Monday, November 09, 2009

"By international standards . . . the South was an economic powerhouse"

I really enjoyed John Majewski's Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation. I therefore procured a copy of his first book, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. In the opening pages, Prof. Majewski points out that, although Northerners such as William Seward characterized the South as physically decrepit and economically degraded, it is possible to reach a very different conclusion:
We now know that Republicans greatly exaggerated the degree of southern stagnation. Economic historians have conclusively shown that the South was remarkably prosperous on the eve of the Civil War. Southern incomes - at least those for whites - rose rapidly between 1840 and 1860. High crop prices for southern staples such as cotton and tobacco accounted for much of this prosperity, but white southerners were hardly passive recipients of good fortune. They built thousands of miles of railroad tracks, improved the productivity of farms and plantations, and established a small but growing industrial base. By international standards, at least, the South was an economic powerhouse.


  1. Anonymous10:14 AM

    Good post! Perhaps this factor also gives some insight into why the Southerners were so confident/overconfident about getting into the war at the beginning. They saw themselves as a nation on the way up, not as a decripit or declining civilization.

  2. Frances,

    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for commenting.

    Speculation about the psychology of an entire society makes me nervous, but I suspect that underlying secession was both confidence and a lingering fear. On the one hand, a booming economy fueled by high staple prices, an economy that had weathered the Panic of 1857 far better than that of the North, engendered great confidence. At the same time, southern leaders certainly saw that they were falling behind the north both in population and in industrialization, and it hard to avoid the conclusion that fear existed of being overwhelmed by the north both politically and economically. It may be that it was the unique combination of both confidence and fear that drove the secessionist impulse. One without the other would not have been sufficient.


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