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Wedges of Separation In The Civil War

        Thus far little has been said of sectional conflict. There were many individual friendships between Northerners and Southerners; Savannah and Charleston had common interests and friendly communication with Philadelphia and other Northern ports. To think of the prewar outlook of Boston or New York as one of hostility to the South would be a serious mistake. Southern editorials and legislative resolutions which singled out Garrison for denunciation as if he were typical of the North or representative of Boston were sadly misleading. On both sides of the Mason and Dixon line there existed a teeming civilization whose aspects were so numerous and whose interests so manifold that any suggestion of anti-Southernism as a dominant interest in the North, or of the opposite feeling as a controlling Southern motive, while perhaps agreeing here and there with certain factors selected for the purpose, would seem to belie hundreds of other elements so common and so obvious that they are likely to escape the historians notice. Yet conflict did develop until it produced one of the hugest wars of history. The antecedents of that war will be traced in this and the following chapter. Since this portion of the narrative will necessarily involve frequent mention of antagonistic attitudes, it is important in the interest of straight thinking that one should avoid the facile assumption that these tendencies and attitudes represented majority sentiment or constituted at the time the leading phase of the nations thought and life. The varied aspects that have been imperfectly suggested in the preceding chapters (literature, industry, humanitarian endeavor, etc.) ran concurrently with the sectional troubles now to be discussed; to single out these troubles for separate treatment is, after all, a mere literary device. One should not read back from the fact of war to the supposition that war-making tendencies were the nations chief preoccupation in the fifties. In those years ship owners were interested in the merchant marine, writers in literature, captains of industry in economic enterprise,  if any class was concerned chiefly with factors of sectional antagonism it would seem to have been certain groups of politicians and agitators.
        With these preliminary considerations in mind it may be well at this point to examine two factors in the fifties that tended toward the placing of undue stress upon controversy and strife: (1) economic sectionalism, and (2) the intensification of the slavery issue by the singling out of one narrow aspect--slavery expansion in the territories--till it became, by a process of exaggeration and over-simplification, the equivalent of "Southern rights" when viewed by one set of leaders, while by another group the checking of such expansion was represented as synonymous with democracy and freedom.
        Turning to the economic problem, one finds that the ante-bellum Southerner was encouraged to consider the science of Adam Smith and Ricardo as indeed the "dismal science." Reading the pages of De Bows Review, or following the rhetorical portrayal of economic injustice by a certain boiling Kettell (T. P. Kettell, Southern Wealth and Northern Profits), the patriotic Southern citizen must often have felt his fighting blood rising. Kettell marshaled an imposing array of data and statistics to show that the South was the great wealth-producing section, while the North, like an economic leech, sucked up the wealth of the South upon which it depended for raw materials and indeed for its very life. American commerce, according to this view, whether incoming or outgoing, drew fundamentally from the South. It was the South which supplied the bulk of exported products; and it was the South which bought the bulk of imported goods. Northern manufactures rested upon the production of Southern materials. Yet the North enjoyed the lions share of the profits.
        Elaborating this thesis, Kettell argued that this economic inequality resulted from the concentration of manufacturing, shipping, banking, and international trade in the North. For the marketing of export crops New York was the center. The Southern planter, sending his cotton to England, would draw upon the English importer a bill of exchange to be paid in sixty or ninety days. Not awaiting the arrival of his goods abroad, he would use this draft to obtain ready cash. The market for foreign bills of exchange, however, was in New York; it was there that ready money could be had for them. When the demand for such bills was low, this negotiable paper would be depressed; if the demand were high, some speculator rather than the Southern producer might reap the profit. The Southerner was as fully convinced of the prevalence of vicious speculation in cotton paper as the farmer today is convinced of the trickiness of methods that attend transactions in grain futures. The fact that the Northern broker assumed a risk in giving the planter ready money in exchange for a future claim was overlooked.
        In addition to this monopoly of the foreign export business, the almost complete control of banking in the North worked a hardship on the South; and heavy tribute was paid to Yankee shipping interests which enjoyed the greater share of the ocean carrying trade of the country. Southerners were therefore saying: We must free ourselves from this economic subservience. Manufacturing, banking, and international trade must be brought into Southern hands. New Orleans must supersede New York as the business hub of the nation. Look to the tariff! While the South has lacked the majority to determine the incidence of this unequal tax, yet her shoulders must bear the burden. Through the operation of unequal navigation laws passed by the Federal Congress, feudal palaces rise throughout New England and fleets of merchantmen crowd its ports. Let the South but assume her stand among the nations, and these palaces and fleets will vanish, and the seats of economic domination will be transferred to the harbors of the Chesapeake, to Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, or New Orleans. Great European liners will establish regular connection between Europe and the South, instead of having Boston, New York, or Philadelphia as the termini of the Atlantic lines.
        In commerce and finance, as in literature, so the argument ran, we of the South have been hewers of wood and drawers of water for those who fatten on our prosperity while they rejoice at our misfortune. Unsound business conditions in Northern centers produce a "panic, and the South must suffer, not for any fault of its own, but because of its economic vassalage. Self- sufficient in essential matters, comparatively out of debt, indulging in none of the wild speculations of the day, controlling the great staple which is "King," the South is yet in a complete and thorough condition of serfdom. Producing the article which furnishes the basis of the worlds trade, an article that rules the commerce of the whole civilized globe, the great producing region is yet powerless as a sick babe. Gamblers and money changers in New York, thieves and swindlers of Wall Street, sport with men's fortunes as children with toys; and within a few weeks cotton planters lose enough to equip a magnificent line of steamships.
        Northerners, of course, held a diametrically opposing view of these economic developments. Eager for "a liberal immigration policy to assure an abundance of cheap labor, ship subsidies for the promotion of commerce, internal improvements in the form of roads, canals, and harbor facilities, a sound monetary system to guarantee that loans and interest would be duly met in values at least equal to the nominal figure in the bond, [and] high tariffs for industries," Northern businessmen complained that the backward, agrarian, feudalistic South dominated the national government. Southern votes had been chiefly responsible for the low Walker tariff of 1846, and Southern votes would back the still lower tariff of 1857, which greatly reduced rates and expanded the free list. In the days of Jackson and Van Buren it had been Southern votes which helped destroy the second Bank of the United States, thereby depriving the nation of central financial direction. Southern Congressmen defeated or retarded necessary appropriations for internal improvements. Southern jealousy held up federal assistance for the construction of a transcontinental railroad linking Chicago or St. Louis with the Pacific coast. Southern Congressmen repeatedly helped defeat homestead legislation which would have encouraged free-soil settlement of the national territories. To many irate Northern capitalists the South appeared to require that "the federal government was to do nothing for business enterprise while the planting interest was to he assured the possession of enough political power to guarantee it against the reenactment of the Hamilton-Webster program."
        These opposite economic arguments furnished agitators on each side abundant ammunition for rhetorical exercises in reciprocal denunciation. When submitted to scientific analysis, such arguments will be found to consist partly of solid truth and partly of fallacy. It was true that the South had an essentially colonial economy, from which heavy profits were drained off by Northern middlemen. It was also true that Southern political power, disproportionate to the sections economic strength, helped retard measures which Northern capitalists desired. Yet the Southerner usually erred in refusing to admit that the North was making a major contribution to the Southern economy, while the Northerner often failed to see how much of his profits depended upon the Southern trade. Those Southerners who demanded separation for economic reasons were not thinking sufficiently in terms of mutual dependence. Even if separation should come, yet physically, as Lincoln said, the sections could not separate: they would have to go on living side by side; and the many elements of economic interdependence would continue to operate.
        Parallel with economic discontent there stood the slavery issue. Viewed in its manifold aspects, the subject of American slavery comprised, of course, a whole bundle of questions. Should slavery continue to exist on American soil? Should the United States in its international dealing continue to assume the attitude of a proslavery power? Should steps be taken toward cooperation with England in her efforts to stamp out international trade in human beings? What possibilities lay in the various projects for colonization? Were Negroes fitted to labor on plantations as freemen for wages? Was slavery economically sound, or was it a drag upon agricultural and industrial progress in the South? What changes in domestic economy, in the social order, and in the political regime were likely if emancipation should be undertaken? Must the South always be a unit for slavery? If certain states found the institution unprofitable and wished to enter upon the adventure of emancipation, were they to be deterred by broad sentiments of the South as a section? Were not the Southern whites as well as the Negroes enslaved? Were they not bound to a rigid, unalterable social and economic order by chains of custom? Did not many individual planters feel that they were involved in a regime which they could not control, but which required them to carry on, more for the sake of their slaves than for their own welfare?
        These larger phases of the slavery question, however, seemed to recede as the controversies of the fifties developed; for while the struggle sharpened, it also narrowed. As political conflicts between North and South unfolded, the attention of the country as a whole (as distinguished from certain crusading groups) became diverted from the fundamentals of slavery in its moral, economic, and social aspects; and the thought of the nation politically became concentrated upon the collateral problem as to what Congress should do with respect to slavery in the territories, Though the whole intricate complex of sectionalism must be taken into account, it was this narrow phase of the slavery question which became, or seemed, central in the succession of political events which actually produced the Civil War.
Source: "The Civil War And Reconstruction" by J. G. Randall and David Herbert Donald

This Page last updated 05/04/02


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