I was reading an article and was wondering if there is anything out there to indicate that the Founding Fathers saw the potential for conflict regarding these specific points:

  1. Economic and social differences between the North and the South.
  2. States versus federal rights.

Is there any evidence to indicate that during and after the Revolutionary War (the time frame during which the United States was being formed into its own country), some of the Founding Fathers saw the potential for future conflicts that might lead to national dispute?

Is there any evidence that would suggest certain Founding Fathers warned that such issues could lead to a Civil War?

Is there any evidence to suggest that any were aware that such a dispute had a high chance of happening, but decided to forge ahead with the confidence that the newly formed government could resolve such issues over time?

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    I edited this post to make sure it fell more in line with our question/answer guidelines. The previous version was more likely to solicit discussion or opinion. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:10
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    @Steven Drennon Thank you, that is a much better way to phrase the question.
    – sealz
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:15

4 Answers 4


I do not think that there exists evidence to show that the founding fathers anticipated a civil war would break out over the issue of slavery. The founding fathers were largely against the institution of slavery, but the southern delegates (where the economy was completely dependent upon slavery) were for the institution.

There were some steps taken to mitigate the effects of slavery. There is no mention of the word "slave," or "slavery" in the Constitution. The importation of slaves was to become illegal by 1808, so the founders had in place a system to limit the increase via importation. Southern states wanted slaves to be counted as full people for appropriation purposes, but that was eventually narrowed down to 3/5ths. The reality was that the founders didn't think they could make the US work without the support of the Southern states and as such they punted on the slavery issue, but managed to sneak in the power to regulate slavery with the importation ban.

The discussions of the Constitutional Convention show a desire to do away with the institution, but nothing about potential war resulting from allowing the institution to persist.

For further reading:

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    The importation ban was not intended to curve slavery, then or eventually. It was intended to bolster the slave trade (and thus the economy) of existing slave states who had large slave populations they wanted to sell. It was a lot more like economic protectionism than a social measure. Slaves were cheaper to import from the Caribbean, but that didn't do Virginia any good. Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 4:22
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    @CodyGray Do you have any sources for this assertion? I don't doubt it's veracity, but I would be interested in further reading about the idea.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 22:53
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    I wouldn't really know what sources to recommend—one of the main reasons why I don't participate more actively here. Any good book on the American post-Revolutionary years or the slave trade should cover this. If I remember correctly, Eric Foner has written a lot about the domestic slave trade during the antebellum period. Lacy Ford has a good book on slavery in the Old South entitled Deliver Us From Evil, and Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis is a nice read and I'm pretty sure covers this question as taken up during the Constitutional Convention. Commented Mar 1, 2012 at 18:35
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    Note that at the time of the founders, virtually every "Northern" state had slavery too. The population was low, and in the early 19th century these states passed gradual emancipation laws that minimized the pain for the slaveholders that were there. This gradual freeing ended around the Mason Dixon line.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 0:44

There are lengthy discussions on the topic of factions and mitigating the risks of insurrection in the Federalist Papers and in the responses written by anti-Federalists. The most notable paper on this subject was Federalist No. 10.



Pauline Maier "Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution" is an excellent source for both of these questions.

With respect to your first question about economic differences, consult any discussion of the Bank of the United States, the arguments between Hamilton (who argued for a commercial country) and Jefferson (who argued for a pastoral anti-commercial country). Southern states were nearly hysterical in their fear of "Northern Stock Jobbers". Or consult the controversy over the Jay treaty that almost sunk the country before it started (briefly, Northern states were willing to trade away the Mississippi in exchange for commerce, while Southern states were horrified that we would make any compromise with Great Britain.

State vs Federal rights. This was one of the chief impediments to the passage of the constitution. One of the centers of opposition in all states was by people who feared what would happen if the constitution were passed without a bill of rights limiting the power of the Federal Government. Pauline Maier's book, and Jack Rackove's lectures on iTunes are another excellent source.

Your question ignores several obvious sources of evidence. Look at the compromises needed to found the country - each of these were issues where the two sides were willing to fail rather than give in to the other.

  • Bicameral legislature - The legislature could not be formed on the basis of population nor on states. This is a key source for "states rights", but it is based in part on population counts vs development & commerce. Virginia argued for a legislature based on population, while the North pursued the Connecticut plan based on state representation. Randolph and Madison propoosed the compromise, but both sides were eager to walk from the table rather than to allow the country to be formed on the principles of the opposition.
  • The 3/5 compromise - another "walk from the table" where both sides were very aware that compromise could imperil their way of life. There is a reason for Section 9 of the constitution which forbids consideration of halting the external slave trade until 1808; they knew that this was an issue that would fracture the Republic if considered too early.
  • Location of the Capitol. The first two capitols were in the North (Philadelphia, and New York) The South wanted the Capitol in the South. Jefferson and Hamilton reached an agreement that the Capitol would be established in a Federal District near the boundary between North & South. (technically teh boundary was the Mason Dixon Line, but Virginia has always considered itself not just the center of the country, but the center of the Universe).

There is ample evidence that the founding fathes saw the potential for future conflicts. You extended the question to ask whether they foresaw civil war. That's a bit more subtle, and I'm not sure what you mean. They had seen Shay's rebellion (over the rights of rural farmers against commercial interests), the government held hostage in Philadelphia by soldiers. They had to force Rhode Island to join the Union (not by force of arms, but I think it is relevant). Within a few years Burr led a seccessionist conspiracy, one of the other Northern states tried to secede, and Jefferson was created West Point because he feared the military might of the Northern states.

Yes, they foresaw the country splitting back up into states, and that would very likely engender conflict (in the short or long term, low intensity or high intensity conflict).

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    The 1808 clause bans consideration of stopping the external slave trade.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 0:45

There does not appear to be any reliable empirical evidence suggesting that The U.S. Founding Fathers ever anticipated The American Civil War. James Madison, was probably the last of the Founding Fathers generation and passed away in 1836, nearly 25 years before the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. Madison, in a way, was the last of the Founding Fathers generation, though there seems to be no significant evidence that I am aware of which indicates that James Madison anticipated The Civil War.

The best foreshadowing example I can think with regard to the bitter and contentious division between the Founding Fathers, is the Jefferson-Hamilton division. Thomas Jefferson was a Governor, a Tobacco Farmer, as well as a Slave Owner who believed in the principles of small government-(i.e. a small federal government), whereas Alexander Hamilton-(future Secretary of the Treasury), was an emigre to New York City and in a way, was the earliest Founder of American Liberalism-(i.e. a Large Centrally empowered Federal Government). Jefferson and Hamilton despised each other; their ideological and philosophical feuding, perhaps was an early indicator of the deeply rooted cultural divisions-(especially regarding slavery) within the Northern and Southern United States. Admittedly, it is a stretch of the historical imagination to say that the Jefferson-Hamilton feud presaged/foretold The U.S. Civil War, though such a division did exist generations before Fort Sumter.

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