What caused the South to start the Civil War? How Class Distinctions in The Antebellum South and the Economics of Slavery Contributed to the Origins of the Civil War

What caused the South to start the Civil War? How Class Distinctions in The Antebellum South and the Economics of Slavery Contributed to the Origins of the Civil War

Armory, Richmond, Virginia.
“…the ‘poor whites’ of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with the slave lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history; and that was, that secretly the ‘poor white’ did detest the slave lord, and did feel his own shame.”

Mark Twain 

Chapter 30 The Tragedy of the Manor House

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Any consideration of the causes of the Civil War would be incomplete without investigating its economic foundations. Understanding precisely how economic concerns influenced political events requires closely evaluating the class hierarchy of the Old South. Recognizing why the predominant views of the North, and the Republicans in particular, were perceived as potential financial threats to the highest levels of southern society is a critical foundation to understanding why the Civil War happened and when it did. The views of the Southern people were not monolithic but rather embodied many points of view, influenced by their socioeconomic status.

Political Manifestations of Class Distinction

The Confederate States of America encompassed a geographic region populated by 5.6 million white people and 3.6 million enslaved people.  The Confederacy was a “minority republic”, since the power of voting and legal recognition was reserved for the less than 3 million white men, constituting less than a third of its population. The oligarchy of those white men who wielded political power was defined by land ownership descending through family connections and with it, the enslaved who worked the fields. 

Indisputably, the political views of the Southern upper class were determined by the economic forces that afforded status, power, prestige and clout in their society (4). An aristocratic class of means and position was defined by the ownership of people and land. The labor management benefit of slavery to the owners in agricultural environments that is often emphasized in historical accounts was only one facet of its practice: slavery was the underpinning of southern culture, religion and social norms. 

Wealth Inequality and the Working White Population

Class in the aristocratic South was centered on capital, which was unequally distributed. The richest 10% of southern families controlled 75% of the wealth, demonstrating a very large skew of who possessed substantial wealth in the antebellum south. Although the mean per capita worth in southern states was significantly higher than in the north, much of the wealth attributed to the south was a consequence of the value of enslaved individuals, rather than actual savings, volume of commerce or worth of land .

Even these percentages fail to fully express the extent to which the antebellum South was a tiered society, economically and socially.  Aside from the wealthy planter class, two other economic groups have been identified: the poor white and land-owning small farmers. 

Many white families who couldn’t afford enslaved people nevertheless aspired to, either to share labor and/or as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Those who could not afford the purchase of enslaved humans could rent or hire them from their owners.

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

Recognizing how class and success was measured, and the privileges which followed, the white working class were kept under political and economic control by manipulation of their wages, property, and incentives.  The nature of the aristocratic hierarchy was to promise paternalistic protection and to guarantee a better level of living than the slave. Consequently, they could be reassured that they were not the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As William C Davis summarizes: “Another Southern advantage, from the oligarchs point of view, was its modest middle class, which extended little beyond members of the professions like doctors and lawyers.”

In fact, the slave system actually created negative effects for working white people. These included lower wages, less job security, and fewer available jobs, resulting from competition with forced labor. The problem for the upper class was to justify the continuation of slavery to the majority of the population that was actually being harmed by it, and to convince them that defending slavery was beneficial to them (14). This was accomplished by creating a myth of a normal family that included slaves; DeBow suggested that the family circle consisted of “parent, husband, wife, children, brothers, sisters and slaves.”.

Social Impact of Class and Slavery

Family of enslaved black Americans in a field in Georgia, circa 1850

The planter class ruled Southern society and allotted no significant voice to middle class or poor southern whites. When it is said that slavery was the “cornerstone” of southern culture and economics, there must be clarification as to what facet of slavery is involved. There is the moral aspect of owning people: denying their humanity and the worse moral aspect of mistreating them. In addition, there is the economic side: a labor management strategy, the value as property, the collateral for loans, and the influence it provided over northern businesses like shipping. There is the political sense: multiplying votes, having control of election of state and federal representatives, controlling the presidency, and having leverage over foreign powers. When class control of southern society is discussed, all of these factors allowed the wealthy planters to control the government, the judiciary and the media. 

The Confederacy’s 11 states had about 350,000 slave owners in a white population of around 5.6 million; thus, about 5.7% were slave owners in 1860. Since a legal slave owner was just the one person in a family who legally owned them, usually the head of the family, this number underestimates how widespread the custom of slavery was. The Census of 1860 documented that 30.3 % of the free families in the confederacy owned at least one slave. Moreover, of these, 12 % of slaveholders (about 37,000) owned 20 or more enslaved individuals, or 3.6% of the population. This figure represents a first estimate of the percent and number of truly affluent families; most of this group were large landholders with significant agricultural production . This minority essentially controlled the Confederate economy and political system. This was the group from whom political leaders, newspaper publishers and judges were drawn 

Political Consequences of Economic Incentives

The election of Abraham Lincoln without any votes or visible support in the South suggested a change in the power dynamics of the country. The southern elite recognized that this portended a loss of power on a national level, with potentially catastrophic effects on their social situation and businesses. Their interpretation was that Lincoln sought to limit the spread of their economic foundation; if this was allowed to occur, the value of their human property would plummet and the fine balance of cost and profit of slaveholding would be altered.

Despite the upholding of their political power by the Dred Scott decision, they discerned that they were in danger of losing the power to spread slavery into the territories. If newly admitted territories were admitted as free states, it would only be a matter of time before the free states could pass a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery. For the Southern elite, 1860 had become the moment of now or never. The Montgomery Convention was structured on the conception that secession and a government be declared as soon as possible rather than to leave it to debate among the common people.

Consequently, any threat that might devalue slave property was basically a threat to the planter class: their status in society, their wealth, and their identity were at risk.  Unsurprisingly, they fought to maintain their privileges. In the lead-up to the war, they pressured and bought politicians and newspaper editors and judges in an effort to keep their wealth. If slavery could be exported to the western territories, or if new areas could be added to the U.S. south of the Missouri Compromise line, then their slave holdings would increase in value .

In Part II, we will explore how these economic differences among the classes were used to manipulate public opinion and their relationship to the origin of secession and the Civil War.

Preparing the Lower Classes for War

A cartoon from the war, showing the Confederates forcibly drafting a Unionist man into the Confederate army. The Unionist man objects, with the Confederates threatening to lynch him if he does not comply.

War is a complicated human behavior. Rarely is it reducible to one cause, almost never in modern times.  Power gradients, cultural misperceptions, economic factors and diplomatic failures are almost always contributory. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that slavery was the economic basis of the civil war, and the potential economic impact of the policies articulated by Lincoln on the southern upper class is essential to understanding how and when the war began.

Having established (see Part I) that economic advantage incentivized the upper Southern class to provoke belligerence and war, convincing the middle and working classes required a decade of rhetoric and ongoing publicity in the newspapers of the times. The aim was to convince the working class that investing their money, lives and futures in a war would be beneficial to them, even if they didn’t themselves own people. Newspapers were used to create a sense of patriotism, culture war, and sectional loyalty. Thus, the narrative had to be created that owning people was the core of the southern culture and economic system. Hence, the common man didn’t have to own people to be benefited by the slavery labor system. 

The manner which this was done was to resort to race: that unless the white citizen supported secession, “… within ten years or less their children would be the slaves of Negroes.”

 Southern politicians and journalists called Fire Eaters spent years speaking and writing about the religious, social and financial benefits of slave holding. In the run-up to the elections of 1860, the fire-eaters intentionally articulated issues to bring non-slaveholders into their camp. To clarify how the poor white benefitted from the system, James DB DeBow wrote: “No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this ..”.

The South Carolina declaration of secession, the Cornerstone Speech of CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens, and the Articles of Secession of the states in the Deep South make clear that the central question was slavery. Although the political focus was on fugitive slave laws (and the legal interpretation that allowed southern states to impose their will on northern states) and the rights of territories and states to regulate slavery, it was the very existence of slavery that was at stake, in their view. Thus, although 70% of white southern families did not own enslaved people, secession and independence centered on the interests of the upper class.

Thus, the politicians — many of whom owned large numbers of enslaved people — were beyond the point of compromise. The newspapers began to endorse secession and war if necessary, appealing to patriotism and sectional identity. Secession was encouraged and provoked by several hundred political leaders in the southeastern part of the country. These men were broadly similar in their social and cultural beliefs, financial holdings and dependence on agriculture. Minimal diversity in their religion, family background, and profession can be discerned. They used these levers of power to convince the other 70% that it was their fight. The issues at hand were  manipulated to suggest that homes and communities were threatened by Lincoln’s election. A unity of purpose across interests was asserted, without ethnic or economic diversity of concerns; DeBow stated: “This is the secret of our national strength and unity.”.

Class Dynamics and Cultural Unity

Confederate artillery at Charleston Harbor, 1863

The extent to which solidarity across class lines was sustained, despite the fact that the Southern system worked to the disadvantage of impoverished whites, is the central economic success story of the antebellum South. The conception of race providing a privilege was powerful enough to ensure unity under the Confederacy. Race and class together contributed immensely to the power dynamics that operated in Southern society . 

The South was an aristocratic agrarian society based on inherited wealth of land and ownership of humans. Most poor white farmers had little economic opportunity in the South because of the stagnant economic opportunities. Many fewer immigrants settled in the South because there was less opportunity for work or to acquire land. Hence the South’s labor force was stagnant; since few new workers moved in, the status quo was easier to maintain, and to control. In contradistinction, the North was a bustling, vibrant economy with railroads, steamships, machine tools, engineering schools, factories and farms. The need for a large labor force and the opportunity for new people with new ideas was enormous.

The soldiers of the South, drawn almost exclusively from the lower economic classes, were drawn to the values that Americans have always fought for: family, friends, church, and community. The connection between these foundations of Southern society (economically, socially and culturally) and slavery was made clearly. Some also fought because they were conscripted (~12%), because their people and their community were under attack, and from fear of a slave revolt.  Meanwhile, the profiteering of the wealthy went unabated during the war. Women left at home to run the family farm recognized the class injustice, and it threatened their support for the war: “Those that brought the war on us is at home, and our boys are fighting for their property… the rich is all at home making great fortunes.”

In contrast, Confederate officers came from the elite class, many with legal, military and political backgrounds, typically with a substantial personal stake in the outcome. Many of the political leaders of secession and the Confederate government were large landholders and most had substantial investments in human property.

Consequences of Class Conflict

Confronted with the enormous economic and political realities of war, the Confederate government conducted expenditures and passed laws to benefit those who comprised the government and held power. As a result, the elite class continued to enjoy protection of their personal advantages and privileges. Any opportunity to use the war to accrue further wealth while protecting their sons from service was readily sought. The inflationary spiral, food impressment and bread riots were clear indications that a safety net to protect the average citizen was necessary, but was not implemented.

Although Southern politicians and the planter class had built their power as elite members of their society, the economic and political exclusion of the majority of their population (white women and blacks) resulted in multiple domestic crises. The wartime scarcity of food, labor, and soldiers forced the government to become accountable to those it had disenfranchised. These groups contested government enlistment and tax and welfare policies. In the end, the repression of a majority of its population could not be sustained.

Confederate $100 bill, 1862–63, showing happy slaves farming. John C. Calhoun is at left, Columbia at right.

Aristocratic planters avoided military service, using exemptions based on wealth, while the yeomen endured conscription. The Second Conscription Act, or, Twenty-Negro Law, was widely recognized as favoring the wealthy. This exemption was widely viewed among the farmers and poor as a means for the upper class to maintain their livelihoods and evade the danger of military service while the poor were forced to fight and die for their privilege.

The memoirs of Sam Watkins (26) clearly relate: “A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty Negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.’” Ownership of 20 enslaved people implied a wealth in human property alone exceeding $30,000 in 1860 dollars, which would be valued at around $1 million in contemporary value. 

The conscription of the small farmers who grew the food also impacted supplies to both the army and the citizens. David Schenck, a Confederate  official, noted that, “the conscript  law  too which takes  so many producers  from  the  country will  reduce  the  crops one  half  and a  scarcity of  Bread stares  us  in the  face.”

The widespread food riots in 1863 and later were the direct consequence of these exemptions benefitting the wealthy. Mary Moore, the leader of one of the riots in North Carolina, wrote to the Governor: “… our Husbands and Sons are now separated from us by the cruel war not only to defend their humbly homes but the homes and property of the rich man.” 

Resistance to conscription and widespread desertion followed, with the development of “safe zones” in North Carolina and the Appalachian Mountains.

The Economics of Slavery

The myth of a unified South was propagated by those who benefitted from a lack of dissent. Plantation owners  who sought  to preserve their way of life through the institution of slavery were first, then white  supremacists who desired to protect their position in society. Meanwhile, less fortunate southern white men fought and died for slavery, an economic and social system that would never benefit them, but rather the wealthy landowner.

The Confederate States of America was established, by the declaration of its highest leaders, based on the principle that all people are not created equal. To say the Civil War and secession was “due to slavery” may be correct strictly speaking, but an enormous oversimplification nonetheless. Slavery had a myriad of societal implications, and each influenced the origin of the war in various ways; sometimes these factors are cited without making the connection to the larger vision of slavery. Beyond its moral implications, the ownership of people had important economic implications that are often overlooked when considering the origins of the Civil War. 

An 1861 Confederate recruiting poster from Virginia, urging men to join the Confederate cause and fight off the U.S. Army, which it refers to as a “brutal and desperate foe”

The “peculiar institution” was the lever that was absolutely essential to precipitating the war and there is no cogent argument that doesn’t acknowledge that connection. The primary reason for the war was slavery’s economic consequences and its relationship to the class system in the ante bellum south. This argument in no way should downplay its racial, moral and political aspects; rather, these must be interpreted in view of its influence on secession and how the war was precipitated by its power-related economic factors. In this article, we will analyze the economic implications of slavery, specifically addressing why a war was fought over its continued existence.

Slavery as a Macroeconomic Factor in the Southern Economy

Slavery was a social, economic and cultural institution with its roots in all strata of Southern society. Furthermore, slavery was not just a cheap way to maintain an agricultural workforce, but rather was a labor management strategy utilized throughout the region, utilized in every business. All entrepreneurial endeavors used enslaved people to perform labor, if they had sufficient revenue.  Owners might rent out their slaves on a contract basis, receiving fees in return. Some of these laborers became highly skilled and could be marketed to others for a price; Frederick Douglass for example was a highly placed tradesman on the Baltimore docks . The affluent and wealthy of any profession travelled in a coach driven by enslaved workers and were greeted at home by a household staffed by domestic servants.

Furthermore, enslaved people were legally regarded as property, and hence each slave had a market value.  Their ownership represented collateral for loans, allowing planters to trade people for other valuables. On a large plantation (more than 20 slaves) the capital value of the slaves exceeded the capital value of the land and farming tools.  There were also multiple political ramifications: multiplying votes on a federal level, controlling who are the representatives in the government, influencing who can aspire to the presidency, and providing leverage over foreign powers. There were clearly deep cultural aspects: as a signal of wealth and power and as a floor of poverty. Also, the class control of southern society should be recognized: the wealthy planters controlled local and state government, the judiciary and the media. 

Trends in the Incidence of Slavery. In 1860, over four million people were held in perpetual bondage within the United States. This figure was almost twice the number of slaves recorded in the census of 1830 (just over two million) and over five times the number of slaves recorded in the census of 1790 (almost 700 thousand). Slavery in the United States was growing at an exponential rate, and its growth directly correlated to the production of cotton. Neither slavery nor cotton showed any sign of ending at the time of secession; instead, slaves were increasing in number and value by the day, and the production of cotton by the bale continued to increase.

Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia. Painting by Eyre Crowe

According to the 1860 Census, the total number of slaves in the US in 1860 was about 4 million persons (Lower South : 2,312,352 (47% of total population); Upper South: 1,208758 (29%); and Border States: 432,586 (13% of total population). The percentage was higher in Mississippi and South Carolina (almost 50%). 

The decline of slavery in the North. By 1830, total or gradual emancipation passed in all northern states, including the northern slaveholding states listed in the 1790 census: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Industrialization and mechanization resulted in increasing demand for laborers, but not for enslaved workers. At no point prior to 1790 did the northern states maintain a greater than 6% share of all slaves.

The growth of slavery in the South. The introduction of mechanization to cotton production in 1793 caused the production of cotton to skyrocket. As a result, slavery and cotton production were in fact made more profitable and desirable. Chattel slavery in the United States was uniquely suited the production of cash crops, specifically cotton. The number of slaves and the production of cotton were correlated. The more slaves there were, the more cotton could be produced, and the higher the demand for cotton, the higher the demand for slaves. 

Slave trader’s business in AtlantaGeorgia, 1864

In 1800, the South held almost 900 thousand slaves (almost 17% of the national population) and produced 35 million pounds of cotton, making up 7% of national exports. In 1860, the South was the world’s wealthiest agricultural society, the world’s largest exporter of agricultural goods, and the world’s largest slaveholding society. Cotton made up 57% of all exports at almost four million bales (almost 2.3 billion pounds). The number of slaves to the number of bales approached a 1:1 ratio. At no time were cotton exports ever subjected to export tariffs, which have been and still are unconstitutional.

Slavery in the Border States

Slave auction block, Green Hill Plantation, Campbell County, VirginiaHistoric American Buildings Survey

In 1860, the four border states Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri together held just over 700 thousand slaves (almost 18% of all slaves). Except for Delaware, which rejected compensated emancipation for its 1,798 slaves in 1862, all states were claimed by the Confederacy, with all but Maryland passing secession ordinances (Missouri’s secession ordinance carried no legal authority even in Missouri, which voted against secession 98 to 1).

Market Value. An analysis of the economics of slave value demonstrates that the ownership of slaves was the foundation of Southern economic prosperity.  Market value depended on age, gender and child bearing potential. The possession of artisan skills raised the value, while known behavioral issues lowered it. Before the war, the average price of a slave was around $800 and that of a prime field hand was $1500 – $1800.This compares to the 1860 per capita income in the South of $3,978 and in the North of $2,040.  Another way to look at this is that $1500 in 1861 is worth $56,109 in today’s currency. The cost of one slave exceeded the mean wealth of the population, suggesting a substantial skew in its distribution. 

Clearly, ownership of slaves was a sign of wealth in that society.
Slave saleCharleston, 1856

From about 1842 to 1860, just 18 years, the value of the total supply of slaves increased five times, from about $600 million to over $3 billion. This rise mirrored the increase in cotton exports, strongly suggesting that the prosperity of the South depended on its capacity to produce cotton. The wealth in the South was dependent on the slave economy, some which was land value and much of which was the valuation of the slaves themselves. In 1860, the economic value of slaves exceeded the value of all of the nation’s railroads, factories, and banks combined. On the eve of the Civil War, cotton prices were at an all-time high. 

Moreover, the entire GDP of the US in 1860 is estimated as $4.4 billion, signifying that a substantial amount of wealth was bound in slave possession. Since the upper class, by definition, owned most of the wealth, their economic dependence on its continuation is clearly illustrated. The Confederacy of course had to build an economy on the fly; in 1861, states comprising it had $47 million in bank deposits (compared to $189 million in Northern banks). Additionally, it could call on $27 million in specie (gold and silver) (compared to $45 million worth in the northern states). These comparative figures show that the wealth of this new “nation” was inflated by counting enslaved people as property.. On plantations, the capital value of slaves exceeded the value of the land and holdings. 

Microeconomic Analysis

Owning humans for labor represented a high fixed economic cost. The owner incurred the costs of clothing, food, housing, and medical care for the young and the old, whose labor production was limited. Regardless of what revenue was developed, or how much work was needed, these costs remained, unless young families, and older or disabled people, were sold for whatever value could be obtained.

Slaves had 2 critical economic functions to southern society: 

Peter or Gordon, a whipped slave, photo taken at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863; the guilty overseer was fired.[196]

1)  They were a property like horses or land and thus their value was the central part of the prosperity of planters

2) As property they were collateral for investment and paying of debts

But two threats loomed:

1) Slaves were escaping at alarming rates to the north, abetted by a well-funded Underground Railroad, and supported by the moral tenets of abolitionism

2) As the land for growing cotton rice and tobacco  become filled, the growth of the slave population from reproduction, not importation, threatened to cause the value of the slave to plummet within a generation. Unless new territory was found to which slavery could be exported, the wealth of the planter class would be at risk. And the election of Lincoln and the Republicans 

Therefore, from a dispassionate economic viewpoint, owning people for labor had a very high cost while the revenue obtained from their labor was highly variable and dependent on many factors that could not be controlled. Until the cotton gin, the overall profitability was borderline at best; but once production of this cash crop raised the potential revenue ceiling, the calculus changed.

Compensated Emancipation

The Civil War resulted in the deaths of over 700,000 lives. The war had a horrendous cost as well to property and manufacturing in the South, leading to delayed recovery and industrialization for decades. Moreover, although the enslaved people were freed as a consequence of the war, the subsequent violence and withholding of civil and legal rights that followed for decades (& continues) was not an optimal outcome. 

In this context, a strong argument can be made that there was a missed opportunity to negotiate a settlement that would have freed the slaves without resorting to secession and war, with its attendant adverse consequences. The term that has been used for this suggestion is compensated emancipation; that is, the federal government would pay the slave owner market price for the person, then legally make them freedmen. The argument continues: perhaps had planters been more willing to negotiate, and abolitionists been less righteous, cooler heads might have prevailed and a well-considered plan implemented to free the slaves and integrate them into society. 

Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia

The concept of compensated emancipation, or a “buy out” of the economic interest of Southern slaveholders, was discussed in its time. The idea would have been for the federal government to free the slaves after purchasing them from their owners.  Leaving aside the obvious moral issues and the fact that slavery would still be legal, the major problem was that the costs of such a scheme would have been enormous. 

The economic interest in compensated emancipation is entirely concerned with what it says about the economics of owning enslaved people. The cost in 1860 would have been about $2.7 billion. Such a large sum could not have been paid all at once. The costs could be reduced substantially if instead of freeing all the slaves at once, children were left in bondage until the age of 18 or 21. However, even if such payments were extended over 25 years, the annual costs would involve a tripling of federal government expenditures just for this single expense. 

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

To have paid this sum would have required a plan of enormous magnitude over a generation or two. Many of the innovative ways that were used to pay for the war probably could not have been organized to prevent it. Perhaps a plan of gradual emancipation over several generations to spread out the debt might have succeeded.  Any economic analysis does not deal with the moral question of whether such vast expenditures to allow 380,000 wealthy planters to profit from human bondage was the right thing to do. Moreover, a cluster of even more complicated moral, political and economic problems would have surely followed. Where would the money come from to educate, house, and maintain the formerly enslaved? Where would they live? What jobs would they perform?

It is true that this might have been about the same cost as fighting the war with fewer deaths. The North had $2.3 billion in expenditures, and the South $2.5  billion ($1 billion in expenditures, the remainder in property destruction). In 1865 the national debt exceeded $2.5 billion; the annual interest on that debt was more than twice the entire national budget in 1860. This debt was almost double all of the expenditures of the federal government before 1860. The fact is that freeing 4 million people entailed costs that were simply unimaginable and also impractical.

In November 1861, President Lincoln drafted an act to be introduced before the legislature of Delaware, one of the four non-free states that remained loyal (the others being Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri), for compensated emancipation. However, this proposal was narrowly defeated. Lincoln supported national legislation to accomplish this goal, but the Southern states, which regarded themselves as having seceded from the Union, ignored the proposals.

Two compensation acts regarding slaves in Washington DC signed into law in 1862 allowed for such compensation, and the total expenditure on 3,185 slaves was about $1 million. Even at this bargain price of about $314 per person, which was not negotiated but rather imposed by a federal commission, the purchase of 4 million people would exceed $1.25 billion.  Surely, if that concept had been applied to the entire south and market prices prevailed, the cost would have been prohibitive.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the Northern model of free labor with guaranteed wages and mobility was the winning labor management strategy. However, the owner-labor conflicts of the late 1800s and early 1900s were centered around creating fairness for workers: the 40 hour workweek, unions etc. It took decades to make this labor strategy work; it required Federal laws and regulations to establish the rights of workers. There are those who doubt it is working today. Remember that Marx predicted the downfall of capitalism because of maltreatment of the labor force; to save capitalism, elements of socialism had to be introduced.


The origin of the Civil War derived in large part from the political manifestations of economic power wielded by an aristocratic class, based on land ownership and investment in human property, in an effort to maintain their wealth and privilege (1). Economic class as a function of wealth inequality divided the affluent plantation owners from other southern citizens. These elite families wielded almost complete political control of their state government and legal system, determined leadership on a national level, and created an oligarchy in the local social order. This class distinction led to secession and the Civil War as a direct consequence of the rich few doing what they perceived to be necessary to maintain their privilege and prosperity (3).

The ownership of slaves created insurmountable economic problems that traditional discussions of emancipation do not address. The origin of the war depended not only on the familiar cultural and political aspects of the practice, but also deeply on its economic consequences. These included advantages enjoyed both regionally as well as by individual plantations. The concept of compensated emancipation in lieu of secession and a destructive war seemed appealing at the time, but whether or not it was a missed opportunity in retrospect is debatable. 

What was the economy of the antebellum South?

Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco. He is a nationally recognized cardiologist with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise. He is also an amateur historian who has published previously on the Civil War, with a particular interest in political and military leadership and its economic ramifications

What caused the South to start the Civil War? How Class Distinctions in The Antebellum South and the Economics of Slavery Contributed to the Origins of the Civil War


  1. Willam C Davis, Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2003.
  2. Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2011.
  3. Mackey A. The Extent of Slave Ownership in the United States in 1860.The Extent of Slave Ownership in the United States in 1860
  1. Hintz M. Class Conflict in the Union and the Confederacy. https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/class-conflict-in-the-union-and-the-confederacy.html. Accessed 11/8/21.
  1. David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (New York: New Press, 2008)
  2. Williamson MH. Measuring Slavery in 2020 Dollars.  Accessed 11/8/21. https://www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php   
  3. Ransom, Roger L. Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  4. Otto H. Olsen, Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southern United States, Civil War History, Vol. XVIII, No., 2, June, 1972, p. 101.
  5. Albert A. Nofi, “Slaveholding and Secession,” North and South Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 5, October, 2006, p. 9.
  6. Thornton, Mark. Lecture: Economic Tools for Understanding the War. https://mises.org/library/economics-civil-war . Accessed 11/8/21.
  7. Ransom, R. The Economics of the Civil War. https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economics-of-the-civil-war/ . Accessed 11/8/21.
  8. Charles Royster,  The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1993.
  9. David M Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York, Harper and Row, 1976.
  10. Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War.
  11. David W Blight,  Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Belknap Press, 2001.
  12. Rhea, G. Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/why-non-slaveholding-southerners-fought Accessed 11/9/21.
  13. Sam Watkins, Company Aytch or a Side Show of the Big Show: A Memoir of the Civil War. 
  14. David  Schenck.  Diary  entry,  May  6,  1862.  David  Schenck  Papers.  UNC. http://blogs.lib.unc.edu/civilwar/index.php/2012/05/06/6-may-1862 
What caused the South to start the Civil War? How Class Distinctions in The Antebellum South and the Economics of Slavery Contributed to the Origins of the Civil War