Northern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part III


American Flag 1861

Most often Cited Causes of the War

  • Economic and Cultural Differences
  • Federal vs. States Rights-Secession
  • Growth of the Abolition Movement

Growth of the Abolition Movement

  • Fugitive Slave Act and Law
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Underground Railroad
  • Abolitionists

Classic Abolitionist Image

It is important to remember that slavery, in and of itself, was not a cause of the war but, rather, that it was people’s response to slavery.  Slavery had been a part of the United States from its earliest colonial days. While many deplored it and talked of it as an evil, few became truly galvanized to fight it until the Abolition moment emerged to give a compelling voice to protests against slavery. It is also important to remember that the huge  growth of the cotton trade had increased the numbers of slaves astronomically over the previous several decades. I’ll talk more of this in my next blog about causes of the war from the Southern point of view. For the present discussion, however, the rapid growth in numbers of slaves in the South dramatically increased the significance and visibility of the ‘slave problem’ to the anti-slavery elements of the North.

Fugitive Slave Act and Law: Abolitionists began to emerge in greater and greater numbers in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of  1793, which got the idea going—but the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave the movement teeth. With this law, people could be convicted and heavily fined if they were found to be aiding and abetting slaves—this alone radicalized many moderate abolitionists. While people were, of course influenced by the many stories of the misuse of this law, and the abuses of slavery in general, there was another often more personally felt concern. Northerners were feeling a threat of the balance of power shifting, and the Fugitive Slave law inflamed Northern fears of a “Slave Power conspiracy.” Again, we must realize how much of the Civil War was rooted in a very profound and deeply rooted struggle for the supremacy of Northern or Southern ways of living.  Abolitionists did feel for the plight of the slaves, but they also feared a larger spread of southern slave-holding ways.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Uncle Tom’s Cabin published as a 40-week serial in the National Era from 1851-1852.  This novel became the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, and the second best-selling 19th century book, overall, second only to the Bible. It also created much more popular feeling against slavery that helped to inspire people who had not yet considered themselves to be abolitionists. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he famously said as he shook her hand, “So this is the Little lady who started this great war!”

Routes of the Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad: Also, at around this same time, the Underground Railroad to Canada was growing. It had been growing from 1830 to 1860 with a peak after 1850. One estimate is that over 100,000 slaves escaped via the Underground Railway by 1850  Thirty thousand were estimated to have gone to Canada. The fact of the existence of the Underground Railway was one of the things that inspired the desire to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Southerners believed the escape of slaves to be, legally and rightly, a the theft of property.  They could not understand why there was so much resistance to what they saw was a just law that only involved property concerns. The fact that Abolitionists made it into a moral imperative only inflamed passions further. Safe houses emerged, secret operatives north and south helped slaves, and Harriet Tubman was a critical force in organizing the passage of many many slaves.

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionists: Leading Abolitionists gave voice to the cause and continued to speak of the plight of the slaves using emotional and Christian language. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave himself and a brilliant orator, often spoke of the realities of slavery as personified in himself. The fact of his eloquence and his passion helped to show many people prepared to think of slaves as entirely ‘the other,’ that the gulf between people of different racial backgrounds was not as large as they had thought.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison– founded “The Liberator” in 1831.  The following quote is from his famous opening editorial: “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

Language such as this further drew a line between the North and South which, as I have illustrated in the previous two blog entries, was already deeply etched by cultural and economic differences.  In the next blogs, I will look at these same and other issues from the Southern point of view to show how very deeply they also felt their concerns to be worth waging war to vindicate.

About Blythe Forcey Toussaint

I have studied 19th Century American history and culture for many years, including a 1992 PhD in 19th Century American Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. My academic career included several years as faculty at North Carolina State University and some visiting assignments at the University of North Carolina. I chose to leave academe for industry over fifteen years ago, and have built a career around marketing, training, and business writing. I founded my own consulting company, Performance Trajectories LLC over four years ago and now balance my time between consulting projects and fiction writing. I recently published Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War. (Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.) This novel tracks the life of a family in 1861 as the Civil War begins, and as some of them were to be among the civilians who went to watch the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas thinking it would be a fun picnic. This novel also includes events in Washington, Baltimore, Cairo, Raleigh, and Hatteras Island. I am at work on my next novel, working title Gilead’s Fate: The Life of a House that is set in upstate New York beginning in 1811. I come from a line of writers including my grandmother, Anya Seton and great grandfather, Ernest Thompson Seton. I now live in Longmont, CO with my husband and three dogs and finds a lot of writing inspiration hiking the mountains there.
This entry was posted in Civil War History, Historical Fiction, North vs. South, Sesquicentennial Events, Social History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.