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During and for years after the war, Northerners blamed Southerners and Southerners blamed Northerners for starting the war. With hindsight today, it is easy to dish out blame and easiest to point the finger at the South. After all it was the Southern states that seceded from the union, and it was obvious to many Southerners at the time, and to most Northerners that the result of such secession would be war. It was the Confederates that fired the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter in April 1861, and in doing so they provoked a conflict that would leave one in four white adult male southerners dead, the South’s economy devastated and slavery, the “peculiar institution” they fought to defend, abolished.
However because slavery is seen today to be such a morally and ethically wrong and evil thing, people’s views can be blurred, leading them to side automatically with the North. There were of course many events that furthered America’s sectionalism and eventually led to the civil war, most of which blame can be divided equally. It is therefore necessary to be objective and take each into account, concluding perhaps that the South was not entirely to blame for the civil war, just as Germany was not entirely to blame for the first world war.
The Missouri dispute was the first of events that caused division between North and South. In 1819 the territory of Missouri applied to become a state in the union, it was settled mainly by Southerners and ten percent of its population were black slaves. Its constitution therefore would make Missouri a slave state. This would cause imbalance in the Senate whereby the South would have a majority, so congressman Tallmadge from New York proposed that Missouri should only be allowed to join the union if it would abolish slavery.
This issue was debated across the country; the South saw Tallmadge’s proposal as an attack on their political power. In the House of Representatives the North already had a large majority and if any new states were to be free, any of the South’s wishes could be ignored in both houses.
In 1820 a compromise was made whereby Missouri was made a slave state, and Maine was made a free state, thus keeping the balance in the Senate. Also there were to be no slaves above the line of 36 30′ latitude. This dispute to an extent can be blamed on the North, as it was Tallmadge’s statement that sparked off tension and Southern determination to defend slavery. The North could have been satisfied with their majority in the House of Representatives and just allowed Missouri to be a slave state, knowing that soon other states would arise possibly wanting to be free.
The 1828 Nullification Crisis was a cause of further sectionalism that was not directly about slavery; it was instead focused on state rights versus federal rights. Congress proposed to raise import duties making foreign goods more expensive. This would protect industry in the North as consumers would buy American made goods, but it would hurt the South as they relied heavily on cotton trade with Great Britain.
The South saw this as another attack from the North, so Senator Calhoun from South Carolina declared that if a state felt the Federal Government was abusing it’s power, that state could nullify or ignore any measure or act it disagreed with. He also said that any state had the right to secede. In 1832 South Carolina ignored the new import duties and President Jackson threatened to send in troops. Eventually they backed down and excepted a lower set of duties. This escapade and Calhoun’s statement about secession threatened the very existence of the union. Blame for this can fall on both the North for selfishly looking after their interests without regard for the South, and on the South for supporting Calhoun’s idea of secession which threatened to tear apart the country at such an early stage.
Next came the dispute over California and New Mexico. In 1846 USA won a war against Mexico and gained the lands of California and New Mexico. Congressman Wilmot from Pennsylvania proposed that slavery should be banned in all land taken from Mexico. The South opposed Wilmot’s proviso, as according to the Missouri compromise, California should be part free and part slave.
However the climate of California and New Mexico was unsuitable for cotton growth and it was unlikely that slavery would expand that far west anyway, so there was no need for Wilmot to say what he did. By opening his mouth, Wilmot opened an old wound, making the South firmer in their defense of slavery. Calhoun reiterated his views on secession in his doctrine and tension grew with the Californian gold rush. Thousands rushed to California and its settlers formed a constitution that banned slavery. Before it could be a state Congress had to approve the constitution. The Southern states opposed it and the break up of the union was on the horizon once again.
As usual a compromise was reached. In 1850 California became a free state but a new harsh Fugitive Slave law was introduced, meaning if a slave escaped to a free state, men could hunt the slave down across the borders and bring him back. The bitterness and tension here can be blamed on both the North and South. The North because Wilmot and his supporters were willing to blatantly go against the 1820 compromise, and the South as they would not simply accept the wishes of the Californian people.
The dispute over Kansas and Nebraska is perhaps the best example where both Northerners and Southerners were to blame for what happened. In 1854 Senator Douglas from Illinois proposed a bill to form two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska, in order to buy land to build a transcontinental railroad. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska act but it was left for the inhabitants of the territories to decide for or against slavery. Nebraska was unsuitable for slavery but Kansas wasn’t. So, despite the fact that Kansas was above 36 30′ latitude, slave owners from Missouri moved in, in an attempt to make Kansas a slave state. Similarly so did abolitionists from the North. Both groups set up governments and sought approval from Congress. Violence followed in a war lasting several years which was nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas” Eventually abolitionist settlers outnumbered the slavers and in 1861 Kansas became a free state. In this case both sections were as bad as each other with their childish quarrels and fights.
So who really was to blame for the Civil war? From the above-mentioned factors, which are only a few of many, you could conclude that both Northerners and Southerners were equally responsible. However the most important factor as mentioned in the beginning is the fact that the Southern States seceded. They did not have to, but they did.
In 1861 there was no immediate threat to slavery, Lincoln said when he was elected that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it was already established. He thought it would take a hundred years or more before slavery would fade away, and considering the Republicans did not have a majority in Congress in 1860, there was little Lincoln could do to threaten slavery.
Despite this, Southern politicians, representing the wishes of their constituents, acted irrationally and established an independent Southern nation, believing they were protecting themselves from the wrath of the North. Most Southerners knew that in doing so they would start a war and some realized at the time the full extent of their mistake. They knew they would start a war and they realized they would lose. The North was far more industrialized and stronger in numbers of men and it was very likely that they would win. Jonathan Worth from North Carolina said in spring 1861 “I think the South is committing suicide, but my lot is cast with the South and being unable to manage the ship, I intend to face the breakers manfully and go down with my companions”
If all Southerners had realized their foolishness a lot of bloodshed could have been avoided. However a mass delusion seemed to effect the South, they believed they had to fight to survive. Southerners picked the fight; they fired first and were made to lie in the grave they dug for themselves.