For over a century, there’s been debate over what the true cause of the American Civil War was. Despite factors that contributed to tensions in the country during the mid-19th century, one factor was a primary cause of the war: and that was the issue of slavery. Starting out as a moral dilemma, it became a growing social movement that would eventually reach a political level and leave the country in a divided state.
In the decades leading up to the civil war, slavery was an integral component of the south’s agriculture-based economy. Cotton was a valuable export, and as global demand for it increased, so did dependence on slave labor to harvest it. This was contrary to the industrialized north, where manufacturing and textile production propelled the economy. As white southerners obtained fortune in the cash crop industry, they became more and more convinced that the institution of slavery was imperative to their way of life. So naturally, they would do what they felt was necessary to preserve the practice. And when westward expansion started turning into a reality, it was clear that slave owners planned on expanding it as well. This presented an issue, as many northerners already viewed the practice of slavery as deplorable. Apart from the moral aspect, many non-slave holding whites feared having to compete with slave owners in the new western territories. It was with this that the expansion of slavery began entering congressional debates, and the economic and ideologic disparities between the north and south became more evident.
By the early 19th century, it was apparent that the issue of slavery needed to be discussed and handled at the political level. The Missouri Compromise served as one of the first attempts by politicians to slow the expansion of slaver preserve balance between free and slave states. However, it was short lived: when the US acquired more land following the Mexican-War, the topic of expanding slavery westward resurfaced in Congress. One unsuccessful solution proposed was the Wilmot Proviso, which was designed to prohibit slavery in the territories acquired from the war. It was blocked by the southern-dominated Senate, leaving the issue of slavery unaddressed until California applied for statehood and it had to be revisited. This led to the passing of the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to satisfy the interests of both sides. It declared that California would enter the union as a free state and the slave trade would be banned in the District of Columbia. It also assured the south that popular sovereignty would determine if slavery would be allowed in the Utah and New Mexico territories. It possibly could’ve been an effective compromise had it not included revisions to the Fugitive Slave Act that required northerners to help recapture fugitive slaves. This angered northerners, who believed it was a direct infringement on their states’ rights and generally dismissed the law. The issue of slavery had to be revisited yet again in 1854, when Kansas and Nebraska applied for statehood, which southerners opposed because the Missouri Compromised required them to be entered as free states. Congress in turn passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing Kansas and Nebraska to vote on the issue of slavery. When it seemed as if a compromise had finally been reached, violence broke out in Kansas among pro-slavery voters and abolitionists. Nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas”, this event made it evident that the series of compromises were relatively ineffective and foreshadowed the violent turn that the dispute over slavery would eventually take.