis that he had been taken and lived with his owner in a state in which slavery was illegal. The Supreme Court’s decision was that Dred Scott was not only not made free by virtue of having been taken into a non-slave state but in fact did not have the legal standing as a person according to the Constitution to even have brought his case to court. This decision was a shock to many Northerners and a major blow to the abolitionist cause.1 Abraham Lincoln was particularly incensed at the decision and reinvigorating in his zeal of stopping the expansion of slavery throughout the United States.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 occurred the following year. In the debates, Lincoln, a member of the Republican Party, represented the free labor ideology of the Republican Party, and Douglas, a Northern Democrat, reflected a belief in the primacy of States’ Rights. These debates were widely attended at each location at which they occurred and the full texts of the debates were published in newspapers across the country and read with great interest. It was largely on the basis of his performance in these debates that Lincoln was nominated for and elected to the presidency the following year. Many of his words in these debates were also used against him by his Southern opponents in their attempts to paint him as a radical abolitionist.
The straw that broke the camel’s back in the lead up to the Civil War is probably John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. John Brown led a group of both blacks and whites in a raid on a federal arsenal in an attempt to encourage a general slave insurrection throughout the South. Although John Brown’s raid failed to accomplish its intended effect and John Brown himself was hung for leading the raid, Brown can be seen as ultimately victorious in his goals. His raid increased the tension between North and South and led many in both regions to believe the ideological differences between the regions could only be decided through armed conflict. His raid, then, can be seen as one of the important causes of the Civil War.
Although the ideologies of North and South had created an ever-growing rift between the two regions, and conflict was nearly inevitable by the late 1850s, the Dred Scott Decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry are three events which exacerbated the tensions between North and South. These three events, which occurred in successive years leading up to 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War, can be seen as steps that led to the process of secession. In this sense, they can be seen as three important causes of the Civil War.
1 Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 292-3.