Monday, November 08, 2010

Proximate versus distant causes of the Civil War

We are beginning the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and I have been thinking about the causes of that war. I think it is likely that it began at the time it did and in the way it did as a result of Abraham Lincoln being elected president. With four candidates running in the election of 1860, none of whom received a majority of the vote, the election of Lincoln does not seem to have been a sure thing.

Lincoln's opposition to slavery was well known and indeed was the basis of the national prominence that allowed him to be nominated for the presidency and elected. Since 1860 was the first time that a man was elected president who was fundamentally opposed to slavery, the election seems to have acted as a trigger for the secession, since the states with economies most dependent on slavery saw the election as a harbinger of the eventual abolition of slavery and emancipation of the slaves.

A more fundamental cause of the Civil War was the difference of beliefs between those with political power in the South and those in the North. The average white in the South was better off economically than the average white in the North. Many southerners believed that slavery was not only morally acceptable but was in fact a God-given institution that was sanctioned in the bible.

On the other hand, support for the abolition of slavery had grown worldwide for a century before the 1860 election. The slave trade had been made illegal and many countries had already abolished slavery within their borders. Many Americans, primarily in the North, worked for the abolition of slavery out of conviction that it was morally wrong. Perhaps surprisingly many of these abolitionists were racially prejudiced; even Lincoln appears to have believed that African-Americans would have to emigrate from the United States after the abolition of slavery because they could not successfully be integrated into American society after abolition.

Others abolitionists believed, as do I, that the institution of slavery reduced the economic success of the southern slave states and that the free societies of the north were more innovative technologically and were growing faster than the slave societies of the south because their free social system was more conducive to growth than that of the slave societies. It seems clear that these people did not perceive the severity of the Civil War that would lead to the emancipation of slaves, nor the problems of the reconstruction, nor that the South would replace slavery with a system of discrimination and segregation that was also not conducive to economic growth.

A friend recommended The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. I quote from a review of the book published on the Amazon website:
It is well established that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Now a groundbreaking book, based on thirty years’ research, takes an important step past this idea. The Spirit Level shows that there is one common factor that links the healthiest and happiest societies: the degree of equality among their members. Not wealth; not resources; not culture, climate, diet, or system of government. Furthermore, more-unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them—the well-off as well as the poor.

The remarkable data assembled in The Spirit Level reveals striking differences, not only among the nations of the first world but even within America’s fifty states. Almost every modern social problem—ill-health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness—is more likely to occur in a less-equal society. This is why America, by most measures the richest country on earth, has per capita shorter average lifespan, more cases of mental illness, more obesity, and more of its citizens in prison than any other developed nation.

Wilkinson and Pickett lay bare the contradiction between material success and social failure in today’s world.
The institution of slavery was based fundamentally on inequality. Those who believed that slavery was holding a large portion of the United States back economically were no doubt right. The white southerners who perceived that their affluence and their way of life was threatened by abolition were also right, and they monopolized the political power in the South.

Thus this fundamental difference between the perceptions of those in power in the North and those in power in the South may be seen as a more fundamental cause of the Civil War than the election of Lincoln, perhaps its proximate cause. Those in power in the South caused the secession from the Union because they believed it was their right to do so, because their economic interests required them to do so, because they believed their slavery-based institutions were morally defensible, and because they believed the election of Lincoln was a clear sign that those institutions would eventually be outlawed in a united United States. Those in power in the North were convinced both that the abolition of slavery was necessary and that the preservation of the Union was of fundamental importance.

There were real differences among slave holding states. The Virginia legislature had held a serious debate over the abolition of slavery, based on a proposition that it be abolished over a period of several generations. While there were many free blacks in Delaware, there were very few slaves in 1860. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and what became West Virginia were slave states that did not join the Confederacy, but remained with the Union.

I would suggest that an underlying cause of the differences in beliefs of those in power in the North and South was the difference in the economic systems -- slave or free -- that underlay the differences in culture, institutions, and the distribution of power in the regions.

I have earlier tried to make the case that geographic differences between North and South, leading to different climates, led in turn to different agricultural systems and different economies, and thus was an even more distant cause of the Civil War.

Even today there seems to be controversy over why the Civil War occurred. Some in the South feel that it was over states rights versus the rights of the majority in the federal union, and not over slavery. Indeed, there was and remains a difference of opinion over the appropriate balance of power between states and  the federal government, but it is not a coincidence that the states most dependent on slavery were those that seceded from the Union nor that they were the states that had climates most conducive to plantation agriculture for the production of cotton (which was increasingly in demand by the industrialized cloth production industry that had developed in the early 19th century). Considering the range of proximate and distant causes of the war may help to clarify the discussion as we commemorate the Civil War's anniversary.

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