Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Cause(s) of the Civil War

I just finished teaching a class on the beginning of the Civil War.  The lecture traced the war from Lincoln's election to the attack on Fort Sumter.  As part of the class, I reviewed the causes of the conflict.
I am a member of the group that says the war was about slavery, but I have recently adjusted that perspective.  From the South's perspective, the war was about wealth or economics.  The wealthiest people in the country lived in the South and more specifically the Deep South.  They derived their income from agriculture and their wealth from the assets that produced their revenue.  The assets of the Deep South were slaves and land.  The economics was based on the difference between value of the crops produced and the costs to raise and harvest those crops.  The price of cotton fluctuated on the world market due to a variety of factors and could not be controlled by the landowners.  That left the costs of production which was primarily labor.  While the slaves earned no wages, they did incur expenses in food, shelter, and medical care.  This cost was low relative to the earning power of the slave in producing crops or leased to other employers for other tasks.
Losing this cheap labor, would destroy the wealth of landowners.  The cash flow from slaves would be gone and the land they worked would be worthless without the help to produce crops.  The dual impact from these two outcomes forced the agricultural South to leave the Union rather than become paupers.  So from the Southern point-of-view, the war was about slavery and the ability to maintain that economic institution.

In the North, the issue of slavery was the battle cry of the abolitionists.  However, the majority of Northerners wanted nothing to do with freeing the slaves.   According to John Fazio of The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, "The evidence is strong that abolitionists were not particularly popular in the North and were positively anathema in the South. They were frequently spat upon, shouted down and otherwise abused when speaking to Northern audiences."  Slavery was a side issue in the North. The main cause of the war in Unionist minds was the destruction of the Union by the secessionists.  The Union recruits would fight to preserve the Union by not to free the slaves.  This position was clearly outlined by Lincoln before the war when he defended the Southerner's rights to own slaves.  It was clearly not in his interest to free the slaves as he demonstrated by repealing Fremont's and Hunter's emancipation proclamations.  The Unionists believed, as quoted in Adam Goodheart's 1861, "Shall all this be thrown away to please a few villains and Traitors[?]"

Therefore, we have two causes of the war: slavery and preservation of the Union.

Please see The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable article by John Fazio, Adam Goodheart, 1861, p. 155, Disunion: The Civil War, and From Springfield to Fort Sumter.

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