The Confederate Constitution as the trigger for the American Civil War

Essay, 2013

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


As discussed a myriad of times already, the causes of the American Civil War are complex and generally known. For the purpose of this essay a three-armed scale shall be considered a visual model about the interrelation of the single factors. Firstly, the individual scale pans shall be examined briefly in order to see how they unbalanced the scale and thus put the United States in disequilibrium. Further on, however, it will become evident that the centre pillar of the scale is the actual problem which constantly impedes balance in the years leading up to the war. Obviously the three different trays of the scale contain socio-cultural, economic, and politic conflicts between the North and the South of the United States, while the centre pillar stands for the institution of slavery. The essay argues that a solid basis, namely the Constitution, could have kept the scale stable but, in fact, this very basis was been actively shaken.

Before discussing the impact of Arthur Bestor’s constitutional thesis, the main reasons shall be put into some context from which to move one.[1] Cultural and social divergence tends to be seen as an important issue in more recent studies. Although all American settlers proudly shared the experience of having left the Old World for an uncertain future, the belief in Christianity and naturally their skin colour, they developed quite distinctly.[2]

Partially due to geographical and climatic factors, most Southerners became farmers, few of them enormously rich and politically influential, most of them, however, small landowners and rather poorly educated. Their social community feeling largely rested upon racial discrimination.[3] The distinctiveness of the South “(...) lay in the ideal of (...) one’s social status, and in the presence of a subordinate race, all of which gave the Southerner the sense of belonging to a genuinely governing class”.[4]

This attitude often came to be as internalised that all other ideas were dismissed as “(...) fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error () Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; (...) the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery (...) is his natural and normal condition”.[5] The worst thing for a human being now is if this inner feeling of belonging to a group, be it a social class, a religion or a family, is being taken away for it equals the loss of identity. Naturally, after “(...) having its standards and moral values attacked by the rest of the world [the South] set up a defence mechanism by assuming other virtues superior to those of its attackers”.[6]

In contrast, the more densely populated and urbanised Northern states increasingly engaged in democratic procedures and industrialising processes.[7] Because of the better educational standards and greater ethical diversity, a more progressive and intellectual union of the society can be assumed. Not a bit less powerful, however, grew their nationalism.[8] Tindall & Shi simply state “(...) what made the South distinctive was the popular assumption that it was distinctive” and yet these perceived social divergences will, ultimately be the feather that breaks the balance.[9]

The mutually dependent but differently focussed economies are easier to grasp. Although historians widely agree that economic conflicts were not the major cause of the Civil War the Southern economy depended immensely on the institution of slavery.[10] Still, the Southern states could not be described as economically behind, even though the farmers needed plenty of manufactured goods from the North.[11]

Finally considering the third pan on the scale of the Civil War causes, the political circumstances directly before the outbreak of the war shall be regarded. Lincoln’s election in 1860 came to be the final trigger for Secession because it was interpreted as a momentous turnabout. While his contesters, Stephen A. Douglas and John Bell represented more moderate viewpoints on slave labour, the fourth presidential nominee John C. Breckinridge stood for the masses of Southerners who would have shortly afterwards become the Confederacy.[12] Before the election, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln consistently declared his opposition to the ideology of the Afro-Americans’ inferiority and slavery as an institution. It could have easily been foreseen that he would, in case of winning the election, reduce slavery to its minimum or even abolish it altogether.


[1] Cf. Schlesinger, A.: The Causes of the Civil War. In: I. Unger (Ed.), Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York 1970), 26: As Arthur Schlesinger correctly analysed, the viewpoints and weighting of the several known causes for the war usually change with the historical background of the particular historian writing about them.

[2] Cf. Cook, R.: Civil War America. Making a Nation. 1847-1877 (London and others 2003), 33.

[3] Cf. Cook, Civil War America, 19.

[4] The Plantation Ideal in James Truslow Adams’ America’s Tragedy as quoted in Stampp, K. M. (Ed.): The Causes of the Civil War (New Jersey 1965), 167.

[5] As quoted in Clarke, G. (Ed.): The American Civil War. Literary Sources & Documents. Vol. 1 (Mountfield, East Sussex 2000), 610 from Alexander Stephens Cornerstone Speech.

[6] The Plantation Ideal in James Truslow Adams’ America’s Tragedy as quoted in Stampp, Causes of the Civil War, 169.

[7] Cf. Cook, Civil War America, 28.

[8] Cf. Why we love the Union in the New York Courier and Enquirer (December 1st, 1860) on the burning nationalist passion for having created an identity to be proud of out of nothing (as quoted in Stampp, Causes of the Civil War, 53). Also see the Boston Post May 16, 1861: “[The Union States were] founded on the success of no military or civil hero: it was reared on the free will and unbought fealty of millions of people (...) It is a nationality of public sentiment” (as quoted in Stampp, Causes of the Civil War, 58).

[9] Tindall, G. and David Shi, America: A Narrative History (New York, 1999), 355 and cf. Allan Nevins Ordeal of the Union (New York 1947): “Differences of thought, taste, and ideals gravely accentuate the misunderstandings caused by the basic economic and social differences (...) (as quoted in Stampp, Causes of the Civil War, 173).

[10] Cf. Cook, Civil War America, 18 and Tindall & Shi, America, 373: While the prices for slaves kept decreasing, the demand for raw material, especially cotton, went up, and planters increasingly focussed on profit, as tobacco and cotton wore out the soil, the necessity for more land allowing slave labour grew bigger. “Understanding the relations between wealth, slavery, and property rights in the South provides a powerful means of understanding southern political behavior leading to disunion”, James L. Huston concludes correctly (Huston, James L.: Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, North Carolina 2003), 25).

[11] Cf. Cook, Civil War America, 14ff/ 21ff/28ff: Consequently, the Northern states of the Union favoured higher trading tariffs because they could have helped to further progress their industrialising and support their middle class.

[12] Cf. Cook, Civil War America, 110f.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Confederate Constitution as the trigger for the American Civil War
University of Warwick  (Department of American Studies)
North America: Themes and Problems
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
434 KB
confederate, constitution, american, civil
Quote paper
Cordula Zwanzig (Author), 2013, The Confederate Constitution as the trigger for the American Civil War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: The Confederate Constitution as the trigger for the American Civil War

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free