What Caused the American Civil War?

One hundred and fifty years ago Americans were fighting a most bloody civil war. There were serious persons then and now that blamed the war on Eli Whitney for his invention of the cotton gin in 1794.

While Whitney’s gin directly reduced the demand for slaves to separate cotton fibre from the seeds, it broke a bottleneck in the production process. It significantly reduced the cost of production of cotton and hence its price. The increase in the demand for cotton led to a dramatic increase in production. This in turn greatly increased the quantity demanded of slaves, particularly at the picking stage, and the geographic spread of slavery, and set the stage for the Civil War.

It is possible then to take this “technologically determinist” argument one step further. The gin resolved one problem but created another. It put pressure on the need to mechanize the picking of cotton. But whereas grain harvesting was beginning to be mechanized by the middle of the nineteenth century, it was almost another century before the same was true of harvesting cotton.

It was not for want of trying. The problem, as one writer put it, was that to pick cotton by machine was a hard as mechanically picking strawberries. As the American institutional economist Clarence Ayres put it, in efect, years ago, what was at issue for slavery and the Civil War was not just the gin, it was also the technical difficulty of mechanizing cotton picking.

It’s all too easy for both orthodox and Marxist economists to label such reasoning as deterministic and thereby dismiss it. For we do seem to have here a clear enough case of how an inherent imbalance in the timing of invention had the most dire social and political consequences.


  • Fascinating argument. Yet, there still had to be opposition to the expansion of slavery, and/or of the slave economy. Where did it come from? Northern manufacturing interests? From religious and ethical value systems that simply saw that slavery and slave labour were morally unacceptable? Let us think about this in terms of Andrew Nikiforuk’s arguments about black gold. What are the arguments against the tar sands — an economic objection to the devotion of our real resources to oil extraction (not to mention related resource trap/Dutch disease arguments), or a simple moral objection to GHG emissions from oil extraction? What likelihood is there that Canadians might oppose the “spread” of oil patch on either of those bases?

  • why was share cropping not a solution before the civil war if it was the solution afterwards. Not a huge advance but surely better than slavery.

  • Andrew J There is some evidence that sharecropping was less efficient than slavery because of scale economies. But perhaps the major reason that sharecropping was not seen as an option by plantation owners prior to the Civil War was a deep seated belief transcending the economic in slavery and the society it created. Think of it as the deepest of staple traps.

    Thomas B The opposition to the extension of slavery
    came from northeners who wanted to made the west open to family farms. They elected Lincoln and the south responded by separating and going to war to which Lincoln responded in kind. The issue became not slavery in itself but a united nation. I’m uncertain what lesson if any there is for the oil sands. Dutch disease may turn out to be politically problematic for Harper but if people would make the link between extreme weather and its costs and the health of the globe we’ll get somewhere I suppose

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