"Here's Your Mule," Part One - North vs. South
I am often amused at how clear cut so many things are for my students. Not always their ‘real lives’ – although many of them quickly turn indignant when people or events don’t fall in line with their wishes and assumptions – but in confronting history, and politics, and people… everyone else’s ‘real lives’.
Reality is quite inconvenient, it seems.
Given how unpredictable they themselves are, I can’t fathom where they’ve gained such convictions regarding how other people and events were supposed to have behaved. Nothing is that simple, is it? We love the wrong people, fight questionable wars, focus on the strangest issues, and feel such uncertain feels.
It keeps things interesting.
The American Civil War is one of the most written about, discussed, reenacted, and debated events in all of human history. It was important, of course - major battles and nation-changing outcomes and all - but I’m not sure that’s its primary fascination for us.
Part of its twisted appeal comes from how rarely it made any sense or followed any reasonable course. It was glorious and awful, and probably never should have happened – despite being inevitable.
I mean, look at how much the North and the South had in common:
They’d declared independence together less than a century before and fought the British together – twice. Both extolled the same form of government (even after the South attempted to secede, the ‘nation’ they created for themselves was essentially the same in structure as the one they’d left). They quoted the same Declaration of Independence and revered the same Constitution.
They were almost all Protestants. Whether devout or merely subscribed to the trappings doesn’t really matter – they were of the same basic belief system. They were largely capitalists, they practically worshipped land ownership, and they celebrated the same heroes and events in their history and the history of the world.
Both regions spoke primarily English and couldn’t conceive of doing otherwise.
In every region of the country, the dominant social, political, and economic class was composed almost entirely of straight white educated land-owning males. Most of them looked down on pretty much everyone else.
They relied on one another economically – the South purchased most of its manufactured goods from the North, which in turn procured cotton and a few other cash crops from the South. The so-called ‘triangle trade’ (molasses, rum, slaves, repeat) was no longer extant, but only the particulars of their fiscal relationship had changed, not the substance.
And, most fundamentally, they were attached. You couldn’t physically separate one from the other. At the very least they were close neighbors. In reality, they were interconnected, intermarried, interbred, and interwound in every conceivable way.
These are not the makings of an inevitable war.
Of course, there were some pretty important differences as well – starting with geography.
The relatively short growing seasons and more challenging topography of the North meant large scale cash crops weren’t a viable option. On the other hand, readily available water and other resources supported industrialization in a way which would have been impractical in the South.
It’s a mischaracterization, however, to imagine the North was mostly industrialized by 1860. The majority of Northerners lived and worked on small farms or in small businesses, growing food for themselves and their families and perhaps trading or selling surplus for other goods. Most factories were in the North, but most of the North wasn’t factories.
This is going to matter when war breaks out because the North will be able to provide boom sticks AND corn dogs, while the South will struggle to provide either. Just foreshadowing a bit – pardon me.
Southern geography meant agriculture on an entirely different scale. Long growing seasons, flatter lands, different soil – this was God’s way of promoting sugar, tobacco, and most of all, cotton. It was the Elvis of cash crops.
You could only really do one thing with cotton – sell it, to the North or to Europe, who would make it into stuff. You couldn’t eat it (well, I guess you could, but it wasn’t very tasty and didn’t provide much nutrition) or shoot it at people (again, I suppose you could, but…). If it couldn’t be sold, it was essentially worthless.
This will be a problem for the South. That’s more foreshadowing – I hope I don’t ruin the ending for anyone.
Because of the different economies, the North tended to have more cities, and people in general were closer together, geographically speaking. This meant more conflict, more disease, more crime, more everything bad that comes from cities. In turn, this meant more reform, more collective action, more humility, more everything good that comes from collective problem-solving.
Most immigrants poured in up North – that’s where the jobs were, after all, what with the factories and other variety in their economy. They weren’t exactly welcome – racism was rampant back then, unlike today when we love everyone the same regardless of race, creed, or background – but they were there.
Not liking someone, not hiring them, or even not wanting to live next to them, didn’t mean you didn’t have to deal with them at all. The variety of cultures, languages, foods, beliefs, etc., forced a sort of tolerance and accommodation foreign to the South. At the same time, capitalist ideals and an early sort of ‘Social Darwinism’ largely prevented that accommodation from becoming too ‘kumbaya’.
That whole ‘melting pot’ we’re so fond of referencing? That was in the North.
The South, in contrast, had essentially three social classes – rich white, poor white, and slave. The slaves didn’t get much of a voice, and the poor whites wanted to be rich whites. That meant one small demographic slice pretty much set the tone for everyone – completely unlike today, of course.
Hard to even imagine.
The South’s concept of honor meant that a traveler could safely expect lodging and food from anyone of comparable social class throughout the region. Slaves with the appropriate permissions could stay with other slaves, anyone else was treated to dinner, drinks, and conversation as a matter of course – however unexpected their arrival. A proper Southerner recoiled with some justification when the North – a cesspool of crass and selfish behavior – openly looked down on THEM!
The North had more people overall, meaning they controlled more of Congress – at least in the House of Representatives. For generations it was a given that any new state in one half of the country would be offset by the admission of a state in the other to maintain balance in the Senate.
The North had more money. More stuff. More focus on business and progress and change and profit and – in the eyes of the South – telling everyone else what to do. They looked westward and forward.
The South had tradition. Honor. They held on to duels as a way to address an offense far longer than their Northern brethren, and had nannies enough without the state filling that role. They looked westward and to tradition, and stability.
All of this stemming largely and logically from geography.
Oh - there was one other little thing that caused a bit of contention. Seems they didn’t see eye-to-eye regarding slavery. That’s next time.
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