Who Were Some of the Individuals That Contributed
to the Coming of the Civil War
The Civil War was brought about by many important
people, some that wanted to preserve and some that wanted
to eradicate the primary cause of the war, slavery. There
were the political giants, such as Abraham Lincoln, and
Stephen Douglas. There were seditious abolitionists such
as John Brown, escaped slaves such as Dred Scott, and
abolitionist writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe. These
were the people who, ultimately, brought a beginning to the
end of what Lincoln called “a moral, a social, and a
political wrong”(Oates 66).
Southern states, including the 11 states that formed
the Confederacy, depended on slavery to support their
economy. Southerners used slave labor to produce crops,
especially cotton. Although slavery was illegal in the
Northern states, only a small proportion of Northerners
actively opposed it. The main debate between the North and
the South on the eve of the war was whether slavery should
be permitted in the Western territories recently acquired
during the Mexican war, which included New Mexico, part of
California, and Utah. “Opponents of slavery were concerned
about its expansion, in part because they did not want to
compete against slave labor”(Oates 15).
In 1851, a literary event startled the country.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, an American writer and abolitionist,
wrote an antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that was
published serially in a newspaper and in book form in 1852.
“It was a forceful indictment of slavery and one of the
most powerful novels of its kind in American literature.
The success of the book was unprecedented, selling 500,000
copies in the United States alone within five years, and it
was translated into more than 20 foreign languages”(Oates
29). It was widely read in the States and abroad, and
moved many to join the cause of abolition. The South
indignantly denied this indictment of slavery. “Stowe’s
book increased partisan feeling over slavery and
intensified sectional differences. It did much to solidify
militant antislavery attitude in the North, and therefore
was an important factor in the start of the American Civil
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act,
which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and
stated that each territory could be admitted as a state
“with of without slavery, as their constitution may
prescribe at the time of their admission”(Oates 42). This
repealed the old dividing line between free and slave
states as set by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. With the
passage of this act, a new Lincoln emerged into the world
of politics. Although he was as ambitious for political
office as ever, he was now, for the first time in his
career, devoted to a cause. He became a forceful spokesman
for the antislavery forces.
In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States added
to the mounting tension by its decision in the Dred Scott
Case. Dred Scott was a slave owned by an army surgeon in
Missouri. “In 1836, Scott had been taken by his owner to
Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota, then a territory
in which slavery was explicitly forbidden according to the
Missouri Compromise”(Oates 50). In 1846, he brought a suit
in the state court on the grounds that residence in a free
territory liberated him from slavery. The Supreme Court of
Missouri, however, ruled that since he was brought back
into a state where slavery was legal, the status of slavery
was reattached to him and he had no standing before the
court. The Scott case was then brought before the federal
court which still held against Scott. The case was finally
appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was argued at
length in 1856 and decided in 1857. “The decision handed
down by a majority vote of the Court was that there was no
power in the existing form of government to make citizens
slave or free, and that at the time of the formation of the
United States Constitution they were not, and could not be,
citizens in any of the states”(Oates 51). Because of this,
Scott was still a slave and not a citizen of Missouri, and
therefore had no right to sue in the federal courts. Their
decision meant that slaves could be taken anywhere within
the United States, that the Missouri Compromise was in
violation of the Constitution, and that slavery could not
be prohibited by Congress in the territories of the United
States. The case, and particularly the court’s decision,
aroused intense bitterness among the abolitionists, widened
the gap between the North and the South, and was among the
many causes of the Civil War.
In 1858, Stephen Douglas, writer of the
Kansas-Nebraska Act, was running for re-election to the
Senate against Abraham Lincoln, then the leader of the
Republican Party in Illinois. “The campaign opened in
Chicago, and Lincoln and Douglas argued over, among other
things, the question of the expansion of slavery”(Oates
64). Douglas stood on his doctrine of popular sovereignty,
holding that the people of the territories could elect to
have slavery. They could also elect not to have it. He
attacked Lincoln for his “house divided” speech, accusing
him of trying to divide the nation. Lincoln replied by
calling for national unity. “Recalling the Declaration of
Independence, he said, ‘Let us discard all this quibbling
about this man and the other man — this race and that race
and the other race, being inferior, and therefore they must
be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all
these things, and unite as one people throughout the land,
until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men
are created equal’”(Oates 66). Lincoln argued that slavery
was “a moral, a social, and a political wrong,”(Oates 66)
and that it was the duty of the federal government to
prohibit its extension into the territories.
In July, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of
face-to-face debates and Douglas accepted. It was arranged
that seven debates would be held in seven different cities
between August and October. In the debates, both
candidates respected each other and kept to the issues.
The basis of discussion was the morality of slavery.
“Although the Republicans carried the state ticket and
outvoted the Democrats, the Illinois legislature re-elected
Douglas to the Senate”(Oates 73). The campaign, widely
reported in the newspapers, had an importance far beyond
the fate of the candidates. It demonstrated to the South
that the Republican Party was steadily growing in strength
and that it would oppose the extension of slavery by every
possible means. The campaign also showed Douglas to be an
unreliable ally to the South. He had said repeatedly in
the debates that he did not care whether slavery was voted
up or down. In addition, Lincoln, previously known only
locally, gained a national reputation even in defeat.
One year later, John Brown made his famous raid on
Harpers Ferry, Virginia. John Brown was already an outlaw
from a previous incident in which him and his five sons
became active participants in the fight against proslavery
terrorists from Missouri, whose activities led to the
murder of a number of abolitionists at Lawrence, Kansas.
Brown and his sons avenged this crime, in May of 1856 at
Pottawatomie Creek, by killing five proslavery followers.
This act, along with his success in withstanding a large
group of attacking Missourians at Osawatomie in August,
made him nationally famous as an hostile foe of slavery.
“Now, aided by increased financial support from
abolitionists in the northeastern states, Brown began in
1857 to formulate a plan to free the slaves by armed
force”(Oates 87). “He secretly recruited a small band of
supporters for this project, which included a refuge for
fugitive slaves in the mountains of Virginia”(Bradford 54).
“After several setbacks, he finally launched the venture on
October 16, 1859, and with a force of 18 men, including his
sons, he seized the United States arsenal and armory at
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and won control of the town.
‘After his initial success, he made no attempt at offensive
action, but instead occupied defensive positions within the
area’”(Oates 88). His force was surrounded by the local
militia, which was reinforced on October 17 by a company of
U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee.
Ten of Brown’s men, including two of his sons, were killed
in the consequent battle, and he was wounded and forced to
surrender. He was arrested and charged with various
crimes, including treason and murder. “He distinguished
himself during his trial, which took place before a
Virginia court, by his powerful defense of his efforts in
behalf of the slaves”(Oates 90). Convicted, he was hanged
in Charleston, Virginia in December of 1859. For many
years after his death, brown was generally regarded by
abolitionists as a martyr to the cause of human freedom.
By 1860, the North and the South had developed into
two very different regions. “Divergent social, economic,
and political points of view gradually drove the two
sections farther and father apart”(Oates 99). Each tried
to impose its point of view on the country as a whole.
Although compromises had kept the Union together for many
years, in 1860 the situation was explosive. The election
of Abraham Lincoln as president was viewed by the South as
a threat to slavery and ignited the war. During the
campaign many Southerners had threatened that their states
would secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected because
they feared that a Lincoln administration would abolish
slavery. Few people in the North believed them. A month
before the election, however, Governor William Henry Gist
of South Carolina wrote to the governors of all the
Southern states, except Texas, that South Carolina would
secede in the event of Lincoln’s election and asked what
course the other states would follow.
“As soon as it was certain that Lincoln had won, the
South Carolina legislature summoned a special
convention”(Oates 101). “It met in December of 1860, in
Charleston, and three days later the convention unanimously
passed an ordinance dissolving ‘the union now subsisting
between South Carolina and other States’”(Bradford 81).
Similar conventions were held by other Southern states, and
similar ordinances were adopted. The first states to
follow South Carolina’s actions were: Mississippi, Florida,
Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In April of 1861,
Lincoln called for states to send militias for national
service to suppress the rebellion. The upper South refused
to send their militias to restrain the seceded states.
Instead they joined the lower South with the secession of
Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. This
secession by the South lead to the opening to the American
The war over slavery was brought about by many
important people, who used many different ways to express
their points of view. Some exhibited their dissatisfaction
with slavery by debating, some by using violence, some by
suing in court, and some by writing a story. These were
all effective strikes against the South, and primary causes
of the war. In conclusion, these people ultimately brought
a beginning to the end of what Lincoln called, “a moral, a
social, and a political wrong”(Oates 66).
Bradford, Ned. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
Appleton-Century Inc., New York. 1956.
Oates, Stephen B. The Whirlwind of War. Harper Collins
Publishers, New York. 1998.
Woodworth, Steven E. Davis and Lee at War. University
Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. 1995.
“Jefferson Davis to Congress of the Confederate States”.