For years, American schoolchildren learned that the question of slavery was the only cause of the Civil War (1861-1865): With 19 free states and 15 slave states making up the Union, Abraham Lincoln had called the country "a house divided" even before he became president. While slavery was central to the conflict, many believe the bloody four-year war had other causes as well.
By the mid-1800's important differences had developed between the South and the North - and many maintain these differences, or vestiges of them, are still with the country today. The economy in the South was based on agriculture while the North was industrialized. The ideals and lifestyles of each region reflected these economic realities. Southerners believed their agrarian lifestyle was dependent on the labor of slaves. For a long time, slavery was viewed by some as a necessary evil. But by the early 1800's the view that slavery is morally wrong was beginning to take hold. Northern abolitionists had begun a movement to end slavery in the states.
There were other factors that contributed to the declaration of secession and the formation of the Confederacy, although some still argue these factors were merely smoke screens for the defense of slavery. Disputes between the federal government and the states had limited the power of the states and this policy was called into question by Southerners. Further, the political party system was in disarray in mid-1850s America. The disorder prompted feelings of distrust for the elected politicians who set national policy. Before the 1860 presidential election, Southern leaders urged that the South secede from the Union if Lincoln, who had publicly taken a stand against slavery, won.
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In 1860 only a small minority of whites owned slaves. According to the U.S. census report for that last year before the Civil War, there were fewer than 385,000 individuals who owned slaves. Even if all slaveholders had been white, that would amount to only 1.4 percent of whites in the country (or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more slaves).
The country's leading African American historian, Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, records that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves, or 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city. To return to the census figures quoted above, this 28 percent is certainly impressive when compared to less than 1.4 percent of all American whites. Source.
The first official slave owner in colonial America was a black man, not white; the Arab slave trade in Negroes was far greater and much longer lasting than the transatlantic slave trade; the founder of the southern state of Georgia banned both slavery and Africans from the state; large numbers of “free blacks” owned black slaves; and less than 5 percent of pre-Civil War American families actually had slaves. Source.
Fully 3/4 of Southern whites did not even own slaves; of those who did, 88% owned twenty or fewer. Whites who did not own slaves were primarily yeoman farmers. Practically speaking, the institution of slavery did not help these people.
Although over 90% of American slaves lived in rural areas, slaves made up at least 20% of the populations of most Southern cities. In Charleston, South Carolina, slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites. Many slaves living in cities worked as domestics, but others worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, or other tradespeople. Source.
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