- Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War
After a considerable period of neglect, the origins of the Civil War are back on the historical agenda, and James Huston's foray into this subject is extremely welcome. His overall thesis is a simple one, though none the worse for that: "at the root of the controversy over slavery was the wealth invested in slavery. Remove the wealth, and the controversy, like a Cheshire cat, fades away with a knowing grin" (66). This is an unashamedly economic interpretation of the sectional conflict: Northerners opposed and Southerners defended slavery largely for economic reasons.
Huston does not, however, endorse the old progressive view of the conflict, as advanced, for example, by the Beards. Rather than emphasize a Southern commitment to agrarianism, for example, he stresses more fundamental economic features, and in particular wealth: slaves comprised, on the eve of war, almost 3 billion dollars worth of property; this sum represented almost twenty percent of the total wealth of the nation and was equal to all the Northern investment in railroads and manufactures combined. The author also contends that political historians (as opposed to economic ones) have been reluctant to confront this basic fact. Southerners' actions in the sectional controversy are thus explicable in terms of this huge investment. Abolition obviously threatened it in the most direct way. Free soil was a more insidious threat in that it set a precedent for further assaults upon the slaveholder's property rights.
Huston is probably correct in his contention that historians have tended to downplay this phenomenon. There has been, since the early writings of Eugene Genovese, a need to see the Southern defense of slavery as more [End Page 94] than a mere rationalization of self-interest. Huston gives little weight to cultural values such as honor or to political principles such as the maintenance of states' rights. For him Southerners were motivated above all by the desire to protect their wealth.
Perhaps he claims a little too much for this interpretation. Few historians would doubt that the wealth invested in slaves was a necessary condition of the sectional conflict; if the slaves had been valued at say, one dollar each, much of the heat would surely have gone from the controversy. But was it a sufficient condition? Most historians believe that Southern cultural values and political principles played a significant part too. Moreover slaves were, as Huston himself acknowledges, a unique form of property; they posed particular problems of control. To pursue this point, the author would have needed to move away from property rights and look instead at property relations and the way they differed in the North and South.
Although one could quibble with Huston's dismissal of the doctrine of states' rights for example (perhaps by pointing to its pedigree in countries where slavery did not even exist), his emphasis upon the wealth invested in slaves is surely appropriate. But the reason it has not been emphasized probably has to do with the related problem of antislavery sentiment in the North. It is, as the author acknowledges, more difficult for this thesis to account for Northern actions. After all there was no comparable Northern investment in antislavery. His argument here is an interesting one, claiming that property rights in slaves created an unfair labor market that limited the opportunities for free laborers. Moreover, in a highly original formulation, Huston relates Northern economic interests to the transportation revolution. Transportation changes meant that the production of slave labor threatened the welfare of the free laborer as never before. This is the key claim for without it there is no economic rationale for the attack on slavery and thus no rational explanation for the Southern reaction to it. But is it valid? Northerners had a whole host of objections to slavery and many readers will doubt the validity of singling out this one and according it...