Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cultural Differences and the Civil War

In response to a recent post, decon left a comment that began:
The "southerners were different from northerners" thesis is offered in many different guises and it drives me nuts.

The idea that cultural differences between the North and South caused the Civil War seems to be largely in remission these days. However, you do see it pop up from time to time.

The best debunking of the idea that I have come across is contained in essay by David M. Potter entitled "The Historian's Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa," republished in The South and the Sectional Conflict (LSU Press 1968). Professor Potter reiterated many of the same points in The Impending Crisis.

To begin with, the cultural argument
exaggerates the points of diversity between North and South, minimizes the similarities, and leaves out of account all the commonalities and shared values . . .. These featured had proved their reality and their importance by nourishing the strong nationalism which was in full vigor by the 1840s. Further, any explanation which emphasizes the traditionalism of the South is likely to lose sight of the intensely commercial and acquisitive features of the cotton economy.

Cultural dissimilarities exist between or among sections or groups in many countries. Yet they usually do not lead to war. Likewise, in the United States cultural differences between North and South were probably greater during the founding period and the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century than they were in 1860, and differences persisted long after the Civil War ended. Yet southerners were in the forefront of founding the nation and the nationwide Second Party system, and enlisted in the United States army and fought under the American flag in 1898 and 1917.

The cultural diversity argument fails because it cannot account for these phenomena:
To explain an antagonism which sprang up suddenly, and died down suddenly, the historian does not need to discover, and cannot effectively use, a factor which has been constant over a long period, as the cultural difference between the North and the South has been. He needs to identify a factor which can cause bitter disagreement even among a people who have much basic homogeneity.

In short, "[n]o cultural explanation" "would make possible the explanation of the Civil War, without making impossible the explanation of the rapid return to union after the war."


  1. Hello, my name is Rachel and I'm from Ireland. I'm currently studying American history in university and have an essay due this Monday (I left it a little late I know lol). I thought this piece you wrote was very insightful and potentially very useful to the essay I have been assigned. I was wondering, if it wouldn't be too much bother for you, if you could give me the exact citation of one of your quotes (including the page number and all the rest of that horrible stuff). The quote is "any explanation which emphasizes the traditionalism of the South is likely to lose sight of the intensely commercial and acquisitive features of the cotton economy."

    If it's too much bother for you, I understand, only if it's handy for you.

    My email is

    Thanks ever so much!

  2. Anonymous6:07 PM

    this is dumb this is talking nothing about the cultural diffrences this is alot of blab and i read through it post something with info on mr.whoever

  3. Anonymous3:57 PM

    vaginas are good


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