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American Civil War: Causes

The Approaching Storm


American Civil War: Causes

President Abraham Lincoln

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
Civil War 101 | Next: Opening Shots

Causes of the Civil War: John Brown's Raid

John Brown first made a name for himself during the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis. A fervent abolitionist, Brown, along with his sons, fought with anti-slavery forces and were best known for the "Pottawatomie Massacre" where they killed five pro-slavery farmers. While most abolitionists were pacifists, Brown advocated violence and insurrection to end the evils of slavery.

In October 1859, financed by the extreme wing of the Abolitionist movement, Brown and eighteen men attempted to raid the government armory at Harper's Ferry, VA. Believing that the nation's slaves were ready to rise up, Brown attacked with the goal of obtaining weapons for the insurrection. After initial success, the raiders were cornered in the armory's engine house by local militia. Shortly thereafter, US Marines under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee arrived and captured Brown. Tried for treason, Brown was hanged that December. Before his death, he predicted that "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood."

Causes of the Civil War: The Collapse of the Two-Party System

The tensions between North and South were mirrored in a growing schism in the nation's political parties. Following the compromise of 1850 and the crisis in Kansas, the nation's two major parties, the Whigs and Democrats, began to fracture along regional lines. In the North, the Whigs largely blended into a new party: the Republicans.


Formed in 1854, as an anti-slavery party, the Republicans offered a progressive vision for the future that included an emphasis on industrialization, education, and homesteading. Though their presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, was defeated in 1856, the party polled strongly in the North and showed that it was the Northern party of the future. In the South, the Republican Party was viewed as a divisive element and one that could lead to conflict.


Causes of the Civil War: Election of 1860

With the division of the Democrats, there was much apprehension as the election 1860 approached. The lack of a candidate with national appeal signaled that change was coming. Representing the Republicans was Abraham Lincoln, while Stephen Douglas stood for the Northern Democrats. Their counterparts in the South nominated John C. Breckinridge. Looking to find a compromise, former Whigs in the border states created the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John C. Bell.

Balloting unfolded along precise sectional lines as Lincoln won the North, Breckinridge won the South, and Bell won the border states. Douglas claimed Missouri and part of New Jersey. The North, with its growing population and increased electoral power had accomplished what the South had always feared: complete control of the government by the free states.

Causes of the Civil War: Secession Begins

In response to Lincoln's victory, South Carolina opened a convention to discuss seceding from the Union. On December 24, 1860, it adopted a declaration of secession and left the Union. Through the "Secession Winter" of 1861, it was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. As states departed, local forces took control of federal forts and installations without any resistance from the Buchanan Administration. The most egregious act took place in Texas, where Gen. David E. Twiggs surrendered one-quarter of the entire standing US Army without a shot fired. When Lincoln finally entered office on March 4, 1861, he inherited a collapsing nation.

Civil War 101 | Next: Opening Shots


Election of 1860
Candidate Party Electoral Vote Popular Vote
Abraham Lincoln Republican 180 1,866,452
Stephen Douglas Northern Democrat 12 1,375,157
John C. Breckinridge Southern Democrat 72 847,953
John Bell Constitutional Union 39 590,631
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