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