Question: How and why had the United States moved to the brink of a Civil War between 1858 and 1861? Was the Civil War inevitable?
The analysis of historical events in the United States between 1858 and 1861 indicates that disputes and frictions between abolitionists and pro-slavery part of the US society could not have been settled peacefully. There were two possible scenarios: division of the US into two separate countries or preserving territorial integrity of the state. The intentions of the US Government to preserve the country and deep confrontation between pro- and antislavery forces made the peaceful resolution of the conflict impossible. Therefore, the Civil War was inevitable.
Following are the events that took place between 1858 and 1861 and moved the US to the brink of the Civil War. Firstly, during that time, fierce political tension and heated debates over the ending of slavery were taking place. In particular, widely known Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused a great interest, convinced many to become active abolitionists, exposed racism, and contributed to the Civil War outbreak by shaping public opinion to support antislavery movement and actively fight the institutes of slavery. The book helped to escalate social conflict between proslavery and antislavery forces and served as an agent of social change (Delbanco). It helped to turn Abolitionism from being viewed as a manifestation of extremism into a cause that American public could relate to and actively support. Stowe’s book contributed to fostering social climate that fueled the conflict and the opposition between pro- and antislavery movements and led to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Secondly, the break-up of Civil War was preceded by escalated tension and small-scale military conflicts. In particular, in 1859, John Brown, a white abolitionist, attempted to launch an armed antislavery revolt among enslaved African Americans by capturing Harpers Ferry in Virginia. The Harpers Ferry raid electrified the nation and escalated tensions, convincing many abolitionists that proslavery forces should be subdued by force in order to eliminate the slavery.
Thirdly, although concern of newly elected in 1860 Republican Abraham Lincoln was to save the union and preserve the nation as one whole entity, not to end slavery (Abraham Lincoln Online; Bartleby), the declaration of the secession of Confederate states from Federal Union expressed grave concerns of white people of seceding states that felt pressured by the Government into abolishing slavery. White land and property owners of proslavery states felt that their whole way of life and properties were threatened by the prospect of slavery abolishment. Their intentions to separate from the Federal Union were dictated by the desire to maintain the institute of slavery (Winkler 61-66; Journal of the State Convention 86-88). Two ways of life conflicted. North had nothing to lose since its economy did not depend on slave labor. However, South was in danger of suffering the change of core values of life and having to rebuild its economy and business practices into completely new and inconvenient model. Consequently, South chose to fight for the right to maintain slavery institutes. As a result, the Abraham Lincoln election in 1860, and secession of states in 1861 moved the US to the very brink of the Civil War.
Lastly, attacking of Fort Sumter in South Carolina by Confederate forces in 1861 triggered the beginning of full scale military campaigns of Northerners against Southerners. Confederate forces required the front to surrender. Refusal to do so resulted in a siege that ended up in evacuation of the Union forces.
Therefore, events that took place between 1858 and 1861 and moved the US to the brink of inevitable Civil War were (a) extreme confrontation within the US society between Abolitionists and proslavery forces; (b) attack on the Harpers Ferry and death of John Brown; (c) election of Abraham Lincoln as the US President; (d) secession of Confederate states; and (e) the attack on Fort Sumter.