What Was the Civil War About? A Dissenting Point of View


Mr. Egnal is an American who lives and teaches in Toronto, Canada. His recent book, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2009), expands upon the ideas in this essay.

A recent article in The Washington Post found that Obama’s Presidency stimulated a new debate among local students on the question, “What was the Civil War About?” Good, overdue, and let’s hope non-students (and the historical guild) pay attention. For most Americans, as well as for most professional historians, the answer remains: slavery. Put more fully, most commentators assert the war was fought for a noble cause—to assist African Americans. Broad support for this interpretation is not surprising. Americans, like the citizens of most nations, like to view their past in favorable terms. We enjoy reading celebratory biographies of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln stands on hallowed ground as the great apostle of freedom.

Declaring that the Civil War emerged from a deep concern about the plight of blacks offers the most comforting of myths. It transforms a horrendous conflict, with its 620,000 deaths, into a lofty crusade that created a better nation. The only problem with using “slavery” to explain the Civil War, is that this solution doesn’t fit the facts. Consider the following:

  •   Although Lincoln’s party, the Republicans, condemned servitude, its only policy to assist blacks was “free soil.” This initiative that declared slavery off limits in the West. But for land-hungry Northerners the program had a strong component of self-interest . . . and racism. Many Republicans wanted all blacks, not just slaves, excluded from the West.
  • Before the war and throughout 1861, Lincoln and the Republican Party made clear their opposition to emancipation. Lincoln removed General John C. Frémont, because of his efforts to free slaves in Missouri.
  • If the war was fought to help African Americans, its aftermath is puzzling. Conditions for the newly freed blacks quickly worsened. Most were forced to become sharecroppers. After a brief period of uncertainty, segregation and subjugation became the rule–-even as Republicans tightened their grip on power nationally.
  • The Republicans, supposedly the party of idealism, soon emerged as the party of big business.

Setting myths aside, a review of the Civil War era strongly suggests that economics, not a moral crusade, brought on the war and shaped its aftermath. More specifically, an examination of this period indicates that the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies was the most important factor producing the conflict.

Between 1820 and 1850 the economy drew the North and South together and made possible a series of compromises. Trade from the Northwest moved along a north-south axis, defined by the Mississippi River. Northern cotton mills depended on Southern plantations. In the South fertile soils and abundant new land kept the planters prosperous and favorably disposed to the federal government.

After 1850 Northern trade reoriented around an east-west axis that began in the Great Lakes region, included the Erie Canal, and ended in the port of New York. The districts served by the Lake economy, along with New England, became the basis for the Republican Party. This large region developed a self-serving “nationalism.” Those near the Lakes wanted an activist government that would dredge rivers and clear harbors. They wanted higher tariffs to pay for these improvements as well as protect new industries. This area also had little interest in compromising with the South, and that intransigence would help provoke the conflict.

To be sure, the abolitionist movement grew during these years. But those protesters never comprised more than 5 percent of the Northern population. Radicals, who did not directly attack slavery, but called for the repeal of the fugitive slave law and abolition in D.C. added perhaps another 10 percent to this group of crusaders. Still as important as these individuals were, they never formed the mainstream in the North, or even in the Republican Party.

The Republican platform, which did little for African Americans, included a range of economic planks. These initiatives showed the determination of party members to grow the North. The 1860 platform promoted measures such as rivers and harbors improvements, higher tariffs, a homestead act, and a Pacific railroad.

The South too was undergoing change with the depletion of rich soils and diminishing prospects for expansion. Many planters felt that remaining in the Union would inevitably lead to the demise of their social system. Still only the Deep South seceded before the outbreak of fighting. The Border States (KY, MO, MD, DE) gradually had become more integrated into the Northern economy and chose the Union over the Confederacy. The people of the Upper South (VA, NC, TN, AR) stood between those two camps and were divided in their loyalties.

The aftermath of secession and the developments in the years that follow are explicable once the priorities of the Republicans are made clear. From their earliest days, the Republicans were more concerned about economic development than the rights of African Americans. Hence the long-lasting economic measures that laid the foundation for the modern industrial state. These included higher tariffs, a national banking act, a homestead act, and a transcontinental railroad. Hence also the Republicans’ short-lived, half-hearted commitment to protecting the rights of the freed people.

There’s no event in America’s past that is more important than the Civil War. We must understand this clash if we are to understand our history. Obama’s Presidency presents a chance to rethink the causes of this great conflict. So does today’s failed economy which shapes much of our current politics. Now more than ever we must set aside old myths. Economics more than high moral concerns produced the Civil War.       

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Johnny Noir - 6/24/2009

This is simple minded revisionism. Nobody thinks the Civil War was fought over slavery. Stop trying to justify your own closet racism with distorted second hand facts that only rationalize the crimes of the capitalist status quo.

Tim Matthewson - 6/5/2009

A significant number of those non-slaveholding whites, especially many of those in West Virginia and Tennessee, but also some from South Carolina and Georgia joined the northern armies, hated the planters and slaveholders, and fought against secession -- at least a battalion from every southern state. The south was far from united, and many thousands of former slaves and freed blacks joined the northern armies.
Those southern whites who joined the CSA were rather easily co-opted by the slaveholders owing to pervasive southern racism, a pervasive racism that to this day has been very effectively used against the aspirations of southern whites. The South is now the bastion of conservatism and the Republican Party owing to that racism.

Michael Green - 6/5/2009

For Professor Egnal to argue that economics was the primary issue is fine, as it is for Professor DiLorenzo. To ignore the other evidence, or to use the issue simply as a means of attacking historians for their political persuasion, is not a historical argument. It is a political polemic.

Thomas R. Cox - 6/4/2009

Perhaps you are referring only to northern lower class whites, but you fail to say so. Southern poor whites, most non-slaveholding, formed the backbone of the Confederate armies. Their support of secession needs to be explained someohow, and your analysis fails to do so.

Doris Martin - 6/3/2009

Did you know there is a National Park site devoted to telling the story of the Homestead Act of 1862? To learn more about what may be the most influential piece of legislation this country has ever created go to www.nps.gov/home or visit Homestead National Monument of America. Located in Nebraska, the Monument includes one of the first 160 acres homestead claims but tells the story of homesteading throughout the United States. Nearly 4 million claims in 30 states were made under the Homestead Act and 1.6 million or 40 percent were successful. The Homestead Act was not repealed until 1976 and extended in Alaska until 1986. Homesteads could be claimed by “head of households” that were citizens or eligible for citizenship. New immigrants, African-Americans, women who were single, widowed or divorced all took advantage of the Homestead Act. It is estimated that as many as 93 million Americans are descendents of these homesteaders today. This is a story as big, fascinating, conflicted and contradictory as the United States itself. Learn more!

Tim Matthewson - 6/2/2009

I would characterize my interpretation as more related to class and race prejudice rather than any desire to help black people. Northeners wanted to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the west so that northern working men and farmers would avoid competition with slave labor. What idealism existed was mainly confined to abolitionist radicals who favored free labor as much as a desire to expand freedom to blacks.

Terry Klima - 6/2/2009

Your commentary describing the reasons why the north opposed the South sounds so noble.

However, I question the motivation you ascribe to the non slaveholding whites of the north and many of the south who joined the Union.

The New York Draft riots certainly do not support your position that the war was being fought to end slavery or achieve racial equality.

Tim M. Matthewson - 6/2/2009

Charles Beard's name is more closely associated in the United States with economic interpretation of the Civil War. Beard insisted that the main reason for the Civil War was economic differences between north and south. But Beard's interpretation of Civil War has been criticized by at least two generations of American historians and has been found wanting! Indeed, late in life Beard himself rejected economic interpretation of the Civil War and economic interpretation in general. In 1935 Beard rejected economic interpretation and insisted that history shaped mainly by ideas.
For the Civil War generation, the new idea in world history was that slavery was evil, even though it had been accepted without question for thousands of years. White Americans may not have given a dam about black Americans but they did come to hate Southern planters who insisted that slavery was morally a positive good, that slavery should expand to all corners of the United States, and that slavery and slaveholders should have a special protected position in the American republic; they wanted to receive special support and privileges so that they could maintain their exalted position. White Americans may not have cared at all about black Americans, but they did care about the incessant demands of slaveholders for a privileged position in the American republic, a position that nonslaveholding whites perceived as threatening their interests. Lower class whites could see in the degraded position of black Americans what their own lives would be like if Southern slaveholders were permitted to maintain their dominant position in the US government, the courts, and the military. So, when Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers shortly after his election in 1860, it was the nonslaveholding whites of the north and many of the south who joined the Union forces and who died by thousands on American battlefields rather than see Southern aristocrats, owners and drivers of slaves destroy their American republic.

Larry DeWitt - 6/1/2009

Loewen is right. This article fails to clarify what has to be a two-part question:

1) Why did the South fight the Civil War?

2) Why did the North fight the Civil War?

The South fought to preserve their political economy, i.e., their system of chattel slavery, and its various supporting political and cultural arrangements.

The North fought to preserve the Union. Along the way, the war ended up freeing the slaves, but that was not the North's objective--as I thought every historian in the western hemisphere understood by now.

The "strawman," as Loewen rightly calls it, is the fictional creation of a contemporary scholar who wants to indict the United States for its historical crimes against African Americans. This is an eminently liberal project, and so poor Egnal must be puzzled to have a liberal in good standing like professor Loewen attack him.

The problem is that to make his indictment against American history, Egnal tries to get too cute--he tries to guild the lily in a way that is not only unnecessary, but false.

He first alleges that the North claimed to be fighting to free the slaves; then he can not only accuse American history of moral turpitude, but of hypocrisy as well. A double damnation! And of course, it allows Egnal to think he has something new to say about this well-worn topic.

Terry Klima - 6/1/2009

Professor Thomas DiLorenzo, a noted economist, has made similar observations to those of Mr. Egnal, stating that the primary cause of the war was economic. The role of economics has been covered in detail in DiLorenzo's works "The Real Lincoln" and "Lincoln Unmasked".

Furthermore, George Mason's own Professor Walter Williams addressed this very subject in a published article appearing in the Dec. 2, 1998 Jewish World Review entitled
"The Civil War wasn't about slavery"


James Epperson - 6/1/2009

Prof. Egnal's essay simply ignores the record of the secession crisis. There is ample documentation to support the assertion that the South seceded because of fears for the institution of slavery. See:


Bob Huddleston - 6/1/2009

Egnal commits a common mistake in his analysis of the causes of the Civil War by arguing that it was the Yankees who were responsible. Jim Loewen points out the mistakes in Engal but misses another of equal importance: every one of Engal’s [false] reasons imply that it was the North which opened fire at Fort Sumter. It was not the Lincoln administration that ordered the firing – it was the Confederates. And they did it to protect slavery.

Michael Green - 6/1/2009

I will echo Professor Loewen and add that if everything changed after 1850, why the controversies over Missouri's admission, nullification, Texas, the Mexican-American War and the Wilmot Proviso? The main problem with Professor Egnal's thesis, setting aside any errors for the moment, is that it posits one cause--economics--while providing a simplistic analysis of how northerners (and southerners, by the way) felt about slavery. Lincoln, as usual, put it best when he said of the slave interest that it was "somehow" the cause of the war. For some, it was morality, for some economics, for some politics, for some free labor, for some free soil, and so on.

Thomas R. Cox - 6/1/2009

In over thirty years of teaching, I heard far more students argue that the war was a clash to determine which economic system would dominate than I did that it was over slavery. That it was a war to preserve the union came in a distant third. . . . But, of course from a vantage point in Canada it is easy to over-generalize about what "Americans" thought or did. G. B. Shaw once said "everyone in the United States is an expert on education--they either went to school or they know someone who did." With apologizes to the good Irishman, I would offer: "Everyone in Canada is an expert on American history, they either have been to the states or they know someone who has been."

John D. Beatty - 6/1/2009

"State's rights" to what, exactly? Do you dig any further?

Thought not...

James W Loewen - 6/1/2009

Oops! By "hole" I meant "hold," of course. Sorry!

James W Loewen - 6/1/2009

Considering that this is a well-worn topic in history, this is the silliest article to surface in years. The author makes mistake after mistake First, he claims "For most Americans, the answer remains: slavery." No data back up this claim. Over the past two years, I have asked more than 2,000 K-12 teachers all across the U.S. (OR, ND, CA, FL, MD, OH, etc., etc.) why the South seceded. "States' rights" wins >60% of the votes. "Slavery" wins about 25%. Second, he moves from the fact that slavery caused secession to write, "Declaring that the Civil War emerged from a deep concern about the plight of blacks offers the most comforting of myths." Silly! While the South went to war for slavery -- and said so -- the North went to war to hold the nation together -- and said so. I challenge this author to tell ONE historian who claims the Civil War was caused by "a deep concern about the plight of blacks." It's fine to set up straw men, but they have to have a bit of believability or the exercise is truly silly. Third, Southerners too were interested in economic development and expansion. Does the author not know that Jefferson Davis was the force behind the Gadsden Purchase, made during the pro-South Pierce administration, for the purpose of enabling a transcontinental railroad linking New Orleans and Southern California? Fourth, if economics prompted South Carolina to secede, why didn't she say so? She did say why she left the Union, you know. So did the other states, as they left. Of course, economics played a role, but unless the author separates the two key questions -- why did the South secede? why did the North deny the South the right to split the Union? -- he cannot apply economics or any other concept intelligently. That's why he actually conflates "slavery" and "concern about the plight of blacks."

bill farrell - 6/1/2009

Eric Foner's "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men," published in 1970 demonstrates that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. However, that does not mean that the majority of northernors were abolitionists. The "Free Soil, Free Labor" ideology set forth a worldview or ideology that that convinced northern whites that slavery was inimical to their interests. Racism was compatible with the Free Labor ideaology.