Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Were Cultural and Economic Dissimilarities Causes of the Civil War?

I’d like to address another facet of Bob’s interesting post concerning whether the Civil War was avoidable after Lincoln’s election. In his discussion, Bob places a good deal of emphasis on the cultural and economic dissimilarities of the North and the South. As such, it provides a good opportunity to explore whether and, if so, in what way, these dissimilarities were causes of the War.

Before turning to Bob’s contentions, some background. In a post entitled Cultural Differences and the Civil War, I cited and quoted from David M. Potter’s masterpiece, The Impending Crisis, in support of the proposition that cultural differences do not explain the war. Prof. Potter’s cogent argument is worth repeating:
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 features 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.

Likewise, Prof. Potter addressed and, in my view, persuasively dismantled the argument that economic dissimilarities caused the War:
The flaw in the economic explanation, when it is rigidly applied, is that history can show many instances in which economic diversities and conflicts existed without producing the separatist tendencies of acute sectionalism. Economic dissimilarities may, in just the opposite way, promote harmony between two regions, if each supplements the other, and if their combined resources can give them self-sufficiency. For example, in the United States, the Middle West and the East have had very dissimilar economies, and their interests have often clashed violently, but since the diverse economies could be made to supplement one another in important ways, a separatist sectionalism never developed in the Middle West. Could not the economy of the South have been drawn into some similar interdependence? In the United States in the forties, the South’s cotton exports paid for the imports of the entire country, and it is an arbitrary theory which would deny that North and South might have found roles, to some degree complementary, in an economy of national self-sufficiency.

Finally, Prof. Potter also debunked the suggestion that cultural and economic differences somehow joined forces to create a causative sum that was greater than the whole of its parts. The two individual elements, Prof. Potter argued, differed fundamentally in their emphases, and it was not apparent they reinforced one another:
It is possible to join the cultural and the economic explanations in one overall analysis that begins by demonstrating the existence of social dissimilarities which, in themselves, do not necessarily cause friction, and then goes on to show how these dissimilarities are translated into specific conflicts of interest. But though the two may be treated as complementary in this way, they differ basically in emphasis. At bottom, the cultural explanation assumes that people quarrel when they are unlike one another; the economic explanation assumes that no matter how much alike they may be, they will quarrel if the advantage of one is the disadvantage of the other. One argues that important cultural dissimilarities cause strife; the other that strife causes the opposing groups to rationalize their hostility to one another by exaggerating unimportant dissimilarities. One explains sectionalism as a conflict of values; the other, as a conflict of interests. One sees it as a struggle for identity; the other as a struggle for power.

All that said, it may well be that Bob is in fact saying something quite different. The most substantial clue comes, I believe, toward the beginning of Bob’s discussion (emphasis added):
So, one must ask why the southern states made such an extreme response to Lincoln’s election. The reasons are complex and there is no way I can discuss them in any depth here. Suffice to say that there were economic, social, and political reasons for the break, and they all begin with slavery, with the perceived right to hold property in the form of a human being.

Although Bob goes on to discuss economic, social and political differences between the North and the South, the context of the discussion suggests that he sees these differences as arising, ultimately, from the root cause of slavery. In other words, the cultural and economic (and political) differences Bob discusses were effects or manifestations rather than ultimate causes themselves.

This distinction is precisely the one made by Prof. Potter. Cultural and/or economic differences between the sections were not the root causes of the War, Potter maintains – slavery was. But slavery and disputes over slavery did have the effect (among others) of magnifying and distorting perceived social and economic differences:
Thus in cultural and economic matters, as well as in terms of values, slavery had an effect which no other sectional factor exercised in isolating North and South from each other. As they became isolated, instead of reacting to each other as they were in actuality, each reacted to a distorted mental image of the other – the North to an image of a southern world of lascivious and sadistic slavedrivers; the South to the image of a northern world of cunning Yankee traders and of rabid abolitionists plotting slave insurrections. This process of substituting stereotypes could be very damaging indeed to the spirit of union, for it caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared.

Furthermore, Potter argues, these perceived differences, once established, themselves amplified tensions. Potter describes what amounts to a feedback circuit in which slavery and negative stereotypes continually reinforced one another:
[The process of substituting stereotypes] also had an effect of changing men’s attitudes toward the disagreements which are always certain to arise in politics: ordinary, resolvable disputes were converted into questions of principle, involving rigid, unnegotiable dogma. Abstractions, such as the question of the legal status of slavery in areas in which there were no slaves and to which no one intended to take any, became points of honor and focuses of contention which rocked the government to its foundation. Thus the slavery issue gave a false clarity and simplicity to sectional diversities which were otherwise qualified and diffuse. One might say that the issue structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged. It transformed political action from a process of accommodation to a mode of combat. Once this divisive tendency set in, sectional rivalry increased the tensions of the slavery issue and the slavery issue embittered sectional rivalries, in a reciprocating process which the majority of Americans found themselves unable to check even though they deplored it.

Although Prof. Potter does not put it this way, from this perspective it is possible to see perceptions of economic and particularly cultural differences as amounting to a sort of secondary cause of the War.


  1. You grapsed my point, precisely. All the other issues typically cited as the "real" reasons for secession boil down to slavery. It was the root cause for everything else.


  2. Anonymous10:56 AM

    RE: the argument over slavery as a root cause of the war.

    Some people say slavery wasn't the cause, it was economics. Other say it was politics. Other say it was cultural/sectional differences.

    They are all correct.

    Slavery was an economic institution and it was a cultural institution. It's preservation by Southerners made it into a political institution.

    The point is that, slavery had a multitude of diverse impacts on society.

    Yet, some want to put things in to an "economic" box or a "moral" box or a "political" box.

    The issue of slavery does not fit in one box. Slavery is "all of the above." Any attempt to, for example, focus on the economic impact of slavery without considering the moral or political impact will necessarily result in misunderstanding

    Those who take a full and comprehensive look at how slavery affected America or particular Americans will "get it."

    This is the mega-question that needs to be asked by anyone considering the causes of the war: if not for the existence of slavery, would the North and South have gone to war?

  3. a,

    When you put it that way, you actually give me pause. If you define every aspect of the antebellum south as relating back ultimately to slavery, then any cause that relates to any aspect of the south will be, by definition, "slavery." You create a sort of tautology. Frankly, that worries me.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hmm... I was not trying to say that every aspect of the antebellum south relates back to slavery. Or at least, that was not my intention.

    My point is that, in the ongoing argument about whether slavery was the central issue/cause of the Civil War, some people look at slavery in very narrow sense.

    For example: some say that slavery was not the root cause of the War, but rather, the root cause was economic in nature. But slavery WAS an economic institution.

    So, it is a false dichotomy to say the Civil War was caused EITHER by slavery OR economic forces.

    This is not to say there were no other economic issues beside slavery to talk about. But slavery is sometimes talked about as though it was not an economic issue at all, which I feel is an incorrect thing to do.

    Here's a better example. Some argue that slavery was not the main issue of the War, but rather, it was about states rights. But in more detailed discussion, the ONLY state-granted right that can be cited as sufficient to cause the War is the "right" to keep slave property. But yet we see the false dichotomy of casting the debate as the slavery argument versus the states rights argument.

    I recently watched a Youtube clip in which the videomaker said, "how can people argue that the Civil War was about slavery, when less than 10% of Southerners owned slaves?"

    The response is that, the planter elite which was predominant among the South's decision makers used their influence and power to push their states to war.

    But in this person's view, the fact that only a minority of Southerners owned slaves "proved" that the War was not about slavery.

    That's an extreme example, but it shows how (some) people are looking at the impact of slavery in a very narrow, limited and ultimately misleading sense.

  6. Alan,

    I apologize for not responding sooner. Believe me, I was not dissing your post. It was, rather, that your comment crystallized something that had been bothering me. On balance, I recognize that slavery permeated all aspects of the antebellum south -- it was a slave society, not merely a society with slavery. Still, since I don't have to be entirely consistent, sometimes I worry that that answer is just a little bit too easy. Just a nagging doubt.

    What can I say? I tend to be a contrarian. If someone agrees with me I tend to get nervous. Please keep reading and commenting!


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