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The American Civil War has been a subject of intense study by historians, political scientists and scholars over the years. The reasons which led to the civil war are many but some historians have favored the approach that sectional divisions or political divisions were the main causes which led to the war. David M. Potter is the proponent of the former approach while Michael F. Holt favors the latter. This essay aims to explain the main points of the argument of both the scholars with a view at arriving at an objective analysis of the most likely causes for the American Civil War.
Potter believes that the main cause for the country to divide into two sections was over the issues of slavery, taxation of imports and exports and the assumption of state debts amongst other aspects of governance. Potter states that “From the outset, slavery had been the most serious cause of sectional conflict” (Potter, p. 378). While the Northern states had abolished slavery, the Southern states propounded it as their right. Within these two opposing views, lay the role of the Federal government, which had to consider whether the question of slavery was to be decided by the Federal government or be left to the states. Through the years 1846 to 1861, debates raged all over America to decide the validity of each view. These arguments crystallized into four main formulae.
The first position was formulated by David Wilmot who opined that the Congress had the power to abolish slavery leading to the declaration of the Ordinance of 1787, also known as the Wilmot Proviso stating that “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (Potter, p. 379). Based on the Wilmot Proviso, Presidents Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Monroe and Jackson held that the Congress had constitutional powers to prohibit slavery in all territories. The Congress however, did not uniformly apply this principle to all territories, allowing some territories to the South of the Ohio River to maintain slavery rights while abolishing the same to the North.
Consequently, a compromise between the proslavery and antislavery interests based on territorial divisions became the second formula for resolving the dispute. This approach typified the admittance of Missouri as a slave state and dividing the rest of the Louisiana Purchase along latitude 36 o 30’ to the North being slavery free. This ‘Missouri Compromise’, according to Potter, was free of ambiguity even if philosophically and morally untenable as each side knew what it would gain or lose.
The third formulation was the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’. According to this doctrine, the citizens of a state would decide whether they wished to abolish slavery or not. This doctrine was very popular as it allowed Northern states to abolish slavery and the Southern states to affirm their slavery rights.
The fourth formula rejected the Congress’s right to regulate slavery in the territories and stated that the Constitution did not give the Congress such powers. The Constitution gave equal rights to all citizens and thus those who had slave properties could not be discriminated against those who did not wish to possess such properties. Potter argues that the Doctrine that the Congress “could neither exclude slavery from a territory itself nor grant power to a territorial government” (Potter, p. 383) to do so became the main element of Southern unity which led to the civil war.
Michael Holt on the other hand argues that slavery was not the main cause but it was the need to reform the political system and restore republicanism which was the main reason for the war. According to Holt, political theory dictates that in a two party system it is important for the parties to have opponents with clearly defined positions. In the early 1850s the two party systems had collapsed as the two parties namely the Federalists and the Jeffersonian increasingly took consensual stand on issues. Thus, the society now had to look for third party alternatives to carry forth issues that were dear to them but were not being taken up t by the old two party systems. This destruction of the old two party systems and the search for the new two party systems was in great part, responsible for civil war to take place.
The old two party systems had survived for so long because of federalism. Holt argues that “most legislation that affected every day lives of people was enacted at state capitals and not at Washington” (Holt 389). Thus, as the old two party system disintegrated and newer parties emerged, the framework of the new two party system namely the Democrats and Republicans varied from state to state. This varied response to positions to be taken on the issue of slavery gave rise to inconsistencies amongst the Democrats within their states as also amongst the Republicans within their respective states. During the reign of the old two party systems, the federal system had ensured precise divisions of issues of national and state importance which ensured that citizens could identify with their problems and have them addressed by the respective state unit, while national issues were tackled at Washington by the state representatives. When the federal system weakened and the new parties still in a nascent state, Holt opines that state and national issues remained blurred. This led to sectional extremism in the Deep South “because no new framework of two-party competition had appeared there as it had in the North and upper South” (Holt, p. 387).
Holt’s thesis appears to be built on political theoretical grounds while the postulates of Potter seem grounded in the practical pragmatic approach stating actual events of those times. Undoubtedly, the causes of the American Civil war, despite dense political theorization, resulted primarily due to the opposition of the American citizens to the immoral precepts of slavery. Potter’s analysis is event based with rich examples of actual incidences and discussion of legislations enacted by federal and state authorities of those times which give a more plausible explanation of the causes of the American Civil War. Holt’s formulation though attractive from the viewpoint of political theory is not substantiated with illustrative examples as has been put forth by Potter. Analysis of both the essays reveals that Potter’s thesis that sectional divisions due to differences on the question of slavery and its ramifications on individual, state and federal rights were the most likely causes of the American Civil War holds greater logical appeal than does Holt’s theory of Political Divisions.
- Holt, Michael F. “The Political Divisions That Contributed to Civil War.” Cobbs, Elizabeth. Major Problems in American History. Boston: Houghton Muffin, 2006.
- Potter, David M. “The Sectional Divisions That Led to Civil War.” Cobbs, Elizabeth. Major Problems in American History. Boston: Houghton Muffin, 2006.