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What really started the American Civil War?

Robert Gudmestad, Professor and Chair of History Department, Colorado State University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

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What really started the Civil War? – Abbey, age 7, Stone Ridge, New York

The U.S. citizenship test – which immigrants must pass before becoming citizens of the United States – has this question: “Name one problem that led to the Civil War.” It lists three possible correct answers: “slavery,” “economic reasons” and “states’ rights.”

But as a historian and professor who studies slavery, Southern history and the American Civil War, I know there’s really only one correct answer: slavery.

White Southerners left the Union to establish a slave-holding republic; they were dedicated to the preservation of slavery.

What’s more, unlike slavery in the ancient world, slavery in the United States was based on race. By the time of the Civil War, Black people were the ones enslaved; white people were not.


Every American citizen, whether born in this country or naturalized, should understand that the conflict over slavery is what caused the Civil War.

Slavery in the U.S. began at least as early as 1619, when a Portuguese ship brought about 20 enslaved African people to present-day Virginia. It grew so quickly that by the time Colonists fought for their independence from England in 1775, slavery was legal in all 13 Colonies.

As the 19th century progressed, Northern Colonies slowly abolished slavery; but Southern Colonies made it central to their economy. By 1860, nearly 4 million enslaved people lived in the South.

Increasingly, the North and South were at odds over the future of slavery. White Southerners believed slavery had to expand into new territories or it would die. In 1845, they pressured the federal government to annex Texas, where slavery was legal. They also supported an effort to purchase Cuba and add it as a slave state.


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