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American Civil War (1861-65)-Reasons for Sectional Conflict

US History

Sectional conflict between the two regions i.e. North and South regions was symbolic of the changes in both the regions. South was mainly an agrarian plantation economy whereas north was an industrialized region.

Due to industrialization, North region had an effective railroad and modern infrastructure whereas south was far behind the North in this category. In the field of education, along with the primary education, Northern states were also promoting higher education and had universities like Harvard and Yale.

As southern region was mainly an agrarian region and most of the people over there were slaves therefore, people did not pay much attention towards educating their children and therefore, it had a low development rate of enrollment in schools. Eventually when the northern states decided to abolish slavery from America, it provoked hatred feelings in the southern states and after that a series of events took place which ultimately led to the civil war in 1861.

Main factor of Sectional Conflict Slavery:

The issue of slavery was the main reason for sectional conflict between the two regions i.e. North & South. This issue created problems even before 1850. The main events related to slavery are as follows:

Missouri Compromise-1820:

In 1818, the population of Missouri was over 60000 and therefore, it applied to the Union to be admitted as slave state. The admission as a slave state was opposed by the Northern states as according to them, this would create a political unbalance of power between the northern and southern states.

While the bill was in discussion, James tellmadge, presented an amendment that importation of slaves be prohibited in Missouri and children of slaves should become free at the age of 25. This was approved by the House of Representatives but rejected by the Senate.

In the meanwhile, Maine also applied to the Union which further worsened the situation. A compromise became essential at this stage. Finally a compromise was agreed in Congress in 1820, according to which.

  • Maine to be admitted to the union as free state.
  • Missouri admission as slave state.
  • Slavery was prohibited to the north of parallel 36 degree 30’, a line running from southern parts of Missouri.

Significance of Missouri Compromise.

Though the immediate crisis was solved, the issue of slavery continued to be the major conflict among northern and southern states. Missouri compromise recognized the sectional division in the country. It also demonstrated that Congress had the power to abolish slavery from a territory.

Abolition Movements:

These movements started during the 1820s and 1830s against slavery and worked to end slavery in the United States through political and religious persuasion. A journal was started against slavery by William Lloyed Garision named “The Liberator”.

A lot of antislavery societies were found an in 1837 its number rose to 1500 and the members of these antislavery societies were more than 50,000. Another important move by the abolitionists was the “Underground Railroad”, a method used for helping the slaves to escape from their masters and helping them to reach the northern slavery-free states.

Mexico-US War (1846-1848):

This was another factor which acted as a fuel on fire to increase the sectional conflicts between the two regions. As a result of this war, an area of around 1 million square miles was added to the US territory. The southerners wanted the admission of this newly acquired area as slave states whereas the northerners were against it. The addition of this new territory led to a tussle between the two regions and further embittered the relations.

Wilmot’s Proposal:

After the war with Mexico, the question of admission of newly acquired areas to the came into existence and hot discussions had already taken place in the Congress. In the meanwhile, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania gave his views in the Congress which came to be known as Wilmot’s Proposal. He proposed that slavery should be banned from all the newly acquired areas. The proviso was adopted by the House but defeated in Senate.

Though it was not passed, it created a sharp wedge between the people of the two regions. As a result of Wilmot’s proposals, country faced serious sectional conflicts. The situation was controlled by Compromise of 1850, but not permanently as only after eleven years, the civil war started.

Fugitive Slave Law:

One of the components of Compromise of 1850 greatly favored the southerners. It was none other than the fugitive and harsh slave law related to the escaped slaves. According to this law, the slaves who escaped from their masters to the Free states would be returned to their masters if their masters become successful in providing the evidences in the state court. The Northerners hated this law and even those who were not against slavery before this law, started opposing slavery. Many antislavery articles and novels were published among which Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 became very famous. It sold 300,000 copies that year, and 1.2 million by summer 1853.

Kansas Nabraska Act 1854:

This bill was proposed by Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois. He suggested that the region west of Iowa and Missouri should be divided into Kansas and Nabraska. It also suggested that the question of slavery in this territory should be decided on the basis of popular sovereignty, a complete violation of the Missouri Compromise. The bill was passed with the help of Southerners and some of the Northern Democrats.

Northern Whigs opposed the Act which forced Southern Whigs to leave the party and join the Democrats. Some of the Northern Democrats also opposed the legislation. Thus the Northern Whigs and antislavery Northern Democrats joined hands to give birth to Republican Party in 1854-a complete Northern and anti slavery party. Political parties were reorganizing along sectional lines.

A mad race started between the proslavery and antislavery people to occupy this territory. The territory became a base of complete chaos and disorder.

Elections of 1856:

The elections of 1856 were also influenced by the issue of slavery. Republicans swept North while the Democrats were successful in the South. The Democrats were successful in electing their presidential candidate “James Buchann”.

Dred-Scot Case - 1857:

Dred Scott, a Negro slave owned by Dr. Emerson, came with his master to the state of Illinois and the Territory of Wisconsin, which was free under the Missouri Compromise. Scott sued for his freedom on that basis.

In 1857, majority of the Supreme Court judges were from southern region and therefore, most of the decisions it made were in favor of Southern region, Dred Scot case being one of them. In the Dred Scot case, it declared the blacks as non citizens of the US because the founding fathers had not mentioned them as the citizens in the constitution and therefore, they cannot sue in the federal courts. It also decided that the Congress had no power to abolish slavery from any territory and declared the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional.

Panic of 1857:

The economic crises of the 1857 rose unemployment which forced government to increase the tarrif rates and to overcome the panic. This made southerners pay more to the manufacturer goods without benefiting them in any way. This also increased sectional conflicts between the southern and northern regions.

John Brown’s raid at Harper Ferry-1859:

John Brown, an abolitionist, along with his eighteen followers seized the federal aisle at Harper Ferry, Virginia in 1859. The Negroes refused to cooperate and eventually he was cought and executed. The southerners came to know that Brown was supported by Northerners. This also added fuel to the already set fire.

Emergence of Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln had a very clear stance on the issue of slavery and stated that United States cannot stand as “house divided”. He was the Republican Party's nominee for president of the United States in 1860. Lincoln won in all the northern states and got victory in the Electoral College as well. Soon after Lincoln's election as president, seven Southern states seceded from the Union because they feared that Lincoln would abolish slavery. Four more states had followed by the time Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. Thus, with the secession of the southern states, civil war started to preserve the union.

Economic Factors:

Both the regions had very different infrastructure. The northern region had a modern infrastructure due to the rapid industrialization. They had an organized railroad and education system. They were paying attention to primary as well as higher education and that is why they had universities like Harvard. The southern region had a low standard infrastructure mainly because it was an agrarian region. From the very beginning, the people of this area had more focus on agriculture due to which their railroad, system, education system were of low standard and far behind the northern region. These economic differences also paid an important role in increasing the sectional conflicts.

Social Factors:

The southern society was an aristocratic society in nature as it had the institution of slavery whereas the northern society was democratic in nature.

Political Factors:

Another reason for the growing sectional conflict between the two regions was the mad race to attain the federal supremacy. Southern region had a control over the federal Government and the northern representatives wanted to overthrow that supremacy. The admission of states to the Union as free or slave states was therefore, important for both the regions as it increased the power at Federal level.

Other Factors:

The other factors which also played a role in increasing the sectional division among the two regions were the different interpretation of the constitution, geographical factors, climate etc.


By studying the above factors, it can be very clearly seen that the Civil war was a result of series of events. Southern region was in favor of slavery whereas North was antislavery. Though there were various other factors as well but slavery was the main factor in increasing the sectional conflicts between the two regions.

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