The 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War is the occasion for a number of observances over the next few days. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fergus Bordewich offers a pretty good account of “How America’s Civil War Changed the World” (behind a subscriber firewall, but I’ll summarize key points here). Among other conclusions that stand out, these deserve notice:
Some of that victory’s meanings are obvious. In the mid-19th century, a world of monarchies and dictatorships, it was widely believed that republics were fated to die either from external attack or internal collapse. The North’s victory proved the fallacy of such assumptions and established a model for democratic government around the world. By freeing four million enslaved black Americans, it also set the nation on the road to fulfilling the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Yet some of the war’s most far-reaching consequences have largely been ignored.
Had the Confederacy won its independence, the immediate consequences for African-Americans would have been catastrophic: possible pogroms against self-emancipated blacks who had taken up arms against their former masters, and decades or generations more of slavery for the rest, underpinned by an official racial ideology.
But in the very next paragraph I think Bordewich gets something badly wrong: “Formal slavery would eventually have come to an end, because it was economically inefficient.” This is a favorite argument especially of libertarians who still perversely defend the southern slaveholders’ secession of 1861; a simple-minded variation of “the market will take care of the problem,” bolstering the line that the Civil War was unnecessary and that Lincoln should purely be understood as a self-seeking tyrant.
I wrote about this subject in a cover story in Reason magazine way back in May 1991 (not available online unfortunately–can it really be 20 years ago now?–but you can at least see the cover here) that briefly discussed the scholarship on this issue:
A major breakthrough came in 1974, with Robert William Fogel and Robert Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, which painstakingly analyzed economic and demographic data about the slave economy of the South. Their findings scotched the revisionist line that slavery was a less efficient mode of production that would eventually resolve itself of its own accord.
Fogel has revisited and expanded the analysis in his 1989 book Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. Fogel convincingly demonstrates the economic viability of the slave economy (slave farms often outproduced Northern farms), along with its gradual spread to the West. Fogel’s evidence shows that the political dispute over the expansion of slavery to the Western territories wasn’t in the least artificial or contrived. The “new synthesis of scholarship,” Fogel concludes, is that “if the foes of slavery had waited for economic forces to do their work for them, America might still be a slave society, and democracy, as we know it, might have been a subject only for the history books.”
In 1993, Fogel won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on economic history, including especially these two books.
JOHN adds: On a related note, the New York Times has had some good material on the early days of the Civil War. This piece by Adam Goodheart, titled “How Slavery Really Ended In America,” tells the story of the first slaves who sought refuge with Benjamin Butler’s forces at Fort Monroe. Harbored by the “Beast,” who on this issue was anything but, they started a torrent of escaping slaves whose status was neatly resolved, for the moment, by declaring them “contrabands.” It is an interesting and important story.