Could have the American Civil War been avoided?

The debate over the American Civil War continues even today, and emotions are just as charged if one knows where to look. This complex situation was generally taught to schoolchildren as erupting over the issue of slavery. The real story, though, sheds light on the perils of a rapidly growing and divided country, newly independent and already changing rapidly.

We will take a look at several issues behind the American Civil War while examining the question, “Could it have been prevented?”

First and foremost we will examine the issue of slavery. From his book America: A Religious History of the American People,  (p. 649), Sydney E. Ahlstrome said, “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.”

Slavery was something thought to be short lived, as the North and West grew exponentially with its specialized industries and the South continued to supply the cash crops of cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc. handled and processed by slaves the Northerners could not afford, and did not believe in keeping.

As time wore on and the cotton gin was invented, slavery became even more deeply a part of Southern culture; it was protected under the Constitution (because slaves were personal property), and was impossible to amend.

But slavery itself was a red herring. The main complaint of the South was that the North was gaining more power in the federal government and the South no longer had a voice. The North abolished slavery on moral grounds (apparently), but Andrew Jackson, when a Mississippi senator, stated blatantly that “It is not humanity that influences you… it is that you may have a majority in the Congress of the United States and convert the Government into an engine of Northern aggrandizement… you want by an unjust system of legislation to promote the industry of the United States at the expense of the people of the South.” (Epperson, Jim, 1996).

Considering the complexities around the issue of slavery (mostly economic) and the desperation of the South to hold onto their slaves along with the general concern from the North of what to do with all the slaves if they were to be freed, it doesn’t seem possible that any mind sets could be changed to prevent the war even if the issue of slavery didn’t exist. Knowing human nature and the cycles of history, if it wasn’t slaves, it would have been something else. The basic argument was that the South didn’t want to lose its power and be assimilated into an ever-growing Northern run federal government.

The economy between North and South was also a sore point; since the South was an agricultural giant upon whom the North was dependent for goods, it seems that differences could have been settled by what we see today as fair trade. But since the South figured out that it was cheaper to import from abroad what the North produced, Andrew Jackson, when he was President (well before Lincoln), turned on the South by imposing tariffs on many of the imported goods, in order to protect the interests of the North. This did not go over well, and a crisis was ready to happen when South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November 1832 (Randy Golden, n.d.). When the South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union, measures were taken to avert the crisis. But feelings did not heal over time, they only got worse.

Then came the “Panic of 1857,” (Golden), resulting in a depression that devastated the North but didn’t affect the South. The wealthy Southerners were able to use their wealth to gain ground over the struggling industrial North, and the long-standing feud between the two areas resurfaced again.

Now we move forward into the times of political collapse. When the Whig party disappeared, new political parties were springing up, and by the 1850’s the Union was fractured, beset with strife from competing parties. The ensuing decade saw the North regain its power once again, and an angry South claiming that the federal government ruled by the North was not listening.

In the end it appears that irreconcilable differences brought matters to a head when the North, now in full power, and the new Republican Party had now installed Abraham Lincoln as its first president. Before Lincoln’s inauguration, though, everything came to a head as the sitting president Buchanan watched the secession of no less than seven states upon Lincoln’s election.

The South had not fought in the American Revolution for nothing, and it had not achieved its great prosperity by sitting idly by. While the South began to seize Federal strongholds without any bloodshed, Lincoln was inaugurated. While Lincoln is best known for the Emancipation Proclamation that is said to have been the cause of the war, it was actually the attack of South Carolina on Ft. Sumter when a federal ship called to port in the Carolina Harbor that began the fighting that would last for four years.

At this point, when Lincoln sent troops to take the place of peaceful proceedings, three more states seceded. The war began, with the administration feeling that all political negotiations had broken down and only the use of force could now be used; Lincoln formed a blockade along the Southern coastlines, thereby passively declaring all ten seceded states sovereign under International Law. To the North, the South got what it wanted and was going to pay dearly for it.

We can now dissect this strife in modern terms. Plain and simple, the Civil War was fought over two very different interpretations of the Constitution (Honorable Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, 1876). Given the fighting nature of animals when threatened (humans included), it seems that this was inevitable given the time frame of less than one hundred years since the Declaration of Independence, the preceding, hard-fought Revolutionary War and the cultural mix of the Southerners and Northerners.

Given the current example of Northern Ireland and England alone and the fact that several generations in Northern Ireland have grown up knowing nothing but hatred of the British without even understanding the reasons or senselessness of it, we cannot assume that the well-established South and the growing North with its own sets of priorities and ideas would try to agree on much of anything since the South did not see beyond its own borders other than the money to be made from the North.

Economic, religious, moral and political conflict is the right mix for any war. In the case of the events and emotions leading up to the Civil War, it hardly seems likely that it could have been avoided.

Works Cited

Ahlstrome, Sydney E. “America: A Religious History of the American People.” Yale University Press (1972); p. 649.

Epperson, Jim. “The American Civil War: The Causes.”  The American Civil War: The Struggle to Preserve the Union. (1996 – 2002)

Golden, Randy. “Causes Of the Civil War.” About North Georgia (n.d.);

Hunter, Honorable Robert Mercer Taliaferro, of Virginia. “Origin Of the Late War.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. I, Richmond, Virginia. (January 1876) No. 1;

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