Congress, with representatives from all of the states, agreed the United States was much stronger if all states were part of one country. There was no question about that. But there were questions about what rights states had to govern themselves.

Events Leading Up to the American Civil War

Arguments about states' rights had continued to explode in Congress since the country was first formed in colonial times. Congress wanted to decide major issues that would affect all the states. Individual states, especially in the South, wanted the right to decide major issues for themselves.  One of the major issues of importance to the Southern states was the right to own slaves. The Southern states believed that Congress should not decide whether or not slavery was allowed in their state or any state. That was a State decision, not a Federal decision. As well as arguments in Congress, there was a huge abolition movement among groups of people in the North to stop slavery forever in all the states. Arguments raged between state representatives in Congress, each convinced that their side was right.

Both sides agreed that it was important to keep all the states together as one country. The United States would be stronger if united to stop foreign aggression. Compromise had been achieved several times by representatives in Congress, who were fighting for the rights of their individual states, while also trying to find a way to stay united. But each compromise never seemed to solve things for long. Compromise was achieved by Congress in 1820 and again in 1850 over the question of slavery.

In the following decade, several things happened that made continued compromise more difficult. Eleven states decided to give up arguing and simply form their own country. They seceded from the United States. The states remaining in the US Congress believed if this was allowed, the United States would be dangerously weakened and vulnerable to foreign aggression. So it could not be allowed. Three weeks later, in 1861, states in the North and states in the South were at war over the question of states' rights, which was really, on the Southern states part at least, a state's right to decide whether or not slavery was legal in their state. Many people in the North believed the war was being fought to end slavery, and that is what finally happened. But that's not why the Union went to war. You can see that clearly in the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln wrote two years into the war. It could have been written to free all the slaves in every state, but it wasn't.

This civil war has been assigned many names by historians including simply The Civil War, as well as the War of Northern Aggression, the War of Southern Independence, and the War Between the States. But historians have never assigned the name the War to End Slavery because slavery was not the verbalized central issue for the first two years of the war. It was fought over the question of states' rights. The Southern states believed they had the right to own slaves without Federal intervention.  The Northern states believed that the Federal government had the right to legislate major issues, and when in disagreement with the states over major issues, the Federal government won. But abolitionist groups in the North were putting a great deal of pressure on the US Congress to end slavery. No matter how you word it, slavery was a central issue of the war.

(1) The Election of Abraham Lincoln (A New Political Party) 1860
(2) South Carolina secedes from the Union, 10 additional Southern states follow
(3) Shots fired at Fort Sumter 1861

How one piece of legislation divided a nation (video)

Causes of the Civil War - Popular sovereignty and western expansion (the balance of free states & slave states)

Ted-Ed: Slavery as a central issue of the war - it's all how you word it

Events leading up to the Civil War (Quia)

Brink of the Storm (Quia)  

Slavery in America for Kids (Special Section, Donn)

For Teachers

Free American Civil War Lesson Plans, Classroom Activities, Simulations, Debates, Role Play, Projects, Maps