The American Civil War: Causes & Impacts

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  • 0:04 Causes of the Civil War
  • 3:04 Major Individuals and Events
  • 5:39 Civil War Impacts
  • 6:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Powell
There were many political, economic, and social factors that led to the Civil War. In this lesson, we'll explore the causes of this war and its impact on the country.

Causes of the Civil War

Political Factors

Since the founding of the U.S., the North and the South have held different political views. In the 1850s and 1860s, various disagreements became political factors that led to the Civil War, the war that lasted from 1861 to 1865 between the Northern and Southern territories of the United States. Three factors included:

  • Federal power versus state power
  • Representation in Congress, and
  • Slavery expansion in the territories

The South valued the doctrine of states' rights, mainly because it allowed them to continue utilizing slavery as part of their economic structure. The Constitution tried to create a balance between a strong federal government and the sovereignty of individual states. However, as the U.S. expanded, Southern states complained the doctrine of states' rights was eroding due to the North imposing anti-slavery measures.

As the North gradually moved away from slavery, social divisions between the North and the South grew, and the South began to lose political power. In 1790, power was relatively balanced between the North and South; however, by 1820 the South held only 42% of the votes in the House of Representatives.

As the U.S. expanded, the South wanted more slave states, whereas the North wanted free states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 attempted to settle this rift by accepting Missouri into the Union as a slave state, on condition that Maine gain statehood as a free territory.

Economic Factors

The North and South were not just different politically, their economies were completely different. Two economic factors that led to the Civil War include:

  • Industrial vs. agriculture, and
  • Tariffs

The North had an industrial economy and the South had an agricultural economy that benefited from slave labor. By the early 19th century, the North became the financial center of the country and the abolitionist movement gained popularity. Meanwhile, the South was concerned that the North would try and end slavery, which in turn would hurt the Southern economy.

The South did not manufacture goods, so they had to import or ship them down from the North. Because shipping from the North was quite expensive, the South usually imported their goods and in turn, paid a lot of federal tariffs, which are basically taxes on imports or exports. The tariffs were the main source of the federal government's revenue, yet the money was usually spent in the North. The South felt exploited, and for good reason.

Social Factors

Finally, the two cultural factors that helped lead to the Civil War were:

  • Urban vs. rural identity and values
  • Abolitionism

As the industrial economy in the North thrived, cities rose and population centers in the North created an urban society while the South remained agrarian. While the South did have cities, it had the majority of large farms.

Post-1830 abolitionists called for more confrontational tactics to end slavery in the U.S. They often criticized slaveholders as evil and pointed out examples of international emancipation. They eventually formed political parties and anti-abolitionists responded, often with violence.

Major Individuals and Events

As the events leading up to the Civil War escalated, major individuals stood out, such as Abraham Lincoln. Political and violent events eventually led to war. The following three figures are arguably the three most important individuals involved in the non-military context of the Civil War:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Jefferson Davis
  • Frederick Douglass

Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States in 1860 and shortly after, South Carolina was the first Southern state to secede on December 20, 1860. President Lincoln declared South Carolina's secession illegal and told the country they were going to war to protect the federal union in 1861. Throughout the four years of the Civil War, Lincoln helped lead the North to victory and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, which ostensibly freed all slaves.

When the Confederacy was formed in February 1861, Jefferson Davis became the President of the Confederate States of America. He did not hold as much power as Lincoln did in the North and failed to create economic policies for the South. He fled to Europe after the South surrendered on May 9, 1865.

Finally, Frederick Douglass was a prominent author and abolitionist leader. He was born into slavery and eventually fled to New York. He became famous and discussed the treatment of black soldiers with President Lincoln. He eventually became the first African American to work and hold a high rank within the government.


Now, turning to the major events involving the causes of the American Civil War, the following are the three biggest, or most impactful:

  • The Fugitive Slave Act
  • The Caning of Sumner, and
  • The election of 1860

The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the Compromise of 1850 that said runaway slaves that escaped must be seized and returned to their 'owners.' The Northern states strongly opposed it and tried to warn escaped slaves.

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