The Coming of the Civil War


By Matthew Pinsker


“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

— June 16, 1858


Abraham Lincoln (and the Gospel of Mark) may have been correct on that score, but historians divided against each other can stand up pretty well, especially within the classroom. Few things get students more engaged than watching experts argue. That is the premise of this special issue devoted to the coming of the Civil War. What follows are a series of historical claims and counter-claims — all grounded in evidence and argued with a high degree of professionalism — without any easy consensus emerging in standard textbook fashion. This should come as no great surprise, since the question of what caused the war has provoked more arguments than almost any other in American history.


Dickinson College Archives

Nor is this merely an academic debate about inevitability or contingency, slavery or states’ rights. As the Civil War sesquicentennial begins this month, we have already seen proclamations such as Gov. Bob McDonnell’s in Virginia or social events like the “Secession Ball” in Charleston deconstructed with a passion and scrutiny rarely applied to episodes in public history. The battle over the war’s memory remains a lively fight. This magazine attempts to place this great national debate into an informed context by offering five articles from five leading scholars — and five different views on what caused the conflict. There are also four insightful essays about how to teach aspects of the crisis and one provocative reflection on public history from the magazine’s editor. None are in full agreement about anything except perhaps the principle that good history is complicated and always requires careful attention to facts, evidence, and the ever-elusive mysteries of human behavior.

Jonathan Earle opens the contentious issue with a striking judgment. “Secession was a response to a new political reality,” he writes, “the collapse, after many decades, of Southern slaveholders’ iron-fisted control of federal power.”  It was not slavery, he argues, but politics that caused the war. Earle’s piece then proceeds to outline what he describes as the “diminishing returns” of sectional compromise that had begun in 1787 and continued until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. From this perspective, Lincoln’s political victory was the pivotal moment in the coming of the Civil War, because the triumph of “the first overtly antislavery candidate ” for president ended hopes for any continued accommodation with the nation’s Southern minority. This had always been the late John C. Calhoun’s gravest fear and thus it seemed to be no coincidence that extremists from South Carolina now moved to the center of the sectional crisis in late 1860. The advantage to Earle’s approach should be obvious — by focusing on politics he highlights choices that people made and thus brings the drama of the grave crisis to the forefront.

By contrast, Paul Finkelman’s account of secession’s turning point takes a longer view and explicitly labels slavery as the cause of the conflict. He does not ignore human agency, but Finkelman’s approach noticeably shifts the narrative center toward the constitutional collision created by the peculiar institution. In Finkelman’s re-telling of the escalating sectional crisis, Lincoln played only a secondary role at least until after he became president. This reordering occurs because Finkelman reverses the usual assumptions about the period, highlighting the impact of Northern (not Southern) states’ rights in the debates over federal fugitive slave laws. He suggests that the irritation caused by the perceived failures to enforce the federal statute ultimately proved decisive: it undermined “comity,” or the relations among states, and it provided Southern secessionists what they considered to be a compelling rationale for disunion. Yet on this question of Northern personal liberty laws (which so dramatically threatened federal sovereignty), Lincoln was comparatively quiet and decidedly not in the camp of antislavery activists. As a politician in the 1850s, he supported enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and was subsequently denounced by abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips for being “the slave-hound of Illinois ” ( 1). That characterization may have been unfair, but it illustrates how far Lincoln had evolved by the time he accepted military emancipation as a legitimate object of war. While acknowledging this evolution in Lincoln, Finkelman also explains how a consistent constitutional framework guided the president’s shifting tactics.


Courtesy of Library of Congress

For Lincoln, the constitutional crisis over slavery probably reached its first great turning point when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Dred Scott’s appeal for freedom in 1857. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion repudiated almost everything Lincoln had believed about the Constitution and what he considered its fundamental goal of promoting freedom. The effect on the Springfield attorney was extraordinary. Lincoln soon emerged from the shadow of that decision to warn in public that a “house divided” could not stand and that the nation would ultimately have to reject slavery. Explaining the gravity of the Dred Scott decision on Lincoln and for the growing sectional crisis has long been a staple of the American classroom. Scott, in fact, may now be the best known slave in American history. Yet while the name “Dred Scott” appears in every textbook, the actual person remains obscure. Thus, Lea VanderVelde’s essay, which details how the Dred Scott case was really in her words “ an American family saga, ” will surprise and gratify many teachers who have not previously been able to humanize this critical episode. VanderVelde brings to life the story of the entire family, including Harriet Robinson Scott, Dred’s wife, and their children, Eliza and Lizzie, demonstrating how all of them were participants in the legal proceedings and illustrating, by example, how human context makes history more understandable.


In her essay, Elizabeth Varon reaches even further than VanderVelde to claim that the broader context of family and gender mattered even more to the sectional crisis than people realize. Antebellum American women may have struggled against legal and political marginalization, but the concept of gender loomed large in the propaganda battles of their fathers and husbands. Varon claims that leading male figures “linked their political positions to their status in the gender order.” In other words, men framed political rhetoric with sex in mind. Such a conclusion seems well attuned to the honor codes and chivalry ideals that permeated antebellum southern culture, but Varon suggests the impact went even deeper.


Sarah Grimke

Angelina Grimke

She begins by pointing to the experiences of the Grimké sisters from South Carolina who provoked intense reactions during their controversial abolitionist speaking tour in the 1830s. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were not only accused of betraying their southern heritage and of violating the doctrine of separate spheres for women, but also, according to Varon, they were guilty of generating specific and intense anxieties about disunion. Nineteenth-century women were supposed to foster social harmony. Female abolitionists thus appeared as particularly dangerous types of traitors in the context of that age. Varon then connects the gendered abolitionist and anti-abolitionist rhetoric of the 1830s with the slavery extension controversies of the 1840s and 1850s. She focuses on how the Wilmot Proviso debates during the Mexican War represented “an important shift in the use of gendered rhetoric.” As national party allegiances increasingly broke down into regional components, men began to challenge the masculinity of their opponents with greater frequency and more intensity. The political result was sporadic violence, such as the infamous caning of Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts. Sumner’s 1856 speech, “The Crime Against Kansas,” provoked a South Carolina congressman to initiate a brutal assault on the Senate floor in part because of lurid language that had condemned the “rape of a virgin Territory” by the “ harlot Slavery” ( 2 ). The shift in national tone was also more personal, as fears of gender disorder within American homes, according to Varon, preceded the disunion at large.


Where Varon focuses on the power of words, Marc Egnal chooses to remind readers about the underlying potency of economic interests. By launching his essay with questions about Abraham Lincoln’s much quoted observation that “all knew” slavery was “somehow, the cause of the war,” Marc Egnal deftly challenges a generation of historians who have more or less taken the great president at face value. Instead, Egnal points out that Lincoln’s comments do not answer the all-important “why” questions about Civil War origins. Why did Northern Republicans insist on the containment of slavery? Why were Southern secessionists so adamant in refusing to accept any type of political repudiation of slavery? The scholar’s answer turns away from the heated moral rhetoric of the sectional crisis and looks instead at the underlying regional economic differences that emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. In a revealing example of contrasting interpretations, he reviews much of the same era of compromises that had informed Earle’s and Finkelman’s essays, but focuses instead on different aspects and shows in each case how he views the fundamental issues at stake as economic, not political or legal. Especially attuned to the differences within regions, Egnal attempts to demonstrate how the nation’s shifting axis of trade and commerce (from North/South to East/West) helped shape the escalating political and moral battles of the era.


If the five scholars contributing essays to this issue have offered an engaging panorama of ways to analyze the coming of the war, the four pedagogy experts demonstrate that there are equally diverse and innovative methods for teaching the subject. James Loewen provides a feisty and effective model for tackling textbooks that often exclude essential primary sources from their sprawling narratives. Using the words of South Carolina secessionists themselves, Loewen wades straight into the slavery versus states’ rights debate and comes out with clarity and purpose that will appeal to many readers (while no doubt antagonizing a few others).


Courtesy of House Divided Project

Bruce Lesh and James Percoco are no less passionate in their efforts to inspire historical thinking, but their emphasis on the creation of public memory navigates a less certain path. Lesh challenges his students to craft a historical marker or exhibit that commemorates John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, providing them with just enough fuel to launch serious arguments over how to depict this controversial figure. Percoco has been fortunate enough to travel the country with his Applied History students and recounts in his essay various ways that teachers can use public monuments and elements of the national memory to provoke their students into deeper thinking about matters of historical causation and significance. Gerry Kohler, on the other hand, bravely goes where few teachers dare to venture — into the realm of living history. Kohler quite literally becomes John Brown, channeling the pivotal figure in ways that seem to frighten, to entertain, and most of all, to educate her students. In her essay, Kohler describes how she achieves this effect and offers some advice for how to implement living history in the classroom.


I’ve actually seen Gerry Kohler as John Brown and while my eyes may not have grown as wide as saucers like her fourth-graders, I was still impressed. She’s memorably scary in that role. Naturally, such an effect is hard to convey in a magazine essay. Most of the pieces in this issue at some point face similar constraints imposed by the print medium, perhaps not as dramatic as Kohler’s, but nonetheless real moments when readers wish they could share comments with the author, read the documents themselves, see additional images, or somehow extend the reading experience. That is why I am happy to report that the Organization of American Historians and the House Divided Project at Dickinson College are experimenting with a web companion to this issue that will offer readers a variety of useful additional resources, such as a video clip of “John Brown” Kohler or online excerpts from selected essays that feature clickable footnotes and direct access to the documents that informed them. Most important, the web companion will provide a forum for ongoing discussion and comments from teachers and others who might choose to use this special issue and the critical subject of the Civil War’s origins as a way to contribute to ongoing historical debates. At this site, we hope to argue with you (and each other) at that space for years to come.




1. The Liberator, June 22, 1860.

2. Charles Sumner, “The Crime Against Kansas,” US Senate, May 19 – 20, 1856. 34th Congress. 1st Session.


Matthew Pinsker holds the Brian Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He also serves as Co-Director of the House Divided Project at Dickinson, an innovative effort to build digital resources on the Civil War era. He is the author of two books: Abraham Lincoln , a volume in the American Presidents Reference Series (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2002) and Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (Oxford University Press, 2003). Each year, he also leads numerous K–12 teacher training workshops for organizations such as the U.S. Department of Education, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

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