The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research

By Robin Higham; Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview
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38 Industry, Agriculture, and the Economy

Lee A. Craig

The traditional view of the economics of the Civil War saw the conflict as an inevitable struggle between competing forms of economic organization: Northern industrialism and Southern agrarianism. Charles and Mary Beard The Rise of American Civilization ( 1927) represents the seminal treatise on this theme, and the notion remains strongly, if often implicitly, imbedded in subsequent volumes on the subject. At the root of this conflict supposedly lay slavery, which was considered a fundamental characteristic of Southern life, and the tariff, which favored manufacturers at the expense of planters. In fact, numerous studies by economic historians over the past several decades reveal that economic conflict was not an inherent condition of North-South relations during the antebellum era and did not cause the Civil War.

Although certain groups, such as western farmers, justifiably feared the potential competition from slave agriculture, slavery neither threatened nor contended with other features of the Northern economy, and it actually complemented the economic interests of many Northerners. For example, in The Political Economy of the Cotton South ( 1978) Gavin Wright explains how slavery allowed Southern cotton growers to transcend the labor supply constraint faced by family farms. Breaking this constraint led to a greater supply (and thus a lower price) of raw cotton, which was used in Northern textile mills; furthermore, slavery kept blacks from competing with Northern urban workers for industrial jobs. Although the tariff did redistribute income from Southern cotton growers to Northern capitalists and workers, the average tariff rate, as measured by the ratio of duties paid to the value of free and dutiable imports, approached

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