Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 17, 2010

What Caused the American Civil War?

By N.S. Palmer

What caused the American “Civil War”?*

That question provoked a serious, thoughtful debate between readers of this blog. In the Comments section of my article, “The Hijab and the Flag,” they exchanged views, arguments, and more facts than I had ever known about the Civil War.

One of the readers, who hails from Canada, thinks that slavery was the paramount reason for the Civil War. Another, who lives in Virginia, thinks that economic and Constitutional issues were most important.

The official reason for the war, as the story is told today, was to eliminate the undisputed evil of slavery. As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors.”

Because most people have little interest in history beyond graduating from high school, they accept that explanation without question. And even some people who do think about history conclude, based on their reading, that slavery was the cause of the war.

People in former Confederate states, however, are less inclined to accept the official explanation. The reader in Virginia is one of them. And when I mentioned the dispute to a software engineer from Louisiana, he agreed that “of course,” economic concerns were paramount and that slavery was a side-issue.

Identifying Causes

But it’s not as easy to identify “the cause” of a historical event as many people believe.

It’s difficult enough to identify the cause of an event in a laboratory. Identifying the cause of a historical event is particularly difficult. Almost all events have multiple antecedent factors that can be identified as causes: historical events are particularly complex. Which factor we identify as the most important cause is not entirely subjective, but there’s a large element of subjectivity and interpretation.

Consider a simple case. One billiard ball hits another billiard ball, and the second ball then rolls into a pocket of the billiards table. What caused the second ball to roll into the pocket?

Without hesitation, most people would say that the collision between the two balls was the cause. But what about the player’s deft use of the cue to start the first ball rolling toward the second? What about the perfectly-flat surface of the table, without which both balls would roll in unpredictable directions? And what about the bet that the player made with a friend that he could make the second ball roll into the pocket?

All those factors, and many more, were required for the second ball to roll into the pocket. Which factor we identify as the cause of an event depends on several factors. We tend to say that the cause of an event is:

  • Something that closely precedes it in time.
  • Something close to it in space.
  • Something in the situation that changes.
  • Something in the situation that we can control.

It also depends on what kind of story we’re telling and for what purpose. If we’re teaching a college physics class and explaining vectors, then we focus on the relative directions, mass, and velocity of the balls. If we’re doing surface integrals in calculus, we focus on the surface of the billiards table. If we’re discussing psychology, we talk about the motivations of the players. And so on.

Our Purpose Influences Our Choice of a Cause

The point is that in even the simplest situations, there are many causes involved in producing a single effect. And historical situations are almost never simple.

Moreover, our goals and interests determine which causes we consider most important. It is thus unsurprising that historians beholden to the Union emphasize slavery as a cause: they want to justify the Union’s invasion and subjugation of the Confederacy. Confederate historians are in a similar situation. They want to justify the Confederate states’ secession and independence. Therefore, they emphasize economic issues and the states’ Constitutional right to secede, just as they downplay the issue of slavery. Neither side is being dishonest. Both are merely interpreting the evidence in light of their own world-view, values, and assumptions.

Similar reasoning appears in other contexts. In medicine, for example, doctors tend to identify the cause of an illness as a factor that they can treat, such as a bacterial infection. Other causal factors are involved, of course — such as nutrition, the general health of the individual, and so forth — but doctors can usually do something about a bacterial infection. So they identify the cause pragmatically, since they can prescribe a drug for it. Other factors are more or less ignored.

The most we can fairly say is that slavery, economic issues, the Southern states’ Constitutional right to secede, and the political dominance of the Northern industrial states were all causes that led to secession of the Confederate states. They were also causes of the Union government’s war on the Confederate states. Note that the war is separate and independent of the states’ secession, which the Union government could have allowed as the U.S. Constitution required.

Thus, to ask “what caused the American Civil War?” is too vague a question. One factor might have been the most important cause of the Confederate states’ secession, and a completely different factor might have been the cause of the Union’s decision to invade and subjugate the Confederate states. We really must separate those two questions.

Dispelling Myths About the Confederacy

To help understand why Confederate states seceded from the Union, it’s important to dispel a few myths about the Confederate states, racism, and slavery.

Myth: Confederate racism was unique

Many, perhaps most, people in the Confederate states were racists in that they considered blacks inferior to whites. Historian David M. Potter notes in his book The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861:

This was the doctrine of the inherent superiority of whites over Negroes. The idea was not distinctively southern, but it did have a distinctive significance in the South, for it served to rationalize slavery …

As Potter observes, the belief in white racial superiority was not unique to the South. It was quite common among those of European ancestry until very recently.

In the 12th century, Spanish philosopher Judah Halevi wrote in The Kuzari  (1.27) that:

If the Torah were binding on us because God created us, the white and the black man would be equal since He created them all.

The Scottish economist Adam Smith, considered the father of modern economics, makes a side comment in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that the wealth of a European peasant:

…exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

(Book I, Chapter I, at the very end of the chapter)

The English writer Walter Bagehot said in his book Physics and Politics (1872) that

The mixture of persons of different race in the same commonwealth, unless one race had complete ascendancy, tended to confuse all the relations of life …

(Chapter 1, “The Preliminary Age”)

And of course we have the words of “the great emancipator” himself, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who said that:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. And I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe forever forbids the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

And as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

(Lincoln-Douglas debates, debate at Charleston, September 18, 1858)

Those are shocking statements today, but they were common beliefs of white Americans until the middle of the 20th century. They were not unique to the Confederate states.

Myth: Most Confederates fought to defend slavery

A very poignant statement of most Confederates’ reasons for going to war was given by Robert E. Lee in April of 1861.

Lee, who was a colonel in the Union Army, had been offered command of all Union military forces. Instead, because he considered himself first and foremost a citizen of Virginia, he resigned his commission and took command of Confederate military forces. In his resignation letter of April 20, 1861, Lee wrote to Union Army General Winfield Scott:

[My resignation] would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and the most cordial friendship from my comrades …

Save in defense of my native state [of Virginia], I never desire again to draw my sword.

(Annals of America, Volume 9, pp. 258-259)

On the same day, Lee wrote to his sister, Anne Marshall:

With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army and, save in defense of my native state, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.

(Annals of America, Volume 9, pp. 258-259)

If the leader of the Confederate military forces thought that slavery was an issue, he did not consider it an important enough issue to mention.

My point is not that slavery was a non-issue. It clearly was an issue for some people on both the Confederate and Union sides. However, many other people in Confederate states considered their states’ self-defense and right to self-determination (as sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution) to be the most important issue.

Myth: Most Confederates approved of slavery

If many Confederate citizens went to war to defend their states and their communities, rather than to defend slavery, then the idea that they supported slavery becomes less of an obvious corollary.

In fact, many southerners did disapprove of slavery and expected it to be abolished peacefully. The most important factor in their disapproval of slavery might have been the ideals of human equality that they professed and genuinely believed. Potter notes that:

[Racism] furnished southerners with a way to avoid confronting an intolerable paradox: that they were committed to human equality in principle but to human servitude in practice. The paradox was a genuine one, not a case of hypocrisy …

Southern leaders of the late 18th and 19th centuries had played with the idea of some day eliminating slavery. That was, in part, why the South had acceded to the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territory in 1787 and to the abolition of the African slave trade in 1808. It was why a limited number of southerners had emancipated their slaves …

(Potter, op cit, p. 459)

One of the people who despised slavery was none other than Robert E. Lee, who wrote to his wife in 1856:

In this enlightened age, there are few but what will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.

Lee both hoped and expected slavery to be ended peacefully, as it had been in other countries:

Emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity than from the storms and contests of fiery controversy.

Given the prevalent anti-African racism in the South (and the North, and pretty much everywhere else), it would be foolish to deny that some people did support slavery. But enlightened people did not support it, whether they fought on the Confederate side or on the Union side.

Myth: War was necessary to eliminate slavery

The institution of slavery was not unique to the Confederate states. It was also legal in the Union states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, as well as in the District of Columbia. The U.S. Supreme Court had found it Constitutional in 1857. And, of course, slavery had existed all over the world for thousands of years: in the Middle East, in Greece (where slave labor made possible the otherwise enlightened moral and philosophical life of Athens), in the Roman Empire, in Asia, and of course in the countries of Europe. As the Encyclopedia Britannica observed:

The economic regime of every society which has recently become sedentary is founded on the slavery of the industrial professions.

(Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition (1910), Vol. 25, p. 216, “Slavery”)

When the American Civil War took place, slavery had already been eliminated peacefully in most European countries and their colonies. Britain abolished slavery by an act of Parliament in 1833. France did it in 1848, Portugal in 1858, and Holland in 1863. Latin American and South American countries were a little ahead of their European mentors: Argentina did it in 1813, Columbia in 1821, and Mexico in 1829.

As noted earlier, many Confederate leaders opposed slavery. Because slavery had been abolished peacefully in other countries, there was every reason to believe that the same thing would happen in Southern states. The fact that war, destruction, and massive bloodshed were not needed to abolish slavery does not make it impossible as a motivation for some Union government officials. But it does make it less rational.

As Usual, Many Causes

Where do we look for the causes of the American Civil War? Do we look at the views of a majority of people in the Union and the Confederacy? Or only at the views of politicians and newspaper editorial writers? Or do we restrict it to people with real power to make war happen or to avoid it?

Like most historical events, the American Civil War had multiple causes. There were good and bad people on each side. On each side, some hated black people while others, like Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, regarded blacks as the spiritual brothers and sisters of white Americans. For some people, slavery was the one and only issue, just as today, there are “single-issue voters” who care only about abortion or war. For other people, Constitutional concerns, self-determination, or the preservation of the Union were paramount.

It seems to me that the whole enterprise of attempting to find a single cause for a large and complex historical event is mistaken. What we should do is admit that it has multiple causes, and then try to learn whatever we can from what was one of the most destructive and tragic episodes in American history.

  • I call it a “civil war” only because that is the phrase almost universally used to describe it. In fact, of course, it was a war of secession like the American Revolution. Confederate states wanted their independence but the Lincoln administration, acting against the U.S. Constitution, refused to allow it.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Thanks for the well-sourced post, Noah. One minor correction I would make is that while I did grow up in TX, I have also lived in PA, and currently live in VA. My fascination with this topic stems in part from my varied background. My ancestors were pacifists (Mennonite/Amish) in PA so I have no historical “axe to grind.” We moved to TX when I was young and I clearly remember walking into the Mississippi Welcome Center where the lady attendant commented on my Dad’s “Yankee accent” and said something about the fact that we had destroyed their town and set their slaves free (this was early 1980s). Talk about culture shock!

    It’s only since I moved to VA — in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley that General Sherman burned to the ground — that I began to dig deeper into the Civil War controversy. I have held one of the guns used by the young VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market and pondered what I would have done had I been in their shoes. Based on what I know of history at this point I think President Lincoln was “The Decider” in this tragic part of our history as a nation.

    • Hi, Jet —

      Thank you! I corrected your state of residence in the article. Your story about the lady in the Mississippi Welcome Center was surprising, but only a little. I can see that happening. “Regular people” who haven’t been assimilated by the Borg Collective tend to have pretty long memories about some things.

      I’ve heard people compare George W. Bush to Lincoln, and such comparisons are usually met with astonished disbelief. However, I agree that there are similarities in their governing style. Based on what I’ve read of Lincoln, however — some of it no doubt fictional, but some of it no doubt true — he strikes me as more intelligent, more serious, and more well-meaning than our latest (and hopefully last) Bush. 🙂

  2. I didn’t know those things about the south, so thx for a great article!

    But I think you could probably have found just as many quotes of Confederates saying racist things as you found of them talking about defending their states.

    It also reminded me of the book you sent me at school last spring, “Health Facts for College Students” that was published in 1933. I know you sent it as a joke but did you look at it before you sent it?

    One of the chapters shows how racist people still were in the 1930s. It said “In the United States, mulattoes have greatly increased in the past twenty-five years. Intermixing is going on to some extent among practically all races. Some of the hybrid races are inferior and some seem to be superior to the pure bred races.” I wrote about the book on my own blog (hint, hint).

    • Hi, Rinth —

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that plenty of Confederates said racist things. However, most people today assume that the Civil War was entirely about racism and slavery. My point was that although racism and slavery were involved, they were neither the only nor the most important factors.

      I glanced through that book before I sent it to you, but didn’t notice that passage. And in answer to another question of yours, about the signature on the title page, I don’t know if the original owner of the book was “the” Virginia Woolf. If it was, then the bookseller didn’t know what he had and I got a real bargain. I suppose that you could compare the signature in the book with a sample of Ms. Woolf’s handwriting.

  3. Hi, everyone. Oh, yes, I know you’ve just been waiting with bated breath for me to say something. 🙂

    Well, I put my thoughts together over several days. They’re too long to post here as a reply, and as I’ve said, I’m not comfortable with openly taking issue on anyone’s blog for too long; it looks (and feels) like badgering. I’ve put my views up on my own blog, so I invite anyone who’s still interested to have a gander.


    Note: since there’s someone using Chinese script perennially trying to use my blog to post commercial links, I’ve had to institute comment moderation. But I’ll pass anything appropriate, of course.

    • Hi, LP —

      Please, don’t worry at all. I think that you stated your case very well. We all did. We have areas of agreement and some of disagreement. Our disagreements are mostly about emphasis and interpretation rather than about the facts. That kind of disagreement is normal with intelligent, reasonable people who have somewhat different backgrounds and personalities.

      I’ll check out your blog to see what you concluded! Thanks for providing the link.

      P.S. I’ve just read LP’s reply on his blog. It is well-argued and thoroughly researched. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. That said, LP’s interest in the Civil War exceeds mine by several orders of magnitude, so I’m not going to make a detailed reply to his points. If anyone else has LP’s level of interest (and the time, because for me, the semester starts tomorrow), I’m sure that I will learn from the on-going argument.

    • LP,

      I read your blog post. Thanks for your research and detailed post. I will be checking out some of the resources you mentioned as I am able. While we currently disagree on “the cause,” I appreciate the depth to which you obviously care about the issue of human rights, slavery, “and what we stand to lose if we forget.”

  4. […] By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D. What caused the American "Civil War"?* That question provoked a serious, thoughtful debate between readers of this blog. In the Comments section of my article, “The Hijab and the Flag,” they exchanged views, arguments, and more facts than I had ever known about the Civil War. One of the readers, who hails from Canada, thinks that slavery was the paramount reason for the Civil War. Another, who lives in Virginia, thinks that … Read More […]

  5. […] By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D. What caused the American "Civil War"?* That question provoked a serious, thoughtful debate between readers of this blog. In the Comments section of my article, “The Hijab and the Flag,” they exchanged views, arguments, and more facts than I had ever known about the Civil War. One of the readers, who hails from Canada, thinks that slavery was the paramount reason for the Civil War. Another, who lives in Virginia, thinks that … Read More […]

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