In 2017, White House chief of staff John Kelly, then serving Donald Trump, was interviewed by Fox New’s Laura Ingraham, who asked about Kelly’s thoughts on a church in Virginia that had recently taken down a statue to Robert E. Lee. Kelly responded that Robert E. Lee had been a “honorable man” who “gave up his country to fight for his state,” and claimed that the war had been caused by a “lack of ability to compromise.” Today, when asked the reason for the Civil War, most of us would immediately- and correctly –  say slavery. And nearly all historians would support that. But still, the question nags. What about slavery caused a violent, protracted civil war? What event or issue or Supreme Court case or compromise was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Or was it the competing cultures of North and South that did it, both created and exacerbated by the existence of Black chattel slavery? Today, as we continue to explore the concept of causality as a historical thinking skill, we’re talking about the causes of the American Civil War.

Transcript: The Causes of the Civil War

Researched and written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD 

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

In 2017, White House chief of staff John Kelly, then serving Donald Trump, was interviewed by Fox New’s Laura Ingraham. Ingraham asked about Kelly’s thoughts on a church in Virginia that had recently taken down a statue to Robert E. Lee. Kelly responded that Robert E. Lee had been a “honorable man” who “gave up his country to fight for his state.” But what fired up controversy even more than his awful take on Lee was what Kelly said next. Kelly claimed that the war had been caused by a “lack of ability to compromise.” Historians around the United States groaned and took to Twitter to correct the record. For Civil War historians in particular, Kelly’s statement gave us flashbacks to our comprehensive exams, trying to make sense of waves of historiography during 20th century in which historians went back and forth about the causes of the Civil War. And in fact, while many comtemporary historians strongly disagreed with Kelly’s take, the failure to compromise was, for a long time, agreed upon as the cause of the conflict. But it wasn’t the only one. For decades, historians fell more or less into two camps when it came to the causes of the Civil War. One argued that the war was an inevitability, or to borrow a phrase from William Seward, an “ irrepressible conflict.” The other, on the other hand, saw the war as the result of a series of failures caused by a “blundering generation.” Since then, historians have continued to go back and forth about the coming of the war to varying degrees.

Today, when asked the reason for the Civil War, most of us would immediately- and correctly –  say slavery. And nearly all historians would support that. But still, the question nags. What about slavery caused a violent, protracted civil war? What event or issue or Supreme Court case or compromise was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Or was it the competing cultures of North and South that did it, both created and exacerbated by the existence of Black chattel slavery? Today, as we continue to explore the concept of causality as a historical thinking skill, we’re talking about the causes of the American Civil War.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG


Sarah: Before we dive in, I want to start by acknowledging the historians who did the research and writing that I used to write this episode. I was very lucky that a really smart forum on the causes of the Civil War came out in the journal Civil War History just as I was sitting down to write this. The forum was based on a 1974 article by preeminent scholar of the Civil War era Eric Foner, which I relied heavily on, and the reflections on and responses to his article also really helped guide my thinking. The historians involved in that were Aaron Astor, Judith Giesberg, Kellie Carter Jackson, Martha S. Jones, Brian Matthew Jordan, James Oakes, Jason Phillips, Angela M. Riotto, Anne Sarah Rubin, and Manisha Sinha. I also returned to one of my old standbys, Bruce Levine’s book Half Slave and Half Free, which is my favorite, easily readable history of the road to war. On the question of inevitability, I really liked an oped that David Blight wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2022. I also consulted articles by historians past and present, including James G. Randall, Michael Woods, and J. Morgan Kousser.

Sarah: When I teach classes on the Civil War, I usually have a point partway through the semester, usually when we arrive at the moment when the sectional crisis became a shooting war with the first shots at Fort Sumter, when we have class debate about the causes of the Civil War. We don’t focus on big things like economic differences or even slavery, but instead specific things. I start them out with a fairly concrete and unsurprising list, including the big events and crises of the 1850s such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Act, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. But then I ask them to brainstorm more “causes,” and pretty soon the board looks like the Pepe Silvia conspiracy theory board from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. One semester, we had probably three dozen “causes” on the board ranging from the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to the arrival of the first ship bearing enslaved Africans in 1619. Then, after crowdsourcing a huge list, I tell students: we need to narrow it down to the ten most important. Then the five most important. Then, eventually, we try to narrow it down to the single most important cause of the Civil War. The result of this is usually a lot of spirited debate and discussion. We always come up with one answer, but it’s not an easy process – and usually, at least a couple of students vehemently disagree with the end result.

Averill: Part of the takeaway of that kind of activity is that you can’t, actually, narrow the causes of the Civil War down to just one thing. It forces students to reckon with how all of those ‘causes’ are actually interconnected, intertwined, and interrelated.

Sarah: Right. Could John Brown have led a raid at the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry that made Southerners shiver with terror if he had not cut his teeth during the skirmishes of Bleeding Kansas? And could that conflict have happened without the Kansas Nebraska Act? But could the Kansas Nebraska Act have made such an impact if it wasn’t for the Missouri Compromise? But one of the other effects of this exercise is that it also tends to reinforce one particular way of thinking about the coming of the Civil War. The last time I played this game, students brilliantly narrowed down the list until they had one last “cause” left: the US Constitution. It was an incredible moment – the sort of galaxy brain moment you hope for when teaching. But it also brought us to an odd place in terms of historical thinking: if the Constitution was ultimately what caused the Civil War, were we saying that the war was inevitable?

Averill: Let’s start, though, not with an exploration of historiographical debates but instead with an incredibly brief description of the years before the Civil War. Please know that this cannot be exhaustive, detailed, or deep – historians have written literal volumes on the decades before the Civil War, and we simply can’t include every single detail without making this episode into a multi-part podcast series on the Civil War era. (Which Sarah would love and the rest of us would hate.)  We’re going to be brief and concise, but all these issues deserve deep study and analysis – we’ll hope to come back to them in future episodes, but we also hope you do your own reading. (For reading recs, hit up Sarah for a chat.)

The first enslaved Africans arrived in the American colonies in 1619, when a slave ship delievered “twenty and odd Negroes” to Virginia. Initially, slavery was one form of several forms of unfree labor, and it didn’t necessarily mean being considered chattel – or property – or being enslaved for life. It also wasn’t necessarily initially considered an inherited position. Enslaved Africans worked alongside white indentured servants in the Northern and the Southern colonies. Over the course of the 17th century, though, colonies began to pass laws that set rigid boundaries around what it meant to be enslaved. In 1640, Virginia sentenced a Black man named John Punch to slavery for life. Punch is considered the first permanently enslaved person in American history. Then, in 1662, Virginia passed another law that held that children followed the status of their mothers – meaning that children born to an enslaved woman would, themselves, be enslaved. These two laws were followed by many more in the colony of Virginia that helped to establish the status of slavery as permanent and linked to race. 

Sarah: Also during the late 17th century, a number of changes meant that there were fewer indentured servants available to work on American colonists’ sugar, tobacco, and indigo plantations. The Great Fire of London, the English Civil War, and a disease outbreak in England made fewer available people, and fewer interested in moving to the colonies to serve as an indentured servants. Then, in 1676, a violent uprising of white indentured servants called Bacon’s Rebellion made wealthy landowners skittish about having large populations of poor, disgruntled indentured servants – while slaves were far more expensive, they were also a better long term investment. Throughout the late 17th and early 18th c., the enslaved population steadily grows, especially in the southern colonies, where cash crops made up the bulk of the economy.

Averill: After the American Revolution, the founding generation found out that slavery posed a real challenge in framing a new government. While the Constitution does not mention slavery, it’s a document profoundly shaped by the debate between representatives between Northern and Southern states at the Constitutional Convention over how to account for the enslaved population. In order to appease the Southern states, which had a larger and more entrenched enslaved population, Northern states gave concessions such as the 3/5ths clause, which gave Southern states increased representation in Congress, and the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required that the return of the enslaved who sought freedom. (As an aside: slavery did exist in the North, but on a lesser scale and was on its way to abolishment during the first quarter of the 19th century.) As a result, the Southern states consistently enjoyed strong political power in and out of Congress.

Sarah: In 1803, Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with a signature in the Louisiana Purchase. While slavery didn’t immediately pose a crisis in the new territory, it did raise new questions: were these new territories open to slavery? Could enslavers take their bondspeople with them to new lands, effectively extending and  increasing the political power of the southern states? This question was tested in 1820, when the Missouri territory (smack dab in the middle of the Louisiana Purchase territory) sought admission to the United States as a state. Slavers had taken their bondspeople into the new territory as they sought farmland, and in turn, wanted the territory to be added as a slave state. But this posed a problem: more or less coincidentally, there had always been an equal number of slave and free states, and Missouri would tip the balance. That balance was critical to keeping together faith in the United States government – many Americans believed in what historians have called the “slave power conspiracy,” or the idea that the increased wealth and representation slavery endowed the South gave them immense power that they used to constantly manipulate things for the benefit of the southern states. In 1820, after much debate, Congress landed on an agreement in what became known as the Missouri Compromise: Missouri would enter the union as a slave state, and Maine, the northern chunk of Massachusetts, would enter as a free state, keeping that fragile balance in place. But it also established the longitudinal line of 36”30’ as the demarcation line between the slaveholding South and free North. North of the line slavery could not exist; south of it, it could not be infringed. This, politicians reasoned, would solve the problem long into the future.

A black and white line map of with a red line marking the 36'30" Missouri Compromise line.
The bright red 36’30” line marking the boundary between slave and free states after the 1820 Missouri Compromise | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Over the course of the next decades, there was an agricultural boom in the South focused on one crop and one crop only: cotton. Before the end of the 18th c, cotton was unprofitable – it was too laborious to disentangle the sticky seeds from the soft fibers so that the cotton boll could be processed into cloth. But in 1790, the cotton gin (short for the cotton engine) revolutionized cotton production, easily and quickly processing cotton bolls so they could be utilized by the booming textile industry, largely located in England. Suddenly, cotton was the most profitable cash crop in the United States, and perfectly suited for the rich soil of the deep South. But cotton required labor – for planting, tilling, picking, and processing – and so along with the cotton, enslavement boomed. Slaves were worth more money, creating an internal marketplace in bondspeople and creating incentive for a reproductive economy as women slaves could be used to increase stock and generate income. It was also so profitable that it created a demand for ever more land, meaning slaveholders hoped to be able to seize western lands to allow slavery to spread and grow. With the cotton boom, slavery became more widespread, more entrenched, and more vital than it ever had been in Southern society – soon slavery made the centerpiece of Southern culture and the cornerstone of everything from family life and gender roles to concepts of citizenship. The existence of slavery informed and shaped every social interaction in the slaveholding South.

Sarah: At the same time, an anti-slavery movement was growing, largely in the northern states. The first anti-slavery groups were city or state specific, such as the New York Manumission Society, founded in 1790. But these early anti-slavery groups, which largely embraced ideas about gradual emancipation or colonization, became more of a social and cultural force during the Second Great Awakening, the period of religious revival and reform. Eager to rid society of sin, some reformers set their sights on slavery as a moral wrong that must be rooted out now. In 1833, the abolitionist movement got a radical new leader: William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was an extremely vocal, extremely focused abolitionist who used his widely read newspaper, The Liberator, to argue that slavery was America’s original sin. Garrison was also famous for his inflammatory tactics, such as burning the US Constitution at a public gathering, declaring it a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with Hell.” But while Garrison could be a rabble-rouser, abolitionists mostly used softer tactics like moral suasion, or using moral arguments to try to get people to change their mind. Moral suasion mostly happened through poems, pamphlets, speeches, and books, especially novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that were designed to reveal the horrors of slavery to public audiences. Memoirs were especially effective, so abolitionists sought out escaped slaves like Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrup, and Frederick Douglass to write their life stories. Abolitionists existed on a spectrum. Some were more comfortable just passing out pamphlets, while others were more active and radical, such as opening their homes to fugitives. Either way, what most of them shared was a belief that slavers were cruel, abusive, and immoral. On the flipside, of course, slavers saw abolitionists as a threat to their very way of life.

Averill: As slavery become immensely popular and embedded in Southern culture, it meant that it was increasingly impossible for Southern whites to easily accept that they couldn’t just take their property with them wherever they chose to live. Whites, for instance, started moving int into Mexico in the territory now known as Texas, bringing their slaves with them, though Mexico had outlawed slavery in 1829. In 1835, the Americans living in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, which ended in 1836 with Texas declaring its independence. Nine years later, Texans wanted to join the Union as a Southern slave state. This wouldn’t violate the 36”30’ boundary, but it again threatened the delicate balance between slave and free states. Problem was, Mexico still claimed Texas as its territory, and wasn’t willing to let the region go without a fight. Further, President James Polk, a virulently pro-slavery Southerner himself, saw the conflict with Mexico as an opportunity rather than a crisis – he was a firm believer in the manifest destiny, the belief that the US was destined to spread from Atlantic to Pacific. For that to become a reality, the US needed more Mexican territory. By 1848, after a short war, Mexico relinquished control of Texas and ceded a massive chunk of land (the Mexican cession) to the US, giving it what would later become California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana. Polk and his cronies didn’t just want this territory to fulfill a nationalistic idea about stretching from ‘sea to shining sea,’ but because it would exponentially increase potential territory for slavery to spread.

Sarah: And of course, the new land gained from the Mexican Cession raises the same old problem: should this new territory be open or closed to slavery? From the very beginning of the Mexican-American war, a congressman named David Wilmot introduced a piece of legislation that became known as the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit any potential land that came from Mexico should the Americans win. By 1845, the careful balance created by the Missouri Compromise was already a thing of the past – Arkansas and Florida had tipped the scale toward the slave states – but the vast territory added by the Mexican Cession could completely change the game. Unsurprisingly, the proviso fails. But not before it also helps to blow up the political party system. Rather than voting in terms of policy or platform, politicians increasingly vote in terms of region, split, largely, over the issue of slavery. Soon, each party has regional factions or wings – the N/S Whigs, the N/S Democrats. The Wilmot Proviso is a key moment where politicians split over the vote not based on their party’s general ideology, but over their region’s position on slavery.

Averill: Congress had to make a decision about what to do with the vast lands added by the Meixcan Cession. In 1850, the decision came in the form of the Compromise of 1850. Under the Missouri Compromise law, the cession land should be split in half by the 36’30” line. But southerns couldn’t abide the idea that all this new territory would be cut off from the potential of slavery – and northerners couldn’t abide the idea of slavery spreading all the way, uninhibited, to the Pacific. The compromise was a series of laws (collectively known as the Compromise of 1850) that essentially kicked the can down the road. California would become a free state, but the rest of the unorganized southwestern territory would be left undeclared. The slave trade was also prohibited in Washington, DC.  To appease the South, Congress strengthened the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution with the Fugitive Slave Act, which provided strict enforcement for the capture and return of escaping bondspeople. Now, federal officials, not state ones, decide whether an escaped slave should be returned to slavery or let free and local authorities could not interfere in any way – making it more certain that escapees (and freepeple mistaken for slaves or kidnapped) would be returned to bondage. Previously, the Supreme Court had ruled that local authorities didn’t have to comply with the federal Fugitive Slave Clause, but the Fugitive Slave Act took away that possibility. As abolitionists tried to defy the Fugitive Slave Act, things sometimes devolved into violence, such as in Syracuse, NY when abolitionists tried to save escapee Jerry Burns, or in Christiana, PA when abolitionists killed a slaver coming to recover his property. The Fugitivie Slave Act also helps to radicalize apathetic Northerners, who now saw questions of slavery and freedom playing out on their own doorsteps.

Sarah: The political schisms happening over slavery result in what historians call the Third Party System, or the third era of political parties in the United States. The Whig party disintegrated by 1852, sending its members to some new, small third parties including the nativist Know Nothing Party, the abolitionist Liberty Party, and the free labor focused Free Soil Party. During the 1850s, these third parties more or less coalesced into the Republican Party, which was focused on stopping the spread of slavery into the west, not because they were morally opposed to the existence of slavery, but because the spread of slavery would make it impossible free labor for white men to exist in those new territories. In other words, why pay a white laborer a decent wage if you can just buy or rent a slave? The Republican Party wasn’t an abolitionist organization, nor was it an anti-racist organization. But it did speak to the needs of working class people in a way that the Democratic party struggled to because of its steadfast and radical commitment to slavery.

Averill: Over the course of the 1850s, what would eventually be termed “the sectional crisis” became dire. The “solution” created by the Comp of 1850 really proved a mirage when Congress had to decide how to address the territory in the middle of the country: the area that today is the states of Kansas and Nebraska. But Southern politicians won’t allow them to officially become territories if they will be closed to slavery. Again, this should have already been answered by the Missouri Compromise, but again, Southerners weren’t happy to let slavery remain where it already was. The cotton boom was too profitable, and enslaved bodies were too profitable – to continue to thrive, slavery needed new markets. Stephen Douglas, senator from Illinois, was invested in the question about Kansas and Nebraska, because he hoped it would facilitate a transcontinental railroad that would take a route benefiting his home state. In order to make that happen, he needed to win the votes of Southern congressmen – which meant he needed to appease them. Douglas authored yet another compromise, which established that instead of using a dividing line, future states would use something called popular sovereignty – which is fancy political language for a simple vote or referendum. Under the KNA, these new territories would chose by a popular vote whether they wanted to become slave or free.

a black and white 19th century photograph of a clean-shaven middle aged white man with dark hair wearing a black suit. he has a very slight smile and piercing eyes.
John Brown, by Augustus Washington, 1846 or 1847 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: This is – as you might guess – a messy, violent failure, because immediately, abolitionists and slavers BOTH rushed to flood the Kansas territory in order to skew the votes. We should do and entire episode on just Bleeding Kansas, because it is an incredibly complex story, but suffice it to say: it didn’t help the growing sectional crisis. As rival governments are established in Kansas, political diffferences turned violent. Radical abolitionist John Brown avenged the burning of an abolitionist settlement by killing several proslavery men in May 1856, and abolitionists were armed with rifles purchased by abolitionist ministers back on the east coast. Two days before, abolitionist Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner had been brutally beaten by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate in retaliation for giving a fiery speech calling out Southerners for the moral outrages of slavery. Brooks’ attack on Sumner was also a flashpoint in a cultural war: two very different men, t from two completely different cultures came to bloody conflict. The caning was like a microcosm of the larger cultural conflict in America and its potentially bloody consequences. The political “sectional crisis” was quickly becoming an everything crisis.

Averill: Just a few months later, the Supreme Court issued a decision in case called Dred Scott v Sanford. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, were enslaved along with their daughters by a US Army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson. Since Emerson served in the army, he moved around the US living at different posts throughout the 1830s and 1840s, including ones in Illinois and the Minnesota and Wisconsin territories, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise line of 36’30”. When Emerson died in 1843, the Scotts tried to purchase their freedom from his widow, offering $300 (about 9k today). She refused. That’s when Dred and Harriet each filed suit against her, claiming that they were already free based on a Missouri law that held that an enslaved person held for a long period in a free state was therefore free. It was a long process – the Scotts won one case, but then lost when Emerson’s widow appealed the decision. The Scotts kept trying, eventually culminating in Scott v Sanford, so-named because ownership of the Scotts now had been transferred to Emerson’s brother in law, John Sanford. The case went before the Supreme Court in 1857, where Justice Roger Taney issued the now-infamous decision.

Sarah: Taney made three main arguments. One, that any person descended from African heritage, whether slave or free, was not a citizen of the United States, meaning they had no ability to use the court system. Two, that any pre-existing laws that banned slavery in a region did not confer freedom or citizenship to Black Americans, and three, that the Missouri Compromise, which prevented slavery to move about 36’30”, was unconstitutional. Taney also spoke the words that would be associated with him for all time, that Black Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” By his reasoning, Black Americans were not and never had been “part of the people,” and that the founding documents “show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery….” The Scott decision was a powerful turning point: now, slavery was the law of the land, and no law passed in any singular state or territory could interfere with a slaver’s right to bring their human property with them. A master from South Carolina could move their farm to Pennsylvania, and would have the Supreme Court to back up their legal right to do so.

Dred and Harriet Scott | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Thus, by 1858, it was also abundantly clear that the biggest single issue between the Democrats and the Republicans was slavery. In 1858, the race for a senate seat in Illinois put the issue into sharp focus as the candidates, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, took part in a series of campaign debates forever after known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In the debates, Lincoln clarified what it meant to be against the spread of slavery but also not anti-racist. I’m going to read a long quote, but just be aware that some of the language I’m going to read is not acceptable today, but was common in the 1850s. From the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, September 18, 1858, Lincoln says: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.” Slavery was the central issue for this race, and seemed clear to Southerners  that Republicans like Lincoln, should they ever achieve power, would be a major threat to their “peculiar institution.” And while Lincoln loses the 1858 senate race, he has garnered national attention, and early in 1860, is invited to give a speech in New York City at the lecture venue Cooper Union, which makes him a public figure closely associated with criticizing the slave power.

Sarah: In 1859, John Brown – the radical abolitionist who had led a violent raid against slavers in the chaotic Kansas territory – took another radical action in hopes of instigating the violent end of slavery in the United States. In October 1859, Brown led a small group of white and black men to seize a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a tiny town in northern Virginia. His goal, roughly, was to seize the weapons in the arsenal and distribute them to enslaved people across the South, setting off a massive rebellion that would overthrow the slave power. This impractical plan failed, unsurprisingly, Brown was arrested and very quickly put on trial and found guilty of treason. On Dec 2, 1859, Brown was hanged.

Averill: Nearly a year later, Republican and Free Soiler Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Southern states, starting with South Carolina, refused to accept the outcome of that election, convinced that Lincoln was bent on abolishing slavery. Just over a month after Lincoln’s election and months before he was inaugurated, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina between January and May 1861. Before the final three states had even passed their secession ordinances, shots were already fired and the Civil War had begun.

Sarah: So now let’s zoom out a little bit. There is something about this recitation of facts that makes it feel like a civil war – the Civil War – was a foregone conclusion. Even writing it, I struggled to make sure that I didn’t use any language that made it sound like the all those events were part of a process moving inevitably in one direction. Using phrases like “John Brown’s raid brought that nation to the brink,” or “the Dred Scott decision moved the nation even closer to a breaking point” include within them assumptions that the war was coming. For historians working today, though, it’s considered passé to suggest that an event or outcome was inevitable. To believe that certain events are inevitable means believing that we aren’t actually agents in our own lives, but instead passive objects pushed along by forces larger than ourselves. Historians now tend to embrace the idea of contingency, or the idea that there are endless possible eventualities, all reliant on momentary cause and effect. But while historians today reject the idea that anything can be inevitable, historians in the past were far less opposed to the concept. In the early 20th century, especially in the period between World War I and the Cold War, American historians hotly debated whether the Civil War was inevitable.

Averill: In the interwar era, many of the leading American historians believed strongly in the idea of inevitability, and saw the Civil War as case-in-point. Woodrow Wilson, who in addition to being a racist and President of the United States, was an academic historian, penned an egregiously long book series called A History of the American People. Wilson leans incredibly heavily on inevitability as a historical force in matters both minor and major. Describing the election of 1860, for instance, Wilson wrote that “the Democratic party was at last hopelessly rent into factions, divided, as was inevitable” between Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge because of sectional differences.[1] The end of the war was also described as fated: “By spring,” Wilson wrote, “as Sherman swept slowly northward through the Carolinas for a final injunction with Grant in Virginia, the inevitable has been accepted, and the war was over.”[2] In James Truslow Adam’s The Epic of America, he treats the war itself as an inevitability. “The first rumbling of the inevitable conflict,” Adams wrote in 1931, “was heard with the controversy over admitting Missouri as a slave State in 1819.”[3]  For historians like Wilson and Adams, history was moved along by epic forces, not by individual decision-making.

Sarah: These works weren’t without criticism. While Wilson and Adams, among others, did situate slavery as the issue driving the inevitability, others, like the hugely influential Charles and Mary Bear, who argued that economic differences, not slavery, was the actual reason spurring the coming war. Later in the 1930s, other historians questioned inevitability itself. The horror and destruction of World War I had given some historians a very different perspective on war. James G. Randall, for instance, argued vehemently that the war wasn’t a given. The sectional and cultural conflicts were very real, Randall admitted, but “what is not so clear is the assumption that because of this agrarian-industrialist controversy the Civil War was inescapable, for after all, some of the new writers do little more than give the overworked phrase “irrepressible conflict” a fresh socio-economic twist. The present writer is yet unconvinced that the tragic conflict has been proved to be inevitable.”[4] Instead, Randall saw the war as an avoidable tragedy, a rending of the social fabric by a fantatical minority of abolitionists and Fire-Eaters, who upped the ante until it resulted in mass death and destruction. Randall didn’t believe in any “formula or determinism” that drove history, but rather, simple human decision-making. The field moved on after World War II, and historians became less interested in the question of the war’s causes and more interested in the economics of slavery and social histories of the war era.

Averill: But if historians are now less convinced that a historical event can be inevitable, we still struggle to clearly articulate in our histories how the Civil War did come to happen. While it’s “antithetical to the historian’s craft,” inevitability remains “utterly beguiling,” to quote the preminent historian David Blight. Or, to put it another way, in the words of Kellie Carter Jackson, “Historians are reluctant to label anything as inevitable, and yet the Civil War feels like trying to stave off the effects of global warming.” Even those of us who don’t believe in inevitability, when we try to write or tell a narrative history of the decades before the war, find ourselves telling a story full of critical turning points moving us toward what we know will happen. The Civil War did happen, so what was the moment or event that brought it about? Historian David Potter argued that by 1847, during the Mexican War, “the essential conflict” over slavery was already “fully articulated.” For Kenneth Stampp and David Blight, it was 1857 and the Dred Scott decision, which Blight argues “brought to a head tensions that had been growing throughout the 1850s.”

Sarah: And the events of the decades before the war do fall into a kind of progressive narrative. with one event layering on top of another, naturally creating a narrative moving in one direction. As we tell the story of the American history from Missouri Compromise to Compromise of 1850 to Kansas-Nebraska Act to Bleeding Kansas to Dred Scott to Harpers Ferry, the political, cultural, and social situation grows increasingly dire. Could it have ended some other way?

That sense of a fated conclusion gets even stronger when we consider the weirdly prescient things that people wrote and said during the decades before the war. In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote with great anxiety about the Missouri Compromise to politician John Holmes: “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper….We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” In 1846, as the United States was poised for war with Mexico, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”

Averill: In 1858, William Seward, the influential politician from New York and future Secretary of State to Abraham Lincoln, gave a speech in Rochester, NY that referred to an impending “irrepressible conflict:” “It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave holding nation, or entirely a free labor nation. Either the cotton and rice fields of South Carolina and the sugar plantations of Louisiana will ultimately be tilled by free labor, and Charleston and New Orleans become marts for legitimate merchandise alone, or else the rye-fields and wheat-fields of Massachusetts and New York must again be surrendered by their farmers to slave cultura and the production of slaves, and Boston and New York become once more markets for trade in the bodies and souls of men.” Failing to understand this unavoidable truth, Seward argued, was what made compromising pointless. The same year, Abraham Lincoln gave what has come to be called The House Divided speech, in which he declared quoting the Gospels that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” “Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” And of course, just a year later, John Brown slipped his final words to his jailer on his way to the gallows in a note. It read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had as now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

Sarah: These statements – and there are more, if we really wanted to get into it – do yet more to create that naturally progressing narrative. Thomas Jefferson predicted it as far back as 1820, you might say, thinking of Jefferson’s fear of the “fire bell in the night” that was the Missouri Compromise. Surely what he meant was that the Missouri Compromise was a harbinger of doom, and that doom was obviously the Civil War. You can’t deny the prescience in Lincoln’s words about a crisis being reached and passed. And my goodness, John Brown’s final words. It almost gives you a chill.

Sarah: But we also need to remember that those things give us a chill because we know the Civil War happened. But until 1861, no one knew there would be a civil war. They might have worried there would be one, based on the increasing sectionalism, growing violence, and irreconcilable differences between North and South (see, even those phrases make the war sound inevitable!). But they didn’t know. So when we feel that shiver when we read Brown’s last statement, it’s because we know how the story ended, and it’s spooky that his prediction about blood came true. What we aren’t considering in those moments are the many other sources that didn’t suggest a bloodletting or a war or a crisis or a conflict. Those words stand out to us precisely because they fit the narrative so well, so historians for generations have plucked them out in order to give us that shiver. That’s not to say they’re not powerful – they are! But they don’t mean that the war was inevitable.

Averill: Now, historians aren’t debating whether the Civil War was an irrepressible conflict or the result of a bumbling generation. But the conversation remains: what was the final moment, the decisive event, that made it war? What was the force that made these issues so intractable – not just the abhorrent existence of slavery, that’s a given – but the social forces, cultural practices, and political beliefs that made slavery an unsolveable problem? How did international events play a role – for instance, how did the historical memory of the Haitian Revolution shape what white and Black abolitionists think was possible? How did the abolition of slavery in the British Empire change the way Americans thought about their own system of enslavement? How did the global cotton economy influence what seceeding Southerners believed they could achieve with disunion? If there was a “road to Disunion,” where did it began? How did Americans come to even think that disunion was a real possibility?[5]

Sarah: We could keep asking these questions forever. I based those questions on a great article by Michael Woods in the Journal of American History, in which he has footnotes so packed with titles that one of them takes up almost an entire page. But I can already hear my colleagues here asking who cares?! Why nitpick the causes of this war endlessly? And in fact, most Civil War historians would agree – studies of the war’s causes are way less common now than they were during the 20th century. But, as historian Jason Phillips articulated, “this dormancy of Civil War causation research would be merely academic if the United States were not barreling toward disunion again.” We’re living in a moment with a new kind of sectionalism, where Americans are so profoundly divided that we can’t agree whether or not it’s a good thing to wear masks scientifically proven to stop the spread of deadly diseases, and that division has deadly consequences. Mass shootings – most of the motivated by right wing ideology and all made possible by the political refusal to address the problem of gun ownership – are happening nearly every week. Black Americans are murdered with impunity, whether by police officers or by white vigilantes feeling irritated on the subway or grumpy white men obsessed with home protection. Women’s and trans people’s civil rights are under attack. No small number of Americans refuse to accept the outcomes of free and fair elections – including a presidential candidate. Let’s end with the words of historian David Blight, as he tried to answer whether we’re also on the road to civil war. “Are today’s myriad crises somehow equivalent to the great question of slavery in late-antebellum America?” Can our current rabble of loud difference still be governed? … In a two party-system, the capture of one party by extremists is enough to cause great political havoc and violence – a lesson we should have learned from the destruction of our Union in 1861. Authoritarianism is an American historical tradition, newly energized and threatening our republican existence. In coming elections, we shall see whether our 21st century democracy will live or die honestly, whether, we too are heading for collapse or renewal in politics, law, or civil conflict. How we answer such challenges will determine whether it is 1857 again in America.”


Astor, Aaron, Judith Giesberg, Kellie Carter Jackson, Martha S. Jones, Brian Matthew Jordan, James Oakes, Jason Phillips, Angela M. Riotto, Anne Sarah Rubin, Manisha Sinha. “Forum on Eric Foner’s “The Causes of the American Civil War: Recent Interpretations and New Directions.” Civil War History 69 (2023): 60-86.

Blight, David. Was the Civil War Inevitable? The New York Times Magazine. December 21, 2022.

Adams, The Epic of America (New York: Little & Brown, 1931), 170

Foner, Eric. “The Causes of the American Civil War: Recent Interpretations and New Directions (1974 Reprint).” Civil War History 69 (2023): 41-59.

Kousser, J. Morgan. “The Irrepressible Conflict Theory,” Reviews in American History 21 (1993): 207-212.

Levine, Bruce. Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992, 2005. 

Randall, James G. “The Blundering Generation,” The Mississippi Historical Review 27 (1940): 3-28.

Randall, James G. Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1937.

Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918),

Woods, Michael E. “What Twenty-First Century Historians Have Said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of Recent Literature,” The Journal of American History (2012): 415-439


[1] Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918), 42.

[2] Wilson, A History of the American People, 113.

[3] Adams, The Epic of America (New York: Little & Brown, 1931), 170.

[4] Randall, Civil War and Reconstruction (Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1937), vii.

[5] Michael E. Woods, “What Twenty-First Century Historians Have Said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of Recent Literature,” The Journal of American History (2012): 415-439.


Patti Arrison · May 24, 2023 at 8:25 pm

Great episode! Not only did I learn a lot, but I also found the information especially timely because I am processing a donation of Civil War era family letters given to the local historical society. John R. Tyrell left his home in Springfield, Vt. to try his luck in Ohio, Indiana, and finally Kansas. Writing to his parents on March 10, 1861 (a few days after Lincoln’s March 3 inauguration) from Fort Wayne, Ind., he said:
“I suppose according to the best authority that Uncle Abe is President now and I dont see as times are much harder than they were before although a good many especially Democrats predicted that as soon as he was inaugurated if he ever was that all the men would have to go south to fight and the women and children would starve to death … It is reported that the Southern Confederacy have sent an embassador [sic] to Washington who was to ask for recognition as such imediatly [sic] after the inaugeration [sic] and it is hinted by the Democrats that if he is not recognized there will be an attack upon forts Sumter and Pickens[?]”. I remembered this letter when you spoke about the apparently prescient remarks made by Jefferson, Seward, and Brown. Could you please explain how Tyrell was able to pinpoint Fort Sumter as a likely target?
John Tyrell joined the Indiana militia but did not see any action. His younger brother Albert enlisted in the N.H. 14th Volunteer Infantry, saw three year’s of hard fighting, and died at home in 1866. His letters do indeed give me chills!

    Sarah · May 31, 2023 at 10:05 am

    Patti, thank you so much for listening and sharing this story with us! That letter would give me chills too!! Fort Sumter was understood to be a likely target because of its location – in the Charleston harbor in the first seceding state of South Carolina – but it’s so eerie when those predictions later are proven true!

Patti Arrison · May 26, 2023 at 10:56 am

Great episode and especially timely because I am in the midst of processing a collection of family letters for a local historical society. John Tyrell, who left home in Springfield, Vt., to try his luck in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and finally Kansas, wrote home from Fort Wayne on March 3, 1861:
I suppose according to the best authority that Uncle Abe is President now and I dont see as times are much harder than they were before although a good many especially Democrats predicted that as soon as he was inaugerated if he ever was that all the men would have to go south to fight and the women and children would starve to death … It is reported that the Southern Confederacy have sent an embassador [sic] to Washington who was to ask for recognition as such imediatly [sic] after the inaugeration and it is hinted by the Democrats that if he is not recognized there will be an attack upon forts Sumpter [sic] and Pickens[?]”.
Here’s my question: how was John able to pinpoint Fort Sumter as a likely target?
Thank you!

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