The American Civil War as the Turning Point in the Making of a Nation,

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The American Civil War as the Turning Point in the Making of a Nation, 1815 -1917

To determine whether the American Civil War (1861-1865) was the turning point in the Making of a Nation, I will compare the situation before and after the War to establish the difference it made in terms of politics, economics, religion and the social order. I will look at whether the War initiated the biggest changes in this 100 year period or whether other events  had more far-reaching consequences. I will highlight key moments of change in this period of history, commenting on their effects on the economy, political re-organisation and national identity.

In 1927, Charles and Mary Beard claimed that the Civil War was the ‘Second American Revolution’ in which the military conflict only played a small part because the Civil War was a social war, ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the accumulation and distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development, and in the Constitution.. Both the North and the South could see it as a continuation of their fight for independence and freedom in the American Revolution (1775-1783). In simplistic terms, the South was fighting for self determination, including the use of slavery and the North was fighting to preserve the Union. Louis Hacker (1940) agreed with the Beards that it was a revolution (their ideas became known as the Beard-Hacker thesis), but said its striking achievement was the triumph of industrial capitalism. The industrial capitalist, through their political spokesmen, the Republicans, had succeeded in capturing the state and using it as an instrument to strengthen their economic position...while the war was waged on the field and through Negro emancipation, in Congress’ halls the victory was made secure by the passage of tariff, banking, public-land, railroad, and contract labor legislation.’ There is no doubt that the South and the North were fighting to maintain political and economic power within the union.  The Senate had two representatives from each state but representation in the House of Representatives depended on population and the population in the North was much larger. With a divided Democratic vote, the Republicans came to power in 1860 without a single southern vote.

The wealthy southern aristocrat plantation owners were in competition with the northern financial elite. The North already had the major areas of urbanisation, manufacturing (although industrialisation made up less than 25% of the population before the War), a banking system, developed ports, diversified international trading and a diversified labour market. The South’s capital was tied up in agrarian interests which could not survive without slavery and, in a sense, slavery impeded modernisation. Yet the South was wealthier than the North in 1860. Although cotton prices fluctuated, they were soaring by the time of the War and exports were a major source of the economy. Even non-plantation owners in the south lived within a prosperous economic system and it was not in their interests to have slaves in the labour market competing with them.

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Some historians have seen the Civil War as limited in its impact because fundamental forces were already at work to forge the economic system and not even the catastrophe of internecine strife could greatly affect the outcome. With industrialisation, new political forces would become stronger, markets would change and emancipation would come as a result of the need for a diversified market.

Eleven southern states seceded following Lincoln’s victory in 1861, a result of the split Democratic vote and a campaign which had been fought on the ‘Vote yourself a farm – vote yourself a tarriff’ slogan. Business would ...

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