What Caused the American Civil War?

It often seems as if history is far away and its study nothing but a curious, but impractical pastime. However, the past has shaped our present. Conversely, the way we look at the past also influences what we make of our times. Therefore, I find it deeply troubling what White House chief of staff John Kelly has recently said about the cause of the American Civil War – that it was the lack of an ability to compromise that led to it. While that is not wrong, it leaves out the important part and sends an unspoken, but no less problematic message. As a historian, I’d like to offer a richer explanation for the beginning of the Civil War that looks at the three dimensions of policy, polity and politics of the Secession as well as the unspoken message implicit in the comment. Keeping in line with the theme of this blog, I’ll also do a very quick exploration of how board games about the Civil War deal with the political aspects of it.

The Politics, Policy and Polity of the Secession

Political science ascribes three dimensions to the political: there is the procedural dimension of politics (e.g. a debate, negotiations over a new bill, or an election campaign), the dimension of the principles and issues called policy (e.g. if gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry or how to help businesses be more innovative) and lastly, the institutional and structural dimension of polity (e.g. the Constitution or the unwritten rules which kind of behavior is okay in the political arena). When Kelly singled out the lack of compromise, he looked at politics only and left out the other two thirds of the subject matter of policy and the institutional framework of polity. This is especially problematic because his statement is unspecific enough that it can be trivially applied to any kind of war. Every war starts due to two parties disagreeing, because if one of them gives in to the other, the war is averted. By that measure, World War II started over a lack of compromise since Nazi Germany and Poland could not agree on a joint position on the (policy) matter if Poland’s territory should belong to Germany and if Germany had a rightful (polity) claim to it.

Policy: Slavery

So, if policy matters, what were the secessionists and the Union disagreeing about? You might have guessed it: It was slavery. Slavery dominated the political debate in the years before the Civil War. Sure, there were other political issues as well (for example, building the railway to the Pacific), but none of them yielded disagreements harsh enough to start a war. Slavery, however, was debated in the sharpest terms. Should slavery be expanded to new states admitted to the Union? How should it be handled in the territories that were not yet states? Should the Fugitive Slave Act require the Northern states to assist in capturing fugitive slaves and return them to the South? Do notice that these questions deal with slavery outside of the Southern slave states – so the matter of disagreement was mostly if slavery should be expanded, not if it should be abolished.

Polity: Constitution and Legitimacy

US Constitution

This is the Constitution of the United States. It does not mention a right to secede.

What about polity – did the structures and institutions of the United States allow states to secede? The short answer is no. With the adoption of the Constitution 1788 the United States had become a unified country (as opposed to the much looser federation they had been before under the Articles of Confederation). Therefore, the secessionists did not even try all that much to claim that seceding was a general right of the states. Instead, they tried to invoke the memory of the American Revolution and paint themselves as the new fighters against an unjust government which tried to infringe their rights to property (of humans) and in which they had no share. That was a rather brazen claim, given that the American revolutionaries had rebelled because they had the same duties as the citizens of England (namely, to pay taxes), but not the same rights as they were not represented in parliament. The Southerners had indeed even enjoyed privileges in their political rights, since the Three-Fifths clause gave the Southern states more electoral votes than their share of eligible voters would have merited.

On a more general level, the legitimacy of a government can be provided both by input (how the government is formed) and output (what the government achieves). The US government from which the Southern states seceded was input-legitimized by a democratic election in which Abraham Lincoln was selected to preside over the Union. In terms of output, the secessionists had not suffered any kind of disadvantage or infringement of their rights by Lincoln’s government – most of them had already declared their secession before Lincoln had even taken office. Since all possible explanations for a legitimate secession are therefore exhausted, there only remains another explanation: The secession was a treasonous act against the Constitution and the Union.

Politics: Compromise and Secession

While Kelly’s claim that lack of compromise led to the Civil War is incomplete and trivial, it still merits some examination. Who was willing to compromise, and who wasn’t? President Lincoln was a moderate abolitionist, but a staunch unionist. His main concern was to keep the Union together, and he was willing to make concessions for it. In his inaugural address he declared – as in many of his speeches before – “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
This, however, was not enough for the hardliners in the South – the “Fire-Eaters”, as they were called for their fierceness. They had demanded ironclad safeguards for slavery and toyed with the idea of secession during the election campaign already. When the Democratic Party convention of 1860 seemed on the edge of electing Senator Stephen A. Douglas, whose stance on slavery was to leave it to the states and territories themselves to decide (“popular sovereignty”, as he called his doctrine, but feel free to understand it as “states’ rights”), the delegates from the South bolted from the convention, leaving Douglas unable to find the necessary 2/3-majority with so many delegates gone. The democratic party was thereby split, and the Northern Democrats nominated Douglas as their candidate, while the Southern Democrats convened separately and nominated John C. Breckinridge. This did not only give the Southern slaveholders a candidate explicitly committed to the institutions of the South, it also improved Lincoln’s election chances since the Democratic vote would be split. The Fire-Eaters did not mind – a Lincoln victory, they thought, gave them grounds for secession. While Breckinridge remained rather uncommitted and did not campaign himself (as it was still seen as shameful if a candidate needed to advertise for himself), most of his campaigning was done by other Southern Democrats, most notably the chief Fire-Eater William Yancey who gave speeches for Breckinridge all over the South. Breckinridge was confronted with Yancey’s open disunionism, but did not disavow him. Stephen A. Douglas commented that he did not believe Breckinridge to be a disunionist, but knew every disunionist to be a Breckinridge supporter.

Crittenden Compromise

The secessionists rejected the Crittenden Compromise, weakening their appeal to slaveholding states that wanted to remain in the Union. Card “Crittenden Compromise” from For the People, image © Avalon Hill Games.

Breckinridge suffered a resounding defeat in the election. While he could win a number of Southern states, he only received 18.1% of the popular vote – much less than Lincoln, but also much less than Douglas, and only a few percentage points more than John Bell of the freshly founded Constitutional Union Party, who ran on the same pro-slavery platform as Breckinridge, but was explicitly in favor of keeping the Union. When the Southern states began to secede, John C. Crittenden, a Constitutional Unionist Senator from Kentucky authored the “Crittenden Compromise” which aimed at keeping the Union together by making wide-ranging concessions to the Southern slavers. Slavery was to be guaranteed in the South in perpetuity as well as expanded to all territories and future states south of the dividing line of the Missouri compromise by constitutional amendments and owners of fugitive slaves were to receive federal compensations. Lincoln opposed this deal – and so did the Southern slaveholders. Although their stance had just been soundly rejected by the American people in the election, they did not want to accept a deal that would have met most of their demands. Indeed, some more ability to compromise could have been expected of the Fire-Eaters.

The Unspoken Message of “lack of ability to compromise”

So, what was the Civil War all about then? We have seen that slavery dominated the political discourse prior to 1861. The matters in question were about the expansion of slavery to the territories, new states and existing free states who were expected to be more compliant with slavery (notice how the Southern slave states disregarded states’ rights in those matters by trying to enforce their position via the federal government). When the it became clear that not all the demands of the South would be met because the American voters in their majority had a different stance, the Southern states did not try to find an amiable solution, but instead resorted to treason and seceded from the Union.
These are things Kelly should have said when he spoke about the causes of the Civil War. Leaving them out conveys the message that both sides are to blame for the Civil War. By placing the issue firmly in the procedural dimension of politics, Kelly just shrugs at the alleged inability of politicians to produce results instead of denouncing the moral wrong of slavery or the unconstitutional treason of the South. Exculpating the Southern secessionists is however not simply a matter of what happened in the past (especially not when it comes from a high-ranking government official). The cause the South fought for – white supremacy – still has its supporters. Revalidating the Confederacy of the past also legitimizes the white supremacists of the present.

Board Games and the Political Aspects of the Civil War

Board games do not necessarily do better in depicting the causes of the Civil War. Generally, the games dealing with the Civil War are not inclined to discuss these causes anyway – because if the outbreak of the Civil War depends on specific factors, it might also be avoided (which is directly contrary of the purpose of the game to let you fight it out between North and South). When the war begins, however, many games just focus on the movement of armies. Political factors are conspicuously absent (this is not only a problem of games dealing with the Civil War). That is a sadly truncated depiction of war. As the possibly most eminent theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz said: “War is but a mere continuation of politics by different means.” Wars are a political instrument. They are fought to achieve political goals. Political factors influence how wars are waged. While this is true for any level (let’s say your squad in a tactical game finds two fugitive slaves – how do they deal with them?), it is especially marked for strategic games, which I will briefly examine.

Battle-Cry of Freedom

A newer Civil War game: Battle Cry of Freedom.

Slavery and its implications are a non-issue for many of the older titles. The American Civil War (1974), A House Divided (1981) or The Civil War (1983) all leave it out completely.[1] Given the level of detail in which Civil War treats the military matters, this seems like an especially glaring omission – but apparently topics like the promotion of individual commanders were more important to the designers than the crucial policy issue of the war. War Between the States (1977) gives the Union player the option to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, though it does not only regard that as a mostly disadvantageous thing for the North (it only keeps other nations from intervention which is unlikely anyway while strengthening the South) but also treats it in a sarcastic way in the rules. A more nuanced depiction of the Civil War that takes its political contents seriously is first found in For the People (1998), one of the very first card-driven war games. Designer Mark Herman used the strategy cards to include many events outside of the realm of military operations, including those that deal with slavery. Afterwards, there was no turning back anymore. While Blue vs. Gray (1999) was still heavy on individual commanders, it also made the political dimension relevant to the gameplay. Battle Cry of Freedom (2003) picks up on this as well, and offers therefore a more accurate depiction of the Civil War than the much more complex older games.
Which political topics do you find missing in games? And which games do a better job of representing the historical situations? Let me know in the comments!

Games Referenced

The American Civil War (SPI, Jim Dunnigan)
A House Divided (GDW Games, Frank Chadwick/Alan Emrich)
The Civil War (Victory Games, Eric Lee Smith)
War Between the States (SPI, Irad B. Hardy)
For the People (GMT Games, Mark Herman)
Blue vs. Gray (GMT Games, Evan Jones)
Battle Cry of Freedom (Decision Games, David Smith)

Further Reading

If you’re looking for a good introduction to freedom as the central value of the American political discourse (and slavery as the lack thereof), see Foner, Eric: The Story of American Freedom, W.W. Norton, New York, NY/London, 1999.
A good newer study of the secession crisis is Bowman, Shearer Davis: At the Precipice. Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC 2010.
A great overview of the political contents of Civil War games is Wallace, Alfred: The War in Cardboard and Ink. Fifty Years of Civil War Board Games, in: Kreiser Jr., Lawrence A./Allred, Randal: The Civil War in Popular Culture. Memory and Meaning, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 2014, p. 175—89.


1. Some make cursory references in their accompanying materials. The introduction of A House Divided states, for example: “the American Civil War was fought over the twin issues of slavery and states’ rights”.


6 thoughts on “What Caused the American Civil War?

  1. Francisco (FC)

    Mark Herman has a new game coming out specifically dealing with the political aspects just prior to the start of the Civil War between Unionists and Secessionists in GMT’s Fort Sumter. This may be of interest for you to check out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Most Anticipated Historical Board Games of 2018 | Clio's Board Games

  3. Pingback: The Military Bubble – And How to Find Out of It | Clio's Board Games

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