Northern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part I


Before you read this blog, see what you think the strongest answer is.  After you finish this first series of blog posts on the Northern Views, you’ll have a chance to try again!

American Flag 1861

Most often Cited Causes of the War

  • Economic and Cultural Differences
  • Federal vs. States Rights–Secession
  • Growth of the Abolition Movement

Economic and Cultural Differences

  • English Roots-Calvinist vs. Cavalier

Cavalier Gentleman

A reality of the United States of America as it grew to prominence is that it did possess two very distinct cultures roughly defined by the Mason-Dixon line. Much of this began at the very beginning.  In many ways, the  North was more formed by Calvinist leanings and the South more by Cavalier.

Roots in the English Civil War, Puritan Revolution, 1642—some  have even gone so far as to say that war traveled over to America to plant the first seeds of what would become the American Civil War.

Cavaliers were often second or third sons of aristocrats looking for their own estates and a  new nobility—with slaves not that different from serfs and vassals—landed gentry was their model. When the Anglicans, or Cavaliers, came from England to settle the southern colonies of North America, they brought with them many of the same customs that they had formerly used. Their ways, unlike those of the Puritans and Protestants settling the northern colonies, were very feudalistic because of the essentially feudal society of the 1600s that they had left in England. The Anglicans’ feudalistic customs instituted in the New World affected every aspect of the society, including the economy, politics, and social system. The economy of the South was based on ways that already had become antiquated in England.

John Calvin

Puritans meanwhile were embracing the Industrial Revolution and the notion that all men were valued by their material achievements which showed the light of God shining on them—building factories and seeing the US as an emerging industrial world power—but needing cotton for their mills.  This created a Northern society much more geared toward self-made man and equality (within reason) and much less belief in deference and honor as things to live for.  This began to emerge into Capitalism in its purest most Darwinian form.

  • Democracy & Capitalism  vs. Deference, Honor, & Feudalism (Land)

Industrial Revolution Beginning Up North

The Puritans also had fought for a more limited or constitutional monarchy, which led directly toward democratic ideals.   Democracy and Capitalism driven by individual initiative.

In the South, only a small number of people owned all the land, and the rest of the population lived on it. Land meant money which meant power, and the individuals who had had land and power in England also had land in America. An internalized class system and a society of Deference and Honor driven by land ownership.

  • King Cotton

Antebellum Cotton Field

On the eve of the American Civil War in the mid-1800s cotton was America’s leading export, and raw cotton was essential for the economy of Europe. The cotton industry was one of the world’s largest industries, and most of the world supply of cotton came from the American South. This industry, fueled by the labor of slaves on plantations, generated huge sums of money for the United States and influenced the nation’s ability to borrow money in a global market. In many respects, cotton’s financial and political influence in the 19th century can be compared to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century.  I’ll say more about this in my postings on “What Really Started the American Civil War? Southern Views” which will come up in a few weeks, after I have finished the Northern Views.

About Blythe Forcey Toussaint

I have studied 19th Century American history and culture for many years, including a 1992 PhD in 19th Century American Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. My academic career included several years as faculty at North Carolina State University and some visiting assignments at the University of North Carolina. I chose to leave academe for industry over fifteen years ago, and have built a career around marketing, training, and business writing. I founded my own consulting company, Performance Trajectories LLC over four years ago and now balance my time between consulting projects and fiction writing. I recently published Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War. (Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.) This novel tracks the life of a family in 1861 as the Civil War begins, and as some of them were to be among the civilians who went to watch the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas thinking it would be a fun picnic. This novel also includes events in Washington, Baltimore, Cairo, Raleigh, and Hatteras Island. I am at work on my next novel, working title Gilead’s Fate: The Life of a House that is set in upstate New York beginning in 1811. I come from a line of writers including my grandmother, Anya Seton and great grandfather, Ernest Thompson Seton. I now live in Longmont, CO with my husband and three dogs and finds a lot of writing inspiration hiking the mountains there.
This entry was posted in Civil War History, Historical Fiction, North vs. South, Sesquicentennial Events, Social History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Northern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part I

  1. I’ll be interested to see your post on what the South thought caused the Waw of Nawthren Aggression.

  2. Linda Valon says:

    Will you be putting into perspective the effects of Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin and the Dred Scott Decision? I’ve found new insight from David Moore’s recent book, GETTYSBURG TO APPOMATTOX: THE SOUTH’S CRITICAL FAILURES. Moore writes, “In summary, the Civil War resolved into the issue of human Civil Rights versus human Property Rights”.

    • Yes, both critical points–the cotton gin actually can be seen as having turned the tide from a relatively gradual “natural” turn toward the end of slavery to dramatic escalation of slavery as an institution along with the dramatic rise of cotton production and profits. I see Dred Scott to be aligned with this as the value of slaves and their essential part in the economy also increased dramatically at around the same time, along with the pressure to see them as property that must be protected at all costs. I plan this to be in my next blog which will examine how “King Cotton” changed the whole position of the South and, in many ways, created the final factors that led to the war–and also a series of missed opportunities for the South. One can in fact argue that the South might really have had a more serious chance of victory if they had seceded several years earlier . . . for many reasons, which I will examine. Thanks for the comment! I’ll have to look at that book.

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