Why the US Today is Like the South Before the Civil War

I happened to catch an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air the other day with Adam Goodheart, the author of a new book called 1861, about the beginnings of the American Civil War. The interview really got me thinking about the many ways that America today is like the South was before the Civil War. Sounds far-fetched, I know, until you start to think about it.

First of all, there is the question of extreme inequality. Back then there were essentially three groups, the plantation owners, the slaves, and the poor farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen that made up the rest of society.

Virtually all of the wealth was controlled by the plantation owners. For all intents and purposes, they were the only ones that mattered when it came to the decisions made in the state houses of the time. According to Goodheart, the human capital value of all slaves far exceeded the market value of all the factories and facilities of the industrial North.

For comparison purposes, consider the following item from this week’s news. Top executives at the failing Borders bookstores are being handed millions of dollars in bonuses after laying off 6,000 unimportant workers even as the company goes up in flames, and is in debt by close to a billion dollars, largely due to the bad decisions of these same important executives. Of course the magnitude of this boondoggle is puny compared to what has happened and continues to happen on Wall Street. Does anyone else see a parallel here? Do I really need to point out who the “slaves” are and who is the elite at this point in time when the wealthiest 1% of Americans control more than one-third of the country’s wealth and the political agenda while the rest of us are treated as insignificant pawns?

The next similarity comes from our choice of energy supply. Today we are heavily dependent on both oil and coal, “guilty necessities” that our whole economy has come to be totally dependent on. We know we should really give them up because they are unsustainable, bad for the planet and for future generations, a threat to world stability and national security. In other words, continuing to invest in them is essentially an unethical path. But we can’t seem to give up these fuels because we are hooked on them and because they are so deeply woven into the fabric of our society. As Goodheart points out, this is pretty much the way most Southerners felt about slavery in the years leading up to the war. Slaves, after all, were the primary energy source for the South’s agricultural economy.

Finally, who were the Southerners that fought and died in the Civil War? Were they the plantation owners and their families, the ones who were benefiting the most from the corrupt scourge of slavery? For the most part, it was not them, but the poor farmers and merchants who had little to gain from the economic system they gave their lives to defend. These folks had been whipped up into a fighting frenzy by the secessionist rhetoricians of the day, folks like William L. Yancey and Alexander Stephens, whose “subordination,” of the inferior “to the superior race” formed the cornerstone of the Confederacy. These men, who convinced the uneducated masses to fight for the rich plantation owners that they served, might well have been the great-grandfathers of the O’Reillys, the Becks and the Bachmans of today. They did it by convincing these poor working folks, that there were still those that they could feel superior to: the slaves. The main difference between today and 150 years ago in the South, is that it is wealth, rather than race that determines who matters and who doesn’t. That might be a notch or two higher on some kind of moral continuum, but not much more than that when you consider how much wealth is inherited and how much is gained through unscrupulous means, hardly the meritocracy of conservative fantasy. Today’s Tea Party Patriots like to trace their ideology back to the angry citizens assembled at Boston Harbor preceding the American Revolution, but it might be more accurate to trace them back to the Southern farmers and merchants who fought in the Civil War.

So where do we go from here? Back then we had the Union Army, swelled by the ranks of morally outraged citizens who gave their lives to restore justice and order. They were led by principled leaders who would not bend to the ethically unsupportable arguments of the Southern elite or be seduced by their riches, even when faced with the threat of secession. Who do we have today and what can history teach us?


RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

7 responses

  1. Yes, there is a large inequality in wealth between the very rich and the rest of society but that’s not the same as the inequalities in society before or during the Civil war. There is nothing gained in your analogy, there is no new insight, or anything else for that matter. Two completely different periods in time and there are no lessons for the fight forward – except that it is a fight.

  2. Yea this is a bunch of bull. RP Siegel doesn’t take into account that his own ideology is based on false-hopes just as this administrations. He wishes his neighbor poor and dislikes people who strive to make a profit. How do you call out executives for firing people when they are the reason there are jobs in the first place! RP Siegel you are not a journalist for you do not seek the truth but merely spew socialist views that are the reason for today’s soft tyranny. If you want to spot a coward just turn to people like this because they put all the blame on their fellow citizens when it really themselves they are not happy with.

    1. John,
      You clearly don’t know the first thing about me so why don’t you restrict your remarks to the ideas that I have put forward in this post. I’m calling out these particular executives, not for their existence or their success, but because they are paying themselves huge bonuses as they are laying off thousands of workers as the result of a failed attempt to sustain a business. Why are you defending them? What is it that you stand to gain by holding these executives above rebuke? How does that fit into your vision of a more perfect world? I’d be interested to know. Is it not possible for a business person to be successful and create jobs and also behave in a reputable and responsible manner that might be motivated by elements of compassion and concern for others as opposed to pure unadulterated greed? Perhaps these are what you call my false hopes.

    2. John, where do you get the idea that the author “dislikes people who strive to make a profit”? I agree the civil war analogy is a bit of a stretch, but the point is that making profit by running a company in to the ground is not the right way to do it – and a system which rewards such behavior is clearly broken.

      Also – what’s with the spam link to a hubcap website? That does wonders for you credibility amigo, I have deleted it accordingly.

  3. Mr. Siegel has some interesting observations. However, his last paragraph doesn’t ring true. While slavery is immoral, it was not the driving motivation for the North until near the end of the war. I find it hard to believe that northern troops were morally or intellectually superior to their foes. People’s motivations for going to war are complex and northern soldiers could be portrayed as dupes for the northern bankers and industrialists who sought to replace landed slavery with wage slavery.

  4. I agree that the causes of the Civil War were many and complex. Indeed, many books have been written about just that, none of them by me. But certainly we can agree that slavery was one of them. I wouldn’t say that the Northerners were morally superior to to their foes any more than I would say that people who use solar or wind to power their homes are morally superior to those who use fossil fuels (which is the analogy I was trying to make). The Southerners back then, like today’s fossil fuel consumers, were caught up in a system that was clearly problematic, but was economically difficult to extricate themselves from. The Northerners had no such entanglement and were thus free to take a higher road. The question that remains is, who today has the moral courage to challenge the status quo, now that a full 15% of Americans are below the poverty level? Back in 1968 Martin Luther King launched his Poor People’s Campaign saying “We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty”. While racism may not yet be fully defeated but it is surely diminished, there is still poverty and another two wars that need ending.And there is something else now akin to racism that we might call elitism, that has taken its place, making the poor of all colors, and increasingly the middle class the new under-represented “minority” group.

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