The Causes of the Civil War

James M. McPherson, Princeton University
February 12, 2005

Few other questions in American history have generated more controversy than “What Caused the Civil War?” That conflict preserved the United States as one nation, indivisible and abolished the institution of slavery that for more than four score years had made a mockery of American claims to stand as a republic of liberty, a beacon of freedom for oppressed peoples in the Old Word. But these achievements came at the great cost of more than 629,000 lives and vast destruction of property that left large parts of the South a wasteland. Could this terrible war have been avoided? Who was responsible for the events that led to war? Could the positive results of the war (Union and Freedom) have been achieved without war? How have participants in the war and historians answered these questions over the five generations since the war ended?

James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University and 2003 president of the American Historical Association. Widely acclaimed as the leading historian of the Civil War, he is the author of Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (a New York Times bestseller), For Cause and Comrades (winner of the Lincoln Prize), and many other books on Lincoln and the Civil War era.

McPherson, a pre-eminent Civil War scholar, is widely known for his ability to take American history out of the confines of the academy and make it accessible to the general reading public. His best-selling book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1989. He also has written and edited many other books about abolition, the war and Lincoln, and he has written essays and reviews for several national publications.

McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Gustavus Adolphus College and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.

Session One

Focus: The question of what caused the Civil War is really two questions. The first is “Why did the South secede?” The second is “Why did secession lead to war?” This seminar will analyze the roots of secession. At the beginning of the American Revolution all thirteen of the states that formed the United States had slavery. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, however, states north of the Mason-Dixon line and Ohio River had abolished the institution while slavery flourished more than ever south of those lines. A definite “North” and “South” with increasingly disparate socioeconomic institutions and distinctive ideologies had begun to develop. Yet for a half century these contrasting sections coexisted politically in the same nation. Why and how did that national structure fall apart in the 1850s? Was this breakdown inevitable, or could wiser political leadership have prevented it? Why did the election of Abraham Lincoln as president precipitate the secession of seven lower-South states?

Readings:

  • James M. McPherson, “What Caused the Civil War?” North and South, IV (Nov. 2000), 12-22, and responses to this article in subsequent issues of North and South
  • Michael Perman, ed., The Coming of the American Civil War, 23-53, 90-113, 169-88, (excerpts from writing by Beard, Owsley, Craven, Randall, Holt, and Foner)
  • James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 78-116, (or any other chapter of your choice among chaps. 2, 4, 5, or 6)
  • “Premonitory Explanations of the Sectional Crisis,” from The Causes of the American Civil War, 1-27 (excerpts from Calhoun, Seward, Douglas, and Lincoln)

Session Two

Focus: Nearly four months elapsed from the secession of South Carolina to the firing on Fort Sumter that started the war. During this period there were many efforts to fashion a compromise to forestall the secession of Southern states, or to bring them back into the Union, or in the last resort to avoid an incident that would spark a shooting war. All failed, and the war came. Why? Why didn’t the Lincoln refuse to surrender the fort? Why did Jefferson Davis decide to fire on the fort? Why did both sides prefer war to compromise?

Readings:

  • McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 202-275
  • Charles B. Dew, “Apostles of Secession,” North and South, IV (April 2001), 24-38
  • Hans L. Trefousse, ed., The Causes of the Civil War, 91-125 (excerpts from Ramsdell, Potter, and Current)
  • Perman, ed., Coming of the American Civil War, 300-314 (excerpt from Paludan)
  • “Official Explanations of the Causes of the Civil War,” from the Causes of the Civil War, 28-47 (Messages of Davis and Lincoln)

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