America’s Uncivil War

Abraham Lincoln hoped in vain that the American Civil War would result in a lasting peace for the young nation. Exploring the causes of that devastating conflict leads us to ask, Can peace ever be achieved in this world?

April 2015 marked the passage of 150 years since the American Civil War drew to a close. US president Abraham Lincoln hoped it would be the start of “a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The Civil War claimed more than 600,000 lives—nearly half the number of military deaths from all of America’s wars—yet it did not bring an end to conflict. A sacrifice of that magnitude demands that we consider lessons both for the present and for the future. Why didn’t the war bring lasting peace?

Historians, aiming to simplify the issues and establish an uncomplicated cause, have long debated how the protracted conflict came about. Many offer the dark stain of slavery as the primary cause; but, while economical of thought, this brings false simplicity to the issue. Still, it was undeniably a guilty accomplice.

If one were to discuss the causes of the Civil War, he might begin with geography, move on to historical developments in time and place, trace the growth of economic and social rivalries, outline differences in moral values, and then show the way in which personalities and psychological factors operated. The part which slavery played would loom large.”

Avery Craven, “The 1840’s and the Democratic Process” 

Defining the cause is not a simple undertaking. Reasons become intertwined and dissolve into one another: an “irrepressible conflict” between a static agrarian South and a vibrant and commercially expanding North; a “blundering generation” of national leaders, politicians and editors, unable to find compromise and intent on inflaming sectional tensions for political gain; states’ rights; tariffs; westward expansion; abolitionism; partisan political ideologies; constitutional intent; preservation of Union; opposition to Southern dominance of national politics; fear; honor; respect—these and other abstract principles made large and all packaged in a tinder box of increasing emotion.

The North-South Divide

Broadly speaking, the various reasons for this terrible conflict can be classified in terms of economics, culture and ideology. They manifested themselves as differences between North and South and played out on the landscape of politics and governance as events occurred in the young nation’s ongoing development.

America’s economic interests were regionally diverse. Congressman Henry Clay’s “American System” proposed a policy whereby the manufacturing interests of the Northeast, the farming of the Northwest, and the cotton and tobacco production of the South could be unified in one great economic system. But achieving this required government support in the form of tariffs to fund improvements to the canals, rivers and harbors needed for commercial transport. It also required a national bank to address issues of credit.

Southern farmers and plantation owners were opposed to Clay’s and subsequent measures, believing the benefit accrued mainly to Northern interests. The South had existing transport access to foreign markets, and they had less need for bank credit. Thus the increasingly commercial and manufacturing North and the agrarian South experienced significant tension over an integrated national economic policy.

As Congressman Reuben Davis of Mississippi said in 1860, “there is not a pursuit in which man is engaged (agriculture excepted), which is not demanding legislative aid to enable it to enlarge its profits and all at the expense of the primary pursuit of man—agriculture. . . . Now this combined host of interests stands arrayed against the agricultural states; and this is the reason of the conflict which like an earthquake is shaking our political fabric to its foundation” (quoted by Kenneth Stampp in The Causes of the Civil War).

A Clash of Social Values

Cultural differences likewise defined each region. To those in the North, Southern culture, with its static, conservative, rural, class-conscious and agricultural underpinnings, was out of step with 19th-century thought and progress; it was therefore an obstacle in the country’s evolution. Conversely, the South saw Northern culture, with its expanding and competitive society, as spawning radical change at the expense of cherished and familiar ideals. Each viewed its society as well ordered and the other as the antithesis of desirable social values.

Nineteenth-century war correspondent William Howard Russell captured the sentiment of some Southerners, who felt that they “must regard New England and the kindred States as the birthplace of impurity of mind among man and of unchastity in women—the home of Free Love, . . . of infidelity, of Abolitionism, of false teachings in political economy and social life; . . . without honor and honesty; whose wisdom is paltry cunning, whose valor and manhood have been swallowed up in a corrupt, howling demagogy” (The Civil War in America). 

The South was also a society where personal relationships, honor, respect and physical courage in the face of insult were of pivotal importance, both individually and collectively. Thus any congressional measure that implied the moral inadequacy of the region or of the Southern lifestyle sparked intense resentment.

Ideological Concerns

The cultural differences of the opposing factions extended to political ideology. Both the Democratic and Whig parties had largely lost their national influence due to intraparty skirmishes over, among other things, western expansion. That gave the newly established Republican Party a chance to advance. It shared elements of the other parties’ viewpoints, but its ideology primarily expressed the personality of a progressive and economically developing North. The Republicans were founded on the concepts of free labor and the end of slavery, an ideology that formed the core of the cultural divide between North and South.

Today we tend to filter our view of the mid-19th-century antislavery movement through the lens of America’s fight for racial freedom in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. made famous the phrase “Free at last, free at last!” as the country witnessed “freedom rides” and “freedom marches.” The word freedom meant equality in all aspects of society—political, social, vocational and recreational—without regard to race.

But antebellum America viewed freedom differently. While most in the North certainly believed slavery was morally wrong, the desire to see that institution end did not extend to bestowing equality of status, the right to vote, or universal access to education. Free blacks were even denied entry to some Northern states.

With the exception of radical abolitionists, who did not enjoy widespread Northern support, Northerners’ and Southerners’ views on race were actually fairly indistinguishable. Congressman and antislavery advocate Joshua Giddings of Ohio described the Republican position: “We do not say the black man is, or shall be, the equal of the white man; or that he shall vote or hold office.” But legal protections for the black man were a different matter: “We assert that he who murders a black man shall be hanged; that he who robs a black man of his liberty or his property shall be punished like other criminals.”

Such distinctions aside, many Northerners viewed slavery, where it existed in the states, as protected by the Constitution. American historian Eric Foner cites two such perspectives: In 1856 Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire noted, “I have never met the first man or woman who maintained that Congress had a right to interfere with slavery in any State in this Union.” Abolitionist and Radical Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania agreed that the Constitution proscribed any congressional intrusion on the matter: “I greatly regret that it is so; for were it within our legitimate control, I would go, regardless of all threats, for . . . its final extinction.”

In the North, few felt abolition to be such a moral imperative that it was worth the risk of disunion. Thus the path to slavery’s end lay not in a direct attack on the institution in the South but in its exclusion from the new territories. As Lincoln expressed it, the “ultimate extinction” of slavery would occur over time by denying its westward spread as Southern soil became exhausted.

Free labor and antislavery sentiments were closely related. Free labor (i.e., labor performed by free men, not by slaves) described a social order in keeping with 19th-century progressive thought. It represented a dynamic and expanding society whose achievements were derived from opportunity given to workers. As Foner indicates, “in ante-bellum America, the word ‘labor’ had a meaning far broader than its modern one.” It described the work of those who produced goods—farmers, planters, mechanics, craftsmen, factory workers—and it offered economic choices and middle-class economic independence. Through drive, a person could achieve economic success and start his own business. Northern ideology saw such progress as a measure of moral worth, whereas slavery and the culture supporting it prevented economic expression toward modernity. Northerners looked down on those who labored for wages their entire life as morally inferior and only marginally more free than a slave.

Tensions Mount

Partisans debated, negotiated, argued and fought over each of these areas—economics, culture and ideology—as the nation developed and grew.

In particular, the prospect of western expansion challenged policymakers in the lead-up to the Civil War. While there had been previous moments of regional tension, mainly centered on economic issues, the opening act in the drama of sectional conflict began in earnest in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. The United States anticipated large territorial gains in the West, prompting Northern Democrats to put forward the Wilmot Proviso to exclude slavery from territory that the United States would acquire from Mexico. But the measure was defeated on votes cast strictly along a North-South divide, with sectional interest trumping party affiliation. That divide would continue and deepen.

When, in 1846, Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced his famous Proviso to exclude slavery from territory that might be acquired from Mexico, he assured his colleagues that he was concerned about the rights of white freemen, not of black slaves.”

Kenneth M. Stampp, The Imperiled Union

The question wasn’t simply about the morality of slavery. In fact, morality was not the point of the Wilmot Proviso. Up to then, a congressional balance of power between Northern and Southern states had helped maintain national accord. As the expanding North grew in population and capital, however, this balance became precarious. In addition, territories became states, and states enjoyed congressional representation. The question of how future states might affect the interests of existing states was therefore crucial. Congressman Giddings recognized what was at stake: “In order to strike down the industry of the North, they [the South] must have the numerical force. To obtain this, they must extend the slave-holding territory.”

From 1846 to 1850, political turmoil and legislative deadlock over the issue of slavery in the western territories continued. Legislators delivered fiery speeches in Congress, and Southerners began to speak openly and frequently of disunion. Meanwhile, moderate politicians worked feverishly to craft compromise measures that would relieve the tension.

At issue was not only political parity in Congress but the defense and preservation of Southern society. Because slavery was woven into the fabric of the South’s economy, social structure and ideology, Southerners felt that to deny slavery’s right to exist in any area of the nation was to condemn all aspects of Southern life.

Each side in the territorial debate . . . believed it was defending and extending the legacy of the Revolution. None addressed, much less redressed, the basic inconsistency between individual freedom and democracy.” 

Michael A. Morrison, Slavery and the American West

The Will to Secede

Under the provisions of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, slavery would be banned in any new territory or state north of Missouri’s southern border, except for Missouri itself. Up to the middle of the century, the measure enjoyed the status of revered law.

But in 1854 a new crisis appeared on the horizon: legislators introduced a bill that authorized the organization of Nebraska as a new (ostensibly free) territory. But to ensure Southern support, the bill specified that slavery would be addressed by popular sovereignty rather than by federal edict. The fact that this would require revocation of the Missouri Compromise produced a firestorm of controversy and vitriol.

With the addition of Kansas as another new territory, the measure passed as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The immediate results of the measure were significant. The Missouri Compromise was repealed, opening territory to slavery where it had been prohibited since 1820. The act also proved the seedbed for the violent struggle known as “Bleeding Kansas” between pro- and antislavery proponents in that territory.

Bleeding Kansas did much to intensify the national rancor. One side desired blacks brought in as slaves, whereas it was part of Republican thought that free labor could not thrive where slave labor was present. Antislavery proponents thus went so far as to seek the exclusion of all blacks, slave or free.

In Kansas the clashes were about land, economic control, political opportunity, as well as slavery. For the country, Kansas was a battleground for what each side believed was its own preservation. The tragic irony is that neither side saw that slavery in the West was, for various reasons, completely impractical.

Other events, large and small, further deteriorated national harmony. The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, the Fugitive Slave Act, national elections, bills before congress, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, political speeches and editorials all heavily impacted the nation as sectional interest spawned increasing distrust, fear and misunderstanding. The national discourse defaulted to impassioned debate of rights and principles, honor and respect. Years of ongoing antagonism produced a toxic environment that brought the idea of secession evermore to the forefront in Southern minds.

What converted the highly charged emotional talk to action was Lincoln’s election as president in 1860. Although in his first inaugural address Lincoln assured the South that his administration did not intend to challenge slavery where it existed, his election was viewed as an attack on all that embodied Southern life, culture, honor, institutions, values and constitutional thought. The South left the Union for what historian and documentary filmmaker Steven Channing terms “logical reasoning within a framework of irrational perception.”

Preventing Conflict

One other compelling cause of the war, seldom voiced, is a failure of government, which in a sense underlies all the other factors. In considering this aspect, we can perhaps gain not only the greatest insight into the roots of this or any conflict, but also real hope for ultimate peace.

In Foner’s words, “the existing political system could not contain [the] irreconcilable ideologies” of North and South. Historian Avery Craven comments: “The most significant thing about the American Civil War is that it represents a complete breakdown of the democratic process. . . . Men ceased to discuss their problems, dropped the effort to compromise their differences, refused to abide by the results of a national election, and resorted to the use of force.” American government, like other human governments, proved itself not only incapable of preventing strife but, in fact, conducive to it.

Abraham Lincoln agonized over the war’s toll. In his second inaugural address, he pondered God’s purpose in allowing the horrible conflict. He offered that God’s will cannot be known but concluded with the hope of a healed nation: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance.”

Abraham Lincoln, letter to Eliza P. Gurney, September 4, 1864

Clearly Lincoln believed in democracy. Despite the passion of his remarks, however, the reality is that no human government can achieve what he hoped for. But Lincoln did rightly invoke the name of the One who can bring about that kind of peace.

It is not universally understood that one of Jesus Christ’s roles at His first appearance was that of a messenger. The message He brought was about a government that will be established after His second coming, which will produce universal, lasting peace. The Bible terms that message “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14). The kingdom of God is not an emotional presence. It represents a true world-ruling government and is prophesied in Isaiah 9:6–7: “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. . . . Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”

This government is also proclaimed in Revelation 11:15: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!”

Government is founded and based on laws, and its work is to administer those laws. The law of God will provide the foundation for government in the kingdom of God. That law, embodied in the Ten Commandments, reveals how people are to form and conduct their relationships. It reveals the way to peace. It is a way of concern and action for good and for the welfare of the human community.

That approach was conspicuously absent in the lead-up to America’s Civil War and every war in human history. Instead of peace, humankind has known war and violence in almost every generation. The fundamental cause can be found in human nature (see James 4:1–3), a nature that is hostile to the way of God (Romans 8:7). Man’s nature is expressed as greed, self-interest, envy, strife, controversy and competition.

Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known.” 

Romans 3:15–17 (quoting Isaiah 59:7–8)

Governments, including those under such notable leaders as Abraham Lincoln, have failed because they don’t know the way that leads to peace. Humanity as a whole has rejected the only knowledge that would allow its governments to succeed: the knowledge of God and His way. If people were to accept that knowledge, solutions to the problems gripping our world could be found. Peace could be achieved.

The good news is that, based on God’s Word, the Bible, humanity will not forever reject God. Peace will come.