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NAACP protesters march against the Secession Ball on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina?s secession from the Union on December 20, 2010 in Charleston, SC. South Carolina was the first state to secede in a process that led to the U.S. Civil War. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
NAACP protesters march against the Secession Ball on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina?s secession from the Union on December 20, 2010 in Charleston, SC. South Carolina was the first state to secede in a process that led to the U.S. Civil War. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

The Civil War never ended - it just gave way to an uncivil one Add to ...

On the 150th anniversary of the beginning of a disobliging South's entry into the modern era, hundreds of Civil War buffs squeeze into a local museum for a talk by perhaps the conflict's pre-eminent historian. One person in the crowd of about 500 - I count no more than half a dozen African-American faces - wonders why South Carolina was so ornery.

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The Palmetto State had a long history of defiance toward central authority. But nothing provoked its antagonism like Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. A few weeks later, it became the first state to secede from the Union.

"The slave population was higher here, and the percentage of white households who owned slaves was the highest in the South," Princeton University history professor James McPherson explains. "Slavery really was more salient and more important to the South Carolina economy."

The prosperity white South Carolinians enjoyed on the backs of those black slaves is recalled by the four-storey mansions of Charleston's East Battery, monuments to those antebellum glory days. The city, it seems, is purposely stuck in time.

If the Civil War settled a lot - namely by freeing four million slaves and establishing the indivisibility of the Union - it also left a lot unsettled. Indeed, the main cleavages in American society today are still largely the same as a century and a half ago.

The war's sesquicentennial, with all the debate it has rekindled, has only brought them into sharper relief.

Down-home economics

Those East Battery mansions, built by Charleston's shipping merchants, are a testimony to the riches of the cotton trade, which, by 1860, had made the average white Southern man twice as wealthy as his Northern counterpart.

As Prof. McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on the Civil War, cotton yields doubled every decade after 1800. By midcentury, the South accounted for 60 per cent of U.S. exports, earning the foreign exchange that drove the country's economic growth and propelled Wall Street.

Southerners considered their economic model morally superior to the "wage slavery" of the North. In truth, the basis of the Southern economy was not only immoral - it was highly inefficient.

A slave, wrote Adam Smith, "can have no interest but to eat as much and labour as little as possible." The promise of upward mobility fuelled hard work and entrepreneurship in the North.

"The man who laboured for another last year, this year labours for himself," Abraham Lincoln noted, "and next year he will hire others to labour for him."

The Southern economy was bound to collapse on its own contradictions. The Civil War merely accelerated the process. The South's tragedy afterward was that it found no model to replace its slave-based economy.

The region (along with Appalachia) remains the country's poorest. It is also the part of the country that is most hostile to government, helping to explain why Southern investments in public education, along with high-school and college-graduation rates, have lagged badly.

The South's sole comparative advantage - with the exception of North Carolina, a state transformed by immigration and high technology - now lies in cheap, non-union labour, which has drawn auto jobs, for example, away from rust-belt states. And South Carolina's right-to-work law induced Boeing to choose Charleston for its second 787 Dreamliner assembly line.

But low wages have not made the South rich. While it now depends most on the wage slavery for which it once ridiculed the North, that shift has not been accompanied by a concomitant one in cultural attitudes: As in the antebellum age, the South today remains America's least entrepreneurial region.

Black and white worlds

The election of an African-American President has given people hope: It was, as even John McCain's campaign manager once said, the moment "America's original sin was finally expunged." But the equality train, which chugged into motion with the emancipation of the slaves in 1865, is still far from the station. Denial, discrimination and disingenuousness prevent America from confronting race in an honest fashion.

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