Study Guide

Causes of the Civil War People

  • John C. Calhoun

    John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) was a United States politician from South Carolina who served as vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

    In 1832, Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency to accept a position in the United States Senate. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, he led a crusade against abolitionism and those antislavery legislators who sought to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

    On February 6th, 1837, Calhoun stood before the United States Senate and read aloud two antislavery petitions sent to Congress by abolitionist groups. He then proceeded to deliver a warning: "As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread," he said of the abolitionist crusade, "it has not yet infected this [federal government]...but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of the Union into deadly conflict."

  • Henry Clay

    Henry Clay (1777-1852), who has been called the "Great Pacificator" and the "The Great Compromiser," was a U.S. congressman, senator, statesman, and a twice-unsuccessful presidential candidate from the Whig Party (in 1832 and 1844).

    He was one of the most prominent congressmen in American history and played a central role in shaping and ensuring passage of the most critical sectional compromises of the antebellum period: the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Tariff of 1833 that ended the Nullification Crisis, and the Compromise of 1850.

  • Jefferson Davis

    Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. After a distinguished career in national politics as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, Davis served as a congressman and then as a Mississippi senator.

    After the South's defeat in the Civil War, he was stripped of his citizenship and took refuge in Europe, returning to the United States after a treason case against him was dropped. He died in New Orleans in 1889, and Congress posthumously reinstated his American citizenship in 1978.

    As senator, Davis initially argued against secession, but when his home state of Mississippi seceded from the Union in January 1861, he acquiesced and resigned from the Senate. He was elected president of the newly formed Confederate States of America on February 9th, 1861 and served in that post throughout the Civil War.

  • Frederick Douglass

    Frederick Douglass (c.1817-1895), born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was a runaway slave, a supporter of women's rights, and probably the most prominent abolitionist and human rights leader of the nineteenth century.

    A renowned orator, Douglass favored the use of political tactics to work for abolition. During the Civil War, he advised President Lincoln to let former slaves fight for the North, and helped organize two Black regiments in Massachusetts. Douglass worked zealously to make the war a direct confrontation with slavery.

    The Fugitive Slave Law transformed the attitudes of many abolitionists, including Douglass. Though he had previously condemned radical calls for rebellion against proslavery advocates and masters, by 1850, Douglass was espousing new views. He now suggested that attacking slave catchers was the only means of preventing the inhumane yet legally-sanctioned practice of slavery.

  • Stephen A. Douglas

    Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) was an Illinois politician who dominated the U.S. Senate throughout the 1850s.

    He is perhaps best remembered for engaging in a series of fiery debates with Republican Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Illinois senatorial race. Douglas ultimately defeated Lincoln in the race for that Senate seat, but it was Lincoln who gained the most from the contest. Two years later, boosted by his reputation as a brilliant orator, Lincoln handily defeated Douglas in the presidential race.

    In 1854, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act allowed settlers in newly organized territories north of Missouri to decide amongst themselves whether slavery would be allowed. By reopening the bitterly contentious question of slavery in the territories, Douglas' actions led to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, heightening political tensions and leading directly to the creation of the antislavery Republican Party.

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America for the central role he played in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

    During the American Revolution, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia and, after the war, he was appointed minister to France. He also served as the nation's first secretary of state, its second vice president, and its third president.

    Thomas Jefferson authored the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. 

    It is weird then, that a Virginia planter who owned slaves and publicly defended the institution would propose such a measure?

    Well, Jefferson, like many slaveholders from the Upper South, envisioned an eventual end to slavery over time. Furthermore, he and his colleagues thought it best to limit land-grabbing planters and to prevent the migration of slaves into new territory. Southerners, particularly planters from the Deep South, opposed any concessions that might weaken the institution and threaten their rights as property holders. For this reason, the Northwest Ordinance drove the first major wedge between the increasingly "free" North and much of the slaveholding South.

  • Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the sixteenth president of the United States during one of the most dun-dun-dun periods in American history, the Civil War.

    Before being elected president, Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature and lost an election for the U.S. Senate to Stephen A. Douglas. Nevertheless, his fierce campaign earned him a nomination for the presidency. The first Republican president ever, Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War and ended slavery in America.

    Despite being remembered today as "The Great Emancipator," Lincoln maintained a moderate stance on the emancipation of slaves, never vowing in his campaigns to abolish slavery, as it was vital to the Southern economy.

    He even stated in his presidential inaugural address that he would not use his executive power to interfere with the institution in any state where it existed. Still, Lincoln vehemently opposed the expansion of slavery into new western territories and served as one of the most influential advocates of "free soil." For this reason, the president posed a significant threat to the economic and political interests of the slaveholding South.

    So, in response to his 1860 election victory, seven southern states seceded from the Union. Lincoln was determined to prevent disunion by any means necessary, but his attempts at negotiation failed. In the first months of his presidency, the nation was at war with each other.

  • Wendell Phillips

    Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) was a wealthy Harvard Law School graduate who gave up his career and social prestige in order to join up with the abolitionist cause in 1835. He became one of its most stirring orators.

    Phillips was a close associate and friend of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. After witnessing a hostile mob dragging Garrison through the streets of Boston in 1835, he joined up with the antislavery cause. Phillips also opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War.

    Like Garrison, he refused to identify with any political party and condemned the Constitution as a proslavery document. He thought that, in addition to freedom itself, the government owed Blacks land, education, and all civil rights. He also blasted Lincoln for his moderate stance on emancipation.

  • Dred Scott

    Dred Scott (1795-1858) was a slave who, in the 1840s, chose to sue his master's widow for his freedom. He argued that his master, John Emerson, escorted him onto free soil in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, so he'd legally—even if inadvertently—granted him freedom.

    In 1857, the case reached the United States Supreme Court. The justices ruled against Scott. John Emerson's widow had since remarried, and she returned Scott, his wife, and his daughters to their owners, the Blow family, in May 1857, just months after the ruling.

    Both Dred and Harriet Scott died shortly thereafter, never to witness the legacy of their fight. The Dred Scott case was a major event on the road to the Civil War.

    The Supreme Court's ruling was a provocative opinion. It stated flatly that Blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect" and rejected the right of any territory to ban slavery within its own borders. Inflaming public opinion in the North, the case led to a hardening of antislavery attitudes and a surge in popularity for the new antislavery Republican Party.

  • Alexander Stephens

    Alexander Stephens (1812-1883) was a politician who served in the Georgia legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives before the Civil War.

    Throughout his career, Stephens defended slavery but opposed disunion, favoring sectional compromises instead. When his home state of Georgia voted in 1861 to secede from the Union, Stephens reluctantly followed. His fellow Southern leaders chose him to serve as vice president of the Confederacy throughout the Civil War.

    In March 1861, the newly appointed vice president delivered his "Cornerstone" speech. The "cornerstone" of the Confederacy, Stephens announced, was "the great truth that the n**** is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe

    Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an American abolitionist and novelist who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most influential books in American history.

    Her father was Lyman Beecher, pastor of the Congregational Church in Litchfield, and her brother was the famous Congregational preacher Henry Ward Beecher. After the death of one of her children made her contemplate the pain slaves must endure when family members are sold away, she decided to write a book about slavery. With the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, she became a national celebrity, and went on to write several more books on the topic, many of them in response to Southern critiques of the original.

    In the context of a renewed sectional debate over slavery, the acquisition of new territories, and the infamous Fugitive Slave Law that formed a part of the Compromise of 1850, Stowe began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in serial installments in The National Era, a popular weekly paper.

    When the novel was published in book form in March 1852, it infuriated the South, where most states banned its sale. Still, half a million copies were sold within four years of its publication. During the Civil War, President Lincoln met Stowe in the White House and reportedly said to her (in so many words): "So you're the little lady that caused this great big war."

  • Roger B. Taney

    Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) was the fifth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. In 1835, President Andrew Jackson nominated Taney, a fellow Democrat, to fill the position that had been vacated by the death of Chief Justice John Marshall.

    In March 1857, Chief Justice Taney delivered the majority opinion of the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. John Sandford.

    In one of the most infamous rulings ever handed down by the Court, Taney struck down the portion of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery in federal territories and argued that the Constitution not only protected slavery, but also excluded Blacks from citizenship.

    People of African ancestry, he declared, "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution." Therefore, "they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

    So, Scott had no right to sue in federal court and had never been free. Yeesh.

  • Harriet Tubman

    Harriet Tubman (c.1820-1913), originally Araminta Ross, was a runaway slave and abolitionist who guided some 300 fellow runaways to freedom as one of the most famous and successful "conductors" on the Underground Railroad.

    The so-called Railroad was a secret network of safe houses where slaves were hidden on their journey northward. To facilitate its success, Tubman journeyed perilously back into the South at least a dozen times, and was able to bring her parents and brother to freedom.

    Tubman was also a prominent antislavery lecturer and a friend of famous abolitionists such as John Brown, who may have told her about his secret plan to raid the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and foment a slave revolt.

  • David Walker

    David Walker (c.1796-1830) was a free Black man, a self-taught clothes dealer, a radical abolitionist, a devout Christian, and a writer who published his self-titled David Walker's Appeal in 1829.

    Walker was harshly criticized by some white abolitionists who wanted a gradual emancipation and who feared that his radicalism would hurt the antislavery movement as a whole.

    Walker's Appeal was a call to Blacks to take militant action, which greatly alarmed white audiences. In it, Walker sought to incite the slaves of the South into rebelling against their masters.

    Many historians have argued that the antislavery movement began to take shape in 1831, with the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, but Walker was arguably the true originator of radical abolitionism.

  • David Wilmot

    David Wilmot (1814-1868) was an American politician who sponsored a bill that promised to prohibit slavery in territory gained from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Wilmot, a Democrat until the 1850s, opposed the expansion of slavery into the West but did not advocate abolition.

    Certain of success in the war against Mexico, American political leaders debated the question of slavery's expansion.

    In late 1846, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot suggested that slavery be banned in all new territory acquired from Mexico. His proposal, known as the Wilmot Proviso, failed to pass, but the controversy it incited helped dismantle traditional political party alliances, as nearly all Northerners supported the bill while most Southerners opposed it.