From our vantage point in the 21st Century it seems obvious that slavery caused the Civil War. The Southern leaders explicitly talked about slavery when they seceded and formed their government. And slavery ended because of the war. The great hero of the time, President Abraham Lincoln, is remembered as the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves. Three amendments to the Constitution, ending slavery, guaranteeing citizenship and granting voting rights all resulted from the war.

But slavery had existed for more than 200 years before 1860 when the war began. Why hadn’t slavery caused a war before then? Great leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had declared independence, fought a revolution and forged a new government, writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights all during a time of slavery. They didn’t have to fight a war about it.

And if slavery was so bad, why didn’t people find a peaceful way to give it up? Why didn’t White Americans just decide to free their slaves on their own? What was so special about the United States that we would have to fight a civil war?

After all, Great Britain, France, Mexico and dozens of other nations had ended slavery without fighting wars. Couldn’t the United States have done the same?

What do you think? Did slavery cause the Civil War?


The Peculiar Institution is slavery. Its history in America begins with the earliest European settlements and ends with the Civil War. Yet its echo continues to reverberate loudly. Slavery existed both in the North and in the South, at times in equal measure. The industrialization of the North and the expansion of demand for cotton in the South shifted the balance so that it became a regional issue, as the southern economy grew increasingly reliant on cheap labor. As is always true in history, cultures grow and thrive in all conditions. Two interdependent cultures emerged in the American South before the Civil War — the world the slaveholders created for themselves and the world of their slaves. Even though slaves were not permitted to express themselves freely, they were able to fight back even though enchained.

Although African-Americans had been brought to British America since the time of Jamestown colony, American slavery adopted many of its defining characteristics in the 19th century. The cotton gin had not been invented until the last decade of the 1700s. This new invention led the American South to emerge as the world’s leading producer of cotton. As the South prospered, Southerners became more and more nervous about their future. Plantation life became the goal of all the South, as poor yeoman farmers aspired to one day become planters themselves. Rebellions and abolitionists led Southerners to establish an even tighter grip on the enslaved.

Even amidst the bondage in the South, there was a significant population of free African-Americans who were creating and inventing and being productive.

The Peculiar Institution refused to die in the United States although it had ended in many other nations. Great Britain had outlawed the slave trade long before its former American colonies. New nations in the Western Hemisphere, such as Mexico, often banned slavery upon achieving independence.

But in America, political, religious, economic and social arguments in favor of the continuation of slavery emerged. Slavery became a completely sectional issue, as few states above the Mason-Dixon Line still permitted human bondage. These arguments also revealed the growing separation in the needs and priorities of the Northern industrial interests versus the Southern planting society.

Secondary Source: Map

This map shows the density of the slave population in 1860. Notice that most slaves were concentrated in the tobacco growing Tidewater Region of Virginia, and in the cotton growing region of the Deep South.


Removing seeds from newly picked cotton is not as simple as it sounds. Cotton is sticky when removed from the plant, and pulling the seeds from its grasp is difficult. Throughout the 1700s, cotton production was expensive because of the huge amount of labor necessary to remove the seeds. This changed with the invention of the cotton gin. What once was painstakingly slow was now relatively fast. By the end of the 18th century, demand for cotton was increasing as power looms were able to turn out great quantities of cloth. With the cotton gin, Southern cotton plantations could supply the world’s demand.

Ironically, the man who would make cotton king was born to a Massachusetts farmer. Almost immediately after graduating from Yale University, Eli Whitney traveled south. While staying at the Savannah plantation of Mrs. Nathanael Green in 1792, the widow of the Revolutionary War general, Whitney created the device that changed the world. Whitney built a machine that moved stiff, brush-like teeth though the raw cotton. To his delight, the teeth removed a very high percentage of the nettlesome seeds. Up to this point, it took up to ten hours to produce a pound of cotton, with very little profit. The cotton gin required many fewer workers to operate and ultimately grew to produce a thousand pounds of cotton per day.

As an indication of the impact of this invention, the total amount of cotton being exported was about 138,000 pounds in the year the cotton gin was invented. Two years later, the amount of cotton being exported rose ten-fold, to 1,600,000 pounds. Before the gin, the prevailing thinking of the leaders of the country was that slavery would gradually disappear. This all changed when slaves could be used to cultivate millions of pounds of cotton for markets all over the world. Eli Whitney never made a cent on his invention because it was widely reproduced before it could be patented. Determined to duplicate his inventive success, he developed the milling machine, which led to the development of interchangeable parts and the northern factory system. This one individual played a great part in creating the industrial North, as well as the plantation South.

This phenomenal and sudden explosion of success of the cotton industry gave slavery a new lease on life. Prior to this, most thoughtful Southerners, including Washington and Jefferson, had seen slavery as an evil that must eventually be swept away. But with the Southern economy now based on the production and export of cotton, these beliefs were seen as old-fashioned, and slavery now was seen as an institution to be cherished. The importance of the cotton industry for both the North and the South led Americans to call their primary export King Cotton. Cotton and the millions of slaves who cultivated it became the foundation of Southern economy, Southern culture, and Southern pride.

Primary Source: Illustration

A drawing of slaves operating a cotton gin published in Harper’s Weekly in 1869.


Slave life varied greatly across America depending on many factors.

Life on the fields meant working sunup to sundown six days a week and having food sometimes not suitable for an animal to eat. Plantation slaves lived in small shacks with a dirt floor and little or no furniture. Life on large plantations with a cruel overseer was oftentimes the worst. However, work for a small farm owner who was not doing well could mean not being fed.

The stories about cruel overseers were certainly true in some cases. The overseer was paid to get the most work out of the slaves; therefore, overseers often resorted to whatever means were necessary. Sometimes the slaves would drive the overseer off the plantation in desperation. When slaves complained that they were being unfairly treated, slaveholders would most often be very protective of their “property” and would release the overseer.

In some cases, a driver was used rather than an overseer. The difference between the overseer and the driver was simple: drivers were slaves themselves. A driver might be convinced by a master to manage the slaves for better privileges. Drivers were usually hated by the rest of the slaves and these feelings often led to violence.

Large plantations usually required some slaves to work in the plantation home. These slaves enjoyed far better circumstances. House slaves lived in better quarters and received better food. They sometimes were able to travel with the owner’s family. In many cases, a class system developed within the slave community. Domestic slaves did not often associate themselves with other slaves on the plantation, especially the field hands. They often aspired to arrange courtships for their children with other domestic slaves.

As the Peculiar Institution spread across the South, many states passed slave codes, which outlined the rights of slaves and the acceptable treatment and rules regarding slaves. Slave codes varied from state to state, but there were common threads. For example, one could not do business with a slave without the prior consent of the owner. Slaves could be awarded as prizes in raffles, wagered in gambling, offered as security for loans, and transferred as gifts from one person to another.

A slave was not permitted to keep a gun. If caught carrying a gun, the slave received 39 lashes and forfeited the gun. Blacks were held incompetent as witnesses in legal cases involving whites. The education of slaves was prohibited. Anyone operating a school or teaching reading and writing to any African-American in Missouri could be punished by a fine of not less than $500 and up to six months in jail. Slaves could not assemble without a white person present. Marriages between slaves were not considered legally binding. Therefore, owners were free to split up families through sale.

Any slave found guilty of arson, rape of a white woman, or conspiracy to rebel was put to death. However, since the slave woman was chattel, a white man who raped her was guilty only of a trespass on the master’s property. Rape was common on the plantation, and very few cases were ever reported. Light-skinned slaves – those whose parents or grandparents were White – were common, although they were always considered Black, no matter how close they might look like their fathers. Even Thomas Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves.

Primary Source: Photograph

A photograph of a family of slaves working the cotton fields in the 1850s.


Starting as early as 1663, slaves were organizing revolts to regain their freedom. Hundreds of minor uprisings occurred on American plantations during the two and a half centuries of slavery. Most of the uprisings were small in scope and were put down easily. Some were larger in ambition and sent a chill down the spines of countless Southern planters. Two of the most famous revolts were in the early Nineteenth Century. One was led by Denmark Vesey and the other was led by Nat Turner.

Denmark Vesey earned his freedom by winning a lottery and purchasing his freedom. He worked as a carpenter in South Carolina as a respected artisan for years and was quite satisfied with his life. He was an educated man, fluent in several languages, which he learned while he was enslaved to a widely traveled slave trader. But a profound repulsion to slavery, plus encouragement from the successful slave revolt in Haiti led him to plan to murder every white in the South, with the help of thousands of slaves and supporters. The date was set for Sunday, July 24, 1822. Before the uprising began, his plan was revealed and he was captured, tried, and hanged. Forty-seven African-Americans were condemned to death for alleged involvement in the plot. An estimated 9,000 individuals were involved.

Nat Turner was somewhat of a mystic. He frequently was said to have religious visions, and he claimed at times to have spoken with God. In 1831, Turner claimed to be responding to one of these visions and organized as many as 70 slaves who went from plantation to plantation and murdered about 75 men, women and children. As they continued on their rampage they gathered additional supporters but when their ammunition was exhausted, they were captured. Turner and about 18 of his supporters were hanged. This was even more shocking than any previous uprising. Turner had done what others had not. He actually succeeded in killing a large number of white Southerners. The South responded by increasing slave patrols and tightening their ever more repressive slave codes.

Rebellion would often find voice in less dramatic ways and more personal ways. The slave codes bear witness to the growing fear of slave insurrection and revolt. Slaves ran away in droves, escaping to freedom in Canada and the Northern states. They fled to the Indians and joined them in their wars against the white settlers. Some accounts tell of slaves poisoning their masters and mistresses. Some slaves banded together and stopped working, while others deliberately slowed down their pace. The history of slave resistance and revolts is the story of the desperate and sometimes successful attempt of people to preserve their sense of dignity, humanity and to preserve their culture, and gain their liberty in the face of systematic repression and bondage.


The “Plain Folk of the Old South” were white subsistence farmers who occupied a social rung between rich planters and poor whites in the Southern United States before the Civil War. These farmers tended to settle in backcountry, and most of them were Scotch-Irish American and English American or a mixture thereof. They owned land, generally did not raise commodity crops, and owned few or no slaves. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats preferred to refer to these farmers as “yeomen” because the term emphasized an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance.

Historians have long debated how large this group was and how much influence its members exerted on Southern politics in the Antebellum Period, particularly why and to what extent these farmers were willing to support secession despite their typically not being slaveholders themselves. Frederick Law Olmsted (a Northerner who traveled throughout and wrote about the 1850s South) and historians such as William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips considered common Southerners as minor players in Southern antebellum social, economic, and political life. Twentieth-century romantic portrayals of the Antebellum South, especially Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind and the 1939 film adaptation, mostly ignored the role yeomen played. The nostalgic view of the South that emerged in the 20th Century emphasized the elite planter class of wealth and refinement who controlled large plantations and numerous slaves.

The major challenge to the view of planter dominance came from historian Frank Lawrence Owsley’s book, Plain Folk of the Old South (1949). His work ignited a long historiographical debate. Owsley argued that yeoman farmers played a significant role in Southern society during this era rather than being sidelined by a dominant aristocratic planter class. The religion, language, and culture of these common people comprised a democratic “Plain Folk” society. Critics say Owsley overemphasized the size of the Southern landholding middle class and overlooked a large class of poor whites who owned neither land nor slaves. Owsley believed that shared economic interests united Southern farmers; critics suggest the vast difference in economic classes between the elite and subsistence farmers meant they did not have the same values or outlook.

In his study of Edgefield County, South Carolina, historian Orville Vernon Burton classified white society into the poor, the yeoman middle class, and the elite. A clear line demarcated the elite, but according to Burton, the line between poor and yeoman was less distinct. Another historian, Stephanie McCurry argued that yeomen were clearly distinguished from poor whites by their ownership of real property, that is, land. Yeomen were “self-working farmers,” distinct from the elite because they physically labored on their land alongside any slaves they owned. Planters with numerous slaves had work that was essentially managerial, and often they supervised an overseer rather than the slaves themselves.

Nevertheless, the very presence of slaves throughout the American South fostered white unity despite economic disparities. In a speech before the U.S. Senate in 1858, South Carolina senator and planter, James Henry Hammond, demonstrated this logic by arguing that slaves comprised, “the very mud-sill of society,” or a bottom supportive layer to a class system delineated across racial lines.

Though Southern society was dominated by a planter elite, “Plain Folk” supported secession to defend their families, homes, notions of liberty, and beliefs in racial hierarchies. Historians argue that a distinctive Southern political ideology blended localism, white supremacy, and Jeffersonian ideas of agrarian republicanism.


When Americans think of African-Americans in the Deep South before the Civil War, the first image that invariably comes to mind is one of slavery. However, many African-Americans were able to secure their freedom and live in a state of semi-freedom even before slavery was abolished by war. Free Blacks lived in all parts of the United States, but the majority lived amid slavery in the American South. It is estimated that by 1860 there were about 1.5 million free blacks in the Southern states.

How did African-Americans become free? Some slaves bought their own freedom from their owners, but this process became more and more rare as the 1800s progressed. Many slaves became free through manumission, the voluntary emancipation of a slave by a slave owner. Manumission was sometimes offered because slaves had outlived their usefulness or were held in special favor by their masters. The offspring of interracial relations were often set free. Some slaves were set free by their masters as the abolitionist movement grew. Occasionally slaves were freed during the master’s lifetime, and more often through the master’s will. Many African-Americans freed themselves through escape. A few Americans of African descent came to the United States as immigrants, especially common in the New Orleans area.

Were free blacks offered the same rights as free whites? The answer is quite simply no. For example, a Virginia law, passed in the early 1830s, prohibited the teaching of all blacks to read or write. Free blacks throughout the South were banned from possessing firearms, or preaching the Bible. Later laws even prohibited Negroes who went out of state to get an education from returning. In many states, the slave codes that were designed to keep African-Americans in bondage were also applied to free persons of color. Most horrifically, free blacks could not testify in court. If a slave catcher claimed that a free African-American was a slave, the accused could not defend himself in court.

The church often played a central role in the community of free blacks. The establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church represents an important shift. It was established with black leadership and spread from Philadelphia to Charleston and to many other areas in the South, despite laws which forbade blacks from preaching. The church suffered brutalities and massive arrests of its membership, clearly an indication of the fear of black solidarity. Many of these leaders became diehard abolitionists.

Free blacks were highly skilled as artisans, business people, educators, writers, planters, musicians, tailors, hairdressers, and cooks. African-American inventors like Thomas Jennings, who invented a method for the dry cleaning of clothes, and Henry Blair Glenn Ross, who patented a seed planter, contributed to the advancement of science. Some owned property and kept boarding houses, and some even owned slaves themselves. Prominent among free persons of color of the period are Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and Harriet Tubman.


As the cotton industry took hold and slavery became more and more entrenched across the American South, the opposition to the Peculiar Institution began to grow.

The first widely accepted solution to the slavery question in the 1820s was put forward by the American Colonization Society. In effect, supporters of colonization wanted to transplant the slave population back to Africa. Their philosophy was simple: slaves were brought to America involuntarily. Why not give them a chance to enjoy life as though such a forced migration had never taken place? Funds were raised to transport freed African-Americans across the Atlantic in the opposite direction. The nation of Liberia was created as a haven for former American slaves.

But most African-Americans opposed this practice. The vast majority had never set foot on African soil. Many African-Americans rightly believed that they had helped build this country and deserved to live as free citizens of America. By the end of the decade, a full-blown Abolitionist movement was born.

These new abolitionists were different from their forebears. Anti-slavery societies had existed in America since 1775, but these activists were more radical. Early Abolitionists called for a gradual end to slavery. They supported compensation to owners of slaves for their loss of property. They raised money for the purchase of slaves to grant freedom to selected individuals.

The new Abolitionists thought differently. They saw slavery as a blight on America. It must be brought to an end immediately and without compensation to the owners. They sent petitions to Congress and the states, campaigned for office, and flooded the South with inflammatory literature.

Needless to say, eyebrows were raised throughout the North and the South. Soon the battle lines were drawn. President Andrew Jackson banned the post office from delivering Abolitionist literature in the South. A gag rule was passed on the floor of the House of Representatives forbidding the discussion of bills that restricted slavery. Abolitionists were physically attacked because of their outspoken anti-slavery views. While northern churches rallied to the abolitionist cause, the churches of the South used the Bible to defend slavery.

Abolitionists were always a minority, even on the eve of the Civil War. Their dogged determination to end human bondage was a struggle that persisted for decades. While mostly peaceful at first, as each side became more and more firmly rooted, pens were exchanged for swords. Another seed of sectional conflict had been deeply planted.


Every movement needs a voice. For the entire generation of people that grew up in the years that led to the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison was the voice of Abolitionism. Originally a supporter of colonization, Garrison changed his position and became the leader of the emerging anti-slavery movement. His publication, The Liberator, reached thousands of individuals worldwide. His ceaseless, uncompromising position on the moral outrage that was slavery made him loved and hated by many Americans.

In 1831, Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator. His words, “I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — and I will be heard,” clarified the position of the New Abolitionists. Garrison was not interested in compromise. He founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society the following year. In 1833, he met with delegates from around the nation to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison saw his cause as worldwide. With the aid of his supporters, he traveled overseas to garner support from Europeans. He was, indeed, a global crusader. But Garrison needed a lot of help. The Liberator would not have been successful had it not been for the free blacks who subscribed. Approximately seventy-five percent of the readers were free African-Americans.

Garrison saw moral persuasion as the only means to end slavery. To him the task was simple: show people how immoral slavery was and they would join in the campaign to end it. He disdained politics, for he saw the political world as an arena of compromise. A group split from Garrison in the 1840s to run candidates for president on the Liberty Party ticket. Garrison was not dismayed. Once in Boston, he was dragged through the streets and nearly killed. A bounty of $4000 was placed on his head. In 1854, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution because it permitted slavery. He called for the North to secede from the Union to sever the ties with the slaveholding South.

While Garrison may have been the most well-known abolitionist, abolition of slavery was the single most important cause of free African-Americans.

Once the colonization effort was defeated, free African Americans in the North became more active in the fight against slavery. They worked with white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Philips to spread the word. They developed publications and contributed money. Many, such as Robert Purvis, dedicated their lives to freeing individual slaves from bondage. Although many pledged their lives to the cause, three African-American abolitionists surpassed others in impact. They were David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.

While Garrison is considered the prime organizer of the abolitionist movement, David Walker published his Appeal two years before The Liberator. In 1829, Walker declared slavery a malignancy, calling for its immediate termination. He cited the four evils causing the greatest harm to African Americans as slavery, ignorance, Christianity, and colonization. Even white abolitionists decried the violent nature of his text. In the South, an award was raised for his capture, and nine months after publishing his Appeal he died mysteriously. Walker originated radical abolitionism.

Primary Source: Photograph

A photograph of Frederick Douglass late in his life. He was well known for his sharp intellect and piercing gaze.

The best known African American abolitionist was Frederick Douglass. Douglass escaped from slavery when he was 21 and moved to Massachusetts. As a former house servant, Douglass was able to read and write. In 1841, he began to speak to crowds about what it was like to be enslaved. His talents as an orator and writer led people to question whether or not he had actually been born a slave.

All this attention put him at great risk. Fearful that his master would claim him and return him to bondage, Douglass went to England, where he continued to fight for the cause. A group of abolitionists eventually bought his freedom and he was allowed to return to the United States. He began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper known as the North Star. Douglass served as an example to all who doubted the ability of African Americans to function as free citizens.

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York, but was freed when the state outlawed the practice in 1827. She was born Isabella Baumfree, but changed her name because she believed God wanted her to travel about the country and spread the word. Truth was one of the best known abolitionists, renowned for her stirring oratory. Also concerned with women’s rights, she joined the campaign for female suffrage. When slavery was ended, she continued to fight for equality by protesting segregation laws.

Speeches and Garrison’s Liberator were important, but it was a novel that captured the collective conscience of the North.

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” This was Abraham Lincoln’s reported greeting to Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her ten years after her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. Although the President may have been exaggerating a bit, few novels in American history have grabbed the public spotlight and caused as great an uproar as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Primary Source: Illustration

A full page illustration by Hammatt Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. The sympathetic characters applied to many in the North who began supporting abolition after reading the novel.

Across the North, readers became acutely aware of the horrors of slavery on a far more personal level than ever before. In the South the book was met with outrage and branded an irresponsible book of distortions and overstatements. In such an explosive environment, her story greatly furthered the Abolitionist cause north of the Mason-Dixon Line and promoted sheer indignation in plantation America.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into a prominent family of preachers. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was one of the most renowned ministers in his generation. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher was already an outspoken Abolitionist, and by the mid-1850s would become the driving force behind aiding the free-soil cause in “Bleeding Kansas.” While living for a short while in Cincinnati, Stowe became exposed to actual runaway slaves. Her heart ached at the wretched tales she heard. She began to write a series of short stories depicting the plight of plantation slaves.

Primary Source: Document

This notice was printed in a Virginia newspaper in 1839.

Encouraged by her sister-in-law, Stowe decided to pen a novel. First published as a series in 1851, it first appeared as a book the following year. The heart-wrenching tale portrays slave families forced to cope with separation by masters through sale. Uncle Tom mourns for the family he was forced to leave. In one heroic scene, Eliza makes a daring dash across the frozen Ohio River to prevent the sale of her son by slave traders. The novel also takes the perspective that slavery brings out the worst in the white masters, leading them to perpetrate moral atrocities they would otherwise never commit.

The reaction was incredible. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the North alone. The Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, could hardly be enforced by any of Stowe’s readers. Although banned in most of the South, it served as another log on the growing fire.

The book sold even more copies in Great Britain than in the United States. This had an immeasurable appeal in swaying British public opinion. Many members of the British Parliament relished the idea of a divided United States. Ten years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the British people made it difficult for its government to support the Confederacy, even though there were strong economic ties to the South. In the end, Mr. Lincoln may not have been stretching the truth after all.


Those who defended slavery rose to the challenge set forth by the Abolitionists. The defenders of slavery included economics, history, religion, legality, social good, and even humanitarianism, to further their arguments.

Defenders of slavery argued that the sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. The cotton economy would collapse. The tobacco crop would dry in the fields. Rice would cease being profitable.

Defenders of slavery argued that if all the slaves were freed, there would be widespread unemployment and chaos. This would lead to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. They pointed to the mob’s “rule of terror” during the French Revolution and argued for the continuation of the status quo, which was providing for affluence and stability for the slaveholding class and for all free people who enjoyed the bounty of the slave society.

Defenders of slavery argued that slavery had existed throughout history and was the natural state of mankind. The Greeks had slaves, the Romans had slaves, and the English had slavery until very recently.

Defenders of slavery noted that in the Bible, Abraham had slaves. They point to the Ten Commandments, noting that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house… nor his manservant, nor his maidservant.” In the New Testament, Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master, and, although slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, Jesus never spoke out against it.

Defenders of slavery turned to the courts, who had ruled, with the Dred Scott Decision, that all blacks — not just slaves — had no legal standing as persons in our courts — they were property, and the Constitution protected slave-holders’ rights to their property.

Defenders of slavery argued that the institution was divine, and that it brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”

Defenders of slavery argued that by comparison with the poor of Europe and the workers in the northern states, that slaves were better cared for. They said that their owners would protect and assist them when they were sick and aged, unlike those who, once fired from their work, were left to fend helplessly for themselves.

James Thornwell, a minister, wrote in 1860, “The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.”

When a society forms around any institution, as the South did around slavery, it will formulate a set of arguments to support it. The Southerners held ever firmer to their arguments as the political tensions in the country drew us ever closer to the Civil War.

Primary Source: Photograph

Harriet Tubman as she appeared in 1955 at the height of her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.


Those who argued for and against slavery were instrumental in shaping the way ordinary Americans felt about the Peculiar Institution. However, revolutionary change requires people of action — those who little by little chip away at the forces who stand in the way. Such were the “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. Not content to wait for laws to change or for slavery to implode itself, railroad activists helped individual fugitive slaves find the light of freedom.

The Underground Railroad operated at night. Slaves were moved from “station” to “station” by abolitionists. These “stations” were usually homes and churches — any safe place to rest and eat before continuing on the journey to freedom, as far away as Canada. Often whites would pretend to be the masters of the fugitives to avoid capture. Sometimes lighter skinned African Americans took this role. In one spectacular case, Henry “Box” Brown arranged for a friend to put him in a wooden box, where he had only a few biscuits and some water. His friend mailed him to the North, where bemused abolitionists received him in Philadelphia.

Most of the time, however, slaves crept northward on their own, looking for the signal that designated the next safe haven. This was indeed risky business, because slave catchers and sheriffs were constantly on the lookout. Over 3,200 people are known to have worked on the railroad between 1830 and the end of the Civil War. Many will remain forever anonymous.

Perhaps the most outstanding “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. Born a slave herself, she began working on the railroad to free her family members. During the 1850s, Tubman made 19 separate trips into slave territory. She was terribly serious about her mission. Any slave who had second thoughts she threatened to shoot with the pistol she carried on her hip. By the end of the decade, she was responsible for freeing about 300 slaves. When the Civil War broke out, she used her knowledge from working the railroad to serve as a spy for the Union.

Needless to say, the Underground Railroad was not appreciated by the slave owners. Although they disliked abolitionist talk and literature, this was far worse. To them, this was a simple case of stolen property. When northern towns rallied around freed slaves and refused compensation, yet another brick was set into the foundation of Southern secession.


Clearly slavery was a terribly divisive issue. The nation was growing wealthy off of the backbreaking labor of millions of slaves, but it was not a system that everyone, least of all African Americans were willing to accept. In fact, violent opposition to slavery was nothing new when the Civil War erupted in 1860. African Americans as well as Whites had been fighting to end it for years.

So, did slavery cause the Civil War?



BIG IDEA: Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. As the nation grew, slavery also grew and formed the basis for much of the nation’s wealth. The small abolition movement in the North slowly gained support and helped facilitate a system to help slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

Slavery had been a part of the American experience from almost immediately after the first British settlers arrived in Jamestown. Over time, economic and social pressures transformed the use of slave labor. By the mid-1800s, slavery was the primary source of labor south of the Mason-Dixon Line and slave codes had been passed that severely limited the rights and movement of slaves. Slaves had tried to revolt on numerous occasions, but each uprising led to more severe slave codes.

America was getting rich growing and selling cotton. Northern manufacturers produced textiles made from southern cotton and the South exported cotton to both the North and to Europe. It was so important to the overall economy that it was called King Cotton, and slaves did all the work cultivating it.

In the early years of the republic, the Founding Fathers had thought that slavery would die out. However, the invention of the cotton gin made processing cotton lucrative, and expansion into the Deep South increased the demand for slaves. Instead of disappearing, slavery became so central to the economy that few leaders in either the North or South could imagine a way to reasonably end it without massive disruption to the entire nation.

Slavery was central to the social order of the South. There were only a few wealthy Whites who owned slaves, so for the vast majority of other Whites, being superior to African Americans and having the possibility of someday being rich enough to purchase a slave was a mark of social standing.

Southerners argued that slaves were actually better off than the free workers of the industrial North since they were guaranteed housing, food, and work. Few were volunteering to trade places with the slaves, however, which is evidence that they probably didn’t believe their own arguments.

There were a few free African Americans in the United States, mostly living in the North.

The abolition movement grew in the early 1800s alongside the temperance movement, transcendentalism and the other reform efforts that were inspired by the Second Great Awakening. Some had proposed purchasing slaves and sending them to Africa. The most vocal abolitionists were William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Abolition was not popular at first, and many abolitionists faced violence for their views. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a bestseller and convinced many Northerners that slavery was an evil institution. Her book was banned in the South.

In an effort to find freedom, some slaves ran away along a system of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. As part of a larger compromise, Congress passed a law that required Northerners to help capture runaway slaves. This infuriated moralistic Northerners.



Abolitionist: A person who worked to end slavery.

African Methodist Episcopal Church: Usually called the A.M.E. Church, it is the first independent Protestant denomination founded by African Americans.

American Colonization Society: An organization set up by abolitionists who raised money to send freed slaves to Liberia in Africa.

David Walker: African American abolitionist and publisher of “Appeal,” a major newspaper promoting abolition.

Denmark Vesey: A literate, skilled carpenter and leader among free African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. He was accused of being the ringleader of “the rising,” a major slave revolt planned for the city in June 1822. The plan was uncovered before it was carried out and Vesey was executed.

Driver: A slave who was placed in charge of making sure other slaves worked.

Eli Whitney: Inventor of the cotton gin. He hoped it would help end slavery by replacing slaves. Instead, planters used more slaves to grow more cotton because the machine could remove the seeds more quickly at less cost.

Field Hand: The slaves who worked in the fields. This was difficult and exhausting work. The field hands were at the bottom of the social order of slaves.

Frederick Douglass: An escaped slave and prolific orator. His autobiography was widely read.

Free Blacks: African Americans who were not slaves. Surprisingly, there were free blacks living throughout the South, especially in Southern cities.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Abolitionist author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Harriet Tubman: A slave who escaped to the North but returned thirteen times to guide other slaves to freedom. Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” and was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. She also worked for women’s rights and was a spy for the North during the Civil War.

Henry Ward Beecher: An American Congregationalist minister social reformer, and speaker, known for his support of the abolition of slavery, and his emphasis on God’s love.

House Slave: A slave who worked in the plantation owner’s home. They were usually better dressed and fed than slaves who worked in the fields, and were therefore higher in the social order among slaves.

Liberty Party: The first political party in the United States to advocate for the end of slavery. Many of its members later joined the Free-Soil Party and eventually the Republican Party.

Nat Turner: An American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831, that resulted in 60 white deaths and at least 100 black deaths, the largest number of fatalities to occur in one uprising prior to the American Civil War in the Southern United States.

New England Anti-Slavery Society: William Lloyd Garrison’s organization. They were the first to advocate for the immediate end of slavery.

Overseer: Whites hired by plantation owners to manage the slaves.

Robert Purvis: An abolitionist. He was 1/4 African American. His home was nearly burned down by a mob who disagreed with his activism.

Scotch-Irish: White immigrants from the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland who settled primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. They are famously independent and distrustful of wealthy elites.

Sojourner Truth: An African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. Her best-known speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Wendell Phillips: An abolitionist from Boston who was nearly lynched by a mob when he spoke. He was a renowned speaker and was nicknamed the golden trumpet of abolition.

William Lloyd Garrison: White abolitionist who published “The Liberator.”


Chattel Slavery: The system of slavery that developed in the United States in which slaves were considered property.

Emancipation: When the government sets slaves free.

King Cotton: The idea that the cotton industry was the key to the Southern, and more generally American economy.

Manumission: When a slave owner sets his or her slaves free.

Peculiar Institution: Slavery. This was the euphemism used by the South.

The Underground Railroad: The antebellum volunteer resistance movement that assisted slaves in escaping to freedom. Although it was not a railroad, the participants of the system used railroad terminology. Safe places for escaped slaves to stay were called stations and the people who guided the slaves were conductors.


Appeal: Along with “The Liberator” and “The North Star,” a major abolitionist newspaper before the Civil War.

North Star: Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper.

The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel that became a best seller in the North, and was banned in the South. The sympathetic characters helped convince many Northerners to support abolition.


Cotton Gin: Short for “cotton engine”, this machine was invented by Eli Whitney could quickly remove the seeds from raw cotton. Its use allowed plantation owners to greatly increase the production of cotton and drove demand for slaves.


Antebellum Period: The years in the 1800s before the start of the Civil War in 1860.

Haitian Revolution: In 1791 slaves in Haiti rose in revolt and expelled the French from the island, making Haiti the second independent nation in the Americas.


Fugitive Slave Act: A law passed in 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850. It declared that all runaway slaves be brought back to their masters. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law.”

Gag Rule: A rule that prohibits discussion of a subject.

Slave Codes: Laws in each U.S. state defining the status of slaves and the rights of their owners and giving slave owners absolute power over their slaves. Over time, the slave codes became more and more restrictive.

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