American Civil War as an Economic Conflict

The conflict between the Northern and Southern states of America, which was developing during the 1850s, resulted in the Civil War (1861-1865) that made researchers ask about the nature of this struggle. There are historians who are inclined to perceive the controversy from a political standpoint, and the other group of researchers focus on the ideological and social aspects associated with the development of the war.1 However, the most numerous group of experts agrees that the Civil War had been triggered as an economic conflict that led to the necessity of addressing the controversy during four long years.2 It is important to state that many researchers support the idea that the Civil War brought significant changes to the economic course of the United States, and this aspect requires its proper analysis. Although the American Civil War can be discussed as the struggle for the states’ rights, territories, or political domination, it should be primarily regarded as an economic conflict because of the confrontation between Northerners and Southerners as the Northern states were urbanized, industrialized, non-supporting slavery, and the Southern states were less developed and depending on agriculture and slavery.

To provide the background for the problem of determining the nature of the American Civil War, it is possible to start with discussing a variety of views on its causes. According to Calomiris and Pritchett, the political factor and the opposition regarding the power of the federal government played a key role in providing triggers for the development of the war.3 Northerners were inclined to expand their impact on the Southern states in terms of changing their political context, but Southerners perceived these attempts as the violation of their constitutional rights. Latzko develops this idea also noting that the problem was in the difference of cultural views shared in the North and South of the country.4 People living in two parts of one country were extremely different in their everyday routines, attitudes to industries, farming, households, and the use of slaves. Other researchers accentuate the role of an economic factor as the primary cause of the Civil War because it can explain the appearance of other causes and problems leading to the conflict.5 The economic aspect as one of the causes of the Civil War needs to be discussed in detail to understand the nature of this conflict.

The economic factor serving as an underlying cause of the American Civil War is complex, and it includes such elements as the role of the economic disparity, the difference in industries, and slavery. From this perspective, the economic disparity between the Northern and Southern states is discussed in the literature on the conflict as one of its foundations. The rise of industries and the progress of trade made the Northern states of the country more developed in comparison to the Southern states oriented toward agriculture. The new trade tariff could make Southern states even less prosperous because of their dependence on the import of manufactured goods and different types of tools.6 Thus, more economically successful Northerners tried to impose their industrial and commercial pattern on Southerners, who developed the specific plantation economy. The difference between these states was in the focus of Northerners on opening new plants and developing industries while attracting more immigrants, when Southerners were focused on having more slaves to address their needs.7 From this perspective, one should note that the economic difference between the Northern and Southern states played a crucial role in developing the war.

While referring to the economic disparity between the two regions of the United States, it is important to note that slavery was the main source of the agricultural and manufacturing development in the Southern states. In contrast to Southerners, Northerners abolished slavery in the 18th century, but according to Humphreys, Southerners could not easily follow their example.8 The reason is that the plantation-based economic system of the South completely depended on the slave system. The agriculture developed in the Southern states could not progress without the free or cheap labor of slaves. Contrary to the industrially developed North, the Southern states did not have plants and factories to guarantee the economic stability in the region. The industrial revolution in the Northern states made them less dependent on slaves, but plantation owners in the South could not afford paying workers because of the absence of such a system in their past.9 Accordingly, the issue of slavery viewed as the source of free workforce for plantation owners can be regarded as one of the major economic factors leading to the development of the Civil War as an economic conflict.

In the literature, there is an idea that Northerners were oriented toward beginning the war against Southerners because of the necessity of continuing their economic development in the context of one united country. Their progress depended on urbanization, capitalism, and the development of industries. Northerners opened new plants and factories and attracted immigrants as the workforce to build a new world that was economically progressive but significantly different from the South.10 The ideas of nationalism spread in the North had the economic background and was closely related to capitalism, as the unity of the Southern and Northern states was considered important for economic progress of America. Following Pearson, the North developed according to the principles of political economy, trying to impose the doctrines of its course on the other territories in the country.11 Much attention was paid to building railroads, using new machines in industries, and developing trade relations; therefore, Abraham Lincoln promoted the idea of widening the power of the Federal system.12 Thus, Northerners were oriented toward the economic progress, and they discussed slavery in the South as preventing this development.

As it was stated earlier, the Northern states adopted the act abolishing slavery in the late part of the 18th century, and this step played a significant role in changing industries in the United States. The arguments of the Northern states for abolishing slavery were grounded in the anti-constitutional nature of this social and economic phenomenon and the necessity to realize economic changes.13 The gradual abolishment of slavery in the Northern states improved the economic situation because of creating more workplaces for Americans. However, the situation was different in the Southern states, where slaves were used as free human resources to perform all the tasks and operations in the field of agriculture. Having no resources to shift to the principles of capitalism and liberalism within a short period of time, Southerners could not support the ideas based on the political economy statements promoted by Northerners and their views regarding the political and economic structure of the United States.14 Still, the economic crisis of the 19th century made Northerners take more active actions to change the situation in the South of the country.

The reference to the necessity of abolishing slavery in the South allowed Northerners to use this goal as their reason for starting the war. Thus, the conflict was shaped as an economic one because the proponents of changes used the assessment of actual financial, material, and social outcomes of abolishing slavery for the United States as their arguments. It was assumed that the changes in the political state in the country would be associated with significant economic shifts, leading the Southern states to the adoption of the Northern economic patterns. The focus was on achieving economic stability.15 However, according to Humphreys, the environment of the Southern states was not appropriate to adopt the proposed changes and refer to urbanization.16 Still, the real effects of the Civil War on the economics of the South were dramatic as the loss of cheap workforce led cotton-producing states of the South to the decline. After the war, the economics of the Southern states based on manufacture and agriculture was damaged. Thus, the military conflict between the Southern and Northern territories was stimulated by economic triggers, and it also led to critical consequences.

To understand how the American Civil War was an economic conflict in its nature, it is necessary to discuss the economic and other related consequences of the war in much detail. The impact of the war on the Northern and Southern states was different. Thus, the North of the country took advantage of the war to enhance its industrialization and the development of transportation to address military needs.17 On the contrary, the South of the country had no enough industrial resources in order to take a winning position in the war. After the end of the Civil War, the manufacturing infrastructure of the Southern states was ruined along with farms and plantations. After being used as battlefields during the conflict, the lands were not appropriate for crops, and farms were not appropriate for livestock.18 Furthermore, mills, railroads, and other facilities were also destroyed, pushing the Southern states back to their pre-manufacturing stage. Decades were required in order to overcome the consequences of the war that can be regarded as an economic conflict that led to the economic decline of the South and the comparable industrial progress of the North.

The problems in the Southern states observed after the Civil War are viewed by many researchers as evidence to pay more attention to the economic factor in this military conflict. The observed declines in agricultural activities and manufacturing became direct outcomes of the impossibility of Southern states to reanimate their economics as it was in the North. Differences in economic courses in the Northern and Southern states not only led to the start of the Civil War with its purpose to contribute to abolishing slavery but also to the economic decline of the South. The reason was in the inability of former users of slaves’ labor to easily adopt the course of industrialization dependent on the political economy promoted by the Republican Party.19 Emancipation resulted in the necessity to change traditional economic models to new ones, but the process required many resources and time. Cotton production in the South was significantly affected by the abolishment process, and the associated consequences were observed till the 20th century.20 Only urban centers in the South were regarded as territories providing citizens with more opportunities to overcome the economic crisis leading to the Civil War an observed after it.

However, not all historians are inclined to view the American Civil War as a conflict having economic foundations, and there are still authors accentuating political and social aspects of the problem. The explanation of their views is important to accentuate that these authors’ ideas lack support and arguments in comparison to the position that the Civil War conflict was primarily economic. Thus, according to Latzko, Southerners could choose to participate in the war to protect their state interests and to limit the power of the Republicans interested in the federal dominance.21 Researchers also discuss the role of slavery in triggering the conflict not from the perspective of economics but also from the perspective of the spread of Southerners’ impact in the country. It is important to note that there was a high risk of the significant expansion of slavery to the Western regions of the country, and in the political context, this outcome was not preferable for Northerners. Their key focus was on strengthening the Federal power with reference to building a controlling central government.22 When referring to these facts discussed by historians, it is possible to evaluate them as relevant. Nevertheless, the accentuation of the role of slavery in these processes allows for concluding that the economic aspect was significant in the analyzed conflict.

Still, some researchers view the Civil War as a prolonged conflict based on the political and territorial opposition of Northerners and Southerners, but this idea can also be refuted. Calomiris and Pritchett state that the war started as an attempt of Southerners to stop Northerners’ expansion of the principles of the federal government and specifics of the Republican course on the Southern states.23 Northerners were interested in promoting and stimulating the growth of industries based on the principles of capitalism, and they needed more lands and resources for building new plants and broadening their impact in the country. Thus, developing the topic of the slavery expansion in the Western region of the country, it is necessary to state that Northerners also needed the Western lands for the realization of their industrial projects.24 The Republicans led by Lincoln required the Emancipation Proclamation in order to reinforce their position in the country and promote their specific political course. However, accepting the importance of political and territorial factors in developing the military conflict in the United States, it is important to ignore the role of economic disparities serving as a background for these political debates.

Referring to the conducted analysis, the American Civil War can be discussed as a complex military conflict that had many specific causes, including political, social, and economic ones. However, this civil war should be primarily viewed as an economic conflict that had a significant impact on the history of the country. The reason is that the economic situations typical of the Northern and Southern states were extremely different, leading to the impossibility to develop a political course that could satisfy both parties. Any time historians and researchers refer to the causes and nature of the American Civil War, they mention slavery and Northerners’ intention to abolish it in the Southern territories. In this context, slavery is a critical economic factor that cannot be ignore when analyzing the nature of this civil war. It is possible to assume that Northerners’ orientation toward abolishing slavery was grounded in the fact that they did not need slaves for their economic model. As a result, it is important to note that Republicans were led by their economic goals when discussing possibilities for changing the political situation in the country.

When perceiving the Civil War as an economic conflict, it is possible to understand the underlying causes of Republicans’ manifestations and their interest in abolishing slavery and preventing its spread in the West. Furthermore, when viewing this civil war as an economic conflict, it is also possible to explain Southerners’ efforts oriented toward protecting slavery in their lands. In both cases, Northerners and Southerners were led by economic goals and perspectives. In the first case, it was critically important to guarantee the domination of the federal government in the country and the continuation of the industrialization process. In the second case, it was essential to preserve the source of the free labor to guarantee the prosperity of farms and plantations.

Thus, it is important to conclude that political aims and ideals proclaimed by the leaders of the Northern and Southern states greatly depended on potential economic benefits or failures for them. That is why, it is significant to examine and analyze all the specifics of the American Civil War from the perspective of its nature as an economic conflict. In this case, it is also possible to consider this critical event in the history of the United States from a larger perspective in order to be able to notice all the details of its historic representation to assess its outcomes.

Bibliography

Austin, Adrian, and Swarna Dutt. “Ethnic Diversity, Economic Institutions and Civil War: Theory and Empirics.” Indian Journal of Economics and Business 14, no. 2 (2015): 179-189.

Calomiris, Charles W., and Jonathan Pritchett. “Betting on Secession: Quantifying Political Events Surrounding Slavery and the Civil War.” American Economic Review 106, no. 1 (2016): 1-23.

Hammond, John Craig. “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires: North American Borderlands and the American Civil War, 1660–1860.” Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 2 (2014): 264-298.

Humphreys, Margaret. “This Place of Death: Environment as Weapon in the American Civil War.” The Southern Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2016): 12-36.

Latzko, David A. “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War and Emancipation on the South Carolina Economy.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 116, no. 4 (2015): 258-279.

Pearson, Susan J. “A New Birth of Regulation: The State of the State after the Civil War.” Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 3 (2015): 422-439.

Yarbrough, Fay A. “Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research by Paul D. Escott.” Journal of Southern History 85, no. 1 (2019): 171-173.

Footnotes

  1. John Craig Hammond, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires: North American Borderlands and the American Civil War, 1660–1860,” Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 2 (2014): 266-267.
  2. David A. Latzko, “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War and Emancipation on the South Carolina Economy,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 116, no. 4 (2015): 258-259.
  3. Charles W. Calomiris and Jonathan Pritchett, “Betting on Secession: Quantifying Political Events Surrounding Slavery and the Civil War,” American Economic Review 106, no. 1 (2016): 1-3.
  4. Latzko, “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War,” 258-260.
  5. Calomiris and Pritchett, “Betting on Secession,” 2-4.
  6. Hammond, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires,” 270-273.
  7. Latzko, “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War,” 258-260.
  8. Margaret Humphreys, “This Place of Death: Environment as Weapon in the American Civil War,” The Southern Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2016): 12-15.
  9. Latzko, “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War,” 268-276.
  10. Fay A. Yarbrough, “Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research by Paul D. Escott,” Journal of Southern History 85, no. 1 (2019): 171-172.
  11. Susan J. Pearson, “A New Birth of Regulation: The State of the State after the Civil War,” Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 3 (2015): 422.
  12. Pearson, “A New Birth of Regulation,” 422-426.
  13. Calomiris and Pritchett, “Betting on Secession,” 15-18.
  14. Pearson, “A New Birth of Regulation,” 430-438.
  15. Hammond, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires,” 270-280.
  16. Humphreys, “This Place of Death,” 17-24.
  17. Pearson, “A New Birth of Regulation,” 430-438.
  18. Latzko, “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War,” 259-263.
  19. Hammond, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires,” 270-281.
  20. Latzko, “Mapping the Short-Run Impact of the Civil War,” 276-278.
  21. Ibid., 262-270.
  22. Hammond, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires,” 276-280.
  23. Calomiris and Pritchett, “Betting on Secession,” 15-19.
  24. Adrian Austin and Swarna Dutt, “Ethnic Diversity, Economic Institutions and Civil War: Theory and Empirics,” Indian Journal of Economics and Business 14, no. 2 (2015): 179-182.