03 September, 2011

Another good article, and more Civil War Economics

The reading about the Civil War continues. I'm finding the whole subject more and more interesting, and that interest rises as I discover excellent articles about aspects of the conflict that are generally ignored in the textbook accounts. This one, by Howard Jones at The American Interest, discusses the international ramifications of the war. It's particularly interesting to me in context of those chapters of Henry Adam's Education that dealt with the complex diplomatic situation over in London; a conflict that you really learn next to nothing about (it existed, that's pretty much it) in most accounts of the war.

Another interesting part of the article is the discussion of  Confederate efforts to woo Great Britain. Essentially, by making continued supply of cotton to Great Britain and France contingent upon those countries' recognition of the Confederate states, the Confederacy put another nail in their own coffin, economically speaking. Because the response in Europe was simply to look for cotton elsewhere. Hence the explosion of the cotton industry in Egypt, India, and Brazil. So by the end of the war, when the South was looking to get back on its feet economically,  they found that they'd deprived themselves of their own customers.

Also--and this is only tangentially related to the article--it's interesting that the more I read about this whole affair, the more clear it becomes that economics motivated the both the North and the South, despite that whole lovely mythologization of the South as fighting for some Romantic principle of Aristocratic Living and Good Old Roman Virtue. If you want to view the North's motivations solely  in economic terms, it's fair to do the same to the South; and it's necessary, in the face of the evidence. Given the south's preoccupation with the Slave trade (and who wants to believe nowadays that there was a huge push in the Confederate states to reestablish the African slave trade that the Founders had abolished in the early 1800s as a means of "strengthening"  the economy?) and the cotton trade, economic motives were certainly strong in the Confederate states. Thus while we can admit that the North may have been motivated to stop slavery because of the expansion of industry and the surplus of available immigrant labor, one must also admit that the South was also fighting for economic reasons:  for the preservation of a pseudo-aristocratic, slave-owning agrarian economy vs. an industrial, wage-earning, talent-based economy. Again, any Romanticization of such motives is valid only insofar as we are willing to give a moral benefit of the doubt to both sides, since self-interest was at least as much an issue in the South as in the North.


Mark Mahaffey said...

I happen to reside in Columbia, SC - where secession formally began - and it is remarkable how many people still want to distance the causes of the war from economy and slavery, when these resaons were quite literally the heart of SC's articles of seccession: http://eweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/decl-sc.htm

Therese said...

I'm always happy to meet a southerner willing to admit this! I'm sure there are many more, but I went to a school where a truly astonishing percentage of the population was fine with supporting secession; I think some of the problem is lack of familiarity with the original documents, as you suggest. (Not that Northern schools generally do a better job of promoting a well-balanced understanding of the war either; the problems there are different though. Suggesting that all northerners were abolitionists or something ridiculous like that.)