The Civil War: Causes & Effects


Join Active Minds for a look at what caused the Civil War and how our country was changed as a result. This program will not attempt to cover the actual war in any significant detail, but rather will focus on what preceded and followed it.

Key Lecture Points

  • 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  At the core of the debate of the origin of the Civil War are two intertwining issues: the institution of slavery and the matter of the relation between federal and state law.
  • From the very origins of the United States, the matter of slavery had divided the union of the states, with many (but not all) southerners supporting it as a central necessity for the maintenance of a viable economy and many (but not all) northerners opposing it on either moral or economic grounds.
  • As the United States extended its territory further and further west across the continent, the debate over slavery came to dominate American political discourse: should western territories and states be slave or free?  To avoid conflict and potential disunion, Congress passed a series of laws in the early to mid-1800s that amounted to compromises between those in favor of and opposed to the extension of slavery westward.   By the 1850s, those compromises began to falter, leading to bloodshed in Kansas territory, a precursor to war in 1861.
  • In relation to the debate over slavery in the west came the question of the extent to which the federal government had the right to establish (and enforce) law binding upon states (and territories) and their citizens.
  • The election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860, on a platform of opposition to the extension of slavery in western territories, proved to be the last straw for states in the deep south, whose economy was slave dependent and who claimed that the acts of the Federal Government amounted to a violation of the rights of the states and their citizens.  By the time he took the oath of office, Lincoln was President of a Union 7 states smaller than when he was elected.  Lincoln maintained that the war that ensued was about re-establishing that union, not about abolishing slavery.  Southern states maintained that they had a legal right to secede from the union without threat of violence.
  • The aftermath of the four years of the Civil War was an immense challenge for the citizens, states and government of the United States.  The reconstruction period sought to re-establish a viable southern economy, but was undermined by lingering anger, racial conflict and its related economic disputes.
  • While the Civil War did result in the abolition of slavery in the US, it did not serve to establish full rights of those who had been freed.  The Jim Crow era of racial segregation replaced the slavery era.

Exploration Questions

  • What events led up to the firing of shots at Fort Sumter?
  • What was the impact of the Mexican-American War on the Civil War?
  • Why was the Emancipation Proclamation such a key event in the war?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think we continue to be fascinated and passionate about the Civil War’s history?
  • Have you ever visited or lived in the South? What reminders of Civil War history did you see? Have you ever visited any of the battlefields? What were your thoughts?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2006. 944 pages. Goodwin describes Lincoln’s political genius in selecting his Cabinet.
    Click here to order
  • Carhart, Tom. Sacred Ties: From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War. Berkeley Hardcover, 2010. 384 pages. Tells the story of the Civil War commanders who studied together at West Point and faced each other on the battlefield.
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  • Fleming, Thomas. The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee. Forge Books, 2010. 432 pages. An alternative history exploring the question, what if Lee had been tried for treason.
    Click here to order
  • Larson, Kate Clifford. The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. Basic Books, 2010. 288 pages. Describes the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.
    Click here to order