The American Civil War – which tore the nation apart from 1861-1865 – has innumerable causes. This essay, written by one of the experienced Ultius writers, reflects on the great battles of the war, highlighting how intense regionalism perpetuated the ongoing fight.
Causative Factors of the American Civil War
To say that the entirety of the Civil War hinged on a single factor would represent revisionism. In fact, the war is better portrayed as a series of events with unique causative factors, either contributing to the fissure that resulted in the war, or influenced the war itself. While current belief subjugates the causes of the war to factors other than slavery and race relations, it cannot be dismissed that the issue still played a critical role. Two factors that strongly contributed to the outbreak of war include the division of regional populations (egocentric sectionalism), and the development of a “Southern Revolutionary Nationalist Party” that used regional fears about a strong presidency to further incite hostility and division between the North and South. Drawing on commentary by Frank L. Owsley and Lee Benson, combined with reference to primary sources from Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens, I will argue that a strong sense of regionalism among southerners created favorable political conditions for the rise of an aggressive nationalism.
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The South and the North
In terms of politically relevant features, geographic and cultural division between different regions characterized the antebellum South. These divisions persisted between regions of the South itself, as well as between areas of the South and North. At the time, the nation was composed of
“geographical sections inhabited severally by provincial, self-conscious, self-righteous, aggressive, and ambitious populations of varying origins and diverse social and economic systems”, which resulted in the development of an “egocentric sectionalism” – a “malignant type of sectionalism that destroyed the union” (Owsley 54).
Egocentric sectionalism resulted in the Union’s dominant section (the North) constructing a narrative where the minority (the South) was labeled as “un-American, unworthy of friendly consideration, and even the object of attack” (Owsley 55). This attitude toward southerners can even be found in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln evidenced in his inaugural address:
That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events, and are glad of any pretext to do it, I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak? (Lincoln)
This statement by president Lincoln is an effective use of rhetoric to stir the Northerner’s spirit, but exemplifies the very sort of behavior that Owsley identifies as a causative factor in exacerbating regionalist sentiments. When Lincoln dismissed secessionists outright, he strengthened the Northern sectionalist perspective, but simultaneously fuels a burning resentment among the southerners.
Regional rivalries and southern nationalism
The provocation of regional rivalries caused by a mounting tendency towards egocentric sectionalism created conditions that were ripe for the rise of nationalist movements. Lee Benson argues that Southern Nationalism had been on the rise since the 1790s, and gained in popularity after the nullification crisis ended in 1833 (37). Southern Nationalism gained more strength as mounting abolitionist pressure from the North elevated the anti-slavery debate to a matter of “honor and self-esteem” of white citizens, and reached critical mass when the national government appeared to be assuming more power than ever before (Benson 38-39). The fact that deep divisions over the character of the national government helped inspire the Southern political response to the North is highlighted in Alexander Stephens’s (former Confederacy Vice President) book, where he claims that the conflict between the North and South is largely a contest
“between those who held [governance of the states] to be strictly Federal in its character, and those who maintained it was thoroughly National” (Stephens 63).
The South’s perception that power was being unjustly concentrated at a national level, and thus impeding upon the freedom of Southern states, was a key factor in the rise of Southern Nationalism, as it provided the Southern Nationalists with justification to further exacerbate the sectional divides between North and South. Inferring from the pattern identified by Benson – where Southern Nationalism grows with each slight by Northern politicians – we can infer that Southern Nationalism was a reciprocal response to acts taken by Northerners. As a result, as the gap in understandings of political legitimacy and personhood between the North and the South grew, so did the Southern Nationalist movement – and thus the risk for conflict.
Egocentric sectionalism and the rise of Southern Nationalism, compounded by increasingly poor race relations, were key factors in creating the conditions whereby a civil war could occur – a notion supported by evidence from key political figures at the time, such as Lincoln and Stephens. These two sociopolitical phenomena seem to have fed back into each other, whereby the exposure of regional difference incited the growth of Southern Nationalism, which in turn represented an exacerbation of provincial differences. These developments led to what appeared to be an irresolvable struggle over political power between the North and South, resulting in the American Civil War.
Benson, Lee. “Secession and the Southern Revolutionary Nationalist Party.” The Causes of the Civil War. Ed. Kenneth M. Stampp. 3rd ed. New York: Touchstone, 1991. 35-39. Print.
Lincoln, Abraham, and Rachel Seidman. “Lincoln’s Inaugural Address.” Address. 1861 Presidential Inauguration. Washington, D.C. The Civil War: A History in Documents. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 61-65. Print.
Owsley, Frank L. “Egocentric Sectionalism.” The Causes of the Civil War. Ed. Kenneth M. Stampp. 3rd ed. New York: Touchstone, 1991. 35-39. Print.
Stephens, Alexander H. “A Constitutional View.” The Causes of the Civil War. Ed. Kenneth M. Stampp. 3rd ed. New York: Touchstone, 1991. 35-39. Print.
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