Narrowing Down the Cause of the Civil War

Updated on December 20, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The Catalyst

Narrowing down the cause of the Civil War is impossible as there is no one reason aside from the arrogance of each side for wanting control and power. Some would state that slavery was the only issue. Some would say it was state rights. The truth is that it was a mix of causes, but when you look at the individual acts that caused it, you might get a different picture.

Yet the nullification of the Compromise of 1850 was the catalyst that set the players into motion, moving the nation to the bloody conflict. All other acts such as the Dred Scott Decision and the election of President Abraham Lincoln were just more fuel on the fire. They were not the reasons for the war. It was the admission of states as free or slave that pushed the nation over the edge. It was the desire for political power.

The Tilt in Power

In 1850, California was allowed to enter as a free state "in exchange for concessions granted to slaveholders." (1) When it was nullified four years later, it lit the spark that would lead to the Civil War.

New states could now enter with "constitutions that could provide slavery and preserved the principle of state rights over Federal restrictions." (2) The power between the North and the South could drastically change which would reach up all the way to the halls of Congress. The more slave states that would enter the Union, the more power the Southern slaveholders would have.

This battle between the North and South had been in existence since the early colonies. The two cultures struggled for power since they were nothing more than colonies looking to separate from British rule. During the 1800s, that was no different as the North became representative of the free states and the South of the slave states. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to settle the conflict as it gave each side something that pacified them.

The Nullification of that act sent the political world of the nation into a tailspin.


Possible Expansion of Slavery

From the Nullification, the expansion of slavery into the territories became a hot topic. If territories could come into the Union as anything they wanted, that meant slavery could spread like wildfire into the territories and thus as states. The congressional powers would be thrown askew.

From this intense watching, the Dred Scott Decision came about as a slave declared he was free as he had lived for several years in a free state. As the decision came down that he was not free, the question of Congress' power to legislate territories came into question. (3) The whole topic was going into a crazy circle.

Lincoln's Election

The Election of Lincoln was a move for a peaceful compromise that the South Carolina "hot heads" would not accept as well as most of the South. His middle ground stance was not enough to pacify them. (4) They feared that the election of Lincoln was just another move of the North to remove all the South's power. Instead of trying to work with the new administration, the "hot heads" gave a knee jerk reaction that would bloody most of the Union.

Each side wanted it all and refused to give an inch.


All Due to the Nullification

While each of these actions and many more could be argued as causes of the Civil War, it was the Nullification of the Compromise of 1850 that set it all in motion. The Compromise was just that - a compromise. When revoked, it threw the two sides back into the boxing arena giving them no choice but to duke it out.

Neither side wanted to give in. Each side wanted to win and hold the power. The domino effect of the Nullification would prove more deadly than any had ever imagined. It sent the nation into the bloodiest war it would ever see and tear families apart.


(1) David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 44.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Michael F. Holt, The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 119.

(4) Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men : The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War with a New Introductory Essay, (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995), 263.


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