Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Climate, Slavery, the Structure of Society and the Causes of the Civil War

I have been thinking about climate and the Civil War in two previous postings (posting one, posting two). I seem to have missed the main point, which is briefly set forth in a posting from Laura Lee's Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History.
The nation was initially divided into slave and free states largely because of the weather. The problem with owning people is that you have to house and feed them, whether they are working or not. This is not such a conflict in an area with a long growing season. But in the chilly North, the summers were not long enough for the profits from slave labor to outweigh the high cost of maintaining indentured servants.

Thus most slaves ended up in Brazil, the Caribbean islands, and the American South, where the tropical temperatures and long growing seasons made slave ownership profitable. By the Revolutionary War period, 40 percent of African Americans in the northern states were free, compared to only 4 percent in the southern states. A little-known fact is that African slavery was such a vibrant trade, the forced migration of Africans exceeded that of Europeans to the New World until the 1830s. The cumulative total of African migrants continued to exceed that of Europeans until the 1880s.
The book goes on to point out that the health conditions in the hot, humid south were bad; remember, these were the days before control of vector born diseases and malaria and yellow fever were common in the southern states. The argument was made that people of African ancestry were needed because those of European ancestry could not stand the health conditions; one might wonder whether the reason was that free people would not stay and do the back breaking work without economic incentives, but slaves could be forced to do so cheaply.

The excerpt from the book also mentions that after the slave trade was abolished in the first decade of the 19th century
the value of existing slaves began to skyrocket. This meant that even in temperate southern states, it was no longer economically feasible to support a slave year-round. To make up the difference, plantation owners would rent out slave labor during slow seasons, and increasingly young slaves were taught trades to increase their value. Unlike the previous generation of slaves, these skilled tradesmen learned about life off the farm. They interacted with city people and slaves from other plantations. This would prove to be quite dangerous to the institution of slavery.
There was a debate in the Virginia legislature in about the abolition of slavery in the state after the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831. I have read that the tobacco production in the eastern part of Virginia, where most of Viginia's African Americans lived, had become less profitable as the crop and cropping practices exhausted the soil, and that increasingly profits were achieved in those plantations by selling young slaves to plantations further south. As migration continued further west, slavery was less and less a part of the local system.

So differences in climate were crucial factors behind the fact that the southernmost states were those that developed highly stratified societies based on plantation slavery and the export of primary products, while the northernmost states were those that developed more egalitarian societies based on small, privately-owned farms, manufacturing and trade. Recall that South Carolina was the secessionist leader, and it was the northern states that were the most willing to go to civil war to maintain the Union. Border states were far less enthusiastic about going to war, with Maryland and West Virginia opting for the Union and Virginia having a debate in 1861 as to whether to join the Confederacy or remain with the Union.

It is argued as to whether the Civil War was about slavery. I suspect that the direct cause was the irreconcilable differences between the southern and northern societies and the way in which those in power in those societies based that power. Southern aristocrats thought, probably correctly, that if they continued in the Union, the Union would act in such a way as to destroy the basis of their wealth and power; the primary way in which this would have happened would be through the abolition of slavery. Thus slavery might be seen as an indirect cause of the Civil War. However, it may well be that the difference in climate between the southern and the northern states was the reason for both the difference in the distribution of slavery and the differences in the social systems of north and south, and thus a still more fundamental cause of the Civil War!
Free states
Slave states
Territories open to slavery

1 comment:

John Daly said...

European weather also influenced the outcome of the Civil War. Two years of bad weather resulted in poor crops and a need to import grain from states that remained in the Union. "King Grain" overcame "King Cotton" is the contest for European support during the Civil War.