The topic of who or what was primarily responsible for the United States civil war is one that is continually being debated. There are those that point to such persons as then president Abraham Lincoln, or confederate president Jefferson Davis himself, or perhaps even lesser known fringe players, such as the raging abolitionist John Brown. How these arguments are flawed is that the stage for the Civil War had already been set decades before those persons previously mentioned had any influence whatsoever on the overall climate of the U.S. Indeed, the establishment of the Confederate States of America and in turn the cause of the civil war itself, may be traced back to the Jackson presidency of the 1830s. Jackson's quarrels with then Vice President John C. Calhoun regarding the prospect of South Carolina seceding from the union sparked a polarization of North and South. This would grow exponentially over the decades leading up to the civil war until finally reaching critical mass in the early 1860s.
It all began thanks to a recurring theme throughout U.S. history: Resentment of taxation. More specifically, South Carolina's resentment of the Tariff of 1828, considered by many at the time to be the "Tariff of Abominations". The tariff placed "...a heavy tax on imports designed to discourage foreign imports and encourage American manufacturing." (Cayton 251). The North, being highly industrialized, benefited greatly. The South, however, which was rural and highly agricultural, was badly hurt, and thought that the tariff was unfair. This prompted South Carolina, Calhoun's home state,
to act upon his belief that the States had the right to voice their dissent against the Federal Government, and furthermore to act as they saw fit, a belief first outlined in Calhoun's doctrine of nullification. "A single state, Calhoun argued in his South Carolina Exposition of 1828, might suspend a federal law which it regarded unconstitutional (that is to say, as injurious to its own interests), until three quarters of the states had justified the law through the amending power." (Schlesinger 34). In 1832, yet another tariff was passed by congress, advancing South Carolina's malice. It was Jackson's refusal to pander to South Carolina's wishes that was a crucial component of the engine that drove America to Civil War.
South Carolina was threatening to secede the Union if its demand for the full nullification of the tariff was not met. Instead of negotiating with South Carolina and making some sort of compromise, Jackson had a much different approach to the dilemma. Jackson was not a man who made compromises. Jackson dealt not in words, but in lead, as his dueling record would attest to. "At his urging, in 1833 Congress passed the Force Bill, which required South Carolina to collect the tariff. Jackson threatened to send 50,000 federal troops to enforce the law." (Cayton 252). The day was saved when Henry Clay finally made a compromise with South Carolina which reduced some of the import duties. "South Carolina canceled its nullification act. Yet in an act of continued defiance it nullified the Force Bill at the same time." (Cayton 252). For a brief period of time, decades before the< U.S. broke out into all-out civil war, the nation stood on the brink of conflict. Though we had subverted disaster for the time being, Henry Clay's remedy was no more effective in the long run than putting a band-aid on a cancer patient and calling it a job well done. Andrew Jackson's aggression would not be forgotten. The 1833 dilemma set a precedent that would be observed by future generations, disillusioned by the privileged North and intent on severing all ties to the Union.
Calhoun's assertions that the States had power over the Federal Government instigated secessionists to carry out their plan to break away from the United States and form the Confederate States of America, a new country devoted to those issues that were held in high importance by the southernmost states. One prominent secessionist was a man named William Lowndes Yancey, who was an influential journalist and a famous orator at the time. "There was no secret about what Yancey wanted. More than a decade earlier he had denounced 'the foul spell of a party which binds and divides and distracts the South,'". (Catton 2). According to Yancey, there was "'...only one hope of righting ourselves and doing justice to ourselves and the Union'" (Catton 2). Yancey would soon discover that "...nothing but secession would do." (Catton 2). Already a fervent supporter of the southern cause, "He moved south," and "fell under the spell of John C. Calhoun". Yancey was not the only influential secessionist to channel the spirit of Calhoun in his effort to advance the Confederate cause, as many others followed suit. Indeed, the seeds that Calhoun had sown had finally reached fruition. The threat of secession which had been evaded 30 years earlier was now back on the table. "On the day after the speaker election, Senator Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, arose in the Senate to present a series of resolutions on the slavery question. These began by reasserting the state-sovereignty doctrines of John C. Calhoun, declared that it was the Senate's duty 'to resist all attempts to discriminate either in relation to person or property' in the territories, and then flatly stated that there was no power anywhere to limit slavery in the territories." (Catton 18). Calhoun had risen to the status of an idol amongst secessionists. "The news from Charleston brought crowds into the streets at New Orleans; there were parades, bands again played the 'Marseillaise," a bust of John C. Calhoun was crowned with a blue cockade, and the press noted 'a general demonstration of joy.'" (Catton 138).
Annoyed with excessive tariffs, South Carolina declared their opposition citing John C. Calhoun's writings on the power of the States over the Federal Government. A stubborn Jackson failed to respond in the appropriate fashion, and instead dug a deeper hole. Tensions between the North and the South escalated for decades until the breaking point when the U.S. was suddenly embroiled in all-out civil war. The fuse had been set, and it was only a matter of time before the spark inevitably met the cannon.
Catton, Bruce. The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961.
Cayton, Andrew, Elisabeth I. Perry, Linda Reed, and Allan M. Winkler. America: Pathways to the
Present. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall, 2000. 251, 252.
Schlesinger, A. Jr. The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945.