States’ Rights as the Main Cause of the Civil War


The American Civil War of 1861-1865 was one of the greatest periods in the country’s history. Many researchers consider the events that led up to the war and the military action itself as the defining issues of modern history. The topic of the Civil War attracted much attention from historians, politicians, and human rights activists. The war was the main disaster breaking up the previously successful history of the USA.1 At the same time, the military conflict between the South and the North had a determining character in that it helped to finally unite the country. As Foote noted, if before 1861, the USA was viewed as “are,” after the war, it became “is.”2 There were several different dimensions of problems that led to the emergence of disagreements between the South and the North.3 The main reasons for the Civil War are generally considered to be associated with slavery, states’ rights, expansion, and industry versus farming. Although slavery played an important role in leading up to the Civil War, the most disputable issue at the time stated’ rights, which was the core reason why the war was initiated.

The Pre-War Period in the North and South

Economic Life in the South and North

Pre-Civil War Economics in the South

One of the causes of misunderstandings between the South and North was driven by the divergences in the economic principles by which the parts of the country were regulated. Economic life in the Northern and Southern states depended on different industries and resources. In the South, slavery was the most crucial prerequisite of running farms successfully. In the South, much attention was given to farming and the ways of looking after the crops and domestic animals. Newspapers of the time offered advice on how to gain more productivity from one’s land and work.4 Other popular types of occupation included work on railroads and various kinds of merchandising and craftsmanship.

In Staunton, the main town of Augusta County in Virginia, which was situated near the borderline, two major roads crossed, making the place the most significant trade and administrative center. Other important towns in the South were situated along the main roads, too.5 The State of Virginia spent much money on enhancing the condition of the roads connecting the Valley together. There were also several schools and other important institutions in the neighborhood.

Extending the Virginia Central Railroad in Augusta County took much time and effort. The extension required both financial and engineering contributions, as well as posed political challenges.6 Upon building new railways, the county gained access to Washington, Richmond, Baltimore, and other strategically important parts of the Valley. Having increased the mileage by nearly four times, Virginia became connected to western and northern markets, which increased opportunities for farmers and other business owners. Another crucial development was the growth of the tourist industry, which became possible due to famous Virginia springs renowned for their soothing and medicinal power.7 In a few years’ time, Staunton evolved even more and started using gas and telegraph. The most influential people in the town were attorneys, judges, merchants, military men, and doctors.

Merchandising was a popular business in the South, incorporating the products made by farmers as well as those associated with tourism. At the same time, it is crucial to note that out of many households in Augusta that considered themselves as farming ones, about two hundred did not own any land.8 The majority of farmers in Augusta were neither too rich nor too poor. The value of farms increased considerably in the pre-Civil War period. Farmers realized that to produce more goods and operate on larger pieces of land, they needed slaves, and the latter became more expensive all the time.9 Other industry entities prevailing in the South relied heavily on slave labor as well. Meanwhile, in the North, a free labor system dominated, which led to uncompromising conflicts between the two parts of the country.10

Pre-Civil War Economics in the North

In the North, where farming was also the main industry, the production of goods relied on domestic and immigrant labor rather than slaves’ work. In the town of Chambersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, there were such artisans as blacksmiths, brick makers, silversmiths, coach makers, carpenters, printers, confectioners, and others.11 However, even though the country relished different kinds of entertainment and tourist attractions, farming was the most popular type of work, and living in the countryside prevailed among citizens. Unlike Augusta, where many farmers lacked appropriate area and work conditions, Franklin farmers had been operating for generations. The elements of Franklin farming mainly included land, crops, animals, and labor in a variety of forms.12 Every large farm was known for some particular goods or animals it produced.

Many families in Franklin were so rich that they could afford not to work. Whereas the majority of industries were quite traditional, the railroad was an entirely new type of enterprise in Franklin. Unlike Augusta, Franklin did not have such advantageous access to railroads and trains, which made it difficult for the county to develop in that direction.13 Still, the pros and cons of employment options in the South and North did not constitute the most striking contrast. What differentiated the systems of economics most of all was the character of labor relations dominating the two parts of the country. In the South, farming was largely concentrated on the production of cotton, whereas in the North, wheat fields were more numerous. Northern farmers mostly relied on their families’ labor while southern farmers counted on slave labor.14 The conditions of living and working differed so much in the North and South that the former could not imagine surviving without slaves. As a result, the attitude toward African Americans was quite dissimilar in the two parts of the pre-Civil War USA.

Lives of African Americans in the North and South

Blacks in the North

The conditions for African Americans were disparate in the North and South. Black people living in the North had large households and performed a variety of duties, such as household chores for females and outside labor for males.15 According to the pre-war census, there were about 1,788 individuals of black or mixed races in Franklin County. There existed various causes for African Americans’ choice to live in the neighborhood. First of all, Franklin was the birthplace of four-fifths of these people. In the 17th century, slavery had been well-grounded in Pennsylvania, so that was another reason for so many black people in the state. However, there were also better opportunities for receiving or buying one’s freedom in the North, so staying there was the third explanation of a large number of African Americans in Franklin.

Black families used to dwell in the majority of Franklin’s towns, but they preferred living close to one another. Some African American families had real estate in their ownership, but none of them viewed their households as farms. Both African American males and females used to work more and harder than white people. For instance, black men could work for a butcher, but their labor was considered unskilled. Black females, who frequently worked as washerwomen or servants, worked longer hours than white females did.16 As a result, rare African American families in the North could afford to buy a house or collect considerable assets.

Although the environment was more welcoming for blacks in the North than in the South, they still suffered from bias and were sometimes pursued by whites for money. There were districts in towns where blacks were strongly unwelcome, and appearing there could be dangerous for these individuals. Still, some black men managed to be employed as artisans, being engaged in such types of craftsmanship as chimney sweeping, ax making, and brick making and working as cutlers, barbers, blacksmiths, and whitesmiths.17 The majority of African American males worked as porters, waiters, laborers, servants, and shoeblacks. The female black population was largely engaged in such activities as making and washing clothes and keeping households of white families in order. The longevity of black women as compared to men was higher due to the more strenuous working conditions of the latter. Upon reaching the age of thirty, African American women usually kept their own households, and their living conditions became deteriorated.

Threats were posed to blacks by racist whites who would not accept equality as an option. Hence, African Americans in Franklin County tried to stay close to one another and created communities around their neighborhoods. Newspapers, which were published by whites, depicted blacks with contempt and inferiority.18 Reports on blacks’ crimes were frequently made, as well as accusations of various misbehaviors. Still, in general, the conditions in which African Americans in the North lived were much better than those in the South.

Blacks in the South

The situation was far more pessimistic for African Americans living in the South. Since the majority of landowners, farmers, and other businessmen exploited slave labor in their work, there were much fewer opportunities for black individuals to obtain freedom or at least have decent living or working conditions. In Virginia, as well as in other Southern states, African Americans experienced inhumane treatment, including being sold or prosecuted in case of making escape attempts.19 Wealthy people had the right to exploit not only their slaves but also their children since they, too, became the owners’ property. If a slave was young enough to be educated, it was considered an asset since the owner could have more benefits from such African Americans.

There were networks helping whites to hire Negroes on the farms and in towns and cities. For slaves, their situation was treated differently depending on the circumstances. Young African Americans could enjoy the opportunity to stay in the city where they could find friends or romantic relationships. However, if a slave owner was violent and treated his or her workers harshly, the latter tended to escape and look for a better position. There were blacks who were afraid of being hired out because then they would be taken away from their families or friends.20 Many slave owners did not consider Negroes as people and could not understand how matters could evolve in any different way. Out of the few African Americans living in Augusta County who were not enslaved, the majority had low-paid occupations and could not afford a house.

Along with expressing disrespect toward blacks, white people living in the South also attributed numerous criminal activities to them. Negroes in the South were regarded as unreliable and indecent individuals likely to break the law and bring harm to native citizens.21 White citizens took great pride in their skin color and treated black people as not deserving humane treatment, trust, or respect. What is more, Southerners did not want to refuse slave labor, which led to their proclaiming the intention to defend their states’ rights.

Secession in the South as a Possibility to Maintain the Existing Policies

The Southern States against the Abolitionism of Slavery

Taking into consideration the differences in economic and social spheres existing in the South and North, it is understandable that the former did not want to agree with the latter on the abolition of slavery. Hence, southern states were opposed to the government’s idea of abolishing slavery, which they described as a violation of their rights.22 They wanted to continue owning slaves since they liked the advantages of free labor. The so-called Slaughter-House Cases of the Supreme Court were infamous for eliminating the beneficial effects of the Fourteenth Amendment on blacks’ lives.23 Hence, rather than giving the government more power for protecting African Americans, the court ruled out the contrary, which caused more violence against Negroes.

With the aim of protecting their states’ rights, Southerners adopted secession: the approach intended to help them leave the Union and create their own laws, which would not entail the end of slavery institution.24 Those supporting states’ rights argued that each state should have the possibility to determine matters for its citizens rather than conform to the ones issued by the federal government.25 Generally, at the core of the debate, there was the question of who should have power and sovereignty: individual states or the national government.

One of the acutest aspects of the dispute was that of the newly accepted national tariff. According to it, there was a tax on imported goods that every state had to pay. However, the effects of such a tariff did not entirely correspond to its purposes. While the goal of the tax was to support domestic industries, not all states received equal help due to the taxes. Particularly, Southerners were convinced that despite paying the tariff equally to other states, they did not receive enough response from it.26 Thus, they wanted to protect their states’ rights and separate from the Union, which caused the initiation of secession.

The issues of slavery and states’ rights were interconnected and played an important role in the political aspirations of each of the fighting parties. Some researchers believe that slavery was used as a source of power by those seeking it.27 Since by the time when the Civil War broke out, the Northern states had already abolished slavery, the South felt imminent danger. Hence, the military action between the two parts of the USA was based on political misunderstandings which no one could settle peacefully. There was no sober-minded peaceful solution because there was no mutual understanding of the problem between different states and their leaders, as well as between the federal government and separate states.

Therefore, resolutions to leave the Union were accepted in many Southern states at the beginning of the 1860s. In May of 1861, the majority of Virginia voters supported the Ordinance of Secession.28 Southerners believed that by separating from the North politically, they could continue governing their states in the way they preferred. Particularly, they wanted to keep slavery legalized and stop paying large taxes without receiving sufficient support from the government.

The Confederacy considered its military actions against the North not as attacks but as an attempt to protect their homes. In an article issued in a popular Civil War newspaper, it was mentioned that the South merely wants to be “relieved from the oppression of the North.”29 The Southerners declared that all they were trying to do was defend their rights and not hurt anyone. The South claimed that many free blacks living in Virginia expressed their intention and willingness to help the Confederacy. Thus, Southern states believed that by adopting secession, they would be able to separate from the North, free themselves from the government’s rule, and arrange their affairs in the way they decided.

The Reaction of the North to Secession

Meanwhile, the Union, which was composed of the Northern states, was dissatisfied with the South’s decisions and intentions. The North, which supported Lincoln’s program, condemned not only slavery but also had some economic interests in the South’s resources.30 Particularly, in case of secession took place, Northern manufacturers would have met the challenge of the same tariff on imports as Europeans in the South. Hence, there might have been a motivation for the North to fight against the South associated with the economic sphere. The North was interested in not letting the South out of the Union since the counties with large numbers of manufacturers were likely to change their votes from Democrats to Republicans in 1860-1864.31 Therefore, the easiest way of keeping the South in the Union in the pre-Civil War period was voting for Democrats. By doing so, the danger of secession was eliminated by electing the party that supported the South’s slavery interests. On the contrary, the best tactic of keeping the South in the Union in the course of the war was voting for Republicans. That way, there was the likelihood of continuing fighting until victory was gained.

Therefore, the North was interested in keeping the South in the Union by all possible measures. Right before the war broke out, the Northern leaders encouraged citizens to seek peaceful strategies of reducing the dissatisfaction leading to secession attempts in the South.32 Democrats expressed their intention to find reasonable non-military solutions to meet the needs of Southerners and mitigate the conflicts and misunderstandings that had caused the intention to secede in the Southern states.33 In his inaugural speech, Lincoln declared that the South had nothing to worry about or be afraid of in regard to the Republican administrations’ decisions.34 Lincoln assured Southerners that he was not going to disturb their rights or interfere with their property. Furthermore, he promised not to impede their slavery-related actions either directly or indirectly.

It is possible to conclude that the North’s interests and intentions regarding the South’s decisions were complex. On the one hand, the government did not want military action and tried to stop secession on that basis. On the other hand, the North had other concerns related to the South’s desire to separate. Specifically, by becoming segregated from the South, the North would lose access to valuable resources. Hence, the question of slavery was only secondary in the matter of secession and war.


The American Civil War, which had a devastating but, at the same time, a rather decisive effect on the country’s further development, was caused by several reasons. The major problems in the pre-Civil War USA included expansion, industry versus farming, slavery, and states’ rights. While all of the causes were closely interrelated, the issue of states’ rights served as the main cause of the war’s initiation. The South wanted to keep the right to slavery, whereas the North proclaimed the abolition of this negative social and economic system. The quality of life of white and black people in both parts of the USA was quite different. One of the core reasons why the North wanted to stop the secession was the desire to keep receiving access to the South’s resources and economic opportunities. However, the Union also paid much attention to abolishing slavery and maintaining equal rights and demands in all parts of the country. While slavery was a highly significant issue in the 1860s USA, the question of states’ rights was the one that led to the initiation of the war.


Farmer, Alan. The American Civil War: Causes, Course and Consequences 1803-77, 4th ed. Abingdon: Hodder Education, 2008.

Liscow, Zachary. “Why Fight Secession? Evidence of Economic Motivations from the American Civil War.” Public Choice 153, no. 1-2 (2012): 37-54.

Mountjoy, Shane. Causes of the Civil War: The Differences between the North and South. New York: Chelsea House, 2009.

Oakes, James. “Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War.” International Labor and Working Class History 89 (2016): 195-220.

Ross, Michael A. “Justice Miller’s Reconstruction: The Slaughter-House Cases, Health Codes, and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1861-1873.” The Journal of Southern History 64, no. 4 (1998): 649-676.

Towers, Frank. “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011.” Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (2011): 237-264.

The Valley of the Shadow. “A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: African-American Lives.” Web.

“A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: Economic Life.” Web.

“A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: African-American Lives.” Web.

“A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: Economic Life.” Web.

“Staunton Vindicator: April 2, 1859.” Web.

“Staunton Vindicator: May 3, 1861.” Web.

“Staunton Vindicator: May 31, 1861.” Web.

“Valley Spirit: April 20, 1859.” Web.

“Valley Spirit: March 6, 1861.” Web.


  1. Alan Farmer, The American Civil War: Causes, Course and Consequences 1803-77, 4th ed. (Abingdon: Hodder Education, 2008), 1-2.
  2. Farmer, The American Civil War, 1.
  3. Shane Mountjoy, Causes of the Civil War: The Differences between the North and South (New York: Chelsea House, 2009), 14-20.
  4. “Staunton Vindicator: April 2, 1859,” Web.
  5. “A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: Economic Life,” Web.
  6. “A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: Economic Life.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. “A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: Economic Life.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. James Oakes, “Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War,” International Labor and Working-Class History 89 (2016): 195.
  11. “A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: Economic Life,” Web.
  12. “A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: Economic Life.”
  13. Ibid.
  14. Oakes, “Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War,” 199.
  15. “A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: African-American Lives,” Web.
  16. “A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: African-American Lives.”
  17. “A Closer Look at Franklin in the 1850s: African-American Lives.”
  18. Ibid.
  19. “A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: African-American Lives,” Web.
  20. “A Closer Look at Augusta in the 1850s: African-American Lives.”
  21. “Valley Spirit: April 20, 1859,” Web.
  22. Michael A. Ross, “Justice Miller’s Reconstruction: The Slaughter-House Cases, Health Codes, and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1861-1873,” The Journal of Southern History 64, no. 4 (November 1998): 649-650.
  23. Ross, “Justice Miller’s Reconstruction: The Slaughter-House Cases,” 649.
  24. Shane Mountjoy, Causes of the Civil War: The Differences between the North and South (New York: Chelsea House, 2009), 14-20.
  25. Mountjoy, Causes of the Civil War, 45.
  26. Mountjoy, Causes of the Civil War, 46.
  27. Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (June 2011): 241-242.
  28. “Staunton Vindicator: May 31, 1861,” Web.
  29. “Staunton Vindicator: May 3, 1861,” Web.
  30. Zachary Liscow, “Why Fight Secession? Evidence of Economic Motivations from the American Civil War,” Public Choice 153, no. 1-2 (2012): 39-40.
  31. Lisco, “Why Fight Secession?” 38.
  32. “Valley Spirit: March 6, 1861,” Web.
  33. “Valley Spirit: March 6, 1861.”
  34. Ibid.

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