Saturday, December 1, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Calculating the Value of the Union

Much of the historical debate over slavery's divisiveness rests on whether the institution would be accepted or prohibited in the future western territories. Whether slavery would be allowed into the expanding west certainly brought its fair share of political debate on the issue in the years leading up to the Civil War. Others have argued that the main issue splitting the North and the South was the free states' unwillingness to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law and their passage of personal liberty laws, in effect nullifying the federal provision. This additionally strong argument is supported by a ton of evidence running through the 1840s, 1850s, and the claims made by the seceding states in their secession ordinances.

In Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War by James L. Huston offers a somewhat supplemental argument. Huston contends that both of the previously mentioned issues were instrumental, but they were couched within the overarching problem of property rights.

Since even before establishing the United States government through the Constitution Southerners had claimed property rights in slaves. The North, after the Revolutionary War made a move away from slavery and toward a free, wage-based labor system. Northerners also struggled accepting the idea of owning property in people. Racism was still pervasive in the North and most did not accept blacks as equals there but they believed that one man owning another reduced the value of labor and created unfair advantages by slaveholders.
This fear of allowing slavery into the western territories produced the rise of the Republican Party, which was opposed to further extension of the institution. As the 1850s wound down, Southerners, who believed that slavery was their best means toward future prosperity, were unwilling to make any compromise on losing or reducing the $3 billion in what they believed was legitimate property. When Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected, Southerners felt their property rights were under assault and believed their only recourse was secession with South Carolina starting the tumbling Dominoes.

Huston mounts a solid argument based on good evidence, and while most sections of the book are clear, others get quite dense. I recommend it especially to those with political and economic niche interests.

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