What Caused the Civil War?

an Essay in Four Parts by M. Donna Ross, B.A., B.S., M. Ed.


Crusading preacher and newspaper owner Elijah Lovejoy was chased out of St. Louis and later martyred in Alton for his stand against slavery.

Slavery was the historical norm for thousands of years. Those with power have always aggrandized themselves by forcing those without power to work for them. That held true so long as human labor was the main means of getting things done.

People felt bad about enslaving others--at least after the era of enlightenment. As early as 1808, Congress banned the importation and exportation of slaves. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson considered the “peculiar” institution wrong. Washington freed his own slaves AFTER his death. Despite the argument that the Bible condones slavery, I doubt many people could fool themselves into believing that slavery was moral; but it was expedient--necessary--so long as every task took such a staggering amount of human labor.

What changed that? After thousands of years, man’s ingenuity blossomed to produce the Industrial Age. Waterwheels had been around since ancient times. Still, that simple technology was perfect for harnessing the energy from New England’s racing streams to drive belts to power machines to spin thread, saw wood or make hundreds of tasks easier and faster. In 1775, James Watt’s commercially viable steam engine freed us from the need for running water. We could burn coal or wood anywhere. The eve of the Civil War saw us poised on a breakthrough. Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir built the first internal combustion engine to provide a reliable and continuous source of power. He powered his with coal gas in 1860 France. Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.

But the Industrial Revolution created turbulence, just as the electronic era is wreaking havoc on the world of machine technology. Traditional industry needs semi-skilled hands to assemble interchangeable parts on an assembly line. Robots can do those humdrum jobs. We now need fewer but more highly skilled workers--to keep those tireless machines well-oiled so they can crank out coffemakers and Ipads.

Increasingly, the unions that created unparalleled prosperity in a thriving middle class find themselves with fewer and fewer members. Once working people formed a great bulwark to protect this country from the excesses of big business and big government. The result is becoming evident as that blue collar pillar crumbles. We are rapidly evolving into the haves and the have-nots. The signs are not good, for history tells us that two-class societies breed discontent and revolution.

Before the Civil War, the Industrial North found less and less need for slaves while the agrarian south found more--especially after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1794. Short-staple cotton grows well in the South, but picking out those wretched seeds made the crop costly--before the gin. Then demand for farm labor skyrocketed. The international appetite for cotton was insatiable. North and South grew less and less like each other--and less and less tolerant.

A great question faced the nation as the country looked toward carving out new states from western lands.

Should slavery be allowed?

Click The Men Who Started the Shooting War
to see the next part of "What Caused the Civil War?" by Donna Ross.




Statues and Memorials
in St. Louis

St. Louis-Where the West Began
The Men Who Started the Shooting War
Lincoln and Douglas
Abraham Lincoln
Grant and Sherman
Bellefontaine Cemetery
More St. Louis Stories
On-Line Resources

Victorian Verity
Donna Ross's Speaker Site