Did Lincoln provoke the US civil war?

Did there exist a position that Lincoln took that ignited the war, or was it just the consequence of long unsolved US problems.

If the reason is the second, which problems provoked the war?

  • 3
    Most [false dilemma] questions are ultimately opinion based. This question would be improved if it demonstrated prior research.
    – MCW
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 16:24
  • 2
    Does my answer to this question help? Commented May 18, 2017 at 16:38
  • Yes he did; however, there wasn't a way for him to prevent it either. Commented May 18, 2017 at 16:42
  • 1
    @sempaiscuba - It seems to. Also: Why did the Southern states secede from the US?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 17:00

2 Answers 2


There were long unresolved problems that lay behind the US Civil War. At most, the election of Lincoln as President was just a catalyst. What follows is copied from my answer here.

The tensions between North and South had been growing since long before Lincoln was elected. While it is true than many in the South believed that Lincoln supported the forced suppression of slavery, his election as a Republican president was simply the trigger for secession.

The story of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia in October 1859 explains a great deal. Brown had planned to instigate a major slave rebellion in the South, but the raid was poorly planned and ill equipped (less than 20 men without adequate rations). Although the raid was doomed from the outset (he and his men were captured within 2 days), the response from many in the North was widespread admiration.

Brown was hanged for his actions in the raid, but came to be seen as a martyr by many in the North, including the popular poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This just fuelled the flames of outrage in the South.

Although the Republican party condemned Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry, many individuals within that party did not. Again, this caused further outrage in the South. Several Southern politicians blamed the Republican Party for the attack and (falsely) claimed that that Abraham Lincoln supported Brown's intentions. Fake news is not a new phenomenon! As a result, the idea of Abraham Lincoln as President became intolerable to many in the south.

Both sides were becoming more and more polarised. Moderate voices on both sides were silenced (or perhaps simply not reported - moderate opinion rarely sells newspapers!)

Some of the key milestones on the road that led to the secession of the Southern states are discussed on this site, and are well worth reading.

For Abraham Lincoln's opinions on the subject of secession, this site, maintained by the National Park Service is also worth a read.

I'd also recommend watching the first episode of Ken Burns' 1990 documentary series The Civil War. Actually, I'd recommend watching the whole series. In my opinion, one of the best television documentaries ever made.

Also, as @T.E.D. suggested in his comment above, I think you'll find the answers to Why did the Southern states secede from the US? informative.

Hope that helps clarify.


“Provoke” connotes intent. Lincoln had no such intent. On one hand, legal slavery was falling from favor in most countries and essentially disappeared within decades of the Civil War. But Lincoln’s best thought on ending slavery was a buyout of the southern “chattel” investment. Industrial mechanization was the better hope but a few years in the future.
The basic sticking point wasn’t the status quo in that it could be ridden out. The intractable issue was the new states that presented the issue of free or slave. In many ways the war started not with Fort Sumner but with the Kansas/Missouri bloodshed.

For many the principle wasn’t slavery (few in the south owned slaves) but whether they lived in the united states or the United States. There was a deep belief that the association was voluntary and terminable. Slavery was the issue that brought the principle into play. Lincoln’s election just made it clear that the more industrial north was tending towards John Brown rather than patience.

  • I have to disagree here. Lincoln may not have provoked the Civil War, but it was essentially his desire to preserve the Union that ensured that there was a war rather than a peaceful secession.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 4:38
  • Agreed. Lincoln could have "freed" the south. But, as mentioned above, the new territories won from Mexico would likely have caused a similar conflict.
    – TomO
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 14:53
  • I doubt it. Of course there would be conflicts, but I think it more likely they'd be limited to border skirmishes rather than the Civil War bloodbath, if for no other reason than the sheer logistics problems of supporting large armies in the West.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 17:53

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