And the young were all elation
Hearing Sumter's cannon roar,
And they thought how tame the Nation
In the age that went before.
-- Herman Melville, “Apathy and Enthusiasm,” 1861
Abraham Lincoln remarked in his Second Inaugural Address (1865) that “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest” in the antebellum United States, adding that all Americans “knew this interest was, somehow, the cause” of the Civil War. Exactly how slavery figured into the political tension between the North and South, however, was, and is, a complicated question. Arguments about slavery had moral, economic, and political dimensions, and issues other than slavery, like states’ rights, were also part of the debate. The cause of the Civil War simply cannot be limited to one event or idea. The conflict instead resulted from decades of tension and conflict as Americans struggled to create systems of law and governance that balanced out the interests and rights of individuals, states, and the federal government.
Artists both reflect and respond to the events and attitudes of their day. The works of art presented here provide insights into some of the reasons the nation went to war with itself. These reasons include differences about whether slavery was right or wrong, whether slavery should expand to new states or not, differences in the economies of the North and South, and different ideas about how much control the Union (or Federal government) should have at the state or local level. Some of the artworks here were made long after the war ended, showing how the conflict continued to be meaningful for generations of Americans.