Slavery and the Outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861

Essay, 2015

8 Pages, Grade: B


Slavery and the Outbreak of the Civil War in 1861

Slavery was a fundamental problem that existed for a long period of time and caused a controversy to the United States. The long, unsolved and neglected issue would be a strong reason for the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, especially when it became a heated debate in the government and among the people. Prior to the civil war, however, slavery also met with other issues that added to the tensions among the people in the government, such as the Whigs, the Democrats, the Republicans, and eventually the North and the South. Their differences had apparently caused some serious conflict although compromises or agreements were always attempted. Ultimately, it was the division that led to the civil war. This paper will discuss the conflict that occurred prior to the war in 1861 and assess the nature of the conflict. It will look at the role of slavery and analyse whether it was the main factor for the outbreak of the civil war.

To begin, it is worth looking at the background and origin of slavery in the United States before proceeding to the problems and conflicts from the 1820s onwards. The practice of slavery in the United States can be traced back to the 17th Slavery where slave trade began and African slaves were found in the English colonies (Kolchin, 1989: 45). This is the beginning of the exploitation of African labourers for the purposes and benefits of the colonists. As the colonists became wealthier, they were able to purchase more slaves to work for their plantations.

This was apparent in the West Indies and in New York, where the number of the black population was large (Kolchin, 1989: 46). As late as 1760 about one of every 7 New Yorkers was a black slave (Kolchin, 1989: 50). The reason for this great need of slavery was for economic development as the slaves appeared at places where agricultural labour was done. The increasing number of slaves, thus, was due to this need of economic expansion. After the independence, this was still practiced and the number of slaves kept on growing. In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South and by 1860, it was a million tons. It was no surprise that, in the same period 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million (Zinn, 1996: 167).

Slave labour, however, was not only based on agricultural plantation but they also worked as slave craftsmen, for example: carpenters, masons, bricklayers, coopers, and house servants (Jones, 1995: 123). The fact that slave-labourers were useful to the South and contributed to the economic production explained why some people were reluctant or did not want to abolish slavery, which would help to explain the tensions between the political groups later on.

On the other hand, looking back, however much the slave labourers benefitted the South or the United States, the practice of slavery was degrading the black population for they were being seen as lower than human beings. The black population not only had to suffer under the circumstance of being inferior to the white people, they were also tortured. Even though some African slaves had lived in under better or decent conditions, it cannot be denied that slavery was an inhumane practice and sooner or later, the government had to confront this issue. The harsh life of the black population can be illustrated by a number of accounts. A record of deaths kept in a plantation journal lists the ages and cause of death of all those who died on plantation between 1850 and 1855. Of the 32 who died in that period, only 4 reached the age of 60, 4 reached the age of 50, 7 died in their 40s, 7 died in their 20s or 30s and 9 died before they were 5 (Zinn, 1996: 168).

One book on slavery (Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross) looks at whippings in 1840-1842 on the Barrow plantation in Louisiana with 200 slaves: “The records show that over the course of 2 years a total of 160 whippings were administered, an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year. About half the hands were not whipped at all during the period.” That figure (0.7 per hand per year) shows whipping was infrequent for any individual. Looking at this in another way, it can be said that once every 4 or 5 days, some slaves would be whipped (Zinn, 1996: 168-169). But such statistics may not be enough to show the cruel actions towards the slaves, their harsh living conditions as well as the prejudice against them.

The point in showing a brief background of slavery helps to understand its relation to the rebellions and the rise of anti-slavery movement afterwards. Since slavery has been practiced for a long time, it is reasonable to ask such questions: why did it stay for so long? How did this get prolonged for decades? This might point to some answers that would share some insight that could be related to the civil war in 1861.

For years, the practice of slavery was justified with the notion that the African slaves were inferior to the white race. This helped to support the idea that slavery actually helped them to be in a better place and become civilized people. They were brought to the United States and supposedly, their living standards rose due to the white population’s deeds of letting them work and live with them. Because of this, and in addition to the economic expansion mentioned previously, the exploitation of the Africans was allowed and maintained.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, considered the abolition of slavery but he was not keen in the idea of freed slaves in the country. For him, if the slaves were freed, it would be a problem to the United States because he would imagine that there would be a number half million lazy and poor people, and thus did not think that they would be fit members of a republican society (Morgan, 1989: 54). His racial prejudice is seen here, as well as his belief that the African slaves were not equal to the white citizens.

Similarly, St George Tucker said, “we must not lose sight of this important consideration,” “that these people must be bound to labour, if they do not voluntarily engage therein…In absolving them from the yoke of slavery, we must not forget the interests of society. Those interests require the exertions of every individual in some mode or other; and those who have not wherewith to support themselves honestly without corporal labour, whatever be their complexion, ought to be compelled to labour.” (Morgan, 1989: 54)

This kind of view is passed on the people and while it justified slavery, it also hinted why the people who supported slavery were insistent in maintaining this practice. Importantly, it shows that the government’s delay in solving this issue or failure to recognize that this was an issue that needed to be solved quickly. As it can be seen from the 1787 Constitution, where slavery was hardly mentioned but the issue was subtly addressed. For example, the ‘three-fifths clause’ in Article 1.2, which stipulates that the population of a state shall be determined by counting all ‘free persons’ in addition to three-fifths of ‘all other Persons’ (Olson, 2010: 1270). This is a further example that empowered the use of slavery and how the government dealt with the issue of slavery until the opposition of slavery grew stronger.

Following this, slavery was no longer just an issue where it merely concerned on economic expansion but, the nation’s future as St George Tucker had emphasized “the interests of society”. Hence it became heavily associated with the congress and the politicians, being intertwined with other issues that were as equally restless. There were definitely many events that brought up the issue of slavery, but as these events are being explored, it will show that the conflict that divided the nation may not only be because of slavery.

As it has been mentioned earlier, given the inequality and harsh living conditions of the black population, the uprising and the growth of anti-slavery movement was bound to happen. Thus, the awareness of the issue became more apparent and especially when the white population began to take action and came to call out against slavery as well.

The anti-slavery movement in pre-1830s were slow and not that active and slave revolts were said to be rare as well. The largest revolt was considered to be the revolt in 1811 (Zinn, 1996: 169). About 500 slaves, armed with knives, axes and clubs plotted to attack a Major Andry. They were, however, stopped by the U.S. army where 66 of them were killed. There was also Denmark Vesey who wanted to start a revolt in 1822 but this plan was stopped before he could take any action. This did not end here, as David Walker, who was a son of slave but born free in North Carolina, started a pamphlet called Walker’s Appeal, boldly speaking out against slavery (Zinn, 1996: 175). This upset the slaveholders in Georgia and he was found dead in 1830 (Zinn, 1996: 178). In the beginning, revolts were usually thwarted easily but their way of handling the issue of slavery continued to anger other people who were against slavery as well, especially in the North where most states were free states.


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Slavery and the Outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861
Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Emergence of a Superpower - US Political History and Foreign Policy
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slavery, outbreak, american, civil war, 1861
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Aqmar HM (Author), 2015, Slavery and the Outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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