Sunday, November 01, 2009

The War Between the Rich and Poor States?

Although I haven't quite finished Prologue to War, I couldn't resist taking a peek this afternoon at my next book, James L. Huston's Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War - and I'm already excited.

For starters, Prof. Huston has clearly absorbed his Gavin Wright, and in particular Prof. Wright's invaluable observation that slavery was not merely a method of labor organization; it was also a means of capital accumulation. Second, Chapter 2 is crammed full of valuable tables concerning state-by-state population, acreage, wealth, etc. Some are readily available elsewhere, but it's nice to have them all together in one place. Others are more unusual, and highlight important facts often overlooked.

To pick but one example, Prof. Huston puts together of a list of the states ranked by total wealth as of 1860. The top five are all northern states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts. But he then juxtaposes that list with another ranking the states by wealth per capita, white population only. Now eleven of the top twelve states are slave states, and the seven states that seceded before Lincoln took office appear in the top eight. The sole exception is Connecticut, which comes in at no. 5.

Prof. Huston quite rightly suggests that these tables throw doubt on the usual picture, in which "the North is characterized as the dynamic, growing economy while the South is described as sinking into backwardness and poverty - usually by some comparison of New York to Virginia or Ohio to Kentucky."
In terms of wealth, the mighty economies of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York . . . look like the sick and underdeveloped economies that Republicans called the slave states. One could almost say that the war between the states was not between the slave and free states, but between the rich and poor states.


  1. Anonymous6:15 PM

    Hi Elektratig,

    Awhile ago you told me that you thought you might be the only person who did not rave about Holman Hamilton's "Prologue to Conflict." Now, I feel that I must be the only person who does not rave about Huston's Calculating the Value of the Union." I find it to be (1) telling us much that is obvious (2) the rest hard to follow regarding his middle class northern argument he puts forth. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to what that book actually tells us and how that changes our understanding of the coming of the Civil War. I am certainly willing to be persuaded...


  2. Sean,

    Since your judgment is usually excellent, you've got me worried that I'm going to be disappointed. I'll certainly bear your comments in mind as I get further into the book. I hope all is going well.

  3. Anonymous2:38 AM


    I am doing alright. I am still trying to breathe some life into old fogie Whigs in this dissertation of mine. I do not know whether you have seen this before, but you might take a look at this page sometime:


  4. Anonymous10:06 AM

    This is a great post that presents a more interesting, well-rounded picture of the economies of the slave and free states than we usually see. I really enjoyed reading it.

    The war itself also transformed the South and southern fortunes in a more complex way than we usually think. I recently worked on an online research project about the Civil War in Texas, and was interested to learn that the war was the making of some fortunes, especially those smart enough to invest in gold, Mexican silver dollars, and land, and the ruination of those who remained heavily invested in slaves.


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