Historians’ Perspectives on the Abolitionists’ Role in Sparking the Civil War

by Stefanie Hustoft

When studying the Civil War, the question of what caused it has been a significant topic for decades of American history. The role of abolitionists in sparking it differs depending on the historian. Some believe that abolitionists and emancipation were critical to sparking the Civil War. There are also those that feel that the cause of abolition took a backseat to the political and economic causes. One might think that historians would have settled on what sparked the Civil War in recent history, but this is not the case. There are still many arguments that differ in their interpretations pertaining to abolitionists. This historiography aims to answer how much of a role modern historians believe abolitionists had in sparking the Civil War. For this analysis, the boundaries of the modern era will include research published since the 1950s. Within these works, the analyzed schools of thought are the Revisionists, the Sectionalists, and the Fundamentalists, each having different perspectives on the Civil War’s cause. By looking at the various historians writing about the Civil War, it is clear that the Revisionists stem from an antiquated view of the events leading up to 1861 and that the future of the field lies within the Sectionalists and Fundamentalists’ research.

The Revisionist perspective, also known as the “Lost Cause” narrative, has a positive memory of the Confederacy and frames their cause as noble. This perspective was most common after reconstruction through the early twentieth century. Nolan argues in “The Anatomy of the Myth” that Southerners invented the narrative that would become the Lost Cause to salvage their honor and dignity[1]. This perspective stems from a refusal to acknowledge that their actions leading up to the Civil War and their involvement with institutional slavery was fundamentally wrong. The Revisionist school is, at its core, a collective delusion amongst Southern and Southern sympathizers.  

Avery O. Craven was an influential historian amongst Revisionists. In his 1957 book The Coming of the Civil War, he argues that the Confederate South had seceded from the United States due to how its democracy failed and tormented them. In his introduction, Craven states that he intends to disrupt the established narrative that framed the North as the hero of the Civil War and argues that the Union unfairly antagonized Southern culture. Craven believes that established Northern histories had not explored Southern culture or history because it would make them seem like the aggressors for initiating the conflict. Craven states that his work accurately interprets the history of the South and their reasons for secession free of bias[2]. He explores this argument by analyzing the various aspects of the antebellum South’s culture and ideology, framing the culture as misunderstood and unfairly vilified by other perspectives of history.

Craven argues that the North’s extremist antagonism forced the South to withdraw into itself before secession[3]. Craven does this by addressing the North’s misconceptions of Southern slavery and the antagonism that resulted from this misunderstanding. Slavery had two different meanings in the United States. Craven's first definition of slavery is that it was an ancient economic system that was available to the South during this time. He further explains that slavery would destroy itself as time passed. To further prove this first definition; he argues that Southern slaveholders kept the institution from spreading Northwest and would often release their slaves[4]. The second definition is that slavery was an imagined evil that inflated the North’s perceptions of this system as cruel and unjust. Craven uses this second definition as his analytical framework to explore Northern and, by extension, abolitionist antagonism towards the South.

In his analysis of Northern antagonism, Craven conflates the ideology of abolitionists to reflect the politics of the North. Craven argues that the North was not hostile toward the South until the doctrine of abolition had become widespread[5]. He further explains this by analyzing the attitudes of Northwestern farmers and landowners. Because of the economic system in the North, those who wanted to own land had to borrow money from aristocrats. The weight of debts and mortgages put on them by Northern elites made farmers hostile towards Southern cotton-planters. The Northern middle class wanted to believe that their hard work had more merit and that their debt was justified, so Southern planters became a symbol of illegitimate labor. To these middle-class farmers, the amount of money that slave labor could make for Southern planters seemed unfair[6]. The reasoning within The Coming of the Civil War for the animosity between the North and South is that the North became jealous of the Southern way of life and wanted to blame slavery for what they deemed Southern laziness.

Because The Coming of the Civil War equates the ideology of abolitionists to the politics of the North, Craven gives the movement extreme importance to the Civil War. Craven argues that the South had seceded from the Union to defend their way of life from Northern hostility, meaning abolitionist extremism within Northern politics was at fault. An example that applies his argument on a smaller scale is how Northern abolitionists’ extremism forced Southern abolitionists to either change or stay quiet about their views[7]. Using this reasoning, Craven makes a subtle argument that the abolitionist movement was significant in sparking the Civil War. However, this conflation of ideologies in the North ignores the masses that fought against abolition and the numerous compromises made to appease slaveholders, even during the conflict. Though Craven claims to give a nuanced analysis of the South’s society leading to the Civil War, he stereotypes and glosses over Northern culture and unionist perspectives.

By the 1970s, there was a shift away from Revisionist histories and toward histories that have broader scopes. The sectionalist perspective states that various factors like economics, politics, and culture caused the Civil War. There are multiple arguments in this school of thought as to what caused the Civil War. Unlike the “Lost Cause” narrative, which usually blamed the North for causing Southern secession, Sectionalist historians tend to be more centrist when discussing the Civil War’s causes. These historians tend to be more holistic in their approach, including societal factors and slavery as contributors to the conflict.

In Eric Foner’s 1970 book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, he argues that multiple ideologies were incompatible with the political structures in place, which caused the North to unite under the Republican party[8]. As the Whig party grew weaker, the Republicans would absorb the ideologies of anti-slavery, free labor, and small government ideas. Older conservative Whigs, the moderate Know-Nothings, the radical abolitionists, and the Northern Democrats comprised the Republican Party. The various factions of the Republicans had different reasons. The conservative Whigs and moderate Know-Nothings joined the Republican party because their parties were unable to survive by ignoring issues of slavery. The Northern Democrats joined the Republican party because they felt abandoned by the Southern Democrats' fervent defenses of slavery. The abolitionists joined the Republicans to advance their antislavery politics in the Union[9]. These combined forces created a party that could oppose the Southern Democrats, but only through a tenuous coalition.

One of the most significant uniting factors in the North was their belief in the free labor system. Foner further explains how the Republican party came to be by exploring the cultural differences between the North and South’s economic cultures. Aristocratic plantations that depended on slave labor were the defining party of the South’s economy. Foner notes that there was a significant class discrepancy between the aristocrats and lower-class Whites. Northerners blamed slavery for pushing lower-class Whites to the edges of society, stating that there was no way for those individuals to progress out of poverty. Another issue that the North blamed on slave labor was the South’s lack of infrastructure. Foner explains that there the South lacked an incentive to improve infrastructure and society because slaves and lower-class Whites had no way to advance their position economically and in society[10]. The North’s economic culture heavily contrasts the dependence on slave labor. Foner explains that the North’s culture of free labor motivated its workers to work hard until they could own their businesses and land. The North argued that poverty in a free labor society was only temporary and that those who were not able to advance deserved it[11]. These differences in economic culture added to the animosity between the North and South.

Foner argues that Salmon P. Chase deserves the majority of the credit for the anti-slavery movement’s popularity in the North. His significance to the anti-slavery movement gaining traction was inserting additional meaning into the constitution and the narrative surrounding the founding fathers. The interpretation that Chase popularized was that the founding fathers were against the institution of slavery and were in favor of its eventual demise. [12]. This rhetoric did not make it into the United States’ official views, but the interpretation was popular in the North.

In addition to his new interpretation of the founding fathers, Foner also claims that Chase was influential in bringing anti-slavery into Northern politics. Chase was the most prominent in the Liberty party. The Liberty party’s main intentions were to bring abolitionist activism to the surface, which is why the Liberty party did not have very much success. The Liberty party, Foner states, most drew in abolitionists from the other political groups[13]. However, after the Liberty party, most abolitionists moved on to the Republican party, bringing their anti-slavery ideology with them.

Chase made anti-slavery a more prominent topic in the North, but Foner argues that he was a key figure in fostering anti-Southern sentiments in politics. Foner uses Chase’s statement that the South intended to expand slavery and advance slaveholders’ political power. The Three-Fifths Clause was crucial to Chase’s argument because of how it tilted power in the United States towards the South[14]. The anti-Southern sentiment fostered by Chase in the Republican North provided an antagonist that they could unite to fight. Even if a Northerner did not agree with abolitionists, as the former Whigs did, the South provided a significant enough political threat that they could join the Republicans for those reasons. However, placing so much importance on one figure diminishes the efforts of other abolitionist and anti-slavery activists.

Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men places the abolitionists as critical actors in Northern politics. Figures like Chase helped shape the political landscape in the North, making anti-slavery a vital issue and framing the South as a major political rival. While they were influential to the Republican party, the politics of the former Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Northern Democrats still needed to be convinced to cooperate. Without the political support from these other factions, the Republican party would have been a second attempt at the Liberty party. Because of this, Foner does not hold the abolitionists as crucial to the sparking of the Civil War as Revisionist Craven had. Instead, Foner places the economic culture of free labor as the center point that bound the Republican party together and sparked the Civil War.

David M. Potter takes a different direction in his 1976 book The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, arguing that it was manifest destiny and the expansion westward that created the political climate that sparked the Civil War. Like Foner, his analysis is from a top-down perspective, focusing more on the politicians and influential figures. However, where Foner placed much of his focus on free labor, Potter’s attention is placed on the expansion west and how that affected the conversation surrounding slavery in the United States. Although this book could be considered a fundamentalist text, since it does argue that slavery was a significant contributor to the Civil War, the framing of slavery within a broader political context fits better as a sectionalist history.

Potter begins his book by describing the political and cultural landscape of the United States before the 1840s. He states that the North and South lived in general harmony because of a shared British cultural heritage. The balance within the United States, especially during the Jacksonian era, fostered a sense of nationalism that allowed the country to work well together politically. During this time, the United States was still a young country that only barely qualified as a nation. The Whig and Democrat parties were still in their infancy and did not yet have the influence they would eventually wield. Culturally, the United States was still similar at that time as well. They held similar religious beliefs, had a sense of unity from the war for their independence, and a sense of pride in their democracy. Even though the South comprised of planters and farmers and the North’s economy was more merchant based, both factions passionately believed in their political institutions and leadership[15]. Potter notes that the Treaty of Guadalupe was the peak of American nationalism prior to the 1840s. The United States had bested Mexico and claimed a substantial amount of territory from the treaty[16]. Potter establishes the unity of the United States before its expansion west to strengthen his argument that manifest destiny sparked political discord in the United States. However, this ignores the sectionalist tendencies that the individual states had from the country’s conception.

Potter states that the Treaty of Guadalupe marked the peak of American nationalism, but it also was the beginning of significant rifts between the North and South. A major way that these sectional rifts surfaced after Polk had obtained territory from Mexico[17]. These disputes were over new territories’ classifications as slave or free states. Whigs argued that the American expansion was a plot to increase slavery’s power and wanted the new states to exclude slavery from their politics and economy. Slavery, therefore, became a sectional issue over territory. Potter argues that these debates over slavery in the new regions were the primary cause of the split between the Whig and Democrat parties, which developed into a schism between Northerners and Southerners[18]. Although Whigs and Northern Democrats were fighting against the expansion of slavery, a lot of the motivation behind this was political power. If the South were to obtain more slave states, that would increase the Southern Democrats’ influence. The South could block legislation they disagreed with because of their unequal political power.

Like Craven and Foner, Potter gives abolitionists a substantial amount of credit for their role in aggravating the cracks that led to the conflicts of 1861. These activists helped foster anti-slavery sentiments both in culture and in politics. Even more similar to Craven than Foner, American politics frame the abolitionists as a hostile party. Potter labels the group as extremists that are unwilling to compromise with the South[19]. To Potter, the abolitionist movement was essential to sparking the Civil War in how it made Northern politics increasingly radicle. However, as was noted in the earlier chapters of the book, Northern hatred towards the South had already begun before the abolitionists had any significant influence[20]. Because The Impending Crisis is a top-down history, Potter places little of his focus on abolitionist activism outside of their political impact, leaving little room outside of how their activism impacted the South. However, an even greater loss to this narrative from the chosen lens is the lack of Black freed and enslaved perspectives. As important as they were to solidify the Civil War path, Potter believes that the American expansion westward was the true spark toward the Civil War.

Potter’s description of events leading to the Civil War depicts the North as more willing to create disunion within the United States. Even at the beginning of The Impending Crisis, Northern politicians were the ones that intended to use slavery to siphon political power away from the South[21]. The South, in contrast, is described as vulnerable and acted to defend itself from the North. In Potter’s eyes, the South was the cooler-headed political faction [22]. There is a bias toward the South’s politics within Potter's language, like in Craven’s The Coming of the Civil War. Potter defends the South's actions multiple times throughout the book while acknowledging that the Civil War was sparked by more than Southern Self-defense or the existence of slavery. Instead, The Impending Crisis is a more sectionalist telling of the events leading to the Civil War. Ultimately, politics made the North and South incompatible to the point of breaking.

James L. Huston, in his 2003 book Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War argues that even though the South felt that property laws should protect their slaves, the North opposed slavery because of its threat to free labor[23]. In this text, Huston shares many of the same sentiments as Potter regarding the dynamic between the North and South. The South desired to protect its culture and possession of its property. This heavily motivated them to secede from the Union. Part one, “The Themes of Slavery and Property Rights, 1776-1860,” explores the multiple Northern attacks on the South and Slavery. Throughout this, Huston frames the South and the institution of slavery as vulnerable and unfairly criticized[24]. In debates with the North over slavery, Huston argues that the South’s arguments were within the American Constitution. The framing of the South as firm believers in the Constitution is once again very reminiscent of the Revisionists and Potter’s Civil War narratives. It comes worryingly close to excusing their treasonous actions. This framing device added to the South’s credibility as the justified actors[25]. The dynamics between the North and the South within the text were not profoundly different from earlier histories, specifically those that were influenced by Revisionist histories.

Although many historians before Calculating the Value of the Union have already touched on most of his arguments, Huston contributes to the field with claims that the Southern attachment to slavery was in defense of property law. He attempts to establish a precedent for slaves as property, with British colonizers establishing the institution to make up for the few numbers of laborers in America. Huston uses laws surrounding servitude in England, which stated that the servant’s master held property rights over their labor and had control over where and for whom they labored. However, these English servants were not personal property. They were still permitted to sue their master in cases of breached contract, and their service was not hereditary. The text connects the unruliness of English servants with the perceived demand for slave labor in Africa. Huston argues that the English legally designated slaves as property to decrease the likelihood of disobedience preemptively[26]. The labeling of African slaves as property survived for generations in the South after the Revolutionary War and as it was being phased out in the North.

The question on whether slaves should be considered property was debated relatively early in Huston’s narrative of American history. Huston states that many believed that property ownership was sacred and the protection of it was the sole purpose of the government, but in early American history Northerners would begin to argue against this. There were those like John Adams who believed that the hoarding of property would lead to a new class of elites like those in Europe, but Huston frames this opposition as extremist and a minority in American politics[27]. The far more common arguments were whether slavery was a form of property ownership that the government should protect. The anti-slavery views that Huston uses as evidence ranged from statements that slaveholders cannot own the labor of another human being to arguments that property laws do not include enslaved people. Huston credits many of the North’s more ideological arguments against slavery to natural rights. This perspective meant that Northerners believed that the product of slave labor did not belong to the owners. In addition to this, they thought that the institution dehumanized the slaves, stripping them of their natural rights. Huston’s framing of the North as universally against the institution of enslavement oversimplifies the region. He does not mention the colonialist movement to address their uncertainty about what the emancipation process should look like and what it would mean for slaves. Nor does Huston mention the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, which shows many were unwilling to fight for emancipation. The South refuted these arguments using the argument that the United States’ property laws defended slavery and that individual states had the right to allow the institution. Because Black people were a property race, Huston argues that the North did not have any solid rebuttal to this; however, this once again seems like an overgeneralization[28]. In Calculating the Value of the Union, slavery is a core reason for the Civil War. However, its academic lens is an entirely economic and legal frame, not a moral one.

Huston contrasts the North’s system of free labor by emphasizing the legality and economic impacts of slavery as property. Huston's arguments regarding free labor against slave labor are in line with Foner and Potter. He frames Poor Northern White people as jealous of slave labor. They feared having to compete with slaves that did not receive wages and dismissed the institution as illegitimate labor[29]. Northern politicians also feared competition with free labor. Huston argues that Northern politicians feared the expansion of slavery west because free labor and slave labor economies were incapable of coexisting together. This ideological conflict is especially evident in the presentation of the Treaty of Guadalupe. Huston argues that Northern politicians would rather antagonize the South than allow free labor to coexist or be subservient to slave labor[30]. However, this ignores the worry that the South would amass too much political power due to the enslaved population’s contribution to the census. Huston blatantly blames the North for causing the Civil War. Calculating the Value of the Civil War repeatedly emphasizes the antagonism towards the South and the refusal to acknowledge slaves under property laws. 

Huston does not equate the ideology of abolitionists to Northern politics. However, the text notes that abolitionists’ activism had a part in the hostility towards the South. Huston uses their arguments that slavery violated property laws. Abolitionists reasoned that they did not consider ownership of a person within the bounds of property law because it impeded the liberties of the slaves[31]. Abolition, in Huston’s analysis, was a contributing factor to the Civil War, but not nearly on the level of Northern politicians who argued against slave labor for economic reasons.

Elizabeth R. Varon expands on previous political interpretations of the Civil War’s causes. In her 2008 book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, she argues that the exponential rates of disunion between the North and South were the biggest factor in causing the Civil War[32]. While much of her research within the text surrounds the politics surrounding disunion, she also touches on the impacts of abolitionists, fugitive slaves, and free Black people. Varon's reasons for the rift between the North and South and their eventual disunion were party politics and slavery.

The beginning of Disunion! describes the already unstable union of the United States. Varon argues that neither the North nor South wanted their young country to dissolve after the Revolutionary war. The way that the United States discouraged factionalism was to embrace a strong sense of Unionism[33]. The desire for unity within the United States is used throughout the text to represent what most early Americans saw as their ideal. Even though both sides wanted to remain together, Varon notes that the South would use threats of secession and disunion to force the North to compromise. These bluffs and threats led to various legislation, such as Three-Fifths Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Fugitive Slave Clause to push the United States’ politics further toward states’ rights[34]. Varon expertly explores the increased power imbalance between the North and South through these examples. With the threat of disunion, the South was able to dominate the North politically.

In Disunion! most of the compromises the South was able to force through pertained to slavery. However, as more people became increasingly vocal in their anti-slavery sentiments, the North split their opposition to the South into three distinct methods. Northern politicians were more willing to compromise with Southern Democrats, but there were issues that they attempted to push forward with their policies. Varon uses the nullification and tariff crises as the first significant pushback from the North. The South perceived the tariffs as a threat to their economy and threatened secession. At this point, they were able to be coerced into cooperation, but the political discourse over the annexation of Texas was not as successful for the North[35].

Varon argues that the issue surrounding the annexation of Texas was whether slave states' influence should be allowed to spread. Southern Democrats heavily pushed for expansionism. They tried to appease the Whigs, claiming that if slavery could spread South to Texas, the institution would slowly dissipate. With the victory over Mexico and new territory, the United States faced a crisis over which states would become free and slave states. They were both once again forced to compromise, dividing the new territories amongst themselves in the Compromise of 1850[36]. Varon’s analysis of political opposition to Southern slavery was motivated to keep Democratic influence in check. However, there were incentives to compromise for the sake of the Union.

Disunion! makes the argument that abolitionists were crucial to causing the Civil War. Abolition was a constant opposing force to the Southern Democrats throughout the text. The text describes one type of abolitionist following Garrett Smith’s forms of activism. These methods entailed sending abolitionist literature to the South to attract Southerners and Slaves to their cause. The second model of abolitionist incited rebellions, such as Nat Turner and John Brown. Varon argues that their more radical activism scared Southern slaveholders. This fear influenced them to take various forms of anti-abolitionist actions. These ranged from political means- which included the informal gag order and trying to minimize the effectiveness of anti-slavery petitions- to mob violence against abolitionists[37]. However, Varon argues that the most critical abolitionist in sparking the Civil War was John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. The text marks this as the point of no return for Southern secession. The South had already begun to distrust the North, fearing that the North’s hostility would only increase. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry confirmed their suspicions, and the South feared that more attacks on the Southern institution of slavery were to come. With the election of Lincoln to the presidency, Varon argues that the North could not offer any compromise to regain the trust of the South once again and that the Civil War had become inevitable[38]. While Harper’s Ferry was important for sparking Southerners’ paranoia, she placed too much importance on the event by marking it the point of no return when it was possible that the North could have introduced other compromises or for one of the Democratic candidates to have won the election.

Varon’s analysis of the United States leading to the Civil War is the most like Foner compared to previous historians. However, this is only in their use of political rifts as a factor in Southern secession. Out of the Sectionalist historians thus far, Varon has the most research on the abolitionists. This prominence is due to their importance to her argument of disunion. The abolitionists were vital in widening the rift between the North and the South. Without them, based on Varon’s analysis of early America, the North may have kept compromising for the sake of the Union. Because of how vital the role of slavery was in Varon’s research, Disunion! is tangential to the fundamentalist perspective of Civil War history. However, like Potter, there is a substantial amount of focus on the rifts surrounding sectional politics and their relation to slavery.

Noll is a radical shift away from the political analyses of Foner, Potter, Huston, and Varon. In this 2006 book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Noll argues that the cultural debates around slavery in the United States spilled over into a crisis of religion[39]. The text uses the conflicting religious analyses in the North and South to contextualize the rift that would lead to the Civil War. However, unlike the other historians in this historiography, Noll does not place American politics at the center of his research.

Noll establishes the religious context that most Americans lived within their culture. Both Northern and Southern Americans believed that they had an established relationship with God. Because of this, Americans had faith that the well-being of the public coincided with Christian morality and that they lived in an inherently good nation[40]. Noll argues that with a foundation based on the principles of liberty and the ideals of republicanism, the United States had built Christianity into the core of the country[41].

Using the context of religious beliefs, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis explores how the North and South argued that the Bible supported their stances on slavery within Christianity. The South would cite specific passages as evidence that the Bible defended slavery. Because the Southerners could prove their argument by simply looking within the written word of the Bible, Noll argues that the South’s interpretation was the more established stance[42]. The Southern proslavery reading of the Bible’s strength lies in its simplicity which made their argument more accessible to the average American.

Northern abolitionists, however, would read into the intended messages of the Bible to take a Christian anti-slavery argument. One of the more successful Biblical arguments against slavery would be made by Leonard Bacon and those like him. They argued that while the Bible was not against slavery, the way that the American South treated their slaves was not a Christian way. The connections that abolitionists made to prove that the South did not engage with Biblical slavery included slaves not being freed after converting to Christianity, being separated from their families when sold, and it was illegal for slaves to be armed. Noll states that the most significant weaknesses in abolitionists’ antislavery arguments were its complexity and lack of written evidence within the Bible[43].

Within Noll’s analysis, abolitionists inadvertently damaged their cause. This bad reputation was primarily because they could not point to any one passage that proved their points within the Bible. Noll expands on this by claiming that the abolitionist argument caused some Northerners to believe the South’s view that the Bible was pro-slavery. Because of the abolitionists’ failure to concretely use the Bible as an antislavery text, Noll implies that their religious arguments had little impact on causing the Civil War. However, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is still important to the discussion surrounding the Civil War because of its thorough analysis of the impacts of these religious debates in widening the cultural rift between the American North and South.

The Fundamentalist narrative of the Civil War claims that the ultimate cause of the conflict can be reduced to slavery. The South had seceded because it felt threatened that the North intended to emancipate their slaves. The North, in contrast, entered the Civil War to bring the South back to the Union and would destroy the institution of slavery in the process. From this historical perspective, the most important actors are the enslavers and the abolitionists.

Charles B. Dew, in his 2001 book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Cause of the Civil War, argues that the Southern Commissioners were sent to influence other states to succeed, often framing the North as a force that would end slavery[44]. Within this text, the South's actions towards secession are the primary focus. Apostles of Disunion is a fundamentalist history in how it places the South’s desire to preserve the slave system at the center of its narrative. Most of the South felt victimized by the North’s efforts to limit slavery and were vulnerable to rhetoric that promised them a way to protect their established infrastructure.

The primary actors within Apostles of Disunion are the Southern commissioners. These men were sent to states where they had influence to convince them to secede from the United States[45]. Dew compares the difficulty commissioners had with different states to establish the South’s desire for secession. South Carolina, for instance, needed little encouragement to break away from the United States[46]. Other states like Virginia, however, were more hesitant to secede, and required further persuasion[47]. These Southern commissioners used the Southern states’ already established fears as a tactic to encourage secession, which included The Haiti Revolution, abolitionist threats, White subservience to Black Republicans, and interracial marriage[48]. The desire to keep the institution of slavery had enough control over the Southern states that most commissioners seceded in their assignments.

While Apostles of Disunion is a fundamentalist text, Dew argues that abolitionists had a lesser role in sparking the Civil War than the Southern commissioners. Abolitionists are a villainous force that threatens Southern power and institutions within the commissioners’ speeches and pamphlets. Within the framing of the text, the abolitionists’ role in causing the Civil War is a threat to convince the South to secede. However, these fears were encouraged to fester by the commissioners. By Dew’s argument, the Southern commissioners were more impactful in causing the Civil War than abolitionists.

Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition argues that slave resistant Black activism was central to the abolitionist movement[49]. Unlike Dew, Sinha’s bottom-up analysis focuses on the typical person’s activism and impacts on the Civil War. Throughout the text, issues of slavery are central to the rift within the United States. Sinha presents the proslavery South as greedy and an oppressive force to their slaves and American democracy. Abolitionists, in contrast, are shown as what the United States needed to enact radical change. Sinha divides her analysis of abolitionist history into two waves: the first taking place from the early 1700s to 1830 and the second wave from 1830 to the Civil War.

The first wave of abolition was far less intense than it would become. Black activism in its earliest stage took the form of freedom petitions and literature. Sinha presents the freedom petitions as cries for freedom from individual slaves. These petitions often drew from the works and ideas of White abolitionists. Black petitioners would often argue that slavery had rendered them without family and a home of their own, pointing out the abuse they suffered from their masters[50]. Sinha frames Black abolitionists as relatively successful in the North, inciting the first emancipation in the United States. In some states in the North, slaves obtained their freedom through judicial means. In states like New England and Massachusetts, slaves would file lawsuits against their masters and, in many cases, won[51]. Where freedom suits were not viable or in cases of failed claims, Black abolitionists had other methods to gain their freedom. The most common alternative was running away. Sinha argues that fleeing their enslavers was an effective form of protest and resulted in emancipation in states such as Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut[52].

Even during what Sinha refers to as the neglected period of antislavery, there were still Black abolitionist movements. However, the major debates were over the colonization movement at that time. Sinha argues that White Americans favored colonization because it would allow them to rid themselves of slavery without needing to integrate into their society. Black Americans, however, disagreed with the movement, not wanting to be removed from the land that they had worked and grown attached to[53]. However, leading into the second wave of abolitionist history, many abolitionists pushed for immediatism. They argued that gradualism was an unjust form of emancipation, and that the only viable justice would have been slavery’s immediate dissolution[54]. These attitudes towards emancipation increased throughout the second wave.

During the second wave, the desire for immediatism from both Black and White abolitionists rose. Sinha describes that these interracial efforts combined the morality and religiosity of White abolition with the Black methods of protest[55]. Both agreed that the institution of slavery was a uniquely American sin and that the country could not truly move forward until the government abolished slavery. This made up the core ideology of the interracial abolitionist movement[56]. Sinha describes the second wave of abolition as being made up of political action, intersectional feminist activism, attempts at labor organization, and slave resistance[57]. All these elements within abolition pushed the enslaved person’s cause to the center of the political turmoil in the United States. While this is true to an extent, Sinha does not also address the Slave Power conspiracies that enveloped Northern politicians’ motives for weakening slavery’s prominence.

Sinha places abolition - especially Black abolitionists - as the central cause of the Civil War. Every part of abolition from the inception of the United States moved the nation closer to extreme action. The importance of abolitionists in causing the Civil War is elevated to extreme measures, ignoring any other factors. However, this analysis either minimalizes the sectional impacts of politics and economics or fuses it with the cause of slavery. In this way, Sinha’s depiction of abolitionists is like Craven’s. However, Sinha is not antagonistic towards the North, whereas Craven frames them as antagonists to the South. Both these historians heighten the importance of abolition to the central cause of the Civil War.

Although both Dew and Sinha’s works are Fundamentalist in nature, both take vastly different approaches to the cause of the Civil War. However, these historians focus on a single aspect that they believe caused the Civil War. Dew focuses on the southern commissioners and their impact on Southern secession. Because of this frame, Dew argues that the South and their desire to keep the institution of slavery was the cause of slavery. Abolitionists in Apostles of Disunion were only a threat to scare the South into seceding. However, addressing abolitionists’ actions in the South before 1861 could have strengthened his argument that the paranoia over slavery’s future pushed them to leave the Union. Sinha’s perspective on abolition is drastically different from Dew’s. The Slave’s Cause argues that abolition was critical to advancing emancipation. Without the efforts of Black abolitionists, the North would not have been prosperous in its conflict with the South. While the role of Black and White abolitionists in causing the conflict is undeniable, it ignores the motivations of the Southern states that seceded.

Revisionist, Sectionalist, and Fundamentalist interpretations of the Civil War all have different arguments about how significant abolitionists were in sparking the Civil War. Revisionists like Craven held abolitionists a substantial threat to Southern states’ rights. Sectionalists have varied opinions on abolitionists’ importance, including slavery as a significant factor, but look at it with more nuance that discusses politics and economics. Fundamentalists place slavery as the catalyst and analyze the different ways the institution manufactured the circumstances that led to the war. The Revisionist perspective has been mostly phased out of modern historiography, but Sectionalists and Fundamentalists are still prominent in Civil War history. They provide broader contexts for the Civil War but are not bound to defend or focus on either side. Because of this, these two lenses of study are more nuanced perspectives of the field. There is room to expand on Marxist, or bottom-up, histories analyzing abolitionists and the Civil War. If Varon and Sinha are accurate indicators, there might be more of these histories to come. 

[1] Nolan, Alan T, “The Anatomy of the Myth,” in The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, ed. Gallagher, Gary W. and Nolan, Alan T. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000), p.11-14.

[2] Craven, Avery O, The Coming of the Civil War (Chicago, IL, The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p.viii-ix.

[3] Ibid, p.116-117.

[4] Ibid, p.118-119.

[5] Ibid, p.121

[6] Ibid, p.130-131.

[7] Ibid, p.119-121.

[8] Foner, Eric, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1970), p.3-6.

[9] Ibid, p,103-225.

[10] Ibid, p.44-51.

[11] Ibid, p.xx-xxvii, 11-29.

[12] Ibid, p.73-76, 86.

[13] Ibid, p.73-86.

[14] Ibid, p.88-89.

[15] Potter, David M, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1976), p.7-12.

[16] Ibid, p.13-17.

[17] Ibid, p.18

[18] Ibid, p.20-22, 48-49.

[19] Ibid, p.59, 164.

[20] Ibid, p.18-49.

[21] Ibid, p.18-22.

[22] Ibid, p.65-68, 225.

[23] Huston, James L, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina press,2003), xiv.

[24] Ibid, p.13-15, 18-29, 48-55, 72, 101-107.

[25] Ibid, p.123-125.

[26] Ibid, p.15-19.

[27] Ibid, p.23-24.

[28] Ibid, p.22-32, 55-56, 104-124.

[29] Ibid, p.29-30, 147.

[30] Ibid, p.150-176.

[31] Ibid, p.111-139.

[32] Varon, Elizabeth R, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), p.14.

[33] Ibid, p.24-25, 31.

[34] Ibid, p. 33-42, 46, 49-68.

[35] Ibid, p.52, 87-92.

[36] Ibid, p.165-177, 199-217.

[37] Ibid, p.61-68, 74-85, 107-116.

[38] Ibid, p.317-335.

[39] Noll, Mark A, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p.6.

[40] Ibid, p.18-19.

[41] Ibid, p.22-23.

[42] Ibid, p.33-36.

[43] Ibid, p.40-47.

[44] Dew, Charles B, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Cause of the Civil War (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2001), p.3.

[45] Ibid, p.19-21.

[46] Ibid, p.25.

[47] Ibid, p.69-73.

[48] Ibid, p.41-46, 55-57, 65-66, 76-80

[49] Sinha, Manisha, The Slave’s Cause: The History of Abolition, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), p.1.

[50] Ibid, p.41-43.

[51] Ibid, p.66-72.

[52] Ibid, p.73-76.

[53] Ibid, p.160-165.

[54] Ibid, p.178-181.

[55] Ibid, p.195-196.

[56] Ibid, p.209-216, 246-248.

[57] Ibid, p.249-256, 266-295, 347-353, 381-403, 421-436, 461-490, 500-527.

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