The American Civil War started with the declaration of secession from the U.S. by seven southern states and was due mainly to slavery. The Confederate (Southern) states were angered by Union (Northern) antislavery political policies that were intended to block the expansion of slavery into the western territories.
It is a fact that when the armies for the North and South were first formed, only a small minority of the soldiers on either side would have declared that the reason they joined the army was to fight either "for" or "against" slavery.
However, equally true is the statement: "Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war. Had there been no moral condemnation of slavery, there would have been no war." (This was made by Sydney E. Ahlstrome, in his monumental study of religion in America A Religious History of the American People, Yale University Press,1972, on p. 649; it was echoed by Maj. General John B. Gordon, CSA, in his Memoirs, Chapter 1, first page)
Throughout the war, Lincoln was careful to make it clear that his main purpose as president was to preserve the union. His actions were taken to suppress a rebellion and to protect free national elections. Lincoln reaffirmed this stance in his major speeches, including his second inaugural address in 1865: "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."
There is no consensus among the public about the primary cause of the Civil War, but more (48%) say that the war was mainly about states' rights than say it was mainly about slavery (38%). Another 9% volunteer that it was about both equally.
But most Historians agree that the Civil War had a number of causes. They note especially the division between North and South--that is, the differences in economies, ideals and ways of life. They also point to the disputes between the federal government and the states over what rights and powers the states possessed. Historians further mention the blunderings of politicians and the disorder in the American political party system during the 1850's. Yet all explanations for the cause of the war have always involved or revolved around the issue of slavery.
Two other factors--economics and states' rights--are most often cited as causes of the war. While those are valid points on the surface, Ayers said, a closer look shows that both centered on slavery.
"It's become clear . ...
His gist was that although Americans were attached both to the Declaration of Independence and to slavery, the two were incompatible and a choice had to be made between them. While denying that the Founding Fathers intended to declare all men equal in every respect, Lincoln insisted that they had been explicit about all men possessing equally "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
He had further argued that the Constitution was only a provisional expression of this great idea. Slavery had been included in it out of necessity, not out of conviction. The Declaration set the standard for a free society, and the founders expected that it would be, in Lincoln's words, "constanfly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."
Booker T. Washington would later recall how, as a child on a Virginia plantation, he had listened to his elders pray for freedom and had shared their excitement at the approach of Union forces—yet he was as grief-stricken as anyone else when the master's son, noted for his unusual kindness to the slaves, was killed.
Today we recognize slavery as a moral issue. But in the early nineteenth century, it was seen as an economic issue first, moral issue second. A series of legislative actions, most notably the Missouri Compromise of 1820, had been enacted by Congress to put limits on the propagation of slavery, but compromise with northern and southern interests was always kept in mind. The South had an economic interest in the spread of slavery to the new territories so that new slave states could be created and the South's political influence would remain strong. The North had an interest in limiting the spread of slavery into the new territories for both purposes of controlling Southern political power AND support of the moral issue
Interestingly enough, although slavery was the moral issue of the nineteenth century that divided the political leaders, the average American had very little interest in slaves or slavery. Many Southerners farmers that could not even afford slaves. Most Northerners were also small farmers or tradesmen that had never even seen a slave.
And the kind of research that historians have undertaken, especially in the years since the centennial, when there has been so much interest in this question of the role of race and slavery in the United States, that research has shown pretty decisively that, when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for new territories to decide if they were a free or slave state by popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act undid the compromise that was made in the Missouri Compromise, which designated a line of latitude to be the separation of free and slave states. The Kansas-Nebraska act reignited the disagreement between pro and anti slavery factions.
Because states felt so strongly for slavery, this act further ingrained the desire to keep slavery legal. The heated debates between Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the Kansas- Nebraska act, and the sponsor of the act, Stephen A. Douglass, pushed Lincoln, to the forefront of national politics and made him even more of a controversial figure. When Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party and elected 1860, southerners grew more enraged and their distate for Lincoln. This was the beginning of how the Union began to divide.