The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research

By Robin Higham; Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview
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13 Economic Factors

James M. Russell

Two questions are important to an understanding of the causes of the American Civil War. Why did eleven states risk war by seceding from the Union, beginning with South Carolina on December 20, 1860? And why did the North choose to fight to preserve the Union? The bulk of the historiography on Civil War causation attempts to answer only one of these questions at a time, with far more work addressing the topic of Southern secession. It is fair to add that most studies on the causes of the Civil War have downplayed economic factors.

In an historiographical survey, "The Irrepressible Conflict," included in his The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War ( 1980), Kenneth Stampp divides most twentieth-century work on Civil War causation into three categories: those that argue for economic determinism; those that embrace a "slavery/cultural concept," which minimizes economic factors; and those that adhere to James G. Randall's "blundering generation hypothesis," which rejects the importance of both economic and cultural factors and emphasizes instead the significance of irresponsible, fanatical agitators and incompetent politicians.


MARXIST PERSPECTIVES

Not surprisingly, those who fit into Stampp's first category--economic determinism--have been Marxist historians, who tend to follow Marx's tenet that economic factors are the prime moving forces in history. One of the first to apply Marxist thinking to the causes of the Civil War was A. M. Simons. In his Social Forces in American History ( 1920), Simons began by dismissing the idea that Northern concern over the plight of the slaves had anything to do with

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