How the North Beat the South, Morally and Economically
Roger Lowenstein on the Dueling Economies Behind The Civil War
Frederick Law Olmsted, a young, Yale-educated farmer from Staten Island (soon to tackle the design of New York’s Central Park) made three trips across the South in the early 1850s, traveling by steamboat, train, stagecoach, and horse. Olmsted’s letters on his travels began to appear in the recently founded New York Times in 1854, and in book form two years later, and his descriptions of southern society appalled his well-bred readers.
Olmsted’s central conclusion was that the cotton cartel had done the southern people more harm than good. The mass of its citizens were impoverished and “their destitution is not just material… it is intellectual and it is moral.” Olmsted described the city of Norfolk as “a dirty, low, ill-arranged town… It has a single creditable public building… No lyceum or public libraries, no public gardens, no galleries of art.”
Olmsted was dismayed to find acre after acre of uncultivated land, testifying to an attitude of wasteful “complacency.” Inefficiency abounded. At one stop, he encountered six mules and five Blacks tugging a stuck wagon. He also meticulously described the condition of the slaves. Those in the steamy pine barrens worked in “coarse gray gowns” and heavy shoes while an overseer rode among them, “carrying in his hand a raw-hide whip, constantly directing and encouraging them.” The slaves slept in windowless huts, unfit for animals.
But—Olmsted’s point—their condition was inferior only by a degree to that of poor whites. Olmsted described some of the latter in North Carolina leaning vacantly against the sides of their hovels as he passed—saying nothing, only blinking, “as if unable to withdraw their hands from their pockets” and shade their eyes from the sun.
The South was bountiful but impervious to change. In the decade before the war, cotton production jumped from 2.8 million bales to more than 4 million, and the value of its four million slaves doubled. This industry was centered in four hundred mostly contiguous counties of loamy soil that was essentially a monoculture. In the North, farmers sought to improve varieties of wheat and corn. They invested in farm and machinery. Southern planters felt no need to innovate. There was scarcely any patent activity in cotton and little investment in machines. They scarcely invested in capital goods. It was cheaper to breed Negroes.
Southern writers warned that the South’s dependence on northern manufacturing was a serious liability. At conventions across the South, speakers exhorted southerners to develop industry and scientific knowhow. De Bow’s Review, founded in New Orleans by James D. B. De Bow, beseeched the South to diversify. “The suicidal indifference on the part of the public should awaken the anxiety of reflecting citizens,” De Bow’s lamented in 1855, “for the whole south is now almost slavishly dependent on the north for the very necessaries of life.”
But zealous defenders of plantation culture rejected the call to industrialize. “We do not want it,” said a customs collector in Charleston. “We are satisfied with our slave labor.” John F. H. Claiborne, a Mississippi newspaper editor, declared that the South’s place was to remain “sedentary and agricultural… among the reminiscences of the past.”
The South was hostile to the Whig-Republican agenda for a stronger central government. Federal improvements threatened to impose an unwanted modernity, ultimately jeopardizing slavery itself. As early as the 1830s, Nathaniel Macon, an influential North Carolina politician, warned his fellow planters that “if Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.” The planters also feared the government’s effect on the white, non-slaveholding majority. Raising the sights of the poor would disturb the social order. Lincoln had characterized his program as one “to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.” Southern planters had no such social aspirations.
To southern statesmen, higher education existed to provide a sheen of refinement to young men of privilege, not to lift up those below. According to Jefferson Davis, who had learned planting from his father and been staked to a plantation by his brother, “Agriculture needs no teaching Congress.” Such attitudes were deeply inbred in the planters’ culture. As early as 1671, William Berkeley, governor of Virginia and rice and tobacco farmer, denounced public schools as leading to disobedience and heresy, proclaiming publicly, “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing [in Virginia], and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years.”
The planters sought to persuade poor whites that slavery was also to their benefit—and generally, they succeeded. In 1857, Hinton Rowan Helper, the son of a small slaveholder in North Carolina, created a tempest with his book The Impending Crisis of the South. Helper argued that a cotton “oligarchy” had rigged the economy to benefit only itself and that, in fact, non-slaveholders were veritable serfs in a sham democracy run by planters. This idea was too dangerous to be discussed. The book was banned in several southern states. The planters disseminated an alternate economic thesis, that slavery, as John C. Calhoun had affirmatively put it, was “a positive good,” by which he meant an enlightened system of labor. The plantation system was said to be superior to the crowded, potentially volatile factories up north, because it had abolished the potential for class conflict.
Once the war started, inequality in the South loomed as a potentially serious problem. Jefferson Davis needed more than passive acquiescence from white commoners. He needed them to fight. Since only a quarter of the white population owned slaves, and only a twentieth were large slaveholders, Davis’s ability to wage a war depended on his ability to persuade poor southerners that slavery, and thus the Confederacy, benefited all whites.
Lincoln genuinely believed in popular government; he believed that ordinary laborers could rise above their births. Shortly after his nomination, he provided a sketch of himself to the journalist John L. Scripps, so that Scripps could write a campaign biography of the man known to the country as the “rail splitter” Honest Abe. Lincoln made his account a tale of self-improvement. His father, he wrote, had been “a wandering laborers grew up literally without education.” Lincoln himself had attended “A.B.C. schools” and only for “short periods”; his education “did not amount to one year.”
Many more hours, he recalled, he was made to devote to laboring. At a very young age, “an axe [was] put into his hands…and he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument”— save when he was conscripted by his father to plow or harvest on the family farm, or was hired out by his father to work elsewhere. It was not only the taxing work that Lincoln remembered, but the challenging physical circumstances that encumbered the family’s moves to a succession of plots in Kentucky, Indiana, and finally Illinois, and the rutted and barely navigable roads that hindered travel and trade.
Lincoln’s early life was an object lesson in making the most of slim opportunities: Abe breaking free of his overbearing father; settling in the pioneer village of New Salem, Illinois; buying goods on credit for a store that “winked out”; serving in the Black Hawk War, during which he failed to encounter hostile Indians but—“to his own surprize”—was elected captain of his volunteer company. Encouraged by his “great popularity,” this amiable striver was elected to the state legislature, studied law books on the side, and before he turned thirty was familiar to the lawyers traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit and had become the leader of the Whigs in the Illinois House.The North finished the war stronger and richer in every respect; the South was completely depleted.
Lincoln culled from his remarkable rise the liberal philosophy that government should make every effort to expand opportunities for others. As he declared in a campaign speech in New Haven, “I want every man to have the chance… in which he can better his condition.” His decision to preserve the Union was informed by a sincere commitment to government as the engine of popular progress. Democracy, so he believed, was the world’s best hope. Improved transportation, access to credit, and help for the pioneering farmer were issues he carried with him to the White House.
But the project of making a Hamiltonian government was a collective enterprise. In the 19th century, the executive was at most a co-equal branch. Republicans in Congress were as much, often more, responsible for the financial and legislative specifics and even some of the direction. These Republicans did not plan on a war in 1861, but their social vision prepared them for one. Their ideal of a stronger and larger central government not only enabled them to harness the necessary resources to win the war, it encouraged them to do so in a way that helped to bring about a modern and dynamic industrial society.
Under the emergency of war, Lincoln’s party formulated a new notion of what the federal government could do. They raised and spent unprecedented sums. They launched the country’s first truly national currency, pushing aside an inchoate system of thousands of disparate bills issued in the states. They created a national banking system and the first credible program for federal taxation. They inserted the government into railroads, education, agriculture, immigration, the sciences, financial regulation. The war government interposed a visible (and at times dubious) hand into industry by enacting a series of high protective tariffs. Most important, the Lincoln government ended slavery.
All this crystallized a feeling absent in 1776. It made the country more than just a union of the states, closer to what Lincoln called it at Gettysburg—a “nation.”
The southern model was the exact antithesis—states’ rights and social domination by a planter aristocracy. It would take four years to sort out ancillary elements, such as the two sides’ relative military and strategic capabilities as well as the South’s grim, cussed determination, and to put these competing visions to a true test. But while North hardly found its way easily or without trial and error, the North was innovating and, after a slow start, prospering, while the South was simply consuming its resources. The North finished the war stronger and richer in every respect; the South was completely depleted. Unlike economies had pitted two disparate civilizations against each other; they also determined the result and shaped America that was to emerge.
Excerpted from Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War by Roger Lowenstein. Copyright © 2022. Available from Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.