Origins of the American Civil War: How Did It Come to This?

The American Civil War (1861 to 1865) not only cost over 600,000 lives, but wrought huge economic loss to both North and South. How did it come to this? The political and social structures in place had failed to resolve the issues at hand, and the war came. Both sides thought they were fighting for “Freedom”. The ideas in play after the Revolution created the modern world and many are still evolving today. The course will focus on attitudes, structures and values – taking a broad perspective on the issues and challenging us with discussion.


  • The Impending Crisis – America before the Civil War 1848 – 1861, David Potter, 1977, HarperCollins (Pulitzer Prize winner)
  • The Causes of the Civil War, Kenneth Stampp, 1991, Simon and Schuster
  • The Causes of the Civil War, Paul Calore, 2008, McFarland & Co – available for Kindle from Amazon


  • Nature of Civil Wars
  • Early settlers to North America and the values they took with them. Divergent groups sowing the seeds of future conflict.
  • The Enlightenment. Shift in the moral compass. How the ideas found their way to America. .
  • Colonial America Prospers. With vast lands to farm, growing populations, and ready markets, America prospered.
  • George Washington and the French and Indian War. The structure of colonial society and limits of representation.
  • Apostles of the Revolution. Resistance to taxation and government interference generally. Leading personalities of the American rebellion and how they set the course for the future.
  • Victory at Yorktown. The first civil war. How the Revolution was won and how this influenced the structures that emerged.
  • Jefferson, slavery and military. Thomas Jefferson played a significant part in shaping the emerging nation, yet was compromised.
  • Declaration of Independence, Constitutional Conventions, 1781 Articles of Confederation and 1789 Constitution. The founding documents evolved to allocate responsibilities between the states and central institutions. States' rights. Slavery clauses.
  • Manifest Destiny. Westward Expansion and the conflicts over whether the federal government should limit slavery in the new territories
  • Missouri Compromise 1820. Attempt to keep the Congress balanced.
  • Racism and abolitionists – Formation of Abolitionist Societies, Racism and conflicts
  • King Cotton and Sectionalism. The significance of cotton to America. Economic differences between north and south. Sectionalism.
  • Andrew Jackson. “King Andrew” and the common man. Native Americans. Banking problems.
  • Failure of Congress. The role played by “honor”, bullying, fighting and duelling in Congress in preventing a long-term solution emerging in the 1830s and 40s.
  • English and American Slave legal cases. How the law evolved in England and the US. Wilberforce, how cases influenced the debate
  • Underground Railway and Southern frustration. Growing frustration of Southerners at the failure of the fugitive slave laws and respect for their ‘property’.
  • Acquisition of the South-West. Texas joins the Union. Mexican War. Free Soil Party. Wilmott Proviso 1846.Compromise of 1850. 1854 Kanas-Nebraska Act. Republican Party.
  • John Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Illustrating the different roles played by Congressmen.
  • President Franklin Pierce. President 1853-1857. Nomination processes and issues arising.
  • Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, Know Nothings and the rise of the Republican Party. Political parties before the war.
  • James Buchanan. The promise, partisanship and failure of the 15th President
  • Chief Justice Taney and Dred Scott decision. Supreme Court’s most disastrous decision ever.
  • Lecompton Constitution. John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. The implications of these for the coming war.
  • Rise of Abraham Lincoln. Background. A House Divided. At the Cooper Union.
  • US in 1860. Comparison of resources immediately before the War.
  • Lincoln’s election and cabinet. Issues. Four-way results. Cabinet members. Inauguration and reaction.
  • Southern Secession. Reasons. Constitution of Confederate States. Cornerstone speech.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Describe the different cultures of the main early settlers to North America.
  2. Describe the changes in values brought by the Enlightenment, how they arrived in America and how they fed into the debate about African slaves.
  3. Describe the resources available to the colonies in North America and the prosperity therefrom.
  4. Describe key issues and personalities leading to the break with Britain and issues with personal rights, States rights and slavery.
  5. Describe the failure of Congress to effectively resolve its differences in the early 1800s. Politics, issues and personalities.
  6. Describe pressure building on these differences as a result of westward expansion and new territories becoming States.
  7. Describe the slavery provisions in the US Constitution, law cases in England and the US, especially Dred Scott decision.
  8. Outline slave revolts and actions calling for reform.
  9. Consider the rise of Lincoln. Discuss if he could have peacefully resolved the differences without bloodshed.
  10. Compare the resources available to South and North on the eve of War.
  11. Describe the reasons for southern secession and the resulting constitution of the Confederate States.

This course has no current classes. Please the waiting list.