What came before Fort Sumter

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

What came before Fort SumterFor many the firing on Fort Sumter was the cause of the American Civil War. But before Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 there were over 70 years of historical events that formed the narrative that created the American Civil War. Over the course of the next several posts we’ll examine those events, starting with the founding of the country and the Constitution of the United States.

Let’s get this point out of the way at the start. The primary cause of the American Civil War is slavery, pure and simple. Every secession document attests to that fact. The Cornerstone Speech of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens is very clear about their beliefs:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Yes, the South complained about the tariff system in the United States but the impact of tariffs on the Southern states was exacerbated by the institution of slavery. The Southern planter economy was based on slavery and never really diversified in the antebellum period. Every part of the Southern economy was subordinated to the institution of slavery and its products: cotton, tobacco, rice and peanuts.

The Southern states claimed that states’ rights was a primary cause of the war but the root cause of this was slavery. Without slavery the Southern states would not have complained so loudly about state’s rights. Without slavery there would have been no need for nullification.

Let’s start at the beginning then. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought about twenty black Africans to the Colony of Virginia as indentured servants. From this beginning, slavery will be introduced to the future United States. From 1619 until 1865 and even to today, all of American history has been impacted by that one event.

By 1671 about 2,000 of the 40,000 inhabitants of colonial Virginia are imported slaves. White indentured servants working for five years before their release are three times as numerous and provide much of the hard labor. But that would change as more and more black slaves replaced white indentured servants.

By 1719, non-slaveholding farmers in Virginia think slave labor threatens their livelihoods. They persuade the General Assembly to discuss a prohibition of slavery or a ban on importing slaves. In response, the assembly raises the tariff on slaves to five pounds, which about equals the full price of an indenture, so as not to make importation of slaves as initially attractive or preferable to a mere indenture for a term of years.

In 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, Quakers, under the leadership of James Pemberton, and those of other faiths including Dr. Benjamin Rush, organize the first anti-slavery society in the colonies soon to become the United States, The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, in Philadelphia.

In 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence declares “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Written by a slave-owning Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, it allows slavery to remain legal in the colonies.

In 1778, the Virginia legislature passes a law, with Thomas Jefferson’s support and probably authorship, that bans importing slaves into Virginia. It is the first state to ban the slave trade, and all other states eventually followed.

On July 13, 1787 the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation passes the Northwest Ordinance to govern territory north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania. The territory will become the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In the ordinance, Congress prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory and requires the return of fugitive slaves found in the territory to their owners. The law no longer applies as soon as the territories become states.

Anti-slavery Northerners cite the ordinance many times over the years as precedent for the limitation, if not the abolition, of slavery in the United States. Despite the terms of the ordinance, Southern-born settlers will try and fail to pass laws to allow slavery in Indiana and Illinois.

Following the collapse of the Articles of Confederation the Continental Congress convenes to rewrite the Articles. But in attempting to do so they realize that a new document must be framed in order to govern the 13 colonies that are now the United States.

In the next post, we’ll look at the Constitution of the United and the debate over slavery and federalism.

Series NavigationThe Constitution and Slavery >>

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