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Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War

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  • Posted September 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    The heart of the matter

    What caused the Civil War? Debates on this question occur, with passion, daily on blogs and boards across the Internet. Slavery, states' rights, industrial vs. agricultural, Southern expansion or Northern morality is the cause. Each has supporters and detractors, convinced that the other side is comprised of thickheaded fools or worse. A widely held view is slavery caused the South refusal to accept Lincoln's election in 1860 and secession lead to war. A problem with this idea is why the South refused to accept the results of the 1860 election in the face of Republican statements not attempting to change the status of existing slave states.
    James L. Huston steps into the arena fully prepared to answer questions and defend his position. Without taking a moral stance, he demonstrates the South's reason for making secession the answer in the years leading to 1860. This is not one sided, the author follows the North's logical paths to a position that makes secession popular in the South. While the idea that we fight wars for high moral purposes is comforting, the truth is that self-interest, fear and political advantage are the major reasons for war. The author clearly demonstrates that the South had realistic fears of the majority depriving them of their property in slaves. These fears are understandable in light of the North's increasing anti-slavery position. The book traces the myriad logical paths the North followed to this position. The most common being the fact that slave labor reduced wages for and debased free labor's standing in the community. Hard economic and social reality is bolstered by the idea of slavery violation of the natural rights to the fruits of one's labor.
    A complex book containing many ideas makes for a slow but not a dull read. You will want to take the time to study the many charts & graphs, check the footnotes and consider the author's positions. The writing is academic in style but is not unreadable or boring. The book looks at the critical period from 1840 to Lincoln's election. The problems of westward expansion, fall of the Whigs, rise of Abolition and Secession are in a cohesive narrative bolster by charts and graphs. This makes for a challenging and thought provoking reading experience that will leave you richer for the effort.

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