Wednesday 24 August 2011

The War of Northern Greed

It’s October, 1861. In American the Civil War has been underway for some months, really just the overture to what was to become a tragedy of epic proportions. That same month a German exile living in London summed up the situation as he saw it – “The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty,”

A few months later similar sentiments were to be found in the words of another writer, an Englishman of impeccable liberal credentials – “The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.” He goes on to say "...Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as of many other evils... The quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel."

Who were these men? Karl Marx was the first and Charles Dickens the second, not people one would expect to have very much in common, the prophet of world revolution and the prophet of moral reform, the one a hard-nosed theorist and the other a bourgeois sentimentalist. But they were both, in their individual ways, absolutely right: the War Between the States had nothing to with slavery or any other great issue of principle.

But myths die hard if they die at all. I open the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine. There is an article by Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, on slavery in Classical Athens (Democrats and Slaves). He offers this view in his preamble – “One hundred and fifty years ago…the northern and southern States of the (dis)United States went to war in large part over these very issues.”

I think that’s the answer one would get from most people, even those who are only vaguely aware of the details - that it was all about human bondage, all about the virtuous North and the wicked South.

I watched, and enjoyed, Ken Burns' television documentary about the Civil War a while ago. I remember the episode, soon after the Battle of Antietam, when parts of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation were read, all very moving, cut with images of a black people as slaves and then black people as soldiers in the Union Army, all against a rousing chorus of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Yes, it was great television…and wholly misleading history.

It was good to see a corrective to the mythology in History Today, where Tim Stanley writes on the North-South Divide in the Contrarian section of the magazine. It’s a return to first principles, a return to the Victorian view of Marx and Dickens. This was not a war about morality; it was a war about naked self-interest. Slavery was certainly an issue between the States but it was far from being the most significant; no, that rested on the altogether more mundane issue of revenues and taxes, which had been poisoning relations for years.

We are dealing with two economies – the rural economy of the South and the nascent industrial economy of the North. But it’s more than that. Northern industrialisation was effectively built on Southern backs; built, it also has to be said, on the backs of Southern slaves. To protect domestic industry from foreign competition, Congress imposed crippling import taxes, which hit the South particular hard because it had to buy the machinery it needed from abroad.

In the 1850s, in the wake of an economic downturn, Congress increased duties from fifteen to thirty-seven percent. In a mood of outrage Southerners began to consider the virtues of secession. An alarmist editorial then appeared in the Chicago Daily Times. If the South left the Union;

…in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than half of what it is now. Our coastwise trade would pass into other hands. One half of our shipping would lie idle at our wharves. We should lose our trade with the South, with all its immense profits.

Not a word about the morality of trading with the Slave Empire, not a word about the morality of slavery. Secession meant war, but war less for the preservation of the Union as a great political principle, more for the preservation of the economic dominance of the North.

For the South the election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final confirmation of all of its fears, not because the Great Liberator was a threat to their ‘peculiar institution’ – he wasn’t – but because the ‘black’ Republicans represented a coalition of interests inimical to the whole Southern way of life. That year the outcome of the presidential election, as Stanley puts it, was interpreted in the South as a Northern coup d'état.

For almost two years the North fought to reimpose its hegemony without giving any thought to the question of slavery. The Republican Party was opposed to slavery but it was not abolitionist; and, yes, there is a very big difference. When Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the mawkish Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as “the little lady who started this big war” it was nothing but the worst kind of political hyperbole and cant.

The Emancipation Proclamation, for all its high-minded rhetoric, was even more hyperbole and cant. It only freed slaves in areas beyond Union control. It did not free them in the Border States or those areas under Northern occupation. Even William H. Steward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, remarked on the obvious hypocrisy – “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

Slavery is a great moral evil but let’s not be confused about the issues here: the Civil War was about Northern greed more than Southern iniquity.


  1. Wow - while I basically knew that the cause was more economic than principled I never knew the depth of the iniquity! Thanks for a brilliant expose.

  2. Yes, the war of Northern aggression,Damn Yankees

  3. Superb post, Ana. History is like a building with a facade that has been repaired and painted over many times throughout the years. In the case of our 'Late Unpleasantness' most observers prefer the esthetics of the false front.

  4. American presidents who start wars are sanctified by blood and lies. In our mythology they become our 'best' and 'greatest' leaders, however many lives their failures cost, however much property they destroy, however much damage they inflict on liberty and the Constitution.

    Presidents who merely keep the country safe, spend tax money frugally, act within the law are considered dull and ineffectual. Real Presidents make mounds of rotting corpses. They are our 'hero' leaders.

  5. Michele, you are most welcome. :-)

  6. Bob, as always, your words are greatly appreciated.

  7. Calvin, there is a deep irony here, considering the origins of the United States in opposition to forms of executive tyranny.

  8. It all went pear-shaped with the Whisky Rebellion. George was an autocrat, and his betrayal gave license to every president who followed.

  9. Ana, it is such a joy that FINALLY someone in the blogosphere publishes the truth about what actually happened and why! So few people ("well-educated" or otherwise) even know that the true trigger to the war was the 1858 Tariff act, OR it wasn't repealed until the presidency of Bush41. Also most don't consider that it wasn't until ~1913 that the US Govt was funded by anything EXCEPT tariffs - so effectively the wealthy, agricultural South was footing the bill for the entire country. [Note: I remain hopeful that someday people will stop referring to it as the "American Civil war", as it wasn't. Unlike the "English Civil War", for which the struggle was for control for the entire country (the true definition of a CW) the "Southern Rebellion of 1861" (it's name as provided in the US Army's historical records) was only fought for control of a portion of it.]

  10. Anastasia:

    Your perspective was well written and highly insightful, but I beg to differ.

    I grew up in the USA, childhood in the North, adolesence in the South, the deep south.

    The rioting of the 1960s and 1970s were a by-product of the attitudes that promulgated the war, and they were primarily HATRED of race.

    People were taught blacks were not whole people, had no souls and therefore had no rights.

    The issues that were passed down from four generations ago still exist in some parts, though we as a culture have embraced equality quite well.

    Compare it to the rioting and hatred in Ireland over church issues, Protestant and Catholic, or IRA ( Irish Republican Army?) at a slightly more recent time (1970s and 80s ).

    When we viewed another person with abject hatred, the political and financial issues became a secondary reason to portray to people that taught we should love and accept each other because we are human.

    The hatred carried on into my adolescence and thankfully we are much more accepting and loving as a culture ( with the exception of some Arabic sects right now).

    Personally I love studying other cultures and mixing with people from everywhere.

  11. Thank for this blog, it points out the the now 150 year old propaganda of how America's Civil War was fought to abolish slavery. That was side-effect. And if students of American history would focus more on economics and less on battles wages and strategies employed then they begin to notice things like how the Southern states were held economically captive for the next three decades, which hindered their development into this day and age. Aside from that, all focus has been lost on the fact that although the slaves were emancipated, they were never considered socially equal until the 1970s

  12. Calvin, some, as you quite rightly indicated, were better than others. I've developed a recent interest in the career of Herbert Hoover. something I intend to write about reasonably soon, though not now until I come back from vacation.

  13. CB, thank you. We have close family friends in Georgia, Old South, I think you might call them. I've been visiting on and off since I was quite small. I learned all about a Southern Presbyterian tradition and I learned - in certain company - to refer to the conflict as the War of Northern Aggression. :-)

  14. Daniel, yes, I quite understand. But still race and slavery had next to nothing to do with the outbreak of the war and had little influence on its early course.

  15. Anastasia and Weisdorn, I DO agree with you that Economic reasons were the primary reason that motivated the war.

    One who lives here in the deep south, as I do, in the state of Georgia, an hour and a half south of metropolitan Atlanta, in the rural areas of Georgia cannot possibly argue with your position that Economics was the reason for the war. :) All we have to do is look around us at the ruins.

    From a deep south perspective, it was OVERWHELMINGLY the greatest reason for the war most undeniably.

    Where I beg to differ is that I assert to you that the "CAUSE" of the war was hatred of the blacks. I support that statement with the following thesis:

    If whites had not viewed blacks as inferior, not wholly human, therefore not entitled to rights, they would most likely have not enslaved them for economic reasons. Most likely forced labour in America would have been prison labour.

    But because it was easy to choose someone who was thought not to have a soul, not to be entirely human, to be a slave, it made perfectly good economic sense to do so. The other side of the discriminatory reasoning was that if a black man is not entirely human, does not have rights or a soul, we will not be judged before Almighty God for any death or injury to them either. Lack of Eternal Judgement added to the trend to take blacks as slaves.

    The trend for black slavery continued and loomed out of control by the time the war started. One of the economic reasons for the war was to preserve the wealth of the south INCLUDING slaves, who were by that time the majority of the work force in the south.

    The attitude of hatred looms larger than the economic ruins even today. I grew up in downtown Columbia, SC during the racial riots of the 1960s and 70's. I have many white and black friends all of whom will so easily tell you that the attitude of hatred exists today, though not prevalent since the 1970s or 1980s, except amongst the elderly and many in rural areas who would be wealthy now if white, or slaves now if black.

    So I assert that the UNDERLYING cause of 1) slavery, 2) the slave-based economy in the south, 3)the refusal to give up the slave-based economy, 4) the moral outcry of the North and abolitionists against the slave based economy of the south, 5)and the political attitudes that gripped the people who held in their pockets the economy of the nation, was hatred of the blacks which still exists today, as does the economically disadvantaged black person.

    Though the slave based economy is long gone, people still talk of their feelings about one another, and the values and oral traditions common to every society still exist here and can be heard on the porches, in the market, in the parlours, and in the hallways of Southern America that was once the South that rose to war in defense of its economy. I hope that I have made my position clearer now.

  16. Daniel, thanks; you put your points very well indeed. The South certainly thought that their 'peculiar institution'was in danger, especially when it came to the issue of so-called free soil and western expansion. Southerners may have sought to defend slavery but it was not the main reason for the North going to war. Garrison and the Abolitionists may have been a vociferous minority in the Republican Party, but they were still a minority.