Secession and Civil War

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To what extent can the Civil War be accounted for as a struggle between two antagonistic economic systems?

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Many historians view the Civil War as a contest between two very different economic systems. While there were also social factors involved in the conflict, it can be argued that even these had their roots in the differing economies of the northern and southern United States.

Prior to the war, the economy of the South was mostly built on the production of raw materials destined for the commodities markets in the North and in Europe. The acquisition of these materials depended upon the physical labor of slaves. There were very few factories in the South, and little food was produced for local consumption.

The North, on the other hand, had an economy built on the production of consumer products. This was due to the many factories throughout the North. Many of these products were dependent on raw materials produced in the South. Also, more than enough food was farmed for both local consumption and export. The country's banking and financial centers were also located in northern cities.

Furthermore, the North's economy was drastically changing throughout the nineteenth century. The market revolution and advances in industrial production meant that the North developed a dynamic economy that was significantly expanding. The South, however, continued to base its economy on the older plantation system. Southerners frequently saw the changes in the North as a threat to their older, more established economic system.

Because of the two very different economies and sources of labor, the two regions developed competing interests. The South's economy was built on slave labor, while the North's economy operated and succeeded without it. When the southern states saw that the institution of slavery was under attack, they felt that their entire economy and way of life was endangered.

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The Civil War can be accounted for in this way to a very great extent.  Some historians argue that everything in a society is based on its economic system.  If they are right, then the war was due completely to economics.  Even if they are wrong, economics had a major role in causing the war.

The North and South had very different economies.  Part of the difference, of course, was slavery.  However, the South was also mainly a producer of staple commodities for export while the North had a much more diversified economy that did not depend as much on foreign trade.  These differences in their economies meant that the two regions had very different interests.  This can be seen in the tariff controversy of the late 1820s, one of the first big disputes between the sections.  Northern interests were served by a high tariff while Southern interests were harmed.  The major differences in the two sections’ interests helped make each wary of what would happen if the other took too much power over the federal government.

Of course, there were other issues.  Slavery eventually became a moral issue and not just an economic one.  Issues of pride were also important.  So were political conflicts over federalism.   The war was not caused only by the differences in the two regions’ economies.  However, those differences were tremendously important in making the two sides wary of one another. 

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