Most often Cited Causes of the War
- Economic and Cultural Differences
- Federal vs. States Rights–Secession
- Growth of the Abolition Movement
Federal vs. States Rights – Secession
- Preserving the Union
- Federal Rights
- State Rights
Secession was based on the idea of state rights (or “states rights,” a variant that came into use after the Civil War). This exalted the powers of the individual states as opposed to those of the Federal government. It generally rested on the theory of state sovereignty– that in the United States the ultimate source of political authority lay in the separate states. Associated with the principle of state rights was a sense of state loyalty that could prevail over a feeling of national patriotism. Before the war, the principle found expression in different ways at different times, in the North as well as in the South. During the war it became a key motivator of the secession of the Confederacy.
These issues are rooted in disputes beginning with Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans (no, it wasn’t an oxymoron then). The Constitution could be interpreted in opposite ways. In its clause giving Congress all powers “necessary and proper” for carrying the specified powers into effect, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury found ample authorization for his financial program, including a national bank. In the Tenth Amendment, however, Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state discovered a bar to congressional legislation of that kind: no power to establish a bank having been delegated to Congress, that power must have been reserved to the states. As president, George Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the bills that Congress passed to enact Hamilton’s plan. Eventually Jefferson withdrew from the Washington administration and, with Madison, organized an opposition to it. Thus, in the 1790s, the two parties, Federalist and Republican began, the one willing to exploit the “implied powers” of the Constitution, the other demanding a “strict construction” of the document. This split was another one of the fundamental differences that set the scene for the war to emerge. The state rights Jeffersonians were more prevalent in the South while the Federalist Hamiltonians met with more favor and support at the North.
These are patterns that remain today and are the foundation of many of the differences between today’s Republican and Democratic parties. Similar ideas about limitations of federal vs. state or limited powers remain.
In his inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, Lincoln proclaimed that it was his duty to maintain the Union. He also declared that he had no intention of ending slavery where it existed, or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. This was a position that horrified African Americans and their white allies, but it made all sense in terms of the goals for his presidency.
It really was about Republican principles in their earliest sense—preserving the Republic and Hamiltonian beliefs in the necessary power of the Federal Government—no longer a ‘union of states,’ but a true “union.” Federalists believed in preserving Federal Government. They also allied themselves with business interests and businessmen of the north. This was Lincoln’s first aim–when it became clear that abolitionist principals helped with this aim, he embraced them. While he saw the moral outrages of slavery, it was the preservation of the union that was his first goal.
When I address the causes of the war from the Southern point of view, I will discuss more what state rights really meant to the South.