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Understanding the War Between the States

The following is taken from Dr. Clyde Wilson’s “Expansion and Conflict of the Northern and Southern Cultures in 1860” which traces the emerging and deepening fissures in the young American republic. Central to this conflict was the original and traditional American constitutional system of laws well-understood in the South, versus New England’s developing industry and the flood of immigrants into the North and Midwest, with little or no understanding of that American constitutional system of laws. The source book is available online at, and via free download from

Bernhard Thuersam,


Understanding the War Between the States

“The economic conflict between North and South . . . was important and was present from the beginning. It was the root of the disagreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson that was the first serious political conflict of the Union. But the undoubted importance of economics was no more central to the conflict than the persisting and evolving differences in values and ways of life.

Southerners had first developed the Midwest by settling the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. As time went on, this region changed character as industry and great cities developed and as New Englanders and European immigrants swarmed in. From the 1840s large numbers of impoverished Irish came to the US and settled everywhere, especially in the cities.

After the failed revolutions of 1848 many Germans and other central Europeans came, and settled largely in the Midwest. They had strong, centralist, progressive and authoritarian attitudes and knew nothing of the South or American constitutional traditions. They would be zealous supporters of the Republican Party and the Federal Army.

Abraham Lincoln secretly bought a German language newspaper [the Springfield Zeitung] to support his presidential candidacy. By the 1850s a majority in the Midwestern States no longer identified with and voted with the South as they had traditionally . . . [and] The Northern people were one-fourth foreign born.

It must be understood that Northern abolitionists had little sympathy for black people – they considered them an obstacle to what they wanted as American “progress.” Most Northern States denied rights to the few black people who lived there. In Lincoln’s Illinois, before and during the War Between the States, were not even allowed to move into the State.

If slaves were freed in the South, as abolitionists demanded, they were still not allowed to move North. The majority of free black people in the US were in the South and demonstrably better off than those in the North. For a long time New Englanders made the “racist” boast that they were “pure Anglo-Saxons” and thus superior to other Americans.

It is simply wrong to thing that antislavery was for racial equality. It was against black people and even more against those who held them as bonded labor. To assume otherwise is to make the mistake of reading the later 1900s back into that time. Abolition had little to do with the actual life lived by people, white or black, in the South. No abolitionist ever made any constructive suggestion [regarding peaceful or practical emancipation].”

(Understanding the War Between the States, A Supplemental Booklet, Clyde N. Wilson, Howard White, et al, 2015, excerpts Chapter 6)

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