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What Forces and Historical Trends Throughout American History Led to the Civil War, and How Did Those Forces Shape Reconstruction?

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In 1861, the United States faced its greatest crisis to that time. The northern and southern states had become less and less alike--socially, economically, politically. The North had become increasingly industrial and commercial while the South had remained largely agricultural. More important than these differences, however, was African-American slavery.The "peculiar institution," more than any other single thing, separated the South from the North. Northerners generally wanted to limit the spread of slavery; some wanted to abolish it altogether. Southerners generally wanted to maintain and even expand the institution. Thus, slavery became the focal point of a political crisis.

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The Northern and Southern sections of the United States developed along different lines. The South remained a predominantly agrarian economy while the North became more and more industrialized. Different social cultures and political beliefs developed. All of this led to disagreements on issues such as taxes, tariffs and internal improvements as well as states rights versus federal rights. The burning issue that led to the disruption of the union was the debate over the future of slavery. That dispute led to secession, and secession brought about a war in which the Northern and Western states and territories fought to preserve the Union, and the South fought to establish Southern independence as a new confederation of states under its own constitution. The agrarian South utilized slaves to tend its large plantations and perform other duties. On the eve of the Civil War, some 4 million Africans and their descendants toiled as slave laborers in the South. Slavery was interwoven into the Southern economy even though only a relatively small portion of the population actually owned slaves. Slaves could be rented or traded or sold to pay debts. Ownership of more than a handful of slaves bestowed respect and contributed to social position, and slaves, as the property of individuals and businesses, represented the largest portion of the region’s personal and corporate wealth, as cotton and land prices declined and the price of slaves soared. The states of the North, meanwhile, one by one had gradually abolished slavery. A steady flow of immigrants, especially from Ireland and Germany during the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, insured the North a ready pool of laborers, many of whom could be hired at low wages, diminishing the need to cling to the institution of slavery

States’ Rights refers To the struggle between the federal government and individual states over political power. In the Civil War era, this struggle focused heavily on the institution of slavery and whether the federal government had the right to regulate or even abolish slavery within an individual state. The sides of this debate were largely drawn between northern and southern states, thus widened the growing divide within the nation.

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American history is considered as the most inquisitive worldwide. Traditionally, American history started by a declaration of independence in the year 1776. This declaration was due to threats of British government towards American self-governed system (Eric Foner, 2010). Declaration of independence led to war in 1775 that was to liberate Americans. With help of France in providing military and financial support, the patriots won American Revolution. In 1789, war hero George Washington became the first president of federal government by virtue of constitution. With influence of European community, coping with scope of central government proved to be a challenging issue for American people. In 1790s, creation of political parties was initiated and later fighting for the second independence in 1812. Consequently, this brought about expansion of US territory westwards. With this, the US managed to overcome modernizers who were solely interested in deepening its economy rather than helping American people in expanding their geography (Martin Kelly)

Heavy demand for cotton in southern states encouraged slavery of Africans even though it was illegal in northern states. In 1860, came the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and this triggered a crisis in slave states as he dejected the expansion of slave trade. Amongst the slave states, some of them seceded in forming the Confederate States of America in 1861. This brought about American Civil War, which was from 1861 to 1865.

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As has been noted, the Reconstruction Act looked really good on paper, but as usually happens in politics somebody rocked the boat. The shake up took place in the 1876 presidential election. The two men running were Democrat Samuel Tilden, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Due to the closeness of the race, a group of men called a “commission” was set up in order to figure out an outcome. In the end, the result was the Compromise of 1877

In this compromise, Hayes was declared the winner, and this was agreed on by both parties. The real kicker was the other stipulation, though. The military occupation of the southern states was put to an end. No big deal, right? WRONG! Without military force to back them up, the freed slaves living down there were without safety. There was nothing to keep the southerners from taking advantage of the freed men, and this is exactly what they did. Knowing that they couldn’t directly disobey the law, many southerners set up their own laws, or black codes, that put hard restrictions on African Americans. So, even though protection laws were in place, they did little good with nobody to enforce them. At this point Reconstruction ended. The laws were in place, and though they didn’t always work, some people felt that was enough, they had done their jobs.

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Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 74

The History Channel, “American Civil War,” History.com.

Martin Kelly, “Top Five Causes of the Civil War: Leading up to Secession and the Civil War,” About.com.

Martin Kelly, “Overview of the American Civil War-Secession,” About.com.

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