In episode 3F20, "Much Apu About Nothing" of The Simpsons, a proctor is administering an American citizenship test to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and the following exchange occurs:


All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?


Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--


Wait, wait... just say slavery.


Slavery it is, sir.

It has been argued that slavery was not the cause of the American Civil War and that more specifically, essential differences between the Federalists and anti-Federalists were the true cause. My question is: with the full power of hindsight at our disposal, and keeping in mind that there was clearly not one single cause, was slavery the principal cause of the American Civil War?

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    @Avi, sorry, I was asking Patrick to provide a notable source for the claim he wants examined.
    – user5582
    May 15, 2013 at 22:35
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    The Simpsons is pretty notable, even if it isn't reputable.
    – Publius
    May 15, 2013 at 22:52
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    Some characters made the claim. I don't see why that's insufficient basis for OP to ask the question.
    – Publius
    May 15, 2013 at 23:55
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    Will this do for notability? “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on the broad questions of what the war was about and what brought it about and what caused it,” McPherson said, “which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slave states over issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.”
    – Oddthinking
    May 16, 2013 at 1:09
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    I don't see how this isn't a question about the motivation of people and thus offtopic.
    – Christian
    May 17, 2013 at 1:09

1 Answer 1


Whether the following qualifies slavery as the "principal" cause of the Civil War is a matter of some subjectivity, but we can determine that slavery was the primary reason for the South's secession.

In his book The creation of Confederate nationalism: ideology and identity in the Civil War South, historian Drew Gilpin Faust explains:

leaders of the secession movement across the South cited slavery as the most compelling reason for southern independence. (Source)

The Vice-President of the Confederacy considered inequality of races and the institution of slavery to be the foundational principle of the confederacy. In what is now called the "Cornerstone Speech", given a few weeks after the secession of several states, he said:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. (Source)

Several states that seceded, such as Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia issued declarations of secession, citing disagreement over slavery as the primary cause or a major cause of secession.

Given that disagreement over slavery was the primary cause of the secession, it seems reasonable to conclude that it was the principal cause of the civil war.

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    This is fallacious logic. Secession leaders "cited slavery" just implies whoever those leaders are seemed to estimate it politically popular, not actually why they did it.
    – djechlin
    May 16, 2013 at 0:22
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    @djechlin: We can't know the actual motivations of individuals. We can know the results of surveys of the public statements of groups. If you are right, and the politicians said it because it was politically popular, then that is the correct answer.
    – Oddthinking
    May 16, 2013 at 1:06
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    @Oddthinking so "reason" is not precise enough for this purpose. To use a modern example, many people, particularly political liberals, are skeptical that George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq because Iraq had WMDs. But by your logic that would be the answer to this question, unproblematically. It would be more precise to say "We know secession leaders claimed slavery as the cause of the secession" but it's dubious to infer that's "the reason" (because "reason" is imprecise in this context.)
    – djechlin
    May 16, 2013 at 1:10
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    @djechlin: It is tricky; my position is more subtle. The reason Bush ordered the invasion is unanswerable here, and is actually an example of an off-topic question. Asking the motivation of a single person or small group of people is unprovable. But, when it becomes a group large enough to legitimately poll and to expect answers that (while maybe biased and self-serving) are not dishonest, then we can start answering questions about their motivations with evidence.
    – Oddthinking
    May 16, 2013 at 1:18
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    @jwenting: There is little doubt about what GWB says his rationale was. Some people don't believe him though. You should make your comment-answer a real answer so it can be voted upon.
    – Oddthinking
    May 16, 2013 at 5:45

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