AP Explains: What was behind the American Civil War?

AP News
Posted: May 02, 2017 4:25 AM
AP Explains: What was behind the American Civil War?

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — President Donald Trump suggested in an interview that he is unclear about the origins of the Civil War, that President Andrew Jackson (who died 16 years before the war) could have prevented the conflict and that it was possible to have settled it without bloodshed.

"Could that one not have been worked out?" Trump asked in the interview with The Washington Examiner.

AP talked to some of the most distinguished experts on what was really behind the war that tore the nation asunder.



The issues leading up to the Civil War were complex, and many people in the North and South in 1861 viewed the conflict as inevitable.

In the South, slave labor was the foundation of an economy based on the cotton produced by plantations and farms. The free labor also was key to profiting from the production of such cash crops as tobacco, corn and other staples of the South. In the North, farms were generally smaller because of the soil and climate. With their more industrialized economy, the Northern states didn't require large numbers of slaves.

By the 1850s, the North vs. South divide was widening as free states and slave states debated over allowing slavery in new territories as the nation expanded westward. Southerners viewed the North's opposition to slavery's expansion as a threat to the economies — and thus the political power and rights — of slave-holding states. Abraham Lincoln, opposed to slavery's expansion, was elected president in 1860 and the path to the South's seceding from the Union was set.

"Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War," said Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University. "It was not the only cause, but it was the underlying cause. There was a fundamental difference between the North and the South as the South feared for the future of slavery."



Probably not, according to James Roark, an author and retired history professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

"As it got tangled with American politics and regional interests, nobody could figure out a way to save both the Union and preserve slavery in the South," he said. "It wasn't for a lack of talking. There was plenty of talking."



Probably not much.

"Even Andrew Jackson, were he alive, could not have threatened the use of force that perhaps Trump thinks would have solved the problem," Foner said.

Jackson, who died in 1845, was a slave-holding plantation owner.

"The Civil War was caused by slavery; it wasn't caused by the absence of Andrew Jackson to help the American government," said Harold Holzer, a New York-based scholar who is an expert on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.



After four years and more than 600,000 soldiers dead, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, at the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.


Associated Press reporters Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.

Historians of the American Civil War point to complex issues when reflecting on President Donald Trump's remark that the conflict might have been settled without bloodshed.

Trump asked in an interview with The Washington Examiner: "Could that one not have been worked out?"

A professor of history at Columbia University, Eric Foner, notes that slavery was a root cause of the war and that the South feared for the future of slavery.

A retired history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, James Roark, says war probably couldn't have been avoided in 1861. Roark says, "Nobody could figure out a way to save both the Union and preserve slavery in the South."

More than 600,000 soldiers had died by the time the war ended in 1865.