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Was The American Civil War Inevitable And/Or Unavoidable?

Some events in history rarely offer simple explanation. The American Civil War is not an exception. Every American may agree that the fall of Fort Sumter fired up the war, however, reasons on why it occurred is up for a debate. Why did the North and the South go to war? Was the Civil War inevitable or could it have been avoided? The debate on the cause of the Civil War or the possibility that it could even be prevented has had been an issue among historians and Americans alike. Some argue that the Northern aggression is to blame; others impugn the Southern secession.

Then again, the question of slavery has always been up front when it comes to discussing the cause of the war. In fact, during Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address four year after the war, the president expressed that slavery was” somehow the cause of the war . Although Lincoln was quick to acknowledge the effect of slavery on the impending war, the addition of the term “somehow” placed his belief that it was only of the few contributors and not the main root that divided the nation.

However, the emphasis has been made and throughout the years and perhaps even during the actual war, slavery has been tagged as the principal cause of the American Civil War. As it turned out, the growing tension of slavery and its effect and the resulting secession was brought up a few years before war broke out. In 1858, Senator William Seward of New York delivered a speech tackling what he called the “irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces” . Several personalities concurred with this train of thought.

As the war waged on, Henry Wilson, a radical Republican, said in a speech that slavery had been oppressing the growth of the country for thirty years, placing the country into a battle of acquiring slaves, mocking the Declaration of Independence and basically opposing how democratic institutions in America should work . He concluded that the war was the enemy destroying the country . The “irrepressible conflict” argument between the North and the South over slavery received a nod for most historians in the succeeding decades after the war.

Some theorized that this varying view had indeed become irrepressible. Eugene Genovese noted in 1967 that the instant slavery rose in the Southern social order, the skirmish between the North and South was inevitable . Furthermore, Genovese emphasized that slavery was a labor system that the North did not favor . Working on his idea, this suggested that slavery had become a way of life and that ideological clashes would inevitable result. Slavery as a root cause of the Civil War dominated most of the historical interpretation.

Like Lincoln, Seward, Wilson and Genovese, James Ford Rhodes identified slavery as the single cause of the war, maintaining that if the Negro had not been brought to the country, there would be Civil War . Working on this declaration, it may be recalled that the first slaves, Africans, were brought by the Dutch in 1619 . Since then, some laws were enacted allowing and even requiring slavery for Africans who began to be known as Negroes, coined from the Portuguese-Spanish word for black .

It is interesting to note the existence of slaves in an English colony especially since English people thought of themselves as “the freest people in Europe . It was a contradiction to what they perceived to be. Distinction was suddenly being made. As the years drew on and the spirit of manifest destiny enveloped the country, questions on territory and whether these territories would be allow slavery became tangible. The question was like a cancer with no definite solution that would appease both sides- the pro-slavery South and the anti slavery North.

While historians agreed that slavery factored prominently in the Civil War, the irrepressible conflict that Seward termed could very well be rooted to the sectional conflict between the North and the South. The fundamental differences were responsible for triggering the war. This idea was contemplated by Charles and Mary Beard in 1933. They noted that the Civil War was in fact a social war and was played up by the vulnerability of the political system that shifted from Jackson to Lincoln .

As a social war, the elements involved were not of slavery but of the diverging economies. Howard Zinn went along on this element further; stating that the North and the South were battling policy differences and slavery was not even the issue . The North, he said did not give a damn about slavery, they simply longed to have a “free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States .

The South, even though booming from a cotton industry, remained a rural society but they deemed the entry of Lincoln and the Republicans as destroying their flourishing existence . The Republicans stressed that Slave Power would eventually wipe out the North while the Southerners believed that the Republicans would simply damage “southern equality . Slavery, it seemed helped aggravate the irrepressible conflict but the root of the war was sectional differences challenged by the political and economical systems. Prior to the war, the American political system was already struggling.

For instance, the election process provided the winning candidate to amass the whole electoral vote of a state, despite the margin of victory, which resulted in a possibility of a northern sectional party since the Republicans would never be able to carry an election based on popular vote . Then, starting 1844, the Democratic Party required a two-thirds vote in nominating a presidential candidate which gave the South a refusal of the party’s candidate although on its own, the South was not able to elect a president .

The flaw of the country’s political system was like a time bomb that slowly disorganized the system. The role of the political parties in strengthening the section was clearly deficient. Had the system and its leaders were able to produce compromise, the country would probably not go to war. Then again, no one knows for sure. At that time, no compromise was good enough for either party. Refusing to meet in the middle was a sign that the root of the problem was deeper, aggravated. Both were fighting for their own values.

If slavery had not existed, there is no direct likelihood that there would be no war. Perhaps, trouble would still brew between the working class and the American elite. The inevitable tension between two clashing cultures trapped into a false union may have passed the boiling point and erupted into the war. Also, the spirit of manifest destiny and democracy may very well be the culprit. However, the idea that the war could have been avoidable was possible, but with plenty of stipulation, which in the end, may not truly helped avoid the war.

It seems that irrepressible conflicts were indeed the reason that the American Civil War took place. The Civil War was a result of growing tensions- political, economical, and social and perhaps of other nature. The differences between the North and the South in many aspects were instrumental in planting the seeds of hostilities. As Abraham Lincoln succinctly put it, the North and the South did not want to go to war but one would rather “make war than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war than let it perish, and the war came” .


Beard, Charles and Mary. The Rise of American Civilization. New York, Macmillan Company, 1933. Genevose,Eugene. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South . New York: Vintage Books, 1967. Gienapp William Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark Lytleand Michael Stoff. Nation of Nations Volume 1 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Jordan, Winthrop and Leon Litwack. The United States Combined Edition . New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. , 1991 Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address,” 4 March 1865, in The Avalon Project.

Homepage on line. Available from http://avalon. law. yale. edu/19th_century/lincoln2. asp; Internet; accessed 3 February 2009. Rhodes, James Ford. Lectures on the American Civil War. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913. Seward, William Henry. “On the Irrepressible Conflict,” 25 October 1858, in New York History Net. Home page on-line. Available from http://www. nyhistory. com/central/conflict. htm;Internet, accessed 3 February 2009. Zinn, Howard . A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper and Rows, 1980.

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