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Coming of the Civil War, An Overview

Thomas Jefferson president, fifths rule, slave South, sectional differences, market revolution

As early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, American leaders had known that they could not settle the differences between the states committed to slavery and those that were not. The three–fifths rule, the constitutional promise not to halt the international slave trade until 1808, and the banning of slavery in the Northwest Territory were all attempts to avoid confronting differences between the North and South.

Some Northerners thought Southerners would recognize the inefficiency of slavery and end it voluntarily—a hope that was dashed by the cotton boom and the South’s recommitment to slavery. Many Southerners thought that an agrarian coalition uniting the South and West could keep Northeastern commercial interests from running the country. They realized that hope when a South–West coalition elected Thomas Jefferson president in 1800.

But by the 1830s the market revolution had tied Northeastern factories and Northwestern farms into a roughly unified, commercialized North. Most Northerners were committed to free–market capitalism, individual opportunity, and free labor, and many contrasted what they believed to be the civilizing effects of hard work and commerce with the supposed laziness and barbarism of the slave South. For their part, white Southerners began to see themselves as a beleaguered minority.

Following the 1819 crisis over statehood for Missouri, a national two–party system developed, and both parties worked to prevent sectional differences from becoming the focus of politics. They were successful until the Mexican War gave the United States huge new territories. Territorial questions had to be handled by Congress, and the question of whether slavery would be allowed into lands ceded by Mexico immediately became the all–consuming issue in national politics. By the mid–1850s the old party system was in ruins. An antislavery Republican Party became dominant in the North and elected Abraham Lincoln president in 1860. With an antislavery party in control of the White House, slave states seceded beginning in December 1860. The Union refused to let them go, and the Civil War began.

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