Slavery and Class in the South

In today’s modern race-conscious society, it is easy to say that “slavery caused the Civil War,” and indeed this does seem to be the more prevalent opinion nowadays, an opinion strongly supported by historian David M. Potter. There are others, namely Charles Beard, who feel that slavery was merely a symptom of a fundamental difference between two radically different types of societies which challenged one another in the megalithic clash known as the American Civil War. Charles Beard is indeed correct, as slavery was simply the most noticeable difference between two different societies which held different values and were intent upon maintaining their ways of life, and it eventually came to embody the Southern system of life, turning the Civil War into a conflict between two substantially different classes of people.

The Antebellum Period

The Southern society of the antebellum period was most like that of the European Dark Ages, in that it was a society where the most wealthy and honorable men ruled, exploiting the lowest classes for monetary gain, resulting in the system of slavery. Indeed, many Southern males would have wished nothing more than to be part of a timocratic society in which those with the most honor rule over those of lesser honor, for the importance of honor is critical in understanding the fundamental difference between the societies of the North and the South.

To the southern male landowners who dominated Southern politics, honor was no antiquated system (and neither was slavery), but rather it was an aspect of a person which meant more than life itself- a fact illustrated by the medieval practice of dueling, a practice in which two white men of equal social standings would clash to defend their honor. To Southern males, honor was an essential aspect of their being, and being deprived of ones' honor was viewed as a supreme and severe insult. Trapped in an atavistic frame of mind, Southern men were willing to die for what they believed in, and they fervently believed in their slavery system, and their entire feudalistic way of life, to the extent that they would be willing to die to defend it if necessary.

Northern antebellum societies were nothing like those of the feudal south, in that the dominant economic system was one of industry, and the primary interest in the North was the desire to succeed economically – not the desire to defend one’s self interests. This difference can be clarified by the example of P. T. Barnum – a Northern businessman who would do anything to turn a quick profit, regardless of his personal integrity; a fact illustrated by Barnum’s exhibiting of the alleged Fiji Mermaid, which was a mere hoax created to garner money from the ignorant masses.

Furthermore, in the South, the exhibition of the faux mermaid incited much debate over the creatures' authenticity, but these debates soon took on lives of their own and became battles between men who felt their honor had been impugned because they had been called liars, further illustrating the way in which a Northern situation could be radically transformed by the culture of the South. Indeed, many in the North lived by the mantra that “there’s a sucker born every minute,“ putting profit ahead of self, which was almost an exact opposite of the way of life in the South.

This bourgeoisie society was far more inclusive than the exclusive upper class Southern society, and thus it is not surprising that the system of slavery was soon being scrutinized by Northerners, leading to a slew of slavery debates in the United States in the early and mid 1800’s. In this way, the great dichotomy between the cultures of the North and South led to a polarization and increased tensions between the two ways of life, and the most seriously contested aspect of Southern society - slavery - came to represent the entire system of Southern society.

A Clash of Cultures

The two radically different cultures of the antebellum North and South were so different that when a particular aspect of the Southern society – slavery – was brought into question, Southern leaders were willing to go to war not just to defend the slavery system but to defend an entire way of life. The Northern society was a constantly advancing society which was composed of more working-class industrial citizens who not surprisingly came to question the outdated practice of slavery. Indeed, slavery did not cause the civil war, for it was simply a critical aspect of the Southern society.

Slavery was, however, the allegorical straw which broke the camel’s back, igniting countless debates that eventually brought the country to its breaking point, unleashing the Civil War. The conflict, though immediately caused by slavery debates, was in fact a long-brewing battle between two groups with fundamentally different ideals – the bourgeoisie North and the feudal South – much as Charles Beard suggests.

The conflict was one between two different cultures – two different classes of people battling for their ideal systems of life, much like various other civil wars throughout modern history. Civil Wars are fundamental clashes of ideals within a country, and the American Civil War was no exception, for slavery was simply a symptom of a bigger issue – an issue of which class would forever dominate American society.

History | United States

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