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Focus on the slavery issue has been cyclical. It was considered the main cause in the 18601890 era. From 1900 to 1960, historians considered anti-slavery agitation to be less important than constitutional, economic, and cultural issues. Since the 1960s historians have returned to an emphasis on slavery as a major cause of the war. Specifically, they note that the South insisted on protecting it and the North insisted on weakening it.
For Southern leaders, the preservation of slavery emerged as a political imperative. As the basis of the Southern labor system and a major store of Southern wealth (see "Economics," below), it was the core of the region's political interests within the Union. The section's politicians identified as Southern "rights" the equal opportunity to introduce its labor system and property (i.e. slaves) into newly opened territories, and to retrieve escaped slaves from the free states with federal assistance.
Northern resistance to slavery fell into the categories of self interest and moral (largely religious) opposition. In the small-producer economy of the North, a free-labor ideology (see "Ideologies," below) grew up that celebrated the dignity of labor and the opportunities available to working men. Slavery was seen as unfair competition for men attempting to better themselves in life. Slavery was also seen as a threat to democracy; Northerners believed that a corrupt oligarchy of rich planters, the Slave Power, dominated Southern politics, and national politics as well. Northerners also objected on moral grounds to being legally required to enforce fugitive slave laws.
Abolitionism as a cause of the war
By the 1830s, a small but outspoken abolitionist movement arose, led by New Englanders and free blacks, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott. Many people North and South considered slavery an undesirable institution, but by the 1840s the militant abolitionists went much further and declared that owning a slave was a terrible sin, and that the institution should be immediately abolished. Southerners bitterly resented this moralistic attack, and also the stereotypical presentation of slave owners as heartless Simon Legrees in the overwhelmingly popular (in the North) book and play by Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852). Historians continue to debate whether slave owners actually felt either guilt or shame (Berringer 359-60). But there is no doubt the southerners were angered by the abolitionist attacks. Starting in the 1830s there was a widespread and growing ideological defense of the "peculiar institution" everywhere in the South.
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