Was the Civil War inevitable?

This entry is part 18 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

John Brown interior engine of the engine houseA cautionary note about the inevitability of events before we begin. We in 2014 have the advantage at looking at events in reverse. Our ancestors had no such advantage. They lived the events that we now study and took each event as it came. in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed the various participants had no idea that it would begin a train of events that led to the Civil War.

In order to answer the question, “Was the Civil War inevitable?” one must first look at the writing of the Constitution and the three-fifths compromise that was included in the original document. Without an understanding of this fatal compromise between the North and the South everything that followed doesn’t make any real sense.

The three-fifths compromise of 1787 called for slaves to be counted at a ratio of three-fifths for representation purposes in the House of Representatives. Since slaves could not vote, slave states would thus have the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College.

Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free inhabitants of each state be counted for apportionment purposes, while delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, opposed the proposal, wanting slaves to count in their actual numbers. The compromise which was finally agreed upon of counting “all other persons” as only three-fifths of their actual numbers.

This compromise reduced the representation of the slave states relative to the original proposals, but improved it over the Northern position. An inducement for slave states to accept the Compromise was its tie to taxation in the same ratio, so that the burden of taxation on the slave states was also reduced.

In real terms, the three-fifths compromise gave the Southern states substantial power in the House of Representatives. In 1793 Southern slave states had 47 members but would have had 33 had seats been assigned based on free populations. In 1812, slave states had 76 instead of the 59 they would have had. In 1833, they had 98 instead of 73. As a result, Southern states had disproportionate influence on the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War.

Just as important, the Southern States had an outsize number of presidents until the Civil War. Of the first 15 Presidents, nine were born in the South. Of those nine,  seven were born in Virginia.

What did this all mean in terms of legislation? The Southern states began every legislative debate in the House with a built-in advantage. This gave them better tariffs, in most cases, better representation at all levels of the federal government and laws that gave the South almost everything that they wanted.

The various slave versus free compromises in 1820 and 1850 allowed slavery to spread into states that the South could reasonably hope for. Even though they were unable to vote Kansas into the Union as a slave state they were able to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. Roger Taney, the slave-holding Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, presided over the court when it handed down the Dred Scott decision.

The period from 1787 to 1860 was one of turmoil and tension in the United States. Each side attempted to gain the advantage over the other. The South saw the abolition of slavery as an end to their rural way of life. Everything in the Southern culture was dependent on slavery. The agricultural products that enabled white Southerners to live in prosperity, cotton, tobacco, rice and peanuts, was dependent on slave labor.

Series Navigation<< The Rest of the Story: Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott and John Brown

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