North and South as two nations

By the time of the Civil War, the United States had, in function if not in fact, become two nations. Although they shared a common history and language and were intimately bound together economically, geographically, and in other ways, the North and the South had steadily drifted apart for a very long time. In many ways, the split between the two exhibits a fault line that runs throughout the history of Western Civilization and has been evident since at least the period of the poleis of ancient Athens, namely the split between an aristocratic society and an oligarchic form of government that primarily values order and structure on the one hand and a democratic ideal that values freedom and equality above all else on the other hand. This split is evident in a comparison between the social, political, and economic makeups and ideas of the North and South.

The social differences between the North and South were easily noticeable to those viewing American society in the 19th century. Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, a French nobleman who travelled throughout the United States in the 19th century and wrote about his observations and experiences, contrasted the industriousness of Northerners with what he saw as the laziness of Southerners. He noted, for instance, that in the South “’society, like the individual, seems to provide nothing.”1 Importantly, he blamed this striking contrast between Northern industriousness and Southern laziness primarily on the institution of slavery.

The political implications of these social differences are obvious. Southern society came to be governed by a class of slave-owning oligarchs whose interests, very different from those of the majority of Southern society which consisted of black slaves and non-slave-owning whites, dominated both in local politics as well as the way the South was represented in the federal government. As a result, the social and political situations of the South mutually reinforced each other and exacerbated the differences between the South and the North.

Underlying these social and political differences between North and South were the economic differences, and the greatest economic difference was the institution of slavery. The South had adopted an agricultural way of life that centered on cotton and required large amounts of cheap labor in the form of slaves. The North, on the other hand, had adopted an ideology that viewed economic independence as especially important. The ideal of Northerners, in part under the influence of the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” was to work hard and become wealthy for one’s self, perhaps to own one’s own business or farm. Such a desire was fundamentally incompatible with slavery and with the aristocratic ideals of the South. The economic differences between the North and South continued to widen as the North became increasingly industrialized and urbanized.

The social and political differences between the North are largely the result of the economic differences between the two regions. All of these differences are examples of a wider fault line in Western thinking that stretches very far back into its history. In the United States, the North and South had so become identified with these inconsistent ideologies that by the time of the Civil War in 1860 the two regions had become in effect two separate nations. The Civil War was an inevitability and in many ways a necessary correction to this drift that was splitting the country in two.

1 Alexis de Toqueville, quoted in David W. Blight, “Lecture 3 – A Southern World View: The Old South and Proslavery Ideology,” HIST-119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, Open Yale Courses (January 22, 2008) (accessed March 1, 2013).


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