Study Guide

Gettysburg Address Historical Context

By Abraham Lincoln

Historical Context

Hoo-boy. Where to even start when it comes to the Civil War?

Oh, yeah, the institution of slavery, or can you believe people actually bought and sold other human beings?

But there's more to the Civil War than just slavery, as any viewing of Spielberg's Lincoln can inform you. There was also a lot of politicking.

Differences between states in the North and South had always been an apparent and divisive feature of the United States…and partly accounted for why the first attempt at cooperative government failed. They were so culturally, demographically, and economically different that the country almost never got off the ground in the first place.

In the early 1800s, the Northeast emerged as an industrial powerhouse as factories began to pop up across the countryside. Meanwhile, the South remained tied to the land and lucrative cash crops that could grow in the fertile soil. This meant they were way more reliant on slave labor to perform the backbreaking work. The invention of the cotton gin in 1794 only made each slave more productive and served to highlight the importance of slavery to the Southern economy.

(In an attempt to be unemotional historian types, we aren't going to insert cries of "seriously, guys? Slavery? Did no one have a conscience?" every time we mention slavery. But we're going to think it.)

When settlers continued to push into the western United States, more states applied to join the fledgling nation. This posed a problem for the federal government. Some new states wanted to allow slavery, while others were (yay) committed to stopping its spread.

In the middle was the government, which wanted to keep everyone happy…and not at war with each other. As both moral outrage at slavery and the South's reliance on forced labor on plantations grew, most administrations attempted to maintain a balancing act between the two sides. Due to the Missouri Compromise, the de facto boundary between slave states and free states became a very real divide.

Throughout the antebellum period, laws were passed to uphold the rights of slaveholders just as abolitionist sentiments were growing in many parts of the country. And this conflict was tearing the country apart.

Decisions like Dred Scott v. Sandford bolstered arguments from states' rights supporters that they could do what they wanted in their own territory. This sank Congress' futile attempts to maintain the status quo and keep a balance between slave states and free states.

And you'd better believe this led to some violence.

This North-South split also was evident during the 1860 election that swept Lincoln into office. Seeing the writing on the wall that Lincoln's arrival likely meant the end of slavery, South Carolina became the first state to secede in December 1860. After a standoff with federal forces, South Carolina artillery opened fire…and the Civil War officially began.