Civil War Ain’t What It Used To Be

Tar Sands March Week Poster
Tar Sands March Week Poster
I have often wondered why Canada seems to ship its trees, oil, and minerals elsewhere to be made into usable products. It has never made sense to me.  Nevertheless, Canadians would like to pipe Alberta oil to refineries in Texas. The potential impact of the pipeline on the environment is, as you know, hotly debated for moral, practical, and economic reasons. Oddly enough, similar moral, practical, and economic debates were going on in the US in the nineteenth century over the production of cotton in the south and its manufacture into cloth in the north.

I used to think that the American civil war was about slavery, but it turns out that was only part of the story. Imagine my (white self-righteous) surprise when I realized that the war began because Lincoln did not recognize the right of the states in the south to leave the union.  Of course, the reason the southern states wanted to leave was because they wanted to keep their slaves, so it is kind of circular, but in the end the war was as much about economics as human rights.

Recently, I visited the Fort Sumter Information Centre in Charleston, South Carolina where the first shots of the war were fired. There, I learned that my simplistic understanding of this part of history was actually a gloss on a much more complicated chain of events. Those of you who know about economics probably already know all this, but it was a forehead-smacking moment for me when I realized that the conflict arose, in part, because of the cost of labour and the advancement of industrialization.

Southern states were harvesting natural resources (cotton, rice), and for that they depended on slave labour. They could not imagine maintaining their businesses and lifestyles without it. They also didn’t want to lose the billions of dollars they had invested in the market value of their slaves. In the north, however, new immigrants were providing plenty of cheap labour. There was also a rapid development of mechanization, notably of the cotton gin for cleaning raw cotton.

At the same time, America had a shiny new Constitution which left a lot of questions about slavery unanswered, but allowed slave owners twenty years to end the slave trade. When that didn’t happen, the opposing factions felt justified in going to war. Some fought for human rights, some fought for the union, and some fought to save their investments.

Today, the moral questions are about saving the planet, not people, but the raw materials are still being shipped far from their source. We are also still trying to maintain an economic alliance between political states with divergent world views. In the end, though, if it comes right down to it, Canada is not going to go to war with the US. We’ll just ship the oil to China instead


  1. Anne, you explain so well. I had just seen Lincoln when your post arrived. It was so good, but left me feeling very ignorant, yet curious and wanting to learn more. Your essay was great and gets an A+.

    1. Thanks, Bea. Your “thumbs up” means a lot to me. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s on my to-do list.

  2. Sadly, If you got your info on the civil war from visiting South Carolina then you didn’t get much of the truth. The war was definitely about slavery since every state that seceded mentioned it in their declarations as their number one reason for doing so. Not many southerners made money on slaves. Just like now the rich were few and far between and the average southern man was more likely to be poor, lower class and out of work because someone else could do his job for next to nothing (just like today’s army) When the south says it was about “State’s Rights” what they meant was state’s rights to own and breed people as slaves. Today America’s slaves come across the border from Mexico and South America or we privatize and out source to China and India…I hear that Bangladesh is the new China because China pays too much! We’ll take all the oil you can send us to keep our imperial war machine chuggin’ along…Today’s wealthy American’s don’t care much about human rights, worker’s rights or the planet’s general health and well being and are as insatiable as ever! So enjoy Canada while it’s still fairly cool up there 🙂

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response, gpicone. I found long ago (when I left the UK for Canada) that the history we are taught in school is not the same history taught in other countries, even when it’s about the same events. The “pink” countries on the world map (British colonies) were celebrated in England as progress, but not nearly so positively perceived elsewhere 🙂

      Incidentally, Canada has had a ridiculously long winter this year. In Alberta there has been snow on the ground for six months–not a good thing.

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